Distraction and narcissism in confinement: Q&A with Stephen Frosh

For those of us with the privilege of waiting safely in our homes while the pandemic spreads, we’ve had to contend with the reality of digitizing our entire emotional and professional lives. How are these increased internet dependencies affecting us?

To get a better understanding of the long term effects mass digitization might have on our inner lives and what we can draw on from the history of psychoanalysis in this critical moment, I spoke with Stephen Frosh, a professor in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. He is the author of many books and papers on psychosocial studies and on psychoanalysis, including most recently Those Who Come After: Postmemory, Acknowledgement and Forgiveness (2019). His main academic interests are the applications of psychoanalysis to social issues as well as psychosocial studies.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Mada Masr: One response to the virus that I’ve noticed is a lot of these collectives and media companies releasing free media content to keep oneself busy during confinement. It’s almost too much to keep track of and it’s very hard to pay attention to anything. What do you think of this pressure to enjoy and occupy oneself during confinement?

Stephen Frosh: If I can quote my friend Slavoj Zizek, he says the superego has changed and now, compared to times before, the pressure is always to enjoy. But psychoanalysis is the only practice that allows you the space to not enjoy. Which is very interesting to think about.

I think there is a flight from feeling.  These companies are doing their jobs of course, and it’s great that they’re making material free; people need entertainment. I hope I’m not being moralistic about it, but I think one thing it represents is the difficulty of really being alone, and having the ability to stay with that and to think about forms of intimacy that are obviously interpersonal but also rely on the stability of your own selfhood.

The constant distraction — anyone who writes, knows how welcome things like emails are because it stops you from thinking about what you’re doing. You can be aware of it and try to structure your life around it to be better able to avoid it. But the constant bombardment of material to distract you I’m sure is also a way of helping people avoid facing something they’re feeling — which is quite scared and lonely because they’re cut off from the people who do provide sources of intimacy and a sense of reality in their lives, and also, feeling at a loss because they find some sort of emptiness within. 

Again I’m trying not to be moralistic or critical, it’s just hard to find stuff inside you to draw on. I think it goes back to this idea of the “culture of narcissism” brought up by Christopher Lasch. We are being filled up with this constant play of images as a way of preventing ourselves from really seeing what the world is like. It’s this distinction between reality and the real. Reality is this constant engagement with images, and the surface of everyday life. And the real is what lurks behind it, which we experience as a threat but also gives us a sense of depth.

So I think we are distracted away from the things that really haunt us. That’s the danger of all this material, I think we need more time alone with our thoughts.

MM: Could you tell me a bit more about The Culture of Narcissism (1979)?

SF: The Culture of Narcissism is an example of a book that suggests there is something about society that gets damaged as it focuses on spectacle, surfaces, mirrors, images — those things [Jacques] Lacan and the writers on narcissism write about. What is specifically lost is an experience of the depth of personality and, particularly, the capacity to form intimate relationships with others. It produces a more fragile selfhood. 

So there is a history of psychoanalytic and cultural thinking which relates very strongly to that, and maybe we should draw on that now again to ask whether we are at risk of a kind of narcissistic society through the way we have to rely on media to operate. Or whether there are countervailing forces at work in which the experience of loss that people describe as they get cut off from other people becomes dominant as well and demonstrates that, despite all this, there is still a sense of depth to people’s psychic lives that they need to be fueled by connection with others. 

MM: What kind of work do you expect to see on issues to do with confinement? 

SF: There was a letter out from the president of the British psychoanalytic society in which she addresses some issues about what it’s like to feel that other people are a threat — to have to keep away from them. It’s not a choice in that way, you know that you are a threat to other people; the way in which I care for you is to keep my distance. This is a really new idea. The way you’d normally treat someone who has the plague is now seen as an act of kindness.

These are massive shifts and I don’t know anyone who’s written about it in any depth yet. So far, no one has really analyzed it; we’ve just come up with these interesting observations about how we care for others in this moment.

MM: Is this particularly heavy reliance on social media an unknown to psychoanalysis?

SF: Before the lockdowns, there was quite a lot of dispute about whether social media prevents people from having so-called real relationships. There’s sort of this moral panic about people spending too much time on their phones, that they don’t form genuine relationships with people.

Then there are others — like my friend Daniel Miller, who’s an anthropologist — who says this isn’t the case; that in fact these mediated encounters between people online are real relationships, that they bridge continuity issues in “real” relationships, and that they often act as a precursor to such relationships as well. So we should see these relationships as real, not just poor substitutes or as blocks to something. 

On the other hand, the filling up of time with desperation, with what feels like desperate links with others online, and the speed with which these links are made, expire and are substituted — all of this raises questions about intimacy and about whether there are some forms of intimate relationships which are not substituted for by interaction over the internet.

I think it’s about the quality of endurance, of staying with people over difficult times, of managing silences, of allowing space away from people in order to come back to them, of dealing with separations, which you hardly ever have to deal with nowadays especially in these times. It’s odd in a way, we’re very separated from people but we’re also in constant contact with them. 

I think it’s a new phenomenon, this constant connection, and we have to really think about what that means, especially now. It reminds me of an essay by Donald Winnicot. In it he asks, how do you develop the capacity to be alone? You develop it as a young infant through understanding that you are never alone, that even when you are alone you exist in the thoughts of someone else — somewhere, someone is holding you in mind and that’s what allows you to be alone.

Maybe that’s what we are finding harder and harder to experience — simply being held in mind — especially now, in times of confinement. So we need to be reassured all the time from the constant input of people asking us what we’re doing and if we’re ok. Of course it’s good, but it’s a way to avoid dealing with that anxiety. If we don’t have a constant sense of being thought about and present then it’s very hard to be alone, and perhaps this incessant engagement is a way to stop ourselves feeling that. 

MM: A lot of the discourse around the coronavirus evokes a coming political awareness, a new solidarity. How has psychoanalysis normally thought of solidarity? And what role do you expect trauma to play in this?

SF: So the psychoanalytic heritage around solidarity has been very mixed — if we understand solidarity as a way people can come together to fight for human emancipation.

There have been very brave people who were kind of leftist in their orientation, psychoanalysts who’ve been driven out of their countries. I’m thinking of the Latin American states of the 60s and 70s, but also Germany before World War II. 

But psychoanalysts have been much more likely to be conformist. We saw that in Germany and in Brazil as well, where the formal institutions of psychoanalysis basically thrived during the military dictatorship because they conformed to notions of rebellion as neurosis and reactionary understandings of family lives — things that made them compatible with the regime.

The kind of solidarity I’ve been writing about is about the legacies of trauma. I got interested in the relationship between the descendants of perpetrators and the descendants of victims — for example, of the Holocaust — but it can be extended to lots of things. There, the question of solidarity is one in which you have to think that both these groups are marked by this trauma, but they have very different relations to it and are producing all sorts of psychic responses ranging from denial through to taking up persecutory identities. 

Solidarity is one way we can think about the possibilities of relationships between these different groups who are marked by the same trauma but from different perspectives. 

MM: Do you think these ideas of solidarity can take place online?

SF: I think we don’t know: we really don’t, because it could. I mean in this country, in the UK for instance, there’s been such an outpouring of support for our National Health Service, that it’s very hard to imagine the situation we’ve had over the last ten years, which is a climate of economic austerity and basically privatization of the health service, a starving of funds and a general attack on welfare. It could happen like that. But I wouldn’t be confident that over a period of the next four years or so we wouldn’t get into all sorts of conversations about what we can and can’t afford due to the economic collapse produced by the virus. 

There is hope, definitely. In his new book Pandemic! (2020) — produced at breakneck speed — Zizek talks about a new form of communism. He’s been laughed at for this but he defends it by saying he’s not talking about old state communism. He’s talking about what we’ve learned from the virus in a very visceral way of the interconnected nature of our world, and the dependencies we have on other countries. 

For example, one response in Europe was, again, to turn on immigrants, as if they were the carriers. But what we know is that’s not the case. Someone takes a plane and a virus spreads from one country to another. We can’t stop that. That interconnectivity is really being dramatized every minute of the day and there is a real possibility for solidarity. 

MM: How has the wider clinical society adapted to enforced digitization? 

SF: I’m an academic who works in psychoanalysis but I don’t practice as an analyst so what I’m saying is, in many ways, coming from the outside, from what I’ve been hearing from people. 

There are a few things to notice. One is that we can see a demarcation between experienced and inexperienced analysts and I don’t know whether it’s going to hold or whether it’s legitimate. For instance, the staff at my own institution decided that students training in psychodynamic counseling could not offer online or telephone psychotherapy as part of their training. It was argued you need a really good grounding in either face to face or couch-based work before you can move into the more distant, technologically-mediated therapy. 

I suppose the argument there is that while it might be necessary to adapt the classic psychoanalytic model, you need to really know the classic model, in your body as well as in your mind.

People are working it out as they go along, there’s quite a lot of local variations. Distinctions are being made between what goes on in training and what people absolutely have to be familiar with in order to feel competent as practitioners. There’s still the necessity of maintaining contact with patients in this very difficult time.

Some people are attempting a variety of compromises. For example, many analysts maintain distinctions between who gets the couch and who gets the chair, the couch being reserved for those with whom you wouldn’t want to maintain a line of vision. For those patients, they offer sessions over the phone, and for the patients who normally would be in the chair they do sessions over zoom. There are people who are asking their patients to put the camera behind them, sort of as an attempt to mimic the situation you would have in the consulting room. 

I understand the logic behind these things but there’s no scholarly basis for them. It’s kind of intuitive but I think it’s a little bit crude — to think that you could somehow evoke the analytic situation in these very different, nuanced, subtle ways. 

All that said, I feel this is quite a big change. So much of psychoanalysis is focused on what you might call the immediate encounter between analyst and patient, and it’s in that immediacy of the encounter, whether face to face or on the couch, that the major practices and theoretical concepts of psychoanalysis have been generated. 

To try and be a space of sharing — something which does depend on the act of two people being absolutely present to one another, even if this isn’t in a completely egalitarian way because it’s not a sort of normal interaction that takes place. Even the way Kleinians describe the experience of being in analysis — it’s a very tactile description, it’s a bit like one person enters another, psychically speaking.

The feelings invoked in the patient are invoked in relation to a fantasy about the analyst’s presence and the meaning of that presence. So you can receive something from the person that you are with and think about it and in some way give it back. 

It’s a bit different with the Lacanian school, where so much emphasis is on language and, in a way, on the barriers between people and on misunderstandings and mistranslations. It may be that we think about that kind of model as more amenable to the mediated e-versions we have at the moment because so much is about miscomprehending and how to use the necessary failures of communication in order to help patients move along with their thinking. Even there, there’s still quite a bit about embodiment going on.

MM: Do you think the current models of psychoanalysis will change as a result?

SF: I wouldn’t fetishize psychoanalysis quite as much as it fetishizes itself. If you look at the history — and even in contemporary times — it’s quite varied. It’s partly to do with local histories of flexibility in the psychoanalytic model. 

You should also remember in the history of psychoanalysis there’s been quite a lot of variety. Freud famously did a four-hour analysis of the composer Gustav Mahler on a walk during his holiday! You wouldn’t do that now, but Freud did. 

In times of duress, there are stories about how in Argentina during the junta there were situations of great danger and I’ve read examples of how a child analyst would meet a parent and child in a park, would sit on a park bench, observe the child playing, hear a bit about the child and would offer a sort of consultation. Of course, that’s not analysis but it was still based on a model. There would be no formal exchange like in the traditional child analytic situation. 

There’s quite a lot of different ways of doing analysis we should be alert to. But this is a big shift. It’s going to challenge the models that people have of their analytic practice, and I wonder if people will feel that they’re doing “real” analysis or whether there’s something second rate going on here that’s just a sort of stop-gap until they can get back to normal.

Salah El Oweidy 

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