Psychoanalysis has never just been a clinical theory
”… you can't be a serious philosopher without reading Freud.”
Conversation with Robert Pfaller.
Gothenburg, Sweden, 4 November 2016.
Tobias Wessely (TW): How did you become interested in psychoanalysis from the beginning?
Robert Pfaller: I think my access was through Althusser. Originally I was interested in philosophy, specifically Wittgenstein, and from there I had a sort of anti-psychology stance, and at that point I suspected Freud to be one of those. But through Althusser I quickly guessed that psychoanalysis is not a psychology. Althusser introduced psychoanalysis on the level of the method into Marxism, not like the Freudian Marxists, who did this on the level of the object, and this method was what really interested me. For Freudian Marxism, like in the Frankfurt school for example, psychoanalysis comes in when it remains to explain how crazy people are (when they do not go for revolution), but for Althusser psychoanalysis was a tool to reformulate the crucial methodical categories of Marxism, for example to replace "contradiction" by "over-determination". This got me very interested. I was reading Freud, and of course also Lacan, and I became a member of Vienna's Lacanian school.
Emil Asbjörnsen (EA): How is the view on psychoanalysis in Vienna today?
Robert Pfaller: I suppose it is just as split as everywhere. I think there are some things that spoil the reputation of psychoanalysis. First, that its clinical success is not very evident. Many people know people who have been in treatment in many years without very convincing outcomes. Secondly, what also spoils the reputation, is the policy of the institutions that keep people dependent for a very long time. If you want to become an analyst you have to be very fast before you reach pension age! I think, on the level of the institution, there is a lot to be done to improve its public image. The fact that the institutions have been constantly hostile against each other has not been good for the public image. Meanwhile, the two biggest institutions in Vienna have reconciled, they have founded the common Vienna Psychoanalytic Academy. But that was mainly due to the new hostility against other institutions, the recently emerged Sigmund Freud private university, which is not thoroughly psychoanalytical, it offers a variety of trainings. And even if it's a bit different now, the Sigmund Freud museum was also opposed to these two institutions for psychoanalytical formation.
EA: How come the museum was in opposition to the main associations?
Robert Pfaller: I'm not enough involved to explain the details. But several years ago, due some restructuration of the museum's scientific board, all of a sudden all the psychoanalysts disappeared, and then there was a conflict. It was really a shame. It probably happens everywhere, but in Vienna the tendency to split on a narrow ground is strong, and for a general public this is really a shame because psychoanalysis could be one of the prides of the city. But at least there are small attempts within Austria's universities to implement psychoanalysis a bit now, not only for clinical psychologies but also for artists or literature theorists, to give them some of the tools available in psychoanalysis. Especially the Lacanians have done a good job with regard to this. Yet, if you compare this to other cities and what they do with their great thinkers I think we have seen quite poor results until now in Vienna. On the other hand, I must admit, Vienna has an important scientific fund, the WWTF (Wiener Wissenschafts-, Forschungs- und Technologiefonds), and they have supported psychoanalytical research, too. My psychoanalytic research group for example was awarded a project in 2009 which gave us a substantial support.
EA: Is Freud present in the public debate?
Robert Pfaller: Not too much I would say. Of course there are some analysts who are active but it's a minority. August Ruhs is one of them, who always insisted on that psychoanalysis is a cultural theory as well. Analysts like him, or my friend Georg Gröller, they write articles in the newspapers on a regular basis. But of course many analysts restrict themselves to clinical practise. Some efforts have been made for many years concerning the collaboration between analysis and film theory. They have made a good job in showing that psychoanalysis has a say also in the cultural debate.
TW: And are you still working in any groups together with clinical psychoanalysts?
Robert Pfaller: Yes, that's the particular feature of this Viennese research group Stuzzicadenti, of which I was a founding member in 1999. The intent of this very group was to bring clinical analysts and cultural theorists together. The proceeding was mostly that we discussed cases and theory. Once a week we met and someone presented a case or a theoretical question and then we read the texts that would refer to that problem. I don't know if there are many groups like that in Vienna, but there is for example a new, young group which does very interesting work, they are also a mix of clinicians and theorists. They belong to the Lacanian school and are active in the logical section.
EA: For clinical psychoanalysts it is thought of as important with an experience of being in psychoanalysis yourself, to attain a certain kind of knowledge and understanding of the theory and method. Do you have any such experience?
Robert Pfaller: No I don't. Yet, even if you can think differently about this, I would claim that if you know the method of psychoanalysis you can exercise it in different settings, not only in the clinic, to see the efficiency of it and to learn about it. You have of course to do with transference in your love life, in the media, or at the university, when you teach students and so on. So if you get aware of this you can easily see repetitions, projective identifications, acting outs, etc.
TW: Since you are a philosopher, what would you say psychoanalysis mean to you as a philosopher?
Robert Pfaller: I think one has to acknowledge that Freud is a philosopher – for the simple reason that he insisted on many philosophical questions which belonged to the heritage of philosophy but had been forgotten for a long time within philosophy. For example, the question of happiness. Do you know a single philosopher who seriously raises the question of happiness after the 18th century? I think at the very moment when Kant comes in and speaks of duty, or Hegel of the state, the question of happiness gets treated like a minor problem, a little desert on the big menu of philosophy.
TW: It's not one of Kant's three critiques.
Robert Pfaller: Definitely not! But Freud insisted on this question, which had been crucial for Aristotle, Epicurus, Spinoza, and in this sense I think Freud gave something back to philosophy itself had forgotten. And take another question, illusion for example. There is not a serious theory of illusion in philosophy after Spinoza. Sure, you have it to a degree in Kant, the transcendental appearance that doesn't go away even after it has been detected. Apart from that, and a little bit with Marx and ideology, there is not such a systematic insistence on what illusion actually is and how it functions, until you find it again with Freud. In this sense I think you can't be a serious philosopher without reading Freud.
TW: I'm sure not all philosophers would agree about this relevance of psychoanalysis. Don't you think it is even the case that some have almost an aversion to it?
Robert Pfaller: Well, I think very often the amount of affect corresponds to the amount of ignorance. At the moment people start knowing a bit more, the affect decreases. Yet, again, psychoanalysis is not completely innocent to the bad reputation that it got in the public. Very often psychoanalysts spoke like the all knowing masters, they presented their theory not, like Freud, as an open set of questions to raise curiosity, but like a dogmatic, almost a religious teaching. But, on the other hand it is clear that hatred against psychoanalysis is also caused by the fact that psychoanalysis insists on some matters which people don't like to speak about. Sexuality for example. But of course it's interesting that this conflictuality as Althusser has stated, the conflictuality of a science against the ruling common sense very often repeats itself within this very science. So all the sciences that have a conflict with an existing common sense always have to split within themselves, split into different schools and so on. You have that in Marxism, you have that in psychoanalysis, and I think this forgetfulness of sexuality is one of the points of conflict between psychoanalysis and common sense, but it is meanwhile also a point of conflict within psychoanalysis, because also many psychoanalysts like to stop speaking about sexuality.
TW: One could easily get the feeling that there tends to be more conflicts in psychoanalytical institutions than in other institutions.
Robert Pfaller: Absolutely. This is also a stunning fact in a way. Being a Marxist myself I know the same mechanism also from Marxist groups, and again one would say that the more a theory is critical and allows for self criticism, the less its institutions are able to exercise it. That's a funny disproportion, because no theory would be as adequate to analyse the conflict within the institution as psychoanalysis itself. Marxism would be a very good theory to use to analyse Stalinism and all the deviations and so on. But still, very rarely these theories have been applied to do so. Again I think this can partly be explained by a Freudian thought, namely that the sharper a theory is the more it is on the other hand in danger to serve as rationalisation of people's spontaneous interests. Psychoanalysts hate each other and they find very refined reason to do so, to not have to bother with the other. That's always a comfortable way to avoid discussion and refinement of the theory.
EA: So the theory itself becomes sort of a defence mechanism?
Robert Pfaller: Exactly. That's my suspicion. At the same time it must be clear that I'm only telling you my impressions. I'm an outsider and I just pertain to some marginal groups and see a bit how the institutions function. I'm not involved in these conflicts.
EA: It is still interesting to hear your impressions. Last night we heard your lecture in which you talked about this cultural shift that happened 30-40 years ago, and it came to my mind that it seems like psychoanalysis has gone through a shift parallel to this, from being in its heyday to a sort of crisis. I’ve talked to people who say that it seems like psychoanalysis has this doubleness today, where it is both popular and unpopular at the same time. We can see it in popular culture, in tv-shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men, and there seems to be a high interest in for example your writing and the writing of Slavoj Žižek. But at the same time there are clinicians who are afraid to say they are inspired by psychoanalysis, or even to use the title "psychoanalyst" on their card. I'm not sure if you agree with me, maybe your impression is different, but how would you explain this shift for psychoanalysis from popularity to both unpopularity and popularity?
Robert Pfaller: Well, to give a psychoanalytic answer, we might say that psychoanalysis has become an object, not of work, study, science, but an object of fascination. It's a kind of cultural icon, just like Stalinism, something you immediately know and feel familiar with but at the same time have ambiguous feelings about. Everybody recognises the couch and the chair, wherever you see them they tell something. They same thing goes for the face of Freud.
There is a wonderful German philosopher, Klaus Heinrich, a great cultural theorist who wrote many beautiful books, also about Freud. He has a very nice take on fascination where he says "fascination is where mankind keeps itself stuck concerning its most vital interests". So, powered by ambivalent tendencies, you stay stuck at this certain point of fascination, you hate and love but you don't get into any negotiation of these two binary pools, you are stuck on this one thing which unites both, which certifies both drives.
EA: Sort of as a fetish?
Robert Pfaller: Yes, exactly, the fetish embodies fascination. And maybe psychoanalysis has ceased to be a working instrument and has more become a fetish, due to this cultural shift. What has changed due to this shift is that people have lost a perspective for progress. In the seventies people had an idea of progress, "tomorrow we will all be employed" or "there will at least be social welfare for everybody", "tomorrow will be better than today". I think today, from the middle of the eighties, this perspective of progress got subsequently cancelled, and all of a sudden people were doubting if their children would be able to afford decent housing or a car. I think psychoanalysis, like Marxism, is a theory with a notion of progress. And when people lose this hope they get a different relationship with regard to such theories. The majority lose the relationship because they don't see any space for improvement. If tomorrow doesn't seem to be better you don't need a theory that promises improvement. But I think this loss of hope is a general symptom of society. Psychoanalysis is only one place where you can see the sacrifices this brings about.
TW: In what way would you say psychoanalysis is important for a good analysis of the current political situation?
Robert Pfaller: Well, I think what we can observe is, on a very basic level of everyday experience, that most people of western society have lost most of their relationship to pleasure. All the pleasures of the seventies, the eighties and maybe even the early nighties, smoking, drinking, sex, wearing high heels, car driving, flirting, joking - all this got despised by different political, health and moral reasons. I think this is a tremendous shift that does not only concern the ethical dimension of individuals relationship to pleasure. More importantly, it mainly concerns the relationship between individuals within society. Because, from this new principle pleasure is perceived as something that cannot be shared. Pleasure is now seen as some kind of miracle, and if you still have some pleasure you must have stolen it from me, because I cannot see where my part could be in your pleasure. 30 years ago this was not a problem for people, they thought "ah, you're in a good mood, that's nice, now as I see you in a good mood I'm also in a better mood". Today when you're in a good mood you are in danger, someone might slap you in the face, because they want you to be as sad as they are, they can't bare your good mood. I think this is a typical development of neoliberalism and its popular culture version, postmodern ideology, and this leads to an enormous dis-solidarisation in society. It leads to permanent envy of people against each other. And, as Freud has stated, envy is always an obstacle against justice. Envy is not what allows us to fight for equality, it is the opposite, it is what hinders us to fight for equality. Because we envy not those who take the money from us, we don't envy the big corporations, we envy the poor immigrant neighbour who grills his lamb in the courtyard as we smell it. Then we say, "it's unbearable that we have to smell this lamb". So, hostility is deflected into a struggle between the weak and the weak.
TW: So psychoanalysis can point out and address the problem of pleasure but also, maybe even more important, the problem of sharing?
Robert Pfaller: Yes, but of course not in the sense of sharing economy, which is popular now. I think it concerns people's ability to see the universal in themselves and in the other. I think this is what postmodern culture has extinguished in people. Everybody just feels to be his own species, they are not able to feel, as Kant would have put it, mankind in oneself. And I think this repeats itself in the relationship between the private and the public person. People are less and less encouraged to act as public men, as Richard Sennett has pointed out nicely. People are keen to behave as private persons, not as their public role, even if the public space would expect that from them. But whatever strikes people today as an encouragement to behave a little better, happier and more elegantly than they may actually feel, is today perceived by them as a foreign imposition upon their personal freedom and authenticity. Of course it can be repressive if you get told by somebody to behave, but we should not underestimate that this is also cultures injunction to the individual: it is not just some other people's injunction, it is the culture as such, and this injunction of culture is actually what allows people to be happy.
When I feel as if I in some way must dress up a bit and walk the streets in something more than my pyjamas, then it's not only that I act more respectful towards others; this acting also transforms my own emotional life. And after I’ve acted a bit politely I forget my stomach diseases, my bad mood, and so on. Again, I think the forgetfulness of this is one of the crucial neoliberal effects on culture, as it makes people stop feeling universality within themselves. And when they stop feeling the capacity of universality they can only perceive the other as a threat. What you do, what you want for me, never stands for any universality and in that sense it cannot be shared, it can only be your particularity. If you take smoking for example, it is one of the interesting practices where people show generosity. When I eat my schnitzel it's a rare case that I ask you if you would like a slice of it, but you will rarely find a smoker who starts smoking without offering you one of his cigarettes. I think this is an interesting point of social contact between individuals, as we do not have to many practises of generosity that let us share things. And I was very impressed by a photograph that Sueddeutsche Zeitung in Germany has been putting on its homepage now. They have a series on World War I and this photograph shows a German soldier giving fire to a British prisoner of war, maybe he had also been giving him the cigarette before. I think this is a very impressive image, because it testifies to the fact that not only was there a certain politeness between enemies, it also refers to the fact that in the first World War soldiers on both fronts were fraternising. When their commanders were out of sight they started to exchange goods and family photos with the enemy. I find that moving, and I think we here have something that has changed since and we are more and more trained to perceive the enemy as the utmost evil that must be extinguished. There is no minimal generosity possible with the enemy. I ask myself, if soldiers today are not able to smoke, how would they ever be able to offer anything to the enemy?
I think the smoker in public space was accepted and welcome as long as people were aware that his smoking was just not his private passion, his sickness and addiction, but that his smoking was a kind of duty in the public space. Just as it is a duty to be dressed a bit nice and behave a bit politely, also smoking was an elegant gesture. It allowed people to calm down, to behave in a ceremonial way, alluding to some famous movie images, and to display a bit of sovereignty. This is what the public space required from its dwellers. And as long as this universal dimension of the other was acknowledged – as long as I saw in your behaviour your following of your duty to public space then your smoking was welcome. At the very moment that neoliberalism teaches us that everybody is on his or her own, and everybody is just his or her private identity, then I start to feel that you should only smoke at home and not come to the public space and poison me.
EA: Would you say that a highlighting of these social gestures, the mutual duties of the public space, is in contradiction with the traditional focus on the intrapsychical in psychoanalysis? Does psychoanalysts need a change of focus?
Robert Pfaller: On the Freudian level I would say, psychic conflict is a conflict where individuals try to reconcile the private within themselves with the public in themselves. Morality, respect for the law and so on. On the level of Lacanian theory I would say, if we could formulate one of the key problems of psychoanalytic treatment as to deal with jouissance and to allow jouissance to transform into pleasure, then this is precisely where this problem is at stake. For example, when I perceive the smoker as a public man, as playing a role, then I have pleasure in the smoking. I can share it and I can say "ok, this is duty, this is the universal in you, I respect your duty and your duty is my advantage". Yet when I only see authenticity and identity in the other, then I feel as if smoking is his jouissance. And I think many of the measures taken against smoking today are actually desperate measures against what is perceived as jouissance: "the other is so stupid that he doesn't know smoking is dangerous". We have this stupidity of the other as his stubborn jouissance, and we have to castrate him by forcing him to know that smoking is dangerous. We have to write it on the cigarette box! This is one of the cases when you perceive the other as jouissance, as an enjoying other who escapes castration, because castration means we have to acknowledge the reality principle, we have to stop being completely stupid. This other must therefore have escaped the reality principle and castration, and then, in a way, we have to castrate him. But what we give the other is just another level of jouissance, “haha, now I wrote that smoking kills you on the box”. And I think in this sense psychoanalysis has got a political duty today: to transform this exchange of jouissance, and this misperception of things as jouissance, into a kind of convenient social atmosphere where respect, politeness and shared pleasure can occur. Just as, according to Freud, neurotic suffering has to be transformed into normal human misery, also this contemporary obsession with the other's presumed gigantic jouissance has to be transformed into a recognition of normal little human pleasures.
TW: Speaking of these public duties which allow people to share pleasure, which you see as lacking in the public sphere, is it possible to formulate new forms of duties?
Robert Pfaller: No, we are not to give people duties, because this will only fall on the side of a foreign position, whoever utters a duty is a perpetrator. What we have to do is to change the perception of some of the duties. Because the neoliberal ideology is “be yourself”, and when you are completely yourself then you are free and happy. Psychoanalysis teaches us the opposite: people are not happy when they are themselves, because when they are completely themselves they can not exceed to any pleasure, because every pleasure implies some malign dimension, something bad is involved in every pleasure, sex is immoral and disgusting, alcohol is poisonous, partying costs money and sleep, listening to music is a waste of time ... When you face pleasure you have to be able to take into account some displeasure – or as Batallie would have put it, some transgression of your everyday economy of time, money, taste or whatever enter a space where you are beyond your everyday rational economy. When you party you act as if you were not tired, when you drink you don't care that it is poisonous, when you invite people you act as if everything could be given away for free. This is required of celebrating and this is also required for, as Bataille would have said, being sovereign. In our normal economy of time, money, sleep etc. we just serve life, like servants. But when we are sovereign we are, as it were, at eye level with life, and demand to get something back from it. I think this is why a be-yourself-ego is always most hostile against pleasure, since every pleasure involves displeasure, and this is not in conformity with the ego; it is not "ego-syntonic".
At this point, culture comes in as the auxiliary force that allows people to overcome their own hindrances against pleasure – by giving them a little command, such as, for example "come on, don't be a spoilsport". I think the key function of culture is precisely this: to reconcile people with their pleasures. Freud has some nice takes on this, for example when he says "sometimes religion command things that otherwise religion itself prohibits". This doesn't necessarily say anything good about religion, because it can address killing for example, but the same thing can equally concern sex. These injunctions by culture for transgressing culture's rules can sometimes be good and sometimes not. Anyway this is the point where Bataille took a very interesting lesson from Freud, as he says that culture actually is what commands you to enjoy. And this is not a superego injunction. The superego injunction is "be yourself!" (which is "enjoyment" proper, in the precise Lacanian sense of the term). Culture, on the contrary, says, “ok, don't be a spoilsport, allow yourself a little pleasure, go with your friends for a beer and celebrate their birthday” (which is enjoyment's friendly face of "pleasure", in Lacan's sense).
Now the current postmodern constellation with regard to pleasure is that precisely this friendly injunction of culture gets perceived as the upmost perpetration of individuals self-being and well-being. And when universities say “read great authors, read Shakespeare” then students protest, demand "trigger warnings" and say “but some people are killed there, this traumatises me, why didn't you tell me that Macbeth is about killing?”. This is the caricature example of a constellation where culture's injunctions for the symbolic order – such as "don't be a spoilsport", "you need these texts in order to experience pleasure and in order to generate your capacity to enjoy literary texts, in order to know what literary formation is about" and so on – where this injunction, or this symbolic order, is taken as a kind of primordial father injunction. So, what actually would bring individuals out of their sinister enjoyment, and make them able to feel pleasure, is, on the contrary, perceived as what deprives them of their pleasure. Or to put it this way, the struggle: symbolic order against jouissance, is misperceived as the struggle: primordial father against one's well-being.
TW: Do I read you right if I understand you have a different view on the superego imperative than, for example, Slavoj Žižek has? That in your view it is not as much "Enjoy!" as it is "Be yourself!"?
Robert Pfaller: I would not see that as a difference. "Be yourself!" is one instance of this "Enjoy!". It's not the only one, you have the same when the angry person can't stop being angry for example. Then superego says enjoy, don't stop being angry. Or the jealous husband that doesn't stop being jealous. That is also his enjoyment. And when the "be your self person" doesn't want to stop being himself, it is also an instance of the same mechanism. Superego's injunctions get people to do what the French philosopher Alain called, "making oneself a character out of one's misfortune".
EA: Do you have the impression that there is a resistance within the psychoanalytical circles against using psychoanalysis as a philosophy or a cultural theory?
Robert Pfaller: I have experienced that sometimes, but I would not say that is a fact more than in any other field. There is the same view among philosophers on adapting philosophy, or a certain philosopher, as a tool for interpretation of culture. In the big picture I have been treated very fair by psychoanalysts, and they often were very interested in the fact that psychoanalysis was applied outside the field, they were curious of my explorations. I would say the interest was higher than in other fields. I have also been very well received among psychoanalysts and I got my scientific prizes from several psychoanalytical institutions, not from cultural theory or philosophy for example.
EA: The reason for my question is that many psychoanalysts would say that it is important for psychoanalytical theory to be rooted in clinical practice. That once you start to develop psychoanalytical theory too much at a distance from clinical practice it loses something. What are your thoughts on the relation between the practice and the theory?
Robert Pfaller: I think if you look at the development of the theory in Freud, you will clearly not be able to deal with clinical questions in a strict sense without dealing with questions of cultural theory. You can't think of neurosis unless you think about a certain restrictive sexual and moral climate that made bourgeois people neurotic in the early 1900s. Or if you think of Totem and Taboo, this is not only cultural application of Freud's theory, this is also a sharpening of his own concepts of obsessional neurosis, narcissism and omnipotence of thought, for example. Or think of Obsessive acts and religious rituals, a very interesting text. By the means of cultural theory he enlightens what is at stake in obsessional neurosis, and then, in the middle of the text, he shifts the perspective, and all of a sudden he delivers a key to what happened in the history of religions, for example in Christianity, when all of a sudden many of the sacraments got abandoned and a good part of the rituals got miniaturised. A long time a ago people were put under water and now they only put their finger tip into a bowl. That is not Freud's own example but that is the miniaturisation of rituals that he points out and explains. And we can understand that only when we know that in obsessional neurosis we have to do with this same constant tendency to miniaturise. So, I think from its very beginning, and for good reason, psychoanalysis has never just been a clinical theory. It has always also been a cultural theory, and this was also needed for it to sharpen its concepts.
EA: Would you say that psychoanalytic theory needs a clinic? Can psychoanalysis live on without a clinical practice?
Robert Pfaller: Well, I think, again, if Freud didn't have had the neurotics he could not have discovered the normal function in the psychic apparatus. In a way you have to have two states of the same apparatus in order to understand what goes wrong that normally goes right. On the other hand, the neurotic symptom is not the only case where the psychic apparatus runs differently, you also have the dream, the slip, the joke. You have a number of instances where you can compare different functionings of the psyche. In this sense I would say that psychoanalysis has many roots, but it can never survive with just one of them.
If you think of what a good cultural theory is in psychoanalysis, it is when it produces something unexpected and not just makes simple clinical applications to culture. For example I don't think Freud's theory of art is best where he speaks about art. When Freud speaks about art he is more interested to find indications in art for his clinical assumptions. He finds it interesting that prominent literary texts are about killing the father and so on. But that doesn't explain the literary quality of these texts. He is mostly interested in that this motive has been recognised by great poets, but that's in a way still his clinical theory. What he writes about Dostoyevsky is mostly part of his clinical theory and not of his aesthetic theory. But when he writes about the joke, or the perfection of the symptom in the psychopathology of everyday life, that's when Freud is a brilliant art theorist. If you just think of his explanation of the one detail, the forgetfulness of the name Signorelli, in my view, that's a perfect art theory! Because that says exactly why the whole thing has to have this precise (apparently meaningless) form, and why the form is determined by several chains of necessities which all unite in this one element. I think that is exactly how art theory has to proceed. Very often when Freud speaks about clinical matters he is the best art theorist and he then gives the methodological rigidity that art theory requires.
EA: Do you think psychoanalysis, as a practice as well as theory, will survive in the future?
Robert Pfaller: Of course I see the institutions, and especially the clinical ones, in great danger. For example neuroscience wants to conquer that field, and I think when neuroscience says that it can confirm Freud's discovery it has to be understood as a hostile takeover attempt. And I think at this very moment psychoanalysis should really wake up and try to find a form of institution that would be fit for the future and allow it to find the framework in which it can assert itself as a recognised science of public interest and of high standard. I still find it a bit murky, that when you want to become a medical doctor you study at the university and you undergo certain training, but when you want to become a psychoanalyst you have to join something like a secret society and belong to a certain club. I find that very disappointing and I think that is part of its bad reputation, even if it differs among countries. But I think that is a problem that requires to be solved even if I don't have a solution. But of course here I think psychoanalytical groups should forget their hostilities and try to work on a solution for the 22th century.
TW: Do you think psychoanalysis would be better of if it was integrated in the university?
Robert Pfaller: That is a very difficult question. We must take to the account how the university went down during the last period of neoliberal reforms. I don't know if the university would be the best place for it. But I would claim that it must be somehow organised as a kind of public space. It can't be a secret club in which you have to be friend with people to be accepted. I think this incestuous relationship that the clubs maintain with their candidates, on the one hand you are assessed with regard to your theoretical achievements, on the other hand you are analysed with regard to your neurotic background, that has to be separated. I don't know exactly how that could function but I think that has to be solved in a better way.
TW: And there is also a lot of money circulating. What role does that play would you say?
Robert Pfaller: Well, in the worst cases it reminds you of those pyramid games! Psychoanalysis works in a way like that, first you have to find to candidates (who have to find four others) in order to move forward to a chair where you can get the staked money. I find it very sad that in many institutions there is an obvious tendency to keep the candidates in a very long dependency and they can't be analysts before they're sixty years old, close to pension age. I mean, I acknowledge that in order to be a psychoanalyst you have to have a certain maturity, you can't be twenty two, but still, prolongation of the formation requiring more and more hours of the candidates, that is a scandal. And this is mainly caused by this economic problem, and this is something that should be openly discussed in psychoanalytic circles, and the arguments should be evaluated if they are not only rationalisations of this economic interest. Psychoanalysts should have good tools to evaluate their own positions.
EA: In what way would you say psychoanalytic theory needs to renew itself today, and what is its limits, is there anything that can't be analysed?
Robert Pfaller: Every theory has got its limits and it has always only its productivity when it sticks to its limits. For example football doesn't get better if we start to touch the ball with our hands as well. The same goes for theory. Theory needs limits in order to produce results according to its own rules. That's method, and only due to method science is able to surprise itself as Niklas Luhmann once has put it. To be honest I don't really see any major threats to the productivity of psychoanalytical theory at the moment. I think, if you look at the current works of Slavoj Žižek, Mladen Dolar, Paul Verhaeghe, Jennifer Friedlander or Sergio Benvenuto – or Alenka Zupančič whose new book I recently read, which I found to be a brilliant analysis and a wonderful dealing with new challenges related to gender and queer theory. I think psychoanalysis really has a say in these questions and when it actually manages to say something it can easily discern the stupidity of other theories and their childish wishful filling thoughts that often is at work. So, I think if there are problems, this is due to the poor academic recognition of psychoanalysis, that its results don't always enter into the academic debate where they could be fruitfully used. It is not always the case that psychoanalysis infiltrates literature theory, philosophy, art history, cinema studies etc. But on the other hand, psychoanalysis very often had had its best stronghold exactly at such institutes. Very often you find the best psychoanalytic theory at places where you wouldn't expect it. So for psychoanalytical theory I'm not in sorrow, I think it is powerful and fruitful. The question is perhaps if the institutional practice of psychoanalysis doesn't spoil its public image to such an extent that its theoretical outcomes are not taken seriously anymore within the discourses that would actually need it.
Robert Pfaller (Vienna, Austria, 1962) is a philosopher, cultural theorist and Professor of Philosophy and Cultural Theory at the University of Art and Industrial Design in Linz, Austria. Founding member of the Viennese psychoanalytic research group “stuzzicadenti” and known for the concept of interpassivity. He tweets at @PfallerR.