Adam Phillips in conversation with Devorah Baum
devorah baum: Do you think psychoanalysis has a working definition of politics or the political?
adam phillips: There’s presumably a variety of definitions, depending on which kind of psychoanalysis you’re affiliated with. There’s always been a question in psychoanalysis about how significant politics is, which is strange because in a way there’s only political life. There’s only group life and conciliating rival claims. So, the material of psychoanalysis could only be political because it’s about people and their lives, how they live together and so on.
But I think psychoanalysis has been treated, on the one hand, as a refuge from politics, and on the other hand, I think it’s been overly politicised in a way that’s rather diminished something about it. Because certainly in the psychoanalysis I was trained in there was a wariness of psychoanalysis becoming ideologically committed – as though the risk would be that it would be a version of a Maoist training camp, but in the subtlest possible way, and that people’s individual personal histories would then be used for some kind of political activism. You might ask, ‘What else could they be used for?’ But I think that the aim, at least in the psychoanalysis I learned, was that the psychoanalytic setting was a place where people could reflect on these things and have a different kind of conversation, one that was private. So it wasn’t actually that the psychoanalytic setting was a refuge from political life, but it might be where you would go in order to return to politics with a different sense of what that can be about.
baum: So the idea would be not to change your politics but to change your understanding of what politics is?
phillips: Yes, I think so, and your embeddedness in social life. Because there’s only social life.
baum: I’m really interested in the idea that people feel the need of a refuge from political life, or from an understanding of the social as inherently political.
phillips: Obviously each individual is going to be different. But for a lot of people, the political world seems unintelligible, overwhelmingly complicated and frightening. And yet everybody feels implicated or involved in it, even if their involvement is a retreat. So one way of envisaging psychoanalysis is as a place where one could go to have conversations untrammelled by the fraughtness of political life. In other words, a place where there are fewer people, fewer points of view to consider, and where you yourself could be listened to – whereas of course in any group of more than two people, there are too many competing claims. From a psychoanalytic point of view, not being able to bear the excess of politics can also be seen as a projection of an unwillingness to bear the complexity of one’s own mind, the multiplicity of competing claims and interests and tones and temptations that you are composed by. You may need a sympathetic, less clamorous place to consider all this.
So one of the things that psychoanalysis has institutionalised is the possibility of being listened to on a long-term basis. That’s very unique and extraordinary. But you could also say that, if we were democratically minded, then one of the things that we would need to be educated in would be the capacity to listen and to bear contradictory points of view. So it would seem to me that one of the things that psychoanalysis was invented to do was to enable people not to simply be obedient subjects or objects.
baum: So psychoanalysis has an anti-authoritarian, subversive character?
phillips: Yes. An anti-dogmatic character. In the kind of developmental theories that I was taught the question was: how do you get to the point of being able to acknowledge that there really are other people in the world? That being a very difficult thing to achieve. Once you acknowledge that there are other people in the world, then you have to acknowledge the fact that you can’t control the other people on whom you are dependent. And then you’re in political life. The end of solipsism is the beginning of politics, presumably.
baum: It reminds me of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s idea that the ethical relation takes place between two people, but the moment there’s three, you’re in the domain of justice, politics, negotiation and compromise, which is interesting if we think of psychoanalysis as a refuge from politics by going back to the idea of just two.
phillips: If you believe that there are ever just two – whereas in fantasy, and therefore in reality, there’s always a third. Because you and I may be sitting in this room, but there is a world there, and there are all the people that we’re related to and so on. So you never have a pure couple. What you can do is create the artefact of a couple in which the other people are thought about differently.
baum: When living through dark times, as we are now, it is hard to think of a more appealing idea than psychoanalysis as a refuge from political life. And that idea can lead us in a number of directions. One of them is to think of psychoanalysis as a space in which you’re finally with somebody who has no agenda . . .
phillips: Yes, although there’s a risk in that too. When external reality becomes unbearable, people begin to have elaborate internal worlds. So a risk of living in politically tormenting times is that there’s going to be a retreat, which is itself self-destructive. One could become, as it were, fascinating to oneself at the cost of engaging politically.
But in reality it’s impossible to meet someone with no agenda, even if their agenda is to have no agenda. Anybody who comes to see a psychoanalyst is walking into that analyst’s personal history – not explicitly, but no one can absent themselves beyond a certain point. So psychoanalysis is an opportunity for you as the patient to find out what you’re expecting is going to be expected of you: what you think the agenda of this person’s going to be. And that can be useful, interesting and revealing to think about.
Because, yes, the analyst has an agenda. The analyst has a sense of what the good is. But at its best it can be negotiated or discussed or considered from different aspects. For example, your analyst may believe that it is a moral and emotional good to be able to free-associate, to be able to see the way in which you actively narrow your mind. To see the way in which there’s a part of you that attacks your own development. So psychoanalysis can never be a neutral space, but it can generate a different kind of conversation.
baum: It’s not a debating society.
phillips: Exactly. The analyst is not as forthcoming as somebody in a pub or at a dinner is. But one of the things that the analyst may be trying to discover is what it would be, from the patient’s point of view, to be kind to them. Because obviously we all have our own ideas of what it is to be kind, but what a particular person believes kindness to be from their point of view is a fundamentally political thing.
baum: I imagine quite a few people who come to psychoanalysis want to test whether they can break the codes of political correctness by stating a position they think they can’t declare elsewhere – to state it without being hated or exiled for having that thought in their head . . .
phillips: Yes, they do. And the experiment from the point of view of the analyst is not to take flight into inner superiority, retaliation or cynicism. So the patient can rely on the fact that you will be able to take in what they say, whatever it happens to be, and think about and consider it by talking about it and looking at it from different aspects without pre-emptively judging it. But the patient always has to deal with what the analyst herself can’t bear to listen to, just as he did with his parents. Analysts, like our parents, are born of their own political and emotional histories. Analysts have just entered into these histories in a slightly different way.
The implication of free association is that there’s a huge amount of pre-emptive judgement going on before we speak or indeed feel anything. And so I think the more oppressive, punitive and coercive a culture is, the more people are going to use psychoanalysis as the place where, and people often say this explicitly, ‘I can’t say this to anyone else but you.’
baum: It’s really the hallmark of resentment, isn’t it, to have a strong sense that you’ve been silenced and a sense of who the silencing people are?
phillips: And you will hate, and sometimes revere, I think, the people who demand you inhibit yourself or demand you become reticent, cautious, careful, polite – unless you identify with the people who oppress you in order to manage your fear of them.
baum: One of the political conversations that I guess may be raging in the consulting room right now is #MeToo. Do you get to hear a lot about how people feel about moments of sexual revolution and how that impacts particularly on those who sense they’re guilty or not quite ‘on side’?
phillips: I think psychoanalysis was partly invented to address people’s terror of their own misogyny. Misogyny is structural. From a psychoanalytic point of view, the absolute nature of the initial dependence on the mother has got to be formative. The person that can make you feel fabulous can also make you feel like shit. And you can’t recover from that easily. And everybody is terrified of their own misogyny because you want to kill or torment the thing you love.
So it would seem to me, if we take a figure like Harvey Weinstein, that we’re not going to solve this problem by humiliating him. A punitive response is a dead end. Therefore the question is: if you don’t punish people who do unacceptable things, what else can you do with them, or to them? Because the risk is always that misogyny gets escalated by the way in which it’s punished. People have to be accountable for what they have done; and they must not, in any way, be celebrated for doing terrible things. But what punishment can never fully acknowledge is that actions can’t be undone, that time is irreversible. We tend to punish people when we don’t know what else to do with them. Punishment is a failure of imagination and people must take the consequences of their actions – both the punishers and the punished.
So that can be where psychoanalysis comes in, because you can go to your psychoanalyst and say – to some extent – all the things you might feel about women. And you might be able to have the kind of conversation in which you have a sense of where these thoughts and feelings come from, but also what you might want to do about these thoughts and feelings. Because this isn’t like having the flu. It’s not just going to go away or get better. But you can behave more or less well. You can be more or less cruel. And that matters.
baum: I imagine you’ve been hearing a lot of grievance lately from, for instance, the misogynist man who feels aggrieved because he perceives that the rules have changed. But I imagine there are also a lot of women . . .
phillips: I was going to say, yes, because in some ways the women I see have more to say about this than the men. I mean they want to talk about it more. And what they have to say covers the whole spectrum, including the fear that people will be so radically inhibited that nothing will ever happen between men and women any more: no one will dare to initiate anything, no risks will ever be taken.
baum: Do you see anyone who feels that their politics have just been confirmed or that they’ve been liberated by what’s happening in the world, so much so that you’re no longer necessary somehow?
phillips: I think there is a bit of that, but I think those people are people who wouldn’t come to see someone like me.
baum: In the first place?
phillips: In the first place. I think with politics it’s often that way round – that people enter psychoanalysis who feel they don’t know what they want or how to go about agitating for what they want in the world outside. I went to Chicago recently and just happened to have a conversation with some people who said that they can see the drawbacks of Trump, but actually he is a very liberating figure because he’s somebody who says what he thinks. So he represents something that is powerfully affecting to people, people for whom the political situation is their personal solution.
baum: And it’s true that there’s an analogy to be made between what he’s offering and what a psychoanalyst offers: the idea that you don’t have to repress anything.
phillips: Yeah, people could potentially claim that Trump is fostering free speech, including the freedom to lie, which is a very human thing.
baum: So could one say that certain Trump supporters, on the very opposite shore from #MeToo, have their own sexual revolution going on? There seems such a tremendous libidinal energy and enthusiasm released at Trump rallies – huge crowds of people really letting go and enjoying themselves. It’s one of the reasons I think I find the pictures of those rallies so disturbing, because of how orgiastic they appear.
phillips: I think it’s the psychoanalytic idea of sexualisation that can be useful here. Lots of things can be sexualised or experienced as sexual that aren’t necessarily. So sex is then being used to do what it wouldn’t usually do, which can make things that are deeply unpleasant seem very exciting, for example. So it’s not really that sex is everywhere, it’s that sexualisation is everywhere. And it works like alchemy: it radically transforms the nature of the experience. And when we do that it’s because we live in a world with other people who frighten us, and we’re continuously in all sorts of conscious and unconscious exchanges with them. There’s therefore a huge amount of regulation going on, including distance regulation through judgement, and there’s tremendous fear about the bodily self and what we might do or be capable of if we’re not being controlled, under surveillance, punished and so on.
It’s like the story Jean-Paul Sartre tells of the young married couple. They come down for breakfast every morning. The wife makes the husband breakfast. He leaves and goes to work. She sits by the window crying all day. When he comes back, she perks up. The obvious interpretation of this is that she has a tremendous separation anxiety, but Sartre suggests a better interpretation is that when her husband goes to work she’s free, and she has a terror of her own freedom. So she sits by the window crying and doesn’t do anything.
I think we could redescribe this anxiety about freedom as an anxiety about desire itself. What do we imagine we might want when we’re not under surveillance? Or under surveillance from a variety of different kinds of people. We tend to imagine ourselves as under surveillance from the usual suspects.
baum: So are you saying that the key psychoanalytic question is who would you be and what would you do if you didn’t feel yourself under surveillance?
phillips: And what would you want?
baum: And that’s the key political question also?
phillips: Yes, working out what you want if there was no one to inhibit you. Although you’d also have to acknowledge that in reality you always would be under surveillance. But it’s still a useful way of imagining things: the self unoppressed by others – that there could be a world of collaboration, and not simply competition and punishment.
baum: One of the problems with democratic politics is the supposition that everybody should be able to speak freely and represent their own wishes. Psychoanalysis appreciates that not everybody knows themselves quite so well. So what looks like a level playing field really isn’t one. People who feel they know what they want get away with an awful lot on the basis of other people not having a clue where to begin, even though this freedom is apparently theirs for the taking.
phillips: And that seems to me to be a very challenging thing: how do you imagine or describe a politics that includes the idea of the unconscious, or the idea that people don’t know what they want? Because politics is all about telling people what they want or eliciting what they think they want. You could think about this on the basis of the idea of self-ownership. The idea that, ‘I know what I need. The question is just: how do I get it from other people?’ As opposed to thinking, ‘I don’t know what I need and the point about relationships is not how to meet my needs but to discover what they are’. Then it’s a collaborative, unfolding process. So I’m not already armed with my needs. They’re made up in exchange, in a relationship.
baum: You said that people come here and they have a lot of projections about what they think you want of them and what your agenda may or may not be. So I imagine you find a lot of specifically political ideas are ascribed to you too?
phillips: Yes, there’s a bit of that, but also I’m perfectly willing to have the conversation, not that that solves the problem. So if I’m asked, I will say. I may also say, ‘I wonder why you’re asking.’ But I don’t think we should be exclusive here. And there’s something silly about not disclosing your political positions. But political positions have to be provisional to some extent because they’re always circumstantial. And it has to be clear that you don’t need people to agree with you.
baum: But there must also be a degree to which the people who seek you out are probably quite aligned with you politically. Is it fairly rare for you to see somebody who’s wildly opposed to your politics?
phillips: Yes, it is rare. This is one of the differences between working in the National Health Service and working privately. Because when I worked in the NHS, there was a huge range. And in basically middle-class, private practice, it’s a narrow band. People sometimes come to me because they assume we have a political affinity and they’re often right.
baum: Is that a problem?
phillips: I think it cuts both ways. The problem is the assumption about collusion: that of course we agree about X, Y and Z. But the good bit is the solidarity and like-mindedness. There are psychoanalysts that are terrified and suspicious of the idea of like-mindedness. They usually belong to identifiable groups.
baum: And I imagine some people never mention politics?
phillips: Yeah, ostensibly they don’t, as though they were leading a sort of apolitical life.
baum: Would you raise it with those people?
phillips: It depends because it’s so circumstantial and specific. But if I think there’s an active repudiation or refusal of something – and I would assume that if you need to believe that you’re not leading a political life that there are a lot of other presuppositions that go along with that to do with your involvement with other people generally – then yes, I probably would.
baum: When I was in analysis I imagined I could notice on the face of my analyst when he agreed with me and when he didn’t. In particular I sensed that my obsession about my Jewishness must have seemed really pathological from his point of view – the way I’d keep bringing it up in all kinds of situations. And so I imagined him thinking that I’m a fairly reasonable person, but with a madness in that direction.
phillips: As though it was like a sexual perversion or something.
baum: Yeah. I’d try not to bring it up, but then I would again. And I’d think he’s right on the one hand to view it as a sort of mania. But I’d also think he just doesn’t get it, that I do have this extrasensory perception that’s linked to my Jewishness – which I guess does sound pretty mad . . .
phillips: Élisabeth Roudinesco was once asked, ‘Why was it that so many Jesuits went to see Lacan?’ And she said, ‘Because Lacan had a great regard for people’s vocations.’ And I find that really wonderful and interesting: the idea that people do have vocations. They have real preoccupations that profoundly organise their lives. And on the one hand, in analysis, you can work out what the preoccupation is a self-cure for: what it might be a solution to, what it does. But also, it’s true: you are preoccupied by this, and that’s integral to who you are. And of course it can be looked at from different aspects, but it would be a shame to think, ‘Oh God, here she or he goes again.’ Every reiteration is always somewhere an improvisation.
baum: Perhaps too it’s to do with not quite knowing where to situate this part of myself. With feminism, and right now in particular, I feel I sort of know where it’s situated, politically. I know how to call on allies. I’ve never really felt that with my Jewishness. And so I’ve never really felt my thoughts about it have been legitimised by a public discourse – or at least not one I’m comfortable identifying with. So that sort of feeling of political homelessness it gives me is probably one of the reasons why it makes me so insecure, and why it matters to me so much.
phillips: That tolerance of uncertainty may be one of the differences between politics and psychoanalysis. In politics people think they know what they want, and in psychoanalysis the assumption is that they don’t know. And so it’s very difficult to put these two things together because in psychoanalysis, at least to begin with, decisions don’t have to be made, whereas in politics they always do.
baum: That seems to me the tragedy today – that the people who know what they want are in the minority, but they’re the ones who are controlling what’s happening because the majority haven’t got a clue what they want, so they sit by the window crying and doing nothing.
phillips: And what’s exposed, then, is that not knowing what you want is like an invitation to a certain kind of authoritarianism – or simply to somebody who knows what they want and so will organise your desire for you.
baum: Since the Brexit vote this country has never seemed to me more divided. And that conflict is taking place within families, within political parties, within social classes, within regions of the country, and between generations. So how are people addressing that when they come and see you?
phillips: As a source of conflict. Yet you could say that Brexit is also sanguine because it actually exposes the country in which we’re really living. A lot of people may have been living in a sort of pastoral myth about our relative harmony and so on. But certainly Brexit has had tremendous impact on the people I see. It’s very singular in everybody’s account, but most are horrified by the scale of the xenophobia that it exposes, and by how much social hatred there is. And by how much people seem to want, in a sort of fascistic way, to get rid of the thing they’re troubled by as opposed to thinking about and discussing it. Where have people got the idea, the assumption from, that scapegoating is a good thing, that blaming is one of the best things we can do?
And although Brexit is of course not necessarily the return of fascism, I think a lot of people have been shocked into disbelief that fascism is happening again, as though fascism is not by definition something that recurs as a desperate political and personal solution. So it could be that one of the things that’s traumatic is that we are shocked – it’s a bit like discovering we’ve been living with a false picture of reality. And so this seems incredible to people like us. Well, it is incredible. But why is it incredible? Or what have we been assuming social reality is really like such that this seems such a devastation? A lot of people I see feel that the country they thought they lived in has been taken away from them.
baum: It has felt like that to me. But again, it really matters who you are. I have friends who don’t particularly come from the margins who find these conflicts all a terrible shame and rather annoying but the terrors of this moment, terrors that are so palpable for others, just haven’t been noticed by them somehow. If anything, they’re suspicious of people who mention politics.
phillips: Yes, they want that conversation to stop so they can get on with their lives. But for me, and I don’t know if this is your experience, it can exacerbate one’s sense of Jewishness because we now have to think of ourselves as more Jewish or differently Jewish than we had thought of ourselves before. My parents never denied being Jewish, but they wanted to be English, and they valued Britishness, and they thought this was a good country. They didn’t think of Britain – broadly speaking – as anti-Semitic. And it’s not that it has suddenly become anti-Semitic, but I think in a more obvious way now there’s the sense that it is and can be.
baum: But I wonder about the idea that this was always there and just needed triggering. Is it not possible that it got invented somehow, that people have had a latent sense of discontent that could have been shaped in any number of directions?
phillips: Oh yes, I agree with that. I don’t think this reveals anything about human nature. I think it just reveals something about a particular political and historical ethos. And it seems to me that in capitalist culture there is a possessive, acquisitive individualism and there’s profiteering and scarcity. And what that invents for us is a picture of people desperate for minimal resources with no sense of a commonwealth, with not enough experience of the pleasures of collaboration. And the fact that we know how just a couple of people own nearly all the world’s wealth and so on. And what’s amazing is that we sit with this knowledge or even nod along to it – because it’s totally startling.
And so what’s happened in the last 300 years, and certainly in this bit of the world that we live in, is astounding. It’s astounding that it can be the only game in town; that really profiteering is what life’s for. It’s amazing. I mean if this was the fifteenth century and you went down the street and asked people what they want, they’d say they want to be saved. Now people would say they want to be rich and famous.
baum: Because they think that will save them.
phillips: Yes, there’s still a redemptive fantasy somewhere.
baum: But do we even know how to oppose it? One of the ways I imagine psychoanalysis can test our dreams and ideas is by questioning whether the positions we think are opposed are really all that different from each other. Profiteering may be a capitalist principle but it’s hard to find any space in modern life, including spaces of putative resistance, where people aren’t in some sense on the make, having to self-promote, prove themselves, or basically honour the idea that time is money. Can psychoanalysis interrupt that relentless demand to capitalise as a sort of psychic drive?
phillips: I think in a way. It’s like a relationship with the National Health Service. When I was growing up and when I worked for the NHS it was a sort of reliable mother. When and if we became ill, somebody would look after us with a certain degree of care. And now psychoanalysis in the NHS barely exists. And so there is a kind of terror. There’s no backdrop of reliability or assumption that we’re all in the same boat or that we have any sense of a shared world. There’s not an identification with each other’s vulnerabilities. That’s horrifying to me. There are plenty of people who think this competition is exciting. And plenty of people for whom this is neither here nor there. But it seems to me to be terrifying. There are good accounts in child psychoanalysis of children needing the backdrop of a more or less reliable mother, of how the child can only experiment with growing up in an environment he can trust enough. Without that environment – without the as it were good-enough-mother of the NHS in the background – people become ‘violent and strange’.
Donald Winnicott has the idea of the family as a kind of commonwealth that allows the child to experiment with his own greed and aggression and vulnerability, but without the fear of retaliation, or too much retaliation. If the child can give the father and mother the full blast of his aggression – often born of frustration – and the parents don’t reject him, he can then believe in his parents’ resilience, and not experience his aggression as the end of the world. When Winnicott says ‘the object becomes real by being hated’ he means that when people survive our hatred of them, when people can more than bear our aggression and our desire, we find out what they and we are made of. The most interesting experiment in living is finding out who we can be in relation to other people, which is finding out what people might want from each other. That is what politics is for. If you live in a cultural ethos of profiteering and triumphalism – a culture of intimidation and retaliation and the idea of winners and losers – you severely circumscribe what is possible between people. Once envy is promoted as the only game in town there can be no fellow feeling, no real politics. Real politics is fellow feeling: the refusal of scapegoating, not allowing one’s sympathies to be waylaid; not allowing anyone to, as D.H. Lawrence wrote, ‘determine the being of anyone else’.
baum: You spoke before about people suddenly feeling they’re no longer at home in a country they’d assumed was their home, and feeling shocked to discover there are many people out there who might like them gone, or even destroyed. I imagine they’ve also been frightened to discover their own capacity for hatred for those people. Is that something people have wanted to talk about?
phillips: Yes, definitely. Two things are exposed. One is a world that is much more frightening than they want to live in. But also the possibility that the things they hate in other people are a part of themselves as well. I think that the risk always is that psychoanalysis can be a bit glib about this when it says that of course the things you hate in others are also in yourself. Actually sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren’t, in my experience. And in the ideal version of this encounter it can sometimes bring out the best in people by mobilising them to stand up for things that really do matter. So it can reveal that there really is solidarity, there really is collaboration. People are actually capable of being kind to each other. These things do happen.
baum: That’s reassuring. Yet when I went to the anti-Trump demo the other day, the moment I showed up I felt I wanted to go home because I found all the affirmations and banners implying that we were strong and unified in our resistance untrue. I felt very far from everybody else.
phillips: The risk is that we’re just living in a culture of righteous indignation, and that liberal education is an education in righteous indignation.
baum: Whereas you’ve been finding that the space of psychoanalysis can be a space of political creativity, of imagining new forms of collaboration?
phillips: Yes, and new forms of sociability.
baum: I don’t know what those are . . .
phillips: But you could think, ‘Of course you don’t – we don’t.’ That’s exactly the point of the conversation. You can’t imagine a new kind of poem being written, and then somebody turns up and they write one. It’s a bit like that. Things do happen. In the nuances of relationships, new things occur and people find different ways of being together. Not as a social movement, but I think that it happens in moments.
baum: So would you say that, over the course of these last years where every day we read of another horror, by listening to people you have been finding reasons to be hopeful?
phillips: Well, yes and no. More hopeful in the sense that I really do believe in good experience and in the solidarity of people that I love and like. And I know there are good groups. And there are groups of people and individuals who embody things that matter to me a lot. But I do think things are cataclysmically bad.
baum: It’s so interesting that word ‘solidarity’. It has a political lineage. So it’s quite hard to imagine using that term to describe your relationship with someone whose political views you find completely abhorrent. But presumably, if you’re seeing them professionally and that is your word for what takes place between you, you have to reimagine what solidarity might be . . .
phillips: I think you’re right. But one of the ways you imagine this is, for example, you know that the person you’re speaking to has been a baby, that they’ve had parents, that they’ve grown up in what may be a completely different way from how I have and so on. You know there are some fundamental experiences that they’ve been through. Now they may have come to different solutions to all these things, but I assume that, while not everybody’s development is the same, there is some commonality here. There are certain things that everybody’s had to deal with or has to go on dealing with by virtue of being the kind of creatures we are. So I think psychoanalysis is a kind of moral education. Of course I hear things that might really horrify me, but I assume that if somebody comes to see someone like me, it’s because they’re troubled by those things too. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be here.
So if somebody comes to see me and tells me that they hate black people, I assume it’s a probe, that they’re saying it to me because they want to know how I’m going to react to it. And I’m going to react to it in a variety of ways, none of which would be to endorse it. But my assumption would be that if they hate black people, there’s something they’re very, very frightened of. Just as if they came to me and said they have a pigeon phobia. These are of course vastly different issues, but they’re on a spectrum somewhere.
So from my point of view people come to talk about how they manage the things about themselves they cannot bear. And my assumption is that there are better ways of doing it, and I’m going to promote some of those better ways. Not as a programme in the first instance, but . . . I think my assumption is that the more we talk and the more we elaborate, the more we find that there are different kinds of thoughts we might have. We always displace our terrors about ourselves.
baum: I do think politics has a peculiar place in our culture. I might just be narrating my personal experience, but I find hearing a political idea that I disagree with unbearable. I’m usually open to what people have to tell me about their sexual preferences, about their religious ideations, and about all sorts of other controversial topics. But then I hear a political position I don’t like, and I’m suddenly not open at all. I’m so disturbed that I just want to shut down the conversation.
phillips: But isn’t that feeling a version of the truth for everybody, which is: we can take in all sorts of things, and then there are things we can’t. And that’s where the action is, if you take the psychoanalytic idea seriously. Because at that moment, you’re saying, ‘No, that’s not me. In fact, I can’t be me and take this thought or idea in.’ So then the psychoanalytic question would be: why do you need to dissociate yourself from this? And thinking about that could be very enlightening. Not that you can learn to happily become a racist or anything like that, so much as you can see what it is about racism that you need to dissociate yourself from. And that can be enlivening.
baum: Have you had that experience of people?
phillips: Yes, I have. But not only that experience, because it can also be horrifying. To experience psychoanalysis is not a wonderful story intrinsically, whereby you appropriate all the bits of yourself you disown and feel better. You might also feel a lot worse. And that’s the risk of psychoanalysis. It’s the risk of being alive. You can never know in advance how much of yourself and your history you will be able to bear. And you can’t know the consequence of these acknowledgements.
baum: My sense is that my own hostile response to political disagreements is very culturally pervasive right now.
phillips: Oh it is, absolutely. It’s almost a description of politics.
baum: So it’s a description of politics to declare that these are my limits. As though politics is a new word we have for what’s sacred . . . Why do you think it is that politics has moved into that place?
phillips: I don’t know of course, but you can imagine that it might have to do with the number of people we are called upon these days to either know or know about – so we are being presented with more parts of ourselves than we feel we can bear.
baum: So really it comes back to your idea about democracy, or the difference between the dream and reality of it?
phillips: Exactly. It’s always a question of how much of our own complexity we can deal with or enjoy. And from the looks of things right now, not very much. People of course vary hugely. But the experiment in living that psychoanalysis induces is discovering what it might be like to live if you could bear more of your own complexity. What kinds of relationships would you then have?
baum: So that new understanding, to be politically meaningful, would then need to become an intervention. Who can show us how to bear more of our own complexity?
phillips: I would have thought that the art that appeals to us, appeals to us either because it confirms who we are and want to be, or because it adds something new. It brings some news, and it’s news that we want. It may disturb us, but we want it.
baum: So it would be in the arts that one would find this inspiration . . . not in politics as such?
phillips: No, but it’s weird that we can’t find it there. Because you would think, if we’re just dividing this up, there are religion and politics and the arts. And why would they be delimited in this way? Why would it seem that political life involves gross oversimplifications? As though when people get together, they can only get together by simplifying things or making them crude. It doesn’t seem to me that that has to be the case, but it looks like it’s often the case.
baum: I’m always interested in how people use words in the vernacular. And when people say, ‘Oh, it’s getting very political,’ very often they’re not talking about big-P politics. They might be talking about the culture of their workplace, for example. And what they normally mean by politics then is that people have been behaving cynically.
phillips: Yes. People were behaving badly with the available resources.
baum: To me that idiomatic idea of politics is someone effectively telling me, ‘I have to play my cards close to my chest. I appeared to be on the side of this person, but it was only because my own advancement would have been jeopardised otherwise.’ What does that kind of talk suggest to you?
phillips: What I would analyse, so to speak, is all the ways people have of being strategic and self-promoting. Because I think that’s estrangement. That’s my presumption. So if someone is telling me they’re working very, very hard to get ahead, to be successful, to be more prestigious, more attractive, more intelligent, all that stuff, I know that this is a false lure in some way. It’s like a misrecognition of the problem because it’s the difference between fantasising about a meal and eating one. Some things are more nourishing than others. And the problem with fantasy is, when it doesn’t lead you to a better relationship with reality, it’s enervating. It’s like a black hole: it draws your energy away.
That would be my criteria here: that anything that’s about, in this case, my need to dominate other people is fundamentally estranging. Dominating other people can be exhilarating but it’s not heartening. Or fortifying, or really reassuring. We should stop asking how intelligent people are, and just ask who we really enjoy talking to.
baum: But your patients would probably want to tell you that this, in their view, is reality.
phillips: Of course. But it’s often the case that people come to me with, say, a sexual perversion and they want to persuade, in this case me, that really I just haven’t got the guts, that they’re the ones in touch with reality, that this is what sex is really like. Sex is really exciting, but you’ve got to be up to it. And that isn’t true. It just isn’t true.
So I always sense the workings of ideology when patients want to assert that they know more about reality. They certainly know more about their reality than I can. But if somebody is sitting or lying there promoting a version of sadomasochism, I can question it because I just don’t believe this is the best way of living. I don’t mean that I’ve got an ideological project setting out to cure you of your sadomasochism, but I just think as a way of organising your world, it’s too frustrating. It’s actually intrinsically enraging. But what we’re being offered culturally, broadly speaking, is a sadomasochistic solution: the idea that I’ll feel awfully strong if I can make you feel weak, or vice versa.
baum: And that’s similar to people complaining about the politics of their workplace, when they’re telling you that they had to go behind the back of a colleague? You’re suggesting that you don’t have to play that game of realpolitik because there is another way of doing politics?
phillips: Yes, I definitely am. And I’m sort of saying or implying that they might have been entranced or a bit hypnotised by a false picture of reality. And I think I’m free to do that because they’re coming to see me – implying that clearly the picture they’ve got isn’t working for them. So however omniscient they’re sounding, they know somewhere that if they really were as omniscient as they think they are, they wouldn’t be talking to me.
baum: The best essay I’ve read about our contemporary moment is Theodor Adorno’s chapter on Freudian theory and fascist propaganda in The Culture Industry. He was talking in 1951 about American fascists but it seems as though he’s writing about right now. And he’s having that same glimpse of clairvoyance himself when looking back at Freud’s writing about group psychology and the analysis of the ego from the 1920s. He’s wondering how Freud seemed to know what was to come. And his own Freud-influenced meditation on how fascism occurs is brilliant but also terrifying because it appears to show how invincible it is.
phillips: And the dangers of identification. The wish to be like someone else can be a way of hiding or occluding the ways in which one is different from them. The question, from a psychoanalytic point of view, is: what is this identification an attempted self-cure for? What is it about yourself you don’t want to know?
baum: Milo Yiannopoulos claimed before Trump was elected that the alt-right is seeking a cultural revolution, not an economic one. It’s the cultural nature of it that somehow makes it feel invincible.
phillips: It’s as if these are stages in the rise of a kind of organic fascism. And Freud was at the beginning, and it has carried on. It must be part of the way it works, to make us feel it’s invincible. Because in a way the ruling ideology has got to set the limits for what seems possible. And that’s part of the tyranny, because we don’t actually know what’s possible. So it’s almost like thinking that they’ve set the bounds of the possible and the impossible, and then we who are not satisfied by this have to think of other possibilities. Slavoj Žižek has said it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. And that’s true, but that fact itself is terrifying.
baum: Adorno says what enrages fascists most is anybody calling for introspection, because group identification can’t work if its members are looking inwards.
phillips: Introspection and also scepticism, because now you could look back and think the rise of scepticism must be partly about how you deal with fascist states. What’s the antidote to a culture of being dogmatically certain?
baum: It is telling that under totalitarian regimes psychoanalysis has been pushed underground or been co-opted. But there must have been moments when psychoanalysis has been more ready and willing to enter public and political debates than it often appears to be now.
phillips: It seems to me that psychoanalysts have, broadly speaking, retreated into their consulting rooms and their institutes. Why aren’t they, we, marching, writing political pieces in the Guardian, or whatever? It’s a question that assumes, on the one hand, there’s a sort of grandiose psychoanalytic interpretation of politics in which it’s as though psychoanalysis is some sort of key supreme fiction for understanding things. But on the other hand, I do think clinicians have an anxiety about speaking in a larger context – an anxiety that it will expose their vulnerability and that of psychoanalysis by subjecting it to a greater array of criticism. The question is: would they survive? Or: would they go on being able to give an account of themselves that seemed viable? I think it’s a fear of humiliation in some ways. But also, psychoanalysis is based on privacy. So it’s a question that concerns the relationship between the private and the public.
And I think there’s also been a fantasy of purified transference. The idea that if you’re a psychoanalyst who is in any way in the public realm, you’ve already corrupted the practice because people are already having fantasies about you, whereas you should be a private, reticent, quiet, withheld person, so people can come and see you and invent you. It’s not true. I could appear in a film or I could never meet anyone outside my consulting room, but people are still going to have their fantasies about me. There’s no neutrality because even if I don’t speak, the question is: who am I that I don’t speak? You cannot not express yourself.
baum: Have you ever taken a political stance in public?
phillips: As far as I know, I haven’t fought shy of it, but I haven’t been so moved politically that I’ve then written a piece stating, ‘Here’s what I think in the light of what I do.’ I think that’s my, well, complicity and sort of embeddedness in the profession. But I felt that working in the National Health Service was doing something political. And therefore I was really dismayed and disillusioned when it was no longer possible. That for me was a kind of watershed for all we’re seeing now.
baum: And what do you think of those psychoanalysts who’ve come forward publicly and diagnosed Trump long-distance by saying that, for instance, ‘Trump suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder’ or whatever else?
phillips: I hate all that. I think it’s really disreputable to analyse people who are not in analysis with you. It shouldn’t be done publicly, because it’s really character assassination by other means.
baum: There are political thinkers or academics who work in politics who are wondering if they can get some fresh insights from psychoanalysts. I think they do want the help, actually. And I think they want to know where it can serve and where it can’t serve their purposes.
phillips: They’re right. There’s a lot of really interesting thinking and description in psychoanalysis. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it can be very illuminating. The trouble is that the psychoanalysts who’ve intervened in politics have been very quickly pathologised. For example, Wilhelm Reich, who did some interesting things and wrote some interesting books, like his The Mass Psychology of Fascism. And there were free clinics in Berlin and there were analysts who spoke out against Nazism and so on. And it seems to me clear that the British Independent Group is sort of socialism by other names in a way. The trouble is they didn’t say that. The political world is about explicitness, whereas psychoanalysis is very often about implicitness. But I think we should say what sort of political organisation we believe in and why.
baum: And what about the idea of the family as a matrix for understanding political relations, given how central the family is to psychoanalytic investigations? Are you as a psychoanalyst inclined, for instance, if you hear somebody declare an extreme political position, to then focus on whether they’re the oldest or youngest sibling, or if they lost their father in their early childhood, or that kind of thing? Because isn’t it true that information like that is often telling?
phillips: It is telling, but it isn’t decisive. There’s the Joan Riviere idea that socialism is the religion of younger siblings and that sort of stuff. And of course there’s something in it, which is why it amuses us, but it’s never the whole story. It’s not an explanation but a restatement of the problem.
baum: And when people come to you who do obsessively talk about politics, do you tend to view politics then as symptomatic of something else, i.e. something non-political that they find themselves unable to talk about?
phillips: Yes, but you can have this both ways, because I think it would be misleading to assume that it is something else. Because it is itself, whatever that means, and it also has roots and analogies. Otherwise the interpretation’s oversimplified. There have got to be lots of connections between your family history and your political affiliations. But one thing doesn’t equal the other.
baum: And finally, this special issue of Granta is called The Politics of Feeling. Do you have any sense of the politics of feeling or the feeling of politics?
phillips: I think feeling is intrinsically political just in terms of acculturation. We’re born not speaking, we have a very intense bodily experience and so on, and gradually over time things are named. And this comes from the culture, and the culture is a group culture. So all of what we think of as feelings could only be caught up in a political world.
So there’s no such thing as non-political feeling. But it’s partly a question of languages. I think the feeling for politics is a very interesting thing. What might make us or anybody think, ‘Politics really isn’t my thing’, and yet we might have preoccupations that are profoundly linked to what are called political questions that are couched in political language, but we don’t go on marches, or we don’t vote, or we don’t particularly talk about trade unions or whatever is nominally political. And I think it’s a very interesting question where anybody gets their feeling for politics from and what they think the feeling is.
I grew up in quite a left-wing home where people talked about politics a lot. And in Wales of course it was all about mining. And then there was South Africa. For my bar mitzvah I was given a biography of Aneurin Bevan, for example. That was the world that I grew up in. So I never thought there was something else called ‘politics’, but when I discovered literature between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, I thought literature was much better than politics. I wanted to read novels and poems. I wanted a more nuanced life. I didn’t want to read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky. Which was why Ruskin and Raymond Williams were such a discovery. I thought then, and I think now, that it was a bit of a way out, a refuge from politics – or at least I thought that literature was a way of reincluding what politics tended to leave out.
baum: So have you noticed any pattern regarding what seems to lead people into politics?
phillips: No, I haven’t. But I wouldn’t have thought it would be worlds apart from somebody becoming an artist or a priest. It must have, as it were, profound roots. Something to do with what people do together. Some fundamental feeling of injustice.
Photograph © Daniela Silva