Defining Psychoanalysis: Achieving a Vernacular Expression, by Ian Miller

Posted on Oct 20, 2016

A snapshot of how psychoanalysts are thinking about psychoanalysis

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One of the most productively disruptive events of my adult life was my move from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Dublin, four years ago. While psychoanalytic lore and literature is full of analysts’ migrations from one place to another  (think of the exodus from Vienna and Berlin and Budapest to London and New York; or of Bion’s late-life move to Los Angeles), the assumption is that the shape, understanding, and articulation of clinical psychoanalysis, of what we do, remain constant.


2a22Certainly, we are all aware that analysis has morphed into multiple forms within its growth sinceStudies on Hysteria. And our self-conscious differentiations between the orientations of our multiple schools, as with the “Controversial Discussions” or the fabled mid-century schisms outward from the New York Psychoanalytic, have brought us close to internecine conflict. But it was not until I was brought face-to-face with the evocative object that is “psychoanalysis” outside of my own originating neighborhood, that I was able to appreciate how analysts shape their understanding and practice both consensually – if according to local understandings – and personally. After 40 years in the field, I wondered what we shared in common.

Sometimes, I bumped my nose against local definition as when a colleague “not myself a psychoanalyst”, told me that under the same definition, I could not be an analyst either. Neither of us had trained in London at the British Psychoanalytical Society. Her generalization neatly avoided a critical detail: one of us had never trained to be a psychoanalyst at all.

Nevertheless, with this grand theological movement of excommunication, I was jettisoned by her into the middle-ground between elect and damned. While this condition for expulsion was new to me, the idea of inclusion-exclusion within the study and practice of psychoanalysis was not. I had been reared during a moment of American psychoanalytic history only recently receptive to clinical psychologists like myself; and trained in joint psychiatry-clinical psychology programs where elder practitioners seemed to discern the whiff of sulfur among the young PhDs. It was there too, that I learned how in dynamic psychotherapy, one must “dress British and think Yiddish”: that there continued in the late 1970s, an ambivalent disdain and pride around the still-resident prejudice (even in New York!) that psychoanalysis remained a “Jewish science” within “medical psychiatry”; and an even bolder, enviously prideful lusting after British sartorial manners!

41LHFS4fBdL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)What did throw me off in contemporary Dublin, however, was when a psychotherapeutic colleague of the “integrative humanistic” variety informed me without irony, that psychoanalysis was “not a humanistic discipline”. I recognized that something had gone terribly amiss in the shared orientation of psychodynamic therapists in the English-speaking world: where the Enlightenment roots of psychoanalysis were unknown and where humanism itself was now compressed into a singular bullet-point derived from a limited reading of Rogerian therapy. In argument, I hunted up the famous 1957 conversation at the University of Michigan, between Martin Buber and Carl Rogers; but this was a rear-guard action. What mattered now was that in the proliferation of writing on the subject of psychotherapy, critical currents in thinking, expansive and pluralistic rather than reductionist and repressive, seem to go missing today. The middle ground of consensual agreement about psychodynamic practice blurs between extremes of defensive adherence to orthodoxy and a postmodern untethering of received and broad traditions of thought.

How does one address such certainty and at the same time, such limitation?  How do these encrustations in thinking act as limits to our lines of advance in psychodynamic psychotherapy? My comfort in one town, New York, had inured me to such conceptual difficulties in our field. The shift to Dublin awakened me.  I wondered what today’s clinicians, globally, held in common relative to their definitions of psychodynamic psychotherapy.

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“a snapshot of how psychoanalysts are

thinking about psychoanalysis”

Years ago, in my training at the NYU Postdoctoral Program, Edgar Levenson commented that analysts of all orientations at any given time have more in common than analysts within any particular school across multiple eras in their schools’ history. I began to consider the question of a “vernacular” psychoanalysis: how we recognize psychoanalysis when we see it, discerning its shape despite difference, just as different cultures and societies create architectural containers for living – houses, bearing distinct local marking but with recognizably universal purpose. Were such discernment accurate, it might also be empirically demonstrated. I found it in the PEP Archives, the online psychoanalytic library which offers an up-to-date census of what psychoanalytically-oriented subscribers read. In an era of crowd-sourcing, this is as close as one can come to an unselfconscious snapshot of how psychoanalysts are thinking about psychoanalysis.

One of the remarkable aspects of psychoanalytic development over more than a century is that it has amassed a prodigious amount of self-reflective commentary. Increasingly, new psychoanalytic book titles are about “reading”, consolidating and advancing upon prior writings from theory and practice. And so, clinical psychoanalysis itself has evolved from direct experience to include a deeply generative intertextual practice, which itself joins the analyst beyond his or her own training and multiple courses of psychoanalysis and supervision in interaction with the voices and findings of personalities across the whole of our very vibrant and living history.

The rest is evocative reading from the PEP Archive. In thinking about the elements that constitute what most of us find at play in the analytic field, I have found the current vernacular expression a reasonable jumping-off place for individuals’ discrete understandings of clinical psychoanalysis, today. For clinicians who have had such intimations and for those for whom this seems a liberating idea, I hope that Defining Psychoanalysis: Achieving a Vernacular Expression is a productively provocative read.

Ian Miller is a psychologist and psychoanalyst practicing in Dublin, Ireland, where he teaches in the faculty of psychoanalytic studies at Trinity College Dublin, and the author of On Minding and Being Minded: Experiencing Bion and Beckett (2015), and co-author (with Kay Souter) of Beckett and Bion: The (Im)Patient Voice in Psychotherapy and Literature (2013).

     His latest book, Defining Psychoanalysis: Achieving a Vernacular Expression, is published this week by Karnac.


Reviews and Endorsements

36842‘In this innovative, intelligent and explorative book, Ian Miller solves a mystery I have been haunted by for years: how analysts in the twenty first century use texts that were written decades ago. The book provides a masterful theory — a deep understanding of the “vernacular psychoanalytic”, a term I believe should be used widely whenever one wants to understand how analysts use and practise their theories.’
— Aner Govrin, author of Conservative and Radical Perspectives on Psychoanalytic Knowledge: The Fascinated and the Disenchanted

‘Ian Miller makes the case that every generation, by re-reading and re-understanding the work of writers who have come before, constructs its own “vernacular psychoanalysis”. Our contemporary reading, Miller tells us, is a retranscription that represents a discovery of new (and newly relevant) meanings in old sources, just as we discover new significances in our own pasts over the course of life, and in treatment. He illustrates his argument by considering five of the ten articles — three by Winnicott, two by Bion — that were most widely read on PEP in the year 2014–2015. It is impossible for me to say which is more interesting: the innovative way Miller has constructed his argument, or the deep and thoughtful argument itself.’
— Donnel Stern, author of Unformulated Experience: From Dissociation to Imagination in Psychoanalysis and Partners in Thought: Working With Unformulated Experience, Dissociation, and Enactment

Defining Psychoanalysis is a good starting place for discerning the clinical landscape shared among psychoanalytic practitioners of all varieties in our contemporary world. This voyage of discovery for a vernacular language for psychoanalysis produces a valuable map, indicating five major landmark texts between its origins and the Babel of today.’
— Toni O’Brien Johnson, Irish Forum for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, from the Foreword



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