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Psychoanalysis On and Off the Couch

Dec 6, 2020

“There is a history of psychoanalysis and its relationship with political thought and even political action. There is clearly quite a strong historical tradition of a sort of rebelliousness on the part of psychoanalysis or at least a challenge to social mores, which I see as beginning right from the start and certainly as early as Freud’s 1908 paper on ‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality. He has the words ‘civilized’ in inverted commas because what he’s using psychoanalysis for there is to say something deeply hypocritical about the sexual mores of his day and that this is causing trouble.”


Description: Dr. Harvey Schwartz welcomes Professor Stephen Frosh. Stephen Frosh is a Professor in the Department of Psychosocial Studies (which he founded) at Birkbeck, University of London. He was Pro-Vice-Master of Birkbeck from 2003 to 2017, a senior management position in which he was responsible at various times for teaching and learning, research and internationalisation in the university. Stephen’s background is in academic and clinical psychology, and he was a consultant clinical psychologist at the Tavistock Clinic. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, Academic Associate at the British Psychoanalytical Society, a founding member of the Association of Psycho-social studies, and an Honorary Member of the Institute of Group Analysis.


As you will hear in today’s conversation Stephen is remarkably well versed in the psychoanalytic literature. We discuss Stephen´s contention that the “unconscious is barbaric,” that Freud’s famous fort-da observation may be meaningfully applied to the place of psychoanalysis in our culture and that Steven Reich’s musical piece “Different Trains” serves as a profound commentary on the witnessing of trauma.


Key takeaways:

[9:15] Stephen explains the meaning of his quote “The unconscious of psychoanalysis is barbaric.”

[12:30] Stephen shares his view on Freud as a democrat.

[15:34] Stephen talks about the political tension that psychoanalysts went through in South America.

[16:45] Stephen comments on the alliance between Blacks and Jews, who were both characterized by the colonials as barbaric.

[19:16] The relationship between psychoanalysis and social movements.

[20:05] Stephen talks about the structure of traditional Freudian psychoanalysis and how powerful it was for its time.

[22:54] Freud’s aspiration was to bring into reason that which was unreasonable and could cause damage, not to destroy it but, on the contrary, to put it to good use.

[24:22] Stephen talks about  fort-da as an example of how psychoanalysis works in relation to culture.

[28:02] Stephen discusses how Freud talked about and experienced the human tendency of repeating disturbing and even traumatic events.

[32:37] The repetition compulsion : Even when you think a piece of work is done it finds some way to come back.

[34:20] Stephen talks about the question of witnessing.

[36:05] The history of trauma.

[38:15] Stephen shares the impact of being listened to but not heard on a victim of trauma.

[42:12] Stephen shares his reflections on a particular piece of music as they relate to the meaning of witnessing and trauma that is included in his most recent book: Those who come after.

[48:06] Stephen talks about himself and what brought him to the point where he is today.

[53:55] Where we are today in regards to COVID according to Stephen.


Mentioned in this episode:

IPA Off the Couch 


Recommended Readings:

Frosh, S. (2019) Those who come after. London: Palgrave.


Frosh, S. (2020) Psychoanalysis as Decolonial Judaism. Psychoanalysis, Culture, and Society, 25(2), 174-193.


Frosh, S. (2018) Psychoanalysis, Politics, and Society: What Remains Radical in Psychoanalysis? In R. Gipps and M. Lacewing (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Butler, J. (2020) The Force of Nonviolence. London: Verso.


Khanna, R. (2004) Dark Continents: Psychoanalysis and Colonialism. Durham: Duke University Press.


Zaretsky, E. (2015) Political Freud. New York: Columbia University Press.