Adam Phillips (2002) Equals

London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 057120970X

The Equality of Equals: Reflections on Adam Phillips’ Book on Psychoanalysis and Democracy

Rob Leventhal

Institutions and laws should be such as to secure and establish equality for all.

John Dewey, The Collected Works, Electronic Edition, ‘Freedom’

Adam Phillips’ new book Equals is unevenly divided up between essays on psychoanalysis and democracy, readings of texts — above all those of Primo Levi and Emmanuel Ghent — and psychoanalytic character analyses of people like Russell, Trilling, Isherwood, as well as fictional characters like the evil Jewish hypnotist and mesmerizer Svengali in Du Maurier’s novel Trilby.

Phillips piques the interest of the reader with turns in phrasing rather than systematic argument. There is always something else going on when we talk about caring or act in a caring manner. Trying to avoid the Oedipal Complex is the Oedipal Complex. We enjoy our inhibitions as much as they hurt us because they offer us (false) security against the things we fear the most: change, shame, and death. These interesting turns of phrase exemplify a type of turn of psychoanalysis for which Adam Phillips has gained the reputation as the enfant terrible of the profession. Often repudiated by the psychoanalytic community in Britain, to which he does not officially belong — he is neither a member of the British Psychoanalytic Society and Institute for Psychoanalysis nor the International Psychoanalytic Association — Phillips is well-known for his essays on such diverse subjects and authors as flirtation and monogamy, E.M. Forster, child development, Winnicott, and intimacy. Wherever he moves, Freud is always present either explicitly in quotation and reference or as a shadow-figure through which Phillips weaves his web of questions and dilemmas. But he is equally adept at quoting Kafka, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and Proust as he is Freud.

If we graft Phillips’ maneuvers onto the terms of political discourse, we might say that there is always something elitist, hierarchical, aggressive, perhaps even dictatorial in the most egalitarian of structures. Democracy disguises our libidinal, forbidden tendencies. When we proclaim equality and liberal ideals, we forget, or claim to disregard, why we are seduced by power. In the very assertion of liberal ideals we are claiming something that exceeds and, indeed, questions and threatens the egalitarian content. Instead of asking about how power works in the institution and practice of psychoanalysis, however, and why the practice of democracy is almost always tainted with non-egalitarian desires, wishes, and fantasies, Adam Phillips inquires as to the possibilities of a discourse of, about and in psychoanalysis that is supposed to provide a model of what freedom and equality might look like when we realize just how difficult and contentious values and valuing are.

It is not merely freedom from (escape, diversion, circumvention, euphemism) that concerns Phillips (although that was the subject of a previous book by Phillips, Houdini’s Box: The Art of Escape [2001]), but also freedom to bear what we were previously unable to that interests him: the freedom to listen to things that might have been unbearable, or considering possibilities that might have been inconceivable. He is interested in redescribing characteristics, desires or flaws in ourselves that allow us to change the ways in which we experience ourselves and others. Specifically, he wants to understand, firstly, how these things have prohibited us from fulfilling our dreams, wishes and preferences; secondly, how we have compensated for gaps and deficiencies in our memories and understandings through adaptive behaviors; and, finally, and more significantly, how we can open up to these possibilities in the face of disturbing qualities of ourselves of which we are ashamed or which we find abject.

For Phillips, it isn’t just that what we prefer is itself contentious and up for grabs; it is the very idea of preference, of choice and decision, that is fraught with conflicting meanings, and riven or split for and within us. The question why I choose to do X rather than Y is a moral, but also a psychological question, a question about motivation and avoidance, a question about inhibition and freedom, a question, at a very basic level, about who we are and what we wish to become, not merely about what we think is right and good. What we think is right and good may play a role, even at times a controlling role, but such conscious distinctions are, for Phillips and for anyone who thinks psychoanalytically, only half the story.

The other half is the unconscious or, rather, the cauldron of unconscious desires, feelings, anxieties, obsessions and compulsions that in a sense constitute who we really are, and that shape our ability to use our conscious, reflexive power to understand what we are doing. Josiah Royce is supposed to have once remarked to a student: ‘My idea of Heaven would be to know the complete meaning of anything I was doing at a particular moment in time.’ While not intended as a definition of the psychoanalytic process, it describes the ethos of psychoanalysis precisely.

Phillips’ book is really supposed to be a book about the ethics and politics of psychoanalysis. Never mind the glaring inconsistencies and over-the-top readings — the idea that there is no master in the psychoanalytic session (Phillips thinks that the analyst and analysand are in some sense on the same footing), the claim that listening is somehow a privileged and fundamentally democratic process (as if the notion of listening is not itself ambiguous and fraught with ulterior motives), the view that Auschwitz was a savagely cruel and sadistic joke, a sign of the culture of mockery and ridicule (his reading of Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz). What is really at stake here is whether there is really an ethics of psychoanalysis, or whether psychoanalysis permits or even provides an ethics in anything but a trivial sense of ‘making oneself a better person’ (which of course begs the ethical question: what does it mean to be a better person? To be more honest with one’s self and others, or to be more kind and considerate to one’s fellow human beings?). Phillips attempts to persuade us that psychoanalysis – insofar as it implies and encourages a pluralistic arena, including paradox, conflict, and constitutive difference – either provides a model for ethics or is an implied ethics itself.

The other question that looms large in this collection of essays is: Is there a politics of psychoanalysis? First, we should distinguish between psychoanalysis as a clinical practice and psychoanalysis as a kind of discourse that enables discussions of all sorts of cultural and political objects. Phillips would have us undo this distinction. What happens in the psychoanalytic session and what happens in normal conversation and everyday life is not all that different, indeed, these two types of events impinge on and interact with each other. According to Phillips, everyday life and human institutions are replete with the quirks, inconsistencies, and puzzles of psychoanalysis. Yet he says and knows that the psychoanalytic clinical arena is by its very nature a very distinct and highly structured discursive situation: it’s the only one where, at least according to the rules, no sex is possible. In the psychoanalytic encounter, intimacy without sex is the name of the game. Further, psychoanalysis allows for only unidirectional intimacy, where the patient tells and the analyst listens. And even in Phillips’ privileged notion of ‘free listening,’ we would have to discern various types of listening, various degrees of participatory listening – from the detached allowing-it-to-emerge to the almost intrusive interpretive interjections. Finally, the psychoanalytic dialogue is, ideally at least, in contradistinction to other aspects of our lives, free of coercion in any form.

There is something democratic about psychoanalysis, Phillips believes. He recalls Bion’s and Rickman’s work with victims of trauma, and Lacan’s observations of the discursive situation of these post-war sessions, which culminated in a published report. The battle of internal voices, and allowing those voices to do battle without preliminary elimination or squelching, mirrors democracy’s ability to allow the multiple voices be heard, without deciding in advance what is right or who will win the day: ‘superiority over one’s interlocutor is not guaranteed in advance.’ Phillips also enlists Chantal Mouffe’s radical democratic theory of a free society without mastery and without absolute foundations: ‘Psychoanalysis as a treatment and as an experience, like democracy as a political process, allows people to speak and be heard.’ (15) In psychoanalysis, free association expands what may appear or come to the fore, just as ‘democracy extends the repertoire of possible conflict.’ (21) Just as the paradoxical and elusive ‘basis ‘ of democracy is freedom, so the paradoxical basis of psychoanalysis is the paradoxical and elusive unconscious, not something that can be mastered (123). He describes a possible psychoanalysis that declared itself democratic in intent as being about ‘. . . the difficulties each person has in identifying with democratic values’ (28), in other words, as somehow realizing we are all subject to flawed and incomplete understanding, to anti-democratic and non-egalitarian desires, and therefore all subject to the same ethical pitfalls psychoanalysis seeks to bring to articulation.

But is this not simply a category mistake, and both with respect to psychoanalysis as a clinical practice and as a cultural discourse? Is Phillips merely saying that psychoanalysis and democracy are analogous? That they each provide an example of what he calls an ‘equality of listening’? I think he is trying to say more than that, namely, that psychoanalysis offers a model of discourse free from mastery that should be the object of democratic exchange. However, in the psychoanalytic session, surely the distorted voices of the patient don’t have the same weight and usefulness as insightful interpretations; they are helpful only to the extent that they lead to the latter, or provide access to some form of understanding. In the discourse of psychoanalysis in our culture, the supposedly different voices are all, in a sense, voices of the same, tortured soul, be it that of the analysand, or that of the character in a novel, or a film, but they are hardly equal in the sense that they have the same capability to convince us. The voices out there in real existing societies are individuals or groups so unconsciously interested and invested, so wed to certain dispositions and beliefs, and so dependent, materially and psychologically, that it really becomes a question of who has the power, and who holds the information?

There is another important difference between psychoanalysis and democracy. While the information emerges in the course of the psychoanalytic encounter — the material that presents itself in the course of the analysis as the content that will be worked-through, analyzed, and finally diminished in the advanced process of transference, the information that is precious to real democracies is itself a form of capital and a commodity, controlled by large corporations and media machines. Sure, listening can be free, but what we are listening to is not, in any sense. Phillips doesn’t think much about the problem of media and democracy, nor about the difficulties this problem introduces for advanced postmodern consumer societies where motivation, fantasy and desire are shaped on the endless projection screens of entertainment, advertisement, fashion, sports and celebrity.

The form and content of the media can become the subjects of psychoanalytic talk, and psychoanalysis itself has certainly become a topic for the media. But what occurs in the psychoanalytic arena writ small — the clinical practice of psychoanalysis on the one hand, and the transferential and projectional processes in the reception and dissemination of media on the other – are, I would say, two very different things. The point is that such transferential and projectional processes are supposed to be made explicit and become articulated in the psychoanalytic clinical endeavor, while they remain largely unconscious and subliminal in the cultural machine and apparatus. When they don’t, and when they are exposed — as in cultural studies and criticism — they are thought to lose their symbolic and rhetorical force. If we are giving a critique of a Spielberg film, we hopefully aren’t under its spell. In other words, the intended effect of the media is largely dependent on not making the unconscious and hidden elements explicit, on us suspending critical reflection and allowing the film or play to achieve its effect.

Psychoanalysis writ large, that is, psychoanalysis as a certain way of talking and thinking about culture and society, is just one more discourse among many. It might be useful, but it doesn’t have a special status above other forms of criticism. It’s simply another (at times) useful tool. I think even Phillips would want to say this if he is to keep a pluralistic and democratic sense of conflicting and often competing ways of talking about things. Psychoanalysis doesn’t have any privileged status, nor does it offer any privileged information. As Phillips puts it in his Preface to Terrors and Experts, ‘. . .psychoanalysis can be one of these languages. Fortunately, there are plenty of others; no one language has a monopoly on ignorance’ (xvi). As a clinical practice and as a cultural language, though, it has evolved into a model of what an open discourse might be, not free of prejudice, interest, desire, aggression and conflict, but a way of making explicit and articulating the politically incorrect, forbidden, or dangerous areas of our minds, even if such explication and articulation is incomplete and flawed, and even if the unconscious is always close at hand working even harder to tell us something other than what we thought.’ In the sense Phillips uses the term ‘free’, psychoanalysis is about freedom to talk about the repressed and often uncomfortable parts of being human, and freedom to listen to or bear talking about them.

The final question might be: why ‘equality’ at all? Why not just the agonistic, conflicted and conflictual clashing between preferences, dispositions, views of what is right and worthwhile to do and to pursue? Why not forget about equality altogether? Phillips is too much of a relativist to think there is something intrinsically or essentially good or worthwhile about equality and egalitarianism; he’s too much of a pragmatist to think that equality is somehow fundamentally tied to being human. He’s too postmodern to believe naively in a narrative of the humanities and the idea that there are certain basic, core human values, and that the human sciences, or psychoanalysis for that matter, help us get closer to those core values. But he does think that equality is somehow connected to humanistic values, and that psychoanalysis both exemplifies and instructs us in those values. You don’t have to be an essentialist or realist to hold some humanistic values, just an optimist. And perhaps a romantic.

From its diverse roots in the Enlightenment, the Jewish doctrine of redemption (without there necessarily being a redeemer), and Romanticism, psychoanalysis as an institution has really never ceased being esoteric, romantic, and elitist. Even with the calls for its ‘democratization’ in Marcuse and Lacan, its ‘radicalization’ with R.D. Laing in the 60s, and its release from orthodoxy by Deleuze in the 70s (although Deleuze is not really taken up in psychoanalytic literature), it has remained by and large a conservative discipline in the sense that its primary function is restorative, integrative, conciliatory. Not only have both the clinical practice and the discourse of psychoanalysis been historically for and by the privileged and the affluent members of society (just attend a psychoanalytic meeting, or a Modern Language Association session on ‘Psychoanalysis and _______’); it has had a distinctly conservative and adaptive ethos to restore the individual to a productive, law-abiding, and responsible citizen. As Freud put it, the purpose of analysis was to diminish the paralyzing neurosis in order to empower the individual to engage in the everyday miseries of life; to be able to work and to love. The restructuring of the inter-psychic world and then the reintegration of the neurotic patient into society as a functional individual would be, for many, one of the goals of psychoanalysis. Freud was clear that life itself was full of unresolved and unresolvable conflict, aggression, pain, and suffering; he simply thought that in order to fully experience it as such, with all of its joys and sorrows, we first had to understand and then place in perspective all of the underlying causes of our own psychic suffering.

So, if Dewey is correct — and I think he is — that political equality has not only to do with equal opportunity and treatment before the administration of the law, but equally or even more with the ability of our political and cultural institutions — and this would include psychoanalysis — to provide and establish equality for all, then what we need to reflect upon is the real disjunction between the discipline, practice and discourse of psychoanalysis and liberal, democratic theories of equality. The only way we can even begin to address this gap is to critique the collusion between psychoanalysis and the ambiguities of political liberalism and modernity itself, including class, gender, and racial disparities, the (in-)equality of care and treatment, and the opportunity for treatment of all those in need of treatment. Only then will there truly be a politics of psychoanalysis, and an ethics of equality within the psychoanalytic profession.

Equality is not a only metaphor (although it is that, too); it also concerns contingent social relations of real existing individuals living in an advanced capitalist society based on power, gender, race and class, a society that values the bottom-line and individual liberty more than it does real equality before the law, and more than it does equality within our political and cultural institutions. Psychoanalysis has, for the most part, believed itself to be apolitical, and Freud was skeptical about the ability of psychoanalysis to be able to affect anything more than the neurotic individual, and perhaps foster a kind of useful dialogue within society about what it means to be human. Phillips, together with the contemporary literary transformation of Freud, still invests far too much in the notion that the statements of psychoanalysis are simply ‘phases in dispute,’ a play of words, conflicting voices or discourses, useful redescriptions or ‘fictions’ of the self, matters of rhetoric and persuasion. They are — but they are also much, much more. When psychoanalysis realizes this — as Italo Calvino said about literature, it may all be just different levels, but it’s the reality of the levels that counts — and begins to undertake the painful task of working-through its own history of inequities and inequalities, its own exclusionary and prejudicial tendencies and practices through a social and critical history of itself as an institution, only then will it be possible for it to become the ethical and democratic practice Phillips writes about in Equals.

Phillips is often referred to as the unorthodox and irreverent psychoanalytic essayist who places psychoanalysis much closer to literature and life than the established institution and profession. He is heading up the new Penguin translation/edition of Freud, which will supposedly release Freud from the scientific interpretation of the Strachey translation (itself in the process of revision by another group of Freud scholars). Phillips juxtaposes the ‘enlightenment Freud’ to the ‘post-Freudian Freud’ in his book Terrors and Experts. But we cannot escape the demands of rigorous argument altogether in favor of invention, for that would be just another attempt at circumventing the Oedipal complex. To the degree that Phillips is (unconsciously?) complicitous in and colludes with some of psychoanalysis’ more institutional prejudices — nowhere are the real inequalities of the profession and the institution addressed — he would probably agree that Equals is a first provocation and installment on the subject of psychoanalysis and democratic values, and that there is still much more work to be done.


Phillips, A. (1995) Terrors and Experts. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rob Leventhal gained his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1982. He taught at Washington University (1982-86) and University of Virginia (1986-1995). He is the author of The Disciplines of Interpretation: Lessing, Herder, Schlegel and Hermeneutics in Germany 1750-1800 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1994) and Reading after Foucault: Institutions, Disciplines, and Technologies of the Self 1750-1830 (Detroit: Wayne State, 1994). He has written articles on Kant, Vico, Heidegger, Thomas Bernhard, C.G. Heyne, and Wim Wenders.