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Literary Criticism, Psychoanalysis and the New Politics of Otherness

08/01/2017 3:15 PM | Flora E. Lazar

Literary Criticism, Psychoanalysis and the New Politics of Otherness

By Flora E. Lazar, Ph.D., L.S.W

I, like many of us, feel chronically behind in my reading not just with my New Yorkers, which I mercifully don’t see in stacks any longer thanks to my iPad e-subscriptions, but even with the New York Times. As someone who entered the clinical world after a long career in research and public policy, the pressure to “master the professional literature” is especially acute. So when my eye caught a small New York Times article about the seemingly effete topic of who gets to write novels about whom, I was surprised that I did not simply leave it to the literati. But I was intrigued that it had reached the top 20 on the Times Most Popular List, so I checked out this dispatch from this year’s celebrated Brisbane conference.

The article, it turns out, concerned the keynote speech by novelist Lionel Shriver about what she and others have referred to as identity politics gone mad, or to be more specific, the increasingly popular idea that writing about people who do not share one’s “identity” is an act of cultural appropriation akin to identity theft. In her speech, Shriver complained that the increasingly shrill critiques about writers with one identity writing about characters with another would ultimately produce characters “so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.” (Shriver, 2016) Not long into the speech several of Shriver’s colleagues stood up and walked out, setting in motion a literary conflagration that spread to the pages of newspapers around the world and prompted the hasty organization of “counter-programming” to express the literary world’s consternation over her remarks.

Why should we, as psychoanalytically-informed psychotherapists, be concerned about this dust-up among writers at a literary enclave in a far corner of the world?  Because if differences of identity proscribe us from gaining an intimate understanding of the experiences of others, we are stripped of what psychoanalysts from Freud’s time have regarded as one of our most potent tools for helping those who seek our assistance. The singular importance that psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut attached to empathic understanding, which Kohut’s biographer Charles Strozier (2001) says he defined alternately as “vicarious introspection” and “feeling one's way into the experience of another,” is by now well known. But as psychoanalyst Steven T. Levy  has pointed out, the importance of empathic understanding in psychoanalysis is not new to Kohut, even if theorists have questioned its relative importance. Freud, himself, underscored the importance of empathy as a form of identification, calling it “the mechanism by means of which we are enabled to take up any attitude at all towards another mental life” and “the process…which plays the largest part in our understanding of what is inherently foreign to our ego in other people” (Freud , 2012)

Indeed, we are often called upon as psychotherapists to address—whether in our own minds or directly to our patients—the fundamental question raised by the work of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1979) about whether it is possible, ultimately, to know “the other.” It is a question that goes to the heart of the promise of psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy. Certainly some psychoanalysts have questioned the limits of empathic understanding, and they have done so in terrain less contentious than those that are part of the cultural appropriation debate. Intersubjective theorist Robert Stolorow’s (2011) has questioned the extent to which the trauma of one can be fully grasped by another. Russell Bryant Carr (2014) argues, from his work with combat veterans, that clinical effectiveness does not simply call into question the limits of our ability to understand certain experiences such as combat violence—it virtually demands that we admit it.

In the contemporary cultural appropriation debate that turned white hot in Brisbane, this question is posed far more narrowly. If we do not share a gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, social class or other identity, can we truly know or identify with someone who carries that identity? And what is the price of this supposed blindness?

For decades such differences were assumed a priori to interfere with psychotherapy rather than to be an arena for dynamic exploration. As Kimberlyn Leary (2000), who has helped advance our thinking considerably on the psychoanalytic exploration of race, has noted, the relational turn in psychoanalysis has immeasurably enhanced our ability to work with the varied meanings of dimensions such as race in treatment. Underscoring Cheryl Thomson’s (1996) contention that “black is never simply black” and that racial content can have multiple meanings, even simultaneously, Leary perhaps unintentionally calls into question whether one has to possess an identity to understand that identity in another.

Over the years, a mushrooming scientific literature has examined what impact factors such as racial or gender matching have on the effectiveness of treatment. A meta-analytic review by Cabral & Smith (2011) of preferences, perceptions, and outcomes around racial/ethnic matching in mental health services provides compelling evidence that while patients may have a modest preference for such matching, it is hardly decisive in the impact of treatment. The study concluded that “across 53 studies of client outcomes in mental health treatment, the average effect size was 0.09, indicating almost no benefit to treatment outcomes from racial/ethnic matching of clients with therapists.” (Cabral, 2011, p.537)

All of this makes me wonder if we are not rolling back the clock by dividing ourselves between “me” and “not me.” Have not advances in understanding gender identity and sexual preference made us more circumspect about the idea of binaries? So far, the psychotherapy community has remained remarkably silent on the broader implications of the identity and cultural appropriation debates for our profession.

The consequences of this debate over identity, even if construed somewhat more narrowly, have historically had a profound, if not always acknowledged, affect not just on psychotherapy, but on many of the human services that are informed by our theories. Such questions have, for example, undergirded the preference for religious matching that dominated child welfare decisions until this system was successfully challenged in the Wilder case, only to return, somewhat ironically in the debate over the impact of transracial adoption (Bernstein, 2011; Samuels, 2009).

As a recent graduate of the University of Chicago social work school and survivor of the widely-reported campus identity debates—often conducted in the name of mental health—I have had a ring-side seat to these discussions and what they mean for psychotherapists. Those a bit more removed would do well to keep an eye on the latest incarnation of this debate, Brisbane’s literary spectacle, and its aftermath. It has both implicitly and explicitly invoked mental health as an outcome, but will almost certainly spill into our world as a question of method.  

The Indian journalist and novelist Hari Kunzru, whose most recent book was about the American Southwest, could have been writing for a psychoanalytic publication when he wrote in The Guardian in the aftermath of Brisbane, “Attempting to think one’s way into other subjectivities, other experiences, is an act of ethical urgency.” He went on to argue that “good writers transgress without transgressing, in part because they are humble about what they do not know. They treat their own experience of the world as provisional. They do not presume. They respect people, not by leaving them alone in the inviolability of their cultural authenticity, but by becoming involved with them.” (Kunzru, 2016)

Sound a bit like psychoanalysis? One of Lionel Shriver’s fiercest critics, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, notably claimed in a letter to the editor of the New York Times, “Difficult conversations will make us all uncomfortable. Good. That discomfort is how we improve.” I think I have heard that said of psychoanalysis. (Abdel-Magied, 2016)


Abdel-Magied, Y. (2016, October 5). [Letter to the editor]. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/06/opinion/a-call-for-difficult-conversations-not-censorship.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share&_r=1

Bernstein, N. (2011). The lost children of Wilder: The epic struggle to change foster care. New York, NY: Vintage.

Cabral, R. & Smith, T. (2011). Racial/ethnic matching of clients and therapists in mental health services: a meta-analytic review of preferences, perceptions, and outcomes. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58(4), 537-554.

Carr, R. B. (2014). Authentic solicitude: What the madness of combat can teach us about authentically being-with our patients. International Journal of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology9(2), 115-130.

Freud, S. (1959). Recommendations for physicians on the psycho-analytic method of treatment. Collected papers (Vol. 2, pp. 323-333). (Original work published 1912c)

Kunzru, H. (2016, October 1). Whose life is it anyway? Novelists have their say on cultural appropriation. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/01/novelists-cultural-appropriation-literature-lionel-shriver

Leary, K. (2000). Racial enactments in dynamic treatment. Psychoanalytic Dialogues10(4), 639-653.

Levinas, E. (1979). Totality and infinity: An essay on exteriority (Vol. 1). New York, NY: Springer Science & Business Media.

Samuels, G. M. (2009). “Being raised by White people”: Navigating racial difference among adopted multiracial adults. Journal of Marriage and Family,71(1), 80-94.

Shriver, L. (2016, September 8). Fiction and Identity Politics. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad

Stolorow, R. D. (2011). World, affectivity, trauma: Heidegger and post-Cartesian psychoanalysis. New York, NY: Routledge.

Strozier, C. B. (2001). Heinz Kohut: The making of a psychoanalyst. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Thompson, C. (1996). The African-American patient in psychodynamic treatment. In Perez-Foster, R., & Moskowitz, M. (Eds.). Reaching across boundaries of culture and class: Widening the scope of psychotherapy. New York, NY: Jason Aronson, Incorporated.

 Is there a citation to accompany Steven Levy’s point?

 Citation for Freud 2012 reference?

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