Psychology without Foundations - On Psychology and Psychotherapy

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

Psychology without Foundations
On Psychology and Psychotherapy

Brown, SD and Stenner, P. (2009) Psychology without Foundations: History, Philosophy and Psychosocial Theory. London: Sage.

The discipline of psychology, along with ’everyday psychology’ that is sometimes counterposed to the discipline, operates through a complex mixture of rhetoric and practice. Its rhetoric lures us into the idea that the psychologists can see the phenomena they describe, and the practice circumscribes a place from which we speak about who we have become as psychological subjects. At the heart of psychology, then, is a paradox, which is that there is a claim to re-present what has been ’discovered’ about behaviour, interaction, cognition or emotion but all this stuff has be represented, rhetorically framed in order for it to be intelligible. It is tempting to respond to disciplinary truth claims by pitting what we feel, and what we feel we know about ourselves against the psychologists, and many radical projects in and against psychology have come to grief as they try to play the apparatus at its own game. Against the appeal to experimental results is pitted an appeal to qualitative data, for example, and against the accounts of underlying emotion are pitted an account of actual affect. One cluster of ’foundations’, the bad one we disagree with, is dismantled while another set is put in its place, and what we hope will be a more sophisticated rhetorical practice, built perhaps on incorrigible experience or unquestionable facts, starts off life as an alternative and then is easily recuperated, incorporated into the discipline itself.

Brown and Stenner’s ’psychology without foundations’ refuses to play this game, and circulates instead around the ’process of mediation’ that constitutes what we take psychology to be. Each of the theorists — Artaud, Bergson, Deleuze, Foucault, Luhmann, Serres, Spinoza and Whitehead — explored in the book are put to work on a concept — embodiment, memory, subjectivity, life, communication, mediation, affect and process — to drive home the quasi-deconstructive lesson that any foundation can and should be unravelled in favour of process (which is, perhaps, why Whitehead is actually first in the series of theorists we encounter in the book).

Psychology is often a puzzle to academic researchers from adjacent disciplines because despite its attempt to keep the franchise on explorations of subjectivity, of the space of being that we have learnt in capitalist society to own as our ’individuality’, the discipline does not seem to be able to adequately conceptualise its own subject matter. The problem is expressed in two ways. One expression of the problem is that certain figures — Piaget and Luria, for example — are written in to the history of the discipline as if they really were ’psychologists’, and this itself entails some curious and misleading characterisations of their work in psychology textbooks. Others, like Holzkamp or Martín-Baró, are usually written out. What Brown and Stenner do in their book is bring some outliers from our history — William James is reclaimed along the way — and they make psychology take account of the work of other writers who have defined what subjectivity is in contemporary psychological culture (and they remind us that figures like Heidegger and Vološinov really need to be on the curriculum of an inclusive study of what it is to be a sentient subject today).

What they do not do so successfully is deal with the other expression of the problem of the franchise on subjectivity that the discipline of psychology protects, which is that debates inside the discipline are now not actually as rich in psychological content as debates outside in popular culture. One of the peculiar contradictions that mark this discipline now is that subjectivity as such is often evacuated from descriptions of behaviour and cognition. In this respect there is an intensification of the behaviourist project and modelling of cognitive processes on the kind of ’method’ that most efficiently defined the discipline against neighbouring fields of study for many years. Meanwhile there is amazing expansion of talk about internal mental states saturated with affect which moralises about what it is to be a human being in the outside world. This flourishing of subjectivity outside psychology (of which a journal of this kind is symptomatic) takes quite particular forms that require careful examination, as has recently been undertaken, to take one key example, in the work of Jan De Vos (2011); there is a dialectical process at work in which a drive for certainty about the nature of pathology on the part of professionals and academics (those who seek foundations for psychology) is in tension with an incitement to plasticity and perpetual adaptation.

While capitalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries required a reduction of alienated life activity to measurable activity and insisted that the individual be responsible for themselves, neoliberal capitalism we enjoy and suffer today dissolves even more efficiently than ever all the putative foundations of our lives into air. Psychology, traditionally understood, now calls upon a form of ’anti-psychology’ to extract surplus value from the workforce and enforce enthusiastic consumption of products and services. This means that the danger now is that the unravelling of foundations inside the discipline which Brown and Stenner accomplish so well could turn out to complement what is already being accomplished so much better in the outside world.

Perhaps it would be possible to say that this book is prefiguring what life might be like beyond psychology and so beyond capitalism too, and in that case an attention to process would enable us to anticipate aspects of development that escape a linear and normative track laid down by psychologists for each individual segregated from the rest (Chakrabarti and Dhar, 2010). But if that were the case we would surely need to strike a little more distance from the culture in which ’psychology’ assumed importance, and we would need a little more deliberate engagement with the motif of ’ideology’ that appears several times in the text as a rhetorical device.

What does it mean to say that something is ’ideological’, and what are the stakes for the kind of argument that Brown and Stenner are making? A description in the book of a developmental psychology abstract shape video which privileged what was taken to be ’helping’ over ’hindering’ includes the comment that ’Presumably hindering is understood to be “anti-social” in the very particular ideological sense that it frustrates individual intentions’ and then they note that what they call ’libertarian individualism’ — the particular ideological view that is at stake here — ’is a very narrow view of social life … a historically and culturally specific world view’ (Brown and Stenner, 2009, p. 87). This is all very well, and I have to say that I do also think that libertarian individualism is a narrow, historically and culturally specific world view, one that is indeed ideological. There are two theoretical glosses on what ’ideological’ might mean in the book, so we are unclear whether it should be seen as helping or hindering us. First they quote with approval a claim that itself repeats the word in question to emphasise how an utterance depends not merely on the idea that speakers have of its meaning but to interlocutors’ ’real, material appurtenance to one and the same segment of being’; that then ’gives this material commonness ideological expression and further ideological development’ (ibid., p. 74). Later, however, they want us to sign up to an analysis that ’breaks with the notion of ideology and the corresponding idea of power as inherently repressive’ (ibid., p. 188).

This conceptual ambiguity concerning the ideological crops up at other times when it seems to be evoked through various avatars (possibly because our authors are too queasy about the epistemological tangles an explicit use of the term would snare them in). It does look like references to ’the modern period’ (ibid., pp. 14—15, for example) stand in for ’ideological’ (the word is not actually used then, but the split between the ’subject’ and ’matter’ is presented at that point in the text as narrow, as historically and culturally specific). In the case of ’the empty abstraction of humanism’ they spell out what is so bad about it but do not label it as ideological when they say that it is ’the self-contained, self-possessive model of the person whose mind is dominated by the faux-drama of petit bourgeois morality and intimacy’ (ibid., p. 92). A humanistic psychological notion of ’self-actualisation’ (in scare quotes in the text to alert us, perhaps, to it being something to beware of) relies on a ’bourgeois elitist platitude’ (ibid., p. 181), and, over the page, we are warned against ’an illegitimate use of the conjunctive synthesis to “own” or become fixated on the name as though it had referred to some subjective attribute or essence’ (ibid., p. 182). I like this, and it seems to me that when we chain together an ’illegitimate synthesis’ with a ’bourgeois elitist platitude’ and ’petit bourgeois morality’ in the ’modern period’ we must end up with something close enough to the way ’ideology’ is deployed in Marxist theory, albeit a non-foundational form of Marxism (e.g., Bensaïd, 2002). Do not Brown and Stenner need this notion, and need to do a little more work to explicate it to make their critique cut sharper, and cut against the manifold kinds of oppression that contemporary neoliberal capitalism needs for it to run smoothly.

This book could not, of course, function as a new ’foundation’ for psychology, and if it were to be used as a textbook for a critical course, care would need to be taken not to take any of the theorists favoured by Brown and Stenner as a ’model’. There is a danger that because these theorists articulate their own account of ’process’ (or something close enough to process to be assimilated to the book’s narrative) in such a convincing way, we might take the questions they raise as settled by them once and for all. One way of taking the process of inquiry forward would be to invoke other theorists who might twist the narrative in some new directions. Perhaps ’Psychology without Foundations II’ might comprise discussions of Abramović, Anderson, Barnes, Butler, Haraway, Lorde, Malabou and Spivak respectively (perhaps) on performance, representation, modernism, ethics, nature, culture, biology and colonialism.