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Our Last Great Illusion:
A Radical Psychoanalytical Critique Of Therapy Culture

Rob Weatherill


Patrick Turner

Rob Weatherill's essay on therapy culture for the Societas series of short political pamphlets tackles the subject from a psychoanalytic perspective informed by postmodern cultural theory. Intended for a general audience, the book nonetheless assumes a fair degree of familiarity with a wide range of thinkers and critical concepts.

As a polemical excursus into what is, for Weatherill, at once a global cultural outlook and a hegemonic political discourse, this is not the place to look for a reasoned, deliberative assessment of the facts. Instead, synthesising psychoanalytic explanation with a meta-discursive account of the family and contemporary ethics, his case is made via a stream of gnomic summations. This methodological license, the essay's sustained level of abstraction and frequent use of parody, paradox and disjuncture, is at times illuminating and witty. In considering the formation of psychic autonomy, Weatherill's use of Freud to draw a radical distinction between the agonistics of loss and intimate experience in the crucible of family life, and the futile blandishments of therapy, is particularly compelling. The essay's self consciously abstruse rhetoric does at times, however, tilt into indulgent incomprehensibility, a product, perhaps, of its reliance on the theories of other thinkers - notably Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard and Emmanual Levinas - not noted for their love of clarity.

Recent contributions to the critical debate on therapy culture such as Frank Furedi's book of the same name and James L Nolan Jr's The Therapeutic State, have, from the standpoint of a historically informed sociology, taken a more sober, analytical look at this phenomenon. On the basis of trends and specific examples drawn from the popular and political cultures of contemporary Britain and America respectively, these writers make a case for the present representing the high water mark of a transformation observable in Western culture since at least the 1960s. Weatherill, on the other hand, whilst alluding to many of the same sources of change as Furedi and Nolan - individualisation, the cultural politics of the New Left and the New Right, the rise of consumerism - gives central prominence, as a practising psychoanalytic psychotherapist, to the changing nature of intimate family relations. To wit: the death of the Oedipus complex.

As Weatherill sees it, the hollowing out of the (bourgeois) nuclear family through the loss of the symbolic father and the de-sublimation of hitherto repressed impulses and desires has marked a crucial passage in Western societal breakdown. The rise of therapy in its myriad forms - particularly since the 1960s - has been coextensive with the rise of global capitalism and individualism. These complimentary forces have together worked to hasten the decline of families and community. For all the hierarchy, petty tyranny and conformist pressure of both the patriarchal family and the face-to-face community, each, paradoxically, had a critical role to play, according to Weatherill, in the formation of autonomous subjects.

Precisely through the clash between infant drives and parental repression, surplus psychic energy and unconscious destructive wishes get properly channeled, thus encouraging self-regulation (the reign of the superego over the ego, or the rule of the father as culture) and enabling the untrammeled, outward flow of intellect and creativity. The immediate community, which potentially provides the family - and those individuals that go to make it up - with informal support, also simultaneously constricts, censors and offers a stage for the expression of individual intellect and creativity. The frequently antagonistic pull of solidarity and individuality provided by the face-to-face community is therefore further grist in the development of autonomous subjecthood.

For Weatherill, the key point is that having abandoned any radical project for social change, supporters of liberal democracy, particularly on the left, are seeking to dismantle the 'repressive' structures of family and community by promoting therapeutic notions of rights, choice, recognition and freedom, often, confusingly, in the name of social responsibility and mutual obligation. In so doing, two potential redoubts of resistance to the dominant economic order are obliterated.

The absence of an at least symbolic repressive father in the family home, often in the progressive cause of sexual equality, along with democracy between the generations and a new orthodoxy that proclaims conflict to be unhealthy, is accompanied by the hegemony of consumer choice. And this fatal combination, for Weatherill, constitutes the theoretical death of subjecthood as we in the West have come to know it. Atomised parents, often but not always economically stretched, but certainly cut off from previous communal supports, rituals and beliefs, are now only too happy to avoid conflict and painful intimacy with their own offspring. Hence, home life obeys the consumer imperative and becomes cellular and individualised. Parents - even if they must beg, borrow and steal to do so - can purchase freedom from their burdensome children by providing wraparound technological entertainment in the bedroom.

Weatherill, on the basis of largely Freudian ideas, accepts the thesis that many children are now growing up emotionally, intellectually and creatively stunted through neglect by parents who have lost or never acquired an understanding of the primacy of direct engagement with their own children. He radically demurs on two counts, however, from the conclusions current policy makers and politicians draw from this state of affairs.

Firstly, it is precisely market fundamentalism in combination with therapeutic orthodoxy - the valorisation of freedom that the current 'progressive' political class subscribes to - that is hastening the death of family life. (Both the market and the therapeutic have now been issued with access-all-areas passes). Secondly, constructing a false dichotomy between an economic imperative that we are powerless to control and therefore must accept with stoicism, on the one hand, and a state sponsored revitalisation of civil and community life through therapeutic forms of belonging and respect, eg parenting groups, community arts, on the other, is profoundly misleading. Just as notions of proper citizenship and the goals of health promotion, in what Nik Rose calls an 'ethicalisation of existence', are now cognate, so are the needs of the market and the ends of therapy.

For Weatherill, authentic, unmediated relationships between parents and children, neighbours and neighbours, ones that are complex and combine personal exposure with high levels of respect for privacy - even secrecy and imaginative withdrawal - form the basis of a genuinely autonomous subjectivity. New Labour's solution to the decline in intimacy is one that emerges out of the dominance for some time of an expressive individualism given wings both by the personalisation of the political and the rise of the consumer imperative.

Recognition and respect for different, self ascribed and seemingly fixed identities, come to substitute for and militate against closer, riskier forms of proximity. Moreover, the whole 'skills'-based, emotional literacy calculus beloved of policy makers seeking to heal family and community breakdown, makes a profound category mistake. The provision of 'training' in anger management, assertiveness, listening, cost/benefit analysis, openness and flexibility, is the futile application of an instrumental rationality to realms properly governed by volcanic emotion, fellow feeling and sentiment. As Weatherill writes:

All these rational solutions, coming from the final phases of the enlightenment tradition in the West, fail to take account of the unchanging real of human relationships. These have always been based on power, force and hierarchy, and yet in the special case of children we have pretended to relinquish these.

But as he realises, perhaps only the most naïve believe that such training can bring about a sea change in informal relations. For the emotional literacy and life skills mentioned above are precisely the 'soft skills' required in the new service and knowledge based economy. In other words, in a tragic process of inversion, community has comes to mean division, whilst autonomy now resides in the acquisition of skills to adapt to a reality always impossible to grasp - we are told - in its liquidity.

What we now have in the progression from modernity to postmodernity is the absolute hegemony of a generalised, new age therapeutic ethos of 'care' and 'well being' that has dissolved all previous boundaries between private and public self and is impervious to the ideological divisions of an earlier age. For Weatherill, this triumph of a liberal, as opposed to radical, progress finds its apogee in the current emphasis within government public policy on promoting emotional skills and self-management rather than equality and control. In the commercial sector the dominance of the therapeutic can be seen in contemporary forms of marketing, customer care, product design and service provision that speak to a desire to be looked after, flattered and stroked. The explosion of personalised, 'new age' forms of expertise that offer eclectic strategies for gaining 'emotional intelligence', self mastery and overcoming barriers to achievement in any domain imaginable from sex to creativity to work is further evidence of the triumph of the therapeutic.

Weatherill's critique of therapy culture in the name of a radical psychoanalysis toils on critical ground previously worked by the likes of Herbert Marcuse (Eros and Civilisation), Russell Jacoby (Social Amnesia), and Christopher Lasch (The Minimal Self). As men of the left rightly alarmed by the dismantling of social structures and institutions that simultaneously worked to keep the individual ego in check, fostered forms of communal action and acted as a bulwark against total commodification, they set their face against the individuating dynamic of the emergent identity politics. The most recent, high profile addition to this small, unfashionable band of Cassandras is the Marxist, Lacanian psychoanalytic theorist Slavoj Zizek, who like Weatherill has engaged extensively with contemporary 'theory' in an effort to expose the salience of therapeutic pluralism in the hegemony of market economics.

Weatherill's ultimately apocalyptic, totalising iteration of the current conjuncture, however, recalls both Baudrillard, to whom he has frequent recourse, and Paul Virillio in its portrayal of quantum, seemingly irreversible changes to subjectivity wrought by technological change. For all his insight and the persuasiveness of his account of the continuing salience of Freud's conceptually radical yet culturally conservative Oedipus complex and theory of drives, his words seem shadowed by a bleak pessimism redolent of Houllbecq's Atomised. Isn't 'Our Last Great Illusion', ie the therapeutic in all its manifold forms, precisely what policy makers and politicians now offer as the only available antidote to the risk and radically new challenges we all face as we attempt to navigate this irreversibility? Or maybe, if something of the human spirit does in fact remain, resistant both to blandishments and pessimism, there might be new and better illusions?

 

 
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