Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Validating Ian Parker’s work

The following is an excerpt (posted here with editor Grahame Hayes’ permission) from a longer review I wrote for Psychology in Society 41 of Ian Parker’s book Lacanian Psychoanalysis – Revolutions in Subjectivity (Routledge 2011). I post it on TL to give interested people an idea of Parker’s scholarship and just how scandalous Manchester Metropolitan University’s suspension of him is.

“It is impossible to do justice to the richness and intellectual complexities of the book in the limited space of a book-review, hence I shall have to be selective regarding what strikes me as being most important among the many themes and questions tackled here. It is therefore important to note that, in the Introduction, Parker articulates, rather densely, the structure of a Lacanian psychoanalytic session, in the process indirectly imparting insight into the conception of the subject that underpins this practice, notably, that it is a ‘lacking’, rather than a ‘full’ subject. As such it corresponds with the absences and indeterminacy that characterize the Lacanian psychoanalytic session…

Parker shatters any illusions that might exist on the part of readers, that the Lacanian psychoanalyst in any way pledges his or her assistance to the client in helping them ‘adapt’ to (alienated) capitalist society. In a manner reminiscent of Husserlian phenomenological reductions and the ‘epoché’, he shows how the quest for Lacanian psychoanalysis pares away those alienating, ideological layers covering up the space where a disruptive, dislocating (but desirable) encounter with the limits of our symbolic horizons can occur. He broaches the historical construction of psychoanalysis as theory, as well as of psychoanalysis in the clinic, and points to the link between ‘revolutions in subjectivity’, enabled by psychoanalytic ‘working through’, and social revolutions such as those prompted by Marxism and feminism…

Put simply, if I understand him correctly, Parker is saying that, as long as the individual is pathologized, and ‘medical’ psychiatry can extend ‘treatment’ to her or him, the fact of pathology being a function of an alienated society can be conveniently overlooked and the social, economic and political status quo maintained. And neither is it simply a (liberating) matter of following Lacan’s insight into the subject-constitutive role of the signifier; as Parker (like Foucault) intimates; today, to a large degree, it is in the discursive domain where individuals are exhorted to look for ‘sexual meaning’, and where the regulation of individual behaviour continues unabated. The task facing Lacanian psychoanalysis is indeed formidable, and – as one discovers in the course of reading this complex, but illuminating book – crucially involves the Lacanian ‘real’ as that (the only thing) which can have a significant impact on the symbolic structures in which subjects are enmeshed…

Parker leaves no doubt that the practice of (‘hard-core’) Lacanian psychoanalysis is difficult, in that it constantly has to face a host of challenges and temptations. It has to resist biological or neurological reductionism, the tendency to pathologize subjects as ‘patients’ through a proliferation of diagnostic categories, and the danger – ever present in Lacan’s emphasis on the signifier – of lapsing into an idealism, instead of being attentive to the ‘materiality of the signifier’ (as evident in representations of the body as its effects). In all of this, the refusal of, and resistance to, psychiatry and normalizing psychology on the part of psychoanalysis as a revolutionary practice of/on the subject, is highlighted. There is a concomitant vigilance, however, against the all-too-easy conjoining of the space of the clinic and that of political praxis, that is, of the revolutionary self-questioning by the subject and a revolutionary remaking of society. It is only by focusing and working on the former, Parker argues, that the Lacanian psychoanalyst may hope for change in the latter.

Where Parker outlines the way that psychology has developed into an alternative to psychiatry, in the process assimilating material from it as well from psychoanalysis, his exposé of ‘psychologization’ as a process which accompanied the rise of capitalism – in so far as it produces the ideological subject required by capital – is especially valuable. This subject is the (supposedly) ‘free’, aggressively competitive, worker-entrepreneur. Here psychology replaces politics and, via strategies of mental health, effectively limits social change and promotes the compliance-inducing bureaucratization of society.

Particularly illuminating, in this context, is Parker’s account of Lacan’s critique of the concept of identity, regarding both institutional wars and Lacan’s own evolving theory. He helps one understand why Lacan’s insistence on the ‘differential work of language’ is revolutionary in as far as, through analysis, it subverts ‘identity’, and with it, the kind of individual required by capitalist power. This, in turn, connects with the subtleties, foregrounded by Parker, of Lacan’s nuanced understanding of life under capitalism in terms of the ‘hystericization of truth’, as where he is careful to note Lacan’s refusal to think literally in gendered terms: both men and women can, and do, ‘conform obsessionally’ to the established order (a ‘male’ thing), and similarly, both women and men can, and do, ‘resist (the status quo) hysterically’ (a ‘female’ thing).

Parker does not refrain from addressing the difficult question concerning the conception of the good in relation to psychology, nor that of the psychoanalytical approach to ethical issues. As intimated before, but worth repeating, one of the strengths of this book is the way it highlights the complicity between psychology and the dominant economic order of capitalism, within which psychology plays the role of ‘restoring individuals’, who are constantly split between their reifying relation with capital and their potentially creative, but betrayed and neutralized, relation with their own labour power. It is under these economic conditions that the exemplary (‘male’) psychological subject, the obsessional neurotic, is produced.

In his illuminating discussion of alienation in terms of Lacan’s notion of the ‘real’, Parker simultaneously indicates what important role Lacanian psychoanalysis plays under conditions of capitalism. Subjects who have access to it via the clinic would be afforded occasions of self-understanding, in relation to their alienation under the dominant system, which may clear the way for corresponding action.

It would surprise many psychologists and students of psychology to learn that the psychotherapy they offer potential clients merely serves to reinforce the ideological conception of the alienated ‘capitalist’ individual, and that, by contrast, the kind of psychotherapy that Lacanian psychoanalysis may lead to, is, at best, indirect. At the same time Parker issues a timely warning, that the fashionable (but ideological) valorization of the protean, supposedly ‘postmodern’ subject plays right into the hands of powerful economic and political forces which benefit substantially from its behaviour.

It is in this light that Parker’s characterization of the space of the (Lacanian) clinic must finally be understood, namely, as a clinic in/of the ‘real’, with a paradoxical, ‘extimate’ relation to (exterior and yet intimately connected with) society. On the one hand, it is predicated on a theory of social revolution outside the clinic, and on the other, it simultaneously enables a revolution in subjectivity inside the clinic as a site of refusal, but a refusal of a contingently organized society, one that bears the imprint of capitalism.

This does not imply a direct causal relationship between the revolution in subjectivity (with its echoes of Kristeva) that may happen within the clinic, and a potential social and political revolution outside of it. But precisely because the subject of Lacanian psychoanalysis is enabled, or perhaps provoked, into questioning her own relationship with power, any participation in the revolutionary transformation of social reality is ‘prepared for’ at the level of individual subjectivity. And to this end the clinic of/in the ‘real’ – that is, a clinic oriented by ‘hard-core’ Lacanian psychoanalysis – can contribute in a major way. I recommend this book by Ian Parker unreservedly: it may just contribute to the kinds of revolution that it thematizes so eloquently and persuasively.”

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    • couterpoint

      Seems to me like a “modern” day witch hunt of sorts. I guess certain people in “high places” simply can’t take the heat. So much for so called “civilization” and “freedom”.

      Thanks for the update

    • Maria

      Bert, your sentence, quoted here, explains Parker’s suspension succinctly:

      “Here psychology replaces politics and, via strategies of mental health, effectively limits social change and promotes the compliance-inducing bureaucratization of society.”

    • peter womersley

      What on earth (WOE) ! Elitism at its best

    • Grant

      @Peter Womersley,
      The cry of the uneducated/unintelligent throughout the ages when confronted by intelligence…why do you think that one of the first things totalitarian and fascist states do when coming to power is culling the intelligentsia?

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      When the Mental Patients are ill because Society is Sick? This is not a Capitalist/Communist problem. It was as much the case in Hitler’s Fascist Germany and Franco’s Fascist Spain as in Communist Russia and Communist China.

    • johnbpatson

      I know this is a book review but I am sorry, mad people are not individuals, “who are constantly split between their reifying relation with capital and their potentially creative, but betrayed and neutralized, relation with their own labour power. It is under these economic conditions that the exemplary (‘male’) psychological subject, the obsessional neurotic, is produced.”
      They are simply mad (often temporarily and driven so by many factors) and need to be helped.
      I used to think psychologists were probably better that psychiatrists as they used words and not drugs but if the nutters fall into the hands of this lot, they will end up as hate-filled crazies who see the road to sanity in blowing up the system.
      No wonder Parker was suspended — he is lucky not to be sharing a cell in Norway with Anders Behring Breivik.

    • Garg Unzola

      You identified the reductionism here. The fact that crowds exhibit behaviour that cannot be reduced to the behaviour or mental states of individuals in that crowd is fairly well-known. It follows that psychoanalysing revolutions would require more than bending and moulding psychoanalysis in order to maintain the revolutionary rhetoric of the lefties.

      Is the above falsifiable? Oh, wait. It’s not science, so it doesn’t have to be. Is the above descriptive of actual revolutionary events? Oh, wait. It doesn’t have to be, you just need to assimilate it until you can regurgitate it.

      Either way, Ian Parker’s suspension is still veiled in a cloud of secrecy and his agitpsych is not necessarily relevant.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Erich Fromm, Scott M Peck and R D Laing are the ONLY psychologists/psychiatrists who understand people that I have ever read. Also, of course, Freud and Jung.

      The only other psychiatrist I would add was my mother’s friend, Vera Buurman, who was the only Jungian psychiatrist among the Behaviourists at UCT. My mother edited her book “Living In Two Worlds”. She was both a Western psychiatrist and a Xhosa sangoma.

    • Paul Whelan

      @johnbpatson – Intentionally or otherwise, you gave me a genuine laugh, but you have to realize that the agenda here is precisely to blow up the system and all are recruited to that end. Freud wasn’t only an inspiration to Alfred Hitchcock.

      Me, I only hope they are speaking metaphorically; you can never be sure.

    • Paul Whelan

      And I’d just add that from observation, the ‘crazies’, whether crazy or hate-filled or not, make a habit of judging the system only fit for blowing up.

      I’m cool with that, as the saying goes. It’s when they actually get round to doing it that it seems reasonable for the rest of us to take an opposing point of view.

    • Paul Whelan

      A further unworthy thought occurs: that one bunch of crazies have dismissed another, who thinks they’re crazy, for being crazy. If you follow me.

      It all supports the need for more details.

    • Maria

      Garg and Johnbpatson, there is nothing reductionistic in Parker’s approach, as summarized by Bert in his (truncated) review. Lyndall Beddy is quite right, that under any social system there have always been those labelled insane or mad, or more recently (as Foucault has indicated at length) “mentally ill”. But to suggest that such insanity does not, at least sometimes, have something to do with the inability of some people to adapt to social expectations – which, as RD Laing has argued at length, are often more “crazy” than the insane people – is to reveal a lamentable incomprehension of insanity (or mental illness, if you wish). To be sure, sometimes psychosis is not the result of social factors’ impact on individuals, and are probably organic, in the sense of being rooted in what Lacan would describe as the “real” of the body, but no social system, including communism, fascism and capitalism, is innocent as far as the generation of pathological psychological conditions are concerned. Ian Parker is a scrupulous scholar and practising psychoanalyst, whose writings are informed by his experience in the clinic. If you don’t believe me, or if you don’t get it, read the book that Bert refers to at the beginning of this post.

    • Paul Whelan

      How we complicate things. This discussion arose from the news that a man had suddenly parted company with his employer under unexplained circumstances. Hardly unheard of.

      Perhaps both sides had finally agreed to disagree, in which case they usually agree also to maintain a dignified silence after they part; perhaps something else altogether has happened.

      At this point, the suggestion that he was dismissed for his views comes, again understandably enough, from those who admire his work. Hardly proof of some injustice.

    • Jean Wright

      In a Nut-shell, Paul Whelan (sorry for bad pun)! While Bert Oliver’s loyalty and support of his colleague is laudable, validating some of his work hardly justifies why one should support Ian Parker over this episode. More details are necessary, and perhaps more light will eventually be shed on the matter.

    • Rene

      Amazing how certain people ( I am thinking mainly of johnbpatson) reveal their un-democratic sentiments in their comments. What’s happened to freedom of thought and expression (Parker’s)? And – is there a new authoritarianism emerging in Britain?

    • Garg Unzola

      I wasn’t referring to the psychiatry revisionism, but to the revolutionary revisionism. Individual self-questioning appears to be presented as seeds of social revolutionary change. This is reductionist, despite the concomitant vigilance disclaimer. Revolutions usually follow an ambitious spearhead that circumvents individual self-questioning, in line with typical herd behaviour, which is why we have the seemingly endless Che fellatio in popular culture.

      Sure, institutes are abused to ensure conformity to certain ideals while leaving certain others unexplored. This is why in anti-capitalist societies usurpers are prevented from leaving, bombarded with agitprop and dumbed down by the politburo’s sacrosanct discourse.

      The notion that psychiatry is a cookie cutter institute for capitalist-friendly ideologues seems to me absurd. Psychiatric institutes house people who are a physical danger to themselves or others. Merely thinking one is the proverbial Napoleon is not reason enough to be institutionalised, nor is self-interested or altruistic introspection.

      If we put stock in the introspection leads to social revolution conjecture: Why would a system dominated by a self-interested elite try to invoke the kind of introspection that is caricatured by individualism, free market competition and greed? Surely it’s easier to keep altruistic notions under a thumb?

    • Brent

      Grant “The cry of the uneducated/unintelligent throughout the ages when confronted by intelligence…why do you think that one of the first things totalitarian and fascist states do when coming to power is culling the intelligentsia?” Why then does Bert and his heroes so love Marxists societies?


    • Maria

      Poor Garg – You just don’t understand things, do you? This is no revolutionary revisionism, If you had read Parker’s book – or even better, Lacan’s seminars – you would know that there is no causal connection between the kind of “revolution” that happens when an analysand in the Lacanian clinic starts discovering that the imaginary constructions of society, together with their place in it as egos, are part of what Lacan once called “empty speech”, or, in a language you may understand better, ideological. Once this stage has been reached, a subject may take the next, viz. to learn where their true “desire” is located, and because this invariably cuts through the rubbish surrounding notions of importance attached to being rich, etc., it also marks the time when the subject starts demystifying all these tacit ideological claims, including the myth that you have to be competitive, etc. This is what questioning your relation with power means (that Bert referred to). However, it is no guarantee for social action in the interest of social revolutions. Parker (like Lacan, who is not as explicit as Parker on this, though) is very clear that the two kinds of revolution are in principle different, and although the revolution in the clinic – if it happens at all – prepares the subject for social action and all that may result from it, there is no necessary connection.

    • Garg Unzola

      Poor Maria, you just don’t explain things very well, do you?

      Is the purpose of psychoanalysis to serve as a nursery for social revolutionaries? Or is it to discover where true desire is located? If it’s not the former, then why is it mentioned in the same breath as the latter, even in passing?

      All I can read from the above is gobbledygook – but as gobbledygook, it applies equally to the ‘true desires’ of being responsible zoo keepers for planet earth, or for the fetish for social action, or for the revolutionary commodity rhetoric of the type that alienated Foucault. That is, both to explicit ideology and to implicit ideologies like anti-capitalism and other ad hoc hypotheses.

      Empty speech, with its suspended denotative value can be coded into any context. Or in terms you would understand, ripping psychoanalysis out of a clinical context is not a victory. Recall that Lacan considered himself a Freudian. When we put down the hammer, sickle and beret, and focus on personal development, even Freudian pop psychology fairs better on a journey of self-discovery and coming to terms with power relations. Why? Because it is devoid of special pleading.

      The claim that psychoanalysis prepares a subject for anything is an empirical claim. Are you sure you want to go that…

    • Maria

      Brent, ever considered the difference between fascism and marxism? I don’t suppose so. The question is rather: why do so-called democratic states like the UK display fascist traits at present? And the answer has to do with what Deleuze and Guattari point out about the relationship between capitalism and the bureaucracies without which it cannot do, in this case state bureaucracies, which clamp down on intellectuals they perceive as posing a threat to them. Why are the supporters of capitalism so blind to the way that it has to secure its own position via its relation with governments? In this respect it easily becomes fascist. (Read the book: The New Authoritarianism, that charts precisely this development under George W. Bush.) And by the way, marxism is not communism; the latter does not work because of power-hierarchies, but the former is a valuable methodology, as I’m sure Bert would agree.

    • Garg Unzola

      Please explain why you say that Marxism is a valuable methodology.

      Fascist states and communist states both rely on bureaucracies. So do mixed economic models like China, America and the UK. The difference between Marxism and Communism is academic and immaterial in my view. If it quacks like a duck, more special pleading does not make it a goose.

      The UK is not a so-called democracy, it is a democracy. Being democratic or not is not a criterion for capitalism nor a safeguard against fascism. Recall that Bush and Hitler were both voted in, democratically. So was Chile’s Pinochet (after his coup) and Venezuela’s Chavez (after his coup attempt). I’m sure you’d agree that all these countries cannot be compared with regards to their respective socio-economic systems.

    • Brent

      Maria, in my book there is no difference between fascism and marxism in terms of the evil both systems cause humans. Both Stalin’s and Mao’s marxism murdered/killed more people than Hitler’s war did so find it hard to find nice things to say about marxism. Your attempt at intellectual support of marxism vs communism just brands you as another of ‘Lenin’s useful liberal idiots’. Your ‘valuable methodology’ wiped out millions and caused other millions to flee to ‘authoritarianism capitalism’ countries. This is something you chattering clases will never understand as you live nice and comfortable lives in those horrible capitlaist societies. I am not an armchair critic, in the 80’s and 90’s had a few trips to China and E Germany and believe me you and Bert would not have lasted one week in those societies. Check out a map of the North America’s and tell me why refugees from Haiti risk the ± 900-1000km sea trip to evil capitalist USA instead of the ± 90-100km breeze to the marxist paradise of Cuba??


    • Bert

      Brent, I have never desired to live in any kind of totalitarianism, but neither am I blind to all the signs that some of the so-called democracies of the world are showing distinct signs of, if not totalitarianism, then at least the desire to exercise control over those in their ‘democratic’ space who are simply exercising their right to express themselves – it may not have occurred to you, but these people who are being silenced because they do not agree with the dominant powers, are also, legitimately, searching for a better way of organizing society. It is not as if capitalism, which is something with an historical origin, has any claim to being the only economic system worthy of being given a try. And I am not talking about communism and socialism of the kind that has been tried – they did not work, for reasons referred to by Maria. But if we are so inventive, can’t we find a system that is good for everyone, and does not only benefit the rich, while excluding the poor? Many countries in the world already combine ‘socialist’ principles with capitalist ones – they seem to me to work better than the exclusively capitalist ones. I am talking about New Zealand (where I have many friends who love the socialist side of life there), Norway, Sweden, and others. But my main concern is the fact that capitalism is destroying the planet through pollution, deforestation for profit, overfishing and so on. Our descendants will not thank us for that.

    • Garg Unzola

      The original topic is about psychoanalysis, or not? As Maria meticulously pointed out, social change can be but is not necessarily related to psychoanalytic self-discovery. Self-discovery of the psychoanalytic kind is claimed to provide the hotbed for social change (the evidence of which should be readily available, or easy enough to procure, as this is an empirical claim), but we shouldn’t assume that it is effective to this effect.

      The reasons why socialism and communism do not work are many, but one main reason is because they are based on Marxist methodology. Or are there no true Marxists under socialism and communism? Regardless, I would like to see justification for the claim that Marxist methodology is noteworthy, while socio-economic systems directly based upon them do not work.

      New Zealand, Norway and Sweden are by no means socialist. They are in fact amongst the most capitalist (as in Neoliberal) countries in the world

      Again, the UK and USA to name 2 are not so-called democracies. These are working democracies in practice.

    • Paul Whelan

      @Garg et al – All states rely on bureaucracies. There is no other way to run a state.

    • Brent

      Bert there is no country/society that is totally capitalist, the US which is held up to be the example of capitalism has an economy that is over 25 % state/Government and the size of the Govt at (i think) USD14 trillion dwarfs even the biggest company, hardly makes the US a good example of capitalism. My view is to push a free market multi party state with as small a Govt as possible (big Govt = big power for politicians = bad news). However all this with a big proviso, also have limits to big corporates which is Govts main job after finance/foreign affairs and DEFENCE (not attack and wars).What about Switzerland, 700 years as a multi cultural society, never fought a war and definitley in the ‘capitalist/multi party’ camp and forever the highest per capiata income. Never understand why Switzerland is never held up as a good example to follow. Your examples are firmly in the multi party free market camp, the Nordic countries which i deal with are firmly in the capitalist mould (probably have lower % Govt intervention in the economy vs the US) paying high taxs allowing the ruling socialists to do their good works. if there were no capitalists/industrialists creating wealth there would be no good socialism in Nordica. Dont know much about NZ except it rules the rugby roost, a very good reson to go socialist if it is true. Socialists without capitalists ruin countries, been proved.


    • Garg Unzola

      Precisely. There’s no such thing as a bureaucracy free society. The best one could hope for is to decentralise power