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In Search of a Minor Place: Review of the Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness

08/02/2017 7:47 PM | Matthew Oyer

In Search of a Minor Place: Review of The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness

By Matthew Oyer, Ph.D.

The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness

By Roderick Tweedy (Ed.), London, UK: Karnac Books, 223pp., $46.95, 2017

How many styles or genres or literary movements, even very small ones, have only one single dream: to assume a major function in language, to offer themselves as a sort of state language, an official language (for example, psychoanalysis today, which would like to be a master of the signifier, or metaphor, of wordplay). Create the opposite dream: know how to create a becoming-minor.

(Deleuze & Guattari ,1986, p. 27)

The alleged irresponsibility of the philosopher, Slavoj Žižek’s endorsement of Donald Trump in the run-up to the 2016 United States presidential election has been largely panned, but there does seem to be some truth to Žižek’s claim that Trump’s election would force each of us to confront our complicity in the current state of affairs. As much as we try to throw ourselves into the superiority-jouissance of reading and watching the news and the trolling and being trolled of social media, we cannot help but be tossed back into I have done nothing, to the horror of what now? Žižek (2017) noted how the Left and Right alike are engaged in politics of Fear, which leads to efforts to destroy the external object, and that what is needed is a shift to politics of Angst, that we might be compelled to transform ourselves.

For psychologists and psychoanalysts confronting this Angst, the appearance of the Karnac collection The Political Self, edited by Rod Tweedy and released at the beginning of 2017, is a welcome arrival. As psychoanalysts, what little we do know is that Žižek is quite right in this regard; if we are to change, if the world is to change, Angst rather than fear can show us the way. Even the form of this book is apropos. One wishes for the heterogeneity of a collection: the dissent that forces us into thought, and towards, one can only pray, the act.

Such heterogeneity is, of course, circumscribed by any collection’s editor, but Tweedy, himself, seems to cut a rather idiosyncratic figure: attracted, on the one hand to inimitable Romantic figures, the likes of William Blake, Nick Cave, and R.D. Laing; and on the other, to contemporary research on neuroscience and brain lateralization. Tweedy (2013) synthesized these interests in an earlier book on Blake’s Urizen as the god of the left hemisphere. I will speak more of this synthesizing tendency later. For now, I will only repeat that it is less synthesis and more conflict and heterogeneity that interest me.

From this position, it is one of the strengths of the collection that it almost immediately evokes an old, but still profound and, ultimately, timely historical debate. David Smail, the book’s inspiration, and whose chapter on a “social-materialist” psychology inaugurates it, levels a pugnacious, if often uninformed, critique of psychoanalysis and Freudian-Marxism as developed by the Frankfurt School and represented within the collection by Joel Kovel’s reading of psychotherapy in late capitalism. In some respects, the differences embodied in Smail’s and Kovel’s chapters rehash a debate within the Frankfurt School, between Erich Fromm, whose disappearance from the psychological canon Smail bemoans, and Herbert Marcuse. And behind this debate, if we are convinced by Jacoby’s (1997) persuasive account, lies a yet earlier schism: that between Adler and Freud.

Smail is critical of psychoanalysis’s elision of the social context in its overly “internal” view of psychic life. The figures he speaks of approvingly in this respect—Adler, Fromm, Horney, Sullivan, and Laing and Cooper—are precisely those figures Jacoby targets for trading “the revolutionary core of psychoanalysis for common sense” (p. 19). Smail argues that there has been a massive repression of social-cultural “interests” within psychoanalytic theory and their replacement with internal concepts like the unconscious and the drive, which are then subject to the influence of the psychoanalyst and justify his existence in the place of political or economic activism.

Smail declares, “find it puzzling—even paradoxical—that so many of the Frankfurt writers, in order to theorise the influence of material, societal conditions on personal subjectivity, felt it necessary to turn for help to psychoanalysis” (p. 49). For Kovel’s Marcusian-inflected reading, psychoanalysis is necessary precisely to avoid lapsing into a simplistic, mechanical model of a subject buffeted and controlled by external forces. A theory is needed that can elucidate the mediating processes by which external oppression is internalized, by which phylogenesis repeats in ontogenesis: the primal father eaten by the brother clan; the identifications that sediment in the ego; Oedipus and the installation of the superego; the reality principle’s imprint on the drives themselves. It is just such a simplistic, mechanical, and common-sense model that Smail proposes. Jacoby’s (1997) critique, that all of the modernizers of the 20th century ridiculed Freud’s 19th century mechanical biologism, but that “there is nothing new or novel about the idea of the individual as an autonomous monad which is affected by outer forces” (Tweedy, p. 33), could just as well have been directed at Smail.

For Smail, psychology and psychoanalysis ultimately disappear behind a social-materialist reading of history and political praxis.

The crucial theoretical point I’m trying to make is that by conceiving of “drives” as “interests” we turn traditional psychology inside out, so that rather than seeing individuals pushed from within by various urges and desires for which, ultimately, they are personally responsible, they are pulled from without by the social manipulation of, in the last analysis, inescapable biological factors of being human. (p. 42).

Without any theory of mediation or any awareness that such a theory is necessary, what role or function could either psychology or psychoanalysis play? Psychology is instead entirely explained by political and economic theory.

Smail’s application of political and economic categories to psychological analysis is, of course, far less common than the opposite approach: psychologism. Recently, this has been most evident, and most impotent, in the constant debates and discussions about Trump’s mental health and his psychiatric diagnosis. Diagnosing Trump is not only delusional (a misplaced certainty that we are the masters of what is normative at a time when he has much more power to determine the normative than any psychiatrist, psychologist, or psychoanalyst [Reisner, 2017]); at best, it distracts us from real political engagement, and, at worst, narcotizes us with superiority and a sense of engagement when, in fact, we are retreating into quietism. The Political Self thankfully forgoes discussion of Trump’s narcissism, psychosis, dementia, or perversion, but it is not without contributions that rely on this kind of direct application of psychological categories to political analysis. Most notably, Jonathan Rowson’s interview with Iain McGilchrist, whose book The Master and His Emissary (McGilchrist, 2009) popularized the discussion of hemispheric differences and conflict, summarizes some of the implications of his application of neuropsychological research to a sweeping reading of cultural history.

McGilchrist explains his formulation of brain lateralization: “it is not about what each hemisphere does, as we used to think, because it is clear that each is involved with literally everything. It is about how it is done—an approach, a stance, a disposition towards things” (Tweedy, p. 88). He suggests that we should have thought of the brain, not in the metaphoric terms of a machine, but, rather, in terms of the person (“What’s he or she like?”). If we would have begun with these questions, it is argued, we would have seen much more clearly the differences and relationship between the hemispheres: a left hemisphere that uses a decontextualized, abstract, instrumentalized rationality, impervious to challenges to its position that is colonizing a right hemisphere that utilizes a contextualized, concrete, synthetic, and affectively-nuanced reason receptive to challenges to its position. There is no question that this evokes images of good and bad angels sitting on shoulders, or at least two homunculi with distinct, if caricatural, personalities jousting across the corpus callosum.

If Adler, Fromm, and nearly all schools of neo- and post-Freudianism sought to correct Freud’s mechanical psyche with a concept of the self, McGilchrist is not content to stop there and must even “self” the hemispheres of the brain. But, as the Frankfurt School theorists pointed out regarding the culturalist neo-Freudians (as did Lacan of the ego psychologists), with this “selving,” comes the loss of the critical decentering that Freud accomplished with his discovery of the unconscious, and with this selving, there is a return to a general psychology of synthesis. We have made our way to the self of The Political Self and to the tendency of self and text alike towards synthesis.

Pluralism is a common feature of late capitalism: to accept and legitimize all differences and variations but only by flattening them out (Benvenuto, 2016). Exchange requires this flattening synthesis. This tendency is very evident in The Political Self: a bit of neuroscience; a smattering of Marx; a dash of attachment theory; a little twelve step between Freud and Jung on our way to the neo-Freudians and anti-psychiatrists. If we can just add a little something new, it may all work, the self and the system alike. Above all, that is what capitalism demands: it must appear to work. Lacan said, “What distinguishes the discourse of capitalism is this: the Verwerfung, the rejection, the throwing outside all symbolic fields… of what? Of castration” (Holland, 2015, p. 8). Thus, an idealized synthesis undermines the discursive heterogeneity that first seemed promised by the book.

There is no doubt that psychoanalysis and psychoanalysts look the most ridiculous of all when clawing and cloying for respectability and a place in the major discourse: medicalization; randomized controlled trials; acronyms; psychotherapy integration; neuropsychoanalysis; media campaigns; wine and cheese open houses… Psychoanalysis: the discovery of a knowledge-in-failure; of a method of thinking with and through castration. Indeed, the moment it works, it is not.

We have moved well beyond The Political Self, but, perhaps to the questions that inspired me to read and write about it. For, like many others, I am lost. I would like to think about how to develop a political practice, and what role psychoanalysis might have within that practice. I don’t have any answers, but I do know that whatever contribution psychoanalysis is to make, it will not be that of an addition, but of a supplement. And if it is to act as supplement, it must remember and remain what it is: ever a becoming minor.


Benvenuto, S. (2016). What are perversions?: Sexuality, ethics, psychoanalysis. London, UK: Karnac.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1986). Kafka: Toward a minor literature. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Holland, J. (2015). Capitalism and psychoanalysis [Editorial]. S: Journal of the Circle for Lacanian Ideology Critique, 8, 1-5.

Jacoby, R. (1997). Social amnesia: A critique of contemporary psychology. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the Western world. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

Reisner, S. (2017). Crazy like a fox: Evil is not a psychiatric illness. [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ty1HhODKVaI&feature=youtu.be.

Tweedy, R. (2013). The god of the left hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the myth of creation. London, UK: Karnac.

Tweedy, R. (Ed.). (2017). The political self: Understanding the social context for mental illness. London, UK: Karnac.

Žižek, S. (2017). Donald Trump’s topsy-turvy world. The Philosophical Salon: A Los Angeles Review of Books Channel. Retrieved from http://thephilosophicalsalon.com/donald-trumps-topsy-turvy-world/.

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