Sunday, March 3, 2013

Neil Altman, PhD visits Tampa to discuss Race and Class

Neil Altman, PhD spent the day on February 16, 2013 with the Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society with a presentation on “Race, Class, and Culture from a Psychoanalytic Perspective.” Altman noted that arrogance, to think we know something we don’t know about the unconscious,  is an occupational hazard for therapists, and that the analytic attitude is about being surprised. We have to have enough humility to be confronted by our patients about our blind spots. Like colonial mentality, if we hold on perniciously to the idea that there is a mainstream, then there are deviations, deviants, from that mainstream, and we locate ourselves in a place of exclusionary normalcy.

When psychoanalysis evolved to a where the relationship, too, is included in the focus of study, the analyst is removed from the ‘objective’ perch and becomes, as Sullivan noted, a participant-observer, implicating the analyst in the inquiry. Once we acknowledge our participation then we can find a way of looking at it. An analytic perspective focuses on the process (“the landscape we live in”) rather than the end point. One attendee put it aptly: once sacred aspects of the frame were let go, what remained sacred was the relationship; two factors are of utmost concern: emotional availability and self-reflection. Another attendee noted that emotions are central to relationship, and we have struggled since Descartes, who was wary of emotions as unreliable and the cause physical illnesses, to reestablish their rightful place in our decision making.

Altman says that race, class, money, all have an interplay of emotions in the haves and have nots, and in contempt and shame. While each of us is organized toward shame proneness, the social system aggravates this when it is organized in ways that activate shame. In shame based cultures, the defense is saturated with what it defended against. Race is organized by relation of polarities: good and bad, dominant and submissive, privileged and un-privileged. When we move from the paranoid-schizoid position (in Kleinian terms) of splitting, projection, and polarities to the depressive position which integrates good and bad into wholeness, we transcend polarities. The depressive position, seeing the other as a subject also capable of being hurt and harmed, allows for guilt, and calls into action reparation.  

Some aspects of working in community mental health agencies were discussed: the dilemma of objectifying patients while encouraging autonomy; how analysts can represent Fairbairn’s exciting and rejecting objects: the bad object first excites then rejects, first seduces, then abandons [see 2008 paper by Altman et al On Being Bad While Doing Good].  Aron and Starr have published a new book A Psychotherapy for the People where they note that Freud envisioned that one day psychoanalysis would be available  to everyone just as surgery is available to everyone.

A number of attendees resonated very personally with Altman’s talk, sharing they had parents who crossed race or class divides to marry. One observed “I was born into multiplicity … I was different yet the same.” Another added, “Race is one way we separate ourselves.” 

Because in the discussion of otherness by race and class, we need to include gender, I will close with some comments made by Gloria Steinem in a recently aired (2-27-13) PBS Newshour in which she said that Society moved, for economic reasons, to hierarchialize human beings in terms of sex, race and class, where power and control included women’s bodies and reproduction, and we must return to humans being “linked, not ranked” where the “paradigm of culture is the circle, not the pyramid.”

1 comment:

Lycia Alexander-Guerra, M.D. said...

Altman offered a way of thinking about race and class without resorting to a political left or right position. It reminded me of Benjamin's thinking, a conceptualization that was not dichotomous or polarized. It was a way of taking a position without negating either pole. It was refreshing and surprising.
Patrick O'Connell, PsyD