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Number 13: Spring 2018

Review: Class and Psychoanalysis: Landscapes of Inequality, by Dr Joanna Ryan, Routledge, London & New York, 2017 ISBN 978-1-138- 88551-6

Paul Gurney

Another divergence from what Ryan characterises as traditional (British?) psychoanalytic (and academic) orthodoxy comes when she writes herself into the picture as a classed subject, thereby questioning the Great Foundational Myth of neutrality (i.e., one person’s neutrality is another’s specificity). Ryan’s starting point is that ‘…class matters. It matters because it is a major source and consequence of inequality, often transmitted intergenerationally…Class is a prime example of the past operating in the present, and thus could be of great psychoanalytic interest…’ (6). In the following chapters she explores, variously, the early history of free and low-cost clinics in Germany and Austria, set up in many cases by the Founding Fathers and Mothers of psychoanalysis, who were often also active politically on the Left, and the ‘theoretical’ debates that underpinned these initiatives; the exclusion of class from early – and subsequent – theoretical discourse; the position of psychoanalysis in the public sectors of various countries; class as seen from the perspective of contemporary sociological thinking; social mobility within the psychoanalytic field; class dynamics within therapeutic relationships; contemporary psychoanalytic writing, and the central issue of money and therapy within a wider political and economic context. Ryan refers at a number of points to the currently dominant Western ideology of ‘neo-liberalism’ and how this has led to the privileging of atomistic individualism over collective narratives and solutions, a trend to which much contemporary psychoanalysis has arguably fallen prey. Due reference is also made throughout to the interwovenness of class with other positions – intersections in current terminology – and in particular ‘race’ (her inverted commas), gender and sexuality. Ryan describes British psychoanalytic culture as currently riven with inequalities, rivalries and snobberies, both in terms of access for clients and also trainees and therapists from working-class backgrounds. 

As stated earlier, Ryan refers to a wide range of writers within the fields of sociology, psycho-social studies, psychoanalysis and journalism, including the work of Reay, Layton, Hanley, Altman and in particular the psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche and the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, applying and adapting their ideas in order to investigate the interrelationship between psychoanalysis and class, arguing for an externally-focused theory and practice which acknowledges the centrality and materiality of socio-economic experience in therapy, as opposed to the self-centred and atomised individualistic approaches that have dominated the field for much of the twentieth century. 

I was left reflecting on which other currents within psychoanalytic discourse might also be helpfully put to use in a greater incorporation of socio-political realities in psychotherapy, and thought of the ‘phenomenological’, for example the conviction of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (among others) that we are ‘thrown’ into a world (a culture, a society) that pre-exists us, that there is never just a mother-baby dyad, there is always already the group, the world. Or a refraction of the Lacanian tradition (apologies for the violence of over-simplification), where the entry into the symbolic involves entry into language and therefore culture, society, politics (notwithstanding Lacan’s own attitude to money and charging of fees, which Ryan discusses). Similarly ‘classical’ Jungianism, where collective ‘experience’ is also seen as foundational (although reference should be made here to Frantz Fanon’s justified criticism in ‘Black Skin, White Masks’ of the cultural specificity of the contents of the ‘collective unconscious’).