Head Case

In theory and practice, psychoanalysis flourishes in academia

A version of this article was originally published April 5, 2005 in The Village Voice

“After eight years,” Woody Allen once quipped, “I got up from the couch one day and offered my analyst a draw.” These days, who has eight years? Has the relevance of psychoanalysis gone the way of Woody’s sense of humor?

Freud’s impact endures: Some of his ideas imbue our outlook so deeply that their source often goes uncredited. But the prestige of psychoanalysis in our Prozac-popping culture has tumbled. Still, in higher education, Freud’s descendants live (even if some of them relate to him with a rebelliousness approaching the oedipal). Marginalized yet vital, psychoanalytic thought—both at training institutes and in academic departments—has found niches in which to flourish.

At the city’s mainstream training institutes—Columbia, NYU, and New York—enrollment has risen over the past few years. The NYU Psychoanalytic Institute received 20 applications last year, up from five three years ago. While Robert Glick, Columbia’s director, concedes that “the number of people on the couch has certainly decreased over the past 40 years,” he believes the treatment is now applied in a more targeted manner. Originally, he says, analysis oversold itself. “Up to the 1960s, there weren’t many other good treatments for lots of psychiatric problems. And when psychoanalysis came on the scene, from the 1930s up through the 1950s, it was mistakenly seen as applicable to treat schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder”—ailments for which effective drugs are now available. Now that neither analysis nor medication is considered a panacea, the virtues of each emerge more clearly.

New studies indicate that in many cases, a synergy of medication and talk therapy produces the best results. Of course, psychoanalysis is only one species of talk therapy. The specific treatment of psychoanalysis—which typically involves multiple sessions a week and lasts years—offers recourse to people who have failed to solve their problems with medication alone or short-term counseling. This intensive process is especially appropriate for “people who keep trying and failing to have working relationships, but haven’t realized how their unconscious life intrudes and causes them to repeat over and over again similar problems,” says Glick.

Another boon for the profession comes from neuroscience. Research in neurobiology supports some of Freud’s basic theories, such as the existence of an inaccessible, unconscious mind, and the expression of this mind in dreams. Studies also suggest that the process of psychotherapy can alter the connections of the brain’s neurons in lasting, beneficial ways. To foster dialogue between the disciplines, analysts at New York Psychoanalytic hold monthly meetings with neuroscientists.

At the city’s three major psychoanalytic institutes, candidates take a four-year curriculum, conduct supervised analyses, and put in their own time on the couch. Most candidates have M.D.’s or Ph.D.’s in psychology, but other institutes, such as the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, accept applicants with master’s degrees in diverse fields. New York State recently passed a law regulating the profession of psychoanalysis for the first time. As of next year, the state will set a baseline for becoming a licensed psychoanalyst, requiring a master’s in any field, training from a registered institute, and acing a state exam.

But psychoanalysis is more than a job. It has been called a vocation, a religion, a theory, a science. As Eli Zaretsky writes in his recent Secrets of the Soul, Freud’s feat was to integrate the scientific and humanistic currents of his thought. But since the ’70s, psychoanalysis has bifurcated into a “quasi-medical therapeutic practice,” in Zaretsky’s words, and an academy-based cultural hermeneutics.

In academic departments, Freudianism long ago found refuge in literary and cultural theory. This now prompts other doubts about its health as theory has come under attack as soulless, deliberately abstruse bullshit. Psychoanalytic theory, however, seems to be less vulnerable to this trend than, say, Marxist theory or deconstruction. Terry Eagleton, in his recent After Theory, notes that “Terms like ‘ego,’ ‘Oedipus complex’ . . . and ‘unconscious’ have become part of everyday language, in a way that ‘ideology,’ ‘commodity fetishism’ or ‘mode of production’ have not.”

As Eagleton observes, there’s “something bizarre and sensational about the language of psychoanalysis which captures the popular imagination.” Freud’s persistent allure might also relate to the nature and scope of his interests, encompassing jokes, identity, families, civilization, and the ever marketable topic of sex. What’s more, the psychoanalytic focus on narrative makes it conducive to literary studies and young fields such as media studies and trauma studies, which originated in the examination of Holocaust survivors’ stories.

And psychoanalysis is versatile. As Catherine Silver, a professor of psychoanalytic sociology and women’s studies at CUNY and a practicing psychoanalyst, points out, “Freud is full of conflict.” The field has always been fractious, and many of those who study or practice psychoanalysis think of themselves as “correcting” his theories. “The feminists were offended by one aspect of Freud—he simply gave up on women, he couldn’t understand them,” Silver says. But now women’s studies is one of the principal domains of psychoanalytic thought because feminists have engaged and co-opted Freud. Silver attributes this to their recognition that “Freud is really the one person who opened up the issue of sexuality, opened up fantasy.” To participate in the psychoanalytic project means to be provoked by Freud’s beliefs, not necessarily to subscribe to them.

Efforts are under way to reintegrate the theoretical and therapeutic currents. Several of the city’s institutes, including the three major ones, offer programs for scholars. The professors and graduate students who enroll take the course but don’t undergo clinical training or analysis themselves. For institutes affiliated with universities, there are other ways to join debates. Members of NYU Psychoanalytic have participated in NYU’s burgeoning interdisciplinary conferences, where they have addressed such topics as film and torture from a psychoanalytic angle.

For some, recent events provide inexhaustible fodder for Freudian interpretations. Ellen Willis, director of NYU’s cultural-journalism program, has written on the sexual symbolism of the destruction of the twin towers and is working on a book about psychoanalysis and politics, in which she pleads to revive the notion “that the psychosexual idea is important to politics.” She argues that the resurgence of fundamentalism is “very much based on sexual conflict and guilt.” In conservative cultures with political problems, “rage about repressed sexuality may be displaced onto real political grievances.”

Her proposals have met with discomfort and incredulity. She is not, she emphasizes, advocating psychosexual analysis as a replacement for geopolitical study. To pose a psychosexual inquiry is not to suggest that Osama just needs a good shrink (or a good lay). In academic theory, as in clinical practice, psychoanalysis can be most effectively enlisted in conjunction with other approaches.

Sometimes, a twin tower is just a twin tower. But knee-jerk dismissal of psychoanalytic ideas impoverishes our interpretive language. Aptly deployed, psychoanalysis might yet find its most useful applications.

Source: The Village Voice

Return to top

All content copyright © 2004-2024 Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow unless otherwise indicated.