Anthropology, Psychoanalysis, Psychosocial Studies

Anthropology, Psychoanalysis and Psychosocial Studies
A Colloquium in Two Parts

Sponsored by the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research
Silvia Posocco (Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck) and Paul Boyce (Anthropology, Sussex) Conveners

This research colloquium focuses on awkward and yet intimate connections, synergies and frictions between anthropology, psychoanalysis and psychosocial studies. A number of studies (Frosh 2012; Gilman 1982, 1993; Wallace 1983; Moore 2007) have documented historically salient points of convergence between psychoanalysis and anthropology. They have traced the mutual imbrication of these fields that can be gleaned from, for example, Freud’s interest in anthropology (Freud 1955, 1961), W. H. R. Rivers’ straddling of the boundary between the emerging fields of anthropology and psychoanalysis in the early 20th century (e.g. Rivers 1924) and anthropologists’ deployments of psychoanalytic theory in cultural analysis (Crapanzano 1980; Obeyesekere 1981; Taussig 1993). More recently, new theoretically capacious and ethnographically experimental contributions have proposed a rethinking of the complex relations between anthropology and psychoanalysis to reconfigure explorations of subjectivity and personhood, embodiment and agency, and culture and power (Moore 2007), alongside a renewed attention to the affective dimensions of everyday life and the poetics and politics of common experience (Stewart 2007).

Psychoanalytic theory, figured as a plural, internally differentiated and historically, culturally and socially situated set of knowledge practices tied to specific social arrangements, has been turned to illuminate anthropological questions, while anthropology has productively troubled the ethnocentrisms and theoretical oversimplifications and insufficiencies of psychoanalysis through, inter alia, the relativizing impetus of the ethnographic archive. A broad, vibrant and heterogeneous field of psychosocial theorizing and analysis emerges out of these critical engagements and intersections, to foreground the importance of ‘worlding’ psychoanalysis (Khanna 2003) and anthropology (Asad 1973) as colonial disciplines with multiple, complex and intersecting afterlives in the postcolonial present.

These complex intersections have foregrounded sites of convergence and divergence for anthropological and psychosocial engagements. One way in which anthropological perspectives have been alluded to in psychosocial studies has been via the employment of ethnographic accounts as a means to relativise understandings of personhood (Spinelli 2001). The utilisation of ethnography in these terms has been salient in respect of unpacking universal models for conceiving subjectivity, for example in respect of phenomenologically grounded challenges to psychoanalytic models. Conversely, the employment of ethnographic data as a mean to de-essentialize universalisms within psychotherapeutic projects might be regarded as resting on fundamental ideals of cultural difference – relativizing self but essentializing culture. This in turn relates to post-colonial critiques of grounded theory, concerning, for example, queries over whose life is made available to whom in the unequal terrain of conceiving theory from ethnography (Radhakrishnan 2008). This problematic persists even as ethnographers may commit to an ethics of representative politics, for example by advocating on behalf of dispossessed ‘others’; this constituting an important basis for anthropological reflexivity and anxiety. Consideration of these concerns opens up potentialities for imagining convergences between the anthropological and the psychosocial, for example by revisiting phenomenological anthropology in relation to therapeutic projects to ask new questions about the relationship between self and other, experience and identity, and intentionality within the lifeworld (Jackson 1996).

This colloquium aims to capture the vibrancy, multiplicity and interdisciplinarity of contemporary research across anthropology, psychoanalysis and psychosocial studies. The first half-day event, ‘Ethnographic Objects in Dialogue’, on Friday 26th June 2015, will focus on a set of dialogues exploring intersections between anthropology, psychoanalysis and psychosocial studies and experimental ethnographic writing, with a keynote address by Professor Kathleen Stewart (Dept. of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin). The second half-day event, ‘Analytical Frictions and Intersections’, on 7th October 2015, will focus on contemporary psychosocial explorations of analytical and theoretical points of tension, connection and disconnection between anthropology, psychoanalysis and psychosocial studies. This event will include keynote addresses by Professor Henrietta Moore (UCL Institute for Global Prosperity) and Professor Stephen Frosh (Dept. of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck).

We are considering possible avenues for publication and welcome proposals for contributions on points of friction and intersection between anthropology, psychoanalysis and psychosocial studies. We welcome ethnographically resonant as well as theoretically oriented or speculative interventions. If you have an idea for a chapter or intervention at the forthcoming meetings, contact Silvia Posocco directly (

Part I

Ethnographic Objects in Dialogue
26th June 2015, 10.30 AM – 5 PM,  Birkbeck, University of London
Room 101, 30 Russell Square*
*(Room is on the first floor, through 3 flights of stairs, to use the lift, please ask the porter)

‘Impact makes the social, whether good or bad or both’
(K. Stewart, ‘Arresting Images’, 2003: 446).

10.30 – 11 AM Registration with tea and coffee

11 – 11.15 AM Introduction and welcome- Silvia Posocco and Paul Boyce                      

11.15 – 12.15 PM Session I – Working with Abhorrent Objects: Partiality, Short circuits and Cuts in the Network, Mark Leopold and Silvia Posocco
As we think through our respective approaches and ethnographic objects, we take the text ‘Working with Abhorrent Objects: some moral and epistemological considerations’, by Paul Zawadzki (ISSJ, 2002), as a starting point for our discussion. We propose to begin by talking about our work in terms of ‘Working with Abhorrent Objects’ and offer some preliminary anthropological, psychoanalytic and psychosocial considerations. What are we doing when we work as “scholars” with objects that we do not like and that fill us with outrage, repulsion, fear, disgust; in short, with objects we find abhorrent? Why expend so much energy analyzing objects that appall us? Why spend so much time reading frightful tracts written by people we loathe, listening to accounts of barbarity and contemplating the dynamics of destruction, when history offers so many works of culture that we as academics have a responsibility to discuss if we want this culture to remain alive (Zawadski 2002)? Why do we work with abhorrent objects? Is it ‘just’ to speak for the people we have worked and lived with (a moral/political impetus)? Is there a more subjective (and maybe disturbing) jouissance or form of death instinct here, which we can or can’t talk about? What are the consequences for us/our work, in terms of, for example, resistances, as we are drawn and overwhelmed by a burning desire to know, in abhorrent archives that at times appear to be densely populated and at other times turn out to be hollowed out and empty? What resistances are there and how can these resistances be framed? What is the relation between resistance, repulsion, desire? In our work, both of us have dealt extensively with the later consequences of political violence, conflict and genocide: what could be the relevance of that? How to think about the future, when the ethics of the death drive appears to be an ethics of ‘no future’ (Edelman 2004)? To entertain this question of the future further, is the future after violence one of hope or one that is inherently scarred, and which can therefore framed by concepts of ‘trauma’? How does ethnography, including ethnographic engagements with abhorrent objects, trouble understandings of ‘trauma’ as an unassailable moral category (Fassin and Rechtman 2009)? Why not trouble those psychoanalytic frames that invoke dynamics of repetition/compulsion with alternative figurations, the short-circuit invoked by Zizek, say, or the cut in the network invoked by Strathern – to cite two key points of reference in our respective work? How to dwell, ethnographically and theoretically, on the pull and appeal of the inorganic?

12.15 – 1.15 PM Session II – The Ends of Belonging, Paul Boyce and Greg Madison
In this dialogue we seek to explore contested experiences of ‘belonging elsewhere’, in places and spaces marked and experienced as other than ‘home.’ We explore a sense of equivalency that may be sought in pursuing alterity through chosen (rather than coerced) displacement as we consider how such actions may reveal life-worlds as anyway always already characterised by a sense of non-belonging. Being at home in the world, we consider, maybe always to experience the limits of belonging; home as an ideology of containment that is knowable by its limits and what lies beyond – the end of belonging. We consider such experiences as ubiquitous in the contemporary moment, synonymous with modern experiences of migration, displacement, precarity and so on.  Out of these reflections we consider a view of ethnographic practice as a possible pursuance of alterity and outside belonging, these attributes figuring in complex proximities. Thinking about ethnography in these terms we wonder what it is to conceive of particular experiences as ethnographic; what it means to conceptually demarcate a zone of life-experience as ‘the ethnography’, or by association, anthropological. In parallel this consideration opens up a reflection on psychotherapeutic practices and spaces, which, we wonder, may be predicated on drawing a (artificial) boundary around a zone of experience and dialogue, which may or may not be conducive to therapeutic encounters. We contemplate ways in which psychotherapeutic and ethnographic practices may share common preoccupations with seeking to both resolve and disrupt a sense of belonging in the world.
The themes of this discussion derive from shared experiences wherein Greg Madison visited Paul Boyce a number of times in the course of his ethnographic fieldwork in West Bengal, India. These visits opened-up unexpected themes for Greg’s doctoral research, on existential migration, while for Paul the theme of outside belonging has endured as a perspective on queer, and other, experiences of anthropology.

1.15 – 2.15 Lunch

2.15 – 3.15 Session III – Digital fabrics of violence: circulation, affect, and the political everyday, EJ Gonzales-Polledo and Adi Kuntsman
In this session, we bring into conversation our work on the digital as a site of making and unmaking violence. Departing from two seemingly diverse research contexts – racist and militarism politics on the Internet, on one hand, and digital cultures of chronic pain, on the other – we map the many ways in which “the digital” shapes our engagement with feelings and knowledge; how the digital facilitates, mediates and reframes politics, and how violence of multiple scales and forces is made in, our, and through digital domains.
The conversation begins with a brief introduction to our work, moving onto a set of concepts, of points of dialogue. The first one is circulation. We explore how circulation turns digital objects into political scandals, and then into archives or future hope and reckoning and how the circulation of images reframes pain from a discreet experience inside the individual body to an intensely political process, a political ecology. The second one is reverberation. Through the notion of reverberation we aim to capture multiple effects of violence as it moves between texts, sites and subjects, on and off-line; and account for the persistence of violence after it is gone, as a form of political murmur. The conversation concludes with some suggestions to rethink the idea of digital visibility, shifting towards other worms of digital knowledge and affect: hearing and listening; experiencing and feeling on (and under) one’s skin; knowing and not knowing. The aim here is to ask, how can a departure from visibility, as the dominant perception of the digital medium (which, indeed, is increasingly trafficking in the seen and the visualised), aid our different understanding of politics, in digital domains, and beyond.
3.15 – 3.30 Tea

3.30 – 5 How Worlds Arrive in Selves
Keynote Address by Professor Kathleen Stewart
Here, I present ethnographic scenes of an ordinary world in which experience is a pathic experiment, a labor of leaning in to states of emergence. This perspective animates a search for ontological alternatives to the enervated concept of a fixed relation between essentialized subjects, objects, and worlds. Current work in post-phenomenology, new materialism, and non-representational theory animates, instead, an attunement to the compositional forms on which life, and selves, venture forth. In the strange, eventful, ordinary the actual is a kinaesthetic, conceptual, material, and energetic gesture. Phenomena stretch across a vast material-aesthetic-sensory-political landscape only to clump into dense little precisions in which selves and worlds become partially palpable. The world-self relation is a generative mapping of what could be in what is. Materialities swell into modes of address, perceptions are a gathering place of dispositions, and history and determination accrete in the moving multiplicities of bodies, characters, a kind of eye contact, a gesture, a reserve, a sublime upsurge, a stuckness, or a partial coherence scored over matter and meaning like a musical refrain.


Professor Kathleen Stewart is based in the Department of Anthropology, College of the Liberal Arts, University of Texas at Austin. Her research explores affect, the ordinary and the senses, and modes of ethnographic engagement based on curiosity and attachment. Her ethnographic writings are experiments in writing from the intensities in things, to ask what potential modes of knowing, relating or attending to things are already being enacted and imagined in ordinary ways of living. Her books include Ordinary Affects (2007).

You can listen to Professor Stewart’s BISR Public Lecture, ‘Worlding in a Sense of Place’, here.

With the following contributors, in dialogue:

Paul Boyce, Department of Anthropology, University of Sussex
Greg Madison, British Psychological Society
Suhraiya Jivraj, Kent Law School (TBC)
Adi Kuntsman, Deparment of Journalism, Information and Communications, Manchester Metropolitan University
EJ Gonzales-Polledo, Methodology Institute, London School of Economics                                Mark Leopold, Department of Anthropology, University of Sussex
Silvia Posocco, Department of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck

To register, please follow the steps on this page: REGISTRATION

Part II

Analytical Frictions and Intersections
7 October 2015, 1 – 5.30 PM, Birkbeck, University of London

Room 101, 30 Russell Square*
*(Room is on the first floor, through 3 flights of stairs, to use the lift, please ask the porter)

Keynote Speakers
Professor Stephen Frosh is based in the Department of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck. His work has focused on helping to establish the new discipline of psychosocial studies, especially through considering the psychological, social and cultural applications of psychoanalytic theory. His writing pays particular attention to issues of gender and identity and of their relationship to developments in social life, and more recently to questions of otherness and racist hate. He is the author of several books, including Psychoanalysis Outside the Clinic (2010) and For and Against Psychoanalysis (2006).

Professor Henrietta Moore is the founding Director of the new Institute for Global Prosperity at University College London where she also holds the Chair of Philosophy, Culture and Design.  She is an internationally renowned social anthropologist who has written extensively on the interrelation between material and symbolic gender systems, embodiment and subjectivity. She is the author of several books, including The Subject of Anthropology (2007), a cutting-edge analysis of gendered subjectivity and a ground-breaking contribution to the debates between anthropology and psychoanalysis. Professor Moore regularly participates in public and academic debates and has written and presented on subjects ranging from virtual worlds and new technologies, to self-imagining, democratic political decision – making and contemporary art.

With the following contributors:

Lita Crociani-Windland, Department of Health and Social Sciences, University of the West of England – Palio, Dreams and Puzzles: finding Psychoanalytic Limits in the Work of Culture
Thomas Hendriks, Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa, Leuven University, Belgium – Ethnographic exercises in anti-melancholia: rethinking desire from urban Congo
Fabio Gygi, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London – The Object of Belief/The Object that believes: the cosmology of human-object relations in contemporary Japan
Anna-Esther Younes, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva – “Ver-rückt”: Towards an Ethnography of the Racial Uncanny

Provisional Programme

1 – 2 Unsustainability and the limits of Satisfaction
Keynote address by Professor Henrietta Moore
In Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud linked culture to the limiting of satisfactions, arguing that in order to be civilised we always have to relinquish our immediate desires and attach ourselves to substitutions for them. But, the drive towards growth and consumption globally in the last sixty years has shown scant regard for such limits. We are consuming the world and its resources and when faced with the prospect in the global north of having to limit consumption we swiftly turn aside. How might anthropology and psychoanalysis approach this problem? There is a clear need here to link ideas about subjectivity and subject formation to larger social and political processes, and to a new critical politics. This lecture explores these issues from a series of questions which relate desire to questions of ethics.

2- 3.15 Panel session with Dr Lita Crociani-Windland, Dr Thomas Hendriks, Dr Fabio Gygi and Anna-Esther Younes

Lita Crociani-Windland Dreams and Puzzles: Finding Psychoanalytic Limits in the Work of Culture
Thomas HendriksEthnographic exercises in anti-melancholia: rethinking desire from urban Congo
Fabio GygiThe Object of Belief/The Object that believes: the cosmology of human-object relations in contemporary Japan                                                                    Anna-Esther Younes – “Ver-rückt”: Towards an Ethnography of the Racial Uncanny

3.15 – 3.30 Tea and coffee

3.30 – 4.30 The Unconscious of Psychoanalysis
Keynote address by Professor Stephen Frosh
Psychoanalysis, the theory and practice of the ‘unconscious’, has an unconscious of its own. The unconscious of psychoanalysis can be seen in the implicit models that it holds of the nature of the human subject, and particularly of the manner in which unconscious ‘knowledge’ is solidified in culture and is passed between and through people. This can be thought of as an ‘unconscious of theory’, or more simply as a mode of ideological practice: social discourse presented as neutral observation, scientific fact or clinical discovery. It can also be seen in a variety of institutional enactments, as psychoanalytic organisations respond to the specific demands of the surrounding culture, almost always (as professional societies) choosing the more conservative of the alternative paths that are open to them.
Yet psychoanalysis, of course, is not one thing. Not only are there significant differences between its different ‘schools’ (ego psychology, object relations, Lacan, etc), but there are also different registers in which it operates. These registers can be vividly distinct: for example the intimacy of the psychoanalytic clinical encounter, based on careful tracking of speech inflected, but not necessarily determined, by theoretical concerns; or psychoanalysis ‘applied’ to social and cultural phenomena – ‘objects’ such as literature, art and politics; or the cultural consumption of psychoanalysis as a reflexive mode of self-understanding. In these different forms, psychoanalysis also has different unconscious practices; it is – to use a widespread trope – differently haunted.
In this talk, psychoanalysis will be turned back on itself in relation to these different types of ‘unconscious’ functioning. In this, it is treated as a reflexive cultural object – it is produced by its social context, it performs some of the hidden as well as obvious elements of this context, and it reflects back on the context too, to create the world it describes. This now rather anodyne idea, that we are in a psychoanalytically ‘saturated’ world, is given some sharpness when we think about it as a mechanism whereby discarded (foreclosed, disavowed) elements of the social – perhaps particularly of colonialism– are smuggled back in.


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