The Social Unconscious: Selected Papers (Book Review)

Title:  The Social Unconscious: Selected Papers
Author: Hopper, Earl
Publisher: London: Jessica Kingsley, 2003
Reviewed By: Albert J. Brok, Winter 2005, pp. 50-52

I once had a patient who described jumping out of an airplane with a parachute. “The thing about it,” he said, “is that you can navigate, but within constraints. I could maneuver sufficiently to avoid an obstacle but couldn’t fully direct where I wanted to go. I was dependent on those strings, my silk canopy and the prevailing wind.” A former paratrooper, he never mentioned that where the airplane was and when he jumped had something to do with where he landed. It did not seem relevant because he had no say in such functions. Dr. Hopper would have us believe that this very act of getting into an airplane organizes the outcome. Usually we choose to enter an airplane, (even paratroopers volunteer), but if the airplane represents social cultural and political processes in which we are embedded via birth and other happenstance of life location, its effects should be considered in any therapeutic setting. To Dr. Hopper we are all under constraints, not only internalized objects and other interior dynamic qualities and quantities, but also by outer experiences. Our environment indeed has plans for us as well as we have plans for and within our environment.

Dr. Hopper, originally a sociologist born and bred in the U.S, would later become a group analyst and psychoanalyst living and working in England. It would seem that personally as well as clinically he bridges two worlds. Never choosing one over the other, his personal journey reflects his therapeutic interests of working within the full ecology of human experience rather than remaining within narrow slivers of the clinical pie. An innovative child of the likes of Durkheim, Malinowski, Marx, Horney, Fromm, Klein, Bion, Winnicot and elements of Freud among many others, Dr. Hopper argues for the awareness of, and training in, the processes of what he terms the Social Unconscious, for all mental health professionals. He continued to develop this concept during his individual analytic training despite his own difficulties at the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London where he eventually qualified. An interesting side issue to this series of essays is description of his ongoing discussion about group vs. individual work with his training analyst, Adam Limentani. One example:

“We were never able to agree about the unconscious meaning about my continuing interests in both group analysis and psychoanalysis, partly because I refused to accept that they were of necessity separate disciplines, and therefore, that this issue could not be understood merely in terms of splitting either the maternal object or the parental couple. If a “person” was a product of both the “organism” and “society,” how could group analysis be distinct from psychoanalysis, at least theoretically? (p.12)”

Dr. Hopper’s series of essays is a polemic aimed at dealing with the above issue through postulating the idea of a Social Unconscious. So just what is the Social Unconscious?

“The concept of the social unconscious refers to the existence and constraints of social, cultural and communicational arrangements of which people are unaware; unaware, in so far as these arrangements are not perceived (not known), and if perceived not acknowledged (denied), and if acknowledged, not taken as problematic (“given”), and if taken as problematic, not considered with an optimal degree of detachment and objectivity. Although social constraints are sometimes understood in terms of myth, ritual and custom, such constraints are in the realm of the “unknown” to the same extent as the constraints of instincts and fantasies, especially in societies with high status rigidity. However, constraint is not meant to imply only restraining, inhibition, or limitation, but also facilitation, development and even the transformation of sensations into feelings (p.126).”

Constraints, then, boundary, and frustrate but also guide and channel, sometimes in helpful ways. From this perspective, certain therapeutic modalities guide and channel events in a positive as opposed to negative way for a given individual’s social and creative development.

At his most intriguing, Hopper provides insight into the multiple forces that affect us and how we may reorganize our constraints. In this sense he broadens the analytic perspective, to include both internal dynamic issues and social ecological issues i.e., by dealing with the constraints themselves. From this vantage point, mental health depends upon how well we deal with the value and ineffable frustration of our autonomy within systems, rather than freedom from systems. In addition once realizing the impact of our social context, how do we go about changing it? Hopper implies that group therapy may be the best modality through which to clinically understand its impact on human experience and gives some interesting and lengthy examples. In the process, he wrestles with the problem of how, when and why to choose more social-cultural and politically derived interventions as opposed to traditional psychoanalytic interpretations.

Dr Hopper proposes to do this by dealing with what he considers most relevant in terms of internal or external realities in light of patient preoccupations, which in turn can be asocial and apolitical, or social and political. For example, Hopper observes, a patient might say: “’I feel that my mother could not concentrate on me’ within the context of repeating his complaints that when he was a little boy during the war, his mother was always preoccupied with other matters and other people, always listening to the radio and making telephone calls to her mother.” Hopper suggests the analyst could respond, “She may have been preoccupied with the news that her cousins were caught in the Warsaw Ghetto and felt that she was lucky to be alive and to have you, as well as that she was very helpless and guilty about them. (p.135)”

This intervention represents a sort of ecological reconstruction of the patient’s social embeddedness, an embeddedness he might be unaware of, or be denying. Though simplistic sounding, it has much complexity to it and I suggest readers of this review pick up the book to understand the full approach. Hopper does call attention to the value of understanding the complete context in which a patient is embedded. Underlying this is the ability to comprehend the patient from a social, cultural and historical perspective, and in effect see the patient in terms of both his personal and cultural–historical experience.

Another somewhat lengthy example is drawn from one of his groups, in which there is much discussion indicating in a derivative way that he was the object of the groups envious feelings. So far he sounds like a “standard” Kleinian, “the group was not aware that they were feeling envious of me and my possessions and that they were reliving earlier feelings (which they may have continued to feel) towards the members of their families of orientation, (to mention still earlier part objects). He goes on to identify various defenses such as spoiling, devaluing etc. The actual group interaction started when a female patient who,

“had the same name as a “member of the Royal family” and worried that her house was riddled with “wet” and “dry” rot described a mother ill with cancer and a husband out of work. The group theme continued with such elements as “a house could be eaten away by rot. Timber could be turned into fungus, like a dried up leaf. A debate developed about the origins of rot: whether wet rot comes before dry rot, vice versa: was it best to keep it under control and live with it? Or would it be better to tear the whole thing down, and start again, which would be painful in the short run, but better in the long run etc. (p.112-113).”

The group theme also moved to problems with Jews as property owners and who didn’t take care except for their own survival. There was also talk of rich Arabs, and economically distraught English couples.

Hopper, who listens with a fourth ear (the social/political one), wonders if the group was using their envy as a defense against other feelings that were even more painful such as helplessness, and thus were passive and inactive with regard to their attempts to understand and even to change the sources of these feelings within their contemporary worlds. Contextualizing their transferences in this way, he focuses upon “the unconscious effects of social facts that operated during the infancies of these patients and during their daily lives as adults” (p.119).

Hopper’s lengthy intervention exemplifies his position in a somewhat professorial fashion:

“I suspect you may not be fully aware of what is really making you feel so helpless. Most of you know that you will be able to cope with dry rot and wet rot and all the difficulties that go along with it, and I suspect that most of you have been hearing what has been said in terms of disturbing desires and fears about everything that comes to your mind in connection with such words as “dry” and “wet,” feelings that may have already begun to give us some trouble when you were talking about the rain and the muck, the painting, the Royal family and the Royal Baby, husbands and wives, etc., and I guess that you are almost aware of what this has to do with me and us here! But many of you have been denying (the defense) how frightened, helpless, and confused you feel (the feeling of pain against which they were trying to defend themselves) about the state of the nation, and in particular about the battles between the “wets” and the “drys” in Mrs. Thatcher’s Cabinet (p. 125).”

(In an explanatory note at this point, Hopper observes that “wet “ is apparently slang for “soft liberals” who might favor higher and more progressive income taxes combined with greater government expenditures to help the poor, while “dry” is slang for a “hard liner.” [p. 125]).

Hopper continues:

“I will go even further, some of you may be feeling something like what the Germans felt in the 1930’s when, like now, everything was topsy turvy, and nobody knew who was who. These conditions make your feelings of fear, helplessness, and confusion, even worse, but they may also be leading you to deal with these feelings by looking for scapegoats (in this instance scapegoating is a form of instrumental adjustment to the painful feelings and to the sources of the feelings). You are very ready to blame Jews, professionals and so on, including me—and maybe especially me—an American Jewish professional, who you think will be safe from all this because you think I have two jobs as well as two countries. In other words, you are scapegoating me because you envy me, and you envy me because you think I am free from the painful feelings of helplessness that many of you are experiencing as a result of social forces which seem to you to be beyond your control, in the same way that you tend to scapegoat Jews and others whom you also envy, outside the group—and for the same reasons. We seem to be recreating before our very eyes the same sort of problems that are going on in our society. And they are not so different from what has happened at other times and at other places (p.120).”

This reviewer is reminded of some classic mistakes, in analytic circles, involving the unrelenting pursuit of intrapsychic conflict as opposed to dealing with a patient’s or the analyst’s denial of present reality. One such example is the historically famous case of George Gershwin, whose brain tumor symptomatology was denied by his analyst and looked at purely in terms of psychic reality. Another example is the fact that Holocaust survivors, who often dreamt of trains, had the meaning of their dreams symbolically interpreted in terms of sexual activity, rather than as a concrete sign of traumatization and fear of death symbolized by the “transport” imagery. From time to time a sufficient number of analysts considered such dreams and associations as avoidance of deeper sexual issues i.e., sociology/ reality used as a defense against psychosexual issues. They often were correct, but also often bypassed a relevant issue in order to get at the supposedly more significant underlying wish and defense.

In effect, this is what Hopper calls to our attention. Social, political and cultural realities can be denied as effectively as wishes, desires, hostilities and self-concepts. Knowing our internal world is as relevant as comprehending the full impact of our external world. But… has Hopper simply reworded what any good analyst does? After all, we do know that unconscious meaning is multileveled, overdetermined and multidetermined, (Waelder, 1936). Further, this reviewer has elsewhere noted that the issue for the analyst-patient relation is not solely what given symbols or sets of associations mean, but rather which meaning is most relevant, and to whom. Is it the culture, the analyst, the patient or the theory elucidating the symbol? (Brok, 2004). Freud is often quoted about the relation between reality and symbol as saying “a cigar is sometimes a cigar.” The present reviewer would amend Freud’s lucid perspective by saying a cigar is always a cigar, and may as well be construed as a penis, a breast, a symbol for lip cancer, a symbol for rich man etc. The question is what is most relevant to the therapeutic situation, i.e., what construction makes the most therapeutic sense and what association elucidates it? Relevance relies on judgment, and judgment relies on the total understanding of the psycho-cultural situation in which the patient is embedded. This is from the analyst’s point of view. From the patient’s point of view we may inquire, why does the patient make such associations in the present dyadic or group culture?

Hopper’s contribution is to focus on the historical political dimension of human experience, which he terms the Social Unconscious. At times, he seems to do this out of preference, at times out of intuitive awareness, and always in terms of his reading of the patient or group of patients associations and discussions. He provides a useful addition to our comprehension of just what might be the main issue in any given analytic session. He makes us aware and hopes to make his patients aware of what I have come to term “ecological sagacity,” i.e., knowing how we are organized by our milieu, just as we try to know how our internal world organizes our experience. Does Hopper simply find what he is looking for, or does he discover something new? I recommend readers take this book of essays seriously and make their own decision.


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Reviewer Note

Karen Zelan has written extensively on the psychology of children’s learning. She is the author of Between Their World and Ours:Breakthroughs with Autistic Children.


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