TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Adorno and Psychoanalysis in Postwar America: An Exchange with Shannon Mariotti

Shannon Mariotti’s article “Damaged Life as Exuberant Vitality in America: Adorno, Alienation, and the Psychic Economy” appears in Telos 149 (Winter 2009): Adorno and America. Nicole Burgoyne follows up with some questions.

Nicole Burgoyne: One of your main concerns with psychoanalysis as it developed in America in the postwar era is that it accepted a commercialized and materialistic view of happiness as an ideal. One can see how this sort of obsession with living life to the fullest is at odds with Freud’s early work toward curing suffering individuals and his later theories on the repressive nature of society in general. Do you see this uniquely American form of psychoanalysis, which Adorno characterizes as the loss of the individual experience, as related to his critique of America’s culture industry? Why are these phenomena prominent in American culture as opposed to elsewhere?

Shannon Mariotti: In parts of Minima Moralia, Adorno explores the American postwar therapeutic revolution whereby psychoanalysis became professionalized, standardized, normalized, and popularized in mainstream society as a tool increasingly targeted toward helping individuals better adapt to, and take pleasure in, the offerings of conventional society. Psychoanalysis was originally supposed to work against the problem of bourgeois alienation, but in Adorno’s view, it became part of the problem, contributing to the loss of the thinking, experiencing, negating, critical self. Yes, American psychoanalysis in the postwar era was infected by the same systematizing, identifying, homogenizing logic of modernity that also pervades what Adorno calls the culture industry. But he does not see these phenomena as uniquely or solely American: they are logics of modernity more generally that coalesced in especially intense ways and gave novel form to the experience of alienation in postwar America.

Burgoyne: You write:

Like other members of the Frankfurt School, Adorno was deeply influenced by psychoanalysis: critical theory sought to apply Freud’s analysis of subjective psychology to a Marxian social critique of the repressive and dominating features of modern civilization. . . . [However, m]ainstream psychoanalysis had lost Freud’s critical edge, and it problematically ignored Marx. (169-70)

Given that Freud utilized case studies to elaborate broader theories of human psychology and Marx spoke of widespread alienation that plagued a class of people due to their common working conditions, to what extent is it possible to avoid the kind of generalization in psychoanalysis that you criticize? What alternative is there to interpreting a specific case in terms of a general principle, especially given the demands of educating professionals in practicing psychotherapy nationwide?

Mariotti: Adorno’s criticisms are not centrally aimed at the tendency to make psychological generalizations about broad categories of people, based on their historical contexts, material conditions, and life experiences. Indeed, he sees this way of thinking as a potentially powerful tool for critique and engages in this practice himself in his own theorization of the experiences of modern alienation. Rather, Adorno seems most concerned about the way postwar psychoanalysis tended to shift the focus away from analyzing the social factors of illness. Instead of studying illness as a critically valuable indicator of social problems, postwar psychoanalysis increasingly objectified illnesses into standard, and normalizing, categories that were seen as unrelated to the individual’s life experiences. Adorno is also concerned about the implicit view of subjectivity underlying postwar psychoanalysis: the self came to be imagined as a mechanistic assemblage of moving parts that could sometimes break down and require recalibrating, so the individual can better fit in, adapt, and respond to existing (but unquestioned) social imperatives.

Burgoyne:You narrate two distinct eras in American psychology, the popularization of psychotherapy and the new culture of psychopharmacology. Do you see the rise of latter culture precipitating the decline of the former, or did some intermediary event dull popular enthusiasm for psychotherapy? Might the American zeal for psychotherapy not have been as widespread as Adorno was led to believe, but rather part of his specific cultural experience of America (life in New York City and Los Angeles)?

Mariotti: Historical analyses do uniformly emphasize the revolutionary nature of the changes that took place in American psychology after World War II. Psychoanalysis came to dominate psychology and enjoy the same kind of cultural popularity that Prozac received in the early 1990s: psychoanalysis became the talk of the town, but certainly Adorno’s understanding of this phenomena was likely intensified by the particular cities he lived in during these years. I did find striking parallels between these two distinct eras in psychology. The era of Freud, neuroses, and the psychoanalyst’s couch, at first glance, seems to have little in common with the contemporary model that goes under the name of biological or scientific materialism and is concerned with the brain, chemical imbalances, and pharmaceuticals. But in fact, many scholars emphasize underlying commonalities and show how dominant aspects of the contemporary era can be traced back to the 1940s. Because of this, I was able to highlight the continued relevance of certain aspects of Adorno’s critique of postwar American psychoanalysis.

Burgoyne: Could you expand on what I see as one of the central points of your article, namely, the connection between the postwar American psychology revolution, which generalized psychological problems and created widespread expectations of conformity to the superficial joys offered by mass culture, and the modern goal of feeling “better than well” which you link to biological materialism?

Mariotti: Both eras seem dominated by what Adorno calls “the happiness imperative” and are marked by a problematically uncritical attitude toward the social roots of illness, a tendency to rush past thinking through the cause and context of the illness in a race for the cure, so to speak. Then and now, Americans pursue their own happiness through things that advertise they will help us live our lives to the fullest, that offer us the chance to not just be “normal” but also, in Peter Kramer’s now famous phrase, “better than well,” and that promise to improve and perfect the self. We tend to have more enthusiasm than skepticism for all things that offer “more,” for all things better, longer, faster. This might all seem innocuous, but Adorno draws our attention to the ways these tendencies can have problematic side effects. The happiness imperative can blind us to the ways that certain illnesses might serve as illuminating and critically valuable indicators of social problems, even as a stimulus to change. Further, a single-minded quest after “exuberant vitality” may blind us to the pain and suffering of others around us, whereas letting our gaze linger on the sights we would rather look past could stimulate an ethical response. Finally, there can be negative political consequences to singing what Adorno calls the “gospel of happiness” in ways that displace critical thought.

Burgoyne: You describe Adorno’s method of negative dialectics as follows:

By paying attention to the disruptive qualities of particular things, letting the object “speak,” and granting “preponderance to the object,” the practice of negative dialectics works to break apart the false harmonies built up by the logic of identity and the idealist dialectic. (176)

Could you elaborate on the connection you see between this methodology and the enactment of democratic politics?

Mariotti: Adorno sees critique as essential to democracy, indeed as the essence of democracy: he sees this capacity for questioning what is presented as necessary, natural, and inevitable, as a form of resistance that is central to cultivating the kind of politically mature selves who might “self-govern” in the most meaningful sense of the words that seems promised by the ideal of democracy. For Adorno, there are qualities in the world—which he calls “nonidentical” qualities—that can work to stimulate these critical capacities, to connect us in the praxis of thinking, and that contain a utopian tendency to protest against “what is” and point toward alternative possibilities. But there are also modern forces working to deafen us to the dissonant call of these nonidentical qualities: bending to these powers, we may lose the thinking, experiencing, negating self in the phenomenon that Adorno calls “damaged life.” He connects this alienation from the self with our alienation from a more robust understanding of democracy. This is why the counter-action he proposes is so important: when we try to look and listen to the nonidentical, we engage in the critical practice of thinking against the given that Adorno calls “negative dialectics,” and we also work in fulfillment of the promise of democracy.

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