Ana Minozzo reviews the first edition of an international online conference that explored socially engaged psychoanalytic practices from across the world. The event was hosted by the Freud Museum in London during the weekend of 16-17 of January, 2021. The full programme for the event can be found here.
If psychoanalysis is understood as an activity only accessible to a privileged few who belong to a highly-educated urban middle-class, an important and considerable part of its history is being, as a classic psychoanalyst would say, ‘repressed’. If socially engaged or even more radical psychoanalytic projects have been repressed from the history books and the collective imaginary, the conference discussed in this review proposed to ask ‘why?’ and to elaborate, collectively, the roots and effects of this historical symptom of the field. The first chapter of a two-part event entitled ‘Psychoanalysis for the People: Free Clinics and the Social Mission of Psychoanalysis’, co-organised by Raluca Soreanu and Joanna Ryan, attracted around two-hundred scholars, practitioners, students and activists from several parts of the world over two afternoons of British lockdown.
The enthusiasm of the participants was heart-warming: messages were exchanged with email addresses, links to local projects and invitations for further collaboration and contact. Such a flood of interaction, which is equally likely to have arisen were the event to happen in ‘real life’ at the Freud Museum in North London, was a testament to the lack of space given to discussion of free clinics and social articulations of psychoanalysis, not only in the UK but across Europe, as well as North and South America (from whence a substantial number of contributors and attendees spoke).
Day One started with a keynote speech by Patricia Gherovici, the Argentinean analyst whose work with both transgender patients and Latin American communities in the United States, where she lives and practices, has been gaining international acclaim. Gherovici told us about her experience in the barrio, weaving clinical vignettes with a punchy political reading of Freud’s aims for a socially engaged clinical apparatus during WWI. She started by denouncing a problematic, yet pervasive, idea in the more conservative analytic milieu that ‘poor people’ are not ideal psychoanalytic patients, a position necessarily attached to the supposition that ‘such people’ cannot have a fully-fledged unconscious. These Othered ‘you people’, that the psychoanalytic establishment excludes with elitist gate-keeping practices that range from geographic to financial obstacles, can, according to Gherovici, reveal something about psychoanalysis’ fantasies of itself. In other words, by limiting itself to being an expensive, mostly-white and bourgeois clinic, psychoanalysis hides its very roots, clinging to an illusory and problematic ideal.
With its origin in the Jewish circle of Vienna in the late-19th century, many of the early preeminent analysts experienced displacement, racism, and life as an ‘Other’. In the London collection of the Freud Museum, the cards denoting that Freud and his family were ‘alien’ residents in the UK after escaping Nazist persecution in the late 1930s are displayed permanently: these are material reminders of psychoanalysis’ foundational touch with reality, or Freud’s brush with the deadly realities of being an ethnic minority in 1930s Europe. Several analysts, including Otto Fenichel (1934), the Marxist analyst also cited during the conference’s Q&A, lived as refugees due to antisemitic violence in the United States, South America and the UK.
Suitably, the first day of ‘Psychoanalysis for the People’ continued by tracing London’s own history of a social psychoanalysis. Former members and clinical directors of initiatives such as the London Clinic, active since 1926; the Lambeth & Southwark Community Mental Health Group from the 1970s and Nafsiyat, the intercultural psychotherapy centre operating since the 1980s, presented their experiences of expanding psychoanalysis to the reach of the wider community.
From logistics, funding and internal quibbles discussed, what such diverse groups of plural theoretical orientations seemed to have in common was a belief that their version of psychoanalysis was one implicated in its time, politically aware and socially active. Freud, himself, did not have an elitist project for psychoanalysis, as Gherovici, and other speakers such as Penny Crick from the British Psychoanalytic Society, reminded us. Already in 1918, as Elizabeth Danto (2005) observed, Freud endorsed alternative economies of care and the practice of Erlagschein, vouchers issued by clinicians and redeemed by patients who could not afford full-fees for their treatment. According to Danto (2005), in 1918, Freud had rallied the Budapest conference of psychoanalysts and declared that treatment ‘shall be free’ to the poor. What followed was a dynamic era of free clinics, which emerged across the continent in Berlin, Paris, Vienna and also in New York and Moscow. Such clinics and their spirit, so alive in the 1930s, as well as Danto’s book, were mentioned throughout the weekend. Something about this version of psychoanalysis, of this side of Freud, and of such political implication, was longed for and it tied participants and speakers together.
Appropriately, the second day of the event brought together the new and very active groups Bubble & Speak and Psychosis Therapy Project (PTP), which currently operate in London and welcome children and carers, and offer specialised treatment to those diagnosed with psychoses. Many of the latter who find themselves hospitalised and locked into heavily-medicalised living are, as Earl Pennycooke, from the PTP, reminded us, Black-British or BAME-identifying. Thus, an understanding and commitment to clinical work that is also anti-racist is crucial in the contemporary climate. In light of that, when Kwame Yonatan, from the collective Margens Clínicas, from São Paulo, Brazil, spoke, participants felt particularly touched. Kwame, a young psychoanalyst and doctoral researcher, spoke on behalf of the collective, merging poetry, politics and a powerful overview of their work of listening, witnessing and mapping collective trauma in peripheric zones of São Paulo – from that of victims of state violence during the decades of military dictatorship in Brazil (from the 1960s to the 1980s), to recent victims of police violence. Psychoanalysis, there, operates as a dispositif of political and psychosocial reparation, framing their understanding of the interrelation of psychic suffering within ‘social pathologies’ and an elaboration, from a psychoanalytic clinical listening, of tools for tackling state violence. What was most moving – aside from his style of delivery – is the group’s resolve to widen the possibilities of what psychoanalysis is able to offer – in their case, it promotes public listening groups and the training of public health and social care staff.
Whilst the first day was about historical implication, the second was about creativity and might. The afternoon also included speakers from the Refugee Therapy Centre, from North London and the Complexity Studies Institute, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
If the radicality of Freud’s socially-aware desires for psychoanalysis has been repressed, this event shows us that such radicality – like all repressed material – returns, over and over. If mainstream psychoanalytic training organisations and societies still fail to produce a psychoanalysis for the people, it is clear that ‘the people’ are able not only to reclaim psychoanalysis but also reimagine it, expanding its horizons.
The fruitful discussions of this cold January weekend were certainly held together by the question of ‘Othering’ and ‘Otherness’, elaborated by Gherovici at the beginning. Psychoanalysis is often ‘Othered’ by contemporary discourses in mental health that privilege evidence-based and quantifiable approaches to treatment. Historically, as psychoanalysis tried to maintain its autonomy from public health regulations and university curricula – in some countries – it also ‘Othered’ the people, or those who primarily rely on public health care for the alleviation of their suffering. Such Othering, as participants pointed out, is reflected in the predominantly white, urban, middle-class as well as cisgendered/heterosexual range of trainees across psychoanalytic institutions. Luckily, as the event demonstrated, ‘the people’ are still the most generative asset of the psychoanalytic project itself. Historically, it has been in adversity that psychoanalysis has found new meanings for its praxis and reinvented its theories.
Whilst the conference did not touch on some theoretical aspects of a certain psychoanalytic alienation, it certainly opened other urgent and related debates. By alienation I mean the psychoanalytic production and reproduction of a view of the subject, society and suffering reliant on a modern, certainly patriarchal and heavily colonial matrix, in other words, what I missed was a deeper epistemological critique to psychoanalytic politics, ethics and ontologies that inform its relation to the people. Among the themes which emerged in the chat and during Q&A that could not be addressed due to lack of time, one, in particular, seemed to resonate rather potently in the audience: that of those excluded from psychoanalytic trainings. The politics, economics and limits of training as a psychoanalyst, certainly, knotted questions together, asking: how can psychoanalysis be ‘for the people’ if it makes it very hard for people to be ‘of psychoanalysis’? Such practical and at times logistical comments were left open in this instance, but make for an eagerly anticipated second edition of the conference which has been scheduled for July 2021.
Danto, Elizabeth. 2005. Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis & Social Justice 1918-1938. New York: Columbia University Press
Fenichel, Otto. 1934. ‘Psychoanalysis as the Nucleus of a Future Dialectical-Materialistic Psychology’ In: American Imago, Vol. 24. (1967), pp. 290–311
Gherovici, Patricia. 2017. Transgender Psychoanalysis: A Lacanian Perspective on Sexual Difference. London and New York: Routledge
Ana Carolina Minozzo is a PhD researcher in the Department of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck, University of London working on anxiety and ethics in psychoanalysis. She is also a clinical practitioner in the field.