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Marissa Berwald Community Psychoanalysis and Its Other Ways
Community Psychoanalysis and Its Other Ways Marisa BERWALD
Over the past three years, I have conducted ethnographic research on contemporary psychoanalysis with a focus on how the discipline, as practiced in New York City (where I live) and beyond, shifted over the course of the pandemic. These past three years, however, have not been “normal” for most anyone, anywhere, or at least that is how it appears from afar, to Us, whoever us is. It is clear, however, that We believe that never in history have we had a global event (as portrayed in the current cultural imaginary) as capable of instigating, or perhaps as representing of, universal upheaval in mind and body. It is not surprising, then, that a Western science premised on the idea that the individual human finds oneself bound, psychically and somatically, to the civilization(s) in which they are born and made, would react. An emergent movement in community psychoanalysis constitutes one such reaction. As a director at a psychoanalytic institute remarked to me, “We have always worked in the community.” Yet it appears to this ethnographer that when people use the word community now, it indexes something quite different—something that refers to psychoanalysis not only across classes and cultures, but within the civilizational globalization (mondialisation) that the pandemic foregrounds.
Psychoanalysts, amongst others, have characterized these past years of the pandemic as presenting dual crises: the effects of the pandemic itself as social isolation, economic and other forms of precarity, and exposure to death; and the revelation (for some, or in some ways) and amplification of inequity in this nation. These dual crises, perhaps in an overdetermined way, provoke the eruption of a reckoning with the racist underpinnings of nationalism across the United States and elsewhere, while also solidifying political divisions. During this time, we have witnessed what appears to be an increasingly polarized state, which seems to represent values between groups of people that are incommensurable. Vaccines or no vaccines, masks or no masks, the recent events over Roe v. Wade and gun regulation, all provide examples of how in this place, “America,” the value of life itself can be determined at the total exclusion of life sanctified by another value system.
The contention of this piece is that the emergence of what could be called a “movement” of community psychoanalysis provides a place to experiment with the idea that what is at stake in a political system is not the value of human life as physical object— what seems to be at stake in these disputes over life itself, or what is sometimes referred to as biopolitical life (Agamben, 1998)—but the ability of everyone and anyone to think and live. Perhaps this has become more possible now because the pandemic, inasmuch as it has affected almost every person’s ability to think and live, brings something global to psychoanalysis too. Perhaps the “global” is a new object dropped into the field of experimentation in psychoanalysis, which changes psychoanalysts’ understanding of what is at stake in their work.
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Recently, I said to a black psychoanalyst, a good friend of my advisor in anthropology at UCLA, who is also a psychoanalyst, that I thought the pandemic had brought us more closely into proximity with the abject. I draw upon Kristeva’s notion of horror (Kristeva, 1982) when I use that word, calling up images of my own early pandemic experience and what I could observe of those around me. In those early days, it was as if something I
always knew was true was finally exposed, and there was a sense of relief at seeing the fragility not of human life exactly, but of psychic integrity, held loosely together by a roll of toilet paper. I had always known how frail life secretly was, of course. I suspect if we were able to rewind a tape of our clinical work at this time, which we are not, the record of which is likely to be flushed in the anality of history, that our patients also would have been telling us one way or another what they had always known: the world does not make sense, death is random and inappropriate, and I’m trying my hardest to make it happen to me.
We all know that it is just a hop, skip, a syringe, and a swab away until we add that, it, and thing to our pronouns list, and we are not sure what that means, and in what ways it is good or bad, or if good or bad is the right way to think about it, or what the notion of right means, and so on…
Yet there’s still the beauty of a farmer’s market in a gentrified neighborhood in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for example, where I live. There’s still the Mr. T-like man giving boxing lessons in McCarren Park, who describes to me the way in which he threatened a man from a nearby Art Deco apartment building, complaining about the noise of old school hip-hop interrupting his virtual workday, back into his apartment; how he wakes up at 4 AM to start studying and training; how he will always be there for me at 7 AM; and his vision for opening boxing studios internationally. To me, he looks strangely like my father. It’s their build. They both look like you could punch them in the ribs, and they would not feel it—even thicker than big—XXL. So, I found a replacement father, one who could teach me how to fight. These respites were all available during even the worst of the pandemic (or the almost worst, though we still masked outside), and they showed our realization of our lack of fitness for enduring the situations we were in.
Nonetheless, we were all exposed to the abject. What we may have failed to see at the time, and what my advisor’s black psychoanalyst friend told me, is that we were not all exposed to the abject equally. Not that you could measure it, but some of us were more exposed than others before, were exponentially more exposed during, and will continue to be after, and this was certainly true on a global scale. In this history, the one I am trying to portray in this short illustration of events in my own life, the historical unspoken in American society looms (Throop, 2022) in ways not easy to comprehend. And I think that in the pandemic, we feel it looming more. I cannot prove this. That’s because more is difficult to quantify, and because it is difficult to measure a feeling, the affective and atmospheric (Aciksoz, 2016) problem of the United States, of the entirety of Western civilization, of the earth mother we may have already smothered, looming large.
The psychoanalytic concept of aprèscoup, after the event, presumes that there is an after. Yet, as argued by the anthropologist Robert Desjarlais (2011), an embodied sense of before, during, and after comes from a Westernized notion of linear time located in a particular historical moment and place, and access to this sort of time is distributed as a product of power, in the Foucaultian sense. Depending on what kind of life one lives on the American frontier (and, indeed, the frontier of the earth, and even, perhaps, of the universe), this time accumulates
In those early days, it was as if something I always knew was true was finally exposed, and there was a sense of relief at seeing the fragility not of human life exactly, but of psychic integrity, held loosely together by a roll of toilet paper.
differently. We, (again, whoever We are) rely on a certain kind of narrative time, which has a before, during, and after, organized around the denouement of death.
Yet does it? The pandemic calls this narrative time and its relative desirability and sustainability into question. A refrain I have heard from many psychoanalysts with whom I have spoken, or listened to, is that the après-coup of the pandemic has not occurred, and so we cannot think about it yet—and this has often been suggested as an impediment to my ethnographic work, in which I ask psychoanalysts to reflect on what is happening to our collective psyche-somas via the experience of their work during this time. So many times, I heard people sigh relief at their physical safety, and even more so, to be able to work comfortably from home, to take their shoes off, so to speak, to save money on the overhead expenses that are so high in New York City, especially for the younger middle-aged generation of workers like myself and my friends/colleagues. But that was a huge surprise to me. I expected it would be natural to them, and that they would appreciate the opportunity to speak about the challenge of confronting the pain and suffering of the psyche-soma that endures isolation, uncertainty, and precarity in the pandemic, day after day—their own, their patients, and that of all those around them, whether connected physically, virtually, or via media representation.
I expected that because that was a pain I was feeling as a human and clinician during this time, and I wanted to share it with others, carry it with them, so to speak. So many psychoanalysts did not and do not want to come back from this homely state, despite its obvious challenges to the narrative time of a day, a year, a career, a life. But I wanted to go back. I went back to the office as soon as I could, even when I still saw patients virtually, even if it risked my biological life. This longing—a refrain that appeared in my own analysis—causes me to ask, what happens if we stop thinking in a time that goes forever and never becomes après? As a participant in an ethno-psychoanalytic group started at the psychoanalytic practice where I work said, somewhere mid-pandemic, “How do we know we are going back? When do we know it is after?” This person is Asian, and it was a moment of racism against Asian people in America spurred by the pandemic and exacerbated by the hate language coming from the Trump administration. I do not know if her experience in the civilization she comes from has anything to do with why she said what she said, but I did notice that, and it made me wonder if the psychoanalytic notion of the historical subject in this way, whitened, assimilated, and premised on the après-coup, is becoming outdated—and we all know it.
At the same time, psychoanalysts describe psychoanalysis as bringing into being another sense of time, that of the unconscious, which it is commonly said has no time. Perhaps because psychoanalysis presents this other, beyond-Western and not civilizationally based sense of time, that even as a Western-based discipline, it provides a place to look for answers to dilemmas that emerge across rather than within time.
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In the introduction to Psychoanalysis in the Barrios: Race, Class, and the Unconscious (2018), Patricia Gherovici challenges the notion that psychoanalysis cannot treat “the poor” because the poor do not have enough resources to reflect. This view echoes something that has been said in psychoanalytic forums since the beginning of the pandemic: that psychoanalysis has become, over its many decades implanted in American life, a practice for the upper middle class. Community
psychoanalysts challenge these notions by arguing that psychoanalysis is for everyone, whether that be “the poor,” “the mad,” or “people of color”—those groups of people of whom it has been said, in the historical time of America, do not “reflect.”
Yet to become relevant to a changing world, where the psyche increasingly becomes the subject of what the psychoanalyst Willy Apollon refers to as mondialisation, or cultural globalization (cf: Jeffrey Librett, 2019), psychoanalysis needs to address not only the human condition of diverse peoples, but the human condition in the age of virtual intelligence, in which the ideals, values, and norms of different civilizational contexts mix. It no longer makes sense for psychoanalysis to primarily address an American “white middle class,” even if, as we know, it often does so in a radical way. Americans at large (and in their largesse) increasingly live in a “Wild West,” so to speak, where life is unregulated, where the difference between the id, ego, and superego, between races, ethnicities, classes, and geographies, are no longer so distinguishable, and this threatens the stability of the values on which people’s lives are based.
In her 2022 keynote address delivered to the Spring meeting of Division 39, Gherovici describes a different address, that of Preciado, to a conference of Lacanian psychoanalysts in Paris. She describes Preciado as confronting what Gherovici calls the “sad tradition” in psychoanalysis of pathologizing non-normative expressions of gender and sexuality. Preciado calls for a “change in epistemology” and a “mutant psychoanalysis.” Gherovici links Preciado’s argument for a “mutant psychoanalysis” (which she is careful to state is not exactly her own) to a need for psychoanalysis to shift its orientation to address the structural inequities and violence that cause trauma. This leaves one wondering: how are the ways in which psychoanalysis addresses sexuality and the “external” pressures of structural violence and inequity linked? Gherovici implies they link in the discipline’s construction of “normal” and “pathological.”
In these “unnormative” times, are psychoanalysts more receptive to hearing about mutant psychoanalysis than they were in 2019? If so, is it because they now cannot avoid seeing the necessity of introducing more of, or perhaps a different kind of, alien, other, and mutant into psychoanalysis, because of a new global sense of things? Is this other sense more a necessity now because we can no longer “unsee” (González, 2020) the knotting between the inequities of this world and the psyche/soma? If this were the case, then the field of psychoanalysis widens, not beyond the scope of its original practice per se, but in practice today. It doesn’t become a new discipline; rather, it shifts within the scope of the discipline already in existence, but not already occupied. One might make a new mantra: “occupy psychoanalysis,” and wonder: is this even a radical suggestion?
Psychoanalysts could not describe themselves as frontline workers during the worst parts of the pandemic, because that would have seemed ridiculous and wrong given the workers exposing themselves to actual, real death.
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Over the course of the pandemic, psychoanalysts referred to the scene in analytic history where Winnicott famously asked a room of psychoanalysts in London if they are aware of the bombs dropping outside and received admonishment from Melanie Klein that all that matters was what was inside that room in which they had all convened. Psychoanalysts call upon this story like a screen memory, but what is it meant to describe? Psychoanalysts could not describe themselves as frontline workers during the worst parts of the pandemic, because that would have seemed ridiculous and wrong given the workers exposing themselves to actual, real death. Analysts were safe, inside, in their homes, away from the bombs and