Toward a Social Psychoanalysis: Culture, Character, and Normative Unconscious Processes, 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Toward a Social Psychoanalysis

Culture, Character, and Normative Unconscious Processes, 1st Edition

By Lynne Layton

Edited by Marianna Leavy-Sperounis


344 pages

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Paperback: 9780367902049
pub: 2020-03-25
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pub: 2020-03-25
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For over thirty years, Lynne Layton has heeded the call for a social psychoanalysis and produced a body of work that examines unconscious process as it operates both in the social world and in the clinic.

In this volume of Layton’s most important papers, she expands on earlier theorists’ ideas of social character by exploring how dominant ideologies and culturally mandated, hierarchical identity prescriptions are lived in individual and relational conflict. Through clinical and cultural examples, Layton describes how enactments of what she calls ‘normative unconscious processes’ reinforce cultural inequalities of race, sex, gender, and class both inside and outside the clinic, and at individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels.

Clinicians, academics, and activists alike will find here a deeper understanding of the power of unconscious process, and are called on to envision and enact a progressive future in which vulnerability and interdependency are honored and systemic inequalities dismantled.


"Now that ‘the political turn’ in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy has been added to ‘the relational turn’, it is nothing short of wonderful and liberating to read this panoptic collection of Lynne Layton’s work. For those of us struggling to realise the potential of our field, Lynne is the outstanding writer on how the social and the clinical interweave. We sit at her feet. She is also the go-to theorist on how psychoanalysis can still function as the best and most alert approach to critiques of the sorry political state of ‘the West’. Lynne’s compassion, dedication, and knowledge of the relevant history are exemplary. Students and more seasoned practitioners, in clinic and in academy, will want to keep the book close at hand."

Andrew Samuels is founder of Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility,UK and author of The Political Psyche

"In Toward a Social Psychoanalysis, Layton demonstrates her formidable scholarship, her incisive cultural critique, her clinical acumen, and her activist spirit. Over the last few decades, Layton has been devoted to integrating psychoanalysis with social justice. This book represents the pinnacle of that work. This is a profound query into, and rewriting of, the fundamentals of psychoanalysis, in search of cultural and political engagement. Highly readable and sophisticated, the book is interdisciplinary in scope and always immediate in its address to human suffering. In these dark times, this is essential reading. Layton inspires us to action and ameliorates our isolation and despair."

Sue Grand is faculty in the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy & Psychoanalysis and author of The Reproduction of Evil: A Clinical & Cultural Perspective

"Toward a Social Psychoanalysis is an exciting and much needed contribution to the current awakening to the task of theorizing the social and political unconscious as embraced by the founders of psychoanalysis. Packed with wonderful insights, this masterful work offers an accessible and stimulating guide through the complex matrix of contemporary social theory and relational psychoanalysis, enabling a confrontation with the urgent problems of race, class and gender as they affect patients in psychotherapy and society as a whole. Clinicians and academics alike will find this book indispensable."

Jessica Benjamin, author of Beyond Doer and Done To: Recognition Theory, Intersubjectivity and the Third

"Lynne Layton’s brilliant essays hold the key to understanding how we have become the people we are in this society and to begin to imagine the people we might yet become in a more just and decent world. Challenging longstanding therapeutic models that divorce the psychic from the social, she connects the contours of our seemingly private and personal passions to the public process and practices of neoliberalism and racialized capitalism. I know of no single book that does as much to equip us with the tools we need to confront and correct the calculated cruelty and belligerent brutality of our time."

George Lipsitz, author of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness

"Lynne Layton has been among the most important and prolific psychoanalytic political writers of our time. She shows in understandable yet nuanced language the way psychoanalytic thinking can play a crucial role in understanding and healing our current personal and societal ills. Finding these marvelous papers collected in one place is a boon to students, practitioners, historians, and the general intellectual audience as we fight against the dark forces that presently threaten our society."

Philip Cushman, psychology professor, psychotherapist, and author, has recently published Travels With the Self: Interpreting Psychology as Cultural History (Routledge).

"This book records the unique journey of a socially engaged psychoanalyst as she charts the unthinkable consequences of power relations both in society and in the consulting room. Writing with passion, honesty and rigour, Lynne Layton undertakes a fascinating exploration of the conflicts and struggles, both psychological and political, of neoliberal citizens in their encounters with racism, classism, sexism and other social forces."

Professor Paul Hoggett, Co-founder of the Climate Psychology Alliance and the Centre for Psycho-Social Studies, UWE, Bristol.

"We owe a great debt of gratitude to Lynne Layton for the work that she has done of many years to develop a social psychoanalysis that speaks across gender, sexuality, race and class. This hugely important volume should be required reading not only for any therapist or analyst in training but for anyone interested in the complex relation of the social and psychoanalytic."

Valerie Walkerdine is Distinguished Research Professor, Cardiff University, UK

"Lynne Layton’s newest book adroitly braids historical narrative, rigorous theory, and clinical vignettes into a necessary compendium for the psychoanalytic work we must do today, both in the privacy of the consulting room and in the public realms of social praxis. Layton’s work shows how unconscious normative processes recreate structural inequities, locking psyche and society into fruitless repetition: psychoanalysis without social analysis can then only stumble clinically and remain ethically dubious. A probing critique and clinical companion, this book will help reshape how we think about psychoanalysis, making it an agent for the kind of change our discipline urgently needs."

Francisco J. González, MD, Co-Chair, Community Psychoanalysis Track, Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California

"Lynne Layton has written a brilliant and exciting set of interrelated essays that span her fascinating career, putting to rest any lingering doubts about whether the Freudian tradition can be at once individually and collectively liberating. With her notion of the normative social unconscious, Layton coherently links psychoanalysis with progressive critiques of class, race and gender biases in sociology and anthropology; simultaneously, she solidifies the intellectual foundations of growing contemporary interest in psychosocial studies. Last but hardly least, she brings a self-reflexive lens to the therapeutic process itself as it enacts cultural as well as childhood influences."

Lynn S. Chancer, Professor and Executive Officer, Ph.D. Program in Sociology, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York

"This book convincingly puts the case for a much-needed social psychoanalysis. It is a timely publication, highly relevant theoretically and clinically to our times. It should be read by all psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, counsellors, community and social work professionals who are genuinely committed to putting the best interest of their clients and community first. Layton powerfully shows that social history and the social context into which we are born and develop are part of our unconscious and often not analysed in ourselves as practitioners and thus in our clients. She invites us to think about and grapple with the social embeddedness of ourselves and our clients, including our identifications in terms of class, race, gender, culture and sexuality, among others, which can and are unhelpfully enacted consciously and unconsciously in our work with clients, trainees, supervisees and colleagues."

Frank Lowe, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist and Head of Social Work Adults & Adolescents Tavistock Clinic, London, UK

Table of Contents

Editor’s introduction: "That’s the Problem with your Theory" by Marianna Leavy-Sperounis. Part I. 1. Dreaming America/American Dreams 2: Notes Toward a Nonconformist Clinical Practice: Response to PhilipCushman’s "Between Arrogance and a Dead-End: Gadamer and the Heidegger/Foucault Dilemma" (2005) 3. Attacks on Linking: The Unconscious Pull to Dissociate Individuals from their Social Context (2006) 4. What Divides the Subject? Psychoanalytic Reflections on Subjectivity, Subjection, and Resistance (2008) 5. Relational Theory in Socio-historical Context: Implications for Technique (2013, 2018) 6. Psychoanalysis and Politics: Historicizing Subjectivity (2013) Part II 7. The Psychopolitics of Bisexuality (2000) 8. Relational No More: Defensive Autonomy in White Middle-Class Women (2004) 9. That Place Gives Me the Heebie Jeebies (2004, reprinted in 2006) 10. Class in the Clinic: Enacting Distinction (2015) 11. Racial Identities, Racial Enactments and Normative Unconscious Processes (2006/2017) Part III. 12. Who’s Responsible? Our Mutual Implication in Each Other’s Suffering (2009) 13. Irrational Exuberance: Neoliberal Subjectivity and the Perversion of Truth (2010) 14. Yale, Fail, Jail: Sadomasochistic Individual, Large-Group, and Institutional Effects of Neoliberalism (Adapted from 2014a,b, 2015, 2016) 15. Something to Do With a Girl Named Marla Singer: Capitalism, Narcissism, and Therapeutic Discourse in David Fincher’s Fight Club (2011, 2017) 16. Transgenerational Hauntings: Toward a Social Psychoanalysis and an Ethic of Dis-Illusionment (2019)

About the Author/Editor

Lynne Layton, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst on the clinical faculty of Harvard Medical School, supervises at the Massachusetts Institute for Psychoanalysis, and teaches at Pacifica Graduate Institute.

Marianna Leavy-Sperounis, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist with a Masters in City Planning. She is on the board of Psychoanalysis for Social Responsibility (Section IX, Division 39, American Psychological Association).

About the Series

Relational Perspectives Book Series

Founding Editor:

Stephen Mitchell

Editor Emeritus:

Lewis Aron

The Relational Perspectives Book Series (RPBS) publishes books that grow out of or contribute to the relational tradition in contemporary psychoanalysis. The term relational psychoanalysis was first used by Greenberg and Mitchell to bridge the traditions of interpersonal relations, as developed within interpersonal psychoanalysis and object relations, as developed within contemporary British theory. But, under the seminal work of the late Stephen A. Mitchell, the term relational psychoanalysis grew and began to accrue to itself many other influences and developments. Various tributaries—interpersonal psychoanalysis, object relations theory, self psychology, empirical infancy research, feminism, queer theory, sociocultural studies and elements of contemporary Freudian and Kleinian thought—flow into this tradition, which understands relational configurations between self and others, both real and fantasied, as the primary subject of psychoanalytic investigation.

 We refer to the relational tradition, rather than to a relational school, to highlight that we are identifying a trend, a tendency within contemporary psychoanalysis, not a more formally organized or coherent school or system of beliefs. Our use of the term relational signifies a dimension of theory and practice that has become salient across the wide spectrum of contemporary psychoanalysis. Now under the editorial supervision of Adrienne Harris, Steven Kuchuck and Eyal Rozmarin, the Relational Perspectives Book Series originated in 1990 under the editorial eye of the late Stephen A. Mitchell. Mitchell was the most prolific and influential of the originators of the relational tradition. Committed to dialogue among psychoanalysts, he abhorred the authoritarianism that dictated adherence to a rigid set of beliefs or technical restrictions. He championed open discussion, comparative and integrative approaches, and promoted new voices across the generations. Mitchell was later joined by the late Lewis Aron, also a visionary and influential writer, teacher and leading thinker in relational psychoanalysis.

 Included in the Relational Perspectives Book Series are authors and works that come from within the relational tradition, those that extend and develop that tradition, and works that critique relational approaches or compare and contrast them with alternative points of view. The series includes our most distinguished senior psychoanalysts, along with younger contributors who bring fresh vision. Our aim is to enable a deepening of relational thinking while reaching across disciplinary and social boundaries in order to foster an inclusive and international literature.   

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
PSYCHOLOGY / Movements / Psychoanalysis
PSYCHOLOGY / Mental Health