Bringing the Plague: Toward a Postmodern Psychoanalysis (Book Review)

Author:  Fairfield, Susan, Lynne Layton and Carolyn Stack (Editors)
Publisher:  Other Press, 2002
Reviewed By:  Louis Rothschild, Summer 2003, pp. 62-64

The term nihilist is one that often troubles. If paired with the term clinician, the severity of such trouble could be said to increase exponentially. Consider overhearing a colleague saying of another, “He practices like a nihilist.” Without conducting a formal inquiry into the matter, my thought is that most would interpret such a statement as a negative assessment. Yet, such a conclusion may be a hasty judgment made by uncritical acceptance of manifest content. In regard to manifest content per se, psychoanalysis has long been partial to assessments in which multiple meanings and paradox are grist for the mill. What is negative might serve a positive function, and conversely, what appears positive may be, in fact, negative. It is with such difference that this review is concerned, and with the meaning of nihilism and its relation to clinical practice.

In addition to thoughts on nihilism, the work under review has led me to think on another term–plague. Specifically, I’ve attempted to consider the following question: what does it mean to label the contents of one’s offering as the plague? To say outright that one delivers the affliction of disease is I think, quite provocative. This is exactly what Fairfield, Layton, and Stack have done in their edited volume. Interestingly, they appear to be followers in this respect. In their introduction, the reader is informed of an anecdote dating to the turn of the last century. The story is that in 1909, on their way to Clark University, Freud critiques Jung’s enthusiasm regarding arrival in America by stating that with psychoanalysis they are bringing the plague. The editors interpret this as Freud’s understanding that psychoanalysis would change the culture. The current volume, with an emphasis on social construction and relational psychoanalysis, is presented as a second plague occurring within the culture of psychoanalysis.

The reader is informed by the subtitle that this second plague is one of postmodernism. According to the editors, the term postmodern is used in the subtitle because of its familiarity, and that what the work is really concerned with is the poststructuralist idea that challenging the objective fixed meaning of underlying structure is possible. Furthermore, the reader is informed that not all two person or relational models place all social variables (and thereby one’s own position and assumptions) into a field of question. Thus, with the turn toward post-structuralism, a sociopolitical analysis is found within psychoanalysis. Fairfield, Layton, and Stack note that their choice to appropriate the term plague is due to the hostile responses within psychoanalysis toward a post-structuralist stance. Such hostility appears to be due to the questioning of the validity of positivism by post-structuralism. On the one hand, hostility has come from the point of view that the field is becoming politicized by feminists and by those who identify with queer theory, and that the discipline itself should be separate from culture. The editors also note that hostility has come from critics who argue that the dismantling of objectivist truth is nihilistic.

The term nihilistic conjures Foucault, as he labeled himself a nihilist (Martin, Gutman, Hutton, 1988). Such an act needs to be taken seriously here. Within the volume, Foucault figures prominently in several papers. In treating Foucault and Freud as respective icons of intellectual frameworks, Schwartz asserts in his paper that Foucault took Freud’s idea of an unconscious process that challenged the privilege of rationality to a new depth. Stern concurs and adds that Foucault’s critique of power and knowledge is a necessary part of contemporary psychoanalysis. Goldner further adds that when one notes that the analytic conversation takes place in a sociocultural matrix, that this is a Foucauldian step. So, as Foucault is central to the current project, it may be helpful to address his use of the term in working towards a review of this second plague. In keeping with Foucault’s (1977) thought that the twentieth century might one day be known as Deleuzian, Deleuze’s (1962) analysis of Nietzsche (the character whom Mitchell in this volume labels the grandfather of postmodernism) will be approached in order to understand Foucault’s use of nihilism and its implications for a so-called postmodern clinical stance.

Within Nietzsche’s work, nihilism has three meanings. First, a belief in fixed values leads to a negation of life. This is captured by the concept of negative nihilism. Objectivist thinking that posits a fixed essence is clearly within the domain of this term. Nietzsche also conceived of a second sense of nihilism, a reactive nihilism. Reactive nihilism is simply a reaction against the fixed values posited in negative nihilism. Such a reaction attempts to strip the world of meaning and purpose. It is the position of reactive nihilism that has been associated with postmodernist thought in general, and the act of deconstruction in particular. Such an understanding appears to be a given when poststructuralist thinkers state that all their analyses aim to criticize and destroy the truth. In his comments found in the current volume, Mitchell worries that such a stance might lead to an infinite regress of “gotchas.” Like Mitchell, Deleuze maintains that due to the negation of all values, reactive nihilism is a view that is as depreciated as the stance of negative nihilism.
According to Deleuze, both negative and reactive nihilism are conceptualized as positions that cheapen life. Fortunately, Nietzsche’s work in particular and the poststructuralist position in general are not limited to such a depreciated stance. Within poststructuralist theory, depreciation is considered to constitute only one of the qualities of nihilism. According to Nietzsche, fixed values known up to the present may lose all their value, but the negation of these values can become actively appreciated within the creative identity of what Nietzsche refers to as willing. Nietzsche suggests that this positive, creating stance is understood as the concept of transmutation.

The value placed in the creative or constructing third moment, understood as transmutation, appears to vary. Two conceptions found in this volume are worth noting. Fairfield understands the use of postmodernism within psychoanalysis as moving beyond an “infinite regress of gotchas,” as such critique may open a greater space for play or from which to function well. Leary states that this conceptual space opened by postmodernism is fictive. The understanding of fictive is related to the understanding of nihilism. What is considered dangerous by one situated within poststructuralist thought is viewing a stance as either fixed and true or without meaning. What is considered valuable is the transmutation of creation occurring in a space in which meaning is not considered absolute, even though a particular stance captures aspects about oneself that may be experienced as central. From this perspective, seeing a stance as fictive is a good thing. From the perspective of those who critique the poststructuralist stance, calling a space fictive is an insult. For Foucault, like the clinician who embraces poststructuralism, narrative is a construction, and this recognition is the playful nihilism of transmutation.

Within the current volume, Layton considers the appearance of fixed structure such as splitting and hierarchies in sexist values of gender. She describes culturally sanctioned gender norms (e.g., a stoic man) as dominant, and adds that such structure serves to eclipse other aspects of what it might mean to function (in this case as a man). For Layton, gendered social categories are not fixed or discrete, and the mark of discrete categories in the psyche may be reworked clinically. Additionally, Eng and Han provide a similar (yet different in its own right) paper on race. They note that American cultural myths of individualism and inclusion lead to an enforced psychic amnesia—such as knowledge that Chinese-Americans have been in this country longer than many immigrant groups. The nihilist concerned with transmutation looks to unearth history in order to short-circuit cultural amnesia and discrete gender categories, and with the hope of creating something new and richer.

Psychoanalysis is no stranger to cultural issues. However, it was 1975 that Jacoby argued that a psychoanalysis that allows one to hold the social, economic, and political origins of psychic phenomena simultaneously with the psychological has been lost by a failure to fully appreciate the critical theory of the Frankfurt School in the United States. Jacoby traces this loss in part to the 1955 split between Fromm and Marcuse, in which Fromm dubs Marcuse a nihilist diagnosed as being alienated in theory when compared to Fromm’s humanism. Marcuse responded by stating that nihilism is the indictment of inhuman conditions. The debate is not new. Yet, with the advance of post-structuralism, the understanding of the issues has shifted.

Altman (1995) has provided a cogent review of the manner in which the Fromm/Marcuse debate relates to disagreement surrounding the move from drive theory to object relations. Marcuse objected to the neo-Freudian move, and Fromm believed that the failure to understand neurosis as an artifact of capitalist society would cut off critique. Altman sees that each wrestled with essentialist narratives of some self untouched by society and the question that if psyche is embedded in society, then how is one able to critique the established order? Altman states that one can conceive of a socially embedded self that retains the capacity to critique its own embeddedness. Such a disruption of the unity of the self is consistent with Foucault’s (Martin, Gutman, Hutton, 1988) question: How can we be hermeneuts of ourselves?

Within the current volume, there are hints toward the school of critical theory, and the history of amnesia regarding such theory prior to the turn toward poststructuralism. In the introduction, both critique of humanism and Marxist thought are mentioned. Fairfield notes that the relational turn has addressed much of what was lost in earlier American psychoanalysis, and speaks to the ethic of appropriation found in American culture. Lesser adds that it has been unfashionable to discuss what is referred to as American Dream sickness since the work of Fromm. In direct reference to the Frankfurt School, Cooper notes that Adorno powerfully addressed the work of devaluation, splitting, and projection in the service of prejudice in his comments regarding clinical material presented within the text.

And, regarding clinical material, Fairfield considers what it means to have a working stance in which one posits that there is no essence to subjectivity or human nature, as we are socialized into meaning-making systems. She notes that the problem here is one of bedrock envy. In addition to a good deal of concern with post-structural meta-theory, the work is not lacking in regard to clinical material. Cases that highlight the usual suspects of culture and gender are present. In addition, Stack presents a case of noting difference in a situation where the client believed herself to be a victim of satanic ritual abuse. If that’s not enough, an essay of sadomasochistic cutting authored by Bronski, originally for a pornography magazine, is clinically critiqued by Dimen as an agonized fort/da game. Bronski’s reply challenges the reader to consider what is to be made of irony and perversion within the clinical context that deconstructs essence.

Another word found in the subtitle of the book is toward. It is fair to ask, just where is all of this going? Hoffman notes the positivist to constructivist shift that has been documented by Psychoanalytic Dialogues, and hopes that labels such as countertransference may be retained while being redefined. Yet, redefining is dangerous work. Goldner expresses concern that a Postmodern Psychoanalysis might canonize uncertainty, and Mitchell notes that multiplicity runs the danger of modernist trappings. Greenberg questions any reliance on royal roads. In short, difference is important. Stack notes that it is curative to see realities as profoundly different, and Stern reminds that one oft considered criterion for termination is the ability to openly disagree about perceptions. Referencing Connolly (1991), Fairfield suggests an agnostic respect toward each other. In the final analysis, whether or not one believes that self is separate from culture, or that all of self is shot through with culture, this should not deter one from reading the rich work found in this volume. This book does indeed illustrate the play found within psychoanalysis and culture in a nihilistic age, and if that piques your curiosity, then this book is worth a read.


Altman, N. (1995). The analyst in the inner city: Race, class, and culture through a psychoanalytic lens. Hillsdale NJ: The Analytic Press.
Connolly, W.E. (1991). Identity/Difference. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Deleuze, G. (1962/1983). Nietzsche and philosophy. (H. Tomlinson, trans.). New York: Columbia University Press.
Foucault, M. (1977). Theatrum philosophicum. In: D. F. Bouchard (Ed.), Language, counter-memory, practice: Selected essays and interviews. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
Jacoby, R. (1975). Social amnesia: A critique of conformist psychology from Adler to Laing. Boston: Beacon Press.
Martin, L. H., Gutman, H., Hutton, P. H. (Eds). (1988). Technologies of the self: A seminar with Michel Foucault. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Reviewer Note

Louis Rothschild is in independent practice in Providence, R.I.


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