We, the guest editors, are exceedingly grateful to Liz Frost and David Jones, to the Journal of Psychosocial Studies and to Policy Press for inviting us to present this ambitious issue entitled ‘The American tradition of psychosocial studies’, which seeks both to represent and to reflect critically on that tradition throughout history and at the present moment. We call it ‘ambitious’ not only because of the difficult task of selecting, from among a truly vast array of works, the highest-quality articles, not only because of the aforementioned dual nature of the issue (that is, its twin goals of representation and critical reflection), but also because there is no American tradition of psychosocial studies per se. Instead, in the United States (US), one finds a variety of sub-sub-fields such as political psychology, psychoanalytic political theory, critical theory, psychoanalytic social theory and psycho-history, not to mention the many sub-fields in which psychoanalysis plays a part but is not explicitly recognised, including normative political theory, literary studies, Continental philosophy, critical race theory, education/pedagogy studies, feminist theory, critical gender and sex (and ‘sex’) studies, geography, sociology, organisational management, anthropology, and more.
Owing in large part to the lack of an organising heading under which to operate, the two academic disciplines in which one is least likely to find what elsewhere is called psychosocial studies are (ironically, perhaps): clinical psychology and political science. Likewise, there is no robust debate – perhaps no debate at all – in the US about the scope, methods, limits or meaning of the psychosocial, as may be found in the United Kingdom (UK) and elsewhere (see, for example, Frosh, 2014; Redman, 2016), much of which has, in fact, taken place within the Journal of Psychosocial Studies itself.
Nevertheless, there is, we believe, a tradition of psychosocial thought in America, albeit a loose-knit one, widely dispersed across disciplines that interface all too infrequently. Loose-knit traditions have a difficult time building a cadre of disciples, which is why many scholars working in these fields remain isolated from each other and are, often, marginalised within their own disciplines. Therefore, assembling the disparate elements of the American tradition of psychosocial study requires attention not only to specific lineages and influences (Erik Erikson, the Frankfurt School of critical theory and others), but also to the animating concerns particular (although not exclusive) to the American context such as the anxieties of social mobility, the contests over changing gender norms and family dynamics, the conscious and unconscious realities of race, and more.
While no single issue could do justice to the many combinations and permutations of psychoanalytic and social research, this issue gives voice to and appraises many of the most salient exponents, themes, trends and sticking-points within that tradition, without, of course, being capable of doing so in an exhaustive manner. To that end, we have sought and included seven featured articles, as well as book reviews on central, recent American texts that fit squarely within the psychosocial tradition.
The compendium of articles presented here addresses topics such as race and Afropessimism, democracy and mourning, the problematic of ‘the public’ and specifically the ‘res publica’, the relationships between ecology, capitalism and schizoanalysis, feminist psychoanalysis and the mother, the rise of Donald Trump and the ‘authoritarian personality’, the development of a robust critical queer theory, and more.
We begin with Amy Buzby’s highly original revisiting of Adorno’s ‘authoritarian personality’ with reference to the rise of Donald Trump. Buzby explores the relevance of Adorno’s work in our own age of increasing authoritarianism and autocracy, and specifically in the context of the rise of the right-wing populism as represented in the US by Donald Trump. Given the relatively feeble response by the so-called ‘resistance’ to Trump, Buzby argues that we have to acknowledge ‘something of a lacuna where there ought to be a united force capable of consistently meeting Trumpism not only in the streets, but also in the various halls of power that truly define – and currently vitiate – our public sphere’.
Buzby explores this lacuna by turning the typical interpretation of Aldorno et al’s (1950) The authoritarian personality on its head. Unlike many interpreters, Buzby focuses on those subjects with low scores on the infamous ‘F-scale’, which measured authoritarian tendencies. The low scorers represent a potentially powerful anti-authoritarian constituency, but Adorno and his colleagues found that these people also displayed character traits such as guilt, timidity and doubt that would effectively prevent them from creating solidaristic and sustainable anti-fascist political movements. As Buzby puts it, ‘despite their identification with intellectuals, artists and political radicals as their most admired figures, their insistence on unethical and unjust behaviour as being the worst crimes and their concern with hurting the feelings of others as the most embarrassing behaviours, reveals a set of deeply rooted demobilising trends in the personality of the average low scorer’.
Buzby argues that the contemporary anti-fascist left needs to take a close look at these results to better understand the obstacles to an anti-authoritarian politics. To do so, in the conclusion Buzby connects her reflections on Adorno to some of the concepts and concerns of D.W. Winnicott, in order to provide a fuller outline of a positive democratic project that might overcome some of the personality constellations of those who are instinctively anti-authoritarian.
Following Buzby’s article, Daniel Butler offers a thoughtful critique and extension of Bonnie Honig’s (2017) Public things: Democracy in disrepair, in which particular attention is paid to the matter of what Butler calls ‘the phantasmatic setting’ alongside the question of whose public is, has been, can be and/or ought to be defended. Butler notes well the (Winnicottian) ‘irresolvable tension in so far as the incommunicado element of the transitional object excludes others … and so thereby, in part, refuses any public exposure’. Since any such refusal ‘constitutes the setting’s privation … Honig centres transitional phenomena as being indispensable to psychic development and to the agonistic politics of democratic life’.
Unlike object-oriented material ontologies (perhaps best represented by Bruno Latour), ‘Honig uses the transitional object to recentre the human alongside the object’. Nonetheless, inquiries into public things must include appraisal and critiques, maintains Butler, of their real or potential exclusionary, divisive and even ‘violent propensities’. Relying in part on the work of Argentinian psychoanalyst José Bleger, Butler suggests that the fantasies/phantasies that imbue public things with meaning, value and even publicity themselves need to be taken into account, and he endeavours to explain this process by way of analogy with the clinical ‘setting’, where ‘the setting is both ‘the analyst’s management of the analysis’ and ‘a depository for the “non-process” or “phantom world” of the analytic dyad’ (Bleger, 1966).
Thus, argues Butler, ‘the setting is the privileged transitional object of analysis, at least potentially’, suggesting that a deeper account of the roles of fantasy, phantasy, phantom and setting is needed in order to make ‘use’ (in all relevant senses of the term) of public things in democratic life. Without doing so, ‘to say the state is worth fighting for as a public thing might … dissimulate rather than reveal its structurally private status’.
Continuing with the relationship between democracy and fantasy, in the next article David W. McIvor investigates and critically appraises the ways in which psychoanalysis has been used to interpret the structuring fantasy of race in the American unconscious. In ‘Clad in mourning: psychoanalysis and race in contemporary America’, McIvor explores how the psychoanalytic archive is challenged by, and perhaps radically incommensurable with, elements of the Black radical tradition, as represented by Afropessimist authors such as Frank B. Wilderson III. McIvor demonstrates how psychoanalytic concepts – such as Freud’s articulation of and distinction between the concepts of ‘mourning’ and ‘melancholia’ – have been deployed to analyse racial stigma and violence, yet how they also simultaneously carry forward problematic assumptions that may, in fact, justify a racialised partition of subjectivity.
The latter possibility reflects the concerns of Afropessimists who argue that Blackness has been structurally occluded and controlled not only by social institutions in the colonial and post-colonial period but also by the theoretical and scientific discourses that have accompanied colonial violence. Therefore, as McIvor puts it, ‘Afropessimists see mourning as either a pernicious fiction that is structurally unavailable to racialised, minoritised subjects, or as a “second killing” of the objects – and the affects surrounding those objects – that could have, in a different world, formed the basis of identity’. Such arguments seem entirely incommensurable with the assumptions of psychoanalytic hermeneutics and technique, and are also arguably incommensurable with reparative politics that attempt to provide some measure of recognition of and redress for the ways in which racial violence has shaped the contemporary world. In his conclusion, McIvor argues that only an idealisation of democracy can bridge these racialised partitions within our theoretical archive and social reality. Democracy, on McIvor’s reading, serves as a space of ‘imperfect idealisation’ that ‘testifies to constitutive human capacities that were partitioned by the racial ontology of colonialism and, hence, that must be continually (re)claimed’, and in this way it holds out the hope for a more reparative politics rather than resting on a fantastical politics of violent renewal.
Following McIvor’s article is another approach to the study of race and politics by the light of psychoanalytic concepts and categories. Bogdan Popa, in ‘Laplanche and the anti-racist unconscious, rewriting seduction, listening to the noise’, turns to the work of Jean Laplanche to theorise an anti-racist politics located – at least potentially – within Laplanche’s account of the unconscious. For Popa, Laplanche’s idea of ‘noise’ can be reworked to reveal an anti-racist sexual imagination that can ‘disturb and compromise’ the legacy of slavery and its history of violence. Popa reads Laplanche from the perspective of the queer theory of, among others, Judith Butler and the critical race scholarship of Christina Sharpe. Following Sharpe’s concept of ‘wake work’, Popa argues that Laplanche’s idea of ‘noise’ can be reconceptualised ‘as a modality of being in “the wake” and addressing the legacies of slavery’.
Popa develops his account of Laplanche in part through a close reading of the 1971 Soviet film The Fiddlers, which on his interpretation reveals ‘noisy’ repertoires of counterfeit and curse as means of responding to racialised violence. In The Fiddlers, ‘the irruption of “noise” is a terrifying moment that reverses an established and unequal power dynamic’, thereby providing a means of theorising tactics of resistance towards orders of racialised violence. The idea of ‘noise’ can shift discourses away from spectatorial accounts of black suffering that oftentimes can replicate the very order of violence they are supposedly intended to resist. Throughout this complex article, Popa sketches ways in which a new epistemology and politics of anti-racism may exist on what Paul Gilroy has termed the ‘lower frequency’.
In a completely different vein, in the next article Petra Bueskens explores the shifting dynamics of motherhood in our age of transformed gender relations. In ‘Mothers reproducing the social: Chodorow and beyond’, Bueskens returns to Nancy Chodorow’s ( 1999) classic feminist text, The reproduction of mothering. For Bueskens, Chodorow provided in that text a new psychoanalytic language for understanding female subjectivity that is still relevant and necessary today. According to Chodorow, it is the capacity of the mother–daughter relationship to reproduce and recreate itself across time that ‘helps us grasp generation continuity and change’. Building on this framework, Bueskens extends Chodorow’s original formulations to a contemporary understanding of gendered social relations, by focusing on how this dynamic is reproduced yet also resisted and reinvented ‘intra-psychically and psychosocially’.
Throughout the article, Bueskens draws out the political relevance of Chodorow’s original analysis, detailing the ways in which it demonstrated the reciprocal influence between the social and the psyche within the context of mother–daughter relationships. Yet changed social circumstances require an update to this analysis. For Bueskens, the rise of the ‘autonomous mother’ – ‘a woman who has an education, employment, partial or total economic autonomy and control of her sexuality and fertility’ – represents a qualitative shift from the ‘dependent mothers’ with which Chodorow’s analysis was concerned. The political and social ramifications of the development of ‘autonomous mothers’ are significant. As Bueskens puts it, ‘citizen mothers’ have the potential to transform ‘human relations, economies and polities’ by ‘transforming the gendered split of public and private personae’.
From race to gender to ecology, Chelsea L. Welker’s article, ‘Producing the eco-subject through schizoanalysis’, tackles the gap between the increasing knowledge about the significant risks to contemporary societies posed by anthropogenic climate change and human behaviour that continues to accelerate environmental destruction and carbon-intensive development. For Welker, this gap can be partly explained by the production of subjectivities that are insensitive to ecological entanglement, and, moreover, that this production of subjectivities may itself be missed or even reinforced by psychoanalytic accounts of development and individuation. To remedy this oversight, Welker turns to the ‘schizoanalysis’ of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, which, she argues, represents a more productive approach to subjectivisation due to its emphasis on entanglement and experimentation.
For Welker, historically different psychoanalytic approaches have betrayed a defence of ‘territorialisation’, which, she argues, has potentially anti-ecological implications due to the ways in which it envisions the human ego as ‘separate from material life and its subjectivising powers’. Deleuze and Guattari, on the other hand, represent how subjectivity is ‘continuously constituted via [the] “outside” world and through unpredictable interactions with one another’. Subjects are ‘transportation hubs’, or places where ‘desiring machines produce affects that cross, intersect, appear and disappear without warning or purpose.’ For Welker, a processual and material understanding of subjectivity has significant implications for an ecological politics because it emphasises how we are always open to and dependent on influences from the material world. While dangers remain within this conceptualisation of the subject, for Welker any attempt to enclose the subject in on itself will fail to countenance ecological interdependency.
Finally, Michael Diamond’s article introduces readers to the American tradition and contemporary practice of organisational psychoanalysis or ‘contemporary psychoanalytic organisation theory’, an area that, what is known elsewhere as psychosocial theory, has found a relatively comfortable home. Perhaps what has allowed it to survive, and even thrive, in what might be imagined to be otherwise hostile landscapes is its focus on what Americans consider to be empirical evidence, which is to say: ‘At the heart of the relational approach to organisation study is the practice of collecting psychoanalytic data…. Observational data encompass a good portion of what is found.’ Psychoanalytic organisation theory and practice in America Diamond understands to be ‘a psychosocial organisational framework assembled around the idea of identity’.
The approach to organisational psychoanalysis Diamond defends is one in which ‘the human core of organisations’ is understood to be ‘a collective sense of self residing in a potential space.’ And, of course, this organisational identity may influence, shape or even determine individual members’ senses of self, work and life. Within American organisation psychology, Diamond remarks on a clear trend towards embracing the assumptions and principle of object relations psychoanalytic theory, and succinctly summarises developments in psychoanalytic theory writ large from Freud, through Klein, through the middle school and the contributions of post object relations theorists such as Thomas Ogden, before offering three modes of organising and three central tensions as three lenses through which to understand organisational behaviour: (a) the depressive mode, and its tension of containment versus control; (b) the paranoid-schizoid mode, and its tension of division versus fragmentation; and (c) the autistic-contiguous mode, and its tension of integration versus isolation.
In addition to these articles, this issue contains three thorough reviews and critiques of critical, recent texts incorporating American psychosocial methods or treating, psychosocially, uniquely American phenomena: Courtenay W. Daum’s review of Feminine law: Freud, free speech, and the voice of desire, by Jill Gentile (with Michael Macrone); Matthew H. Bowker’s review of America at war with itself: Authoritarian politics in a free society, by Henry A. Giroux; and Rudy Leal McCormack’s review of Political Freud: A history, by Eli Zaretsky.
In sum, the guest editors feel that these articles and reviews suggest more coherence within the ‘tradition’ or field of American psychosocial studies than the balkanised landscape of academic disciplines might indicate. Diverse scholars trained in a variety of locations have found the value of psychoanalytic approaches to the study of social life, and have stubbornly carved niches within their respective disciplines for this work. We hope that this issue of the Journal of Psychosocial Studies will continue the work of making space for such scholarship, while also providing recognition of the exciting work already being done.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.
Adorno, T., Frenkel-Brunswick, E., Levinson, D.J. and Nevitt Sanford, R. (1950) The Authoritarian Personality, New York, NY: Harper and Brothers.
Chodorow, N. ( 1999) The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Frosh, S. (2014) The nature of the psychosocial: debates from studies in the psychosocial, Journal of Psycho-Social Studies, 8(1): 159–69.