Psychoanalysis through a Psychosocial Lens

by Stephen Frosh

Forty years ago, I wrote and published a short paper—one of my very first—in the Bulletin of the British Psychological Society (now known as The Psychologist). It was called “Teaching Freud to Psychology Students” and was all of two pages long. I don’t remember fully what it said (I’m not even sure if I still have a copy), but I do recall that some of my academic colleagues were irritated by what they took to be my complaint that there was insufficient attention paid to psychoanalysis in the psychology curriculum.

They might have been right to be annoyed; after all, I had already been teaching Freud to my psychology students, and I’ve continued to teach psychoanalysis to students in psychology and other fields ever since. My complaint that there was no space to teach something I was already teaching was slightly disingenuous on my part, and I probably made some outrageous claims about psychoanalysis as a discipline that could speak to students’ concerns much more powerfully than the arid discourses of psychology, such as behaviourism, statistics, cognitive psychology, biological psychology, and so on. Attacking my colleagues for what they were teaching was not a great way to endear myself to them, let alone advance my argument that psychoanalysis might be a richer and more ethical approach to understanding ourselves and the questions we have about our relation to others.

Anyway, forty years later, it occurs to me that much of my academic career has been devoted to working out what psychoanalysis might have to say to students who want their studies to challenge them and also speak directly to their experience of the world. This has fuelled my own allegiance to the development of “Psychosocial Studies,” by which I mean an approach to understanding the human subject as a kind of meeting-point for “external” (or social) and “internal” (or subjective) forces—though of course this internal/external distinction is an oversimplification.

Psychosocial Studies is a transdisciplinary approach that aims to disrupt the tendency in more traditional social-science disciplines to separate the social from the personal and to make claims for “objective” knowledge over and against the “subjective” forms of knowledge cultivated in the humanities. Psychoanalysis becomes relevant here because it insists that processing all knowledge through subjective experience is the only legitimate way to be “objective”—that is, as both Freud and Lacan insisted, psychoanalytic understanding has to be experienced and not just learnt from the outside or, indeed, from books.

But exactly what sort of knowledge does psychoanalysis have to offer university students? Psychoanalysis is certainly not free, even today, from various colonialist, racist, and sexist tendencies. Indeed, historically, it has often been more conservative than progressive, and it remains burdened by various assumptions about gender, sexual identities, and cultural difference that can be made to collude with forces of oppression. In places such as Nazi Germany or the Brazil and Argentina of the late twentieth-century dictatorships, this resulted in a considerable degree of conforming with authoritarian rule that undermines the expectation that psychoanalysis might always be socially progressive. It is also, in its professional guise, largely privatised and very expensive, accessible mainly to wealthy, white patrons, even though there is also a long history of free and low-cost clinics offering psychodynamic treatment to disadvantaged populations. Moreover, psychoanalytic training institutes have often operated as closed shops, recruiting from a narrow range of candidates and sustaining themselves through exclusionary practices that encourage conformity. None of this necessarily promotes a sense of psychoanalysis as a living discipline that can speak to the searching concerns of students who want to find critical leverage on the damage being done by the unequal societies in which they live, from racist policing to sexist legislation to global warming, neo-colonialist violence, and war.

Yet psychoanalysis can offer students critical insights into psychosocial issues and new and rich perspectives on ethics as such. This can be seen especially clearly in the enduring radical tradition within psychoanalysis—a tradition that is often much more familiar to cultural and social critics than to psychoanalysts themselves. In my own work, I have linked this tradition with certain currents in Jewish thought—just one example of an interdisciplinary approach that can help students see how psychoanalysis is best understood as a mode of ethical relationality, in which what matters most is the approach to the Other. This includes encounters with those who might be one’s “neighbours”—that is, those with whom (to allude to Judith Butler’s work on Hannah Arendt) one shares a certain world.

What I try to show my students at Birkbeck, University of London, is that psychoanalysis promotes an openness to otherness by helping us to map the complexity of psychic life, including the ways in which it’s both conditioned and disrupted by affective, often conflictual, engagements with those to whom and for whom we are responsible. I try to show them how the pursuit of clarity and rationality is always conditioned by the murk and mystery of our relations with others and by our own largely unconscious experience.

Many students find it difficult at first to accept the concept of the unconscious—that our relationships with ourselves and with others are mediated by impulses, wishes, and desires of which we’re not consciously aware or that seem to come from “somewhere else,” somewhere that is “not-me” yet deeply inscribed in my psyche. Many others are relieved and excited to recognise their own emotionally complex experiences in the “academic” literature. I also try to help them understand that—whatever “constitutional” elements there might be to the unconscious, such as those posited by classical drive theory—our relational or intersubjective encounters, and the social and linguistic structures that shape them, actually constitute our supposedly “internal” sense of reality. Through our readings and discussions, students see that this model of self-other relations is broadly accepted across a wide range of contemporary psychoanalytic schools, including object-relational and interpersonal/relational schools, as well as in various Lacanian reformulations of drive theory, seduction theory, and gender theory.

Above all, what I hope my students will come away with is an understanding of the ways in which otherness has found a primary place in contemporary psychoanalytic thought and practice and that they can use their psychoanalytic education to help them link the immediacy and delicacy of their sense of “inner” selfhood with the aspects of social and political life they see around them. Against the caricatured view of psychoanalysis as “self-absorbed,” this approach to Psychosocial Studies reveals how closely the ethics of psychoanalytic treatment—that every individual subject is worthy of attention and care—is bound up with social critique.

“Grief Garden”: Rites of Private and Public Mourning

by David L. Eng

March 16, 2022 marked the one-year anniversary of the Atlanta Spa Shootings. Six of the eight victims were Asian American women. That same week, in my course, “Introduction to Asian American Literature and Culture,” I asked my students if they could name even one Atlanta victim. They could not. Nor, for that matter, could I. So we did our research, and I will name them here:

The victims at Young’s Asian Massage were:
Daoyou Feng, age 44
Paul Andre Michels, age 54
Xiaojie Tan, age 49
Delaina Ashley Yaun, age 33

The victims at the Gold Spa were:
Hyun Jung Grant, age 51
Suncha Kim, age 69
Soon Chung Park, age 74

The victim at Aromatherapy Spa was:
Yong Ae Yue, age 63

The question of loss and anti-Asian violence is never far from my students’ minds. Many of them have endured harassment on Penn’s campus as well as on the streets of Philadelphia, especially in the wake of COVID-19, “Kung Flu,” and the hate inflamed by that racial slur. Our class spent many hours of the semester studying the history of anti-Asian violence in both national and global contexts, which reaches from the nineteenth century to the present, as various Asian American scholars have chronicled (see, for example, this recent article by Mae Ngai). I was able to impress upon my students that while we must, of course, condemn local acts of anti-Asian violence, such as the Atlanta Spa Shootings, we must at the same time remain mindful of the fact, as Viet Nguyen has observed, that the U.S. State has been one of the greatest perpetrators of anti-Asian violence—for example, through its series of military interventions and partitions in East and Southeast Asia during the Cold War.

A few weeks later, toward the end of our semester, I encountered anew the enduring after-effects of these cycles of violence during a visit to New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute. There, I had the chance to visit the installation “Grief Garden” by the young Asian American poet, Khaty Xiong, who is the child of Hmong war refugees from Laos.

What struck me initially about Xiong’s installation was the fact that it, too, was almost “lost”: “Grief Garden” was originally slated to open in April 2020 as part of the Refugee Series, led by then visiting scholar-in-residence Ocean Vuong, but had to be postponed due to the pandemic. Thankfully, it was eventually “resurrected.” Indeed, “Grief Garden” gave me the opportunity to “work through,” as they say in psychoanalysis, some of the experiences of loss and remembrance with which the exhibit seeks to engage.

Xiong’s installation—an immersive, spatial interpretation of her poem, “On Visiting the Franklin Park Conservatory & Botanical Gardens”—focuses attention on the relationship between personal and collective loss. In the poem, Xiong embarks on a journey into a botanical afterlife in pursuit of her recently deceased mother—Persephone searching for Demeter, in a role reversal of the Greek myth. In the installation, Xiong represents flora and fauna from the Conservatory, as well as the garden of her mother, who was a shaman and medicine woman in Ohio’s Hmong community. As they explore “Grief Garden,” visitors are invited to pause, rest, and reflect. They are also encouraged to write messages to lost loved ones on paper replicas of various plants and animals and then to hang these missives on any of the three garden trellises framing the exhibit. As a consequence, loss grows, as if organically. For me, the effect of this cumulative grief was overwhelming.

Written in numerous languages, many of the messages in “Grief Garden” were penned by young people who, as their missives indicate, have already endured great loss and pain. Perhaps for this reason, Xiong’s installation brought me back to my own coming-of-age in 1980s New York and 1990s San Francisco at the height of the AIDS pandemic. In the current era of Chella Man, Lori Lightfoot, Tom Daley, and state-sanctioned same-sex marriage, it might be hard for young people today to imagine the suffering, fear, and silence that enshrouded the demise and disappearance of an entire generation of gay men—before the widespread availability of protease inhibitors in the Global North for those with access to insurance and health care made HIV a “manageable” disease. But for my generation, the abiding rhetoric from the Reagan and Bush administrations, countless religious and civic leaders, and often kin and kith was to condemn these people and to insist that they “deserved” their fate.

We learn from Sophocles’s tragic heroine, Antigone, that the act of mourning retroactively confers meaning and value on the life of the departed. Public acknowledgment of loss and collective rites of mourning lay the foundation for the philosophical axiom, as Judith Butler (2004) has observed, that a life worth living is a life worth mourning. Many of the dead young men from my generation were revealed to be gay only posthumously; and, without legal rights, many of the partners and friends of the dead were barred from funerals and other rites of mourning of their lovers and chosen families.

In response to this suppression of mourning, the collective construction and public display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt provided communal solace and emotional validation. First conceived in 1985 by a small group of strangers in San Francisco, the Quilt sought publicly to celebrate and mourn the lives of lovers and friends who had perished from AIDS: a patchwork memorial of thousands of names on panels stitched together to commemorate those whose lives others sought to erase, in part by refusing them public mourning. For me, the brilliance of the Quilt was its transformation of individual losses, private pain, and unacknowledged lives into a contingent whole, a giant tapestry for public display and collective mourning—an insistence that all of these lives had meaning and value, that they were all lives worth mourning. Moreover, as I explained to my students, the Quilt is part of the historical record of racist and homophobic violence that we continue to witness and endure today.

“Grief Garden” mimes the logic of the Quilt’s patchwork gathering. The loss of Xiong’s mother is associated with a larger history of violence, exile, and displacement of Hmong war refugees. At the same time, Xiong’s installation links her personal loss to the numerous other personal losses that visitors bring with them and, in many cases, leave tokens of, in the missives they hang on the trellises. How, Xiong asks in “From the Gardens of Our Grief,” “do we meet our grief and face it with confidence? In what ways can we nurture ourselves and each other while living under this current political climate?” “Grief Garden,” Xiong’s answer, becomes a botanical quilt of collective loss and witnessing.

In the same way that the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the grief work of Black Lives Matter, and the national campaign to “say their name” all demand public acknowledgment of disavowed losses and political action to address their causes and consequences, Xiong’s “Grief Garden” is a work of what Douglas Crimp called “mourning and militancy” (18). It reminds us that here, in the long wake of anti-Asian hate from Chinese exclusion in the nineteenth century to the Cold War refugee crisis to the contemporary violence of “Kung Flu,” we need collectively to cultivate more gardens of mourning and militancy. Without them, how will we ever help ourselves and our students overcome the invidious sundering of the private and public work of mourning?


Works cited

Butler, Judith. 2004. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso.

Crimp, Douglas. 1989. “Mourning and Militancy,” October 51: 3-18.

Psychoanalytic Psychology and the Academy: Identifying and Addressing the Growing Crisis

by David Ramirez

Among those contemporary college students who seek counseling—and despite their heterogeneity along lines of class, culture, race, gender identity, and sexual orientation—most share similar experiences of discomfort, distress, and a desire for relief. Something’s not right in their life, and it’s taking a toll: interfering with simple pleasures; undermining productivity; compromising functioning; obstructing relationships; causing, in some cases, thoughts of suicide and/or self-destructive behaviors like heavy alcohol- or drug-use and cutting. Moreover, many of them tend to perseverate on certain existential questions: What am I doing? Why am I here? Whose life am I leading? How do I know what I really want?

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Child’s Play at APsaA: Discovering Psychoanalytic Play Therapy

by Esha Bhandari

Starting college, I thought I had everything figured out. I was going to study the social sciences, enlist myself as a research assistant in a few of my university’s psychology research labs, and then eventually I’d get my Ph.D. and begin my life as a clinical psychologist. By my junior year, I had taken nearly every psychology course that was offered at my university—courses that spanned what I thought was every field in the discipline, including social psychology, clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, cultural psychology, educational psychology, psychology and the law, and community psychology.

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Making “Black Psychoanalysts Speak”

by Basia Winograd

[Note: Director Basia Winograd’s 2014 documentary, Black Psychoanalysts Speak (which can be screened via YouTube, here), is required viewing in many of the undergraduate courses that I and my colleagues teach in the Psychoanalytic Studies program here at the University of Pennsylvania and in many such courses at other colleges and universities throughout the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Whether our students are interested in psychoanalytic theory or in the history of psychoanalytic practice, they find that this splendid film answers many of their questions about the changing face of the profession and the changing terms of clinical and metapsychological discourse. What is the place of race in analytic thought and practice? Why are there still so few African American psychoanalysts? And what do they have to say about their own professional formation and about the extent to which discussions of race and related sociopolitical, cultural, and intergenerational experiences have been, until recently, virtually excluded from the analytic consulting room? My own students continue to be both dismayed and encouraged by the stories they hear from the analysts Winograd interviews in the film—stories of institutional and personal racism, stories of patients whose experiences as African Americans are routinely ignored or dismissed, and stories of gradual but meaningful change. Because Black Psychoanalysts Speak features in so many contemporary undergraduate courses on psychoanalysis, I’ve asked Basia Winograd to tell the readers of Psyche on Campus a bit about the making of the film and about the relation between cinema and psychoanalysis from the filmmaker’s perspective. Happily, she’s agreed!  —Max Cavitch, editor]

As a documentarian, I’m often approached by someone convinced they know what my next film needs to be. Almost invariably, the project they have in mind is the moving portrait of an organization grappling with one of our civilization’s most pressing problems: climate change, poverty, gender inequality, racism, etc. I hate to sound cynical, but I’ve learned over time that such “films” rarely turn out to be more than vanity projects: fundraising videos disguised as art. I understand the need for fundraising, and I’m as terrified as anyone about all the world’s current and impending cataclysms. But let’s keep our categories clear. I went to film school. I know what a film is.

Thus, when I was approached in 2013 by a group of Black psychoanalysts searching for a filmmaker, I had my doubts about getting involved. At the time, I had only the vaguest notion of what a psychoanalyst was. Kind of like a psychologist, I thought, but maybe more eccentric? Maybe even a little perverse? I have plenty of admiration for mental health practitioners, but also a strong suspicion of anything that smacks of eurocentrism…like a universal theory of human behavior developed by a cigar-smoking middle-class doctor in turn-of-the-century Vienna.

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Loving Yourself Workshop: A Poem

by Susan M. Schultz

According to a JED Foundation Survey published October 22, 2020, eighty-two percent of college students deal with anxiety, sixty-eight percent with depression, and one in five (nineteen percent) of students have had suicidal thoughts in the past month. In bold print, the report asserts, “Mental health should be a top priority for schools.” I have spent the past seven years advocating at the University of Hawai`i-Mānoa for better campus mental-health services. If you read recent press releases from UHM, you would think these services had improved dramatically. But if you pay closer attention, you will hear the hollowness of the language of care. In fact, even as the rhetoric improves, the level of care diminishes.

Thus begins my essay, “The Language of Care in (My) Neo-liberal University,” which is based on a talk I gave at the recent Webinar Colloquium, “Poetics and the University in Crisis” (March 3-5, 2021). My argument—based on many years of activism at the University of Hawai`i-Mānoa (UHM)—was that the university, in its response to demands for better mental health care, gave only the semblance of actually caring. Communicating a public message of ‘care’ fulfills the university’s public relations priorities while downplaying its unwillingness to spend the money that would be needed to strengthen the Counseling and Student Development Center. It was one more sign, sad to say, of the university’s overall unwillingness to revive the notion of the university as a community of care.

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Discovering Psychoanalysis as a Business School Student

by Ryan Collins

My exploration of psychoanalysis began with philosophy. Like many people my age, I was seeking answers to certain existential questions: “Who or what governs our behaviors, and are they rational?” Philosophers—from Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius to Descartes, Hume, Kant, and beyond—have been asking similar questions for millennia. Although he was not a philosopher, Freud’s founding of psychoanalysis tackled such questions as well. While many of his theories have been challenged and revised, his discovery that our behaviors are often governed by unconscious conflicts between our desires and internalized societal demands remains relevant today. Although Freud continues to be a controversial figure, he critically challenged our belief in human rationality by demonstrating the unconscious and “irrational” nature of most of our behavioral tendencies.

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“Psyche on Campus” Named One of the Top Ten Psychoanalysis Blogs to Follow in 2021!

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Psychoanalysis as Argo: A Podcast Setting Sail in the Virtual Classroom

by Anneleen Masschelein and Yael Segalovitz

It was June 2020, about two months into the whirlpool, which—we then had no way of knowing—would swallow up our lives for many more months to come. In Israel, Yael was at home with her two young boys (who couldn’t fathom why the playgrounds were empty and cordoned off by yellow tape), rushing to meet the deadline for an article on autotheory and psychoanalysis. In Belgium, Anneleen was in a similar situation: torn between the demands of her child, her teaching, and her research during the early stages of what would become a seemingly endless lockdown.

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Teaching Psychoanalysis with Children’s Literature *

by Lawrence D. Blum

I’ve designed a syllabus for a novel way to teach basic psychoanalytic principles and child development. Although originally developed with undergraduates in mind, a course based on this syllabus has been taught with great success to candidates at the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia by my friend and colleague, Dr. Susan Adelman. I’m posting here about the course both to encourage others to use it as the basis for possible courses of their own and to solicit from readers (students and teachers alike!) suggestions for improving or expanding it.

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