Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner


Originally posted on January 18, 2008

Reflecting on over 35 years as a psychiatrist, I think that at least half of the problems people have psychologically are due not to the quirks of their own minds or the particulars of their family makeup, but rather that they (1) believe the common (non-)sense ideas of their culture, following a host of social norms and out-dated or misleading beliefs, insufficiently discriminated over-generalizations, and other forms of widespread folly; and (2) lack an awareness of many useful concepts and skills that could help them adapt—and that almost all of their “teachers” also lack that awareness. Thus, it will take time to get the best insights we’ve learned about human psychology, social psychology, psychosomatic medicine, and other fields to filter into the minds of a critical mass of teachers of teachers and enter the mainstream of general knowledge. (I acknowledge further that there remains an amazing amount of things that we have yet to learn and that our best minds still don’t know far more than we do know.)

Part of the challenge is simply to identify and clearly name attitudes and beliefs that are wrong or misleading. Many are partly true, and so the problem involves the challenge of separating the valuable elements from the irrelevant or contaminating elements. This is by no means easy, because some of those elements that one may focus down on also have sub-components, some of which are true, some false. Also, sometimes it isn’t a matter of mere validity that is at issue, but how a fact is interpreted, what words are used, what kinds of emotional tone or group pressures or norms are being addressed. All these issues sometimes operate within contexts with other assumptions that also need to be questioned. The analysis, then, is most complex.

The complexity of a socio-psycho-analysis is intensified because many of the issues are not just psychological, but also political and economic. People have vested interests in sustaining their positions. Other issues are entrenched in language and culture, and again, the bias is based on the challenge of thinking in unfamiliar ways, and ways that might expose people to the disfavor of others in their social network—others whose respect and good will they need.

A third problem here is that it’s not a matter of just judging something to be sick or well—such judgments may not easily apply, especially when matters of culture change are considered. Certain ideas and practices seem to work all right—or are perceived as doing so—for a majority of people in a culture. (Those at the margin for whom these rules or values don’t apply or benefit are imagined not to exist or to be of any consequence—hence, the term “marginalization.” In mainstream America in the early 1950s, Negroes (what African-Americans were called then—and later, “Blacks”) were generally marginalized in mainstream media except for certain character roles; people of hispanic and Asian descent even more so.) Then things change and what was okay then becomes unfashionable, even disreputable. Was it bad then? Is it bad now? In times of change, sometimes a third of the people think something is no longer okay and two-thirds affirm the right to continue that practice. Smoking, abortion, homosexuality, women as clergy, the “rights” of various types of disability or “differently abled” people, the stigma of types of mental illness, whether or not alcoholism is a “disease,” and thousands of other issues, all have stirred up our transition from modern to postmodern culture.

So socio-psychoanalysis is not a medical game, and no attempt should be made to assume to judge certain positions as sick or crazy or neurotic or other negative labels. Really, these are issues that partake of philosophy—what people consider to be moral, ethical, proper—and the whole point here is that such judgments remain controversial and the foundations for such judgments also need to be examined.

Even psychoanalysis was believed by Freud to transcend the medical model. Originally, the vision of this approach was not meant to be confined to the treatment of those in the sick role. Freud argued strenuously against its practice being brought under the aegis of the medical profession. Alas, that’s exactly what happened in the United States in the 1930s, and since the intellectual core of central Europe was exhausted by the Second World War, for a time the USA became a leader in the field of psychoanalysis—giving it that tone of authority to judge what was sick and what was healthy.

However, many early psychoanalysts dared to address not only social norms—such as what was in truth an excessive anti-sexual post-Victorian morality, at least in its impact on many middle-class individuals, but also the whole economic system. A goodly number of psychoanalysts also found the Marxist critique of capitalism plausible and saw man psycho-social dynamics as products of the economic system. In the wave of anti-communism that followed in the 1930s and 1940s in America, these interests in social critique were abandoned. (The attitude was obviously that it was more important to gain some respectability in the countries to which one has emigrated, and also because one must make a living, after all.) (Reference: Jacoby, R. (1983). The Repression of Psychoanalysis: Otto Fenichel and the Political Freudians.  New York: Basic Books. )

That’s enough for now. More will be written in time: The point is to dare to think together about the psychological factors operating in society and culture, and in turn, the cultural and social factors operating in the psychodynamics of everyday life.

Why I am Interested in Socio-psychoanalysis

One of the reasons I went into psychology is that, growing up in the USA in the 1940s and 1950s, much of what passes as discourse was laced with subtle deception. In the movies, many plots hinged on the fact that folks wouldn’t come out and say what they wanted or how they felt. This was socially pervasive, too. I found all this a bit crazy-making. Psychoanalysis was a growing element in culture at that time—and especially in Los Angeles (I grew up halfway between Hollywood and Beverly Hills!)—, and it promised to help clarify this chronic cognitive dissonance. I found friends with similar interests and we talked about relationships, communications, feelings. A few years later, in college, this continued, and was helped by the beatnik cultural trend popular in San Francisco—I was at the University of California at Berkeley at the time. Themes that had to do with what was authentic and what was “phoney” were prevalent, and supported my investigations. (There were many other factors operating, too, but these are a few highlights.) So, later, in medical school, I decided to specialize in psychiatry. Believe me, most of what I learned in my specialty training did not answer many of my questions! It did give me some very useful tools for continuing my contemplations, though, and that has continued to the present.

But, as I said, my focus expanded beyond the traditional theories of what made people sick, and I could not help but notice that mere “adjustment to reality” was itself a little crazy if the reality to which one believed one had to adjust was correspondingly nuts. (Of course, this was the point of the feminist movement that emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s!) I’ve found it applies to many domains, however, including religion, education, and so forth. Not that I was alone: I was influenced by many brilliant people within and beyond the field of psychology who also critiqued fundamental assumptions or invited a more careful rational analysis.

So please don’t think of me as a psychoanalyst. I like about 25% of that sub-field’s ideas—find these useful and will describe how in another blog some day—or as an essay on my website. But I also have been influenced by many non-analytic theories and methods. Part of what I do like about analysis, though, is the commitment to systematically calling into question a wide range of seemingly rationalized yet still a little irrational behaviors—and, as I said, many of these involve participation in cultural attitudes and beliefs. They are supported by habits of social pressure and familiarity, going along with what has been taught, the general paradigms of the culture or a subculture, and so forth. So I’ve come to be interested more in cultural critique than personal psychological investigations—thus, the term “socio-psychoanalysis.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *