I was fascinated by the account Adam Phillips offers in this conversation of psychoanalysis as a less clamorous place from which to come to terms with our lives.
Obviously each individual is going to be different. But for a lot of people, the political world seems unintelligible, overwhelmingly complicated and frightening. And yet everybody feels implicated or involved in it, even if their involvement is a retreat. So one way of envisaging psychoanalysis is as a place where one could go to have conversations untrammelled by the fraughtness of political life. In other words, a place where there are fewer people, fewer points of view to consider, and where you yourself could be listened to – whereas of course in any group of more than two people, there are too many competing claims. From a psychoanalytic point of view, not being able to bear the excess of politics can also be seen as a projection of an unwillingness to bear the complexity of one’s own mind, the multiplicity of competing claims and interests and tones and temptations that you are composed by. You may need a sympathetic, less clamorous place to consider all this.
This frames psychoanalysis as “a place where there are fewer people, fewer points of view to consider, and where you yourself could be listened to”. This is a point echoed across a range of very different theoretical viewpoints: in cybernetics, attenuation of variety is necessary for the viability of a system, in Durkheimian social theory external regulation is needed to constrain the limitlessness of human desire, in critical realism selection is necessary in order to give our lives shape. What they share, I think, is a concern to limit the cacophonous character of social life in pursuit of clarity about what to do and who to be. As a claim about moral psychology, I found this completely plausible but the political implications of it worry me. How do we recognise the need for what Phillips calls a ‘less clamorous place’ without leading us to reject the challenge of moral difference? I find his answer about education quite inspiring but this can’t be the whole story:
one of the things that psychoanalysis has institutionalised is the possibility of being listened to on a long-term basis. That’s very unique and extraordinary. But you could also say that, if we were democratically minded, then one of the things that we would need to be educated in would be the capacity to listen and to bear contradictory points of view. So it would seem to me that one of the things that psychoanalysis was invented to do was to enable people not to simply be obedient subjects or objects.