Right of Reply: A Simplistic Reduction

A critique of ‘A properly managed mind,’ by Eva Illouz, Haaretz Magazine, June 15.

In her latest article, published in Haaretz Magazine, Eva Illouz does not try to deal with the complexity and variety of the therapeutic field; she lumps together psychoanalysis, employment counseling, clinical psychology and New Age. Against all of these she makes a single, blanket claim: that they encourage conformism and discourage political involvement.

This simplistic reduction of psychology to sociology could also be reversed, if we argue, say, that people embark on all-out political wars when they are unable to cope with their inner world. But such a claim would be guilty of the same intellectual vulgarity as the position Illouz sets out.

Illouz relies on a model of “social construction,” a model that has been applied to art, to medicine, the legal system, education and scientific research, and could be applied to any scientific revolution or social phenomenon. But one cannot conclude from such an analysis that scientific ideas and practices have no value. Of course psychoanalysis, like any scientific idea, arose within a certain historical context, but this does not mean it is entirely in the service of the dark conservative-capitalist forces of the time. On the contrary, from the start, psychoanalysis contributed to political insight, cultural criticism, analysis of mass behavior, and so on.

Illouz’s claim that the origins of psychology can be traced to religious traditions is nothing new. There is hardly any aspect of modernity that is not closely connected to pre-secular traditions. And here is where Illouz forgets the tremendous influence psychology had on her own discipline, sociology. Can the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School be understood as though they had nothing to do with the insights of Sigmund Freud, for example?
The sociology professor’s musings about the concept of mental health, which is foreign to Freudian thought, as well as her assertions about the causes of the rise of psychotherapy, are quite embarrassing. If there were even a tiny bit of truth to her claims, psychoanalysis would have thrived precisely in totalitarian regimes, which have a clear interest in neutralizing social protest. In fact, psychoanalysis was ruthlessly persecuted by totalitarian regimes, which recognized its subversive and liberating potential.

Illouz presents a dichotomous model: either an inner world or political activity; either feelings or morals. But the reality, as we continually see in the therapist’s office, is a dialectic comprised of both. In fact, psychological therapy actually often spurs activity and the taking of responsibility in the outer world. Incidentally, in political demonstrations, as well as in last summer’s social-justice protest, psychologists have a prominent part ‏(and, as is known, they are also going through therapy or have been in therapy‏).

In addition to all of this, Illouz unwittingly shows great admiration for psychological therapy, by virtue of the exaggerated premise that such treatment actually has the power to shape feelings and behaviors to an extreme degree. She constructs a one-directional causal argument − that psychology’s plot to take over the world is indeed the source of evil. All of us − psychologists, journalists and academics − could easily be accused of being in the service of the establishment or in submission to systems of power or knowledge, an accusation that exempts us from having to grapple with the complexity of things.

Reading Illouz’s piece, one finds a repeated pattern of assumptions that are presented as unassailable facts, upon which she proceeds to build comprehensive arguments. For example, she writes: “When we look at our own psyches today, we are not looking for traces of sinful thoughts and desires, but rather for the opposite, for traces of a truth that is buried deep inside and which must be patiently discovered in order to achieve happiness, emotional well-being, etc. ‏(For example: sadomasochistic sex feels more truthful than vanilla sex precisely because it seems as if it was dug out of the repressed psyche.‏) .... Psychology is about getting rid of taboos.”

Elsewhere, she teaches us that Freud’s concept of neurosis “suggested that we could and should live a life without inner conflict.” Where to begin in commenting on a text that is strewn with so many misunderstandings? First off, in psychoanalysis, we do not “go looking” but rather listen to what comes up, and certainly this does include some thoughts of sin and passion. Second, “happiness and well-being” is jargon that is foreign to psychoanalysis. Third, where did this idea come from that one kind of sex is truer than another kind of sex? Certainly not from psychoanalysis. And fourth − psychoanalysis wishes to get rid of taboos? All of them? Including patricide? Including incest?

Prof. Eva Illouz certainly has the right to join the chorus of those who are not interested in psychoanalytic thinking, but not to turn her blissful ignorance in the field into a tool for a hatchet job on it. This, too, is a matter of ethics.

Dr. Itamar Levy, Dr. Anat Palgi-Hecker and Dr. Eran Rolnik, Israel Psychoanalytic Society