An institution is not something that has to go on forever
“Today someone sent an email to Das Unbehagen and asked why we even have to call it psychoanalysis anymore.”
Conversation with Jamieson Webster.
Shelter Island, New York, 4 August 2015.
Emil Asbjörnsen (EA): Could you tell us about Das Unbehagen? What is Das Unbehagen?
Jamieson Webster: Well, the one rule of Das Unbehagen is that no one is allowed to speak for Das Unbehagen! It's sort of Fight Club perhaps, but the idea actually is that it's not a club. It's an amorphous organisation and there is no one person that speaks for it, there is no tagline. We try not to get too sucked into the world of promotion and recruitment. But I can tell you about the history of it. It was started by a group of around ten people – a number of whom where at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute & Society (NYPSI) with me – who felt disillusioned with their training. There just wasn't any good faith between the institute and these candidates, either in terms of what we already had learned in our doctoral studies or what our interests were. They didn't have any flexibility. They had this old model from the 1950s, when psychoanalysis was in its heyday and they were at the top of the game. And even if this is decidedly not true today – psychoanalysis has lost its footing – they acted as if that wasn’t the case. So, all the sacrifices that you make as a candidate in analytic training in terms of time and money – it was really just sheer will and love for psychoanalysis that anyone was willing to engage in this – felt lost on these institutes who acted as if you should be grateful they even bothered to train you in their rarified art. I say this loving psychoanalysis and believing that it's a rarified art.
So, there was an inability from the institute to catch up, both with the absolute enthusiasm that certain people had for the field and with what we wanted for our education. Therefore five of us left, and I knew so many people at other institutes in the city who also seemed unhappy with their training. So we all got together under this signifier, Das Unbehagen, which obviously comes from Freud's Civilization and its discontents. We just wanted to have a conversation about the situation. We felt that it was important.
And we started to talk about this remarkable set of resources. You have all these people with doctoral degrees who aren’t necessarily affiliated with the universities, who want to teach, read and share clinical experiences, and that the problem of it all seemed to be the institutes. Why did it have to be like that? Especially since the institutes don't offer people with clinical degrees anything real at this point, you go through it in order to join organizations to which you pay dues. Practically, the only reason for institutes to exist, as far as I can see, is for lay analysts, who really need the re-specialization and the licence to practice as analysts. The rest of us can practice! To cut it short: you don't need them to authorize you to be an analyst.
One interesting experience from the institute I was at was that I published an op-ed in the New York Times. I did one on Hamlet and one against Buddhism, which I got in a lot of trouble for. They sent out a notice to all the faculty and all the students that you may not call yourself an analyst until you are allowed to do so. I had already had training under different auspices, I was working as an analyst seeing patients. There isn’t anything else I would have called myself. I thought it was a good thing for psychoanalysts to write as psychoanalysts in the public domain. It was this idea of control over the signifier ’psychoanalyst’ – one that I think shouldn’t really be controlled. And it isn’t really controlled, by the way. There are too many kinds of psychoanalysts at this point – as Lacan said, quoting Glover, who are as different as chalk from cheese – for the word to mean any one thing. And yet here they were, telling me I couldn’t call myself a psychoanalyst, one of their own; at least at that point.
So, that's how Das Unbehagen started. And the idea has been to meet people's desires for reading groups and lectures. To bring otherwise unrepresented points of views to the city and build a community in which we support one another in doing this work. And that means that some people are at institutes, some people are IPA analysts, some people are part of institutes that aren't IPA and some people are doing independent training. One of the pleasant things that's coming up is a group of five or six doctoral students who look at these institutes and say like "I don't want to do this. I want to be an analyst but I don't want to sacrifice so much and not be able to study the things I want to study. Why can't I just figure out what I want to read, find teachers, find supervisors, get patients, and do it?" That's the way it used to be done. I think they are going to start a group and support one another and use Das Unbehagen as a foundation. So, that's where we are now.
EA: Are you allowed to practice as a lay analyst in New York? How is the situation?
Jamieson Webster: Well, you have always been able to be a lay analyst even if it could be a bit problematic in terms of what happens if you get sued for malpractice. But people have done it for years. In fact, many of the people who started the NYU post-doc, which is a really big relational program, were lay analysts. They were sociologists, anthropologists and literary scholars. But they were sort of practicing under the radar because there was no control over it as a profession. What has happened in the last ten years or so is that there is a license to be a psychoanalyst, sort of a degree that you can get. So now you can get an MA or PhD from any profession and then re-train at an institute and be a licensed lay psychoanalyst or LP. But that's only one of the questions. The other question concerns all the people who have PhD’s in clinical psychology or degrees in social work who already are allowed to see patients. There is no reason that they can't be analysts, if they want to. I mean, this is the hidden secret! You know, in New York at one point, they wouldn't allow PhD’s or social workers into the institutes. And I think they only allowed PhD’s in the eighties. It's really not that long ago if you think about it. There is no reason why someone who has a PhD should not be able to become an analyst on their own.
We are actually going to have a conference early next year called "Institute No Institute" to grab some of this history and put it out there, because it is really something that has been unwritten. Students are all the time asking me "I really want to be an analyst, what institute should I go to?” And they don't realise that it's something they could figure out on their own terms if they wanted to. Some people really like the structured training, they don't feel like they have the sort of will and self-motivation to do it themselves. That feels protective. Or even rigorous to them. Fine. But it's interesting that people don't actually realise that it is a possibility to decide for yourself.
EA: What is the response or reaction from the established societies to these initiatives, to Das Unbehagen?
Jamieson Webster: I don't know... I feel sometimes too inside it to understand. But I remember that in the very beginning people said that we were a bunch of kids with transference problems, that we were like feral children running wild, being destructive. One analytical group even said that we weren't anti-institutional but the very institutionalisation of hate itself. We aren’t anti-institutional by the way. There isn’t even a ’we’. So the reaction has sometimes been very strong. But I also think it has shown people that things can be done in another way. That there is a vibrant community and that there are young people who aren't just amorphous blobs that need to be taught how to do psychoanalysis, but actually know quite a lot, who are enthusiastic and have leadership capacities, without needing to be beaten down for ten years in psychoanalytic training. I think that has been very important. And it's funny because I can see, just in terms of the language that has been generated in the group, how it is filtering into some of the psychoanalytical societies in New York. They have started lecture series like "Bring back the revolution" and "The coming future of psychoanalysis". I sort of laugh, but at the same time, it's great if it has that ripple effect, if it changes the discourse, or even changes how candidates are treated. However, Das Unbehagen is something distinctly different from putting up a new program; it is a group that tries to be without programming or tries to question the very idea of programs and the forms that these take. There is something different in keeping an institution alive, for the sake of its own stability, rather than follow a group wherever it wants to go, and if it goes nowhere, dissolve it. An institution is not something that has to go on forever.
EA: One thing I come to think about is how much the situation for psychoanalysis in New York differs from that in Sweden. For example, there used to be two psychoanalytical societies in Stockholm until a couple of years ago, when they merged. Now there is one psychoanalytical society in Stockholm, which is the only official one in Sweden. Only in New York there are how many societies...?
Jamieson Webster: I don't know, someone told me there are eighty...! I think there are maybe eight major ones, but someone told me there are actually eighty.
EA: Have there been any rivalry between them? Or disagreements?
Jamieson Webster: Oh, it's just ripe with disagreements. For example, the American Psychoanalytical Association, which obviously is bigger than New York, just sued itself! This is the level of crazy rivalry that is going on. They have just been fighting a court case where one half of it sued the other half, based on disagreements over what is standard psychoanalysis. The American Psychoanalytic Association is projected to go bankrupt in thirty years or something like that, based on the fact that they are not getting as many members that they did once upon a time. I just did this very intense reading of Lacan's paper "Variations on the standard treatment" for this companion to the Écrits that is coming out. And it's amazing to see what he is saying in that article in 1954, that mirrors, now 2015, this kind of infighting inside the institution. He says it's gonna kill us from the inside out. It's an amazing article.
EA: I understand that there is a lot of rivalry amongst the Lacanians in Paris as well. This tendency to rivalry within psychoanalysis – where would you say it comes from?
Jamieson Webster: It really boggles my mind. We had a visit from Angelo Villa, a wonderful analyst from Milan. I brought him because I wanted him to talk about precisely this problem: hate and belonging in psychoanalytic institutes. He said that he has never seen more viciousness than he has seen in psychoanalytic organisations. I think he is right, but I really don't know why. I have racked my brains about it. I don't know if it's because we are in our offices all day and it's not a particularly communal profession. I mean, you are alone with yourself and your patients and then suddenly you get with your peers and you act out? I look at other kinds of organisations, businesses and friends that run businesses. It's not like they don't have their own complications, Oeidpal dynamics, but they have very real things they have to accomplish – making products and distributing them, profit, employees that need to be paid and taken care of – and this real work tempers some of the imaginary. And what are we really doing running psychoanalytical institutes? Nobody is making money, everybody is a volunteer, yet you pretend you're running a corporation and that you are upholding a kind of symbolic standard, like a university. It is neither a corporation that takes care of its employees and makes decisions based on profit, nor is it a university, which is actually run more democratically and with serious checks on the institutions accountability to students. None of this is the case, because they are all small independent, non-profit, volunteer run entities. Things quickly get imaginary. I think all this spirals, literally, into the mirror. And you're going to get full throttle aggression at that point. The stakes are so small, what these fights are about are so unbelievably small.
EA: How would you describe the situation for psychoanalysis in New York? Has it lost some of its popularity, parallel to all this rivalry and fighting?
Jamieson Webster: The analytical presence within the medical field has definitely lost its throne. In 1950, 1960 and probably 1970, you couldn't step into a psychiatric facility without it being run by the top psychoanalysts. Today that's not the case at all. It's psychopharmacologists, neuroscience, CBT. That being said, in the US the academy is full of psychoanalysis. Every literature program, every film program, every gender studies program is filled with psychoanalytic thinking. So I think there is a new enthusiasm, that you also see with the hype around people like Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou and what is going around with Verso. It's funny because it's unpopular, but it’s also popular. You have shows like Mad Men and The Sopranos that have psychoanalysis in them. It’s within popular culture. At the same time I see psychologists or child psychotherapists who are afraid to use the word psychoanalyst on their card, because they think the patients are going to close the door. That's actually not the case. My practice is fine, a lot of analysts’ practices are fine. And there is something about firmly representing that position that draws people that will actually be great patients who are looking for something that differs from the quick fix, the drugs or whatever.
I don't know if that's just New York, though.
EA: Who would you say comes to psychoanalysis in New York today? Who are the patients?
Jamieson Webster: It's funny, because I have people who find me because they see me somewhere or are reading my work. But I also have a Psychology Today profile, which doesn't say anything weird, anything about Lacan or Freud, it just says: I'm interested in anxiety, dreams and so on. It all sounds a bit silly, but I get amazing clients from that. They haven't read anything I've written, they aren’t running the referral back channels for the most amazing therapist on the island of Manhattan – something spoke to them about the way that I present myself as a quote unquote "therapist", hiding the psychoanalytic sort of identity but conveying it through a few paragraphs on how I listen and what I think I do.
EA: Do they know that they are in psychoanalysis, or in psychoanalytic therapy?
Jamieson Webster: No, they don't know what they are in! They just show up at the door. It's great, because at some point they're like "So what's that couch?". They don't understand why it's there and they are not on it. They see the head indentation of someone else that has been lying there, and by the time they ask they have been thinking about it for months, maybe years. And usually, at the point they ask you – it's a very important point in the treatment – they're sort of wondering what it means to go further.
EA: Who are interested in becoming psychoanalysts in New York today? Are they from the medical field, are they psychologists? Or are they from other fields, like the humanities, philosophy?
Jamieson Webster: Well, usually it's someone who has benefited from their own analysis. First and foremost, it is psychologists, social workers and people in the humanities. Lay analysts are normally people in the humanities or the social sciences who are disillusioned with academia, and then got a lot out of their analysis.
The academy is not doing well in the US, people there don't have jobs, they don't have teaching positions. You can do your PhD at Yale for five years, and you have to get a job in Wisconsin. So there's a lot of disappointment with what used to be a guaranteed path. I think the idea of being an analyst offers a different alternative, similar to what they do, as they are very good readers.
Psychiatrists are more rare. But when I was a candidate at NYPSI I was in a class of mainly psychiatrists. I then had a feeling, I am not sure if I am right about this, that going into analytic training was their excuse to go in analysis. By the time you become a psychiatrist after medical school, you're not really trained to provide therapy, and all the sudden you're doing all this therapy, you're getting all this information from people, but you don't have any tools to manage it, or what its stirring up in you. I think these students felt very overwhelmed, and incompetent, but also this made them curious about themselves. I wish it was sort of back-to-front. That they would go into analysis and sort of figure out what they wanted to do for their medical training and otherwise.
But the thing that makes me the saddest is when I teach undergrads and I can't give them any good answer on what direction they should take. I teach Freud at Eugene Lang College, and some say "I love this, I really think I want to be an analyst, I'm a psychology major and I did this because it’s what I love". I don't know whether to tell them to get a degree in literature, social work, or to take a degree in clinical psychology, which is getting more and more cognitive and experimental and less psychodynamically clinical. Before it used to be a couple of amazing clinical-psych-programs that were very psychodynamic, but they're slowly disintegrating.
EA: What do you think needs to be done for psychoanalysis to regenerate and survive?
Jamieson Webster: I hope to hear the answer to that question from some of the people that are younger.
Myself, nowadays, I focus on writing cross-disciplinarily, and more in popular mediums. Every time something pops up I reach out to my journalism friends at The Guardian. I'm not going to write for a journal, not ever again. I'd rather focus my energy on places where psychoanalysis can still have a voice. And it's been fascinating, my first book has popped up in very weird places. Amongst Jungian candidates, or art theorists. It's great to see that they are interested in new psychoanalytic thinking.
EA: What was the mistake, from earlier analysts and institutions?
Jamieson Webster: Hubris, is my spontaneous answer. One of the things you get a sense of in your own analysis is limits. And it's not that I don't mess up with respect to limits in my own mind, in my own life, my own hubris, but I have come to know when I cross the line and how I tend to do it. As an analyst I find it very important to make interpretations that stay just short of crossing the line with respect to your own hubris in the face of a patient’s life. If you cross the line and the patient says "That was not right", you have to be able to say "You're right, that wasn't right". You don't have to give a huge explanation as to why your pathology led you to do that, you just apologise! Right? And then you try to start again. So, I don't understand why so many analysts lack that capacity to admit what they don’t know, and when they are wrong. There is something about the hubris and megalomania, the power of the analyst and his supposed insight, that took over the field.
That is why Lacan is so important for me, because for him everything is about an attack on what we think we know. And the biggest transference is around someone who is in the position of knowledge, and mastery, if there is any, belongs to the unconscious, which means that you never get your hands on it.
So why doesn’t this critical thinking exist when analysts get together? Historically, well, there is much one could speculate about: what happened with Freud, the anointing of his daughter, the secret committee and so forth. But when it comes to the history of psychoanalysis I think there is something more important to be analysed: the history of our relationship with knowledge as a field. People have said to me, and I believe them, that real scientists are much more humble. Real literary theorists of poetry are much more humble about what is possible to know.
Sometimes it's really disconcerting. As sometimes when I present clinical material, the effect of the group, on the presentation of the case, is just imaginary, its just thier own projections. It's insane, the interpretations that they throw out, or the accusations of counter-transference. They can say "You should have done this!" or "You should have done that!" But there is no "should have done” anything when you're talking about clinical work and clinical process. This assertion of mastery will never help someone struggling with a case to find their ear. Why we can’t get together and discuss a case in any way that is useful is mindboggling to me. It really speaks against our field.
EA: Where do you think psychoanalytic theory needs to renew itself, in what areas?
Jamieson Webster: In writing. I don't think there are any specific areas, but I think the writing in general feels tired. The question is to write in new and interesting ways. People in our field are divided in two, there are those who are the clinicians and those who are the theoreticians. But I don't see the two things as separate. I don't imagine that anything I write will be particularly appealing to people who just want the straight clinical kind of writing. But I am also happy when the clinical type writing people take on theory in order to write in new fascinating ways.
Personally, one of my pet peeves is Lacanianism that is unclinical. As if you can just grid Lacan on to the world, on to politics, literature and art. It's too knowing. The clinicians that I love are some of the early Lacanians: Serge Leclaire, Maud Mannoni and Octave Mannoni, who were just writing about patients. I think it's important to remind everyone that psychoanalysis is and always is about work with patients.
EA: Maybe to remember this could be a way for psychoanalysis to reinvent or regenerate itself?
Jamieson Webster: I agree with you. And I think we have to create links between different groups and talk more to each other. Because the other thing is the loneliness of the profession, the loneliness of being an analyst.
Lacan had that idea at the very end of his life, that the most important thing for the analyst was, even if you authorise yourself– you have sole responsibility in a treatment, and this cannot be externalized – you still need colleagues. If you stay alone, you will drift into narcissistic solipsistic insanity. But then, how do we create links without forming an organisation that thinks they have some authorising role to play in professional development? And how can you bridge all the varied people interested in psychoanalysis? If some people are clinicians, and some aren't, how do you make presentations clinically? What are the boundaries of confidentiality?
EA: Do you think the psychoanalytic community should just let go of it and say “we are not interested in authorising anyone to do anything”?
Jamieson Webster: I think so. I mean the charge that we were a bunch of feral wild children that were going to destroy everything was about this hold they want to have. To ensure that you are not doing wild analysis, at the same time that everyone knows that so much wild, boundary breaking analysis is being done in these institutes. But if you are outside, you must be completely out of control – untrained as they like to say. That's their game.
Today someone sent an email to Das Unbehagen and asked why we even have to call it psychoanalysis anymore. And everyone got really scared! And really possessive! But my attitude is, sure, why not? We could call it something else. I don’t want to, I love the word ’psychoanalyst’, but if someone else, probably someone young, wanted to invent a new name, and I loved it, I would follow them. I would lay down my title.
Jamieson Webster is a psychologist, psychoanalyst and founding member of Das Unbehagen. Writer for The Guardian, The Huffington Post and The New York Times. Author of The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis (Karnac, 2011) and – written with Simon Critchley – Stay, Illusion! (Pantheon books, 2013).