Psychoanalysis and Participatory Democracy

By Lene Auestad

Anna O. (Bertha Pappenheim) coined the expression “the talking cure”. She later trained as a social worker and founded the Jewish feminist movement in Germany. A few years later, in 1889, “Emmy von N.”, whose real name was Fanny Moser, asked Freud to stop interrupting her all the time to ask where something came from, and let her tell him what she had to say. Freud fell in with her suggestion and found that memories could still be recalled when she was allowed to talk spontaneously. This was the beginning of free association. Freud formulates this fundamental rule of psychoanalytic technique thus: “say whatever goes through your mind. Act as though, for instance, you were a traveller sitting next to the window of a railway carriage and describing to someone inside the carriage the changing views which you see outside” (1913). This form of inquiry is neither objective nor subjective, as it opens up for a subject which is decentred from itself, which is not already known and whose knowledge of itself is imperfect and partial. From the other side, Freud recommends that the analyst “surrender himself to his own unconscious mental activity, in a state of evenly suspended attention, to avoid so far as possible reflection and the construction of conscious expectations, not to try to fix anything that he heard particularly in his memory, and by these means to catch the drift of the patient’s unconscious with his own unconscious” (1923). Bion makes a similar point with reference to Keats’ emphasis on “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” – to bear the suffering and frustration associated with refraining from clinging to “fact and reason” to enable one to “relate to what is unknown both to him and to the analysand” (1970). These ideas may be formulated in terms of an ethics of not-knowing, of opening up to what is unknown both in oneself and in the other by staying with the displeasure of uncertainty and being able to refrain from celebration of certainty, cleverness and achievement, which would assimilate the unknown to the already known.

This text is written to mark the 10th anniversary of Psychoanalysis and Politics, an international and interdisciplinary conference series which aims to address how crucial contemporary political phenomena may be fruitfully analysed through psychoanalytic theory and vice versa – how political phenomena may reflect back on psychoanalytic thinking. Since 2010, conferences have been held in Barcelona, Budapest, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Lisbon, London, Oslo, Paris, Stockholm and Vienna, most often in the rooms of a friendly psychoanalytic society. In a move from a two-person situation to a multi-person situation, an idea of openness to new and different perspectives is maintained in a space for dialogue between nationalities, academic fields and psychoanalytic schools of thought, encompassing both clinicians and non-clinicians. The space aims to enable everyone present to be a participant, rather than a member of a passive audience. 

In describing her experience with teaching teachers, Isca Salzberger-Wittenberg wrote: “They are looking for instructions about what to do, wishing to learn about human beings, rather than from actual experience of others, afraid that their students and their own feelings will get out of control if they stop to look, listen and think. […] We thus had the opportunity of learning about the nature of the anxieties which beset the learner: fear of confusion and chaos in the face of unsorted ‘bricks’ of experience, helplessness in the face of not knowing, fear of inadequacy, fear of being judged stupid in comparison with others” (1983, 55, 57). University environments tend to reinforce such anxieties, in their emphasis on mastery, displays of brilliance, control and competition over winning an argument, defending one’s own position. It is a paradox that these spaces devoted to learning promote destructive structures associated with fear of not knowing, of uncertainty and doubt, thus posing a hindrance to thinking. “To destroy awareness of all feelings,” wrote Bion, “is indistinguishable from taking life itself” (1962, 10). In these settings, such destruction is at least partial, limiting the field of vision available for contemplation. To the world view inherent in CBT, emotion follows cognition, which follows an event. It is assumed that two rational persons ought to have the same emotional response to the same thing, and if they do not, there is something wrong with their rational capacity. Thus, CBT treatment protocols aim to get these emotions back under control, “by using hyper-rationalist arguments to coax the emotions back into a rationalist cage” (Dalal, 2018, 112). This contrasts with the psychoanalytic view which posits unconscious emotional experience as a source of new understanding, and which acknowledges the validity of different emotional responses to the same situation, due to differences in people’s contexts, life circumstances and histories.

When emotions are thus seen as situated, it enables one to take the sociological situation into account, and to be attentive to the workings of power differentials in who is considered, heard and taken seriously, and to question not just what feelings but also whose feelings matter. As Ervin Goffman put it, “a very eminent civil servant with a pretty taste in cynicism […] explained that the importance of feelings varies in close correspondence with the importance of the person who feels” (2008, 10). University environments tend to privilege white men of an upper- or middle-class background, which contributes to the choice of what kinds of knowledge and inquiries are valued and supported. Such preferences are enacted, played out, in conference settings, along with the preference for the known. It is expressed in the time allotted to different speakers – the keynote versus the shorter paper, whose questions are noticed and take up time in the discussion. It is expressed in spatial terms, when a conference divided between parallel sessions takes place in different rooms. In Psychoanalysis and Politics conferences, all speakers are given the same amount of time to present, and all the papers are presented in plenary. The time frame is 30 minutes for the presentation itself and 20 minutes for discussion (50 minutes in total), with a 10 minute break in between each paper. The chairs are arranged in a U-shape, to emphasise the dialogue between all the participants, and not just with the presenters. Representatives of different schools of psychoanalytic thinking engage with each other’s contributions. I would not refer to this activity as “applied psychoanalysis”, since the term implies that psychoanalysis is “put on top of” another discipline, rather than a mutual exchange where each discipline may learn from the other. The fact that these conferences shift between different countries counteracts the domination of one national frame of understanding, enabling encounters where such dominant frames are questioned when seen from without.

“Silence is the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard,” wrote Rebecca Solnit. “It surrounds the scattered islands made up of those allowed to speak and of what can be said and who listens” (2017). Psychoanalysis expands the field of what is sayable, and of whose voices are allowed to be heard and make sense. I agree with Barratt’s statement that “the final aspect of the radicality of psychoanalysis is that its method, which deconstructs the forces of suppression and repression that are inscribed within us, necessarily issues into a momentum that is anti-ideological” (2019, 7) – though in a multi-person situation such as a conference space, such radicality relies on the variety of perspectives it allows for and the weight it assigns to each. To refer to Hannah Arendt’s view on participatory politics: “The reality of the public realm relies on the simultaneous presence of innumerable perspectives and aspects in which the common world presents itself and for which no common measurement or denominator can ever be devised” (1958, 57). In a world fraught with brutality and inequality, creating a sphere where more equal and open-ended speech may take place involves some form of closure as well as expansion. To cite Jill Gentile, most free speech advocates as well as psychoanalysts “recognise that not setting boundaries is as likely as setting them to leave us hostage to forces that have nothing to do with freedom” (2016, 120). In today’s political climate, with the growth of racism, Islamophobia, sexism, and xenophobia, the far right aims to appropriate freedom of speech as a freedom to exercise hate speech. There is every reason to suspect a claim to the effect that “my right to disrespect other people ought to be respected” (2015, 114-115). In fact, a community of thought with an intellectual and emotional openness between participants from a variety of backgrounds needs to be founded on a basis of mutual respect between them. This is why it says in the statutes that: “Disrespect or discrimination towards the forum or any of its participants on the basis of nationality, skin colour, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality will not be tolerated.” Such mutual respect is threatened both by older traditions with their ideas of social standings and of who has the right to be heard, listened to and understood, and by more recent attacks on democratic institutions and fora. Thus, such spaces, oases, for joint reflection and exploration need to continue for the years to come. I look forward to the next ten years of growth, continuation and renewal for this international community of thought.

Lene Auestad is a Dr. of Philosophy, an author and translator, and the founder of the international and interdisciplinary conference series Psychoanalysis and Politics ( She is an Associate Member of the Norwegian Psychoanalytic Society. 

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Keats, J. (1817) Letter to George and Thomas Keats, 21 December, quoted by Bion 1970, p. 125.
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Solnit, R. (2017) “Silence and powerlessness go hand in hand – women’s voices must be heard”, The Guardian, March 8th