Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Relational Conundrums: A Critique of Contemporary Psychoanalysis

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Relational Conundrums: A Critique of Contemporary Psychoanalysis

Article excerpt

Relational conundrums: A critique of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, by Jon Mills, New York, Routledge, 2012. $47.95 (pb), 242 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0415898850, ISBN-10: 0415898854

Relational Psychoanalysis is by nowa large and influential international psychoanalytic school with its own association and publications. For the joy of some and the lament or indifference of others, it is a significant vein of contemporary psychoanalytic discourse. Relational thought has modified and added some ideas to psychoanalysis as it has marginalized and dismissed others. To some, it has saved psychoanalysis from its more retrograde tendencies, to others it has betrayed its very essence. The contributions of the relational school and its place in the history and opus of psychoanalysis, its influences, appeal and rigour, are all interesting questions to contemplate. And so we should thank Jon Mills for having written a book that attempts to address these questions, a book that is a rare effort to consider the grand ideas and narratives that underlie our discipline. This book forces the reader to engage with the most basic questions about subjectivity, experience, knowledge and the very world we live in, as individuals and as psychoanalysts who chose the deliberation of meaning-making as their mission. And it does so while conversing with philosophical traditions whose relations to psychoanalysis are of the essence, a mission that is also of great value.

Mills introduces his project as an appreciative, constructive and above all rigorous critique of relational psychoanalysis. Yet already in the book's very first pages, one encounters a rather uncritical tendency to render complex, nuanced ideas in simplistic, sometimes rather distorted fashion. The first of these instances, one on which Mills' critique draws significantly and repeatedly, is his formulation of the relationship between relational theory and the concept of the unconscious. Already in the preface, Mills makes a sweeping claim: relational psychoanalysis is "a psychology of consciousness." This is because, in his view, "relational and intersubjective theorists... emphasize the phenomenology of lived conscious experience, dyadic attachments, affective attunement, social construction and mutual recognition over the role of insight and interpretation." Doing so, they "displace the primacy of the unconscious" (x). There is no inherent justification to consider attachment, affective attunement, social construction of even recognition as solely or even largely conscious phenomena. And indeed, as Mills demonstrates when he begins to review relational literature, there is no shortage in relational theory of ideas about unconscious content and unconscious process. What then is the justification for his claim?

The reader soon discovers that it derives from an equation of the notion of unconsciousness with that of a primary, biological drive as Mills defines it. If such a notion of drive is not a part of the formulation, Mills simply refuses to recognize claims about the unconscious even when they are explicitly made by the authors he quotes and criticizes. Reviewing some of the premises of relational thinking, Mills agrees that "The centrality of interactions with others, the formation of relationships, interpersonally mediated experience, human attachment, the impact of others on psychic development, reciprocal dyadic communication, contextually based social influence ..." are all "elemental facts." "These are very reasonable and sound assertions" he adds, "and we would be hard pressed to find anyone prepared to discredit these elemental facts" (6). But in his theorizing, none of this has to do with unconscious life. Even as, for example, he quotes Stolorow when he writes that "all... forms of unconsciousness are constituted in relational contexts," that is, even as he reads Stolorow making a direct claim about the nature of the unconscious, Mills repeats his assertion that all such "relational contexts" are aspects of conscious life. …

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