As published in London Review of Books, Vol. 28 No. 10 · 25 May 2006
In recent years, it’s often been said that psychoanalysis is dead. New advances in the brain sciences have finally put it where it belongs, alongside religious confessors and dream-readers in the lumber-room of pre-scientific obscurantist searches for hidden meaning. As Todd Dufresne put it, no figure in the history of human thought was more wrong about all the fundamentals – with the exception of Marx, some would add. The Black Book of Communismwas followed last year by the Black Book of Psychoanalysis, which listed all the theoretical mistakes and instances of clinical fraud perpetrated by Freud and his followers. In this way, at least, the profound solidarity of Marxism and psychoanalysis is now there for all to see.
A century ago, Freud included psychoanalysis as one of what he described as the three ‘narcissistic illnesses’. First, Copernicus demonstrated that the Earth moves around the Sun, thereby depriving humans of their central place in the universe. Then Darwin demonstrated that we are the product of evolution, thereby depriving us of our privileged place among living beings. Finally, by making clear the predominant role of the unconscious in psychic processes, Freud showed that the ego is not master even in its own house. Today, scientific breakthroughs seem to bring further humiliation: the mind is merely a machine for data-processing, our sense of freedom and autonomy merely a ‘user’s illusion’. In comparison, the conclusions of psychoanalysis seem rather conservative.
Is psychoanalysis outdated? It certainly appears to be. It is outdated scientifically, in that the cognitivist-neurobiologist model of the human mind has superseded the Freudian model; it is outdated in the psychiatric clinic, where psychoanalytic treatment is losing ground to drug treatment and behavioural therapy; and it is outdated in society more broadly, where the notion of social norms which repress the individual’s sexual drives doesn’t hold up in the face of today’s hedonism. But we should not be too hasty. Perhaps we should instead insist that the time of psychoanalysis has only just arrived.