Archive for the month “November, 2013”

From the Depths of the Psyche


The exiled Sigmund Freud photographed in a car as he arrives in London in 1938. Photo: AFPBild

The theories of Sigmund Freud have almost vanished from German universities. But psychoanalysis is in no way obsolete.

No science in the modern world has encountered so much hostile resistance from contemporaries as psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud himself described his theory as causing offence, informing the ego of the unpleasant news that it wasn’t the captain of its own ship. Seen from this perspective, psychoanalysis is the next in a series of blows dealt by modern science. Copernicus discovered the earth was not the center of the universe; Kant cast into doubt the reliability of our senses; Darwin denied the human being a special status in creation. Freud’s theories swept away the last abiding illusion in the modern world, the belief in the purity of the inner life and the preeminence of our consciousness.

What it unearths are views from the depths of the psyche. And the insights into the unconscious disclosed unsettling revelations. Psychological investigations in a range of areas—dreams and neurosis, the power of repression to cause illness, the origin of moral control, the anatomy of angst and delusion, the tension between reason and sexuality as well as the will to live and the death drive—lead to the conclusion that the rational human being was an invention of seminal impact but possessed little psychological coherence.

In hindsight Freud liked to employ romantic metaphors in describing his difficult journeys from hypnosis treatment in 1890 to developing new forms of therapy. He regarded his excursions into the psyche as a descent into the dark underworld of the unconscious, as a journey into the inner recesses of a mountain where he struck gold but came across just as much in the way of mud and filth. Even though these images are romanticized, they contain a kernel of truth. They reflect in particular the feeling of loneliness that accompanied the father of psychoanalysis for many years, the harsh condemnation by the entire medical community and his fear that his hypotheses were in error.

The burden was increased by the fact that Freud made many of his discoveries through self-analysis. This was necessary because the fabric of the new theories was woven from the most intimate personal experiences of the movement’s founder. The resulting ideas were based on an odd fusion whereby doctor and patient, scholar and individual under treatment were one and the same. This moved psychoanalysis into the realm of painting, music and literature, in which the subjective experiences of the artist inspire what he or she creates. In this sense, Freud’s science led to a work of art molded by the fluctuations in his mental state.

It is incontestable that many aspects of Freud’s theories are now obsolete. The world of the late 19th century shaped his perception of gender, understanding of deviant sexual practices, neglect of physical symptoms as well as his theory of culture. Freud’s tendency toward strict dogmatism can be grasped today only if we consider what it was pitted against—the Puritanism of Victorian society. George Steiner spoke of an “unverified belief” that became embedded “in the heart of the psychoanalytic method.” This belief is in the omnipotence of the Trieb, the instinct or drive, which turns up everywhere—in language and everyday life, art and religion.

Freud’s acute perception of contradictions arising in the psyche stood in opposition to an odd tendency of his to use a narrow basis on which to substantiate symptom complexes and treatment methods. Critics such as Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Michel Onfray, in line with early defector C.G. Jung, continue to voice the complaint that Freud’s hypotheses lack a broad enough empirical basis and his theories are too fixated on the ubiquity of the drive. Nevertheless, one cannot deny his cultural and historical impact. Psychoanalysis became part of the modern world as well as an instrument interpreting and powering it. This dual role was typical of the 20th century, an age of commentary and realization through self-interpretation.

As a science of researching identity, psychoanalysis formed the types of thinking in which the denizens of the modern world could see themselves through their intellectual tendencies, finding confirmation and interpretation of the urge to explore hidden traces and signs, of the fact that the mysterious and concealed were so near to oneself. The archeology of the soul offered by Freud was simultaneously one of the epoch. Whoever speaks about the modern must talk about psychoanalysis. He or she may not always do that overtly but will do so inevitably.  To reflect on the modern means to be comprehended by psychoanalysis, to be determined by it. Even Freud’s enemies do not evade it, because the moment they begin voicing criticism they are gripped by the spell of psychoanalytic interpretation. Psychoanalytical diagnosis focuses on the drives and unconscious and thus encompasses the great stories of human culture. No one can approach these tales without paying tribute to Freud.

Freud’s ideal analyst moves within strictly delineated practices and rituals. He or she listens to the patient speaking from the couch and remains for the most part silent, only sporadically asking a question or following up a remark. By instituting talk therapy, psychoanalysis has created a new form of solidifying knowledge that represents a mixture of confession and embarrassing questions. The material Freud molded into the most consequential theory of modern man is not based on substances found in the lab, experiments or writings. It’s made up of the tales of woe related to him over the years. In Studies on Hysteria (1895) he writes that the therapist is a “hearer of confessions who offers absolution through a long-term commitment to the patient and attention to the confessions divested”.  The doctor’s unconscious, Freud wrote in 1912, should be “tuned to the patient like the receiver of a telephone to the caller. Just as the receiver receives electrical fluctuations caused by sound waves and transforms them back into sound waves, the unconscious of the doctor is capable of reconstructing the unconscious of his or her patient from the unconscious derivatives of this unconscious that has determined the free associations of the patient.” The analytical work was first concerned with delving into the vacillations of the other’s psyche and then reconstructing the contexts in which the repressed is located. The principle of listening simultaneously comprises the therapeutic act, beginning and ethos of understanding.

And today? Freud’s theories have survived both their fiercest critics and their most dogmatic defenders. As a therapeutic tool, the therapy derived and later developed does not lack controversy but is nevertheless still recognized. Nevertheless Freud’s theories have practically disappeared from university academic life in Germany. Reasons for this can be found in 20th century history. Jewish analysts were expelled from Germany after 1933 and taken in by Great Britain, France and the United States. Freud himself fled to London in 1938 and his theories are still more at home in the Anglo-American academy than in Germany.

There are also methodological conflicts dividing psychoanalysis and neuroscience. Freud’s system seems too speculative to brain researchers because it is scientifically founded on empirical data and theory, but not experimentation. Nevertheless, an accommodation should be possible. It is a fact that psychoanalysis has exerted more influence on film, the arts and literature than it has on medicine and psychology. But this doesn’t have to be the case in the future.

Freud’s theories are in no way obsolete. In fact, there is a lot of potential for more work to be done precisely because an undogmatic interpretation of his ideas has begun with potential applications in different areas of neuroscience and cultural theory. And eighty years after Freud’s death, universities should also see to it that they do not restrict the presentation of his theories as part of a historical survey.

This article appeared in German in the Tagespiegel (October 8, 2013). By Peter-André Alt

No Spies Allowed

Edward Snowden laughing it up at a recent meeting in Moscow with German Green Party MP Hans-Christian Ströbele, WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison, who escorted Snowden from Hong Kong to Moscow, Georg Mascolo, former editor of the German magazine Spiegel, and John Goetz from the Süddeutsche Zeitung

(Article written by John Goetz and Hans Leyendecker and published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on November 3, 2013)

A figure like Edward Snowden is wont to prompt speculation. So it’s no surprise that rumors continue to surface claiming the FSB, Russia’s secret service, is the actual source behind the flow of disclosed information. Agents do not decide when and how documents become public, however. This is the result of hard-fought competition among journalists.

Intelligence agents are at home in a world of cloak and dagger. Intelligence agencies spread information secrets—true and fictitious—by means of “Dezinformatsiya”, as the Russians say. The objective is to discredit the enemy. Like when Russian intelligence services concocted a report that the Aids virus was created by scientists employed by military laboratories in the West. That made headlines.

But there are also numerous examples of “active measures” (distributing false intelligence) undertaken by US intelligence services using this technique in the case of whistleblower Edward Snowden. In talks behind the scenes, high-ranking security officials explain that the Russian secret service (FSB) is behind everything. And they say that claim is “completely reliable”. The eavesdropping on Merkel’s cell phone conversations, for instance, was staged by the Kremlin. “It would be interesting to know what agents in the Russian FSB have found in all the top secret data in the hands of their hostage Snowden, which they can soon use against the West”, prophesied a German newspaper on the weekend.

Snowden initially fled to Hong Kong and has been in Moscow since June 23rd, but he has reiterated that neither the Chinese nor the Russians have received access to his material. Snowden values his stance on this a great deal and is a man who sees himself as a patriot. He also emphasizes that he has not leaked information about the methods employed by US intelligence agencies. Snowden says he didn’t bring the material with him to Moscow. But is he to be believed? In critics’ eyes he is either a traitor or a hostage.

The reality is more banal. Snowden’s revelations proceed along a course determined by journalism principles, not according to the practices of intelligence agencies. In other words, there is more explanation than paranoia, a lot of fire but little smoke. Or the opposite of what we would expect from intelligence agencies.

Snowden’s libertarian ideology

This conclusion follows from the story of how this journalism scoop came to light, much of which has to do with Snowden’s libertarian ideology. “Independent journalists ought to form their own opinions about the contents of the documents”, Snowden told the Green Party MP Hans-Christian Ströbele during a meeting with the German politician in Moscow. He “set the whole thing in motion, but journalists, politicians, technology experts and average citizens” decide in the end “how much we will benefit from it”. He keeps up with the use of his material on the Internet (see Wikileak videos of the meeting in Moscow documented by the Süddeutsche Zeitung).

On May 20th Snowden flew from Hawaii to Hong Kong in order to pass on information to journalists. In The Mira Hotel at the beginning of June, he met the documentary film director and producer Laura Poitras, Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald and Guardian New York correspondent Ewen MacAskill.

The three inquired about the reasons for the meeting. Snowden handed out the material. On June 5th the Guardian published the first revelation, showing how the US government issued a telecommunications giant Verizon with a secret court order, forcing the company to turn over millions of US citizens’ telephone data. Snowden appeared in a 12 ½-minute video on June 9th, stating his purpose and describing the NSA’s unchecked data obsession. Afterward, he was sheltered by an acquaintance and made brief contact with a journalist from the South Morning Post.

Greenwald and Poitras left Hong Kong with different material, the former carrying information more relevant to the US while the latter held data of more interest to Europeans. Poitras and Greenwald became key figures in the story and later explained they left Hong Kong in part because other people from the press began turning up. Another factor may have been that the two are Americans and must have feared they would be indicted as accessories in any trial brought against Snowden. MacAskill received back up from his colleagues and stayed put longer. He was interested in the activities of the NSA as well any British involvement. Snowden obliged him with material concerning Britain’s Government Communications Headquarter (GCHQ) and data about their cooperation with the NSA.

Three tidy sources with mountains of information. This had nothing to do with intelligence agencies. Poitras, a highly-esteemed director and producer in the world of documentary film, flew to Berlin with her material and soon began assisting Spiegel with their pieces on the Snowden affair. Greenwald flew back to Rio, where he cooperated with media outlets and gave several interviews.

The Guardian is perhaps the best investigative paper in the world right now and has dedicated a large team to reporting on the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ. The paper is subject to extreme pressure brought to bear by strict laws in the UK and has fought valiantly for clarification.

No trace of intelligence agencies anywhere to be found in the affair

Those entrusted with the material have thus been journalists, not intelligence agents. Snowden is a supporter of WikiLeaks, but they have not received any data for their own use either. New relationships have continued to form in past months. Editors-in-chief of top newspapers travel to meet alleged sources in order to obtain some of Snowden’s information. There is stiff competition among journalists and it’s over competence or lack of competence. Nevertheless, no story or development in the affair bears the trace of intelligence agency involvement.
Granted, in theory the revelations about spying on heads of state, including the chancellor, could allow for such speculations. In communist East Germany, Section X of the government’s foreign intelligence service (HVA) made use of “information outlets” to create scandals in West Germany by supplying segments of phone conversations that had been tampered with. But that was a long time ago.

Clearly the Americans and the Russians would like to know what Snowden has tucked away. But they presumably do not know. Information about spying on government leaders was sorted without the involvement of intelligence agents.
A figure like Snowden naturally prompts speculation. In his own words, he has described himself as a Buddhist and a vegan who never eats meat. But during his meeting with the German contingent in Moscow, he ate a steak—and no one forced him to do it.

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