The Z Affair: beginnings

July 19, 2016
Political Freud A History

The following serves as a preface to a recent open letter sent by Professor Eli Zaretsky in protest of The American Psychoanalytic Association’s decision to reject a panel on the use of psychoanalysis in addressing contemporary politics. Since then,  further dialogue has developed between Zaretsky and representatives of the APsaA committees. This article will be updated as the affair unfolds.  (7/19/2016) 

According to the “Position Statement on Race-Based Violence and Racial Profiling” (2014, web) of the Psychoanalytic Association of America (APsaA): The American Psychoanalytic Association believes that all components of our society need to participate in a deeper discussion of racism and violence in order to elucidate the forces that contribute to the preservation of both, understand their pernicious effects, and search for remedies.

Following their position, APsaA would respond appropriately to, for example, the current heated conflict of politics and of race in America, because such participation would help to “elucidate” these conflicts, help in the “search for remedies” and perhaps, incidentally, help to bring the psychoanalytic community out of its isolationism. That was the hope of professor Eli Zaretsky, author of the recently published Political Freud: A History, when he submitted a proposal of a panel on the topic of contemporary American Politics, Race and Culture to the APsaA’s annual conference. The panel included himself, Yale professor of psychiatry David Mender, and Hortense Spillers- “one of the most important African American intellectuals writing on psychoanalysis and race today.” The APsaA’s “unforgiveable” response, was thus: “to address THIS political issue in THIS time in America is NOT appropriate” (emphasis theirs). Contrary to the spirit of radicalism in the work of Freud and to Psychoanalysis’ message of the healing effects of the “the talking cure”, APsaA has remained conformist and silent in the face of this deep American crisis, and thus has misrepresented itself.

An historical interpretation of this response would seem to indicate that APsaA, and associations like it, is essentially an arm of the state, whereby the exchange for the right to govern or police their membership is adherence to the status quo. Such conformity within medicine can be traced back to the Flexner report of the early twentieth century which created the structure for the highly regulated and guild-like character of medical education. Ultimately, organizations such as APsaA, while bearing proudly the moniker of, and oft-citing, their radical forefather, is nothing more than the banality of a cowardly cohort of unthinking conservatives. That the radical tradition of psychoanalysis would be transformed into a conformist tradition of money making and posturing, is indeed, a giant American mistake. Below in full is the lamentation of Zaretsky emailed to a member of the SPI.



Dear friends, colleagues and interlocutors:

I’m addressing you because of our shared interest in psychoanalysis, and especially in preserving its critical dimension.

My friend Donald Mender, a psychiatrist who teaches at Yale, and I proposed a session for the American Psychoanalytic Association meetings this January devoted to the uses of psychoanalysis in analyzing contemporary American politics. You can imagine how thrilled we both were when Hortense Spillers, one of the most important African-American intellectuals writing on psychoanalysis and race today, agreed to be our third presenter. Now our session has been rejected on the absurd grounds that— as reported to me– “to address THIS political issue in THIS time in America is NOT appropriate.”

I would not protest this decision if it only concerned myself and Donald, but at a time when the United States is being torn apart by racial conflict, and when there is such a widespread effort at soul-searching, for the American Psychoanalytic Association to turn its back on an opportunity of this sort is unforgivable.

I do not know whether the decision can still be reversed, but I welcome any effort any of you can make in that direction. In any event, I ask that you publicize this decision as widely as possible, through social media and as letters in the journals with which many of you are affiliated.

As everyone knows, the APsaA has— at best– an extremely mixed record on race, gender, homosexuality and war. It is hard not to see this action in that context.

Eli Zaretsky

Professor of History

New School for Social Research

New York, NY 10011


Zaretksy’s letter was circulated on several discussion lists and generated a number of responses of both support and confusion.  Many asked for further clarification.  On July 13, Donald Moss responded with the following letter:

I am a member of the Program Committee of the American Psychoanalytic
Association.  Here is my sense of what happened with Eli Zaretsky’s
proposed Symposium:

First, a “Symposium” at APsA is a 90-minute presentation.  We have a
“Symposium Sub-Committee” that responds to all Symposia proposals.
The chair of that committee then responds to the “proposer”.  I have
spoken to the chair, a good friend of mine, with decades of hard-earned progressive credentials, in a wide variety of venues (manynof them far afield from psychoanalysis).  She told me that the basic reason that the proposal was not accepted was that it was read by the committee as something like a seminar proposal–a deep and far-reaching examination of a number of pertinent texts addressing not only the current American political scene but also much of the last 50-75 years of Left/Psychoanalytic theory.  It did not seem possible to condense that syllabus into 90 minutes.  The proposal therefore was rejected on format grounds; not  on conceptual/political ones.  I am certain that the phrase attributed to the chair is a false attribution. Knowing her, it is impossible that she would have said (or thought) anything remotely like that.

The communication was by phone.  There is no written record.  The chair would like to speak with Eli and would like to find a way to integrate the proposal into some program venue into which it could fit.  I think this communication will soon take place.

I think what happened exemplifies prejudice in action.  APsA does not have a good history re:  political issues.  I think the rejection was heard through the muck of that history rather than through the precise words in which it was spoken.

I think that psychoanalysis aims at clearing the way to the present tense.  Like symptoms, prejudices impede that.

I am pretty confident that the current administration and membership of APsA (the present-tense constituents of the organization) are in a state of anguish, confusion, and engagement regarding the current American moment.  We hope to find allies to determine if and how psychoanalysis and psychoanalysts can actually interject ourselves–as actors–into the present tense.  We can all hear the terrifying rumble of an emerging primitivity around the world.

All of us– I am sure– are asking the same question:  now what? “what is to be done?”  More precisely, what is to be done by us psychoanalysts.

The kind of divisiveness illustrated in the exchange here over the past 24 hours or so does nothing to clarify things.  It does nothing because it has been grounded on a misconstructed premise.

I hope we can discard that premise and replace it with one we all want and need– a solid grounding from which to think and act as psychoanalysts/citizens at a moment, and in a world, that can often seem to make a mockery of thought and of thoughtful action.

Don Moss


On July 15, Zaretsky responded with the following letter:

I would like to respond to Donald Moss’ letter, which I have only just seen and I ask Donald to pass my response on to other lists that have seen his letter.

Don, I appreciate your letter and there is plenty in it to agree with, but I do want to take issue with one thing. I don’t think prejudice played any role in this matter. Speaking for myself, I regard psychoanalysts as doing God’s work, and I have neither knowledge nor opinions regarding the current APsaA.  

The reason that my co-presenters and I responded angrily to the rejection that our proposal was developed in consultation with the APsaA and was changed several times in response to their requests. So we had every reason to think it would be accepted. The sort of details Donald talked about, could have been clarified in the acceptance. In addition, our panel included a leading Black intellectual. For the APsaA to say “not now,” “not in this way,” “not exactly these people,” “not at this length,”– and we have a phone message that says essentially that– reveals a kind of mindlessness on the part of the APsaA. Mindlessness, not prejudice is the root of the problem.

Don writes “the current administration and membership of APsA  are in a state of anguish, confusion, and engagement regarding” how to “insert” psychoanalysis into America’s public discourse. Although Don is a psychoanalyst, he never asks where the confusion and anguish came from. How is it that psychoanalysis, which was well understood for decades to have a huge amount to teach us about mass politics and history has been largely reduced to a technical sub-field of psychotherapy? What role did analysts play in allowing demagogues like Frederick Crews to command the public field? How could people trained to understand unconscious mental processes leave American society so unarmed in the field of psychology? 

These are the kinds of questions that motivated my email and that our panel might have addressed.

All best, 

Eli Zaretsky

Professor of History

New School for Social Research 

New York, NY 10011