For And Against Psychoanalysis (Book Review)

Author:  Frosh, Stephen
Publisher:  Routledge
Reviewed By:  Bruce Reis, Vol. XXII, No. 4, pp. 43-44

In this second edition of For And Against Psychoanalysis, Stephen Frosh has scrupulously reworked the earlier text. The second edition retains the remarkable breadth and scope of the original edition, while expanding and updating Frosh’s examination to additional subject areas, such as the ways in which psychoanalysis has contributed to examination of social issues. The book is divided into three sections: Knowledge; Psychotherapy; and Society. Each is a scholarly history of key issues in psychoanalysis. The thoroughness that Frosh brings to his investigations make the text an exemplary tool for teaching at the graduate and institute level.

As the title suggests, this book is no simple endorsement of psychoanalysis from the inside. Frosh discloses at the outset that he has resisted training as an analyst for multiple reasons, not the least of which is “a discomfort with too close an attachment to this ambivalent object” (p. xi) of psychoanalysis. This distance allows Frosh to observe psychoanalysis from a unique vantage. He calls himself a “sympathetic critic” who has found psychoanalysis to be “aggravating and infuriating, yet also exciting and enlightening — not just in turn, but all at the same time” (p. xi). These impressions come through in Frosh’s analysis of the field, and they are completely refreshing.

Since Frosh doesn’t have a horse in this race, or at least not so much of a horse as practicing analysts have, he is free to bring upon psychoanalysis a trenchant critique and critical examination. The prime example of this is his first chapter on “The psychoanalytic heritage” in which Frosh traces in detail the authoritative roots that have sustained psychoanalytic institutions, practice and claims to knowledge. Beginning with Freud, Frosh illustrates the appeal of this last of the great patriarchs, who harshly judged us, yet also offered his sympathetic ear for our confessions, anxieties, secrets and doubts. Frosh understands Freud’s appeal not so much as a function of the content of his work, but as a transferential longing for the symbolic function he provides. “Here was someone who might be trusted to judge fairly, to penalize us when we deserve it, but also to care enough about us to pay us attention” (p. 6). Frosh extends his understanding of these patriarchal roots of psychoanalysis to illustrate how these roots took hold and dominated the functioning of analytic institutions: “[P]sychoanalysis is built heavily around the structures of authority, in which power comes not through the expression of an individual talent (although this can help or hinder progress) but through the gradual accrual of status in an insular and labyrinthine social network” (p. 6). Setting up his subsequent argument having to do with the status of knowledge in psychoanalysis, Frosh observes that analytic indoctrination “is not a matter of learning certain skills, but of absorbing certain values... of bowing the head to authority” (p. 7). In order for these values to take, analytic training institutions must cultivate in their candidates “a capacity to tolerate isolation, boredom and criticism. But on top of this [candidates] accept the yoke of the psychoanalytic community; they become incorporated into it, if not as full believers then at least as quiet assenters; they do not rock the boat. They accept the authority of the psychoanalytic view of the universe and of its priests here on Earth, and they practice according to its precepts” (p. 9). Strong words indeed; but not untrue. And yet just before Frosh would have us scuttle any consideration of the value psychoanalysis at all, he recognizes the profoundly personal transformative effects a psychoanalytic treatment may have. It is this quality, he writes, “that attracts adherents, rather than any socially consensual demonstration of knowledge, expertise or even effectiveness”(p. 15). Having rightfully excoriated psychoanalysis for its crushing authoritarianism, Frosh moves into a rather nuanced appreciation of the wonderfully irrational and powerfully unique qualities of a tradition that challenges and disrupts common sense and overturns cherished beliefs, whether they be personal or societal.

In the section entitled “Knowledge,” Frosh addresses the claims psychoanalysis has made to a designation as science. He takes up what it is required for a discipline to be called a science, and why psychoanalysis over its history has been so eager to be viewed as a science. Reading Frosh’s review of the history of these issues in psychoanalysis one is reintroduced to the range of critiques and defenses, from Popper to Spence. And, while this material is a bit dated, Frosh’s review of the issues involved serves as a terrific background to the current debates in the field around these same issues. For this reader one of the most enjoyable aspects of Frosh’s treatment is his refusal to come to easy conclusions. Instead, he maintains the tension inherent within the question as to whether psychoanalysis is a science or mysticism, and injects a consideration of the unconscious into the very question itself: “As the unconscious disrupts everything, it disrupts evidence as well; it is never going to be possible to see clearly what is going on” (p. 44).

What follows in the next two chapters of the “Knowledge” section is a sophisticated and extremely thorough treatment of issues of analytic knowing, analytic interpretation, hermeneutics and the limits of psychoanalytic science, and the inherently subjective element involved in the issue of knowing. Frosh’s treatment of issues of truth claims and analytic knowing will be highly familiar to most relational psychoanalysts. For instance, in a lovely statement, quite appreciative of the unique uncertainties of psychoanalysis, Frosh writes: “human understanding must incorporate subjectivity, must be recognizable as something emerging out of an intermixing of subject and object, of the process of being and becoming part of another. What psychoanalysis suggests is that rational understanding depends upon the capacity to allow subjectivity expression”.

In the second section of his book, entitled “Psychotherapy,” Frosh investigates the social uses to which psychoanalytic psychotherapies may be put, and asks what types of motives for social control they may fill. The problem of evaluating the effectiveness of psychoanalytic psychotherapy, he writes, “lies in the difficulty of establishing clearly what it is trying to do”(p. 94). Is it meant to establish some “truth” about the patient’s life? Is it meant to be a narrative “retelling” of one’s life? Is the goal of psychoanalytic therapy more akin to an exorcism of past hurts? Or are we concerned merely with symptom relief; or giving people more “control” over their own lives?

In a chapter entitled: “The rules of the game,” Frosh surveys therapeutic technique from a discussion of containment, to the uses (and limits) of interpretation, and finally an appreciation of the relational context of the analytic set up. His treatment of these areas is scholarly, and he might only be faulted for his predominate focus on British theory to the exclusion of other schools. Hence his treatment of these topics issues from the work of Bion, Klein, Steiner, and Winnicott primarily; though again, the conclusions Frosh comes to in surveying these areas is one that is very friendly to relational thinking. The final chapter in this section of the book, “The outcome of psychoanalytic psychotherapy” is a presentation of the difficulties associated with the empirical study of the psychoanalytic method and its results. This chapter provides, is a sophisticated discussion of numerous research studies and their findings.

But my own favorite chapter in this book is the lead chapter in the third section which is entitled “Society.” In this chapter: “Psychoanalysis and the politics of identity”, Frosh takes up the topic of the formation of the subject. He does so drawing from and expanding on his brilliant essay “The Other,” which appeared in 2002 in Imago. From Zizek, through Lacan and Laplanche; to Castoriadis, Kristeva, and then Butler, Frosh’s treatment of the psychoanalytic subject and its other is one of the finest examples of a contemporary, socially and politically infused construction of identity we have available. In the next three chapters Frosh extends his psychoanalytic investigation of identity and society into areas of gender, male and female homosexuality and finally racism. In these chapters Frosh draws heavily on American relational writers whose work on these topics may be less familiar to his British audience. It is here that Frosh finds signs of life in psychoanalysis, just exactly where psychoanalysis had previously bowed to normalizing tendencies and conformism, deterministic platforms for growth, and anxieties about otherness. It is a hopeful place to conclude his examination, and Frosh, for all of his critical indictments, leaves us with guarded hope in the imaginative power of psychoanalysis to continue its transformative effects:

"In its second century, psychoanalysis is very much alive, but perhaps it needs to aim some more kicks at itself to make sure that it remains so. A good place to start would be with the reminder that when Freud introduced the notion of a dynamic unconscious he brought a demon into the modern world that will not let anything alone, but continually disrupts the things we take for granted and subverts the things we assume to be true. Psychoanalysis, one hopes, will never exclude itself from the sphere of this demon’s activities" (p. 285).

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