Anthropology and Psychoanalysis: Explorations at the Edges of Culture and Consciousness – Københavns Universitet

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19. december 2016

Anthropology and Psychoanalysis: Explorations at the Edges of Culture and Consciousness

In what ways can psychoanalysis stimulate anthropological thinking? This is the key question addressed by this special issue of Ethos edited by Tine M Gammeltoft and Lotte Buch Segal and with articles from five present and former scholars in the Department of Anthropology, UCPH (Gammeltoft, Segal, Mikkelsen, Steffen, Bregnbæk). Whereas previous work considering anthropological applications of psychoanalysis has often focused mainly on theoretical issues, our primary intention is to explore how concepts deriving from psychoanalysis can inspire ethnographic work. Psychoanalytic concepts can, we propose, contribute to the development of heightened ethnographic sensibilities, helping to bring into analysis aspects of human existence that are otherwise ignored, downplayed, and subdued.
Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in China, Denmark, Palestine, and Vietnam, the articles in this collection demonstrate how this capacity to capture subdued aspects of life may hold particular importance for anthropological analyses of power and dominance, helping to refine our understanding of the mechanisms through which some forms of existence and experience come to achieve social force and authority, while others are marginalized or hidden from public view (cf. Devereux 1980:307).

Each in their own way, the articles in this special issue illustrate how anthropological analysis can be enriched by a psychoanalytically attuned attention to events that unfold at the margins of individual consciousness and at the edges of collective life; to the socially submerged and suppressed.

Each article begins from a specific ethnographic question: Susanne Bregnbæk investigates the ambivalent emotions towards parents that are expressed by young adherers to a Beijing underground church; Tine Gammeltoft explores the question of how Vietnamese women's silence in the face of violence may be accounted for; Henrik Hvenegaard Mikkelsen studies the fears of loneliness that suffuse Danish welfare state provisions of social services; Lotte Buch Segal investigates Palestinian women's modes of living with loss; and Vibeke Steffen explores the intersubjective exchanges taking place in clairvoyant therapeutic encounters in Denmark.

All authors turned to psychoanalytic concepts at a relatively late stage of their research process; none went into the field thinking in terms of psychoanalysis, but all have found significant conceptual inspiration in psychoanalytic theory when working with their ethnographic materials. The articles show how psychoanalytic concepts—such as ambivalence (Bregnbæk), fantasy (Gammeltoft), the Real (Mikkelsen), melancholia (Segal), or projective identification (Steffen)—can offer fruitful analytical avenues for anthropological work.

The articles are:

Anthropology and Psychoanalysis: Explorations at the Edges of Culture and Consciousness
Tine M. Gammeltoft and Lotte Buch Segal, pages 399–410
An introduction to the special issue of Ethos.

From Filial Piety to Forgiveness: Managing Ambivalent Feelings in a Beijing House-Church
Susanne Bregnbæk, pages 411–426

This article is based on fieldwork in a Chinese Protestant house-church in Beijing—more specifically, it focuses on a form of group therapy, which took place in the vicinity of the church. It combines two phenomena usually studied separately, namely the popularity of Chinese underground churches and China's so-called “psycho-boom.” Drawing on attachment theory, the article focus on the psychic conflicts that draw certain people, in this case a young woman, Lin, to this kind of therapeutic/ritual context. Filial piety, the moral value that children should respect and honor their parents, who have sacrificed so much for them, remains a strong social norm in Chinese society. Susanne Bregnbæk argues that forbidden feelings such as anger directed at parents found expression in this Chinese house-church. The ritual and therapeutic context can be understood as a cultural defense mechanism, which celebrates an inversion of dominant societal norms.

Silence as a Response to Everyday Violence: Understanding Domination and Distress Through the Lens of Fantasy
Tine M. Gammeltoft, pages 427–447

Across the world, existing research indicates that many women respond with silence to marital abuse. This article offers an ethnographic investigation of the social and psychic forces behind Vietnamese women's silencing of violence and a theoretical exploration of how the psychoanalytic concept of fantasy—understood as unconscious or subconscious mental processes—may contribute to the analysis of everyday violence and psychic distress. Distinguishing between what Tine M. Gammeltoft terms deliberate and subconscious silence, she explores the role that fantasy plays when Vietnamese women silently endure intimate partner violence. Closer ethnographic attention to the fantasy-constructions that sustain day-to-day lives can, Tine M. Gammeltoft argues, strengthen the capacity of anthropology to comprehend how systems of everyday violence are upheld and rendered socially invisible.

Unthinkable Solitude: Successful Aging in Denmark Through the Lacanian Real
Henrik Hvenegaard Mikkelsen, pages 448–463

As states across the world develop strategies for administering their aging populations, different assumptions and anxieties regarding the condition of old age and how they haunt people are disclosed, across national-cultural settings. Within recent years, loneliness has been identified as one of the key threats to the well-being of the elderly in the Danish welfare society, and the tendency to view solitary seniors in terms of “loneliness” and “social isolation”—along with the attempts to reintegrate these solitary seniors into society—reveals how solitude is being tied to detrimental states of existence. Based on an ethnographic fieldwork among healthcare workers and solitary elderly men in the rural area of southern Sealand, Denmark, this article lays out the Danish configuration of what has been called the paradigm of “successful aging.” However, not only is the attention to loneliness among Danish eldercare professionals a sign of an inherent fear; at the same time, Henrik Hvenegaard Mikkelsen argues, it reveals an inherent inability to conceptualize “solitude” as other than “loneliness.” By employing the concept of the Real—the enigmatic realm within Lacanian psychoanalysis that represents the limit of language—the aim of this article is to uncover how the current discourse on successful aging renders solitude “unthinkable.”

Ambivalent Attachment — Melancholia and Political Activism in Contemporary Palestine
Lotte Buch Segal, pages 464–484

This article argues that over the course of the past three decades a mood change has occurred in terms of how Palestinians relate to the ideal of an independent Palestinian state. During the first Intifada, from 1987 to 1993, which constitutes the golden age of Palestinian resistance towards Israel's occupation, the Palestinian resistance movement was characterized by a passionate belief in the possibility of a revolutionary transformation. Due to the consistent stalemate and even worsening of the conflict that have followed in the wake of the Second Intifada, from 2000 to 2003, this passionate belief in the realization of a Palestinian state has been replaced by ambivalence toward that ideal. Based on insights from intermittent fieldwork with families of Palestinian political prisoners from 2004 to 2011, this article suggests that the contemporary ambivalence surrounding the revolutionary project can be meaningfully analyzed using Freud's notion of melancholia. In Freud, melancholia accounts for the relation between a feeling of indeterminate loss and ambivalent attachment. The notion of melancholia thereby provides anthropology with a concept that can be used to name and explore the frayed attachment to the ideal of a Palestinian state in the context of an ongoing colonial occupation. The passionate politics of the First Intifada enabled a fusing of Palestinian personhood with the overall political project into a subject characterized by active resistance. In contrast, the ambivalent attachment that marks the link between self and state project in the Palestinian territories after the Second Intifada leads to a mood of melancholia. By analyzing the attachment to the political project as an indeterminate loss in the melancholic's ego, Lotte Buch Segal argues that the Palestinian political project is part of the self and keeps its adherents in a repetitive temporal fold from which they are unable to escape, because they are obliged and compelled to keep fighting for a state that does not seem to materialize. Conceptually, melancholia has the capacity to elucidate the emotional and deeply intersubjective toll it takes to live and aspire to an ideal that seems further from realization by the hour.

Public Anxieties and Projective Identification: Therapeutic Encounters Between Danish Clairvoyants and Their Clients
Vibeke Steffen, pages 485–506

The capacity to receive occult messages and look into the future is claimed by individuals in most societies and probably always has been. In Denmark, clairvoyance is a popular service offered at the alternative market for counseling and healing. During her fieldwork among Danish spiritualist mediums in 2007–08, Vibeke Steffen was often puzzled by the way in which clairvoyants and clients seemed to share the same kinds of problems. This observation steered her interests toward understanding how personal sensations and feelings are exchanged in therapeutic encounters and raised questions about who is doing what to whom. Drawing on Jung's concept of the wounded healer to highlight the clairvoyant's role as a channel for societal anxieties and Melanie Klein's concept of projective identification as a framework for understanding the defense mechanisms at stake in object relations, Vibeke Steffen argues that psychoanalysis may add an important critical dimension to the anthropology of therapeutic encounters.

Psychoanalysis and Ethnography
Douglas Hollan, pages 507–521

In this commentary, Douglas Hollan discusses some of the theoretical and methodological issues the contributions to this special issue raise collectively, namely: how do we as anthropologists pick and choose among the many diverse psychoanalytic concepts available to us, especially when these concepts may come embedded in very different, and sometimes contradictory, theoretical assumptions about human behavior? Once we find a psychoanalytic concept that is useful for ethnographic work, can we or should we attempt to relate it to more experience near ethnopsychological terms and assumptions, ones that might seem more understandable and intuitive from a local point of view? How intimately should we know people, biographically or developmentally, before we attempt to apply psychoanalytic concepts to their behavior? And, given that George Devereux is cited as one of the inspirations for this special issue, what role can or should an awareness of countertransference play in ethnographic work, and what are the limits, if any, of psychoanalytic interpretation in an ethnographic context?

Tine M. Gammeltoft, Lotte Buch Segal, Susanne Bregnbæk, Henrik Hvenegaard Mikkelsen and Vibeke Steffen in Ethos - Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology: Anthropology and Psychoanalysis: Explorations at the Edges of Culture and Consciousness, Vol. 44, December 2016.