Your Psychology Degree and You

Can someone please explain this diagram to me? Anyone?

Seriously, what does it mean? I don’t get it.

I tried with Jaques Lacan. I really did. It’s his diagram, you see. But let’s put Lacan to the side for now… we’ll come back to him later…

Before you sit in the proverbial seat and we talk through the problem of Your Psychology Degree and You; allow me to explain a couple of things. Firstly; know that I have zero experience in therapy. I have no doubt that the clinic can be seriously beneficial. Therapy works. However, the clinic also has the potential to be an unctuous moneyleacher. Secondly; know that I have very little theoretical familiarity with psychology either. I must, therefore, be careful here. Know that I would take nothing away from those who have completed the degree. But what will you actually do with all of your psychological theoretics? As unqualified as I am, I think I can help with a spot of ‘conflict resolution’ here.

It’s a terribly kept secret that psychology departments are the largest departments in the university world. They attract huge numbers of students. Once was instead, that young adults,

“presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse with shaven heads and harlequin speech of suicide, demanding instantaneous lobotomy, and who were given instead the concrete void of insulin Metrazol electricity hydrotherapy psychotherapy occupational therapy pingpong & amnesia”

Nowadays, young adults are behind the doors of the madhouse… and will one day run it. Ginsburg, whose words those are, had many personal misgivings about psychotherapy, and the ultimate medicine of institutional imprisonment. Psychotherapy has an ugly history – as Michael Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation shows, it’s the history of the meanest gang of bullies that ever did get into the business of bullying. The problem separating ‘Madness’, or what psychologists concerned themselves with, from ‘Civilisation’, or what society thought constituted normality, was simple – it was a numerical gap. The only thing which separated those as queer as a clockwork orange from the awfulness of the Ludovico Technique was a football score. As Nathaniel Lee, a poet incarcerated at Bethlem, once said: “They said I was mad; and I said they were mad; damn them, they outvoted me.” In other words, reality is only what is most common to most people.

But you, my patient, are not on trial for the crimes of your profession’s past. Anyway, the game’s moved on since then. Nowadays, a more realistic concern might be how easy it would be for a psychotherapist to diagnose with cupidity (known sometimes as the principal-agent problem). As the Monty Python sketch goes: “Step through here, Mr. Knoblob, there’s nothing wrong with you that an expensive operation can’t prolong.” The point is that the clock-hand must at some point hit twelve and hour’s up. Then? – one patient replaces another patient, and another story beings. That! – rather than a conversation based on lived experience, between peers, with no timeframe, no guiding chequebook, with no pretence of authority? One is reminded of a line in De Prufundis, directed at the Victorian justice system:

“When the man’s punishment is over, it leaves him to himself; that is to say, it abandons him at the very moment when its highest duty towards him begins.”

Might this same problem hold for the modern clinic’s fast turnover of patients? Maybe. I don’t know. And even if it did, if a patient says the thing’s helping them, then that’s all that matters. But does this mean I must trust the average phycologist? That depends on whether a phycologist is honest about the service they’re providing.

The problem arises when psychology pretends to be something that it isn’t.

What this then comes down to is the theory behind the practice, because, without the theory, the practice of psychology is merely a conversation, and a conversation is not something for which a psychology degree is required. To avoid charlatanry, there must be a literature. Yet, as far as I can tell, some psychology courses seem reliant on set textbooks, meaning that students regurgitate surgically-masked gospel without having to gauge the merits or de-merits of their Gods for themselves.

The Psychology Gods are Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan (I will mostly deal with the latter of the two in this piece, and occasionally work backwards from Lacan to Freud, because that is what reading Lacan apparently necessitates). Ostensibly, Freud and Lacan are utterly at odds. Freud is biological. Lacan is anti-biological. Freud searches out primal instincts. Lacan searches out textual complexes. Take the sexual urge as an example. Freud has penis envy, and the joys of long lost imaginary castration. Lacan has Lamella, or whatever the hell that is – a flat alien sort of thing that bursts from out of our chests? – apparently. Lacan’s eros is a particularly confusing concept, because while it is not located in a mental sphere nor is it mapped onto the body’s erogenous zones. Where, then, does that leave it? I don’t have a clue. Well, I do. But I never once understood what that bloody diagram meant…

Freud and Lacan’s oppositions mean they can never be wedded, but they do share a similar two-step when it comes to understanding us and our interaction with the world. This two-step is as follows… Freud is intelligible, but mostly wrong… and Lacan is unintelligible, and therefore mostly useless.

Freud had The Id, The Ego, The Super Ego; plastic triangulations which tried to pinpoint, dissect and connect moments of inner conflict. Lacan, to make sense of things, had The Imaginary, The Symbolic, and The Real. Lacan’s ‘The Imaginary Order’ is not the world of our imagination, it is rather the world of our perception. Language does not come into ‘The Imaginary Order’, things are either the subject or they are the object; they either are you, or they are not you. ‘The Symbolic Order’ is the realm we think we associate with every day, that of language and signposts, a word of social stratas and gender boundaries; a world, now, with a plurality of differences. Then we have what Lacan called the ‘The Real’. ‘The Real’ is incomprehensible. I shall not try and describe it in my own words. Sean Homer described it as, “that which resists symbolisation” – it is the undefinable, beyond the rules, impossible to imagine, that which is outside symbolisation, an “excluded centre”. Confused? This is Lacan at his most understandable. And no matter how right Lacan is about these realms of reality, or the ambiguity of whatever else he concerns himself with at any given moment, if he cannot communicate his truth(s), then what’s the point?

I can get on board with ‘The Real’. Remember what was said earlier? – that ‘Reality’ is only ever what is most common to most people. If this is true, then theories close the openness of the world. You say that something isn’t, I say something is. If Lacan is right, and reality exists on multiple levels, in the mind as well as in the world outside, then ‘Reality’ as we use it is never a useful term. An interesting idea then, to replace it with ‘The Real’. But it’s just an idea. It isn’t provable that ‘The Real’ exists. Lacan doesn’t propose a test, and, given this, I take issue with Lacan calling himself an “analyst”. The term has scientific connotations. He is not an analyst – for what does he analyse? His theories are philosophies. They are not provable to the same degree. This is not a bad thing – in fact, strip Lacan of the title ‘analyst’ and he starts to acquire a likeable mysticism.

Let me clarify. I believe in rationality. Of course I do. I do absolutely. What I question is whether rationality is always useful when it comes to understanding yourself.

To explore how psychology can come into conflict with this, let’s look at IQ. Jordan Peterson, phycologist at Toronto University, discusses in one of his lectures how to “scientifically” predict how well people will do at university. He says that the two key components to this question are IQ, or intelligence, and the trait of conscientiousness. However, and as he himself admits, conscientiousness cannot really be known other than through hearsay: self-reports (that reliable source) and peer reviews (and whatever do we really know about one another? – I’m often called a hair-brained bum and a thoughtful thinker all in the same hour and by the same person). Then there’s IQ. IQ tests, which Peterson claims do work in calculating someone’s intelligence, are based what he calls – “practical utility.” Peterson starts with this to justify the psychometric regressive equations which are used in IQ tests to account for all the different strands of intelligence(s), – as he says about practical utility, “if intelligence isn’t associated with university success, then you are probably not talking about intelligence.” Peterson says it would be “daft” to argue with this (although he does leave room for other influencing factors such as privilege or socio-economic status). But must intelligence always conform to university assessments, or, on a larger scale, to society overall? It is an error, I think, to think that utility is an easy way into intelligence. The relationship is more complex than that, for although intelligence probably produces utility, utility might not be conducive to intelligence. Must procrastination and industriousness be in opposition to one another? Might an intelligent person not desire to be bored? Presumably any such wishes fall under what Peterson would label irresponsible intellectual nihilism and its baggage of, to use his words, “sloth and cynicism.” Peterson says that you have a choice: either everything you do matters, or nothing you do matters. In his mind there is only one moral path: the one in which we don’t throw the world away. But forget morality, which is more beautiful? And which is true (remember that Peterson hates postmodernism, and yet here he suddenly neglects this essential question). Would it matter, if nothing you did mattered?

My point is, the psychologist’s tendency is to ask the easy question – so, of course, there is an easy answer. Measuring intelligence, though, is not an easy question. In the field of psychometrics, standardised IQ tests measure intelligence only insofar as their operational definition of intelligence allows them to – but it is the definition of intelligence which is the difficult and central question. David Weschler’s definition of intelligence is “the global capacity of a person to act purposefully, to think rationally, and to deal effectively with his environment.” This definition seems to me more to do with an ability to cope with the rigors of society, then it does to do with anything biological. Many brainy chaps have failed to cope with society; Issac Newton, a most freakishly intelligent man, was surely ‘mad’ by all accounts. Weschler’s definition says: “to think rationally.” Interacting with reality, though, is not as easy as we might wish. Which reality? Whose? My guess is that intelligence, as a feature of the brain, (a highly complex organ, about which little is understood), is better left at this early point in its study to neuroscientists rather than phycologists. Scientific experiments predict that this solar eclipse will happen on this day, at this hour, in this place in the sky. Then it happens. Its predictive ability is outstanding, and from this theory is, to all reasonable lengths, proven. Psychology’s predictive ability in this field is not outstanding – all IQ can ever do is give an indication of intelligence, and all psychology undergraduates talk about is how all their behavioural tests were flunked – there’s a reason the Zimbardo and Milgrim experiments are known by all, it’s because they were exceptional; they asked a hard question, they achieved a hard answer.

Lacan’s use, therefore, is to observe that psychoanalysis is, more often than not, not a science. It can pretend to be (and pretending to be something it isn’t is the very problem) but it’s a delusion to expect even quasi-scientific results. However, Lacan also sees science as a paranoia, one which, in the most fermented poststructuralist tradition, has little connection with ‘truth’, (something which, paradoxically, seems to reconfirm psychoanalysis a scientific status). Lacan’s concern with the unconscious state is limited to the level of language used in a text, and he does not pretend otherwise. Lacan never proposes a program of therapy, and while he may have appreciated the role of the discussion in clinical practice, he did not have a school. A Lacanian clinic is an oxymoron; but the original problem with Lacan is not even a misappropriation, because the misappropriations are inevitable when Lacan is as exhausting to understand as he is, as impossible to read in isolation as he is, and as dependant as he is on an excess of unexplored presuppositions. “Most of you will have some idea of what I mean when I say – the unconscious is structured like a language.” Do I? We struggle enough with the idea of consciousness, never mind supposing that the unconscious is easy and obvious. From where does Lacan get this knowledge? And I’m still waiting for him to explain to me why it is that I should accept the idea, unfathomable as I find it, that the unconscious is something that opens and closes. Also, if the erogenous zones are not located at the groin, breast, or armpit, but are instead linked to the unconscious because, “it is there that the presence of the living being becomes fixed”, and yet at the same time the libido is not a force, but an organ… wait, what? Ah, but here Lacan escapes himself through what he calls the ‘myth of lamella’ (expanding upon Aristophanes’ myth, a myth far more beautiful and thought causing) which he uses to conclude that this libido organ is unreal. The best Lacan can do is to explain it as a manifestation – and this he does using the idea of getting a tattoo. He sees ‘scarification’ as having an “obviously erotic function.” All that comes to my mind are those purposely placed ‘Boner Garage’ tattoos…

Theory is important, because clinical practice is based on theory. It must be, otherwise all psychotherapy ever is is a conversation had with another human being. In the past, in some medical schools, psychiatry was taught as a neuroscience. Thankfully, since the work of RD Laing, those days are no more. We supposedly know what we’re getting into when we go to our therapist. Yet we advise each other, with righteous confidence, to probe our inner experiences, our perceptions, our imagination, even our dreams… we can thank Freud and his irritable mission for that. We do not stop to think whether the internal anarchy, the self-contradiction, the self-corruption, might be better explored on our own. As Aldo Busi said:

“Dreams have everything to lose by being interrupted, they end up relinquishing their secret substance and becoming the interpretation one gives them.”

The reaction against postmodernism is a necessary one, I think, and figures such as Jordan Peterson do serve as an over-corrective to it, but I still reserve a tender spot for Lacan, who appears interested, a bit, in the limits of representation, rather than the impossibility of it. But this is a voyage of worn discovery, and Lacan has much more to say besides, and as such Lacan is one who leaves little to no impression on the way we think about our lives. For my own perculiar lack of solace, I am far happier with existentialism that struggles to be existentialism, – with ‘Dasein’ in Heidegger’s Being and Time, and, better yet, with – ‘A Propos of the Wet Snow’ in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from an Underground, and, far better even still – with the last few pages in James Joyce’s The Dead.

Just whatever did Lacan mean by that diagram? I still don’t know; but neither do you. Maybe I should just buy Zizek’s Book, How to Read Lacan and actually learn how to read him, but to my mind I shouldn’t have to… if Lacan was worth it he should be fecund without fertiliser. And truth is, he isn’t. Or he isn’t in English. I state again: I am on uneven ground in writing this piece, for I don’t really know what I’m talking about (as you can probably tell by the way I’ve rambled on and on without any consideration for you, my reader patient turned patient reader, and by the way I’ve stuffed the thing with quotes from better writers); but, and as you should also be able to tell by now, that’s sort of the point.

What this is about then, is the people who pretend to know. Don’t be one of those people. If you do a psychology degree, do it properly while knowing that it isn’t a science. Understand all the risky practices of a therapist; long and short, brief and intensive, experimental, directive, non-directive; which conclude with the inevitable binary of the slow pill and the fast conversation in the sacred chair. Fine; musts must. Clinical psychology does a wonderful service for a lot of people. But the jobs are few and far between compared to the number of you walking around with the same degree, so don’t think you can simply drop the therapist and get away with that Guardian agony-aunt bullshit. ‘I’ve fallen in Love with a colleague – but I’m married with children’, asks someone to @AnnalisaB, who says back that they cannot possibly be in love and concludes (contemptibly) with: “I think you’ve created a fantasy to fill the void; I think finding out what that void is, is key.” Here’s to the quacks who tell already diazepamed patients how to live their lives and are impish enough to get paid for it. Here’s to the diazepamed ducks who placate their quacks and tell them how much they’ve improved since last Wednesday’s five-to-six simplification. But here’s also to the merciless geese, to those who adore life for its complexities, to those who prefer multiplication to division, to those who choose the beginnings of fairytales, rather than their endings.



The Psychiatrist


His role is to invert the fairy tale;

Too give the wakeful Beauty sleep,

Change back the charming Prince into a frog,

Or unmask him as the chimney sweep.

To him at last dear Cinderella,

And not Rapunzel, must let down her hair,

Yield up the hopeless fetish of the shoe

And much of what was dreamt below the stair.

Don’t ask him tritely can he heal himself.

Hope rather that his private dream

For living happily forever after

Be not the fantasy that it may seem:

A village where the hunter’s evening stride

Betrays no more of strutter than of hobbler;

And Cinderella sleeps content beside

The kind and well-adjusted cobbler.



written by Sweetie

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