History and trauma across the disciplines: psychoanalytic narratives in the mid twentieth century

In the new issue of History of the Human Sciences, Matt ffytche analyses the exclusion of traumatic histories from psychoanalytic accounts of the mid-twentieth century, through a detailed engagement with the figure of the father (and of family authority) in different forms of psychoanalytic theory. Focusing especially on the work of the German psychoanalyst, Alexander Mitscherlich, ffytche traces the filtering out of the historical experiences of Nazism and the war from psychoanalytic narratives of the social – but then their return in texts of the 1980s and 1990s, under the banner of a new interest in historical trauma.  Here, HHS Editor in Chief, Felicity Callard, interviews Matt about his article

Felicity Callard (FC): Maybe we can start off with the institutional context in which you work. You have recently transitioned from being the director of a Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies to becoming the head of a new Department of Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies. Can you tell us more about this new department, and what its emergence tells us about the history and sociology of psychoanalysis in the present?

Matt ffytche (Mf): It’s a very exciting moment for us, and a fascinating, transitional moment for the discipline. In many UK institutions, programmes connected to psychoanalysis have been in long-term decline, I think mainly because of the way in which Centres or Units which were once set up in relationship with schools of psychology or health, have found the disciplinary ground being whittled away from under their feet as the institutions which housed them have gone more and more quantitative. In the humanities, I think interest in psychoanalysis has remained steady (usually in its Lacanian form) but just as part of the general critical mix – it has rarely dealt in full-scale psychoanalytic programmes. The University of Essex, along with Birkbeck and a few other institutions, have bucked this trend and found a real impetus to growth around such topics as psychoanalysis and the psychosocial – and this may have something to do with social science, which allows forms of research and enquiry connected to psychoanalytic viewpoints to stay in touch with mental health, without being limited by the specific positivist agendas of the natural science disciplines. At the same time, the social science platform does allow the critical dimensions of psychoanalysis, and the psychosocial, to be explored and extended, and paired up to contemporary feminist and postcolonial agendas, amongst other things. The Centre at Essex did originally emerge out of the Sociology department during the 1990s, I think out of a small research group interested in psychoanalysis and mental health. But it has grown so much, particularly over the last decade, that it was impossible to reabsorb it back into Sociology – so the change this year was really about recognising that we were a fully-functioning department of our own, with two BAs and a new BA Childhood Studies coming in, and various Masters programmes and a large body of PhD students. Where exactly this all goes remains to be seen – but credit has to go to Essex for recognising the potential of new kinds of disciplines in the current climate, or at least the need to respond flexibly to the kinds of topics school leavers are wanting to work on. And many of them do want topics connected to mental health, or a more narrative psychology, or one with critical dimensions. I think the future of psychoanalysis in the academy (which is different from its future as a clinical, professional practise) has a lot to do with whether it can continue to be rethought, in conjunction with the rethinking that has been going on in other disciplines for a while.

 FC: Your article focuses on the father and on fatherhood. There has been, recently, a fair amount of writing in and around the history of the human sciences, on the mother and motherhood (two comprise Rebecca Plant’s Mom and Ann Harrington’s essay ‘Mother love and mental illness: an emotional history’).There has arguably been less on the father and fatherhood. Would you agree? And what are you hoping to encourage in terms of future research on the father? 

Mf: That’s a difficult one for me to answer mainly because I was driven less by an involvement in the stakes of fathers per se, than ‘the father’ as this vanishing or dwindling moment in mid-century psychoanalytic social psychology, in which nearly all the authors are registering the same thing: fathers no longer have the status they once had; and people’s subjective formation, and social formation, is increasingly bypassing what for psychoanalysis had been thought of as a foundational ‘confrontation’ with the father. That was the perception. The issue for me was less about whether any of these approaches were accurately responding to the experience of families, and more to do with the way the family – and gender – had been inscribed in theories of socialisation, and how aspects of this seemed to be imploding in the 1960s. Which was surely a necessary thing, given the sweeping reassessment of patriarchy which (in the time frame of my article) was about to be made in the 1970s. So I’m less able to comment in relation to representations of motherhood and fatherhood now. What I can add as a side-note is the way in which, in psychoanalysis of the 1940s and 50s – especially in the UK – a shift had already been made, by figures such as Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, and John Bowlby, to accord far more status to the mother. They near enough reversed Freud’s emphasis on sons and fathers – which Freud had speculatively extended back through cultural time, beyond the epoch of Oedipus and into deep, Darwinian primeval history – into one of mothers and babies, as foundational for the future of emotional life. But this shift didn’t seem to make its way into the more mainstream social psychological authors inflected by psychoanalysis, who were still evidently reading the Freud of the 1920s into the social experience of the 1950s and 1960s.

FC: Your essay is one of a number of recent reconsiderations of how to think the (socio)political in relation to psychoanalysis. I’m thinking, for example, of Michal Shapira’s The War Inside, Dagmar Herzog’s Cold War Freud and Daniel Pick’s The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind. How would you account for the blossoming of such an interest, now, and how would you distinguish your own approach to this question? 

Mf: It’s been an interesting development, and one I feel closely associated with – Dagmar Herzog has now joined me as Editor of Psychoanalysis and History, and Daniel Pick and I collaborated on an edited volume – Psychoanalysis in the Age of Totalitarianism (Routledge, 2016) – for which Dagmar and Michal Shapira both contributed chapters. One way of looking at it is that these are all attempts to move the history of psychoanalysis forwards from a concentration on the ‘Freud era’ to what came after. Some of this is simply about extending the history of psychoanalysis forward through the century, and responding to the opening up of more recent archives. But it was also a way of getting beyond the idea that the history of psychoanalysis necessarily has to do with the history of Freud. It’s in the 1920s to 40s in particular, that you start to get a much broader involvement of the second wave of psychoanalysts in other disciplinary fields (pedagogy, criminology, child psychology, sociology, etc). In the totalitarian book I was intrigued by the ways in which Frankfurt school sociologists had responded to the rise of fascism and anti-semitism with a wave of psychoanalytically-informed research and critical theory [. The article for HHS was in some ways an attempt to keep tracking that alliance onwards in subsequent history.

As to why this and similar initiatives amongst historians might be happening now? I think there’s also a recognition that there is a huge postwar history of psychoanalysis that remains to be told – too much for any single volume because of the degree to which psychoanalytic ideas implicated themselves so successfully in many different cultures in the middle decades of the twentieth century. And it’s always a fascinating history, because of the ways in which psychoanalysis delves into people’s fears and fantasies, or makes unusual social interventions, challenges existing assumptions, etc. It’s hard to characterise my own input here, but if anything I’d say that I pursue the history of psychoanalysis because of the complex ways in which it poses questions about the nature of identity and subjectivity that are relevant far beyond the practise of psychotherapy. For this reason, psychoanalysis is always renewing its engagements with philosophy, sociology and critical theory – an alliance very present within current psychosocial studies.

FC: Your were trained in literature as well as in history, and your article made clear to me how we much we need to move with agility between the social sciences and the humanities — including, in particular, literary studies — if we are properly to analyse the history of psychoanalysis. How would you describe your approach to interdisciplinarity in relation to the history of the human sciences?

Mf: I’ve never felt myself committed to any discipline exactly, and have generally simply pursued questions that I have felt to be crucial, about the way subjectivity is understood in the modern era, particularly in relation to individualism. And that’s true for thinkers that have influenced me as well – which REF panel would you submit Franz Fanon to, or Julia Kristeva, or Walter Benjamin, or Freud for that matter? It’s a huge problem at the moment – despite all the lip-service paid to interdisciplinarity, most elements of the way academic research and teaching are set up conspire to make liaison across fields difficult. My own tendency is to choose interdisciplinary ground not just in order to put fragments of a bigger social picture together, but in order to materialise entirely new domains. For instance, one of the areas that is intriguing me going forwards is the role of ‘fantasy’ in the social sciences. There’s obviously a psychoanalytic link here, because fantasy is an object of enquiry for psychoanalysis. But it goes wider than this. We tend to think of fantasy as something inaccessible, or illusory, or private, or without social agency. But how could you study the history of modern racism, for instance, without putting together materials from literature and culture, with other discourses circulating in the historical and social science archives, and further data from psychosocial work with the dreams and fantasies that regularly feature in relation to racial hatred? Ideally one needs to be housed in an institution that allows for that capacity, to bring these kinds of materials together across various disciplinary divides, because the logic of the material itself demands it. And one also has to work with others to find ways of arbitrating across different criteria of knowledge-formation, different theoretical frameworks.

FC: Whatever else your essay does, I read it as a fascinating contribution to the history of the emotions — in the way that you narrate a complex history whereby empathy and coolness are, variously, objects of analysis and epistemic virtues upheld by those doing the analysing. Can you say more about how this element of your argument reorients how we might think about the histories of disciplines? 

Mf: Interestingly, that point about empathy was the one that occurred to me last of all, in this article that went through several iterations in the last couple of years. Or it’s the furthest point I reached in my thinking. What really struck me was the way in which psychoanalysts drawn to social science, in the 1950s and 1960s, ended up in some instances detaching themselves from the kind of empathic relation to their subjects that psychotherapy might foster. Instead, they became more abstract ‘diagnosticians’ of societies. With Alexander Mitscherlich and Margarete Mitscherlich in particular (the German psychoanalysts who are my focus in the latter half of the article) there was the added factor that this was postwar Germany, and – for them – empathy with their subjects was not an option; or they willingly exchanged empathy for moral critique. For them, Germans had been unable to acknowledge their emotions, and their past, and what had resulted was a kind of postwar social pathology, despite the apparent economic successes. This shift in the Mitscherlichs was something I could pull out by comparing certain texts, and in particular looking at the side effects of certain disciplinary lenses on the way human subjects were rendered. More recently I participated in a workshop on ‘Denial’ at the Pears Institute in London, which brought together historians, literary scholars social scientists, and psychoanalysts, and for me it raised related sets of questions about the ways in which historical subjects (in this case the agents of certain forms of violence and genocide) are rendered differently by different disciplines. One of the things that shifts is whether the observer is called upon to empathise with the object of enquiry, called to empathise by the discipline itself. What assumptions do disciplines build in about a common ‘human’ or moral viewpoint? To what extent do they use empathy to ‘flesh out’ the minds and motives of perpetrators; and by contrast, to what extent – by abandoning subjective levels of description – do other attitudes create ‘impersonal’ subjects, who then appear to act in incomprehensible, unjustifiable ways? It’s certainly an area for further work.

Matt ffytche is head of the Department of  Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies at the University of Essex, and the author of The Foundation of the Unconscious (Cambridge)

Felicity Callard is Editor-in-Chief of History of the Human Sciences and director of the Institute for Social Research at Birkbeck, University of London.