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Conversations on the way to the Rally of Impossible Professions, London 20th Sept, 2008
Robert Snell is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Roehampton University, London. He is the co-author with Del Loewenthal of Postmodernism for Psychotherapists. A Critical Reader, Routledge, 2003, and the author of Theophile Gautier: A Romantic Critic of the Visual Arts, Oxford University Press, 1982. He is also an art historian, and easily persuaded Janet Low to take a trip during the Brighton Festival, and to drink coffee in a lively little café on a blustery Saturday morning amongst the Artists' Open Houses, 17th May 2008.
We got in touch with Robert after reading his review of the Anti-Livre noir de la psychanalyse (edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, and published by Seuil in 2006). As they sat down in the vibrant café to the twang of a tango Janet asked him how the book fell into his hands.
RS: Through my colleague and friend Del Loewenthal, who edits the European Journal of Psychotherapy, either he had been sent a review copy, or Richard House had got hold of a copy, I'm not sure but I devoured it. It was a really easy read, short sharp stabs - coups d'épingle as they say in French - stabbing away at this big mass of CBT and so on. It was wonderful, addictive. And then I found myself getting into awkward conversations with colleagues. One senior member of the psychotherapy team, for example, actually said that if she were really depressed she would like to have some CBT, and then, when another colleague was presenting her CBT case-work I found it impossible not to speak out because it really was such simplistic nonsense.
What surprises me is how quickly the analytic establishment in this country has gone along with it. So to find this group of Millerian psychoanalysts just saying "No!" was a huge relief. And when the State gets behind CBT it is definitely the wrong conversation - it's mad to think you can measure the value of a conversation in this way.
JL: Diplomacy and tact are put to the test, and sometimes it seems necessary to speak in terms of resistance and collaboration, which implies that there has been an invasion. It is similar in other fields too - the impact of audit culture and the demand for evidence-based research leaves one stuck in the middle of a mine-field.
RS: What worries me is the way we internalise this stuff and the way that it kills off other kinds of conversation: important ones, useful vital ones. My partner runs a school counselling service and she and I recently took part in a major conference in Italy. We came back full of enthusiasm for some very fine talks given by Italian, French and Swiss, colleagues -Simonetta Adamo, Mireille Cifali - but the presentations from this country tended on the whole to go on about 'Mental Health' - they sounded tired and heavy with their repetitive concepts. The continental speakers were talking about life, emotion, experience, they were using a very different language.
JL: Yes there is something interesting to think about between the anglo-saxon and the romance languages. I was reading Archie Cochrane's little book on Efficiency and Effectiveness in which he points out that Randomised Controlled Trials are a peculiarly Protestant phenomenon.
RS: You remind me of the kind of conversation one occasionally hears in which non- medically trained counsellors launch into medical jargon, medical acronyms. It can sound like the way small boys talk about guns, tanks and so on.
JL: Are we in the era of the obsessional, do you think, or is it the paranoiac already?
RS: It is actually very frightening. I think there are real and present dangers when there's a culture in which live things are forced out of the conversation, denied, excluded or forbidden from being said - in the supposed interests of safety.
JL: yes, our meeting in September is called Beyond the False Promises of Security - at the same time as all this demand for certainty there is a rising tide of fear which fuels the demand for security… it's difficult not resort to a harangue, but something clearly needs to be said. If we could find a way that allows this other discourse to quietly recede, then we will have done a good job. Andrew Sparkes wrote a really interesting paper for the RAE. He wrote a fictional account of academic life in the post RAE University. He figured it would be the most effective way to get something heard.
RS: We have been speaking about different 'modalities': the Miller book was a relief for me to read because the writers don't seem to be worrying about offending anyone. They are speaking clearly and making an open attack on a declared enemy. So, it is also a rant. Maybe in England at the moment it is not possible to do that. In France it seems ok to have a fight.
But it is very difficult to remain calm when someone states boldly that 'CBT is the treatment of choice'. It's such a meaningless phrase, and begs all kinds of questions. But it can come at you like a slab of concrete.
JL: did you hear about the Savoy Conference last year? There was a psychology professor who said 'we need more properly trained researchers: it will take a generation or two to turn them into proper CBT practitioners. The old-style say they do CBT, but really they'll never change - we will have to wait till they die out'. At least he is prepared to wait!
RS: What was so good about the Anti-Livre noir was the humour and the irony, and the pleasure that came through. They are engaged in a battle, but not without humour.
JL: Yes, humour is going to be useful. At the moment many of us seem a bit paralysed, unable to think when faced with this demand for evidence and the need to know everything in advance.
RS: Humour, yes, and poetry probably... Keats's 'negative capability' which Bion was so fond of invoking is still as a good a place to start as any: "negative capability, that is when a man is capable of being in doubt and uncertainty without idle reaching after fact and reason…"
Archie Cochrane (1972), Effectiveness and Efficiency: random reflections on health services, London, Royal Society of Medicine, reprinted in 2004.
Jacques-Alain Miller (ed) (2006) L'anti livre noir de la psychanalyse, Paris, Seuil
Robet Snell (2007), Book Review. European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling, Vol 9 Issue 2, p231-239
Andrew Sparkes (2007) Embodiment, academics, and the audit culture: a story seeking consideration. Qualitative Research, Vol 7 pp 521-550
Janet Low Blog