Shane Avery's Reviews > Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis by Clara Thompson
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Jan 05, 2009

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Very much an expository work, covering Freud, Adler, Jung, Fromm, Reich, Rank, Horney, and Sullivan. Thompson divides Freud from Freudian revisionists by the issue of how a sick patient is cured. Freud attempted to achieve cure by alleviating symptoms, through techniques like hypnosis and release, while his successors concentrated on eliminating "parataxic distortions," a term simply meaning the inability to understand one's emotional state. A cure in this sense is effective insight which allows the subject of psychoanalysis to achieve harmonious interpersonal relations that are consistent with the facts of his situation. A cure is not conformity, but rather it offers a person ways to cope with life with minimum psychological anxiety.

Cultural-oriented psychologists improved upon Freud's biological determinism by concentrating on interpersonal relations. Anxiety is usually produced when one's relations to the outside world are threatened. Anxiety, according to Thompson, has little to do with the somatic, and everything to do with cultural pressure. Harry Stack Sullivan, for example, stressed the euphoria that accompanies social approval, and the discomfort and anxiety that accompanies social disapproval, marginality, and ostracism. Within this framework, cruelty can become a desirable cultural trait which offers sadistic harmony with the community, while kindness can become an avenue to ostracism. Conversely, Freud emphasised the universality of anxiety and repression, as evidenced in his work Beyond the Pleasure Principle . Freud considered anxiety, aggression, and the Oedipus complex universal.

The main point here is that by embracing the universality of repression and the desirability of the renunciation or sublimation of certain types of pleasure in order to achieve the heights of civilization, Freud embraced civilization as a controlling agent which curbed human baseness. The cultural-oriented psychologists sought to reverse this trend through the study of comparative culture. Some cultures are not dominated by the characteristics of fear, anxiety, and death. Some live in relative harmony. Human nature is not altogether evil; only certain cultures encourage evil behaviour.

It seems to me that the Freudian revisionists to which Thompson refers are clinging to the hope that Freud was wrong about his biological determinism with respect to the evil tendencies of human nature. Neuroses, depression, hysteria, aggression, sadism and masochism, they hoped, are not universal human characteristics; they are historically contingent on certain modes of cultural organization. The post-war world only needed more effective and insightful leadership and understanding to place humanity on a more harmonious and secure footing.

I'm not so sure. The relationship between the somatic and the psychological is still very much a mystery. It's clear that certain emotive states of mind can produce very real neurological conditions. Cultural organization surely plays the most important role in the quality of a given society's mental health. But that does not mean that anxiety can ever be erased, for it is definitely a by-product of human existence. It seems to me that the final answer might be found through the study of neurology, psychophysics, and psychobiology, and through basing social planning/organization on the findings of these sciences. There needs to be better dialogue between psychocultural and somatic studies. Therein lies our only hope. Psychiatry, by concentrating so heavily on medicating the sick, does more harm than good, functioning as a major institutional prop to the status quo.
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