Association for the Psychoanalysis of Culture & Society

 
     
 

The Association for the Psychoanalysis of Culture & Society (APCS) is an international and interdisciplinary non-profit organization incorporated in 1994 for the purpose of promoting the development of new, more socially beneficial applications of psychoanalysis to important social and cultural issues.

To join APCS or request additional information, contact:

Marshall Alcorn
Executive Director, APCS
alcornma@gwis2.circ.gwu.edu

 

Mission Statement

The value of the APCS project derives from the fact that social and cultural phenomena are both effects and causes of powerful psychological forces, and psychoanalysis offers the most effective conceptual tools and strategies available for understanding and intervening in these psychological forces and hence in their social consequences.

If we are to begin to solve our most serious social problems, we must understand their psychological roots. Many of these problems, including violence, drug abuse, irresponsible sexuality, and intolerance in its various forms, will be extremely difficult if not impossible to solve unless we address the psychological roots that are the immediate causes of these destructive behaviors.

Psychoanalysis offers the best model we have for understanding how the most basic and powerful psychological forces--love, hate, knowledge, belief, meaning, identity, desire, enjoyment, fantasy, and so on--function as both causes and effects of social and cultural phenomena. The psychoanalytic investigation of culture and society thus constitutes a unique and arguably indispensible means of understanding and intervening in the psychological roots of many of our most serious social problems, as well as understanding and promoting the psychological and social benefits that various social formations and cultural phenomena offer.

The appropriation of psychoanalytic theory for the study of culture and society is not new; there is a broad and deep tradition of “applied psychoanalysis” going back to Freud himself. To date, however, this appropriation has failed to realize its potential for producing real social benefits. There are a number of reasons for this failure, all of which result from the ignorance (or forgetting) of fundamental psychoanalytic principles.

The first problem is that the objects of applied psychoanalysis have in most cases been not the subjectivities of living, breathing human beings, but rather imagined or expired subjectivities--i.e., those of characters and dead authors or artists. While psychoanalyzing a character or an author--for example, investigating Hamlet’s Oedipus complex, or Shakespeare’s--may teach us something about human conflicts and motives, in and of itself such an analysis does little to change the suffering or enjoyment of most real, living people. In order to have a significant social effect, psychoanalysis must be applied to actual living people. If we take as our object of analysis the subjectivities of living human beings--their feelings, thoughts, desires, enjoyments, and anxieties, as manifested, for example, in their responses to Hamlet--then our psychoanaly-tic investigation has the potential to be of real human benefit. One major goal of APCS is thus to use psychoanalysis to understand culture not as an object in and of itself but as a window or mirror that can be used to gain beneficial insight into the (individual and collective) subjective dispositions responsible for both productive and destructive social phenomena.

A second and closely related limitation of traditional psychoanalytic approaches to culture and society is the inadequate acknowledgment of the multiple and complex ways that a given cultural phenomenon can function for those who produce or consume it, often answering to quite different psychological needs for different people. This inadequate acknowledgment derives primarily from the first problem: the fact that the object of investigation has been the social institution or cultural artifact itself rather than the proper object of psychoanalytic inquiry, the human subjectivities involved. APCS will direct attention to actual subjectivities and hence also to differences in the subjective effects experienced by different individuals or groups in response to the same cultural phenomenon, as well as to the diverse psychological processes and structures that can produce a given behavior.

A third shortcoming of most current and traditional psychoanalytic analyses of cultural and social phenomena is the tendency to produce diagnoses of social symptoms without inquiring into possible “treatments” for those symptoms, much less for the conflicts underlying them. In most cases, no consideration is given to the question of a solution to the social problem being analyzed. Often it seems to be assumed that explanation of the psychological forces at the root of a social symptom is sufficient to dissolve the symptom, just as early practitioners of psychoanalysis mistakenly believed that once patients were aware of the psychological causes of their symptoms, the symptoms would disappear. In those relatively rare instances where some sort of treatment of a social symptom beyond mere explanation is proposed, the proposed solution is often a simplistic (and usually antii-psychoanalytic) solution that will at best eliminate the symptom but not its root cause. For example, some propose censorship or other repressive solutions to the problems posed by chauvinistic and exploitive discourses or practices, ignoring the fact that what is repressed usually returns, often in a more destructive symptom than the original one. A properly psychoanalytic solution to socially damaging discourses and practices, in contrast, would employ the basic psychoanalytic principle of making unconscious impulses conscious and helping people work through their conflicts over these impulses, thus reducing the auto- and allo-destructive consequences of these conflicts. In addition to supporting diagnosis and analysis of social symptoms, then, APCS will also promote the development of ways to help people recognize and take responsibility for their own unconscious impulses that contribute to the behavior that constitutes the social symptom.

Such miscalculations concerning the efficacy of psychoanalytic explanation are due in large measure to the fact that the appropriation of psychoanalytic theory for social and cultural analysis has often involved an oversimplification and/or significant distortion of the psychoanalytic process through which change is produced. One reason for this distortion is that the psychoanalytic theory employed in social and cultural analysis is often divorced from the clinical realities out of which that theory has arisen and to which it refers. To counter this distorted understanding of the psychoanalytic process and make its social and cultural applications more effective, APCS will promote a greater awareness of the clinical realities, particularly of those factors that 1) promote psychological change and 2) can function outside the paradigm of one-to-one individual psychoanalytic treatment.

Promoting social change through the application of psychoanalysis to culture and society thus requires three basic actions:

1. Focusing analysis ultimately not on cultural and social phenomena as such (the traditional mode of applying psychoanalysis to culture), but on the subjectivities of real, living people in their interaction with the cultural and social phenomena. We must ask: how does a given phenomenon benefit or harm us or other people through the psychological effects that it produces?

2. Developing psychoanalytically informed cultural as well as social solutions for social problems. This means either helping people confront and work through their psychological conflicts and thus reduce the destructive consequences of these conflicts, or helping them discover or construct alternative, less destructive gratifications for the root desires that are animating the destructive behavior.

3. Making the psychoanalytic process in general, as well as psychoanalytic insights into specific social and cultural phenomena, available to a much broader audience than psychoanalysts and psychoanalytically oriented academicians. This means, in particular, developing adaptations of the psychoanalytic process for use in fields such as cultural criticism and education.

Through redirecting the psychoanalysis of culture and society in these crucial ways, APCS aims to make the psychoanlaytic study of culture and society a more powerful force in the promotion of beneficial personal and social change.