Psy-Complex in Question: Critical Review In Psychology, Psychoanalysis And Social Theory - Ian Parker 2018


Review and Critique in the Psy-Complex

This book is about the psy-complex, it is also about how we might critically review the psy-complex, and it is about a key element of contemporary intellectual reproduction, the ’book review’ as critical peer evaluation that sustains the academic community. You will learn more about the psy-complex from different vantage points as you go through the book. The reviews gathered here cover the domains of psychology, psychoanalysis and social theory, specifically the work of Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek. You will see how a book review works, some good and bad examples.

I was trained first as a psychologist, but was ’critical’ of the theories and methodologies used in the discipline from the beginning of my career, and then when I trained as a psychoanalyst, and started to use ideas from that tradition to critique psychology, it was already in the context of social-theoretical debates that connected research on subjectivity with cultural and political context. This book brings together books I have enjoyed reading and for which I was given sufficient journal space to elaborate some kind of argument with. You will see that I like to argue with a book in a review, and this gives a polemical edge to each of the pieces that makes them, I hope, more enjoyable to read and more likely to encourage you to go and read the books themselves.

In this introduction I will try to spell out what I do not do when I write a review as well as what I try to do (even if I do not always succeed). So, I will look at how the book review can operate as a genre for training psychologists who want to think critically about what they do, how the reviews gathered here illustrate the emerging shape of critical psychological argument and debate, and how psychoanalytic and social theory contributes to new ideas about human agency.

Reading and Arguing

A bad book review begins with an account of what the reviewer felt when they were first asked to read the book and what they thought the book might be about. The ’when I was asked to review this book’ narrative takes a further more nightmarish turn when we are told what the cover looks like, and even what the cover blurbs written by friends of the author might have said about it. Then we can be pretty sure that we will be led into a ’the next chapter is about’ structure which always seems to be proof positive that Lacan (1991/2007) was right when he claimed that language did not only serve as a medium for communication but also, and more importantly, served to deaden what it pretended to merely describe (as in Lacan’s comment, borrowed from a reading of Hegel, that the word is the murder of the thing).

Yes, you can discover something about what the reviewer does and does not like from the way they approach a book, but the review itself should be treated as a text that is crafted to bring to light certain issues and, if it is being honest, shows us what it is trying to steer us away from. The way to do that crafting is to set up the parameters for the review at the outset so that the description of the content of the book is set against the background assumptions that will be mobilised in support of or against it. This way of establishing the ground rules could be thought of in the terms used by Billig (1999) when he points to the importance of thinking as taking place by way of ’argument’, by way of a debate or dialogue with oneself and imagined audiences. When an argument is made in favour of one point of view, for example, we will be in a better position to understand what is going on and where the argument is leading if we have a clue as to what point of view is being argued against.

So, a review that simply tells us what the book is about avoids the key pedagogical opportunity of explaining why these or those issues are so important, and then, following up that explanation with reference to the book in question, showing how we are taken forward and what obstacles still remain in place. A book review is the public face of peer evaluation, and sometimes the review itself will have a format which is rather similar to the other more obscure gatekeeping procedures in the academic world. It is very different from cases where a reviewer of a research proposal needs to give their feedback within the rigid set of categories that have been laid down by the funding body, the worst of these being in the form of tick-boxes in which exchange between applicant and their colleagues becomes completely impossible. It is different from cases in which the intended publisher of a book proposal seems only interested in the sales potential and market for the product, about the extent to which the book simply repeats what we have read many times before but in brighter more appealing covers. And it is different from when the research application or book proposal is sent to the reviewer with the promise that the feedback will be confidential, that the reviewer will not have to argue their own position or be accountable for what they say because their identity is concealed.

The similarities become more apparent in open dialogical reviewing which some journals have been willing to experiment with in recent years (including some within the broad ’critical psychological’ tradition). Then the reviewer is asked to give a narrative account through which they show they have understood what they have been asked to evaluate (even if this is refracted through the particular position they take, and they have often been asked to be the reviewer precisely because they come at things from another angle), identify the key points that are being argued for as the basis for the work and give an evaluation which weighs up the strengths and weaknesses. In fact, in the case of reviews of journal articles, a good editor will want the evaluation to include a degree of latitude so that they have the freedom to put the review in the balance with other reviewers’ comments, and then the freedom to decide themselves if it is worth going ahead. And the polemical element of the review can sometimes be very useful in helping the editor gauge whether the article is going to provoke debate. (I know of cases where all the reviews of a journal article have been so hostile but, at the same time, so well-argued, that the editor was convinced that the thing should be published.) A book review should accentuate that polemical aspect so that the reader has some point of purchase on the book (even if the aim of the review is not only to get someone to purchase it), some way in which it enables them to keep a critical distance from it. As recent ’critical psychological’ work has pointed out, the attempt to develop a psychology ’without foundations’ actually means that argument from a variety of different competing theoretical perspectives becomes even more important (Brown and Stenner, 2009).

Disciplinary Contexts

There is a common confusion in the discipline of psychology over the question of ’reflexivity’ and what it involves. Because most psychologists have bought into the idea that psychological research should be about individuals abstracted from social context, they tend to think that reflexivity should amount to an invitation to speak about where they are coming from and what they feel about the work they are doing. This is ’psychological reflexivity’ and it entails the inclusion of what is sometimes called a ’reflexive analysis’ subsection of the report in which the reader is told how fascinated the researcher was in this or that issue, and then even how difficult they found the process of carrying out and analysing the work. That is, we learn something about the writer but very little about how we might read and think critically about what they are describing. This psychological reflexivity is sometimes sold to students as an invitation to write about their ’journey’ into the research. What this then adds to our understanding of what went on as the research and the report was put together, apart from a little voyeuristic entertainment (which is why student researchers often still find this kind of reflexivity a bit creepy), is pretty close to zero. That kind of reflexivity would be a rather annoying distraction if it was to become part of a book review.

The other way of approaching reflexivity is what we find in good qualitative research which attends to the conditions in which the work was carried out and which then, necessarily, reflects on the consequences for how we treat psychology itself (Terre Blanche and Durrheim, 1999). This second way of approaching reflexivity requires us to map ourselves as researchers in relation to the conceptual assumptions that frame how we and others understand the questions that are asked and in relation to the institutions and professions that place limits on the way we can ask those questions (House and Totton, 1997). That is, we set out as clearly as we can the context in which we do our work, and so enable the reader to access the frames in which the questions appear and then are followed through or abandoned without explanation. This is one of the starting points for a good book review, that the review either spells out directly (if there is space), or at least sketches out along with a description of the book, the contours of the conceptual ground against which the book might be evaluated. Then the reader also has a chance to participate in the kind of assessment that the reviewer is aiming to carry out.

A review should take a critical distance from the book in question, and, as can be seen in some of the reviews in this book, that is a bit easier when another context that is possibly unfamiliar to the reader has to be described so that the account of the book in the review will then make some sense. This is necessary when the review is of a set of disciplinary debates that are quite outside the frame of taken-for-granted assumptions in the host discipline, of the particular uptake of psychoanalytic ideas in theology, say, that has to be explained to an audience of psychologists and social scientists (Kotsko, 2008; Pound, 2007, 2008). Sometimes this task is made more pressing because the book is addressing a cultural context that is different, and critical work in psychology has been able to learn many lessons from the way that understandings of and research into subjectivity varies so hugely across the world. While psychoanalysis is usually assumed by psychologists to be one thing — about Freud and post-Freudians as represented in the textbooks — it is clear, for example, that it actually takes quite different forms in different cultures, in France (Birksted-Breen, 2010), say, or Japan (Shingu, 2004), or Israel/Palestine (Golan, 2006).

Transdisciplinary Opportunities

A good review should have the shape of a little essay — it has a beginning (in which you are given some orientation to the issues at stake and some clues about where the reviewer is coming from), a middle (in which the logic of the argument of the book in question is traced out, and this logic of the argument may not exactly correspond to the sequence of the chapters, let alone the titles that the author of the book has given to their chapters), and an end (which might be an extended punchline thrown with the book at its intended target or thrown back at the book for failing to deliver on some of its promises). An essay review gives more space to follow this shape, and an essay review of two or three books gives even more scope for an elaboration of an argument rather than a simple repetition of what each of the books is ostensibly about.

This book focuses on issues in critical psychology, psychoanalysis and social theory respectively, but the boundaries between those categories are disturbed at different points. Psychologists have been compelled by force of argument by colleagues in other disciplines to look at how their assumptions about the human subject are ’constructed’ rather than gathered as facts about behaviour and experience (Danziger, 1990). The pretence that psychologists might have something to offer by way of therapeutic expertise to help people, for example, is then questioned not only by psychoanalysts (Vanheule, 2011) and social theorists (Vighi, 2012), and those who work at the interface between psychoanalysis and social theory (Gherovici and Steinkoler, 2015), but also by psychotherapists themselves, some of whom are already ahead of the game in thinking through political consequences of analysis in practice (Totton, 2006). It then becomes clear that it is not possible to understand psychology itself without looking at how its stories about people are embedded in relations of power (Hook, 2007). Recognition of this leads us, as it has some ’critical psychologists’, to reflection on the cultural-historical conditions in which we do our work in the ’West’ and on the way psychology as a discipline has been implicated in colonial assumptions about our ’selves’ and ’others’ (Richards, 2012).

The turn to psychoanalysis operates for some psychologists as an escape route from the worst of the discipline (Hook, 2012), for Freudian and post-Freudian theory offers a quite different way of accounting for subjectivity which then often connects with political critique (Stavrakakis, 2007). When that turn to psychoanalysis occurs, which in some variants has led psychologists to break away from their own departments and forge a completely new domain known as ’psychosocial studies’ (Frosh, 2010), there is still a concern with the relation between the ’individual’ and the ’social’. That alternative psychoanalytic conception of the individual, however, does not treat the ’social’ as a set of variables that can be patched on to the abstracted ’psychology’ that the discipline has usually traded in. Instead, such taken-for-granted psychological topics like addiction are reconfigured so as to be almost unrecognisable to researchers in the old laboratory-experimental paradigm (Loose, 2002).

This then leads us to link what we have been trying to do inside psychology with ’social theory’ that has itself been reenergised by psychoanalysis. This psychoanalysis is very different from the old normative psychoanalysis that deadened a couple of generations of psychologists, and sociologists for that matter (Manning, 2005). It is psychoanalysis that refuses to endorse treatment that aims at adaptation of the individual to society, which is what psychoanalysis became in the United States, and instead aims at a political exploration and subversion of the boundaries between normality and supposed abnormality (Dufour, 2008).

Psychoanalysis in Lacan’s ’return to Freud’, to take a case in point, has not always lived up to its radical pretensions, has had to negotiate its own way through US-American culture (Fink, 1999), but in the hands of social theorists like Slavoj Žižek (e.g., 2006) and his followers (e.g., Dean, 2006) it has drawn attention to the intimate connection between public ideology and private fantasy (and between private ideology and public fantasy). This most radical departure from the kind of work we have been used to inside the discipline of psychology can actually illuminate the most fundamental questions about the individual that we were told we should be solving (Žižek, 1989). So, you will learn what the emerging shape of critical argument and debate is around the psy-complex today, how psychoanalytic and social theory can contribute new ideas about human agency, and see how important the book review genre is for reflecting on and developing critique of the psy-complex.