On the Always Already of the Crisis of Psychoanalysis

Two dangers never cease threatening
the world: order and disorder.

— Paul Valéry, Analects

Psychoanalysis remains widely contested sometimes with regard to its politics, other times concerning its effectiveness as a method of treatment, all the while continuing to be acclaimed in pop culture. Having infiltrated a myriad of diverse areas of thought, psychoanalysis has been influential in film, literature, philosophy, religion, social theory, anthropology, history, and neuroscience; not to mention its significance in psychology and methods of psychotherapy. In part, it is because of this convoluted history that psychoanalysis is said to be in crisis. Written in response to Mladen Dolar’s seminar, “The Crisis of Psychoanalysis,” presented at The European Graduate School in July 2022, the purpose of this essay will be exploratory in seeking to further understand the crisis of psychoanalysis, its historical and modern implications, and how we might reframe and put to use this so-called crisis from a psychoanalytic perspective.

Can we rightly suggest that psychoanalysis is in crisis today when it has been in crisis since its very inception? We should approach such presumptions with curiosity: how might we orient ourselves in this gap between the crisis of the already, and the crisis of the always and still today? As Dolar has suggested, the “talk about the crisis of psychoanalysis is always psychoanalytic.”1 Jacques Derrida speaks to this in his text Resistances of Psychoanalysis, perhaps also taking it a step further in true Derridean fashion: “Must one — and if so, how? — analyze this resistance to analysis, if there is any, and the ‘there is’ of this resistance? We would have to analyze a ‘one must,’ a ‘there is,’ and, above all, we would have to know whether what resists analysis does not also resist the analytic concept of ‘resistance to analysis.’”2 Perhaps another facet of this so-called crisis of psychoanalysis is the resistance to analysis that can take place in the clinical setting, but there is a certain resistance to analysis that historically, has always accompanied and run counter to psychoanalysis from the outside; which is to say, among its enemies, those who have never given it the time of day. That being said, what I also hoped to illustrate here with Derrida, is his insistence on the resistance itself needing to be analyzed. Later he writes, “Resistance must be interpreted; it has as much meaning as what it opposes; it is just as charged with meaning and thus just as interpretable as that which it disguises or displaces…”3 With a nod back to Dolar, the resistances giving rise to the crisis of psychoanalysis are also psychoanalytic.

I would surmise that the crisis of psychoanalysis is, in many ways, situated in a misunderstanding of what psychoanalysis is — by which I mean how it was intended to function, as well as its limits, what it was never intended to do. It is a non-normative institution, a discourse rather, yet time and again over the course of its history, there are those who attempt to make it fit into a normative framework, so as to make it qualitative for measurable outcomes — it will never work as such. In this light, one could argue that psychoanalysis itself is an aberration. One of such misunderstandings, both with regard to its scientific status as well as its therapeutic effectiveness concerns the concept of cure — whether one can be cured by analysis. Lacan, when asked whether there is a possibility of being cured, responds instead by speaking to psychoanalysis’ “success.” This is an important distinction. For Lacan, the question is not a matter of whether one can be cured, but of whether the analysis itself was a success. This is absolutely fundamental, as we might typically associate the concept of cure as the analysis having been a success. But for Lacan, cure and success are not synonymous. Instead, “Psychoanalysis is successful when it clears the ground, goes beyond symptoms, goes beyond the real. That is to say, when it touches the truth.”4 So the purpose of psychoanalysis — that so often goes misunderstood — is not about cure, but the success of analysis. I am reminded here of an excerpt in Alenka Zupančič’s What Is Sex? where, in writing on the death drive, she states: “​the death drive is what makes it possible for us to die differently. And perhaps in the end this is what matters, and what breaks out from the fatigue of life: not the capacity to live forever, but the capacity to die differently.”5 This statement is no less applicable to the success of analysis, which is a structural transformation, wherein one may continue on the same trajectory but do so a little differently. That is, while we can’t escape our compulsion to repeat, much less be cured of it, the success of analysis might be that we begin to repeat differently, perhaps each time causing less and less pain.

Psychoanalysis, as a theory and practice, is incredibly unsettling. It is about the breaks in narrative — the slips, interruptions, gaps, and fissures — rather than the narrative itself. In light of Dolar’s suggestion, perhaps this “crisis” is precisely the point, the crisis as the interruption to the institution of psychoanalysis, rather than about psychoanalysis as such. Freud himself said that psychoanalysis could never be a worldview like religion or philosophy because it insists on the cracks and gaps. It is a very particular discourse, one that is specific to analysis and it doesn’t seek to explain the entire world. As such, even Freud believed that it would always face resistance. Ironically, one of the main symptoms that comes up in analysis is anxiety, and a desire to have it resolved, yet the technique itself is anxiety-inducing. Adding to this, Freud writes, “There is no golden rule which applies to everyone: every man must find out for himself in what particular fashion he can be saved. All kinds of different fact factors will operate to direct his choice.”6 This certainly confounds the problem. As aforementioned, part of the issue people have with psychoanalysis is that there is nothing definitive in getting better. Moreover, psychoanalytic work takes us to the very limits of the human. It is both the danger and the fascination of working at this limit that sustains the psychoanalytic act.7 At the same time, however, does anyone truly want to go there? We quite enjoy our symptoms, and we know better than to admit it.

In an interview on the topic at hand, Lacan stated: “In psychoanalysis, there are no immediate answers, but only the long and patient search for reasons.”8 This, again, goes against the traditional understanding of cure — namely, symptom relief — and instead promotes structural change. On the one hand, this notion of structural change might sound appealing, with or without a cure. But on the other hand, this long search for reasons doesn’t line up with our fast paced, capitalist society. Psychoanalysis has been criticized as a luxury commodity, and it is true that there’s a certain demographic who can afford both the treatments and the time commitment, and a certain other demographic for whom psychoanalysis is not a feasible option. Is psychoanalysis an instrument of emancipation? Absolutely — but only for those for whom it is accessible.

I approach this topic as someone on the outskirts of psychoanalysis; someone who finds it interesting, who chooses to study it, but I am not an analyst. Since its inception and up to the present, there are writings on the crisis of psychoanalysis. I’ve read time and again of its hold on people, analysts and laypeople alike, finding it both infuriating, exhausting, and also exhilarating — I feel this too. There is something about it that keeps us coming back for more. Much like what happens in analysis, perhaps we will only make sense of this always already crisis that is the event of psychoanalysis retroactively.

1. Mladen Dolar, “The Crisis of Psychoanalysis” (seminar, The European Graduate School, July 2022).
2. Jacques Derrida, Resistances of Psychoanalysis, trans. Peggy Kamuf, Pascale-Anne Brault, & Michael Naas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 1.
3. Derrida, Resistances of Psychoanalysis, 13.
4. Jacques Lacan, “There can be no crisis of psychoanalysis: Jacques Lacan interviewed in 1974,” interview by Emilio Granzotto, Verso (blog), July 22, 2014, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1668-there-can-be-no-crisis-of-psychoanalysis-jacques-lacan-interviewed-in-1974.
5. Alenka Zupančič, What Is Sex? (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017), 106.
6. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), 54.
7. Jamieson Webster, The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis: On Unconscious Desire and Its Sublimation (London: Karnac Books, 2011), xviii.
8. Lacan, “There can be no crisis of psychoanalysis.”