The emphasis on the unconscious is back


“… psychoanalysis is not a philosophy, it’s a practice.”

Conversation with Bruce Fink.
Copenhagen, Denmark, 14 April 2018.

Tobias Wessely (TW): How did you become interested in psychoanalysis, and especially in the French tradition?

Bruce Fink (BF): I became interested in psychology very early on, during my teenage years. I was always trying to understand people, understand love, understand life. I encountered the work of R. D. Laing fairly early on, and around the age of seventeen I discovered Freud. I studied quite a bit of psychology during my undergraduate years at Cornell University, but I had other more political and philosophical aims at the time. Certain experiences in my family led me into crisis and the person I went to talk to in New York was of no help to me. At around the same time, one of my friends began telling me about French theory and we sat in together on a class offered in the department of Romance Studies on Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, Lévi-Strauss, and Lacan. That’s how I started reading Lacan. I didn’t understand much, naturally, but I was very intrigued by his notion of the subject and the way he talked about the unconscious, which I hadn’t heard talked about in that way at all in America. I was unhappy with the U.S. for all kinds of reasons at the time and I thought, “Why not go to France for a year or two and see what this Lacan stuff is about?” I ended up staying for seven years and doing all of my graduate training there.

Lacan had just recently died when I arrived in France in 1982. I was lucky, because there was a huge proliferation of Lacanian groups at the time and a kind of a renaissance in Lacanian thinking. My sense was that in the last ten years of his life there was such reverence for the Master that no one could think outside of his system. I went to different schools and heard a lot of different people speak. I studied philosophy and attended classes with many interesting people, like Derrida, Deleuze, and Guattari. I was like a kid in a candy shop, there were so many interesting things going on! And, most importantly, I went into analysis.  

In the end, I decided to do my Master’s in Paris, and then my Ph.D. It wasn’t planned in any way. I went there at first to do my own analysis – having no idea how long it would last – and to study a bit, without realizing it would determine the course of my life.

TW: What kind of place does Lacan have in America today? Has it changed in any way over the years?

BF: It has changed, very much so. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Lacan was known primarily to literary, art, and film critics. The situation was much the same when I returned to the U.S. in 1989, but I personally devoted a lot of my efforts to presenting Lacan clinically. 

Now, twenty years later, Lacan is read by at least as many people in clinical fields as in other more strictly academic fields. I was really struck by something that occurred when I was translating Lacan's 900-page Écrits into English, which was a very long and difficult process, as you might imagine, taking me the better part of ten years. I applied to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), a federal agency that supports cultural endeavors, for grant money. The first time I applied, I received quite a lot of money, which translated into a considerable amount of release time from teaching for two years at my university, allowing me to focus on the translation. When I applied for further grant money in 1999, the NEH sent my application out for review, as they usually do, to a variety of professors. One of the professors made the following comment: “I thought Lacan was passé.” To his mind, Lacan was no longer trendy, no longer of any interest.

Fortunately, I managed to finish the translation anyway and it has now sold over 30,000 copies, considerably more than the older version which was primarily read by academics. My impression – and a lot of people tell me this is true – is that psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and psychologists are now actually reading Lacan’s work, which is new. There aren’t many analysts in America who can help teach people a Lacanian clinical orientation, but more and more practitioners are reading his work nevertheless. My sense is that a lot of the young people in training at institutes in America feel they have reached a dead end somehow. They’re not very interested in or convinced by what is being taught to them at their institutes and are looking for something else. Very often it is the analysts-in-training who ask their institutes to invite Lacanians to come give talks and classes.

Pablo Lerner (PL):What can Lacan, or Lacanian theory and practice, say or do about the American way of life? 

BF: Well, the American way of life(laughs), that’s a really big question! I’m not sure what impact it can have on the American way of life. I think at least it can help counter an engrained American way of thinking, namely that psychotherapy has to be streamlined and totally goal oriented. Which is the way Americans think about a lot of things, including education, business, and politics! And it goes for psychotherapy as well, Americans being the ones who have introduced forms of therapy that are supposed to work after only six or maybe ten sessions. Lacan brings a breath of fresh air into that sort of approach. To him, psychoanalysis is a non-goal-oriented project. In most forms of psychotherapy today, the buzzword is “symptom relief” or “symptom removal,” and you have to provide a quantitative read on such relief after every session. Lacan provides a very different way of thinking about symptoms, which are sometimes essential if people are to go on living in the world. I think Lacan can contribute a lot to changing the public's views of what psychotherapy should involve.

TW: Would you say that there is something Lacan has to offer that especially resonates with younger clinicians in America today?

BF: There are probably a number of things. Especially Lacan's emphasis on Freud, on actually reading Freud, and of course his emphasis on the unconscious. Up until about ten years ago, people didn’t really read Freud anymore. What I hear now is that institutes are beginning to offer year-long and sometimes even two-year-long courses on Freud. So interestingly enough, Lacan seems to have sparked yet another return to Freud. The emphasis on the unconscious is also back. I think a lot of younger clinicians find the work that they are usually encouraged to do – which is all about the transference and the countertransference – exhausting and emotionally draining. I suspect that the Lacanian approach is less exhausting personally. 

I receive a lot of invitations to speak at institutes and almost all of them come from the new generation of trainees. Some of the more established analysts come to my talks and some of them are a bit open, but in general it is the analysts-in-training who are most interested. Here’s a silly example: I’ve been living in Pittsburgh for twenty-five years now, and I taught at Duquesne University for twenty years. The first year I was in Pittsburgh I made contact with the Pittsburg Psychoanalytic Center, which is affiliated with the APA. They clearly wanted nothing to do with me. Twenty-three years later, once the older generation of analysts had either died, retired, or simply withdrawn from the main decision-making positions at the institute, I suddenly received a call asking me to come and teach a course on Lacan for them. “Who are you?” I had to ask, “Where did you come from (laughs)?” Now they ask me to teach a course on Lacan or Freud every year, whereas I was persona non gratafor decades. So, it seems to me that there’s a generational shift occurring. 

I think a number of the younger people also have broader intellectual horizons and backgrounds than their teachers. A lot of them come from philosophy, literature, or political theory, and they learned about French theory in college before deciding to study psychoanalysis. Which is nice, because there is a very strong anti-intellectual trend in America. Many older analysts focused almost exclusively on medicine right from the beginning of their studies and don't know a great deal about other fields. In contrast, a lot of younger analysts are interested in literature, art, music, and politics, which makes things a lot more fun!


PL: So there’s a changing landscape in America where psychoanalysis – Freudian and Lacanian – can perhaps … 

BF: … get it’s foot in the door, yes! 

PL:  Can you say something more about that, you not only being a psychoanalyst but also having worked as a university professor. How is Lacan received in psychology departments in the United States? Is he regarded as a serious thinker? Or is he just considered to be an outsider?

BF: I think he’s still seen as an outsider. I left the university five years ago, never having been particularly fond of academic teaching for a variety of reasons, one of them being that psychoanalysis is rarely accepted in psychology departments. I was lucky because the department I was in had a philosophical orientation. Their roots were in “existential-phenomenology,” as they called it, so they were somewhat familiar with French and German theory, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and things like that. They hired me by mistake, as I always like to say, by accident: they thought Lacan was a phenomenologist! They had no idea he was a structuralist and didn’t seem to realize he was a psychoanalyst. 

Freud, to many of them, was anathema. Some in the department hated Freud with a passion. And it was only their misunderstanding of Lacan that allowed me to get a job. No other psychology department in America at the time would have hired me. And I know that because I applied elsewhere repeatedly. 

Up until the 1970s, many psychology departments did have one psychoanalyst on staff. A lot of psychiatry departments would also have one, maybe even two psychiatrists who were also psychoanalysts. Starting in the 1970s, however, the medical model became so dominant that all the analysts were either fired or simply not replaced when they retired. And psychology departments never replaced their analysts who retired. There are almost no psychoanalysts in psychology departments in the United States today. There are a few exceptions, of course. A few former students of mine who are brave enough to indicate on their CVs that they are interested in psychoanalysis and Lacan have managed to get university jobs, but usually in very peculiar psychology departments that have historically had a philosophical orientation. There are probably five of them in the whole country. So it’s not easy. In clinics in United States, it’s very difficult to be accepted if you are a Lacanian. Most people think you’re some sort of strange being from another planet, so Lacanians tend to hide their interest in psychoanalysis when they apply for clinical positions. But little by little, things seem to be changing.

TW: So you can see this change among clinicians. Would you say that patients are looking for a Freudian or Lacanian analyst, or even for a psychoanalyst? Or are they just going to therapy?

BF: Well, I would say that the majority are just going to therapy. But I think that one thing that is working in our favor is that Lacan has been read by a lot of people in the universities; he’s read by a lot of people in philosophy and in political theory as well. Slavoj Žižek has kicked open the door to Lacan even in many undergraduate courses. I get contacted by a lot of younger people who want to do a Lacanian analysis. They don’t really know anything about it or what it involves. But they’ve read some commentaries on Lacan that lead them to think he’s a radical leftist – which is hardly true – and they'd rather do therapy with someone whom they believe to be on the left. Often they want to do something that is sort of countercultural. Maybe their parents are willing to pay for them to go into therapy, but they’re certainly not going to see the type of therapist the parents want them to go see. 

Do people actively seek out Lacanians in Sweden? 

TW: I wouldn’t say so. They look for therapy, and by recommendation you get a name. I wouldn’t say that many patients even know they are going into analytic therapy, really.

PL: There is a small group who, since Lacan has gotten almost a mythical status, think it’s kind of cool to go to Lacanian psychoanalysis, and they of course seek Lacanian analysts. But the majority don’t know what they’re up to.

BF: That’s true in the States too. It’s a very small percentage, often a very highly educated group that already knows something about Lacan.


PL: Now that we’re talking about the intellectual discourse where Lacanian psychoanalysis has in a way taken root, what do you, as a clinician who also has a place in this discourse, think the clinical dimension can do to affect or transform it? Sometimes you get a feeling that it’s very detached from the experience Freud and Lacan are very close to, namely the clinical encounter. Can it contribute in any way?

BF: I hope so. It’s funny because in a certain sense there’s been a parallel phenomenon in the United States, which is that both my own work and Slavoj Žižek’s work have become very popular at the same time, usually in different audiences, but sometimes in the same audiences. It’s hard to say how they have really influenced each other. As I said earlier I think Slavoj has sparked a lot of people’s interest in going into psychoanalysis for themselves. Some of them start out in philosophy departments; they get their undergraduate degree in philosophy, and then decide to go into psychology, because they want to become analysts. But I’m not sure how much clinical discourse has affected academic discussions thus far. I know some of my colleagues in philosophy read my books and other books on clinical issues. But I haven’t really seen what the effect of such reading is on their work and how they approach things. Maybe that remains to happen or to be seen.

TW: You said that you had political interests when you were younger. And there is a history of ties between critical theory, the left, and Marxists, on the one hand, and psychoanalysis on the other. What would you say is the relation between psychoanalysis and politics?

BF: I think it’s very complex, but I don’t think psychoanalysis lends itself to any one particular political platform. It helps us see the degree to which each political standpoint is a kind of ideology, and to look at each of them as a system that allows us to see certain things and blinds us to other things. 

I know that there are a lot of Lacanians who want to analyze Donald Trump and they really go to town with it. Personally I don’t think that’s a very interesting thing to do, since Trump is not on their couches and they are thus analyzing “wildly,” projecting a good deal. I think psychoanalysis can help us look at right-wing, middle-of-the-road, and left-wing politics, and think about what’s at stake in each. And it can help us see the contradictions in each person and grasp why they adopt certain political opinions. At least at a personal level it allows each of us to ask ourselves some questions when we’re on the couch: “What led me to adopt a certain political stance?” “What am I running toward?” “What am I running away from?” “What am I hiding from myself?” I think it gives us a lot of clarity about our own political positions. 

I’m not someone who tries to apply psychoanalytic concepts to other realms than the clinical realm. Slavoj does that all the time, and perhaps owing to his influence there are a great many people who apply notion like the real, jouissance, and so on to political systems. I have my reservations about doing that. I understand why they’re doing it, but I’m not convinced of the validity of doing so. My impression is that, in their usage, psychoanalysis becomes a kind of philosophical system. To me psychoanalysis is not a philosophy, it’s a practice. 

PL: Do you think that Lacanian theory and practice can vitalize or de-ideologize Lacanian institutions?

BF: I would say yes, but I don’t think it’s happening. History seems to suggest that the people who are at the heads of many of the psychoanalytic institutes that profess to be Lacanian are incredible ideologues! Psychoanalysis should make people suspicious of their own motives. You would think that, since the analysts who work together in institutes have all gone through their own analyses, their initially grandiose sense of themselves would have become tempered, and that they would understand something about their own egos and unconsciouses – which would, in theory, allow psychoanalytic institutions to function better than other institutions. But they don’t. Analysts at institutes fight like cats and dogs for power among themselves. Let me give you just one example. In Pittsburgh there were at one point three Jungian psychoanalysts working together, and they had to split into two different groups because they just couldn’t get along. The same is true for Freudian analysts, Lacanian analysts, and so on. You would think that a genuinely psychoanalytic institute that really applied psychoanalytic concepts might allow people to find a way to get along and really discuss things, share power, and so on. But it doesn’t seem to be the case.

TW: Is there any exchange of ideas, any ongoing conversation between different perspectives, different schools in America? Perhaps not between institutes, but between people?

BF: Always between individuals: there are often friendships that develop between people from different schools. There are also certain institutes, like NPAP in New York, that are more eclectic. At NPAP, you can take a whole course on Lacan, Freud, Bion, or Klein. Nevertheless, training programs generally have a specific overriding orientation, but they’re opening up a little bit more. What’s happened essentially in the United States is that the old IPA-affiliated institutes almost died at a certain point, about 20-25 years ago. They were almost no new candidates. Nobody wanted to study psychoanalysis anymore at those places. But the newer institutes that were either Jungian or Kleinian or relational began to grow. Those are often the most vibrant ones now. The older institutes are trying to open up more, little by little, but they’re often struggling. Maybe someday there will be more Lacanian institutes. There are two small ones right now, and a couple of others that are perhaps in the process of being created.

PL: What do you think about the future, the place of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and practice in the United States?

BF:I don’t spend much time trying to predict the future. I hope the trend will continue. To my mind it’s only worth continuing as long as the Lacanians are serious ones and not charlatans. Unfortunately, as in any country, in the United States we had a certain number of people who called themselves Lacanians who were terrible theorists, horrible practitioners, and really gave Lacan a bad name. If it’s quality work that they’re doing – great! If not – let them stay at home, let them go somewhere else. I think that’s true everywhere. In France and in South America Lacan became incredibly popular, but only a very small percentage of the people who call themselves Lacanian are doing good work and you have a lot of people who aren't.

TW: What would you say are the main challenges for psychoanalysis today in American culture?

BF: In American culture, and in French culture as well, the biggest challenge is the medical model of psychiatry, which maintains that every problem is due to a chemical imbalance in your brain which can best be treated with drugs. The other main challenge is cognitive behavioral therapy and other very short-term goal-oriented therapies. As you may know, most people in the U.S. have private insurance, and private insurance will almost never pay for psychoanalysis. In fact it rarely even pays for long-term psychotherapy; at most it may cover once a week sessions for thirty weeks. If a psychologist wants to see someone for more than ten sessions, he or she may have to give the insurance company a diagnosis which could potentially be damaging to the person later in life, because it stays on records which could someday become public. So we have to deal with the medical model and the insurance model, and then there is also the DSM – which is a disaster, of course! Worst of all, perhaps, are the drug companies: they have so much power in America, it’s unbelievable. In France as well.  

TW: Could you point out more challenges in life, or in suffering? Or in questions of sexuality, as sexuality is at the core of psychoanalysis. If we think of transgender questions: do you think that there are any problems for psychoanalytic theory to answer those questions in any way? Or does the map fit the landscape, so to speak?

BF: Of that, I’m not sure, but I have a friend and colleague, Patricia Gherovici, who works on transgender issues from a Lacanian perspective. I think that Lacanian theory probably has more to say about gender trouble and transgender issues than a lot of conventional psychoanalysis does, which often doesn’t want to go near such questions. I think that we’re perhaps better equipped to address such questions than other approaches owing to Lacan’s later work on the formulas of sexuation and the sinthome. 

I think more work should be done in the Lacanian circles on so-called eating disorders, which are rampant in the United States. Eating problems of one kind or another are perhaps what lead the most young women, but some young men as well, to be sent to horrible inpatient treatment facilities. Lacanians rarely advertise that they specialize in any specific sort of problems – for example, phobias, impotence, marital conflict, anxiety, or what have you – and have no reputation for treating eating problems. But they probably have a lot to say about them and a good deal of success treating them. Yet there isn't much literature in the Lacanian world on those topics. There probably should be. We tend to look at eating problems as just one symptom among others, while the public tends to focus on symptoms when they go in search of a therapist, trying to find someone who specializes in their particular symptom. I've heard therapists say, “You can’t send people with eating disorders to Lacanians because they don’t know what to do.” I don’t think that’s true, but it's something we rarely talk about publicly, much less write books about that might come to the attention of a broader reading public.


TW: It’s interesting that you said you think there needs to be some work done on this specific topic. Has the lack of writings on the subject anything to do with the phenomenon as such?

BF: Therapists who treat eating problems are often looking for literature that might help them figure out how to handle them. There are a few articles in French that I’ve seen, but I know of no Lacanians who have written books about them. Practitioners who know nothing about Lacan might happen upon a book that purports to talk about the treatment of anorexia and bulimia. That might somehow bring them into a more Lacanian way of thinking, or even just help them with their work with other people.

TW: Can you say something more about what patients that come to you?

BF: Because of the peculiarities of my own practice, being a Lacanian in private practice and also probably because I’ve written and translated a lot, I tend to have a very highly educated population. They aren’t always of high socio-economic status – indeed, rarely so – but they’re people who have a master’s degree at a minimum. Over the years, I have had a lot of doctors, clinicians, and professors on my couch. People who work in other professions come to me, too, but they’ve often studied Lacan in college at some point. This is not true of every Lacanian in the United States, of course. Patricia Gherovici had a job for a number of years working in a low-income and mostly Puerto Rican neighborhood in the Philadelphia area, so she worked with people from many different walks of life, especially from very impoverished walks of life. The type of problems that the people who come to see me come with are all across the board; there’s no regularity to the type of problems they have. 

TW: The question of some kind of loneliness, is it addressed?

BF: It’s addressed, certainly. Loneliness was one of the biggest things that brought people into therapy at the psychology clinic at the university where I taught, where the majority of the patients were under 30. I was shocked over the years to see the real disintegration of people’s families and lives, and to see that people live in such isolated manners today: no real friends, very little contact with their family, or that’s their only contact and they feel very alienated from it and so on. That was a very common complaint at our clinic, which is surprising because the college experience in the United States is reputedly a time when you make a ton of friends. 

These little devices here [points at a mobile phone] have changed peoples’ lives. Twenty-five years ago, when I would teach a class, over the course of the semester the students would get to know each other’s names, they would talk with each other, they would become friends, and they would go and have lunch together after class. By the time I left teaching, nobody talked to anybody anymore in class. The students would come in, look at their phones, text their friends, look at Facebook, and so on. They no longer knew how to talk with each other, they had become very awkward socially, and knew nothing of the social graces or politeness. If, in the course of a class discussion, they had to refer to something one of the other students had said, instead of using his name, they would say, "What he said," and I would have to remind them that he has a name. There’s something new and different going on with human beings.

PL: Does that in any way change the preconditions for the psychoanalytic encounter?

BF: Yes, sure. What I think has started to happen in the States is that even the people who are now training as analysts are afraid of a certain kind of human contact. France is very refreshing to me because people always shake hands with each other and kiss each other – there’s a lot more physical contact. The same is true in Italy. But in America, people are increasingly distant and cold, afraid of human contact and awkward about it. They don’t know how to do things with other people anymore.

TW: So there is some kind of fear.

BF: Yes, and I think it also has to do with a kind of isolation growing up. There are more and more children growing up today in families where there’s only one child, maybe two. Sometimes the families are very fragmented. They don’t learn how to get along with other children very early on in life. When they’re with other children, they’re either very aggressive or they get precociously sexual. Some things that would have been taken for granted earlier in time, when there were more children in each family and there were more connections between different families, aren’t there. Now, in America, people move on average every year and a half. That’s a scary statistic. Jobs send people across the country, or to other countries, all the time now. If you make friends in a certain place and then move a year and a half later, you probably lose most of those friends. You keep up with them for a while, and Facebook gives you the illusion that you can keep up with them as long as you like. But is there much real contact? No, there’s a lot less. In the end you don’t have anybody but yourself anymore. American society is being atomized and it’s very concerning. In the end, your therapist becomes your best friend because he’s the only person you see regularly!

PL: Do you think psychoanalysis can, in a metaphorical sense, help break the screen and open up the dimension of the encounter?

BF: I’m not sure. Maybe it can help break down some of the fears that people have about social contact with other people. But it would be a lot easier if social contact was plentiful right from the outset. 


TW: If we believe that psychoanalysis has something to say about what it is to be a social human being, and therefore also has something to say about contemporary loneliness - the lack of symbolic structures as one major part of the changes in society - would it be a reasonable thought that we who are interested in this should also work harder to be closer to some kind of majority society, in order to have a greater influence on the culture?

BF: You mean like being involved in political movements?

TW: Political movements, or maybe at the university which has been this struggle you talk about, where psychoanalysis really hasn’t gotten its place. Is it sometimes too comfortable to maintain a certain distance to these realities? Or is it necessary for psychoanalysis to be a bit of an outsider? 

BF: Both. I think it’s good for psychoanalysis to be rejected in certain ways by mainstream discourse because it makes it more attractive to certain people who are disaffected, who don’t feel accepted or welcomed by mainstream discourse and who are rebelling against it. I think that it’s potentially a good thing for psychoanalysis. The more psychoanalysis becomes part of mainstream discourse, the more it loses its critical edge and becomes invested in certain kinds of power structures that perhaps subtly but insidiously change the theory and practice itself. 

On the question of what sort of movements analysts could support to try to counter the devastating things that are happening in our time (and wow, there are so many of them!): How could you get psychoanalysts to agree on a political platform when it’s so hard to get two psychoanalysts to agree with each other about anything and work together in a psychoanalytic training institute? To try to give psychoanalysis a place in universities is a worthwhile endeavor. At the same time, not having the university stamp of approval can be a good thing. But it is good to have at least some representation there because that is how many people come to find out about psychoanalysis. Lacan talks about the incompatibility between psychoanalytic discourse and university discourse, and there’s a lot of truth to that. Nevertheless many people become fascinated by psychoanalysis because they hear about it in college. I was happy when I left Duquesne because they actually hired another Lacanian to take my place – that was unbelievable! 

Bruce Fink is a Lacanian psychoanalyst and a major translator of Jacques Lacan. He served as Professor of Psychology from 1993 to 2013 at Duquesne University and is currently an affiliated member of the Pittsburgh Psychoanalytic Center. He is the author of numerous books on Lacan, prominent among which are The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance (1995) and A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique (1997).