Breaking totem's taboos

April 19, 2012

In his review of The Freud Files: An Inquiry into the History of Psychoanalysis (29 March), John Forrester berates the fact that we did not write a cultural history of psychoanalysis and its reception, and so failed to account for why Freud continues to be so influential.

Studying the "take-up" of psychoanalysis is valuable, but our focus was on the "supply side". We resituated its genesis within the myriad attempts to form a scientific psychotherapy from the end of the 19th century onwards. Rather than by surmounting rivals by demonstrating his theory's superiority or establishing a consensus around its claims, Freud and his followers rescripted history in their favour, and it was their version that prevailed. Its "theoretical and therapeutic weight" was contested, so taking it as axiomatic, as Forrester proposes, is ahistorical.

The Freud legend was not an incidental addition to psychoanalytic theories but was inseparable from them, as shown by how Freud rewrote clinical material to fit his theories. The legend was linked to a unique form of propagation in the form of the psychoanalytic training institution, was canonised in Ernest Jones' authorised biography, the Standard Edition of Freud's writings and the publication of censored correspondences, and protected by the sequestering of documents in the Sigmund Freud Archives at the Library of Congress. Psychoanalysis did not achieve its cultural status through a neo-Darwinian selection of ideas but through particular political strategies.

Within the ever-shifting boundaries between the myriad forms of psychoanalysis and the wider domain of psychologies and psychotherapies, the Freud legend had the critical role of conferring identity. Without being attentive to these issues, history runs the risk of being an apologia for psychoanalysis.

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, University of Washington

Sonu Shamdasani, University College London

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