Why Resist? Politics, Psychoanalysis, and the Interpretive Turn (Book Review)

Book:  With Culture in Mind: Psychoanalytic Stories
Edited by:  Muriel Dimen
Publisher:  Routledge: New York and London
Reviewed By:  Philip Cushman, Spring 2012, pp. 196

Muriel Dimen and the contributors of With Culture in Mind have put together a remarkable book that I believe marks an important moment in the history of psychoanalysis and in relational psychoanalysis in particular. It was conceived of collaboratively and carried out in comradeship—thereby embodying important values of the relational movement. The book is structured in a creative—and relational—manner: it is divided into three sections, each of which is made up of six brief clinical-theoretical studies. The six authors themselves have been in a writing group together for years, and the reader can hear their voices in one another’s chapters. Above all, they are dedicated to the value relational theory places on context—the patient’s, the analyst’s, the analytic third, and the larger contexts of family, community, and world. They studied and applied to psychoanalytic practice the many streams of intellectual traditions that have influenced relational psychoanalysis, such as feminism, postmodernism, hermeneutics, critical theory, object relations theory, and interpersonal psychoanalysis. Dimen contributed a short commentary to each chapter, and three prominent analysts were invited to comment on one section apiece. So there is much mutual influence and many conversations going on. In other words, this book is saturated with relationality. It becomes immediately obvious that the collection is focused on the practice of a critical, historical, cultural, and political psychoanalysis. It will be recognized as one of the best examples of the explicit clinical application of the interpretive turn (e.g., Hiley, Bohman, & Shusterman, 1992) in psychoanalysis, something that the field of psychotherapy needs desperately and at which it usually fails.

For instance, the title is evocative and playful: “with culture in mind” could also be read as “with mind in culture.” And really, once readers have grasped that (no doubt) intentional play on words, a new idea might appear: the distinction between mind and culture, long a foundational aspect of the modern-era Cartesian split and thus an unquestioned rule of thumb for mainstream psychology, must itself be challenged. Thus With Culture in Mind immediately makes a statement that locates it as a robust practitioner of the interpretive turn, rather than what psychotherapy theory often produces when claiming to be interpretive, an incomplete or a token effort condemned to be philosophically and politically thin and reedy.

At first blush their work seems quite radical, in that the authors consider historical and political issues to be an unquestioned—in fact indispensable—aspect of the psychoanalytic hour and especially in the degree to which they think and discuss the political with their patients. However, my hunch is that, increasingly, relational therapists across the nation are trying to contextualize their patients, themselves, and the experience of the clinical hour (e.g., Gerber, 1990; Leary, 2000). I know I have been consciously and explicitly trying to find ways to do this for about 20 years now. The importance of this new book lies not only in the rigor, learnedness, and courage with which the authors go about their task, but also in their ability to articulate and publicly discuss these interpretative practices. Most human science innovations come not in an unexpected breakthrough but in naming what is “in the air” culturally. Isn’t that what we usually call genius?

Each chapter of this collection is a gem—challenging, courageous, straight to the point, as are the three commentaries—creative, learned, elegant. When setting off to write this review, a single thought kept repeating: too many voices, too little space. So I do not comment on every chapter or even every section. Instead, I turn to some larger issues raised by this inspired collection of clinical stories.

If, after being influenced by the word play of the title, readers are moved to question the mind-culture distinction itself, then of course other Cartesian dominos fall and we are faced with many important questions: In a world riven by hateful divisions, disguised ideologies, and oppressions both subtle and hideous, how does one resist? Can one resist? Can one resist through the practice of psychotherapy? What happens when, as commentator Jessica Benjamin noticed, the corruption of the dominant culture creates a corruption in movements that attempt to resist? What do we draw from that that gives us the vision, the courage, and finally the energy to resist?

These are questions that the interpretive turn—a movement composed of two intellectual traditions, postmodernism and ontological hermeneutics—has struggled with since its inception in the 19th century. Grounded in the understanding that the modern era’s “flight to objectivity” (Bordo, 1987) is wrongheaded and ultimately barren when it comes to what matters to humans, all too often postmodernism and hermeneutics have tended to go their separate ways when trying to locate the means and the content of political resistance. My continuing hope (Cushman, 2005a) is that both streams of the movement could realize that the postmodern focus on political power and oppression and the hermeneutic focus on moral understandings, historical traditions, and dialogue are not and must not be considered opposed to—or even distinct from—one another. "[T]he interpretive turn," I argued,

is a radical vision, one that puts forth a fully social understanding of human being. It necessarily and uncompromisingly embraces both the political and the dialogical simultaneously, and calls on us to stop reinforcing the division between them. …We cannot, indeed, must not, separate the two; when we do, we are forced to choose between two insufficient, split-off, highly polarizing practices. We attenuate and fragment and thus make impotent a robust social vision at our intellectual and clinical peril. …To practice hermeneutics without a sharp focus on power, and critical postmodernism without a profound recognition of the inescapable moral frame, is to practice them poorly. (Cushman, 2005a, pp.402–403)

The authors in this book identify their intellectual framework as postmodern. Because of that, initially I feared that they would make the mistake characteristic of some forms of postmodernism, that of understanding culture only as a limitation and the tool of oppression, moral understandings only as the hypocritical justification of power, and identification, belonging, and commitment only as the embodiment of oppressive social roles and a defense against psychological and political truths. Instead, happily, I found an intellectual sophistication and an ability to hold both sides of the movement that is rare indeed, especially in psychotherapy.

I have experienced that unexpected pleasure many times in some of the literature of relational psychoanalysis. Relationalists live out certain moral understandings that make political commitment possible: in their work they value honesty, fairness, collaboration, egalitarianism, freedom. Their commitments to compassion, self-reflection, and intellectual integrity make their analytic practices one of the few places where a resistance against the anti-intellectualism, militarism, racism, misogyny, classism, and homophobia of the far right come to light. It is that realization that has moved me to interpret relational psychoanalysis as a kind of quiet political resistance (Cushman, 2009).

But why is the lack of acknowledgment for the positive aspects of cultural traditions an issue of concern? In the realm of politics, what does it matter where one's reasons for resistance originate? Who cares, as long as one has them? Well, it turns out this is an exceedingly important issue, because if we can't get a solid understanding about how resistance comes about, then how can we encourage and sustain it, cooperate together, solve disputes, find common cause with others? How can we identify the right kinds of resistance, and encourage good reasons for resisting? In other words, how can we make an effective—and lasting—resistance movement? Equally important, how can we combat theories and practices, including psychotherapy theories, that claim to have discovered the one absolute truth about human being, but actually reproduce the status quo in subtle and disguised ways?

Mainstream psychotherapy, because it believes morality and politics must be subjects avoided at all cost, cannot identify and admit to the values and commitments that are disguised in its theories. Therefore, many devices and processes (e.g., Winnicott's true self, Maslow's self-actualization, self psychology's belief in "natural" growth, cognitive behavior therapy's hyperrational destruction of "mistaken thoughts") have been invented to explain why therapists believe that certain feelings, beliefs, and actions are thought to be good (i.e., healthy) and others bad (i.e., pathological). By focusing on the origins and processes of moral discourse, hermeneuticists explain how psychologizing moral issues and medicalizing political suffering disguise psychotherapeutic practices that subtly reproduce the status quo. Hermeneutics assists us in getting more skilled at identifying flawed rhetorical strategies and philosophical thinking by (1) reminding us that human being is historical and (2) directing us to recognize the generativity of cultural and historical traditions. Traditions can be thought of as sources of alternative moral understandings and political perspectives as well as dominant, oppressive ideas and institutions. This makes it possible to avoid the philosophical and political dead end that is caused by some forms of postmodernism (Cushman, 2005a).

The chapters of With Culture in Mind are inspiring examples of how it is possible to pursue political resistance with integrity and at the same time do so by respecting and drawing from different streams of dominant historical traditions or neighboring traditions. Often these alternative traditions are first experienced as encounters with difference, which deliver difficult, painful, sometimes disorienting moral challenges. What makes it possible to exercise both streams of the interpretive turn is an ability to recognize the dual nature of cultural traditions: culture simultaneously limits us and makes a social world possible.

An encounter with difference is at the heart of what Gadamer called "genuine conversation" or dialogue. Several hermeneuticists (e.g., Cushman, 1995, 2005a, 2005b; Fowers, 2000; Orange, 2009; Richardson, Fowers, & Guignon, 1999; Martin, Sugarman, & Hickinbottom, 2009) have been sketching out how psychotherapy can be thought of as a type of moral discourse. By trying to understand the social world of the other, one eventually has the opportunity to view one's own social world with a different perspective. This in turn makes it possible to call one's own moral understandings and political commitments into question. Most, if not all, of the chapters of With Culture in Mind, in one way or another, described events and experiences that I interpret as dialogic in Gadamer's sense of the term. We see the pain and confusion of both analysts and analysands become better understood in relation to the context of the analysand. It takes a great deal of courage, intellect, and honesty to come to the places of understanding described in the chapters of this book.

For instance, Guralnik turned to Nietzsche and Foucault, practitioners of a critical intellectual tradition, to help her understand the scarification and piercing practices of a patient named Raven. South African analyst Glenys Lobban, after discovering that she is biracial, was thrown into a struggle with her own identity. In an attempt to find ways of "resignifying" race and her place in it all, she turned to an African-American historical tradition of critical racial humor exemplified by a remark President Obama made during the 2008 electoral campaign. In a later chapter Lobban drew from her growing resignification efforts in order to break through an enactment and ask a question of her patient that shifted the analysis and opened up new understandings for them both.

Commentator Susie Orbach reviewed recent feminist history in order to contextualize the authors' efforts to bring the political into the analytic hour. She situated With Culture in Mind "in the context of previous attempts to understand the intersection of the individual and the social" (p.109). In order "to understand and be helpful," Orbach argued, we must "remember our own intellectual and psychological history and social circumstances" (p.113).

Eyal Rozmarin's chapters encourage the ability to draw from one aspect of a tradition in order to oppose another, more destructive aspect of that tradition. "There is inherent to the dialectic between the subject and the many discourses in which he is founded, not only confinement in subjection, but also meaningful belonging and participating, which are the conditions of everything intersubjective" (p.8). Commentator Jessica Benjamin suggested that "without a consciousness of patriarchy…without the consciousness regarding incest and exploitation that feminism has brought about…[analyst and analysand] might have lost all bearings—and would surely have lost a crucial ingredient of the moral third" (p.63). In all of these examples we see streams of traditions being drawn from in order to resist other, dominant—and oppressive—aspects of the larger tradition.

One further note of interest: most of these authors are Jews. I don't think this is a coincidence. In a social world in which critical religious study is not often available or considered psychoanalytically proper (or interesting), where do Jewish traditions of communal study and interpretive textual commentary come to light? Perhaps in the peer consultation groups and written intellectual exchanges of the psychoanalytic profession, of which this group of authors is a good example. This is similar to what I suggested in 2007 (Cushman, 2007), and I suspect the Jews in this writing group of analysts and their commentators, steeped in the best of relational values and critical intellectual Western traditions, are also enacting 2,000-year-old historical practices that they have somehow embodied. Some of the same issues—such as the awareness of the dialectic of presence and absence, the struggle over what is the good and how to practice it, an overriding concern for compassion, a recognition of the primacy of history and the centrality of critical thought and textual interpretation—might well be part of what is animating the group's excellent critical and political clinical practices. If so, they are a good illustration of just the theoretical concepts of the interpretive turn for which they persuasively argue in their book. Jewish history shows that communal survival depends much more on innovation and critical creativity than on authoritarian rigidity and compliance.

Moral understandings and political commitments are not invented out of thin air. There is much that we must do creatively with them, measuring and evaluating them against one another, rejecting some and accepting others. Good ideas do not spring into our minds ex nihilo—we have "culture in [our] mind." Ideas, especially creative ideas, are first given to us through the framework of a specific language and culture, and it is our job, each of us, to study the issues, mine the intellectual and moral traditions that speak to us, measure them in relation to other traditions, and try to determine—and act on—the good out of that messy and all too human mix. The authors of With Culture in Mind have struggled with these issues, laid bare their souls, and as a result have given us something of enormous value. Bravo. And many thanks.


Bordo, S. (1987). The flight to objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and culture. SUNY.

Cushman, P. (1995). Constructing the self, constructing America: A cultural history of psychotherapy. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Cushman, P. (2005a). Between arrogance and a dead-end: Gadamer and the Heiddeger-Foucault controversy. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 41,399-417.

Cushman, P. (2005b). Clinical examples: A reply to Layton. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 41,431-445.

Cushman, P. (2007). A burning world, an absent god. Midrash, hermeneutics, and relational psychoanalysis. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 43,47-88.

Cushman, P. (October, 2009). Relational psychoanalysis as a site of political resistance. Invited address for the Northwest Alliance for Psychoanalysis. Seattle, Washington.

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Gerber, L. A. (1990). Integrating political-societal concerns in psychotherapy. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 44(4),471-483.

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Leary, K. (2000). Racial enactments in dynamic treatment. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 10, 639–653.

Martin, J., Sugarman, J., & Hickinbottom, S. (2009). Persons: Understanding psychological selfhood and agency. New York, NY: Springer.

Orange, D. (2009). Toward the art of the living dialogue: Between constructivism and hermeneutics in psychoanalytic thinking. In R. Frie & D. Orange (Eds.), Beyond postmodernism: New dimensions in clinical theory (pp.117–142). New York, NY: Routledge.

Richardson, F., Fowers, B. J., & Guignon, C. (1999). Re-envisioning psychology: Moral dimensions of theory and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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