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?


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