A Correspondence on Teaching Emotion and Politics

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Peter Loewenberg (UCLA) and Mark Fisher (UC Irvine)


Recently Mark Fisher, a neurologist and political scientist at the University of California at Irvine, initiated a correspondence with Peter Loewenberg, a historian and psychoanalyst at UCLA, on how most effectively to teach a graduate seminar on “Emotion and Politics: Neuroscience and Psychoanalytic Contributions” in the spring of 2006. We decided to bring this correspondence to you fresh and unaltered because it communicates the immediacy of colleagues who respect each other consulting on psychological social science teaching substance and technique. Only abbreviations and syntactic irregularities have been changed. The times, dates, and formatting are as in the original; personal references to colleagues have been included. We can see the collaborative creative process at work—how one thought or idea leads to others in a creative dialogue about psychoanalysis and teaching. We consider this a model of what we all do, or should do—recognize that knowledge is relative and that we may all benefit from the experience and special expertise of colleagues in allied and interdisciplinary fields. Here Fisher’s international authority in the field of stroke plays a role in the recommendation of the case of President Woodrow Wilson where stroke is a major research issue and his experience as a medical clinician is invoked in the end of life issues.

On 10/18/2005, 05:06 PM, Mark wrote:


I have a question regarding my planned graduate student seminar, Emotion and Politics: Neuroscience and Psychoanalytic Contributions, in Political Science in the Spring: What do you think is the best single source introduction to psychoanalysis suitable for a one quarter seminar primarily for political science grad students who may know nothing about psychoanalysis? I want to get this intro out of the way pretty quickly, not more than one or two weeks. I’m currently considering the Brenner book (which I looked at a long time ago, pretty good as I recall), and also Psychohistory by Szaluta which is a book that you know. I prefer using one book for the introduction. This is designed to be a lead-in to works applying psychoanalysis to politics, e.g.: Harold Lasswell. Your thoughts?


Date: Wed, 19 Oct 2005 12:43:54 -0700
To: Mark Fisher
From: peter loewenberg <peterl@ucla.edu>
Subject: Your Pol Sci grad seminar

Dear Mark—

Brenner is an intro to only clinical psychoanalysis. Szaluta is the best psychohistory “handbook” we have. But you have to limit required readings. Add those to your suggested references. For a grad seminar of skeptical social scientists, a few hands-on case studies of how the use of psychoanalysis can deepen and enrich their understanding of a complex problem is the method I use. Start with facts and theories they know—begin with a political knowledge base familiar to them, such as:

1. President Woodrow Wilson: He repeated patterns of inflexible stubborn confrontation with other strong men to the point where he had to leave or lose, with Dean West as President of Princeton University, the Democratic bosses as Governor of New Jersey, and tragically with the United States Senate (Senator Henry Cabot Lodge) on the League of Nations. George and George document the family origins in humiliation by his stern Calvinist Presbyterian minister father in their 1956 study which has stood up well for half a century. Cocks and Crosby use this case in secs. 10-13, pp. 132-222, of their Psychohistory: #10 is the case of Wilson laid out by Alex George; #11 is an essay on the book by Robert Tucker (You could also use Tucker on Stalin which relates his sadism to his Georgian childhood). #12 Then an attack by neuropsychiatrist Ed Weinstien (it is about stroke—you should love this!) and the Wilson biographer Arthur Link; #13. The Georges respond and counter-attack, bringing in their medical expert—ophthalmologist Michael Marmor of Stanford Medical School (see his contribution on pp. 208-11). You could assign and discuss the Marmor piece: “Wilson, Strokes, and Zebras,” NEJM, 307 (Aug 26, 1982), 528-35. Mark, as a stroke expert—this is your meat!!!

2. On a broader psycho-social scale, your students all know Max Weber’s classic thesis The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-05) which lifts out Radical Reformation Calvinist Puritan non-rational economic motives. He uses our own Benjamin Franklin (pp. 48-50) as his case example of secular inner worldly asceticism. You can juxtapose Weber’s phenomenological description: save, work hard, do not spend, do not waste time nor money, anxiety and guilt at pleasure or opulence, against psychodynamic obsessive-compulsive categories, including Fenichel’s brilliant and explicit (pp. 268-310) loaded with case vignettes, or even Wilhelm Reich’s compulsive character (pp. 193-200), since he deals with unconscious surface character behaviors observable by social scientists.
You should have a ball!


At 06:49 PM 10/19/2005, Mark wrote:

Thanks, Peter.

I’m ordering the Psychohistory: Readings book, and, will check out the NEJM article. This will be an evening seminar. I’m hoping you can visit UCI this spring, maybe have dinner with Shawn
Rosenberg and me, and meet with my class.


Date: Wed, 19 Oct 2005 22:57:29 -0700
To: “Mark Fisher” <mybya@cox.net>
From: peter loewenberg <peterl@ucla.edu>
Subject: more ideas for your seminar


Depending on day and time I’ll try to make it. Michael Marmor is the son of our late Judd Marmor. See further by Michael Marmor, “The Eyes of Woodrow Wilson,” and George, Marmor, and George, “Issues in Wilson Scholarship: References to ‘Early Strokes’….” Some other rich psychodynamic case study ideas for social scientists: 3. “Charisma” which is a spongy Weberian concept in social science systematized by the psychodynamics of transference in Freud’s “Group Psychology…. (1921)
4. The self-defeating denouement of the careers of Nixon and Clinton illuminated by Freud’s “Those Wrecked by Success.” (1916)
5. Hitler leads Wilson in the number of psychological studies. There is a great deal of psychodynamic scholarship on Nazism and Hitler, including my pieces on Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi Youth Cohort, and “Psychohistorical Perspectives on Modern German History.”


At 06:22 AM 10/20/2005, Mark wrote:


I am unfamiliar with the journal abbreviations, ie, JAH, AHR, JMH. The items in #5 would be particularly interesting if you visit UCI. Thanks again…


Date: Fri, 21 Oct 2005 18:01:14 -0700
To: “Mark Fisher” <mybya@cox.net>
From: peter loewenberg <peterl@ucla.edu>
Subject: ideas #6 and 7


AHR: American Historical Review, flagship journal of the profession which comes with membership in the American Historical Association. Every historian receives it by being a member. JMH: Journal of Modern History, a leading journal of modern European history.

JAH: Journal of American History, the journal of the Organization of American Historians, the prime journal for U.S. historians. I today mailed you a reprint of my “The Psychohistorical Origins of the Nazi Youth Cohort.” It is my choice for discussions on method because it combines psychodynamics with broad demographic political traumas like war, national shame, disease, and hunger.

6: One of the hot button topics that always primes good discussion is race in America. I recommend Joel Williamson’s 1997 piece of introspective personal counter-transferential work in JAH. Williamson, a distinguished white historian at University of North Carolina, reveals his self-reflections on why he was able to see and research slavery and segregation, but had a blind spot, could not see, the phenomenon of lynching as the central issue that he now recognizes. This leading American historian did not hesitate to refer to the psychodynamics of gender and sexuality in striving for an explanation: “Lynching was done by all classes of whites; it was done as a public ritual; and it was a tool to control not only blacks but whites as well, and especially white women and, most especially, white women in relation to sexual matters” (p. 1247). He is honest and modest in discussing his blind spots in relating race to rape and sexuality: “This nexus of sex and gender is the thing in southern culture that I feel I understand least…. Is it outrageous to say that the real war, the essence of the conflict, concerned gender, not race, and that lynching and even disenfranchisement, segregation, and proscription had more to do with relations between white men and white women than with relations between blacks and whites (p. 1253, passim)? Mark, if you do nothing else, assign the self-reflective four page “Introduction” (pp. 1217-1220) by JAH Editor, David Thelen, in which he writes:

We live in an age when historians are as interested in the doing of history as in the products of that doing. We want to find out why authors say what they say and why they shun what they shun…. In the best autobiographical accounts personal experience becomes a threshold, not a destination, as authors transcend themselves and speak to us…. Joel Williamson wrote about how he came to see some things while failing to see others, and his essay invited referees to respond in equally intimate and candid ways, comparing what they see as they go about their work with what Williamson saw and revealing why history matters to them (p.1217)…. Williamson challenges us to think about what we see and do not see, to reflect on what in our experience we avoid, erase, or deny, as well as what we focus on…. He insists that the subjects of history live inside us and that we as a culture can talk ourselves into not recognizing and confronting dark emotional sides of our past, preferring to leave them silent in the shadows…. What looks like specialization may be avoidance and erasure…. The challenge for history is to face squarely the things that are so horrible that we try not to see or remember them, not to rest until we have reached the heart of darkness, especially when that heart beats within us…. Beside psychological and cultural issues of avoidance and denial lie fragmenting and isolating rhythms in the contemporary craft of historical scholarship that make it hard for us to find and converse with what we each do (pp. 1219-20, passim).

Thelen eloquently makes the case for the intersubjective countertransference that is always present between the researcher and his subject. What is unique about this article, which your students will never see elsewhere, is that JAH published the original and unaltered referee’s reports from all six referees of this paper, four White scholars who praised it, and two Black scholars who favored rejection, and a seventh feminist scholar who was brought in later. Notwithstanding the honored policy of anonymous and confidential review, waiver of secrecy was granted by all seven reviewers. This offers your graduate students an unprecedented opportunity to view the workings of review and publication bared like an MRI exposes internal physiology and pathology.

# 7: Assisted dying is a hot political issue in America currently before the Supreme Court. It is a theme that speaks to everyone and makes for passion in discussion because we all, on many conscious and unconscious levels must deal with death—our own and our loved ones. I just published an essay on “Assisted Dying in Contemporary America” (Oct. ’05). We had a session at the American Psychoanalytic Association meetings in San Diego where Esther Dreifuss-Kattan, who opposes aid in dying, and Bill Winslade, a lawyer/philosopher medical ethicist now in Texas whom we trained in psychoanalysis; Melissa Nelken, a law professor/psychoanalyst; and I, joined issues on this loaded topic before a very engaged audience. Esther and I are very good friends. Needless to say, colleagues can disagree on issues and still like each other a lot. It is not necessary to be “right.”



We have in the Fisher-Loewenberg correspondence a genuine interdisciplinary enterprise, an undertaking much lauded in academic culture and institutions, but most often honored in the breach. Our colleges and universities are organized in departments and the relevant teaching and efforts to cross disciplinary boundaries will take a back seat as long as teaching assignments and promotions are determined in the power forums of academic departments. Psychoanalysis is the nexus that makes it possible for a medical neurologist and a social scientist historian to relate over the project of organizing a course. “The psycho-analytic mode of thought,” said Freud, “acts like a new instrument of research” (p.185). Today we have researchers and of a new kind, modern inter-disciplinary scholars and teachers who combine dual training in both humanistic self-reflection and biological and psychological science, to utilize multiple processes of inquiry integrating both the natural and the cultural sciences to benefit new insights for themselves, their individual fields, and for their students.


  • Brenner, Charles, An Elementary Textbook of Psychoanalysis (New York: International Universities Press, 1955).
  • Cocks, Geoffrey, and Crosby, Travis, Psychohistory: Readings in the Method of Psychology, Psychoanalysis, and History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).
  • Fenichel, Otto, Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (New York: Norton, 1945).
  • Freud, S., “The Claims of Psycho-Analysis to Scientific Interest” (1913), Standard Edition, XIII, 165-90.
  • Freud, S., “Those Wrecked by Success” in “Some Character-Types Met with in Psychoanalytic Work” (1916), Standard Edition, XIV, 309-333.
  • Freud, S., “Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego,” (1921), Standard Edition, XVIII, 67-143.
  • George, Alexander L. and George, Juliette L., Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: A Personality Study (New York: J. Day Co., 1956).
  • George, Marmor, and George, “Issues in Wilson Scholarship: References to Early ‘Strokes’…,” Journal of American History, 70 (March 1984), 845-53.
  • Lasswell, Harold, Psychopathology and Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).
  • Loewenberg, Peter, “The Psychohistorical Origins of the Nazi Youth Cohort,” in Decoding the Past (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1996), pp. 240-283).
  • Loewenberg, Peter, “Psychohistorical Perspectives on Modern German History,” JMH, 47 (1975), 229-79.
  • Loewenberg, Peter, “Unsuccessful Adolescence of Heinrich Himmler,” in Decoding the Past, pp. 209-239.
  • Loewenberg, Peter, “Assisted Dying in Contemporary America,” in Andreas Bähr and Hans Medick, eds., Sterben von eigener Hand: Selbsttötung als kulturelle Praxis (Köln: Böhlau Verlag, 2005), pp. 219-38.
  • Marmor, Michael, “Wilson, Strokes, and Zebras,” New England Journal of Medicine, 307 (Aug 26, 1982), 528-35.
  • Marmor, Michael, “The Eyes of Woodrow Wilson,” Ophthalmology, 92 (March 1985), 454-65.
  • Reich, Wilhelm, Character Analysis, trans. Theodore P. Wolfe, 3rd, enl. ed. (New York: Noonday Press, Farrar Straus, 1949).
  • Szaluta, Jacques, Psychohistory (New York: Peter Lang, 1999).
  • David Thelen, “What We See and Can’t See in the Past: An Introduction,” JAH, 83:4 (March 1997), pp. 1217-1220.
  • Tucker, Robert C., Stalin as Revolutionary, 1879-1929: A Study in History and Personality (New York: Norton, 1973).
  • Weber, Max, Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons; introd. by Anthony Giddens (New York: Scribner’s, 1958).
  • Williamson, Joel, “Wounds Not Scars: Lynching, the National Conscience, and the American Historian”, in JAH, 83:4 (March 1997), 1221-1272.