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Psychoanalysis for Militants?

Gabriel Tupinambá 6 February 2023

Well, not exactly.

Most of the bibliography on the relations between Freud and Marx concerns the different theoretical bridges one can construct between them. The history of these theoretical efforts contains a wide range of highly distinctive projects, but it is nevertheless possible to highlight some of the most recognizable strategies which cut across many authors and conceptual positions.

The first is the one that takes an interest in psychoanalysis as an additional set of ideas that can help Marxism account for specific social phenomena - Frankfurt School's classical study of the "authoritarian personality" comes to mind, Léon Rozitchner's work on the "limits of bourgeois individualism" is another example. The second is the type of project that seeks to highlight that psychoanalysis, as it currently stands or in some variation, has political merit of its own, carrying some emancipatory potential - this would be the case of thinkers like Fromm, Reich, but also Guatarri, with schizoanalysis. Finally, with thinkers like Zizek or Kordela, we get a third strategy, in which the challenges that both psychoanalysis and Marxism pose to modern philosophy are taken seriously and renewed interpretations of the modern cannon are proposed, seeking to disrupt our common understanding of very basic notions such as "reality", "consciousness", "freedom", etc. Though this is not an exhaustive typology - and there are certainly subtle and surprising propositions lost in between these types - it suffices to establish that it is quite rare to find a sustained account of the potential uses of psychoanalysis in actual political practice.

The very idea is more obscure than it might seem at first – and psychoanalysis' usual aura of unbound relevance, as it supposedly reaches into humanity's core questions, is somehow dispelled when we ask: what could we actually do with psychoanalysis when we are organizing together, planning and strategizing, sharing and protesting, thinking about what went wrong and about our next steps collectively? The natural place for psychoanalysis within political life seems to be – as the name suggests – as a powerful analytic tool that can increase our capacity to explain phenomena like the effects of mass consumerism, the structure of the modern family, the functioning of ideology, the logic of populism, the subjective consequences of neoliberalism, etc. But the problem with simply accepting that this is how psychoanalysis can best serve us politically is that, paradoxically, this betrays both Marxist and psychoanalytic commitments. It betrays a certain Marxist disposition, because it suggests a strange indifference to the conditions of production of these analytic insights - as if there is no connection between what happens in clinical practice, the dramas of psychoanalytic schools, and the sort of theory psychoanalysis produces.

What could we actually do with psychoanalysis when we are organizing together, planning and strategizing, sharing and protesting?

As Marxists, should we not be interested in the "hidden abode" of the little psychoanalytic factory, in the functioning of its institutions and the material conditions of its practice? At the same time, as psychoanalysts, we face another problem: one of the fundamental properties of our practice is that listening to patients is only possible on condition of being aware that we too are subjected to the same type of unconscious distortions, identifications and forms of satisfaction as they are – to listen to others requires that one knows how to listen to oneself as an "other" as well. And this tolerates no exception. So, as psychoanalysts, should we not be a bit suspicious when insights from our practice are unilateral applied to capitalist ideology and the right-wing politics, with no real purchase to the singular problems and hindrances of emancipatory politics itself?

These two methodological commitments - to practice, before theory, and to inward division, before outward distinction - could in fact be used to delineate a different research project, one that uses a healthy dose of historical materialism to look past the idealist picture that psychoanalysis offers of itself and then, bringing this down-to-earth psychoanalyst into the political meeting space, tries to offer a concrete set of tools for militants to employ. At first, it might seem that we are simply advocating that every political collective should have their designated psychoanalyst, tasked with dealing with the neuroses of its members, mediating conflicts and so on. Though a certain "analytic sensibility" might be useful in political spaces – at least, an awareness that our ideals and moral imperatives can also be a source of psychic suffering – what we are aiming at here is rather the more ambitious possibility that, by looking into how psychoanalysis effectively works, we might come up with new ideas for how to do things together.

And this is, in fact, a very good starting point if we are looking for a new common ground between analysis and political organizing. After all, clinical practice is already something we do together – and in a very precise and quite extraordinary sense. Like most services, psychoanalysis is a work that involves some social interaction, but what is quite singular about it is that the thing being worked on at the analytic session is mixed up in this very interaction: its patterns, repetitions and underlying presuppositions. Transference is the psychoanalytic name for the type of relation that is established between analyst and analysand, a relation without which there simply is no psychoanalytic process.

Only in this way does the object of psychoanalytic treatment – our libidinal attachments – become effectively material.

Though we tend to think about transference as if it was reducible to the set of assumptions that a patient "transfers" to the person of their analyst – and that an analyst should refuse, so as to allow them to focus on the real issues – it is the very dynamic between patient and analyst, the "love-type relation", that is being transferred into the clinical scene. This is no small difference: while the assumption that someone is a potential threat to me might remain exclusively in my head, if I treat someone else as if they are a menace to me, if I behave as if I need to protect myself from them, then this becomes an actual relation, something that is made present then and there – regardless of what I am thinking at that moment, in fact. When Freud claimed, at the end of his famous The Dynamics of Transference, that "in the last resort no one can be slain in absentia or in effigie" he was aiming at this fundamental clinical distinction: through transference, relational patterns we have developed throughout our history – and which sometimes are so singular as to determine our affective connections to one sole person – get to be made present, actualized within the clinical space as a concrete type of interaction, rather than remain as something the patient speaks about. Only in this way does the object of psychoanalytic treatment – our libidinal attachments – become effectively material: something that exists independently of our mental representations and which can therefore be perceived and transformed by specific interventions.

Transference is not only interesting as a point of departure because it specifies the type of interpersonal interaction that takes place within the clinical setting. It is also the only of the "four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis" proposed by Lacan – the others being repetition, the unconscious and the drive – that actually overlaps with the concrete limits of an analytic process. When we are in an analytic session, we are within a transferential relationship, but after that session transference does not continue with everyone else we meet (though we supposedly still have an unconscious, are still trapped in repetitions and still find strange forms of satisfaction everywhere). Diachronically, as well, transference names the entry into an analytic process, the "stuff" being worked on in that process and its endgame, when, as Lacan put it, we have the "liquidation of transference" and the emptying out of this displaced libidinal connection. As Marxists – and especially Marxists interested in epistemology – transference should stand out as one of the few psychoanalytic concepts that refuses ideological generalizations, remaining steadfastly rooted in what people do and how they relate within that specific space and practice. Psychoanalysts also have good reason to value this concept as a potential new bridge with political thinking: even though political theory has often offered to find a home for Lacanian concepts with little traction in our actual work – like the "logic of the non-all" or the "discourse of the university" – most of what we actually know as analysts has to do with the handling of transference. That is where most of the unwritten, down-to-earth know-how of psychoanalysts actually is. And our wager is that this is also where analysts have the most to contribute to how we actually carry ourselves as militants and organizers.

As Marxists – and especially Marxists interested in epistemology – transference should stand out as one of the few psychoanalytic concepts that refuses ideological generalizations.

We mentioned before that transference is not a matter of what a subject imputes to another, but rather the enactment of a certain relation that includes both analyst and analysand. The issue remains, of course, of why this is "transferred" to begin with. Here we need to consider another important piece of the puzzle, which is free association. Though the "golden rule of psychoanalysis" – the imperative to say whatever comes to your mind – does have some prescriptive punch, instilling some courage in those people who might otherwise be very reticent to mention the thoughts and associations that cross their minds during a session, its role in analysis is much more structural than that, and much more paradoxical. That one is invited to "speak freely" before their psychoanalyst constitutes, in fact, an impossibility: if you decide to do just that, you are not really doing something unconstrained, but actually doing exactly what you were told, while if you decide to focus on saying what you think is objectively important or what you think your analyst really wanted you to speak about, then in fact you acted freely, since no one asked you to speak about this rather than that.

Free association is perhaps the defining trait that separates the clinical setting from the rest of the world, it encloses a space where the normative commitments between the patient and their analyst get muddled and what is demanded of the speaker is no longer clear. It is against the backdrop of this disconnection – Lacan would say "non-relation" – that transference emerges, as a substitute connection or relation. Since the particular type of interpersonal interaction that emerges at this point carries many connections with other aspects of the patient's life, we can assume that, in some sense, it repeats or reproduces a type of affective connection that was previously established, even if never truly experienced as such. In summary, transference is the name of the relation, composed by analyst and analysand, that enacts in the clinical space a piece of the patient's own "inner language", as if their subjective world would suddenly get distorted and stretched in order to stitch that strange and paradoxical interaction, prompted by free association, into the fabric of the analysand's psychic life, integrating it with other representations, images and affects.

At the core of the analytic practice there lies, then, this triadic structure: the paradox of free association, the establishment of a transferential relation and the possibility that, from within this actualized dynamic, previously indistinct differences, or overly fixated ones, might be transformed. In a way, we could say that free association, that impossible imperative, returns in a more manageable form as an effect of analytic interventions: with analysis, new ways of associating old ideas, memories and even words themselves might become possible.

Though it already seems quite useful to know, as militants, that one can train and learn to occupy a critical posture that is premised on listening rather than speaking and that recognizes that some interventions are only possible in the measure of our availability to inhabit other people's languages and work with their distinctions, rather than ours, there is a small detail that prevents us from simply importing these analytic insights into political practice. The issue – and, once more, this is almost entirely glossed over in psychoanalytic literature, while being quite clear in analytic practice – is that there is a limit to what sort of thing can be "transferred" into clinical practice, a limit that we do not want to merely extend into our politics.

The impasse at stake here is that there seems to be a very reasonable correlation between the form of the clinical interaction and the form of the transference that gets established, that is, the form of the bond that gets actualized in that shared space. There are, after all, only two people in a session, and the libidinal scenarios enacted within transference tend to also be dual in nature - it is all about the subject and the Other, however fleeting, however vague, the figure of this invisible partner might be. In psychoanalytic literature, this juxtaposition between the "cardinality" of the analytic setting and the fact that transference actualizes only dual relations – which are, generally, amorous ones – is explained by inverting the terms: only love relations become treatable in the clinic because that is in fact the nature of all subjective bonds! But any psychoanalyst knows that there are traumas that the clinical practice cannot touch: there are events and situations that, like the libidinal traumas that emerge in clinical work, did appear to the patient as an intense and unknown experience but that, unlike these amorous connections, cannot have their relational structure reproduced within the clinic.

Any psychoanalyst knows that there are traumas that the clinical practice cannot touch.

A mother who lost her son at the hands of the police: it is not her relation to the particular murderous cop that is paradoxical and sits with her like a foreign body or an unanswered question, but rather the relation that, mediated by that cop, connects her to a whole institution and its obscure design. No wonder, then, that it is more likely that her distrust of institutional authorities will be actualized and reproduced when she meets a therapist in a short term treatment at a public hospital – where the therapist also represents an institution – than when she comes into my private practice. The form of the trauma – the type of social relation it mobilizes – constrains the form of the setting in which that impasse will get to be actualized and worked through. In my private office, everything this grieving woman can do is to refer "in effigie" to these tragic events, since there is no way for her to include me in their effective reenactment. Psychoanalytic transference has a limit. So now we come to the crux of our hypothesis. We have extracted two general principles from our discussion of this particular practice. The first we could call the principle of composition: analysts interact with the patient's unconscious by accepting to, through transference, to become a "surrogate" part of that unconscious world. The second, the principle of homogeneity: one can only intervene in a certain type of relation by instantiating relations of the same type. And we have seen that, yes, psychoanalytic transference, constrained by these two principles, is indeed limited by the form of interpersonal relation that it can concretely instantiate: dual settings can only reenact dual relations, and analytic transference remains, for that very reason, almost exclusively within the sphere of love. But nothing prevents us from seeing what would happen if, instead of buying into the theory of this particular regional practice and treating it as a general theory, we looked at our collectives, movements and parties from the standpoint of these broader principles themselves. Could we develop a way to concretely assess how much of our capacity to politically intervene in different specific social contexts depends on the particular composition of our organizations and political instruments? To investigate if –like free association within the clinic – political freedom to associate with people in new and often unknown ways also prompts substitute or transferential patterns in our collectives, leading us to reenact dynamics that do not belong there? And could we ever use this to our advantage? Is there, after all, something like an organizational analysis?

Is there, after all, something like an organizational analysis?

Recent work by the Subset of Theoretical Practice, a communist research collective, might give us useful tools to sketch an answer to this question. What is perhaps counterintuitive about their approach is that rather than beginning with psychoanalytic concerns and then looking for ways to export them out of clinical practice into militant life, they have instead found a way to think about political organizing in general that, once constrained by very specific conditions, might define a practice that looks a lot like regular psychoanalysis. This gives us more concrete parameters to move from analytic practice, with its "mass of two people", to larger ensembles and their particularities, without relying exclusively on metaphorical transformations. Evidently, we can only provide a short summary of STP's research here, but hopefully it is enough to establish that it could lead to a refreshing new take on the political import of psychoanalysis. One of the crucial ideas developed by the Subset is the notion of an "organizational trinitarianism" (see section IV here and 3.5 here). The basic idea is that, to conceive of something from the organizational point of view means to consider that how things are composed – how they are put together, who and what is part of it –, what they get to interact with – what kind of things it gets to change, and what gets to change it – and what is made intelligible to them – what differences "count" and what traits are irrelevant from its standpoint – are three sides of the same question.

For example, if a collective A is a study group that is composed of white graduate students from a public university while a collective B is composed of black artists from the periphery of Rio de Janeiro, then — regardless of whether the first group reads about the political economy of police violence or whether the second group is totally apolitical – what these collectives get to interact with in their social world and what differences are relevant for them in social reality will be different – not because of the experience or knowledge of the members of A and B, but because, organizationally, how groups are organized influences what they can do, and what they can do also influences what is intelligible and relevant to them. There is very little a study group can do as a study group that will make the police exist for them as a relevant part of the world, that they interact with or need to acknowledge in any way in order to continue doing what they do – while even if the group of artists is just trying to put a small exhibition together, certain social constraints will be relevant to them, at a very concrete level, even if they don't have fancy theoretical names for them. In fact, two collectives composed by the same people, but organized very differently will also get to interact with different aspects of the world. Let's say our art collective B is a very hierarchical one, with one person leading the rest, while collective B', organized later on by the same people, distributes its decision-making power much more – it might be the case that collective B does not feel as much as B' how certain social asymmetries of gender, race and money work against the establishment of equality, because it is not composed in such equal way, which means that these issues will concretely "appear" more for B' than for B. To this basic "trinitarian" approach to organization, the STP adds a second crucial idea. Following a certain (heterodox) Marxist tradition — which considers social formations as layered complexes of different types of social interaction, each playing a dominant role at different historical moments and places — the Subset of Theoretical Practice proposes that we distinguish between three basic modes of social organization, one based on the logic of affinity and gift-exchange, a second based on the logic of property and contracts and a third one, based on the logic of value and commodification (see section 4 here, section II here and this presentation). Every social world can then be approached as a mixture of these different logics — with capitalist societies being the ones where the value-form plays the dominant or synthetic role.

What this proposition does is that it adds specific content to the organizational discussion above: rather than abstractly say that how organizations are composed affects what they get to interact with and "see" of the social world, we can now more concretely state that depending on how an organization composes together affinity, property and value logics, it will be able to transform some parts of social reality rather than others, and it will be able to consider some things as information rather than others. For example, a collective might challenge communitarian and family constraints – and develop a much more fine-grained view of that dimension of social reality because of this – while remaining ultimately a trivial organization at the level of property and commodity logics. Furthermore, focusing on a single one of these layers, we can also say that it takes some types of community composition to be able to interact with communitarian constraints and also make aspects of these structures intelligible.

This is only a brief sketch of the research collective's framework, but these two theses already help us to, firstly, take a new look at the historical emergence of both psychoanalytic symptoms and practice and, secondly, change some of the analytic parameters to consider what a so-called "organizational analysis" might look like.

More important, perhaps, than the history of psychoanalytic ideas is the history of the problems that motivated them.

More important, perhaps, than the history of psychoanalytic ideas is the history of the problems that motivated them. And a theory of "multilayered social worlds", when fully developed, can be a helpful tool in understanding why, in modern Europe, certain phenomena became common enough to catch the attention of physicians, scientists, artists and philosophers. In a current unpublished work, STP suggests that, if the logic of affinity is properly conceptualized, both in terms of its essentially paraconsistent properties as a social logic and in terms of its historical presentation throughout very different societies, one arrives at the conclusion that modern families – in the sense of nuclear familiar units composed of heterossexual parents and their children – do not logically form a basic "atom of kinship" in Levi-Strauss' sense. That is, in modern capitalist societies, the logic of affinity is not composed in such a way as to form a world of its own, it has little synthetic power. In fact, the logic of affinity is most consistent within capitalist worlds at the points where it is tasked with "stitching together" dynamics dominated by property and value – at the point of contact between family and the production of independent adult workers, or at the intersection between affinity and the State, where the nation-form is born, etc.

Because capitalist structures do not respect the internal logic of kinship – which would allow people to socially map not only those that are part of their families and those who are not, but also those that occupy strangely indeterminate positions in this social fabric – it is up to individuals themselves, as they grow up, to develop ways to supplement to this fractured logic. This is what Lacan called the "individual myth of the neurotic": how, in order to become persons, we must supplement our social existence before other people with an invisible partnership with an "Other", a figure that helps us determine how to distinguish these indeterminate elements of affinity logic and that capitalist sociality does not help to propagate in a consistent and shared way.

If this approach might help us to understand why the emergence of certain obsessive rituals, hysteric symptoms, forms of psychosis, etc, happened when it did, that general principle of "trinitarianism" can help to account for why the efficacy of psychoanalysis is connected to a certain form of practice. It should not be hard to realize the logic of transference follows, as a special case, from the principle that how organizations are composed conditions both what these organizations get to interact with and what they sense as relevant information about the world. The psychoanalytic clinic, from the standpoint of STP's framework, could be defined as the minimal form that two people need to be composed together – the case where someone positions themselves towards us in an indeterminate manner, as per the rule of free association – so that one might interact with symptoms and dynamics that concern, precisely, our relation to others of indeterminate value.

And nothing would prevent us from asking now in which ways larger and more complex organizational arrangements – which do not necessarily restrict themselves to the logic of affinity and kinship, but perhaps include institutional and economic determinants, in complex compositions – might also offer themselves as surrogate spaces for certain unknown dynamics to be worked through. We certainly organize to achieve political goals and, in this sense, collective organization is a means to an end. But just as we come to analysis to get somewhere, and end up more and more aware of the nature of our libidinal attachments and how these produce constraints and shape the possible paths to get anywhere, the free association of people can also have this ambivalent function in our political lives: the more we get together to get somewhere new, the more we interact with more degrees of freedom than the ones that would keep us in our social places, the more we interact with the social world that determines us collectively, the more the organizational means themselves become legible, became something we can learn about and learn through. It is after all something that political experience can attest to that the greater the freedom to associate amongst ourselves, the more we are confronted with normative constraints we were previously not aware of.

And just like Freud once thematized that there a strange satisfaction to be had through the very organs responsible for providing us with some pleasure – a pleasure of the mouth that supersedes the pleasure of being satiated – it is well-known to all militants that there can be a satisfaction in organizing that is more present and incontestable than the pleasure in achieving our goals. In fact, while the benefits of a victory are experienced by militants individually (even if there is a big celebration), the satisfaction of creating the means to do things otherwise, of associating amongst ourselves in ways that we never believed we would, or of finally being able to name something about how the world effectively resists our attempts to do so, beyond what is said in the books, is inherently collective through and through because it fulfills a need we did not have before we organized politically.

We usually write and talk about this inversion of means and ends in politics only when things go wrong, when a collective, a union or a party loses track of its objective and gets corrupted by power, cowardice or vanity. That is, when this organizational excess can be referred back to the private desires of our leaders, bureaucrats, etc. But perhaps the task of an organizational analysis – which, as it should be clear by now, would focus on the "pathologies" of organizations rather than those of the organized – is to develop practical and collective tools to highlight the profound ambiguity of this excess and refer it back to the group in question. If our underlying hypothesis is correct, then our organizational practices are, very much like a clinical setting, a privileged site for paradoxes of political freedom to emerge. And in reaction to them we find not only defensive or corruptive social strategies – the tyranny that can set in once other social normative commitments are lifted, as Jo Freeman famously wrote about – but also a very valuable type of collective experience. Marx himself, in one of the most beautiful passages of his Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts, attested to the precious quality of this collectiv ambivalence when he wrote:

When communist workmen gather together, their immediate aim is instruction, propaganda, etc. But at the same time, they acquire a new need – the need for society – and what appears as a means had become an end. This practical development can be most strikingly observed in the gatherings of French socialist workers. Smoking, eating, and drinking, etc., are no longer means of creating links between people. Company, association, conversation, which in turn has society as its goal, is enough for them. The brotherhood of man is not a hollow phrase, it is a reality, and the nobility of man shines forth upon us from their work-worn figures.


Gabriel Tupinambá is a psychoanalyst working from Rio de Janeiro. He is a member of the research collective Subset of Theoretical Practice and a consultant for social strategy at the Alameda Institute. He is the author of the book 'The Desire of Psychoanalysis' (NUP, 2021) and the co-author of 'Hegel, Lacan, Zizek' (Atropos Press, 2013) and 'An architecture of edges: the Left in times of world-peripherization' (Autonomia Literária, 2022).

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