Existential Psychoanalysis: The Project
It has long been objected that Freud’s theory results in too mechanical a view of personality and too limited a view of human possibility. Adler was one of the first to raise these points, though he did not take them far. Much more radical was the critique developed by Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness and applied to the theory of gender by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. The argument started with the theory of libido and moved on to the concept of the unconscious.
The problem with ‘empirical psychoanalysis’, as Sartre called Freudian thought, is that it takes as a necessary structure of the person what should be regarded as the product of choice. For one’s psychic life to be determined by libido is certainly a possible form of human existence, but it is not the only one. It is a way of being that a person may take up, may choose. What is human is precisely the process of constructing oneself by choices that transcend given circumstances. This is far from the easy-going voluntarism of 1970s ‘growth movement’ psychology. To Sartre, being in a position to choose also means having to take responsibility – in a famous phrase, ‘we are condemned to be free’. The act of choice also means the fact of commitment. We are stuck with what we do; what’s done cannot be undone. To make a choice is to walk into a future defined by the consequences of that choice.
Humans project themselves into their future by their choices, by the way they negate and transcend the circumstances that are given to them to start with. The person is constructed as a ‘project’ of realizing oneself in a particular way. This is certainly intentional, but it involves more than the concept of purposive behaviour. The project is, to use a term coined later by the Czech philosopher Karel Kosfk, ‘onto-formative’, constitutive of social reality. The process itself appears as a complex unification, a constant bringing- into-relation, of actions that are uncaused (because always choices) but intelligible in relation to each other. Looking back, the process can be decoded by a reconstruction of the life history that relates later parts of the trajectory to the original, constitutive choices. This decoding is ‘existential psychoanalysis’. Sartre himself did this job only in the form of literary biographies, notably of Genet and Flaubert. There is now also a body of case histories by two British psychiatrists influenced by Sartre, R. D. Laing and Aaron Esterson, which show what the approach looks like in a clinical setting.
One of the most impressive parts of Sartre’s argument, given his lack of clinical experience, was his intuitive acceptance of Freud’s insistence on the difficulty of self-knowledge. The concept of the unconscious was built around the practical difficulty that some important facts about the person were not accessible to conscious inspection. Sartre vehemently rejects the metaphor of regions in the mind, and the concept of a system of mental processes that we do not know about. To him the process of choice and transcendence, i. e., what is specifically human in human life, is necessarily conscious. But this does not imply that everything about a person is immediately accessible. There is mystery: a ‘mystery in broad daylight’. Human self-consciousness can have different structures. The unreflective structure of being-for-itself is very different from self-knowledge with the structure of being-for – others. The latter can be very difficult to produce, as the practice of psychoanalysis shows. But its production is, in a sense, the psychoanalytic cure itself, the famous ‘talking cure’. Psychoanalysis is not a process of‘bringing to consciousness’ material that always was an aspect of consciousness. Rather it is a question of attaining knowledge of what one is, instead of just being what one is.
This argument yields a rather different image ofcathexis. Freud’s hydraulic model of the libido suggests a stream of affect flowing here, being blocked up there, bursting through somewhere else. Sartre’s treatment suggests cathexis is a kind of commitment, a throwing-oneself-into a particular emotional involvement. The intractability of attachment, the stickiness of cathexes dramatized by hopeless love, is a fact of our emotional lives not because we cannot choose other attachments but because we cannot walk away from the consequences of past ones. An emotional commitment of any force comes to structure not only our social interactions but also our fantasy life, our self-concepts, our hopes and aspirations.
One can only switch them off at a cost that for many people is intolerable, the cost of making a great void in every aspect of our life. We know what this feels like for people who have suffered it involuntarily – the abandoned lover, the bereaved. Few people would choose to be in that position.
There are various ways of denying freedom and refusing responsibility, which give existential psychoanalysis an armoury of concepts for analysing the rigidities of social interaction. De Beauvoir, for instance, connects the valorization of the penis in masculinity with the near-universal tendency towards alienation:
The anxiety that his liberty induces in the subject leads him to search for himself in things, which is a kind of flight from himself… Here is to be found the primary temptation to inauthenticity, to fail to be genuinely oneself. The penis is singularly adapted for playing this role of ‘double’ for the little boy.
From the ‘incarnation of transcendence in the phallus’ flows, naturally enough, the fear of castration jn the Oedipus complex. Here the psychoanalytic theory of gender appears as a special case. It presupposes, as de Beauvoir forcibly argues, a specific set of social and historical circumstances which it cannot itself explain.
Sartre’s treatment of ‘bad faith’, situations where people refuse responsibility for what they do and claim that their decisions are made for them by external forces, suggests a different kind of connection with Freudian theory. The concepts of libidinal determination and the unconscious offer psychoanalytic patients a tremendous temptation to assign their actions to uncontrollable mental forces. From another starting-point Thomas Szasz in The Myth of Mental Illness convincingly argues that the concept of ‘mental illness’ invites collusion among patient, family and doctor. The hysterical ‘symptom’ is a claim for the sympathy and care due to the sick, made by someone who will not speak out about what is intolerable in their lives or personal relations. The ‘layering’ of sexual character appears as a form of bad faith, of refusal of responsibility for one’s own conduct in sexual politics.
The existentialist argument does not imply that the world described by classical psychoanalysis is non-existent. It is real, but real as a world of alienation. Its obscurity is the darkness of escape and refusal. It is always capable of being transcended; as de Beauvoir argues:
The psychoanalyst describes the female child, the young girl, as incited to identification with the mother and the father, torn between ‘viriloid’ and ‘feminine’ tendencies; whereas I conceive her as hesitating between the role of object, Other which is offered her, and the assertion of her liberty.
The concept of sexual liberation, if it can be formulated at all, is not a matter of unshackling native eroticism but of dismantling alienations (including erotic ones) and realizing native freedom.
Sartre presents existential psychoanalysis as the decoding of a way of being in search of original, constitutive choices. In his study of Genet, for instance, he traces a great deal back to Genet’s childhood choice to be what his foster parents regarded him as, a thief. This procedure runs a considerable risk of homogenizing the person, as do de Beauvoir’s pictures of ‘the avenues of inauthentic flight open to women’, the basis of her character typology discussed in chapter 8. The risk is that the intelligibility of a life will be found only in its consistency, in the bits that hang together. The Freudian idea that the intelligibility of a life might lie in its contradictions is too valuable to lose.
The problem can, however, be corrected. There is nothing in Being and Nothingness, nor in Sartre’s later reworking of existential psychoanalysis as ‘the progressive-regressive method’ in The Question of Method, that requires constitutive choices to be always singular, or always consistent with each other. The practical applications by Laing and Esterson have not found this assumption necessary. For instance Laing’s case study of the flamboyant student ‘David’ in The Divided Self shows contradiction developing between the boy’s choice to be his dead mother and his choice to be a man.
‘David’ was driven towards psychosis by the fact that these two choices or commitments had incompatible consequences. The choice to be a man involved fear and hatred of femininity, and thus of ‘the woman who was inside him, and always seemed to be coming out of him’ – that is, the consequences of his choice to be the mother. It might have been possible not to fear that femininity, had the masculinity in question been differently organized. Laing’s case history gives a few hints of a father whose masculinity was highly conventional, at least in relation to issues like the household division of labour, but does not give enough detail to be sure.
This case study suggests a distinction between hegemonic masculinity and forms of masculinity that are heterosexual without being directly organized around domination — conventional masculinities, loosely. Both are founded on a claim to power, which the one carries through in all its consequences and the other does not. Conventional masculinity is, to an extent, hegemonic masculinity in bad faith. Men can enjoy patriarchal power, but accept it as if it were given to them by an external force, by nature or convention or even by women themselves, rather than by an active social subordination of women going on here and now. They do not care to take responsibility for the actions that given them their power. Hence their often slightly shamefaced admiration for the heroes of hegemonic masculinity, the footballers, jet pilots, wife-beaters and poofter-bashers, who do.
The claim to masculinity here embeds social structure in sexual character in a sense almost exactly the reverse of ‘embedding’ in psychoanalytic sociology. The power relations of the society become a constitutive principle of personality dynamics through being adopted as personal project, whether acknowledged or not. At the social level, what this produces is not the stabilization of a social order, but what could be called a collective project of oppression. The subordination of women and the marginalization of homosexual and effeminate men are sustained neither by chance nor by the mechanical reproduction of a social system, but by the commitments implicit in conventional and hegemonic masculinity and the strategies pursued in the attempt to realize them.
The notion of a collective project is not easy to get clear, except in the all-too-easy form of a conspiracy. There certainly are conspiracies among men, for instance to exclude women from most positions of power in business and the state. There are conscious individual actions to protect men’s privileges, such as a senior bureaucrat blocking the appointment of a feminist to a particular government job. Such things not only do occur, they occur quite commonly, and are well known to insiders. But as the argument of Part II has shown, this cannot be taken as the fundamental structure of patriarchal power, for this also rests on institutionalization. The collective project of oppression is materialized not only in individual actions but in the building up, sustaining and defence of an institutional order that generates inequalities impersonally.
Sartre’s own attempt to do this analysis for the case of class dynamics shows the enormous complexity of the problem and I don’t propose to match his effort here. I do want to register, first, the conceptual importance of the question and second, the fact that practical beginnings have been made with it. Aaron Esterson’s case study and theoretical formulations in The Leaves of Spring illustrate the dialectical intelligibility of collective practice in the family. Cynthia Cockburn’s Brothers, though not conceived on a psychoanalytic paradigm, still documents very clearly some of the structures of a collective project of sexual politics in the workplace.
The notion of a collective project, like that of an individual project, implies both freedom and responsibility. At the minimum it implies freedom to participate or not, and responsibility for the choice made. This has proved difficult for men influenced by feminism to get straight. Accepting the feminist critique of patriarchy has often led to overwhelming guilt and desire for redemption. Hence the ‘effeminist’ tendency that repeatedly emerges in counter-sexist politics among men. In its own appealing way, this is just as inauthentic as any ‘masculinist’ denial of the facts of inequality. It makes no sense for me to take responsibility for what other grown-up people do, or have done in the past. I take responsibility for what I do and for its consequences. A clear view of what I do — as the whole argument of this book goes to show – includes the way my actions interact with those of other people and either sustain or subvert the collective project of oppression. But to take responsibility for, and hence feel guilt about, that collective project as a whole is at one level paranoid, at another paralyzing. It has certainly not led to any practically effective form of politics over the last dozen years.
More hopefully, relations between men and women also include the project of love. This is a project in the strict sense, a commitment of selves, a relation around which practice becomes organized. It is a formative commitment, whose consequences ramify and develop through a life history, often changing the complexion of the original relationship very deeply.
It is commonly assumed that love is incompatible with hatred or oppression. This is one reason why women may reject feminism^ because they have experienced love from men (and towards them) and take feminism to be a doctrine that denies or rejects that fact – despite the passionate writings of heterosexual feminists like Sheila Rowbotham, Dorothy Dinnerstein and Barbara Sichter – mann. In reality love is a project that can be interwoven with the project of oppression. Psychoanalysis has shown the importance of ambivalence, the coexistence of strong but opposed feelings towards the same object. Shulamith Firestone analysed ‘romantic love’ as the corrupted version of love that develops when the parties are unequal. This is debatable, but there are other ways heterosexual attachment and subordination can be connected. De Beauvoir and Dinnerstein both analyse in some detail the incorporation of a loving woman into the loved man’s projects as an important mechanism sustaining the exclusion of women from ‘world-making’ in public life.
Yet love is also, notoriously, a destroyer of conventions, a force difficult to channel and control. Heloi’se and Abelard, Guinevere and Lancelot, Paolo and Francesca, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, are not exactly marginal figures in the European imagination. The myths generally kill them off before they get to old age, but the images live on with compelling emotional force. The contradiction between the project of erotic love and the requirements of patriarchal institutions – marriage, property and kinship relations – also has to be recognized as a permanent tension in patriarchal society.
To transform tension into structural thange, actually to start dismantling structures of domination, is the collective project of liberation. It has proved no easier to get its personal and structural dimensions together in practice than it is in theory. The New Left of the 1960s criticized mainstream Stalinists and labourites for trying to change society without changing themselves. The New Left was criticized by feminists and gay liberationists for macho public politics and domestic sexism. The growing visibility of ‘communities’ of gay men has sparked criticism from feminists, especially since the reassertion of masculine styles in the late 1970s. Feminism in turn has been criticized for dogmatism, power plays, elitism and jobs-for-the-girls since it won a thin slice of power in education, welfare and the bureaucracy.
There is some truth in each of these criticisms. We are living in the real world and not on a drawing-board. But none of them invalidates the premiss of the project, that social and personal change are essentially connected. The next task is to take a closer look at the object of the politics of everyday life, and consider how personality can be understood in terms consistent both with the psychodynamic arguments just traversed and the structural analysis of Part II.