Not All of One Mind: Psychoanalysis and Culturanalysis

Not All of One Mind: Psychoanalysis and Culturanalysis

Steven Connor

This paper was given as part of the British Pyschoanalytical Society conference. ‘The ‘Freudian Century’? The Impact of Psycho-Analysis on Intellectual Life in Britain’, London, May 16-17 2003. A shortened version is scheduled to appear in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 23 May 2003.

Around this time, departments of literature, film, gender and cultural studies are planning their teaching for next year. In many of the resulting introductory courses, psychoanalysis will feature prominently alongside feminism, queer theory, deconstruction and the rest of the standard-issue Swiss-army-knife of interpretative techniques with which new students are now kitted out. This enthusiasm will not, of course, be shared in departments of psychology. Far fewer of these will allow psychoanalysis any significant role in their teaching.

I have never had analytic training, nor ever been in analysis. I think it as unlikely that I would now do either as that I would enter holy orders. While I have no reason to doubt the value in certain circumstances of the different forms of what is nowadays called ‘psychotherapy’, I have only intermittently felt the pull to believe in any of the systematic forms of psychoanalysis as a therapeutic technique. I think that, when pressed on the question of its credentials, many of those teaching psychoanalysis in English departments and elsewhere would probably not be inclined to accord it significantly greater scientific standing or therapeutic efficacy than astrology or aromatherapy. And yet I have rattled out these lectures and even myself turned in a few psychoanalytically-inflected readings in my time (look, I was young, I needed the money). You will find similar episodes in the back catalogues of many writers and critics of culture.

I mean these preliminaries to be amicably clarifying rather than polemical. I speak neither as an apostate, nor as an infidel, but as a sluggishly acquiescent but occasionally surly fellow-traveller, who sometimes finds himself on a train that he would on the whole prefer not to have boarded. It is partly about there being no alternative means of transport, as they say on the underground, that I will be speaking. But to reject everything about psychoanalysis and everything written under its impetus would be to squander a huge trove of insights, accidental and systematic, regarding the nature of psychological and imaginative and moral life. Besides, which, the business of dishing psychoanalysis has itself become such a brutal, militant and dogmatic business that it would be very uncomfortable to be part of it.

We should find it odder than we do that, far from expiring in the atmosphere of tepidly-tolerant semi-respect that prevails in the humanities, the culture of psychoanalysis should be stronger than ever, at least when it comes to the analysis of culture itself. In seminar rooms across the Euramerican world, discussions of political and cultural relations shake down with alarming briskness into the question of how states or groups are to confront, acknowledge and negotiate with ‘the Other’. The energetic trading in the concept of trauma, as applied, not just to individuals, but also to whole cultures – as in the notion for example of the trauma suffered by the US as the result of the World Trade Center attacks – is another example of the widespread authority of the psychoanalytic paradigm in the macropsychic sphere. So is the frequent suggestion that peoples such as the Germans and the Austrians still have pasts which they need to confront and work through. Psychoanalysis gives a new lease of life to the venerable but ongoing game of assigning characters and personal characteristics to nations. In one recent essay, Slavoj Žižek gives Tariq Aziz a wigging for using the word ‘egotistic’ to characterise Slovenian politics, only to allow himself, just a couple of paragraphs later, to jeer at the ‘wounded narcissism’ of fading European powers like the French (Žižek 121, 122)

Or one could point to the remarkable continuing career of hysteria. Now, in my view, not only is there no hysteria in the world now, there never has been, not ever. This is not to say that none of the things that have been called hysteria were real. But it is to say that there never was a single, secret underlying cause for all its alleged symptoms, signs and wonders, from flatulence and forgetfulness to full-blown paraplegia. Nowadays, you would be as taken aback to get a diagnosis of hysteria from your GP as to be told that you were possessed by Beelzebub, and yet the academic standing of hysteria, as a concept useful for discussing everything from anorexia to aesthetics is undisturbed.

Similarly the profiles of cultural commentators who deploy psychoanalysis remain extremely high, whether one thinks of feminists like Juliet Mitchell or Jacqueline Rose, theorists of the postcolonial condition such as Homi Bhabha, omnidirectional psychopolitical opinionists like Slavoj Žižek, or homely ruminators on the modern soul like Adam Phillips. Despite the crude periodic denunciations of psychoanalysis, the authority accorded to it within popular culture itself also remains considerable. A couple of weeks ago Naomi Wolf could be heard declaring casually in the course of Channel 4’s 100 Best Films evening (May 4, 2003) that ‘Society in transition always needs someone to act out its fears. Film is its therapy, its couch’. Psychoanalysis is often called in to provide a punchline for popcultural commentaries that would otherwise fizzle away into the merest sez-me. Just the other day, Zoe Williams clinched a think-piece in The Guardian about the prominence of the buttocks in contemporary culture with a quotation from David Marriott, in which he skewered the alleged obsession with black bottoms as ‘ “extreme phallic fascination. Men want to penetrate women as if they were men… .That’s a very simple narrative: that what people most want, they most disavow” ’ (Williams 2003, 22).

What I am interested in getting at, and then finding some way of getting round, is the fact that a clinical practice that is widely regarded, whatever its practitioners and beneficiaries may think, as at best quaintly anachronistic and certainly no longer part of the fabric of customary truth, should have so long, if limping, a lease of life in the area of cultural analysis. Why, when there is so little psychoanalytic culture in the humanities, is there so much psychoanalysis in the study of culture? Why this peculiar condition of incredulous credence?

This might be the point to observe that the standing of psychoanalysis in those areas of the humanities concerned with the analysis of culture appears to be in inverse ratio to the breadth of the the understanding of the psychoanalytic tradition. For those who put it to work to analyse texts, whether literary or cultural, psychoanalysis means, simply, the canonical works of Freud and Lacan, ceaselessly churned and rechurned, with scarcely a whisper of the work of British or American mid-century psychoanalysis, nor any sign of a willingness to learn from the complex and difficult actualities of contemporary psychotherapy. I return briefly to one of these areas of omission, group therapy, towards the end of this paper.

So why has psychoanalysis, albeit in this highly selective form, become so indispensable for the analysis and understanding of culture? Perhaps one way to get at this is to ask the question the other way round. What is it about the idea of culture that seems to lend psychoanalysis its special role? As Terry Eagleton has recently suggested (2000), the idea of culture is one of the great unmolested orthodoxies of our time. We in the humanities may have ditched all the big old ideas like truth, human nature or the revolutionary destiny of the proletariat, but it is seemingly not open to any of us to disbelieve in, or doubt the shaping and determining power of culture.

But what do we mean by a culture, and why is this word now so routinely preferred to the word ‘society’, which almost totally dominated the field two decades ago? I think that what we mean by a culture is a collectivity with an inside. To refer to an organised set of social habits, behaviours and relations as a culture is to see those habits, behaviours and relations as expressive rather than merely characteristic. Your culture is what you are, rather than what you do. So whenever one is speaking of a culture, one is scooping out a space for an imagined subject of that culture, and construing it therefore as a collective form of consciousness and feeling. Most of us no longer find the argument-from-design plausible when it comes to proving the existence of a divinity, but psychoanalysis encourages thoughts of Paley’s watch, or at least Friday’s footprint, when it comes to the complex outward phenomena that make up what we call a culture. Confronted with the evidence of culture, we think, not ‘this must mean something’, but rather, ‘something (some mind-like thing at that) must have meant this’. No wonder, then, that the word ‘cultural’ is so routinely hitched to the word ‘identity’. The phrase ‘social identity’, by contrast, though perfectly available for use, suggests the imposition or imposture of identity, rather than its spontaneous expression.

There has always been an ambivalence in the word ‘culture’ which, in an anthropological usage, simply, neutrally, names a whole way of life, but, in common usage also signifies the artistic works by which cultures are supposed to give expression to themselves. French culture means not just a distinctive language, history and set of social arrangements, but also Cartesian philosophy, impressionist painting, and café society and gastronomy raised to the level of art forms. The anthropological notion of culture, which is often applied to cultures that are thought not to be fully aware of themselves as cultures, or as fully aware as we, takes culture to be a form of life. The artistic-expressive notion of culture sees it as a style of life. I think that the well-established preference for the word culture over the word society, which does not have the same ambivalence, allows the artistic-expressive meaning of the word to seep across into the anthropological, allowing us not only to see works of high and popular culture, such as novels and Hollywood films, as culturally expressive, but also to see football matches and the internet as works of culture rather than just evidence of its workings.

The enlisting of psychoanalysis strongly assists this move from forms of life to styles of life, most of all through its concept of the unconscious. For this concept allows one to see actions and events that seem to be merely accidental, or contingent, or unwilled, as having significance by reference to a consciousness of which they are the omitted or undigested residue. The defining move of psychoanalysis is not so much the discovery of the unconscious as the personalising and humanising of it – most of all by its trick of adding the definite article to the adjective: the unconscious. If there were no such thing as unconscious actions and mental processes, I would not be able to hit a forehand or drive a car. But it is a huge leap from there to the idea that the sum total of everything of which I happen not to be aware, from the irritating way my hair sticks up at the back, to the time of the last train to Weybridge, has a particular and defining shape, a shape that is not of me, and yet somehow still mine by dint of the fact that I know not of it. The difference between an individual and a culture is that an individual has conscious life without suspecting the existence of his unconscious life. With culture, as psychoanalytically construed, it is the other way round. Culture is brought into being by being made conscious of itself, as the imputed consciousness of those unconscious facts and phenomena of which it consists.

Perhaps one minor reason for the growth in the psychoanalytic study of culture (another form of what Freud called ‘lay analysis’) is that it seems to evade some of the ethical problems that arise in dealings with actual subjects. Psychoanalytic history itself has not always been very forgiving in its view of Freud’s clinical or therapeutic practice, particularly in his dealings with his female patients. Dealing with ‘cultures’ or collectivities allows one to set aside some of the difficult responsibilities one would have to real-life patients. No ‘culture’ or ‘cultural formation’ is going to sue you for malpractice.

A related difference between clinical and cultural-critical psychoanalysis – let us perhaps call it ‘culturanalysis’ – is that the latter has deliberately retreated from concepts of cure or treatment. Culture may be on the couch, or even sometimes on the ropes, but it is not the patient. Nevertheless, the horizon of cure has not completely retreated. The application of psychoanalytic categories and language encourages the assumption that societies or collectivities will be stronger and healthier if they know themselves better, even, or perhaps especially if that involves a bracing full look at the worst about themselves. Cultures that do not know themselves are regarded as dangerously unstable, and indeed perhaps not even worthy of the name of cultures. Integration and functionality are therefore associated with conscious self-regulation. Wo es war soll ich werden, promised Freud. Perhaps the motto of culturanalysis might be said to be wo sie waren sollen wir werden. ‘We’ will arise where once there was only ‘they’.

At this point, it would be as well to note that the historical links between psychoanalysis and the study of society are more than adventitious. It seems striking that psychoanalysis should have arisen during a period at which the idea of society as a viable object of study and sociology as the form of knowledge designed for its study should also have arisen. Just as sociology was being invented, with the idea of ‘society’ reaching its fullest articulation in the work of Spencer, Simmel, Durkheim and the rest, Freud began trying to map the internal socius of the psyche, its squabbling family romance of internal agencies and functions. Like the sociologists who were seemingly shifting authority away from the bourgeois individualist subject, Freud seemed to be stripping the subject of its internal self-possession. Between society on the one hand and the unconscious on the other, and especially given the fact that the unconscious is primarily the imprinting on and in the individual of social prohibitions, it looked as though the scope of the subject was bound to be very much abridged. But, in fact, subjectivity was enlarged, in both directions. The idea of the individual self became richer and more compelling through its internal adversities and differentiations, its singularity secured through its very populousness. The individual became a culture. This reinforcement of the idea of the allegedly-imperilled subject was paralleled by the slow replacement of the always abstract notion of ‘society’ with the more richly-textured, affectively-saturated notion of ‘culture’.

When Freud himself started to become interested in cultural questions from the 1920s onwards, he tended to characterise what he was doing as ‘mass psychology’. Freud could conceive of nothing that lay in between ‘the individual’ and ‘the mass’. Mass psychology would either show the individual drawn back into seething swamp of infantile instincts and gratifications that is the ‘mass mind’, or in cases where the mass mind seemed capable of something more, as in folksong and folklore, would see it beginning to exhibit the qualities of the individual mind (Freud 1921, 82-7). In fact, however, the alternatives of the individual and the mass represent for Freud different states or allotropes of individual psychology. He takes from Gustav Le Bon the assumpton that the mental life of the mass is the mental life of the savage or the child. Both the mature ‘individual’ and the infantile ‘mass’ are of one mind.

Of course, both psychoanalysts and what Marxists there still are now have a horror of this term ‘mass’, as though the term had become tainted by the history of the phenomenon. Perhaps the deflation of the idea of the mass, and the individualising of our contemporary mass existence both encourages and is encouraged by the propagation of psychoanalysis across so many areas of collective life. Though we live a more thoroughly mass-mediated existence than ever before, the mass neither sucks us in nor bears darkly down on us. The mass is now not swamp, but smoke. We experience our aggregate existence not as an inchoate bog, but as a fizzing mist of complex and changeable identifications and interactions. Our mass society is at once abstract and intimate, at once continuous and intermittent, experienced at once as ‘out there’ and in looming close-up. Ours is an age of ‘extimacy’ (a word I thought I had made up but turns out to have been used by Lacan to mean something different): of ecstatic intimacy experienced at mediated arm’s length, in which the anonymous is no longer impersonal. In some ways, psychoanalysis may seem particularly adapted to responding to this new experience of collective life, in which, to adapt Dickens’s Mrs Gradgrind, somebody must be feeling all this, but we can’t be sure it is us.

There is a form of psychoanalysis that takes as its object collectivities that can be assimilated neither to the individual nor to the mass. There may be something promising as well as depressing in the very fact that the ‘group analysis’ derived from the work of Wilfred Bion or S. H. Foulkes is rarely if ever invoked by the exponents of culturanalysis. For what group analysis seems to me to promise is the possibility of starting to describe the mental life of that middle ground between monadic individuals and homogenous masses. We spend so much of our lives in the shifting habitat constituted out of our exchanges, interactions and transmissions, that there may be profit in attending more closely to its workings. Michel Serres has introduced to social theory the idea of what he calls the quasi-object, based upon the idea of the object that, passed rapidly from hand to hand in a game (of football for example, or rugby), comes to constitute the game’s mobile focal point or centre of gravity.The trajectory of the quasi-object is neither determined in advance from outside, nor able to be controlled by any of its individual participants. Social life, suggests Serres, takes its shape from the forking, unpredictable itineraries of such quasi-objects, such as money, myth or mobile phones. They form a pass-the-parcel of intersubjectivity, in which subjecthood flares up at the moment when one has the ball in one’s hand and then is passed on:

This quasi-object that is a marker of the subject is an astonishing constructor of intersubjectivity. We know, through it, how and when we are subjects and when and how we are no longer subjects. “We”: what does that mean? We are precisely the fluctuating moving back and forth of “I.” The “I” in the game is a token exchanged. And this passing, this network of passes, these vicariances of subjects, weave the collection… The “we” is made by the bursts and occultations of the “I.” The “we” is made by the passing of the “I.” By exchanging the “I.” And by substitution and vicariance of the “I.” (Serres 1982, 227)

I know too little of the psychoanalytic tradition of group analysis to know whether this would be viable, but perhaps culturanalysis might take from it a sense of the formation of quasi-objects and the collective ‘quasi-subjects’ to which they give rise, through our complex social mediations and passages. Serres’s notion of the quasi-object has helped to form what is known as ‘actor-network theory’, of which the most well-known exponent is Bruno Latour. For Latour, the most important and arresting consequence of the proliferation of the middle ground, of forms and objects, and ideas and practices, which lie between the inhuman realm of nature and the human realm of culture, is that there is no such thing as a culture, in the sense of a realm of human human self-exception or subtraction from nature; there are only ever ‘natures-cultures’ (Latour 1993, 104).

I have said that, when lifted out of its original micropsychic sphere, psychoanalysis offers us too readily the self-recognition of pathetic fallacy, showing us what we take to be our own natures animistically mirrored in the workings of culture, just as other cultures once sought mythic ways of identifying human will and purpose in the operations of nature. Do we dread the condition of a soulless social life as we dread the prospect that we ourselves might be shown to be without a soul? Or is that the same kind of projection as the one I am trying to work around? The humanities traditionally see their job as safeguarding the realm of the human from the threat of the machine, or from the anonymous collective relations which may degrade us to the condition of machines. But in helping guard us from this fate, psychoanalysis is being recruited to secure the future of an illusion. For one thing, the idea of what a machine is that predominates in the humanities is date-stamped about 1750 – machines as conceived by those determined to rescue us from them are clanking, gurgling things of pipes, levers and pulleys, rather than the kinds of machine represented by a virus, a whirlpool or a weather system. As our cultural lives become simultaneously more fissile and more interknit, our best, or better hope, is not to enlarge the business of soul-making, or seek more reassuring ways of being of one mind with our cultures. Given a notion of machinery suitably enlarged and diversified by what the natural and mathematical sciences have learned and could teach us, we would do better to try to understand the fluid mechanics of our collectivity, giving it a mind of its own rather than building in our own image, building our own image in, the psychopolis of mental life.


Eagleton, Terry (2000). The Idea of Culture. Oxford: Blackwell.

Freud, Sigmund (1921). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego . In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey et. al. London Hogarth Press.

Latour, Bruno (1993). We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Serres, Michel (1982) The Parasite. Trans. Lawrence R. Schehr. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Williams, Zoe (2003). ‘A Bit Behind.’ The Guardian, 10 May 2003, ‘Weekend’ section, 16-22.

Žižek, Slavoj (2002). Welcome to the Desert of the Real! Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. London, Verso.