The Ethical Turn: Otherness and Subjectivity in Contemporary Psychoanalysis
Interview by Christina Emanuel (USA)
David Goodman and Eric Severson have recently published their book, The Ethical Turn: Otherness and Subjectivity in Contemporary Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2016), a co-edited volume featuring the work of scholars and practitioners working at the crossroads between psychology and philosophy. Responding to Levinas’ (1969) claim that “morality is not a branch of philosophy, but first philosophy,” Goodman and Severson ask, “if Levinas is right about this, might ethics also serve as a first psychology?” This possibility is explored by the authors in this volume who seek to bring the “ethical turn” into the world of psychoanalysis. David Goodman graciously agreed to take time from his impossibly busy schedule to be interviewed for the IARPP Bookshelf and eNews.
Christina Emanuel: Congratulations, David, on the publication of this wonderful volume! I think the ways in which the relational turn in psychoanalysis invites ethical consideration are both timely and necessary. I know that this book had its origins in the Psychology and the Other conference that you chair every other year in Boston. Could you share a bit about both the conference and how this book came to be?
David Goodman: Thank you very much, Christina. It is authors like you that make this volume a gift to contemporary conversations. Your chapter, “The Disabled: The Most Othered Others,” is a moral provocation and represents the exact ethical impetus behind these essays and the Psychology and the Other Conference. It is an honor and privilege to bring together individuals that are hungry to irrigate new terrain with one another.
Simply put, the conference is a playground. It’s meant to provide the space for creative possibilities to emerge and to upset the foreclosures that often take place in our understandings of identity and suffering. Unfortunately, though we think we want vitality and complexity, often times simplification and the aggregate win out as the more alluring force in our secular, atomized world. We don’t have much to nourish our imagination. The result is linguistic anemia and political inertia. I often fear that many of our explanations for suffering do violence to our reach for more vital and dynamic possibilities for ourselves—as individuals, communities, and societies.
The purpose of the Psychology and the Other Conference is to stir our notions and become intolerant of the ossified languages that we’ve come to tolerate. This is done by bringing different languages—psychoanalytic, theological, philosophical, anthropological, and sociological—into the sandbox together. It is the fundamental contention of the authors in this volume that such activity of play provides the very possibility of the formation of ethical subjects. The ethical turn in psychoanalysis, the nodal point of this volume, is borne from the play of tongues and the demand for more capacious and enlivening potentialities.
This book, The Ethical Turn, is an outgrowth of the multifarious conversations that took place at one of the Psychology and the Other conferences. Each of the authors brings a unique angle to bear on the question of otherness, ethical subjectivity, and the psychoanalytic field. Some authors move into the historical and macro dimensions of psychoanalysis’ own formation (e.g., Lew Aron) and others ask more pointed questions about how we even define and understand “care” within a psychoanalytic tradition that is only recently “turning” toward ethics (e.g., Elizabeth Corpt). It has been encouraging and inspiring for me to see the psychoanalytic community reaching into these spaces and engaging disciplines that are foreign tongues.
Political stalemates and dogmatic languages can mark the end of a lineage of thought and I am disheartened each time I see this in the psychoanalytic community. Why? Because with the medicalization of the clinical disciplines and the conversion of care into symptom-reduction models (for a multitude of reasons that most of us are familiar with), I believe that psychoanalysis is one of the last standing (hobbling?) locations where we can invite the humanities into the clinic and continuously refresh and interrogate what we are doing. These authors do impressive work to remind us how to nourish the life of psychoanalytic thinking for the purpose of speaking to a world in desperate need of more ethically rich and morally woven individuals and communities.
CE: I’m sure the process of narrowing down the themes and authors to be included in this book was complex, given the diversity of ideas taken up at the Psychology and the Other conference. Despite many divergences, the authors in this book, you state, “share a common irreverence for the tendency, in psychoanalysis, to ground ethics in scientific naturalism and essentialism.” As a contributor to The Ethical Turn, I feel that being described as irreverent is high praise indeed! This makes me wonder what your collaboration with your co-editor, Eric Severson, has been like in the process of publishing this book?
DG: Irreverence is definitely intended to be high praise! Political and conceptual complacency are dangerous forces and there must be an anarchic response. The thin languages afforded us by scientism, in its various forms, leave us with frail versions of ourselves. So, irreverence is called for, indeed. But, let me be clear here: I am all about reverence. Actually, I think that we need a bigger dose of reverence in our lives—more awe, wonder, and even embarrassment. Too often, in the postmodern, anti-dogma, and post-truth world, irreverence is equated with a deconstructive method that valorizes groundlessness and meaningless (see Roger Frie and Donna Orange’s Beyond Postmodernism for an important read on this). My favorite versions of the irreverent emerge from what is revered most. St. Teresa of Avila is so compelling because she is speaking from the anarchic outer recesses of the Catholic faith.
What Eric and I try to do in this volume, and what we try to do with the conference more broadly, is to call for the richness of tradition and deeply rooted webs of meaning to encounter themselves more fully by moving in and out of themselves, each staying rigorously true to its own language and having this language experience its own absurdity, only to then return to itself more capacious and with the flow of blood through its veins. So, it is an irreverence for the purpose of a politically expanding reverence. Anarchy must begin with love and reverence. Otherwise, its nihilism depletes and distances us from one another. Simon Critchley’s work on all of this is really worth looking at, by the way (see Infinitely Demanding).
But, to your more specific question: I work with Eric Severson at every possible opportunity. First of all, he’s a mensch. Eric is a leading Levinas scholar and brilliant thinker who is able to see and think from a type of logic that is often foreign to the clinical consulting room. This is a gift to authors who want to extend into new territories, but who don’t necessarily have the formal training and nuance to do so as fully as they would wish. Having a resident philosopher on hand for this is most excellent! So, between his horizons and my own, we are able to scaffold conversations that cross regions and venture into some uncharted frontiers. It’s actually quite fun. The questions he has about a text are not the questions that I have! And, vice versa. It makes for some creative stuff and keeps things new.
CE: Lew Aron leads off with one of the main themes in The Ethical Turn, that of mutual vulnerability. Expanding on this idea, Esther Sperber feels and imagines her way into what architecture (her discipline) and psychoanalysis do when they speak to one another. She invokes Lavin’s metaphor of a kiss to describe how disciplines might connect, a “slow stretchy motion” that, in her case, “offers to architecture…not merely the obvious allure of sensuality but also a set of qualities that architecture has long resisted: ephemerality and consilience.”
Sperber’s excitement about this metaphor feels romantic and expansive. Interestingly, when highlighting Sperber’s contribution you point out that “there is much to be learned in the awkward exercise of cross-disciplinary conversation.” I do find it easy to imagine – and maybe even remember – some “kisses” that have been both romantic AND awkward. I’m wondering, though, to what extent you feel that these conversations, in seeking consilience, are really all that awkward?
DG: This is a great question. And, the truth is that I have no interest in “seeking consilience” in these cross-disciplinary conversations – at least not as it is commonly defined. Finding confluences, shared meaning, “different words for the same thing,” and points of convergence are not the point. They just make us feel good and justify our current position. But, if by consilience we mean a type of “leaping together” (as the dictionary defines it), then we might actually be approximating the intended purpose. When we leap, we have no idea where we’ll land or if we will even land gracefully. There is occasionally a pretty bad splatter.
Sticking with the metaphor of a kiss – sometimes braces lock or someone uses a lot more tongue than the other one would want. Occasionally it just doesn’t work and there are some bad face plants and awkward impasses. But some of the very best of the Psychology and the Other Conference are the talks where it simply gets messy and you are lost in the gaps between languages and conceptual frames. Something is able to catalyze in these spaces that can be so enriching. You lose your footing a bit and it puts you in touch with your own foundations and assured truth tethers.
You never know if a kiss is going to be romantic or awkward. If we knew that beforehand, it wouldn’t hold the erotic potentiality or creative allure. But don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to sensationalize this. There are some truly embarrassing pairings between clinicians and thinkers. I have smacked my forehead more than once. But, it’s worth the risk when you see transcendent sparks in places that you couldn’t have anticipated. So, yes, it can be pretty awkward.
CE: I was drawn to Judith Alpert’s intimate discussion of the multigenerational transmission of trauma in her family. The story of her grandmother, the pogroms in Russia, her mother, and her own history is poignant and moving, as she illustrates the mutuality of empathic repair. Indeed, in her chapter I do recognize myself as repairer and repaired simultaneously. Having read much about the multigenerational transmission of trauma in recent years, what I find distinctive about Alpert’s chapter is that she is writing not about a patient but about her own experience. This is consistent with the increasing focus in our literature on the analyst’s subjectivity. What are your observations about analysts’ increasing comfort with writing so explicitly about their own vulnerability?
DG: This is a complicated question for me to answer. In all honesty, we received quite a few manuscript submissions that showcased analysts writing “explicitly about their own vulnerability” and found the majority of them to be somewhat problematic. Jay Greenberg wrote a very important article about this as relational psychoanalysis was taking shape. In it he expressed his concern about the type of sensationalism, exhibitionism, and distorted picture of analytic progress and experience that is often represented in these “sexy” essays that portray enactments and analyst insights in flashy and explosive moments. In our “reality show” culture, I agree that this type of representational gratification is a significant risk. Analytic love and presence is far more banal and simmering.
It is actually because of this concern that we were so delighted with Judith Alpert’s piece. We believe it is exemplary in its balance and in its awareness. It captures the singularity of her experience, her history, and its play with the analytic work with a particular patient, which is the best of this new genre of literature. The recognition that we are “wounded healers” and that there is a “mutuality of empathic repair” is an extraordinary and humanizing forward move for the psychoanalytic community. Inasmuch as this new genre of writing can remain with the experience itself and its many dimensions—and not succumb to an entertainment paradigm—analysts writing about their own vulnerability (of the type we see with Alpert) will be a fortifying and beautiful gift to the analytic corpus.
CE: What response have you received to The Ethical Turn thus far?
DG: So far, we have received many expressions of thanks from our authors and from various corners of the psychoanalytic community for consolidating a conversation that is taking place in many amorphous forms throughout the literature and in training institutes. The phrase “ethical turn” is thrown about quite a bit—due to renewed interest in Gadamer, Levinas, Zizek, and so forth – but a single source that provides some foundation and represents the range of voices and approaches hadn’t existed beforehand. We think and hope this has been useful for some. I am also currently negotiating the screenplay rights to the book, so watch for the film in 2018. Just kidding.
CE: I’m wondering what clinical, writing, and other projects you have lined up next?
DG: We have quite a few projects in the hopper. With the next Psychology and the Other Conference in October, we are in full stride reviewing submissions (over 300 authors submitted this year from over 20 countries!), preparing the interdisciplinary pairings for the plenary and invited addresses, thinking through new models for engagement during our time together, and finalizing the line-up for our pre-conference workshops, including presentations by Ann Pellegrini, Sue Grand, and Donna Orange.
In terms of scholarship and writing, we are finishing a few other volumes from last year’s conference right now – Memories and Monsters: Psychology, Trauma, and Narrative (Routledge, with Eric Severson), Dialogues at the Edge of American Psychological Discourse: Critical and Theoretical Perspectives (Palgrave-MacMillan, with Heather Macdonald and Brian Becker), The Road to the Living God: Ana María Rizzuto and the Psychoanalysis of Religion (Lexington Books, with Martha Reineke), and Unconscious Incarnations: Conversations Between Phenomenology & Psychoanalysis (publisher TBD, Brian Becker and John Manoussakis)—all set to come out this coming year. Also, and very excitingly, we are currently finalizing details regarding a Psychology and the Other Book Series – but I can’t tip my hat beyond this at the moment. More to come soon when it is formally announced…
Lastly, I’ve tried to carve out a bit of space to continue developing some of my own scholarship that puts the clinical disciplines into conversation with Levinas’s work. Eric and I just completed a book chapter that critically assesses how Levinas has been applied to psychotherapy over the last 30 years (coming out in an Oxford volume soon). Additionally, I am writing a follow up piece to my earlier The Pornographic Self: Technology, Vulnerability, and “Risk Free” Desire. It is titled The Streaming Self: Liberal Subjectivity, Technology, and Lost Facticity and it employs Levinas’s critique of liberal democracy, on the one hand, and fascism, on the other, to explore how technologically mediated relations are altering our sensate thresholds and configurations of subjectivity, contributing to new communal-political realities that valorize ethically desensitized subjects. Finally, Donna Orange and I recently interviewed Simon Critchley (philosopher at New School for Social Research), with an eye to the intersection of politics and psychoanalysis in his work. The transcript should be coming out in Psychoanalysis, Culture, and Society at some point later this year. The interview was great fun and Simon’s work is so compelling.
There’s never enough time in the day… Thank you, Christina, for creating this space and I look forward to seeing what you bring to the sandbox in October!
CE: Thank you, David, for taking the time to answer these questions and share your work with the IARPP community! I for one am looking forward to seeing you at the next Psychology and the Other conference this coming October.
Christina Emanuel, MFT, PsyD
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