Post-modernism and Psychoanalysis: Fiddling While Rome Burns
Michael Bader is a psychoanalyst practicing in San Francisco and is on the editorial board of TIKKUN.
Our culture has increasingly given up on the possibility of alleviating human suffering. When Bill Clinton vowed to "end welfare as we know it"--and then did--he was expressing the tip of an iceberg of cynicism about the value and moral imperative of helping the poor, the needy, and the sick. Whatever sense of community and collective responsibility we had during the New Deal or the Civil Rights movement that made helping others seem virtuous and achievable--that we're in this mess together and together we could fix it--has yielded to a collective pessimism and cynicism about fundamentally changing anything.
The collapse of liberal ideals and moral responsibility in the political realm has also been reflected in the academic realm. As writers like Russell Jacoby, Christopher Lasch, Todd Gitlin, and David Lehman have argued, the enervation of the Left, the collapse of progressive movements in the late 70s and 80s, and the increasing conservatism in politics, the media, and academia contributed to a heightened interest in post-modern philosophy. This philosophy, often taken up by former radicals and trumpeted as a sensibility critical of the established order, rejected claims that there were universal truths, an essential canon to be taught, an objective standard of morality and ethics that should prevail, or universal longings and needs that animated human beings regardless of culture, class, gender, or race. The post-modernist was, instead, interested in the particular social context of an idea, the particular cultural point of view of the speaker, and/or the particular and biased interests lying behind so-called "objective" facts. For the post-modernist, universal claims always masked particular interests.
This critique tended to expand to make all idealistic and moral claims untenable and intellectually embarrassing to embrace. In this sense, post-modern theory has contributed to the broader embarrassment in our culture concerning making passionate arguments about Right or Wrong on behalf of progressive causes. It's one thing to argue that right-wing ideology about the universality of Evil, individual responsibility and meritocracy, and the inevitability of class conflict should be deconstructed and made to reveal the hidden hierarchies and elites that really benefit from these values. It's another thing to embrace a philosophy that calls all objective ethics into question, critiques all truth-claims as mere matters of perspective, and makes human suffering anything less than an absolute Evil that we should feel collectively responsible for eradicating. An ethos that emphasizes perspective, context, interpretation, and cultural relativity and particularity can ultimately sanction a retreat from idealism, from a belief in something transcendent and transformative in the social world. It can be used to undermine our right to say "this social condition is objectively wrong and should be fixed," or "this condition violates fundamental human aspirations for connection and mutual recognition," or "it is a moral necessity that the world be changed so that people are treated as ends and not means." By relativizing truth and morality, post-modernism tends to undermine our confidence in the possibility of transformation.
Since the post-modern sensibility can provide a justification for our resignation about practically changing both the world and our own natures, it's not surprising that this sensibility has begun to appear in the ideologies of those professions whose mission is explicitly to help heal human suffering. Psychoanalysis is one such profession. The problem has been transposed from the classroom to the consulting room. Post-modernism has begun to influence psychoanalytic theory in ways that, at first, appear liberating, but eventually tend to sanction a retreat from its mission of practical healing and cure. …