Freud and American Sociology - On Psychoanalysis and with Lacan

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

Freud and American Sociology
On Psychoanalysis and with Lacan

Manning, P. (2005) Freud and American Sociology. Cambridge: Polity.

A story still circulates that when Freud was travelling to the United States in 1909 to give his five introductory lectures on psychoanalysis at Clark University, he turned to his travelling companion, Jung, and declared that the Americans little knew that the arrival of psychoanalysis would be a ’plague’ that would question and corrode their way of life. It is true that prospective patients of psychoanalysis, the analysands, often do not know what they are letting themselves in for; psychoanalysis subverts their attachment to their symptoms and leads them to the point where they will treat the beliefs they held about themselves as strange ideas that they relate to differently, if not abandon altogether. That disturbing and painful process can seem closer to illness than mental health; little wonder that the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus said of psychoanalysis that it was a disease of which it pretends to be the cure. One might imagine that sociology at its best would be analogous, if not homologous to this process of estrangement and re-evaluation; conservatives often dislike sociologists precisely because they unravel taken-for-granted commonsensical ideas about society.

Freud, however, was very ambivalent about the impact of psychoanalysis in relation to society; at the one moment encouraging subversive self-reflection and at the next using psychoanalytic knowledge to buttress existing social relations. If there is some truth in the image of psychoanalysis as a plague for the American way of life, it is not one that Freud would always have wanted to be remembered for. In fact, this tall tale was told by the French psychoanalyst Lacan, who reported that Jung had told it to him (though Jung never confirmed this), and it was designed to question not only the American way of life, but what had happened to psychoanalysis when it had become implanted in the United States.

Manning’s Freud and American Sociology is an unwitting illustration of what Lacan thought had gone wrong. It is an engagingly written book which strips psychoanalysis of all that is discomfiting, and it presents a reassuring narrative that promises that a ’pared down’ version of Freud might be adapted to fit sociology so that the discipline and the individual ego will both end up strengthened, complementing each other. This can only be achieved by ensuring that sociology itself is ’pared down’ to the Symbolic Interactionist tradition. The book actually operates best as an introductory text with Freud-lite as leitmotif to enable a journey through the life and contributions of Sumner, Cooley and Parsons, and via a cursory discussion of Mead, the real hero of the book, which is Goffman. Some twenty pages devoted to Goffman barely mention Freud — material has evidently been drawn from other published work in which Freud does not really figure at all — and the message is that Goffman was doing something that ’opened a door to psychoanalysis, but this was not a door he wanted to walk through himself’ (p. 95).

To say that this is ’American Sociology’ is thus to strictly limit what the discipline is about. Some other writers in the sociological tradition who have engaged with psychoanalysis are introduced later on; Rieff, and then, all too briefly, Hochschild, Chodorow and Prager. If Manning had shown us what this particular tradition in sociology was delimiting itself against, then we would have had a much better idea what the stakes of psychoanalysis were. What ’Europe’ represented to a generation of sociologists who might want to define themselves as ’American’ would be a necessary component of such an account. Instead, there are tantalising hints of what Freud outside ’American Sociology’ might look like which will have to be filled in by tutors who choose to use this book in undergraduate classes.

First, we need to follow through the acknowledgement that psychoanalysis by the 1930s was ’no longer a discrete entity but a maze of possibilities’ (p. 34); apart from some nods to ’relational’ perspectives in psychoanalysis, there is no exposition of what the different psychoanalytic traditions have been. The proliferation of schools of psychoanalysis was once a sign of strength, and even then there are important sociological questions to be asked about the role of the training institutes in the United States in keeping some of the new ideas at bay. Unlike the British franchise of the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA) — the organisation founded by Freud and his followers in 1910 — which divided into three distinct groups, US American psychoanalysis fragmented into separate organisations; there are different lessons for sociology from each separate tradition.

Second, we need to tell again something of the history of how psychoanalysts fleeing Nazism arrived in the United States to find that the official IPA bodies were controlled by medics who required the émigrés to undergo retraining in order that they adapt better to a form of psychoanalysis that only focused on enabling individuals to compete against each other and be content with a society oriented to mass consumption. The translation of psychoanalysis from German into English was slow and painful — as Manning points out Freud’s lectures in 1909 were given in German to an audience that included sociologists who were fluent in that language — and in the process of that translation terms that appear in this book were transformed (such as ’instinct’ from Freud’s own term ’Trieb’, which should be rendered as ’drive’, operating as a force on the borders of the physiological and the psychical).

Manning comments, during his discussion of Sumner’s Folkways, that ’what follows the colon in the title of a book is a better guide to its content than what comes before it’ (p. 45). This intriguing suggestion draws attention to the absence of subtitle to Freud and American Sociology; it is a collection of introductory essays on the classical ethnographic tradition that hovers before the door to psychoanalysis outside the United States but never shows us what the broader field of clinical practice and research has to offer.