The Modern Freudians: Contemporary Psychoanalytic Technique (Book Review)

Author:  Ellman, Carolyn, Stanley Grand, Mark Silvan, and Steven Ellman
Publisher: Jason Aronson, 2000
Reviewed By: Sarah Ackerman, Summer 2003, pp. 57-58

The Modern Freudians: Contemporary Psychoanalytic Technique, edited by Carolyn Ellman, Stanley Grand, Mark Silvan, and Steven Ellman, grew out of a 1996 conference in which the Freudian faculty of the NYU Postdoctoral Program explored their identity—theoretically, technically, and clinically—as Freudians and took up questions about the evolution of psychoanalysis in the past century. The book aims to answer “why [they] are Freudians and what distinguishes contemporary Freudian technique at NYU” (p. xix).

This focus on identity is designed with a particular bent. Rather than organizing the book around the topics deemed central to Freudian theory and practice, the book is weighted toward a dialogue with other theoretical camps. As a result, two of the five parts of the book emphasize the therapeutic relationship, maximizing the opportunities to take up contemporary “hot topics.” Most of the individual chapters of this book seem to be driven by this cross-theoretical goal, as well. They employ an arboreal model of identity development, in which, authors identify roots and branches connecting Freudian theory to other theoretical perspectives, past and present. These chapters base their extensions and modifications on Freud’s assertion that “‘psycho-analysis is founded securely upon the observations of the facts of mental life; and for that reason its theoretical superstructure is… subject to constant alteration’ ([1926,] p. 266)” (p. 64). In other words, it is inherently Freudian to be open to modifications of Freudian theory.

It is far less common for authors in this book to employ a discrepant model of identity definition, in which an author stakes a claim about what is essential to Freudian psychoanalysis and what it cannot abide. Freud’s own discrepant definition of psychoanalysis is quoted twice in this book; he stated that anyone who calls herself a psychoanalyst must endorse three beliefs: the existence of unconscious mental processes, the reality of resistance and repression, and the importance of sexuality and the Oedipus complex (Freud, 1923). The authors of this book, however, seem less inclined to stake claims of this sort, to delineate the boundaries of a Freudian perspective. As someone who developed her own identity as a clinician and analyst-in-training during the past fifteen years—a time of multi-theoretical perspectives, comparative approaches, and a repudiation of meta-psychology—I am biased toward a discrepant identity definition, which clarifies the placement of Freudians relative to other theoretical perspectives. I have tried to manage this “countertransference burden” in my reading of this book.

The book is divided into five parts. Part I, “The Evolution of Freudian Thought,” provides a historical backdrop for contemporary, American, Freudian thought. In Part II, “The Enduring Legacies,” Freud is liberated from the rigid orthodoxy, which is often ascribed to him. We are reminded of enduring concepts that originated with Freud. “Changing Perspectives on the Therapeutic Relationship,” Part III, brings Freudian analysts to bear on the pressing questions of contemporary analytic technique, from the authority of the analyst and self-disclosure, to broad questions like what is mutative—the relationship or interpretation. In Part IV, “The Difficult Patient,” themes from Part III are expanded in view of the treatment of patients who were historically deemed unanalyzable. Part V, “What is Unique About Freudian Technique? Summary and Conclusions,” reunites the themes in this book and summarizes Freud’s enduring impact.

Many of the arboreal chapters provide an excellent means of extending Freudian thinking. Chapter Five, “On the Place of Self-reflections in the Psychoanalytic Process,” for example, draws on competing theories to build on Freudian technique. Grand argues that self-reflection, and not the internalization of a new object is central; however, he views the capacity for self-reflection as stemming directly from the quality of the therapeutic relationship. What is essential about psychoanalytic technique, for Grand, is “the capacity to bring transference experience under the ego’s watchful, self-reflective eye” (p. 118).

Another useful application of the arboreal model can be found in the two historical chapters of the book. These chapters review the two foremost evolutionary lines of analytic theory in the U.S., ego psychology and object relations theory. They articulate central themes, concepts, and theorists and flexibly consider constructs from these perspectives that are employed by a contemporary Freudian model. They do not articulate differences, discrepancies, or competing hypotheses in the other schools of thought.

The risk with the arboreal model is that the focus on Freudian identity can get lost in the extension of the theory. An example of this is Chapter Seven, “The Therapeutic Action in the Real, Transferential, and Therapeutic Object Relationship,” in which the central argument is that the mutative effect of interpretation cannot be separated from the therapeutic relationship. This chapter contends that the therapeutic relationship is real, that transference co-occurs with a real relationship. The analyst must strive to maintain an analytic stance while acknowledging the reality of the relationship. The author agrees with Owen Renik’s recommendations that analysts disclose their views to patients, arguing that sticking to notions of abstinence and neutrality “could actually squelch the possibilities for alive, real, authentic, interactive, relational work, deadening its contents in keeping with certain revered but outmoded traditions of the past” (Gediman, p. 155). How this argument holds to a Freudian conceptualization of technique is not addressed. While these ideas certainly speak to popular technical ideas, their placement within a Freudian model is left undefined.

The chapters that more rigorously address the boundaries of Freudian theory and technique, within a discrepant model, provide refreshingly clear grounding in the midst of the more integrative chapters. Chapter Four, “Psychoanalysis and Symbolization: Legacy or Heresy?” declares that symbolization is the “centerpiece for understanding a quality of mind crucial to analytic outcome and process” (Freedman, p. 80). The author, Norbert Freedman, describes the shift in thinking about symbolization, as the concept has been extended, and delineates a change in technique that came with it, in which there is attention both to linking (symbolizing) and to uncoupling, or unraveling a symbol’s dynamic significance. But along with noting the evolution of this construct, Freedman contends that a focus on symbolization is essential to Freudian psychoanalysis and holds that “at its best, psychoanalytic treatment is a dialogue between two symbolizers” (p. 87). He also plainly rejects the theoretical lines of Lacan and the relational analysts, who have taken symbolization in very different directions.

“A Contemporary-Classical Freudian Views the Current Conceptual Scene,” Chapter Eight, provides another useful anchor with which to distinguish Freudian theory from other interpersonal conceptions of the therapeutic relationship. Irving Steingart addresses intersubjectivity and counter-transference in their “context of an extraordinarily pluralistic scene that contains many confusing and haphazard conceptualizations” (p. 161). He accepts that the analyst’s subjectivity plays a role in promoting the blossoming of the repetition compulsion in the transference, but he rejects the perspective that transference is created by the “intersubjective flux of transference-countertransference” (p. 171). He recognizes that the analyst’s countertransference informs her understanding of the patient, yet he rejects the notion of disclosing countertransference experiences to patients, which he feels dilutes the focus on the analysand’s internal life. Finally, he states that from a Freudian perspective, the contemporary focus on transference is overshadowing the importance of fantasy in analytic process.

The risk with a discrepant model of identity definition is that rigid or arbitrary lines are drawn, barring a productive exchange of ideas. This is certainly a common theme in the history of psychoanalysis and is probably what has given rise to the multi-theoretical and comparative trend that pervades psychoanalysis today. It may also be a rationale for framing this book on Freudian identity in terms and on topics that are common among all analysts these days.

In the last chapter of this book, Bergman notes a conflict with which scholars of Freud must reckon: “Freud wished to bequeath us an idealized version of psychoanalysis… but what we inherit we must work to acquire in order to make it our own. Without such work of internalization we are doomed to remain blind followers” (p. 293-4). It is an ambitious undertaking for the authors of this book to attempt to trace their own unique internalizations of Freudian theory and technique. Their effort to relate their work to the technical themes pressing on contemporary psychoanalysis at this time is an invitation for others to internalize more of Freud. While the book’s roots in Freud are at times constricted, it provides fertile soil for cross-theoretical thought.

References

Freud, S. (1923). Two encyclopedia articles. Standard Edition 18:235-259.
Freud, S. (1926). Psychoanalysis. Standard Edition 20:261-270.

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