Foucault, Psychology and the Analytics of Power - On Psychology and Psychotherapy

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

Foucault, Psychology and the Analytics of Power
On Psychology and Psychotherapy

Hook, D. (2007) Foucault, Psychology and the Analytics of Power. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Psychology is a conceptual apparatus that now functions as one of the most important disciplinary mechanisms in contemporary neoliberal society. It provides and furnishes dominant models of the self in much of the English-speaking world, and it operates as a moral compass for how we should make sense of our behaviour, our thoughts and our sentiments. It is also one of the most powerful pretenders to scientific legitimation of psychotherapeutic practice, and so it is a force that professionals working in all fields of mental health have to reckon with. There have been many critiques over the years, but psychology has succeeded quite well so far in defending itself against various Marxist, feminist, humanist and psychoanalytic attempts to displace it from centre stage, to challenge its peculiar normalizing definitions of what health and happiness should be like. The resources psychology mobilises in response to these critiques — resources it often mobilises without even having to think about what it is doing — have been the focus of critical analytic work in the last 30 years, work that draws on the theory of Michel Foucault. Now Derek Hook has seized the baton and runs faster and further than other Foucauldians to date.

Foucault provides an invaluable alternative historical vocabulary, a counter-language and counter-memory, to tackle the way the discipline of psychology has become embedded in networks of practical-theoretical space, the ’psy-complex’. Those networks of power-knowledge at the one moment warrant the turn to the individual subject as target of programmes of social engineering. At the very same moment, apparatchiks in those networks call upon this particular discipline, psychology, to implement those programmes. The detailed analytic study undertaken by Foucault and a number of associated historians and social theorists begs a question as to how psychology could really continue when it has been dismantled by such critics so effectively, so many times.

It is necessary to remind ourselves that the survival of psychology in the face of these waves of critical work cannot only be put down to how it is intermeshed with other elements of the psy-complex and with even more deep-rooted ideological and state practices. The problem is twofold. Either Foucauldian work on psychology has tended to be elaborated in painstaking detail from outside the discipline, which makes it too easily discounted by those inside who pull down the shutters against the rabble and their representatives in sociology, who should not speak about what they do not understand. Or Foucault has been mixed and matched with a variety of deconstructive or so-called postmodern complaints inside the discipline, complaints that can then be dismissed as being but parts of a chorus of illegitimate political grievances.

Now, at last, in Foucault, Psychology and the Analytics of Power, Hook draws the reader into a sustained engagement with and deployment of Foucault’s work that cuts from inside the belly of the beast. This book shows how psychology is embodied in the subjects upon whom the discipline works, and he shows how it is located in forms of space that must be configured as forms of power. At the same time he deals with those who have diluted Foucault’s arguments on grounds of political expediency, and the book traces an ambitious arc of argumentation that dispatches along the way ’discursive’ psychologists who reduce genealogy to the play of language. So, there is discussion of therapeutic constructions that treats them as disciplinary practices, and an analysis of embodiment that proceeds by ’desubstantializing’ power. Historical analysis, which Hook demonstrates through a close reading of the construction of aberrant forms of sexuality, must take seriously Foucault’s dictum that knowledge is not made for understanding but for cutting. The reference Foucault makes to ’heterotopia’ (in lectures at the Collège de France in 1975—1976, published in 2003) is used to good effect to open up relations between power, knowledge and the organisation of space in gated community spaces in South Africa (from which many of the examples in the book are drawn). And then we are plunged back into the heart of psychology again in the final chapter with an examination of how affect might be retrieved by those working with Foucauldian ideas in the discipline.

So far, so good. There are, however, some points in this inspiring and energetic book where we have to be careful not to get swept along by the argument, and these actually turn around Hook’s allegiance to Foucault. On the one hand, there is an attempt to remain faithful to his master, perhaps too faithful. On the other hand, there are some departures, and these departures are also quite problematic. So, for example, Hook too quickly endorses a particular reading of Foucault that loyally sides with him against Marxism and a class analysis. Does being faithful to Foucault really require such a sharp differentiation from Marx? There is a peculiar moment, for example, when we are told that Foucault shows us that power does not only function as a commodity, and this is linked to what is glossed as Foucault’s ’wider critique of Marxist forms of thought’ (p. 64). But this really is precisely where Foucault coincides with Marx, for their analyses of commodification under capitalism concern, among other things, how phenomena like power come to be understood, how they come to operate for each individual subject. Hook’s representation of Marxism makes it seem complicit with capitalism, both concepts to be studiously avoided, of course. This line of argument is also unfortunately symptomatic of much contemporary Foucauldian scholarship, an ideological trend of work that is actually itself complicit with capitalism and hostile to political traditions on the left that still insist that another world is possible.

It is one of the conventional wisdoms of much Foucauldian work that even references to capitalism should be treated with suspicion, and while Foucault himself was often quite explicit about the connections between his work and the Marxist tradition, there is a danger now that refusal of all forms of power will simply fold into a refusal to take responsibility for the process of social change. Or, to put it more bluntly, that the social forces that can really challenge psychology and the psychologisation of politics — Marxism and feminism to name but two such social forces — will be blocked by those who see these political traditions as simply new manifestations of power knowledge.

And then, Hook takes another tack late in the book where he seems to want to take a distance from Foucault. There are intimations of this right back in the first chapter where there is a to-and-fro worrying about whether this line of work means dispensing with all of psychology or whether there might possibly be room for a little bit of it, the little that might be for good rather than bad. This good psychology could, perhaps, Hook suggests, draw on the work of Vygotsky, but he does not then show us how that particular framework might, as he puts it, ’fill in the blanks’ (p. 61). By the last chapter, which is an impressive discussion of the place of affect in forms of governmentality, this possible good psychology has a new name, psychoanalysis. Here we are pulled into a puzzle about whether it might be possible to put psychoanalytic and Foucauldian analysis together. One of the advantages of Foucault’s work is that it can be used to show the difference between psychoanalysis and psychology, and it would be irony indeed if Hook succeeded in conflating the two; at least, in a first move, running some kind of ’critical psychology’ together with an avatar of psychoanalysis that then, necessarily, must betray psychoanalysis.

We could instead turn Foucault against Hook so that our Foucault becomes allied with Marxism, albeit in a tense uncertain relationship with it — and then it would be even more useful to interrogate forms of therapeutic practice like psychoanalysis, drawing attention to class dynamics that suffuse transference and interpretation. And we should then ensure that this Foucault never gives ground on the critique of psychology, and so is all the better able to resist the lure of what appears to be the reverse of psychology while it all the more insidiously inscribes it; that is, what now masquerades as psychoanalysis in ’scientific’ evidence-based versions of treatment but simply does the work of psychology more efficiently because it is better attuned to the vagaries of neoliberalism. Debate on these issues — the opportunity to weigh up the arguments and find our way to a more tactical political reading of Foucault in and against psychology — is what Hook opens up in this marvellous book.