Literary Criticism, Psychoanalysis and the New Politics of Otherness

by  Flora E. Lazar, Ph.D., L.S.W

16th October 2016

Like many of us, I feel chronically behind in my reading not just with my New Yorkers, which I mercifully don't see in stacks any longer thanks to my IPad e-subscriptions, but even with the New York Times. As someone who entered the clinical world after a long career in research and public policy, the pressure to "master the professional literature" is especially acute. So when my eye caught a small New York Times article about the seemingly effete topic of who gets to write novels about whom, I was surprised that I did not simply leave it to the literati. But I was intrigued that it had reached the top 20 on the Times most popular list, so I checked out this dispatch from this year's celebrated Brisbane conference.

The article, it turns out, concerned the keynote speech by novelist Lionel Shriver about what she and others have referred to as identity politics gone mad -- or to be more specific, the increasingly popular idea that writing about people who do not share one's "identity" is an act of cultural appropriation akin to identity theft. In her speech, Shriver complained that the increasingly shrill critiques about writers with one identity writing about characters with another would ultimately produce characters "so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we'd indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with." Not long into the speech several of Shriver's colleagues stood up and walked out, setting in motion a literary conflagration that spread to the pages of newspapers around the world and prompted the hasty organization of "counter-programming" to express the literary world's consternation over her remarks.

Why should we as psychotherapists, and especially self psychologically oriented psychotherapists be concerned about this dust-up among writers at a literary enclave in a far corner of the world? Because if differences of identity proscribe us from gaining an intimate understanding of the experiences of others, we are stripped of our most potent method for helping our patients, empathy, the tool Kohut's biographer Charles Strozier says he defined "alternately as vicarious introspection, feeling one's way into the experience of another, and the oxygen of life in a human world."

We are often called upon as psychotherapists to answer - whether in our own minds or directly to our patients -- the broad question raised by the work of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas about ultimately knowing "the other." It is a question that goes to the heart of the promise of psychotherapy. In the contemporary debate, this question is posed more narrowly. If we do not share their gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, social class or other identity, can we truly know them? And what is the price of this supposed blindness? For decades racial differences were assumed a priori to interfere with psychotherapy rather than, themselves, to be an arena for dynamic exploration. As Kimberlyn Leary, who has helped advance our thinking considerably on the psychoanalytic exploration of race, has noted, the relational turn in psychoanalysis has immeasurably enhanced our ability to work with the varied meanings of dimensions such as race in treatment. Underscoring Cheryl Thomson's contention that "black is never simply black" and that racial content can have multiple meanings, even simultaneously, Leary perhaps unintentionally calls into question whether one has to possess an identity to understand that identity in another.

Over the years, a mushrooming scientific literature has examined what impact factors such as racial or gender matching have on the effectiveness of treatment. A 2011 meta-analytic review by Cabral et. al. of preferences, perceptions, and outcomes around racial/ethnic matching in mental health services provides compelling evidence that while patients may have a modest preference for such matching, it is hardly decisive in the impact of treatment. The study concluded that "across 53 studies of client outcomes in mental health treatment, the average effect size was 0.09, indicating almost no benefit to treatment outcomes from racial/ethnic matching of clients with therapists."

All of this makes me wonder if we are not rolling back the clock by dividing ourselves between "me" and "not me." Have not advances in understanding gender identity and sexual orientation made us more circumspect about the idea of binaries more broadly? So far, the psychotherapy community has remained remarkably silent on the broader implications of the identity and cultural appropriation debates for our profession.

As a recent graduate of the University of Chicago social work school and survivor of the widely-reported campus identity debates - often conducted in the name of mental health --, I have had a ring-side seat to these discussions and what they mean for psychotherapists. Those a bit more removed would do well to keep an eye on the latest incarnation of this debate, Brisbane's literary spectacle, and its aftermath. It has both implicitly and explicitly invoked mental health as an outcome, but will almost certainly spill into our world as a question of method.

The Indian journalist and novelist Hari Kunzru, whose most recent book was about the American southwest, could have been writing for the IAPSP's eForum when he wrote in The Guardian in the aftermath of Brisbane, "Attempting to think one's way into other subjectivities, other experiences, is an act of ethical urgency." He went on to argue that "good writers transgress without transgressing, in part because they are humble about what they do not know. They treat their own experience of the world as provisional. They do not presume. They respect people, not by leaving them alone in the inviolability of their cultural authenticity, but by becoming involved with them."

Sound a bit like self psychology? One of Lionel Shriver's fiercest critics, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, notably claimed in a September 23rd letter to the editor of the New York Times, "Difficult conversations will make us all uncomfortable. Good. That discomfort is how we improve." I think I have heard that said of psychoanalysis.

Flora Lazar, Ph.D., M.A. has spent most of her professional life at the intersection of human services, research, and public policy. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration and works at Live Oak, a multi-disciplinary group of psychotherapists from all theoretical orientations, all engaged in trauma-informed, LGBTQ affirmative, multi-systemic, and multicultural practice. She is a student-at-large at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. An historian by training, Dr. Lazar is currently working on a revision of her doctoral dissertation on the development of the empirical tradition and the role of the university in American psychoanalysis. She contributed to the writing and editing of Infant and Childhood Depression: Developmental Factors (John Wiley & Sons) and Infant Depression: Paradigms and Paradoxes (Springer Science & Business Media).

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