Culture, Subject, Psyche: Dialogues in Psychoanalysis and Anthropology (Book Review)

Author:  Molino, Anthony (editor)
Publisher:  Judith Issroff
Reviewed By:  University Press, 2004, Vol 26 (2), pp. 58-60

In A Philosophy for the Helping Professionals (1983) Jock Sutherland laid out a straightforward, sensible working model for clinicians that articulated the interrelationship of the inner psychic world and the outer contextualizing realm. This has always been my approach to the scaffolding of ideas that help me to perceive and interpret what I observe in the human world I encounter. Accordingly I read this book with excitement, great interest and discovered much of worthwhile intellectual stimulation. However, as a child, adolescent and family psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst with an amateur interest in a wide scatter of fields, whilst I am somewhat familiar with some of the works of some of those referred to in the dialogues and some of those who were interviewed, I found myself an extremely inadequate reader, because Molino and those with whom he engaged in discussion took for granted familiarity with a great range of contemporary thinkers with whose works I was unfamiliar. And the bibliographies provided are inadequate for the uninformed reader, such as myself.

This did make reading challenging for me. So armed with Google and a library I set out on an exhilarating search for some basic information about a stellar array of significant contemporary writers in the critical world of ideas, not only psychoanalysts, anthropologists and social theorists, but also original and in some cases prodigious critical thinkers bridging many realms of human endeavour. My enormously and rapidly expanded personal reading list includes The Empire of Images, (Barthes), The Plague of Phantasy, (Zizik), The War of Dreams: Studies in Ethno Fiction (Marc Augé, Pluto) and Arguing Sainthood: Modernity, Psychoanalysis and Islam (Katherine Ewing, Duke University, 1997) and extends from Zizik, to Bahktin, Taussig, the Comaroffs, David Schneider, Deborah Battaglia, Lyotard, Bourdieu, De Leuze, Guattari, Robert Paul, Bruno Latour, Unni Wikan, Michael Jackson, Marcus, Clifford, Ross Chambers, Jameson, Hacking, Anderson, R. H. Brown, Lyotard, Karen Knorr-Certina, Roy Bhaskar (critical realism, transitive and intransitive dimensions, epistemic fallacy), Mandelbaum, more of Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Habermas, Heidegger, Sartre and Popper—and I know I need to read more even of psychoanalysts like Lacan and Kristeva, Mel Spiro and Chodorow, and related works whose writers’ écriture I am largely, rather than altogether ignorant. Among these authors are Foucault, Derrida, Marcel Mauss, Barthes, Blanchot, Levinas, Ricouer, Leavis, Popper, sociologists such as Durkheim, Weber, Marx, and a range of anthropologists including those interviewed whose works I feel I need to know better, as well as that of Michael Rustin—who is not an anthropologist but whose writing and opinions as a sociologist span psychoanalysis and anthropology, the nature of scientific endeavour and literature.

The more (to me) familiar psychoanalytic writers drawn on in this wide and deep-ranging discourse on self and psyche include Winnicott, Bion, Kohut, Bollas, Green, McDougall, Loewald, Kardiner and return to Freud, Devereaux and Roheim, Those interviewed with Anthony Molino’s probing erudition allowing them to engage in such sparkling and pertinent discourse provide a heady and literate wide-ranging feast. Personally I feel frustrated that it will take me time to read the works of Paul Williams, Katherine Ewing, Kathleen Stewart, Gananath Obeyeskere, Vincent Crapanzano and Mark Augé, and also acquaint myself with Wesley Shumar, Waud Kracke and Lucia Villela’s writings as well as more of Anthony Molino’s before I re-read these conversations with more to bring to them so as to be able to gain more from them. I have read some of the works of anthropologists mentioned—but never enough of Geertz, Mead, Boas, Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski, Fraser, Ruth Benedict, Leach, Levi-Strauss, Clyde Kluckhohn, Bateson, Kuper, Mary Douglas, Turner, Devereaux and Roheim. For years I have regretted not taking up an opportunity offered me by Meyer Fortis to read anthropology immediately on completion of my psychoanalytic training. But I wanted to consolidate my clinical experience and so became solipsistically learned in the private confidential histories, the dreams of my analysands and those with whom I engaged in psychotherapy or who consulted with me. I have become involved for lesser or greater periods of time in ways of lesser or greater significance to them and to me with certainly more than a thousand patients, and at least as many other professionals in a variety of settings. In some cases I have sufficient follow-up to know our encounters did have some positive impact on their lives, in others I doubt this. My professional occupation has grown and changed me, as has my reading over the years, and my non-professional encounters with people.

Under the media bombardment today omnipresent, as Marc Augé points out, information overload threatens to colonise us all, and to destroy the very real distinctions between fact (the real) and fiction (those invented ways in which we have, over the years and in very different communities, made sense of our collective identity in the face of otherness). I wonder how much this problem is compounded in the additional intricacies of psychoanalytic practice? Analysts treat intrapsychic life as “real”: does this render them susceptible to a disregard for facts and a penchant for fictions? Reality is “fictionalised” by the onslaught of the mass media with consequent present-day confusion over reality and image. Is this not an even greater problem for practising psychoanalysts?

While reading, I have to ask myself in what manner the ideas about the construction of self, psyche, notions of culture and identity that garnish the pages may have helped me better to enable those who entrusted themselves, and revealed their personal dilemmas, to me to help themselves had I been acquainted with these ideas previously so as possibly to have been able to use them constructively in the clinical, strategy-planning, consultative and supervisory settings of my professional life? I wonder? Yet I consider this a significant book that deserves to be widely read because I have been involved in my chosen professional specialization since I realized, after completing medical school and a couple of years of laboratory-based essentially biochemical research work four decades ago, that I really knew very little about human beings and was extremely curious to learn more about human behaviour.

These conversations are replete with ideas and references to notions that do help me to think about human beings in ways I personally have not previously considered. So to the question to what extent reading this has enhanced my understanding: I can answer with confidence that certainly it has widened my conceptual horizons. It has made me hungry for more, pointed me in the direction of a great richness of ideas that so far in my Googling meanderings and downloadings have not disappointed but rather led me to further excursions. I have also been stimulated into thinking how some of what I have learned in reading this book might be applicable to situations that trouble me, both socio-political, and in working and thinking in the domain of applied psychoanalysis in other cultures. I found useful notions to which to return in reflecting about my own past clinical experiences that I have been engaged in writing about for the past couple of decades. So my conclusion is that the reading effort is well worthwhile for any thoughtful practitioner whether a clinician or an ethnographer. Academic disciples are artificially separated. It is unfortunate that those of us who attempt to understand human lives are limited in the population turnover and our own developmental capacities and exposures to ideas. In this sense Molino’s interviews, especially those with Paul Williams and Katherine Pratt Ewing, act like a kick start to a necessary intellectual awakening in those engaged in reflecting about the two disciplines in which like Anthony Molino, they have been trained, namely psychoanalytic psychotherapy and anthropology. This does not mean that the views of the others interviewed are not pertinent to psychoanalysts and worthy of their attention.

Following this paper trail, I was reminded of an eccentric professor of gynaecology half a century ago who used to preface every lecture with his belief that if we started with “that girlie in the street” and set out to understand her properly, in the end we would find we were trying to encompass all of knowledge. Obviously this ambitious and fascinating endeavour to explore how psychoanalysis can be enriched by anthropology and vice versa in relation to technique and theory, especially applied to notions of self, narration, symbolization, culture and psyche, and how their ideas overlap, has no such aspirations to omniscience. Nonetheless, if theories, like language, are necessary for us to grasp what may be lurking at the interstices of our private and publicly accessible experience, the more we have at our disposal, the better able we may be functionally in our clinical and in our field work endeavours.

The discourse reported in these pages is decisively illuminating even to someone whose training has but a clinical basis and lacks the necessary anthropological and wider academic background fully to comprehend the nuances of the discussions. I have enough comprehension to realise that I am longing to read more because I have no doubt that many ideas are relevant to areas about which I have been thinking, and to the domain of psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic practice that has so endlessly fascinated me and richly complemented my non-professional life. Accordingly, henceforward, personally these seminal and thoughtful conversations will be an important source book for me, a referential resource that I will be using in my own further development and work. While one does not bother to continue to read a book that one does not enjoy or does not inform and stimulate one, it is rare that I want to start re-reading immediately I finish a book in order to try to digest the plethora of heady ideas which have engaged me so as to become able to accommodate-assimilate them, because I realise I want to become able to use them.

There are many memorable remarks in this astoundingly dense compendium of thought. On could open at almost any page and pull out a plum: for example, Marc Augé reflects on memory:

As we know memory is absolutely necessary for the construction of personal and collective identity, even if what it’s really about is constructing or reconstructing a story… [but] we also have to forget. We could speak of the relationship between psychoanalysis and anthropology as having something to do with the relationship between memory and forgetting. Perhaps psychoanalysis, in a very classical sense, could be could be defined as a discipline which uses memory, or tries to use memory, in order to help a human being to forget…. While anthropology, perhaps… anthropology today—insofar as it deals with the relationship between us and the other—has to record the necessity of that relationship for our future. Perhaps ethnology can help the subject to forget the present, and its invasive plethora of images, in order to record and think of the other as a kind of memory. I should like to think of the relationship between psychoanalysis and anthropology in terms of memory and forgetting at its very root… (p.170)

There are some rivetingly arresting and fascinating definitions of culture mentioned: for example, Katherine Ewing has defined it as “a process by which individuals negotiate ambiguity and inconsistency,” while Kathleen Stewart’s definition of culture is quoted back to herself by Molino “as a shifting and nervous space of desire—immanent in lost or remembered things.” He then asks her if this metaphor at all reflects an understanding of the unconscious? She responds that she doesn’t know, but goes on to discuss how she is

… drawn to an idea of interpretative space or spaces that are almost like domains of thought. And these spaces can be generative, or have trajectories of desire.”…. These interpretative spaces of desire are publicly circulating sign systems and fundamentally mediated by expressive forms like narrative. (p. 152).

One could quote and quote. It is a book replete with provocative eloquence. In this book one is eavesdropping or rather being invited to become a participant interactor through time and space in an ever-widening noöspheric multi-logue, the traces of which will continue to reverberate in those who partake of the heady discussions herein recorded. I have always looked on psychoanalysis as one of life’s great enhancers in the simultaneous prismatic lenses its process opened in me with which to colour and illumine my life: the addition of the worlds of ideas exposed and rendered accessible through reading these interviews in which discourse has drawn on anthropology and the greater resources available in meta-fields of discourse from even my most preliminary explorations of the ides of the thinkers mentioned during the discussions has generated a similar sense of discovery, joy and enrichment. For this sense alone I am glad to have read and know I will re-read this book. Society exists and progresses, like analyses and academic endeavours, only if the messages circulating within it are rich in information and easy to decode. Knowledge per se is useless unless applicable,except if we place the ironic value Camus does on his Uncle in The Plague whose detailed Aspergers Syndrome-symptomatic knowledge of obsessively collected old train time tables he purports to admire no more and no less than any other form of erudition.

Anthony Molino’s explorations with his interviewees have convinced me that psychoanalytic and anthropological ideas are valuable and viable currency exchanges. Accordingly, I have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone interested in what is a necessary broadening of the scope of psychoanalytic discourse, anthropology and ethnography, and the complexities and problems in looking at a whole range of notions such as the self, its narrative presentation, culture, psyche, transference and countertransference, or even the unconscious itself, among a host of others.


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