Psychic Panopticism and Therapeutic Domination

Does Freudian psychoanalysis contribute to or challenge dominant systems of power?

The answer is likely a mix of both; the different parts of his theory stand in complex relationships to various systems of power, and an exhaustive discussion of these is beyond the scope of a single blog post. However, I want to point out one way in which Freud’s project may contribute to hegemonic power structures. Specifically, I’ll use a Foucauldian understanding of the freedom/domination dyad to criticize Freud’s project as an extension of disciplinary society.

Talk Therapy, Knowledge/Power, and Discipline

According to Freud, psychoanalysis’s efficacy comes from its ability to convert unconscious psychic material in a patient into something conscious, which allows for the overcoming of symptoms.

This method is based on Freud’s theory of repression. Freud explains this using a spatial analogy, in which the unconscious is represented by a large assembly hall, the conscious is a smaller, adjoining room, and the threshold between them, which is guarded by a watchman, is the preconscious. Thoughts are repressed if they “have pushed their way forward to the threshold and have been turned back by the watchman, [and] they are inadmissible to consciousness” (366).

Repressed psychic material in the unconscious are then converted into symptoms. This relates to Freud’s economic view of mental processes. He claims that desires and wills have certain quantities of affective energy which cannot be eliminated. If a will is repressed, then, its energy can only manifest in a distorted form. In this way, symptoms form a sort of substitute for whatever was repressed.

Thus, Freud’s method for fixing symptoms is to bring the unconscious, repressed psychic material into the conscious. He writes, “by carrying what is unconscious on into what is conscious, we lift the repressions, we remove the preconditions for the formation of symptoms, we transform the pathogenic conflict into a normal one” (541).

This method embodies Foucault’s notion of the relationship between knowledge and power. Foucault argues that knowledge always implies power and vice versa. In the case of psychoanalysis, knowledge of whatever was repressed (i.e., bringing it into consciousness) enables one to have the power to overcome the symptom. The act of acquiring knowledge about a patient is itself an exercise of power, resulting in an alteration of their mental state. In psychoanalysis, knowledge and power are almost synonymous.

This is true both of the patient’s knowledge of herself and the psychoanalyst’s knowledge of the patient. Freudian psychoanalysis involves a minute, intimate observation of a patient; the psychoanalyst becomes greatly knowledgeable about a patient’s history, family, desires, etc. In this way, psychoanalysis is comparable to other disciplinary institutions such as prisons or hospitals; the patient becomes an object of knowledge to be divided, classified, and individuated.

Such a disciplinary mode of psychoanalysis is much more easily seen in the contemporary handling of psychology and mental illness. Take depression, for instance. Like other juridico-scientific institutions, the study of depression classifies it into smaller subdivisions (such as major depression, persistent depressive disorder, bipolar depression, seasonal affective disorder, etc.). Moreover, just as a member in a Panopticon is individually observed so that their treatment is tailored specifically to them, people with depression are usually prescribed some mix of talk therapy and antidepressants (of which there are many kinds, like SSRIs or SNRIs) based on the observations of a doctor. Thus, observation to acquire knowledge directly implies power, and modern disciplinary institutions, including psychoanalysis, push this power to a micro level, continually making divisions and studying things minutely to perfect the smooth operation of power.

Freedom and Domination

To me, the aforementioned discussion of Freud and Foucault reveals that psychoanalysis contributes to a certain form of domination.

Freud’s entire goal is essentially to turn a pathological patient into a “normal” person, but any concept of what is “normal” (as Foucault shows with his concept of normalizing judgement) is socially constructed and laden with forms of power that can be dominating. Thus, to be turned into someone “normal” is itself a form of domination.

At first glance, Freud’s notion of normality may seem harmless. For instance, he considers having fits of hallucination pathological, and not having fits of hallucinations normal; preventing someone from having painful and involuntary hallucinations probably isn’t very dominating. However, outside of these extreme examples, there are more sinister traces of dominating ideologies within the concept of normal. For instance, he thinks adult women who feel pleasure in their clitorises are neurotic, and homosexuals are perverts with a regressive infantile sexuality.

Essentially, it seems that whatever is deemed as normal is constructed by hegemonic power structures, and so any psychoanalysis which aims to make people normal fundamentally aims to make them conform with whatever is desired by these aforementioned power structures. This is a process of domination.

(Side note: I could write an entire post just about capitalism and I don’t want to go on too much of a tangent, but it seems worth mentioning that the modern pharmaceutical industry, which is valued at over a trillion dollars, is benefiting massively from mental illness. At the same time, mental illness diagnoses are on the rise. It seems plausible that capitalism is involved in the construction of our concept of normal and profits made from mental illness contribute to neoliberal domination. But I digress.)

Finally, it seems to me that the relationship between freedom and domination is deeply ambivalent, and one is never fully free or fully dominated. Rather, freedom and domination seem to be a fluid thing in which the particular form domination takes shifts. So, a neurotic patient is dominated by their symptoms, which unwillingly control them and affect their lives. Through psychoanalysis, they are made free from their symptom only to replace their domination by their unconscious with a domination by disciplinary society. I think that drawing a rigid line between freedom and domination is impossible, and the example of Freudian psychoanalysis demonstrates that every type of freedom implies a sort of domination and vice versa, and overcoming a particular form of domination and achieving a particular form of freedom results in the domination shifting shapes into something new.


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