Amy Allen, Critique on the Couch: Why Critical Theory Needs Psychoanalysis. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020; 280 pages. ISBN: 978-0231198615.

Reviewed by Kathy Kiloh, OCAD University.

In Critique on the Couch: Why Critical Theory Needs Psychoanalysis, Amy Allen makes a strong case for the relevance of psychoanalysis to any project that seeks to advance the work initiated by the first generation of Frankfurt School theorists. The cheeky title implies a necessary psychoanalysis of critical theory itself. Second-generation Frankfurt School theory (represented here by Jürgen Habermas, as well as more recent work by Axel Honneth and Robin Celikates) is diagnosed with an over-investment in rationality. As Allen has it, such social and political theories are therefore not realistic estimations of how human subjects behave. First-generation critical theorists are on the couch here as well. Allen presents Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization as utopian wish fulfilment rooted in a violent desire—namely, the desire to dominate the death drive itself. When Allen’s attentions turn to Theodor Adorno’s critical theory, she seems somewhat less interested in what a psychoanalytical reading of the theory reveals. Instead, she presents Adorno’s theories as compatible with those of Melanie Klein. By supplementing Adorno’s philosophy with Klein’s metapsychology, obstacles that derail his critique are removed, and the promise of his theory is fulfilled.

The overarching question that connects this text and its companion volume, The End of Progress, is both thorny and topical: how can critical theory aid us in the analysis of our contemporary social and political situation, given not only the historical specificity of its foundational ideas, but also its uneasy relationship to a discourse about progress and development that positions non-European cultures in a hierarchy arranged under the category of “the primitive”? Allen argues that critical theory is still a valuable resource, provided we understand it in its own historical context(s) and actively seek out ways to improve upon it. Allen’s primary argument is that critical theory needs psychoanalysis because without it, critical theory is unaware how much it is under the sway of phantasy. Allen argues that Klein’s “conception of the person…tempers” critical theory’s “tendencies toward normative idealization and disrupts its developmental schemas.” (24) Analyzing the prevalence of development narratives in Enlightenment philosophy as a phantastical projection may be useful for what it reveals about the darkness at the heart of European modernity. But Allen suggests that we must go beyond this, if critical theory is to contribute to social transformation. Critical theory must adopt a new model of progress, and Allen nominates Klein’s theory of ego integration and creativity as reparation.

The first three chapters of Allen’s book are dedicated to outlining Klein’s metapsychology and arguing for its relevance to critical theory. The first chapter makes the case for the realism of Klein’s theory, which centres on primary aggression and reconceptualizes Freudian drive theory, positioning drives as “relational passions” (34) rather than biological impulses. In chapter two, Allen argues that Klein’s theory of ego integration provides us with a sense of what Adorno’s non-reified consciousness might look like. Chapter three looks to Klein’s positional model of the self as an extension of what Joel Whitebook (in Freud: An Intellectual Biography) has termed Freud’s “unofficial position” on progress, i.e., the idea that there is a death drive inherent to all organic life that prevents us from ever achieving the goal of creating a peaceful society. Allen argues that in order for psychoanalysis to be a useful resource for critical theory, “its residual developmental Eurocentric racism will have to be confronted and worked through.” (90) Allen suggests that Freud’s own position in his late work Civilization and its Discontents ultimately subverts developmental models of progress and by doing so, makes space for, but does not itself deliver, new ways of conceiving of growth, integration, and reconciliation. Specifically, Freud’s theory of the death drive reveals that normativity is rooted in aggression, and this calls “into question the conception of freestanding normativity from which judgments of civilizational progress would have to be made.” (111) In other words, Freud’s unofficial position on progress “offers a radical epistemological critique of the very idea of reading history teleologically.” (121)

In Klein’s revision of drive theory, the drives are not treated as biological impulses, but rather as affective cathexes and rejections that are both intrapsychic and intersubjective in their origin and manifestation. The infantile self, for Klein, is not a self-reliant and narcissistic bundle of biological impulses, as it is for Freud. Rather for Klein, as for Jacques Lacan, the rudimentary ego is relational all the way down. This conception of ego formation, Allen suggests, avoids fetishizing the narcissistic primitive relation to an “archaic mother” while recognizing that the self is often driven to destruction, because it is easily overwhelmed by the demand to make sense of itself as a coherent being in relation to diverse objects.

Rather than the Freudian model, in which ego learns to dominate id, with drives being repressed, sublated and deflected, Klein offers a theory in which the ego moves fluidly through two different phases: the immature paranoid-schizoid position and the mature depressive position. She thus abandons the Freudian developmental model of the psyche that remained central for the first generation of the Frankfurt School. The paranoid-schizoid position presents as immature, because it is motivated by fear and anxiety associated with a lack of ego integration. Because of this, it is ruled by an aversion to ambiguity. In this position, the ego projects a simplified view of reality, splitting objects into “good” and “bad.” The classic example Klein provides is the infant who perceives a “good” breast, providing comfort and nourishment and a “bad” breast that frustrates and withholds. The depressive position is inaugurated by the realization that the “good” and “bad” object are one and the same. This mature position is thus dedicated to a process of mourning and integration in which contradictions are tolerated, managed, and understood. Creativity is born out of a desire to make reparations—out of the guilt associated with the realization that one has demonized the beloved object, thereby wronging it. Crucially, Klein does not treat movement between these positions as unilinear or definitive; in working through difficult psychic material, one might move between these positions multiple times, and the work of ego integration is never fully complete. This schema maps well on to the first generation’s critique of Enlightenment thinking; the tradition itself is stuck in a paranoid-schizoid position, and reconciliation is dependent upon a move to a reparative depressive position.

For Freud himself, the identification of a death drive inherent to human beings ultimately meant that all the efforts we put towards the construction of civilization are futile. As Allen demonstrates in the fourth chapter, “The Cure Is That There Is No Cure: Psychoanalysis and the Idea of Progress,” this negative attitude towards the death drive extends into Marcuse’s vision of social progress as reliant upon overcoming the death drive by lessening repression, thereby making way for the free flowing of eros. This chapter is perhaps the most convincingly argued case for Klein’s relevance to critical theory in the book. Allen rejects Marcuse’s hypothesis that an enhanced aesthetic dimension allows the subject a happy embrace of polymorphous perversity without coming into conflict with social norms, thereby satisfying the pleasure principle, deflating the death drive, and initiating a complete reconciliation of individual and society. Instead, she turns to Klein’s reworking of Freud’s drive theory, in which, she argues, the death drive is not dominated, eliminated or pathologized, but is instead integrated into normal psychic functions. For Klein, unlike Marcuse, the aesthetic is not pressed into the service of eros as pleasure. Rather it is a forum for love as the work of mourning: the expression of a desire to make reparations for the damage caused by the death drive as manifested in the psychic splitting of objects in the paranoid-schizoid phase. For Klein, as for Lacan, the cure is that there is no cure—the death drive cannot be overcome. Love as creativity exists for the purpose of making reparations and working towards reconciliation. Progress, in a Kleinian mode, is not a goal, but an unending process.

This is also why, Allen argues, critical theory needs psychoanalysis, and specifically, Klein’s psychoanalytical theory: “Klein’s perspective offers important resources for understanding how we can deal with the death drive both ethically and politically.” (136) Allen suggests that while Freud and Marcuse both see the death drive as being opposed to ethics, with Klein we might better understand that ethics derives from the death drive. Citing Judith Butler’s Force of Nonviolence, Allen postulates that ethics is not reliant upon the superego’s self-repressive internalization of external demands, but that the urge to do good emerges out of the fact that we are driven to destruction. Progress, not as cure, but as the amelioration of the suffering caused by the demonization and idealization associated with splitting, is possible not in spite of the death drive, but because of it. Using Klein as her model, Allen argues for “an ethics of intersubjectivity and a realistic politics of nondomination” (148) that creatively attempts to repair the damage done to individuals and groups in the destructive process of psychic splitting. This is an extremely appealing thesis given the state of contemporary politics on our deeply damaged planet.

Perhaps the most compelling, but also the least clearly articulated part of Allen’s book is the fifth chapter: “Transference: Psychoanalysis and the Methodology of Critique.” There, Allen first argues that the second generation of Frankfurt School theorists misunderstands how psychoanalysis “works,” imagining that it leads to rational insight about one’s objective conditions. Citing Freud, she argues instead that self-understanding is achieved in psychoanalysis through an affective working through of the transference—the relation of intimacy between analysand and analyst. Transference allows the analysand to feel the unique manner in which they experience the world through affective connections. This reveals their own experience to be entirely contingent and therefore transformable. Next, Allen suggests that this affective dynamic plays out in the model of critical theory practiced by Adorno, but she also implies that Adorno’s efforts in this regard are impeded by his adherence to a psychic model that requires the rational ego to dominate the irrational unconscious id. Because of his investment in this psychic model, Adorno is never able to get beyond the notion of the exceptional individual, a beyond that his philosophy seems to desire.

Allen thus surmises that if we treat analysis (on the level of the individual) and social critique as analogous structures, and do so with a proper understanding of how psychoanalysis actually “works,” then the critical theorist is not treated as an exceptional individual imbued with a stronger capacity for reason than most individuals. Instead, as Allen writes,

…to establish something like a transference relationship in the context of critical theory would mean simply to bring into view, through the interaction between critical theorists and social actors, the actors’ distinctive, idiosyncratic way of experiencing the world as precisely that: a way of experiencing the world that they themselves have had a hand in constituting. Doing so thus reveals this structure of experience as something that is open to practical transformation. (171)

But the question of what constitutes this “interaction between critical theorists and social actors” is unfortunately left open and rather abstract. My sense is that Allen sees this relation as performative in Adorno’s model of critical theory. This would mean that a specific type of affective relationship is established in the process of reading as well as in writing critical theory. As personalized and idiosyncratic as it is—I’m thinking here in particular of the confessional mode of his Minima Moralia, for example—Adorno’s methodology positions the critical theorist as social actor, insofar as it is the personal experience of the theorist herself that is being placed under scrutiny. If I am right about Allen’s intentions here, then I would suggest that this needs to be better articulated. Perhaps we need to mobilize Adorno’s conception of mimesis here to think about how the text might become a site of transference between readers and critical theorists.

In the concluding chapter, Allen recalibrates slightly, shifting away from the “metatheoretical reasons that critical theory needs psychoanalysis” (187) and towards an analysis that diagnoses contemporary politics as stuck in a paranoid-schizoid mode. She argues that critical theorists, by adopting a Kleinian framework, can learn how to “practice democratic politics in a more depressive mode.” (195) This would be a politics practiced with an awareness of affective ties and destructive tendencies, that would take reparation as its ultimate goal. Rather than a paranoid-schizoid politics marked by splitting, idealization and demonization, Allen hypothesizes that a Kleinian critical theory could help us learn to practice a politics capable of withstanding and integrating ambivalence and contradiction. Such a politics, it seems to me, might establish an environment in which we could encounter Adorno’s sense of reconciliation as an opening onto “the multiplicity of different things.” (ND, 6) This would make possible the solidarity between disparate groups and individuals that is so necessary yet seems so elusive in these times.


Additional Works Cited

Theodor Adorno (1997). Negative Dialectics, (tr.) E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum).