Conundrums: a critique of contemporary psychoanalysis

conundrum imageBookREVIEW

Jon Mills

New York: Routledge 2012.

(Paperback/e-book) pp242


Reviewer Vivian de Villiers

‘Conundrums’ is an interesting word with a variety of definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. Perhaps “a riddle in the form of a question the answer to which involves a play on words or a pun” is the best for our purposes. Mills acknowledges that his book will be controversial and he clearly does not shy away from difficult questions to which there may be no definitive answer. He states in the preface that he attempts in the book to highlight the merits and shortcomings of contemporary psychoanalytic practice. He points out that his criticism is from the inside out rather than the more common experience in which the usual suspects criticize psychoanalysis from the outside in. In Mills’ opinion the profession continues to foster a guild mentality that supports the acceptance of an unquestionable dogma that does not encourage self-critique. He says that he offers his reflections with the hope that the psychoanalytic community will take a more conciliatory attitude towards encouraging a positive development of the profession.

Mills believes that ‘contemporary analysts are reacting to the paternal indoctrination of classical training and what it symbolizes’.  Personally I agree with him. He sees contemporary psychoanalysis as an organized micro-revolution against the oppressive paternal authority represented by classic psychoanalysis that enforces submission and a lack of independent thought. He considers that this should not be seen as Oedipal acting out (p. xiii). Mills uses the term ‘contemporary psychoanalysts’ where the equivalent term here in the UK would be ’contemporary psychotherapists’.

I think that Mills is making an important contribution in asking what is understood by the relational, postmodern and inter-subjective perspectives that have become relatively dominant at present compared with classic psychoanalysis. The book considers (a) the philosophical underpinnings of contemporary theory, (b) its theoretical relation to traditional psychoanalytic thought, (c) clinical implications for therapeutic practice, (d) political and ethical ramifications of contemporary praxis, and (e) its intersection with points of consilience that emerge from these traditions. (p. xi ).

Mills sees this as the first book that offers a sustained critique of the current thinking that favours these relational, postmodern and inter-subjective perspectives that have gained prominence in North America while the Freudians have become marginalized. The difficulties, or conundrums, regarding multiple selves, dissociation and unconscious experience that arise in these models are discussed. However, he does prioritize his understanding, or ‘misunderstanding’, of what contemporary psychotherapists mean and he then argues against that. For example, he seems to say that multiple selves or self-states should be able to communicate with each other, and restates the value of the inter-subjective space after seemingly having said that contemporary psychotherapists had it wrong.  This includes when they seem to have disagreed with Mills’ interpretation of what they mean.

I found Mills, who reads Freud in the original German, very interesting when he relates contemporary psychoanalysis to Freud’s original thinking and his exploration of the question of drives versus relationality helpful. He defends Freud’s thinking against what he calls ‘illegitimate attacks on classic psychoanalysis’ very well in chapter three, including the social dimension of the classic theory. Mills feels that today’s relational psychotherapists have made a significant contribution by being more adept at customizing technique to fit each unique dyad and in treating the patient as a real person.

I found the first four chapters both interesting and, at times, informative while at the same time difficult reading. In chapter five, Contemporary Politics with sub-headings: The Historical Nastiness of Psychoanalytic Politics, and Dissidence, Complicity, and The Will to Courage, Mills starts with a short overview of some of the dynamics around Freud and the schisms still present. He refers to Melanie Klein, for example, having been called an ‘inspired gut butcher’, and mentions a considerable number of psychoanalysts such as Ferenczi, Kohut and Anna Freud who have received unfavourable criticisms.

A considerable section of chapter five is devoted to a conflict between Mills and members of The Relational School after a lecture he gave in 2005 led to immediate controversy. This seems to be still heated and I feel that Mills could be considered unnecessarily divisive and that his use of philosophical arguments at times obfuscates rather than clarifies.

In conclusion I would recommend this book, particularly the first four chapters, given that Mills gives clear and interesting insights regarding classic psychoanalysis and the comparison with contemporary views and practice. He also gives some interesting historical insights into the development of psychoanalysis. I would suggest keeping a dictionary to hand when reading this book.

Vivian de Villiers has a MBBCh degree from WITS and has worked in general practice and diagnostic radiology in South Africa and in psychiatry and general practice in New Zealand. In the UK he qualified as a group analyst and is a full member of the Institute of Group Analysts (IGA). He has worked in the treatment of addictions for 14 years, the past 12 years in the NHS, and has facilitated staff support groups in the NHS as well as experiential training groups of psychotherapy students at the London Centre for Psychotherapy and the Minster Centre, London.


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