by Till Wagner
Amy Allen is a professor of philosophy at the Pennsylvania State University specializing in Continental Philosophy, Feminist Theory, and Critical Social Theory. Till Wagner has spoken to her about her two major monographs: Critique on the Couch (2020) and The End of Progress (2017), which re-examine the thought and contemporary legacy of the Frankfurt School. This is Part II of the interview.
Till Wagner: You suggest that Melanie Klein’s theory offers a way out of the dilemma between insisting on the necessity of psychoanalysis for Critical Theory on the one hand, and making visible and recognizing conflicts of the theoretical components of Freudian psychoanalysis with normative presuppositions of critical theory on the other. What are the central features that make Klein’s theory fruitful for the project of Critical Theory?
Amy Allen: First and foremost, Klein is situated between classical Freudianism and the object-relations tradition. This makes her work very distinctive—and easily misunderstood. Like Freud himself, Klein placed the drives at the center of her theory, but unlike Freud and like the object relations theorists who came after her, she emphasized the relationship between drive and object. For her, drives are from the beginning directed toward particular objects; indeed, drives are, for Klein, perhaps best understood as ways of relating to objects, as what I call, following Stephen Mitchell and Jay Greenberg, relational passions.
To be sure, the term “object,” for Klein, does not necessarily refer to an external object—an other person—but could also refer to an internal object. And yet, for her, our internal objects are ultimately representations of an external object. So, for example, what she famously calls the good breast is an internal object that is a (partial) representation of an actual primary caregiver.
Thus, as I read her, Klein’s conception of the person is situated between a purely intrapsychic account—one that holds that we never relate to actual other people but only to our phantasmatic projections of them—and a thoroughly intersubjective account that would deny the role of the drives in shaping our interactions with others, and thus flatten out our experience. For Klein, one way of understanding the goal of psychological maturation is that it aims to narrow the gap between the intrapsychic and the intersubjective while acknowledging that this gap can never be fully closed—because to close it would be to eliminate unconscious phantasy entirely. In other words, for Klein, we are always at the same time intrapsychically driven and intersubjectively related—in the productive space between the psyche and the social.
A second important feature of Klein’s theory is her deeply ambivalent account of the drives. Klein was influenced by Freud’s late version of drive theory, as articulated in texts such as Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Civilization and Its Discontents, where the basic opposition is between Eros and Thanatos, or life and death drives. However, unlike Freud, who postulated the death drive late in his life and struggled to integrate it coherently into his existing theory, Klein takes the fundamental ambivalence of the life and death drives as her starting point. Also, unlike Freud, who initially grounds his understanding of the death drive in a speculative biology that many find difficult to swallow, Klein equates the death drive with primary aggression. Although this is a departure from the strict Freudian understanding of the term, I think it is a productive one, and it also aligns with the social and relational aspects of her conception of the drives. As primary, aggression and destructiveness are, for Klein, ineliminable from human social life—but note that this does not imply that all ways of managing aggression are equal. Nor does it mean that aggression and destructiveness are always bad; there are, for Klein, more or less useful ways of channeling or sublimating aggressive drives.
The last feature I want to mention is what we might call Klein’s positional metapsychology. Essentially, the centerpiece of Klein’s metapsychology or theory of the psyche is her distinction between what she calls the paranoid-schizoid and the depressive positions. The first point to note about this is the language of position itself: the positions are not so much stages of development as they are ways of organizing experience that can come to the fore at various times and recede at others. The paranoid schizoid position is structured by fears of being attacked and is characterized by fragmentation and splitting whereas the depressive position is marked by integration of both the ego and its objects. Although the move from the former to the latter is understood as an achievement, this achievement is not modeled on the kind of developmental or stadial model of psychic development for which Freudian psychoanalysis is so (in)famous. This is important for several reasons. First, it enables Klein to develop an open-ended and non-repressive conception of ego integration, where integration is not about the repression of instinct but is rather a function of expansion of the ego through the incorporation of unconscious content. In other words, Klein’s integrated ego does not rest on the kind of domination of inner nature that the early Frankfurt School took to be characteristic of bourgeois subjectivity. Second, because her positional model is based on Klein’s understanding of pre-Oedipal experience, it can be articulated independently of the Oedipal model of psycho-sexual development with its problematically normalizing accounts of gender and sexuality. To be clear: this is not to suggest that Klein herself did not accept or endorse such normalizing views of sexuality and gender. She clearly did, and, in fact, her case studies are replete with evidence of this. Rather, the point is that her positional model of the psyche does not depend on Freud’s developmental-stadial model. Nor, finally, is her positional model bound up with the progressivist theories of social evolution that Freud endorsed in his more rationalistic and triumphalist moods (what I call in the book, following Whitebook and Hans Loewald, Freud’s official position). It is through such theories that Eurocentric and racist assumptions about “the primitive” are imported into Freudian psychoanalysis. Precisely because and to the extent that it allows us to avoid becoming entangled in such problematic conceptualizations, Klein’s metapsychology offers a productive starting point for a Critical-Theoretical return to psychoanalysis that has integrated the insights of feminist, queer, and postcolonial theory.
TW: Both psychoanalysis, as a clinically oriented discipline focused on alleviating individual suffering, and critical theory as an approach combining observation, description, and aspiration for social change, contain an inherent notion of development toward the better. At the same time, both disciplines express a certain skepticism toward dominant narratives of progress, and at times criticize the concept. How do you see the relationship of the psychoanalytic concept of progress to that of Critical Theory?
AA: With respect to psychoanalysis, the distinction between Freud’s official and unofficial positions, which I alluded to briefly above, is helpful here. Freud’s official position on the concept of progress is one that we might call triumphalist. In texts such as The Future of an Illusion and Totem and Taboo, Freud charts history as a development from “primitive“ magical thinking through myth and religion to the triumph of secular science in the European Enlightenment. As I mentioned above, this is a deeply Eurocentric story that entails racist assumptions about so-called “primitive” cultures and societies. His unofficial position, expressed most memorably in Civilization and Its Discontents, offers a more skeptical assessment of whether the achievement of civilization is worth its cost; whether we can even know what would count as progress, given our tendency to base our value judgments on wishful thinking—to support our illusions with arguments, as Freud says. So when it comes to what I call progress in a backward-looking sense—that is, as a way of understanding or interpreting history—Freud‘s legacy is complicated.
And yet, as your question makes clear, however skeptical Freud may have been about the extent to which history can be read as a story of progress, psychoanalysis is clearly committed to some understanding of progress in the sense of psychic improvement or betterment. In my framework for thinking about progress, this means that Freud is still committed to progress in a forward-looking sense, as an aim that we strive to achieve, even if (his unofficial position at least) is skeptical of the value of backward-looking models of historical progress. So, what sense of forward-looking progress does psychoanalysis offer? Here, too, it’s complicated. Even if Freud sometimes talked in the more robust language of cure, the formulation of psychic improvement that I find most productive in his work is the more modest idea that psychoanalysis aims to turn neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness. There’s a vision of progress here, but it’s a decidedly realistic one, that eschews the possibility of a cure. It’s also a negativistic vision, where progress is understood not as the achievement of happiness but rather as the amelioration of suffering. Finally, this is an open-ended account, where the goal is not attaining some pre-defined state but rather an expansion of the analysand’s possibilities and an enrichment of their experience. In this model, psychoanalysis aims to get people unstuck; as Bruce Fink memorably puts the point, it aims to turn dead ends into through streets.
In the book, I argue that Critical Theory should adopt a similar understanding of forward-looking progress. On such a view, our vision of progress would be realistic in the sense that it would not aim at a power-free utopia; negativistic in that it would take its normative orientation from the diagnosis and amelioration of existing relations of domination and oppression; and open-ended in that it would aim not at the realization of a positive utopia but rather at the transformation of fixed, static relations of domination into fluid, mobile, and reversible relations of power. As such, this conception of progress would be more piecemeal and problem-oriented and would not be guilty of smuggling a philosophy of history in through the back door.
TW: A major concern of early Critical Theory was its engagement with the eliminatory antisemitism of National Socialism, with the Shoah, and with National Socialist and fascist rule in Europe. In your view, to what extent is this thematic focus related to the strong focus on Freudian psychoanalysis at this point in the history of theory? What role does psychoanalysis play today in the theoretical understanding of destructiveness, violence, the persistence of anti-Semitism, hatred, and racism?
AA: Lars Rensmann published a great book on this topic a few years ago, The Politics of Unreason. The book offers a systematic reconstruction of the early Frankfurt School’s analysis of antisemitism showing how utterly central that project was to their work, and argues for a recovery of their insights for a contemporary analysis of authoritarian movements. One of Rensmann’s core arguments is how central their reading of psychoanalysis is for the analysis of antisemitism. That said, I think we should be cautious here. Not all aspects of the early Frankfurt School’s analysis of antisemitism can be easily recovered today. First and foremost, there is Theodor Adorno’s troubling tendency to associate homosexuality with the authoritarian personality—a tendency that is grounded in his reading of Freudian psychoanalysis. Then, there is their worrisome lack of sustained attention to colonialism and anti-Black racism. More work remains to be done on how the Frankfurt School’s critique of antisemitism can be connected to these other critical projects.
More generally, although I agree with those insisting that psychoanalysis cannot by itself give us a complete analysis of racism or of antisemitism—for that, we also need historical, sociological, and structural analyses—we cannot expect to give a fully satisfactory account of colonial racism without psychoanalysis. Frantz Fanon’s work offers perhaps the best example of that point.
TW: What productive perspectives do you see arising from a re-strengthening of psychoanalysis for contemporary Critical Theory and? At the same time, to what extent can contemporary psychoanalysis benefit from Critical Theory’s reflection on the critique of revisionist approaches?
AA: I am a bit reluctant to speak about the benefits for psychoanalysis since that is not where my training or expertise lies. But I can say that I have found the psychoanalytic community to be extremely open to and receptive to the arguments of my book. The conversations I have had with analysts about this project over the years, going back to the time that I spent as a Silberger Scholar at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute in 2009-10, when I first started working on this project, have been extremely productive and interesting.
As for Critical Theory, I think that renewed attention to psychoanalysis offers several benefits: it can help us to develop more realistic—and thus more attainable—visions of the future; it can help wean us off problematic progressive or developmentalist understandings of history; and it can provide a productive model for the work of critique itself.
Till Wagner holds a bachelor’s degree in history and political science and recently completed his master’s studies at the Berlin Center for Research on Antisemitism with a thesis on the thought of Hannah Arendt and Jean Améry. He currently works in public history and political education.
Edited by Jonas Knatz and Artur Banaszewski