Freud Is On Mine
This week an article about perceptions of the discipline of psychology was used to bash Sigmund Freud repeatedly, over his long-deceased head. It seems to be a common pastime these days.
In a rather alarming opening, the author who teaches A level psychology, lumps the great 20th century theorist in with ‘pop psychology and self-help manuals’ :
‘I already know that I’ll spend the first week or so dispelling the many myths that surround my discipline and, as a result, at least a few of my new students will realise that psychology isn’t really what they thought it was and will decide to go and study something else.
Ask many people to name a famous psychologist and they will invariably say Sigmund Freud. This perhaps exemplifies some of the main problems with psychology today, in that the public has been raised on a sugary diet of pop psychology and self-help manuals.’
This rejection of and even demonisation of Freud has been going on since well, since he was alive and first developing the theory and practice of psychoanalysis in the early 20th century! But now it seems completely accepted that the Austrian writer and doctor was some kind of ‘crank’. I attribute this situation to the triumph of positivism, the philosophy of knowledge that says that ‘rationality’ and ’empirical evidence’ is everything and nothing can be left to the imagination. As a writer myself, including of fiction, I am not happy with this narrow minded state of affairs!
Although this article is supposedly one which ‘debunks myths’ about psychology it actually reinforces some along the way. One is based on a No True Scotsman type position, suggesting that there are ‘authentic’ psychologists and then there are pretenders:
‘While the BPS has the power to confer chartered status on its members, the public and the media rarely recognise the difference between a psychologist and a Chartered Psychologist (or a psychologist, psychotherapist or counsellor for that matter).
This is perhaps one of the reasons why people conjure up an image of Sigmund Freud when they think of psychology – and why our students get so confused.’
So using this strict definition of what a psychologist is or isn’t, Freud is struck off from the profession. This is justified by emphasising the ‘biological’ elements in psychology:
‘A-level psychology contains more biology than many may assume with students looking at neurotransmitters and hormones and the way in which they influence conditions from stress and sleep to schizophrenia and depression.’
But even using a biological, medical model of psychology, the rejection of Freud’s contribution to the subject is not valid. He had a respected career as a scientist and a physician, before developing his school of psychoanalysis. So Freud’s ’science’ credentials are much stronger than people allow for.
But, like many others, the author of this piece is determined to slam Siggy. He writes:
‘So what about Freud? First of all many in the profession would dispute and even reject outright his psychological credentials – he was a psychoanalyst (which isn’t the same as a psychologist).
Second, he wasn’t really a scientist because he didn’t gather and analyse evidence in an objective or scientific manner (most of his theories were based on a small sample of middle-class Austrian women).
Finally, if you choose to study psychology you may perhaps only catch a glimpse of Freud – and even then perhaps only in order to compare his unscientific methods to those of the more evidence based cognitive and biological ones.
Now, think of a famous psychologist? With Freud out of the way, it’s a more difficult question.’
But is Freud actually ‘out of the way’? If he were, why would psychology teachers still be arguing for him to be discredited in 2012, over a century after he began his work in the field? Possibly because his work has had a lasting impact, not only on academics and practitioners, but also on the wider, popular, what a psychoanalyst might call the ‘collective consciousness’.
In the two days following this article, Freud was mentioned in the Guardian three times, in very diverse contexts. The first was in a piece giving accounts of workers in the financial sector, the second in an article celebrating the life and work of artist Gustav Klimt, and the third in a review of a a book about vegetables.
So maybe Freud is not quite dead and buried yet!
One of my concerns about this article is not limited to what it says about academic teaching of the subject of psychology. I think the Guardian is happy for Freud to be dissed because the Guardian itself, especially its feminist columnists, display attitudes that can be uncovered and criticised using a ‘Freudian’ approach. Journos such as Suzanne Moore and Julie Bindel seem to want to cast men as powerful, and ultimately as bad. This has ‘oedipal’ parallels, with feminist concepts of ‘patriarchy’ echoing Freud’s ideas about the symbolic ‘Law of the Father’ and the child’s desire to destroy its parent(s). If feminism is actually in part a psychological response, maybe it should not be given such political or moral status.
Also at a very basic but often unacknowledged level, Freud offered love and compassion to men. Something that feminism is not very amenable to! He also developed a theory that everyone has the potential for bisexual response. This rather goes against the ‘gay’ identity politics that the Guardian espouses.
The ‘born this way’ model of innate, fixed sexual orientation, that fits so well with sexual ‘identity politics’ is gaining ground in our culture as a whole. In a recent book by gay academic Mark Mccormack, for example, I found a scant, inaccurate and to be honest quite insulting ‘critique’ of Freud’s more socially situated models of sexuality. Mccormack, who advocates the very worrying ‘sex science’ of Simon Le Vay and Michael J Bailey, also managed to make some digs at Oscar Wilde while he was there:
‘Wilde became a symbol of effeminacy at the time, linking same-sex desire and effeminacy in cultural understandings of gender and sexuality – an association that found intellectual support in Freud’s (1905) theory of childhood sexuality.
Freud’s theorizing started from the position that sexual orientation was not innate but structured by one’s upbringing. Living in Vienna, Freud witnessed this mass expansion of cities, and he simultaneously noticed an increase in sex between men. However, Freud misattributed this to the absence of men from child-rearing, leading to overly feminized boys (Anderson 2009)…
Irrespective of the veracity off his theories, Freud’s notions of sexuality and gender provided academic respectability to the cultural understanding that femininity in men was indicative of homosexuality. Although Freudian theories of homosexuality are no longer directly used in gender scholarship, his pioneering work left a lasting imprint on gender scholarship throughout the twentieth century, and his theories still hold traction in some parts of the media today. For example, fears about the feminization of education are ultimately rooted in Freudian concerns about boys not having proper male role models (see Lingard, Martino, and Mills 2008).’
Apart from the total disregard for Freud’s work on not only bisexuality, but also the oedipal complex, the importance of the subconscious, transference, sadomasochism and ‘everyday’ anxiety and neuroses, Mccormack seems determined to associate the Austrian writer with ‘prejudiced’ perceptions of gay men as ‘screaming queens’. As gay culture and politics becomes more and more ‘assimilationist’ and ‘establishment’ it is convenient to find ways to dismiss those who have stood out from the crowd, and who have in some ways ‘problematised’ homosexuality. Also missing from Mccormack’s account is how Freud actually problematised ALL sexuality!
I accept that in some ways Sigmund Freud was a man ‘of his time’. His work is not always a perfect fit for the 21st century. But to throw him in the trashcan, in favour of ‘progress’ and ‘science’ and ‘biologically produced sexual orientation’ and ‘gay rights’ is a foolish, and I think nasty thing to do.
You can have your empirical data analysis and penile plesmographs on your side. But you lose. Freud is on mine.
Top picture of Freud by Warhol: http://culturexy.blogspot.co.uk/2008/03/warhol-and-his-rare-art.html