Milbank on Psychoanalysis


“Of course Lacanian psychoanalysis, and even psychoanalysis in general, claims to have “shown” that objects of desire are illusory. But in principle, since the desirable is both subjectively judged to be there and withheld from our presence, this could never be shown by any supposedly “critical” discourse. It follows that psychoanalysis is but the confessional box of atheism. And surprisingly, for a radical practice, it has to be paid for—revealing its historical alignment with sophistry rather than philosophy. Moreover, what one pays for is only a raking-over of what one already possesses—one’s own past; for if the orientation of desire is illusory, then salvation can only reside in adjusting one’s attitude to this past which is given and unchangeable. Of course real hope is here precluded. But what comes free, by contrast, is Catholic priestly council which suggests instead that real personal change is possible because one can act out of future aspiration towards goals that are real (“already there,” since underwritten by eternity) and therefore that one can actually remake one’s past by continuing to write the story (in word and action) in which it is situated. Psychoanalysis by contrast must subordinate narrative to fixed, unalterable synchronic paradigms” (Without Heaven There is Only Hell on Earth: 15 Verdicts on Zizek’s Response, 131).

I’m not sure where I want to start attacking this quote. Psychoanalysis is a confessional box for atheism? Really, this sounds like some rehashed Foucaultian critique. One doesn’t have to confess anything. Also, can one really pretend as if psychoanalysis is not radical simply because it charges a fee? As if the Catholic church doesn’t have a price. Not to mention Freud dreamed of socialized medicine. Also, psychoanalysis is not endless masturbation about one’s past. That is patently absurd. Especially if one looks towards more relational models of psychoanalysis, the entire focus is one the here and now transferential matrix between analyst/analysand. Psychoanalysis is not a hopeless enterprise. What could be more hopeful than the promise of an increased self-understanding coupled with an opportunity to fundamentally change one’s relational style? Psychoanalysis allows the unconscious to speak. Milbank claims that psychoanalysis is fixated on predictable narratives. I’m sorry, but again this is just blatantly false. Only reductionist, idiotic Freudians pretend that one can connect everything back to certain developmental stages or sexual instincts. The unconscious does not obey those kind of rules. Milbank would prefer psychoanalysis preach the goodness and eternity of heaven. Is he kidding? If one needs the illusion of heaven to motivate one to change, chances are slim anything will happen. This is without a doubt one of the most uncharitable dismissals of psychoanalysis that I’ve ever read written by a man completely unaware of the nuances of the complex field.

I’m also hoping to report back on Reinhard’s article entitled There is Something of One (God): Lacan and Political Theology.

Here’s a link to the latest issue of PT:


11 Responses to “Milbank on Psychoanalysis”

  1. Remy Says:

    I too immediately had the foucauldian association when I read this quote. Milbank’s struggling here. On the other hand, this quote should itself be subjected to psycho- criticism, which you have already drawn out (eg heaven/eternity as insurance, etc). It also seems to display a fantasmatic yearning for a fullness of the institutional church (priestly council?!)

    this is less a critique than an act of academic jouissance methinks.

  2. roland Says:

    Posted this over at Remy’s blog too:

    I am increasingly getting the sense that Milbank doesn’t read much these days – I mean read properly. His texts might have forests of references, but when he sounds forth on psychoanalysis, or Marx, or offers some undercooked opinion on Adam Kotsko, it becomes increasingly clear to me that he simply doesn’t take the time to read and understand. He thinks he has understood and gotten to the bottom of what is ‘really’ going on, but instead he simply looks increasingly silly.

    Ok, lots of increasing going on there, but you get the picture

  3. Jeremy Says:

    I just don’t really understand what he’s doing with the criticism of fees. When did psychoanalysis ever claim to be radical? I suspect this is directed towards Zizek, but Zizek doesn’t even conduct psychoanalysis. There’s so much wrong with this quote. If he was just criticizing psychoanalysis, it would be one thing. But, when he pretends that somehow the Catholic priestly council holds the key to curing mental illness, I just assume he’s in bad faith.

  4. Alex Says:

    If anything, psychoanalysis is about retelling creatively your own past. Indeed, many other theologians have pointed out this is why it is similar to Christianity/confession! What he is saying confession does is how most schools of psychoanalysis believe the ‘cure’ works.

  5. Jeremy Says:

    I recognize the similarities, but I disagree with you that this is what most schools of psychoanalysis believe. For instance of the major psychoanalytic schools (drive, ego, self, object relations, Lacanian, relational, intersubjective), I suspect only drive and ego psychologist might advocate that position. Unsurprisingly, those two schools are also probably the least popular of the many different variants out today (at least in America). This is why I emphasized the relational analysts who stress the transference in analysis along with the internalized objects that are often repeated in different relationships. They don’t spend times looking for genetic explanations for the development of symptoms (e.g. some childhood trauma with a symptom that developed 20 years later, think of the wolfman). With regards to Lacan, any sort of rehashing of the past as some sort of fixed narrative would have to be dismissed as an imaginary construction.

    Freud’s major discovery was understanding the logic of the unconscious. The developmental stages while important, are not the pivot on which the theory rotates. Analysis opens a space for the unconscious to speak. People who criticize analysis as being obsessed with the ‘past’ have clearly not read any analytic literature in the last 40 years.

  6. Dave Mesing Says:

    Can someone enlighten me on the Foucaultian critique?

    I agree with what Roland is saying. To put it another way, if a grad student or recent grad with no track record said something like this, they would be immediately written off. I’ve seen at least four or five different instances where Milbank needs to be, simply, written off.

  7. Jeremy Says:

    I would refer you to Foucault’s Introduction to the History of Sexuality. Foucault basically believed challenged the Freudian repressive hypothesis, namely that sexual drives were repressed in the 19th century. Foucault instead argues that there was proliferation of discourses about sexuality strongly challenging Freud’s repressive hypothesis.

    Foucault, “Rather than the uniform concern to hide sex, rather than the general prudishness of language, what distinguishes these last three centuries is the variety, the wide dispersion of devices that were invented for speaking about it, for having it be spoken about, for inducing it to speak of itself, for listening, recording, transcribing, and redistributing what is said about it….Rather than massive censorship, beginning with the verbal proprieties of the Age of Reason, what was involved was a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse” (The History of Sexuality Volume 1, 34).

    It’s just confirming in my mind why the New Atheists are more and more justified with their critiques of religion (even if they are banal and immature). If theologians can shit on atheists without a second thought, is it really fair for believers to demand a fair treatment of Christianity?

    Also here’s a response from Zizek concerning Foucault’s position.

  8. Dave Mesing Says:

    Thanks for the quote. I’m not familiar with Foucault, but I’m going on a visit to a school and probably will sit in on a Foucault class, so I figure I might as well get up to speed any way I can.

    I tend to agree with what you are saying w/r/t the New Atheists, but I’m not sure Milbank is representative of anything but Milbank and the small handful of scholars who would self-identify as RO. I don’t find anything being done by the New Atheists to be philosophically interesting, except for maybe some stuff by Dennett, but that isn’t really my bad. Increasingly, RO is interesting in the same way that shitty shows on E Entertainment or MTV are interesting.

  9. Jeremy Says:

    My point was merely to point out the parallels between the two. I expect more out of Milbank et al. because they’re actually well-read and intelligent. It’s really impressive his comprehensive grasp on theology, politics, and philosophy. However, so often his penchant for apologetics leads him to make statements such as these. This quote got me thinking about Crockett’s book and the way RO totally dismisses psychoanalysis. I can only assume they find something threatening about what it offers.

    • Remy Says:

      The politics of RO cannot seem to cope with a strong hermeneutics of suspicion because its prognosis relies on the narrative of “return”, or more specifically enchantment-disenchantment-enchantment. RO sees the solution as a type of return to the parish or church-state, which comes across as a fantasmatic desire of fullness. All discourses that question this organicist premise is immediately understood to be predicated on an ontology of violence.

  10. Psychoanalysis and Political Theology: Link Post (with some Commentary) « An und für sich Says:

    […] has posted some commentary on the recent issue of Political Theology. He responds to some of John Milbank’s remarks on psychoanalysis and Kenneth Reinhold’s article on Lacan and theology. It’s very difficult to find a […]

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