Psychoanalysis and Culture

Winter 2023      UC Irvine

Mike Fortun

“How can what psychoanalysis teaches us be taught?” 

Jacques Lacan

“…it will be enough if [the student] learns something about psychoanalysis and something from it.”

Sigmund Freud

Our focus in this course is on psychoanalytic theories and their development over time in different cultural contexts. The course is largely organized around the history of psychoanalysis as a way of knowing (a science, to some) that drives the therapeutic practice from which it also derives; this organization, and its inevitably selective inclusions and omissions, are a mark of my own developmental past as a historian of science. For as long as there have been practicing psychoanalysts, first in European cultures but quickly disseminating, those psychoanalysts have also theorized the dynamics and connections between, on the one hand, psyche and Kultur—the theoretical purview of anthropologists as well—and between mind and body on the other. These are bodies of knowledge that alloy creative speculations with close empirical (clinical,  professional, textual) engagements, i.e. amalgams of theory and practice—again, much like anthropology. We’ll trace some of these developments in different cultural contexts but generally tracing a historical timeline of development, beginning in the early 20th century and ending in the early 21st, engaging with some of its analytic findings, with what its practitioners agreed and disagreed on and why, and with how psychoanalytic theories combined with or were resisted by other bodies of knowledge like anthropology, education, neurology, postcolonial theory, and perhaps most of all, feminist theory.

Too many interesting psychoanalysts are present here only in the third person, so to speak, as they are referenced by works from these other domains. Freud and Lacan are two writers that I deliberately excluded, with varying degrees of mourning: Freud because he is such a fine writer and expansive thinker, Lacan because he seems to be everywhere in critical scholarships of many kind, the water we swim in. I have no regrets about omitting Zizek, although I do wish there had been room for Joan Copjec. I do regret not having more space for Klein, Winnicott, Fanon, Fairbairn, Loewald, Bowlby, Sullivan, Bollas, and so many others. I also regret (a little) not finding a way to include more anthropologists like Roheim, Obeysekere, Pandolfo, Schechter. I regret, a little bit more, sidestepping Foucault. Also missing, for the most part, are readings where psychoanalysis crosses into an anthropology interested primarily in cultural difference – e.g. the diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia in Japan versus the U.S., or the experiences of PTSD or depression in Norway or Sierra Leone. But my biggest regret by far and the last one I will mention is the dearth of Derrida, whose myriad deconstructive analyses of psychoanalysis are among the most incisive engagements with that literature and who, more than any other writer, took me into and beyond the psychoanalytic.

The course tries to convey something of the multiplicity of psychoanalytic theorizings, their productively divergent development in numerous cultural contexts for well over a century, and their persistent vibrancy and relevance. In the end, my overall mistake may have been opting for more synthetic, second-order writings that present psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic concepts in the more economical reframings of anthropology, history, and other theory, instead of the wonderfully interminable analyses of Freud, Derrida, and the others. To transfer Winnicott’s remark about mothers to our situation: the course is “good enough,” I hope, to provoke learning something about psychoanalytic theory, the ways it has connected the molecular/personal and the molar/cultural, and the mutable and powerful forces it has exerted, and been subjected to, in diverse worlds and times. And learning something from it: a new way of reading, a different desire, another set of paradoxes, a more capacious self with more, and more fluid, positions.

Assignments and Assessment

Satisfactory completion of these assignments is recognized with the institutional grade “A”:

  1. Engaged participation in each class session, and the opening of discussion in at least one, not through a presentation of a reading or author but through the introjection of a question, problem, or insight.
  2. Weekly 10-minute “free association” writings done after a reading or set of readings. These will remain completely private, unread by anyone other than you. The only rules are to do them, and to write uninterruptedly as much as possible, stopping at 10 minutes; pen and paper, keyboard, whatever. You may have something like this practice already; if you don’t, consider this a trial run that has no obligation beyond the course. But you are obliged here and now, even if you find it silly or strange or a waste of time. At the end of the quarter, I will have considered them done, although they will remain unseen.
  3. Weekly notes, questions, and responses of any length, any style, any grammar. There are a few options here and more details will be elaborated in class, but I envision everyone creating these as google docs to be shared before class each week (preferably by early Monday morning) that can be accessed through folders linked to here.  These should contain quotes from the reading(s), of any length – indeed, if that is all they are, that is just fine. Beyond that, any and all commentary, questions, wild speculations, poetic fragments, etc. are highly encouraged.
  4. Two short (~5pp) or one longer (~10pp) writing(s) written and re-written for any purpose you want, as long as one of those purposes is NOT “make Mike happy as I imagine his happiness to be.” It may be an insert for something else you are writing; it may be the opening or closing of a new piece of writing; it may be something whose final form you can only glimpse or imagine; it may be a lecture introducing a psychoanalytic thinker or psychoanalytic concept to undergraduates; it may be... There are only two real requirements: the writing should be composed around one reading from the “shared” or “diverged” readings in the syllabus, plus one additional work, either from the “’beyond” section or some other work by the same creator, or by a different creator but concerning the same concept or analytic theme. I will be happy to receive these at any time, but will need to have them/it by March 24.

1       (1/9)


2 (1/16)

qauntum foam







5         (2/6)


6         (2/13)


7        (2/20)






10   (3/13)

recognizing, domination