Joseph Scalia III – A Contemporary Psychoanalytical Citizen

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 A Contemporary Psychoanalytical Citizen
Working with the Unconscious in Cultural Life

Joseph Scalia III

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I suggest that the time has come for psycho-analytic theory to pay tribute to this third area, that of cultural experience which is a derivative of play.

—  D. W. Winnicott[1]

Society has not yet been driven to seek treatment of its psychological disorders by psychological means because it has not achieved sufficient insight to appreciate the nature of its distress. … If communal distress were to become demonstrable as a neurotic by-product, then neurosis would be seen to be worthy of communal study and attack. And a step would have been taken on the way to overcoming resistance in the society.

—  W. R. Bion[2]

Let us consider the possibility, which I propose is the case, that to be a psychoanalyst is also, necessarily, to be a citizen of the world, indeed, a citizen for the world – but, in a very singular way which characterizes and defines only the psychoanalyst.  We make and sustain, through our acts – acts which are at times observable and at times invisible – a potential space for the heretofore unthinkable or unutterable, a potential space for the repressed to find its way to full speech, as Lacan called it .  When we are at our best, we allow to course through us all the disavowed yet crucial experiences, representations, presentations, affects and emotions which, in the clinic, the analysand cannot yet bear or articulate and, in society, in groups, the collective and many of our fellow citizens expel from themselves out of anxiety, or cannot receive in the first place due to lack of a certain ego capacity, of which I will speak momentarily.

I am here proposing two interrelated functions for the psychoanalyst who adopts a responsibility in day-to-day cultural life.  Speaking of his work with patients deficient in “object usage,” i.e., in their ability to perceive and meaningfully interact with the uniqueness of others and of objects in general, a mature Winnicott[3] said: “…[I]t is only in recent years that I have become able to wait and wait for the natural evolution of the transference arising out of the patient’s growing trust in the psychoanalytic technique and setting, and to avoid breaking up this natural process by making interpretations. … It appals (sic) me to think how much deep change I have prevented or delayed in patients in a certain classificatory category by my personal need to interpret” (italics original).  Winnicott makes clear that he does still interpret with patients who have developed the capacity to “use the object”, but that doing so with those deficient in this capacity will bring on defense in the form, for example, of aggression, in the form of destructive action.  It is providing a holding environment, a facilitating environment for societal interlocutors to develop the capacity for object usage that is one of the main points I propose for “working with the unconscious in cultural life,” one of the main functions I propose for the psychoanalyst qua citizen for the world.  The complement of this provision, the second of the two cultural psychoanalytic functions I am proposing, is that which is akin to interpretation in the clinic, when we can rely on the interlocutor’s own management of his id impulses, be they greed, aggression, or lust. Then we can invite critical reflection which challenges passionately held convictions., because the individual already has this capacity, a capacity which is being insufficiently deployed at a given juncture.  But this latter can occur or be developed in a work group, a group which has formed in order to accomplish an agreed upon task, formed to do rationally driven work, only when the basic assumptions posited by Wilfred Bion, those of fight-flight, pairing, and dependency on a leader, do not unconsciously undermine the group’s capacity for work.  Bion shows that the way out of the pitfalls of the basic assumptions is an understanding of their effects and a “communal attack” upon this “common enemy.”

It seems to me that for a group of otherwise opposed interlocutors to come together to attempt to solve what Emmanuel Levinas calls “insoluble problems,” each member must adopt a certain responsibility in relation to one another, a responsibility of which Levinas also speaks.

Two aspects of the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas come to mind here.  The first of these is the necessity for a fully lived life of taking responsibility for the responsibility of the other, or, yet more fully considered and redoubled, taking responsibility for the responsibility of the other for the responsibility of the other.  In the first case, and already premised on a concern for the welfare and the right to dignity of all human beings, one must take stock of whether one’s fellows are adopting such an ethic, and if they are not, to act in a manner to correct that malady.  In the second case, one must include in such action a focus on whether one’s fellows are also adopting an ethic of holding others accountable to ethical action.  This, at least, is my reading of the teaching of Roger Burggraeve on the work on Levinas.[4]  Furthermore, it is inextricable from the proposals put forward in this paper.

Yet, and insofar as the above could be seen as analogous to the psychoanalytic interpretive function, there is a second aspect of Levinas’s work which seems analogous to Winnicott’s notion about “waiting and waiting.”  Or, rather it combines the two functions.  Consider that Eigen[5], who quotes this passage somewhat more extensively than I do, finds in it a way into the notion that to live without the ethic that Levinas here proposes is necessarily to live an impoverished life. Here are Levinas’s thoughts:

A new attitude … the search for a proximity beyond the ideas exchanged, a proximity that lasts even after dialogue has become impossible.  Beyond dialogue, a new maturity and earnestness, a new gravity and a new patience, and, if I may express it so, maturity and patience for insoluble problems….

Neither violence, nor guile, nor simple diplomacy, nor simple tact, nor pure tolerance, nor even simple sympathy, nor even simple friendship – that attitude before insoluble problems, what can it be, and what can it contribute?

What can it be?  The presence of persons before a problem.  Attention and vigilance: not to sleep until the end of time perhaps.  The presence of persons who, for once, do not fade away into words, get lost in technical questions, freeze up into institutions or structures.  The presence of persons in the full force of their irreplaceable identity, in the full force of their inevitable responsibility.  To recognize and name those insoluble substances and keep them from exploding in violence, guile, or politics, to keep watch where conflicts tend to break out, a new religiosity and solidarity – is loving one’s neighbor anything other than this?  Not the facile, spontaneous élan, but the difficult working on oneself: to go toward the Other where he is truly other, in the radical contradiction of their alterity, that place from which, for an insufficiently mature soul, hatred flows naturally…. One must refuse to be caught up in the tangle of abstractions…whose dialectic, be it ever so rigorous, is murderous and criminal.  The presence of persons, proximity between persons: what will come out of this new spirituality, that proximity without definite projects, that sort of vigilance without dialogue that, devoid of all definition, all thought, may resemble sleep?  To tell the truth, I don’t know.  But before smiling at maturity for insoluble problems, a pathetic formula, let us think … of St. Exupéry’s little prince, who asks the pilot stranded in the desert, who only knows how to draw a boa constrictor digesting the elephant, to draw a sheep.  And I think what the little prince wants is that proverbial lamb who is as gentle as a lamb.  But nothing could be more difficult.  None of the sheep he draws pleases the little prince.  They are either violent rams with big horns or too old.  The little prince disdains the gentleness that only comes with extreme age.  So the pilot draws a parallelogram, the box in which the sheep is sleeping, to the little prince’s great satisfaction.

I do not know how to draw the solution to insoluble problems.  It is still sleeping in the bottom of the box; but a box over which persons who have drawn close to each other keep watch.  I have no idea other than the idea of the idea that one should have.  The abstract drawing of the parallelogram – cradles of our hopes.  I have the idea of a possibility in which the impossible may be sleeping.[6]  [Italics original.]

I have in mind many different types of situations, and here I will cite some of my own experiences.  Perhaps we find ourselves interacting with juvenile justice officers or child protection services workers who – representing society, as they are – are unconsciously caught in an enactment of revenge, for their client’s aggressive or acting-out behaviors, but who consciously only imagine themselves acting morally.  Or we are environmental activists and are involved in discussions between opposing land-use stakeholders, when one or more of them is driven by hatred while cognizing their concepts and communications as responsible and courageous ideological critique of their blind and greedy interlocutors.  Or, we are a member of a panel discussion and hold theoretical and praxis viewpoints seemingly clashing with those of our fellow panelists, and disdain is expressed in the guise of critique.  Yet again, we are writers or institute directors and we wish to make a place for our voices to be heard.  Yet further, we might be part of a community group aiming at improving public education for all students and we discern the group’s blind spots as unwittingly perpetuating or aggravating some of the very problems it aims to resolve or ameliorate.

In all of these situations, I have sometimes acted contrary to what I am here proposing – sometimes in ways reparable and sometimes not.  To “wait and wait” can be the most difficult thing.  Of course, it inheres much more than a passive waiting.  It necessitates that we are filled with the effects of the destructivity that our fellows are repressing, it necessitates that we survive it, that is, that we receive the projective identifications that are disavowed, that we do not act in any way to discharge those effects, and we wait for our peaceful provision of this potential space to be critically filled by interlocutors who are moved unexpectedly by this receptivity.

If there are the two functions that I propose, then it becomes necessary that we differentiate between those who are yet to become capable of object usage and those who already are so capable but who are critically derailed for more classically psychoneurotic reasons, those who, in the clinic, can receive and work with an interpretation, those who, in society, are able to contemplate new ideas even when those ideas oppose long-invested ones.

When I say I propose these two cultural functions, which I have sometimes metaphorically thought of as the staff and the sword, I propose that these are already existing functions, inherent in being a psychoanalyst, but which we have not yet made explicit as necessary to be situated in group undertakings.  Our choices are either to repress – or helplessly bemoan, which amounts to the same thing – what is happening to our world; or else to be transformational objects[7] in every social activism opportunity we find ourselves; or – through our own wish to be rid of the effects of the world’s destructivity and thereby interpreting prematurely and inflaming our addressees – to unwittingly exacerbate the destruction all around us.  There really are no other possibilities.


As a collective, our destructivity has now banished a billion human beings, out of a total of 7.2 billion, to an unthinkable poverty, and billions more to a poverty and a poor working class socioeconomic existence which the more privileged Westerners of us can envisage but not empathize with.  We have created a world in which Child Protection Services often causes the shattering of the very families with whom it has intervened to preserve, a world in which a Juvenile Justice system often creates the very delinquents it is charged with rehabilitating, and a world in which accountability measures and “evidence-based” practices in education and in psychotherapy also generate exacerbation of the problems those fields are charged with ameliorating.  We have seriously damaged the ozone layer, significantly acidified our oceans, destroyed half of our reef-building corrals, drastically reduced a biodiversity on which our ability to survive may absolutely depend, and have destroyed forests and topsoil and water supplies to an extent from which we may not be able to recover[8].  Predominantly unconsciously, our collective pride, arrogance, and greed, our collective lust and rage, have determined much of our trajectory.  Such matters are clearly, per definitionem, the purview of the psychoanalyst.

On the eve of the second anniversary of 9/11, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hahn, addressed interested members of Congress, their staffs and their families, plus whatever members of the public could find remaining seating at the Library of Congress.  In reply to a question by Terry Tempest Williams[9], dressed in his brown robes and seated on a cushion on the floor, the monk acknowledged that of which Williams spoke, “the extravagant lifestyle in America [that] is its own form of violence on the planet,” but continued:

Dear friends, please take care of yourself if you want to protect the environment.  The very well-being of the planet depends on the way you handle your body, your feelings, your perceptions, and your consciousness….If you cannot deal with the problem of consumption, and the problem of pollution and violence within you, how can you deal with problems of consumption and pollution and violence outside of you in nature?

But one must ask, How is this to be accomplished?  Merely pointing out the need for the accomplishment, from one’s position of presumed knowing, indeed, “interpreting” it, will not only not be helpful where it is most needed, but will lead to yet further aggressive-destructive defenses against knowing.

Furthermore, dare we, in the first place, even acknowledge the primacy of unconscious emotional experiencing as a determinant of civilization’s trajectory?

Christopher Bollas proposes a “contemporary psychoanalytical citizen”[10] whose task is “to shake the self out of the paralyzing state endemic to thinking about the [avoidant, hateful and destructive] mentality of the group.” Bollas is referring to Bion’s[11] attention to the projective identificatory aspect of group mentality[12] and the countertransference it occasions in the analyst.  While noting that the Earth is “now threatened by economic greed and human contempt for nature,” Bollas places consideration of the unconscious in the forefront of urgency:

It is not simply the case that we are reluctant to think about mass psychology; it is the object of a repression that, in the extreme, constitutes negative hallucination.  When thoughts about the reality of the group are repressed they return in derivative form, such as concern about climate change, the spillage of oil or economic recession.  Since each of these thoughts is of course legitimate in itself, it authorizes individuals and groups to express a displaced worry about a more disturbing reality: that as a group we humans are in thrall to the death drive.  Identity politics – from “Friends of the Earth’ to ‘Save the Whales’ to ‘No More Drilling’ – serve as symbolic actions against the repressed, but they are useless in terms of confronting this unconscious destructiveness. [Italics mine.][13]

Repression in the extreme of negative hallucination may be that of which we are encountering a great deal today.  Negative hallucination is a psychotic form which has destroyed the mind’s ability to perceive, to even think thoughts which may be vital to our survival.  “[R]epeated use of negative hallucination produces a psychotic mind unable to perceive, much less deal with, reality.”[14]

When the psychoanalyst becomes politically or socially active, (s)he faces the repression of many social forces. Here, the psychoanalyst might be erroneously content to point out certain oppressions or exploitations, as though these utterances will be gratefully received and repression will be lifted.  Of course, such an approach is sheer defensiveness and instead of the presumed (conscious) aim, the destructive forces and effects of unprocessed primal anxiety and its concomitant aggression will become manifest.  In turn, these effects then become potentially workable for the analyst willing to welcome them, willing to welcome them in all of their toxicity and blindness[15].

So, once again, the point is made that the contemporary psychoanalytical citizen must differentiate between the need for his containing and naming functions, and he must determine which is called for at any given moment.

Freud knew that a world which embraced psychoanalysis would be a world which no longer needed psychoanalysis.  It would be a world, in short, of a mutated human ethic, of one whereby the collective would practice a good of the all, and one which, thereby, structurally necessarily would not wed itself to any ideology, a world which made a constant space, a permanent space, for revolution – revolution here understood as the overthrow, at any point, of any hegemonic or culturally influential ideology that has outlived its serviceability[16].

Yet, we live in a world wherein the praxis and the intellectual discipline of psychoanalysis are increasingly threatened in their very continuation.  Psychoanalysts ought not, cannot be timorous in speaking of the singularity and crucial nature of our discourse and praxis.  We must not hide on the sidelines in the face of the hegemonic and financially wealthy insurance-pharmaceutical-psychiatric industrial complex and its discourse, which would obliterate psychoanalysis if it could.  That is, we must first materially survive if we are to become able to contribute in new ways to the unfolding of civilization and its culture, if we are to remain available to psychically survive the destructive forces the group needs us to contain.

Taking the term from Freud’s dream book, Žižek[17] names Acheronta movebo as the way to undermine ossified ideologies.  That is, rather than be content to plead directly to the conscious mind, instead influence the subject at the level of his or her unconscious, influence the unconscious to break through at points of critical need.   Moving the River Acheron, of the underworld: that was Freud’s aim.  It is the aim which we have inherited from him.

I cited Winnicott’s being appalled at some of his more youthful clinical work.  While I can readily relate to that sentiment, and be saddened by what I might have provided some of my patients had I been more mature, I can identically reflect on ways I have been an actor in society.  As the director of Northern Rockies Psychoanalytic Institute, as a former President of Montana Wilderness Association, as a psychoanalyst who has interfaced clinically and ideologically with both Child Protection Services and Juvenile Probation Services, I have erred in ways whose alternatives make me wonder just how much social change I could have contributed to, but missed the chance of!  The hopefulness in the change in myself goes to the social change I can now facilitate and might still facilitate going forward through the rest of my life.

When I can listen to societal interlocutors speak through the lenses of their repressions or negative hallucinations, understanding the destruction which their blindness yields, but can hold the tension of my own counter-transference, if I may call it that, when I can “wait and wait” and not need to interpret either to “demonstrate my cleverness” – as Winnicott put it, or to blindly discharge the tension I experience as a projective identification-welcoming object: what can happen?  If I choose to occupy a space of a transformational object[18] in society, with all of the psychological imperatives thereby incumbent upon me, what changes can I bring about?  And if all psychoanalysts who could so function, themselves also chose to so function, what could we accomplish in the world?  What if we even openly offered ourselves in that way?

A friend of mine remarked about an earlier version of this paper: “It’s dark.”  I propose that we psychoanalysts have a responsibility to facilitate the possibility of lightness, and the joy of people in the social order finding ways through their hatred and closed ideologies to generative thinking, receptivity, and newly found appreciation for each other!  How fine a thing it is then to enjoy life, in its rich movements and evocative moments!

[1] D. W. Winnicott’s (1967) “The Location of Cultural Experience,” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 48: 368-372.

[2] W. R. Bion (1961 [2000], pg. 14).  Experiences in Groups and other papers.  London and New York: Routledge.

[3] D. W. Winnicott (1969, pg. 711). The Use of an Object.  International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 50: 711-716.

[4] Roger Burggraeve, ___________, Keynote Address at the Annual Conference of the Existential Psychoanalytic Institute and Society, Missoula, Montana, August 1, 2013.

[5] Michael Eigen (2005), Emotional Storm. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

[6] Emmanuel Levinas (1999, [1995]), Alterity and Transcendence, pgs. 87-89. New York: Columbia University Press.

[7] Christopher Bollas (1987), The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known.  New York: Columbia University Press.

[8] See, for example: John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York (2010), The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, New York: Monthly Review Press; and Slavoj Žižek (—-), In Defense of Lost Causes, …

[9] Terry Tempest Williams (2004, pg. 106), The Open Space of Democracy.  Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock.

[10] Christopher Bollas (2013, pg. 105), China on the Mind. London and New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

[11] Bion, ibid, pg. 149.

[12] Although Bion referred to the group and the collective, he was well aware that it is constituted by an “aggregate of individuals” who are distinct from one another, but that “belief that the group exists” is part and parcel of the regression to dependence that occurs when one fails to establish differentiation of self and others when “establishing contact with the emotional life of the group” (Bion, 1961; pgs. 141-142).

[13] Ibid, pg. 100.

[14] Ibid, pg. 101.

[15] Jeffrey Eaton calls this the “projective identification welcoming object,” in “The Obstructive Object” to be found in his (2011) A Fruitful Harvest: Essays After Bion.  Seattle: The Alliance Press.

[16] This is the point made by Alain Badiou in his (2003) Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism.

[17] See, for example, his (2005) Interrogating the Real.  London and New York: Continuum.

[18] Christopher Bollas’s (1987) The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known.  New York: Columbia University Press.  Here Bollas writes that “It is usually on the occasion of the aesthetic moment … that an individual feels a deep subjective rapport with an object (a painting, a poem, an aria or symphony, or a natural landscape) and experiences an uncanny fusion with the object [or phenomenon, which can include an ideology], an event that re-evokes an ego state that prevailed in early psychic life.  … Such aesthetic moments do not sponsor memories of a specific event or relationship, but evoke a psychosomatic sense of fusion that is the subject’s recollection of the transformational object” (pg. 16).  And, later, “Once early ego memories are identified with an object [or phenomenon] that is contemporary, the subject’s relation to the object can become fanatical, and I think that many extremist political movements indicate a collective certainty that their revolutionary ideology will effect a total environmental transformation that will deliver everyone from the gamut of basic faults: personal, familial, economic, social and moral.  Again, it is not the revolutionary’s desire for change, or the extremist’s longing for change, but his certainty that the object (in this case the revolutionary ideology) will bring about change that is striking to the observer” (pgs. 27-28; italics mine).  And, finally, “The ego experience of being transformed by the other remains as a memory that may be re-enacted in aesthetic experiences, in a wide range of culturally-dreamed-of transformational objects (such as new cars, homes, jobs and vacations) that promise total change of internal and external environment, or in the varied psychopathological manifestations of this memory, for example in the gambler’s relation to his object or in the extremist’s relation to his ideological object” (pg. 28; italics mine).