The strengths and limitations of a psychoanalytic perspective on current events

Planet

By Martin Vogel

Book review: Danse Macabre and other stories: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Global Dynamics By Halina Brunning and Olya Khaleelee. 2021, Phoenix Publishing.

This book examines the political events of the 21st Century through the lens of psychoanalytic concepts. While it takes a global perspective, it is firmly rooted in the experience of the United Kingdom. It consequently lacks focus to the extent that the authors struggle to add depth to the insight that is readily available to anyone who tries to stay well-informed about current events. They’re not helped by having to retrofit the impact of the pandemic, which began at the tail-end of the period in which they were writing. Their analysis of Covid-19 reflects the fragmented knowing that was forming as the virus took hold and looks shop-worn in the context of the continuing uncertainty in late 2021.

But, for what it lacks in depth, Danse Macabre compensates with breadth.

The authors’ main thesis is that citizens have suffered increasing insecurity as the familiarity of the post-war world decomposed. With the end of the Cold War, new forms of splitting and projection arose to replace the binary opposition of capitalism and communism which – for all the threat of nuclear annihilation – had provided a kind of containment. The rise of Islamist terrorism and the financial crash of 2007 translated hypothetical insecurity into imminent jeopardy. Brunning and Khaleelee present the electoral success of nationalist populism – exemplified by Brexit and the Trump’s victory – as providing containment for unsettled publics. But they don’t discuss how this also intensified the lack of containment for the halves of the populations that did not buy into the populist agenda.

For coaches working in business contexts, the book provides a primer on some of the psychological imperatives arising from the social and political contexts in which organisations are located. There is an insightful section on the rise of illiberal liberalism – formerly known as political correctness and currently referred to as woke. The authors note the contradiction between emancipatory social justice aspirations and the authoritarian character of campaigns to police thoughts and words. They characterise this as an expression of the rage of the Millennial generation who – facing economic precarity, pandemic and climate catastrophe – are seizing on an effective way to exercise power over the older generations who have dealt them an appalling hand. With good reason, the authors worry that the totalitarian impulse has spread too far to be reigned back and wonder whether liberal democracies will survive the accession to leadership of the Millennials.

The book strikes an extremely pessimistic tone on the ability of the world to tackle the environment crisis. This highlights the limitation of applying only a psychoanalytic lens. Ultimately, the big challenges the world faces call for political critique. While affecting an apolitical stance, the authors’ analysis seems constrained by the capitalist discourses of growth that, through becoming accepted as common sense, have legitimised the plunder of the planet. It is the younger generations who are reaching for new paradigms. Until they take over, the question is whether the elders can provide enough stewardship in the current decade to prevent catastrophe.

Coaches have an urgent role in helping this to happen – mainly through asking searching questions of the leaders they support. Coaches must have sufficient detachment from the orthodoxy of old to hold leaders to account on how their organisations shape society and protect or damage the ecology. While Danse Macabre provides few answers, it can resource coaches to ask questions of themselves regarding their own contribution to addressing the big challenges of our age.

A version of this article appears in the October 2021 edition of Coaching Perspectives.

*Image courtesy NASA at Unsplash.

Navigating trauma in coaching

By Martin Vogel

The practice of coaching deals with more darkness than is often acknowledged. From my earliest days as a coach, I have encountered people who are navigating significant difficulty in life. Trauma is a subject not easily broached in coaching. Clients and coaches often assume this is the terrain of therapy and are fearful of going there.

But trauma is widely prevalent. For many of us, our traumas may well be be reactivated by some of the questions currently playing out in society – the climate crisis, coronavirus, Brexit, to name a few. Coaches and clients alike are affected by these developments and their learned adaptations to trauma may well influence not just how they respond to things from day to day but also how the coaching relationship plays out. The question is not whether to consider trauma in coaching but how.

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Tuning into the cascade of experience

By Martin Vogel

I’ve written before about the stirring voice work of Nadine George. My introduction to the work last year has turned out not to be an isolated encounter but the beginning of an exploration that I suspect I might pursue for some time. Most recently, I joined a two-day workshop in Glasgow with a group of people with varying levels of experience in the method – from decades to none. Nadine’s work continues a tradition begun by Alfred Wolfsohn and developed by Roy Hart. If voice work conjures for you a technical exercise in projecting one’s voice, this is much more than that. It is a journey in giving voice to aspects of one’s self that don’t easily find expression. It’s a form of self-development that takes effect remarkably quickly. If my initial work with Nadine touched me profoundly, the opportunity to practise with a group penetrated to a further level of depth.

It’s harder to write about a group experience than about a lesson on my own. My experience is wrapped up with that of everyone else. It’s not just mine to share. So this piece is published with the consent of the others.

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Leading from the right: understanding the divided brain

By Martin Vogel

It’ll be ten years in October since Iain McGilchrist published The Master and His Emissary, his magisterial study of the division of the brain into left and right hemispheres and the impact of this division on Western civilisation. I began reading it in 2013 and have finished it in time for the tenth anniversary. Although McGilchrist writes well and lucidly, and although I devour books, I found this one a challenging read. I needed to take pauses from reading it to let its argument sink in. This isn’t just a reflection of my cognitive abilities. McGilchrist writes in ways that draw on both left- and right-hemisphere orientations. My struggle perhaps exemplifies his thesis that we have become inured to left-dominant ways of comprehending.

The outcome of 25 years’ polymathic scholarship, The Master and His Emissary cites 2,500 sources of neuroscience, provides a potted history of Western culture and philosophy from the Greeks to the present day, and displays refined critical appreciation of art, literature and music through the ages. Despite its challenging nature, it is widely cited in coaching and leadership circles, though often erroneously by those who take it to be a confirmation of pop psychology constructs of the left and right “brains” as having different functions: left for language, right for creativity, etc. Continue reading “Leading from the right: understanding the divided brain”

A Holocaust story and its relevance today

By Martin Vogel

Ostrava Nesselroth passage

I’ve been reading the story of how a liberal, prosperous community succumbs to nationalism and xenophobia. In relatively short order, it descends into violence and murder as democracy and the rule of law collapse. Ultimately, it is transformed from a progressive centre of enterprise and culture into a backwater. Its Jewish community is wiped out.

This is the story of Ostrava in the Czech Republic and the rise and fall of its Jewish community. It’s also the story of my father and scores like him who managed to escape the fate of the overwhelming majority of Ostrava Jews and establish lives for themselves elsewhere.

Ostrava and Its Jews by David Lawson, Libuše Salomonovičová and Hana Šústková is a labour of love that pieces together a picture of the community from archival records alongside the testimony of survivors. It represents in microcosm, a rich and detailed portrait of European Jewish life and its relationship with wider society before the Holocaust swept it all aside. Continue reading “A Holocaust story and its relevance today”

Exploring voice

By Martin Vogel

One of the most stirring encounters that I experienced this year was a one-hour lesson with Nadine George on discovering your voice. Nadine has been teaching voice for thirty years to actors, directors and other creative types. According to her website:

“Having spent eight years researching the voice at the University of Birmingham Drama Department, Nadine has developed her own voice technique. She now works closely with many international theatre companies and drama schools all over Europe. She has been teaching at the Royal Conservatoire Scotland for the past 20 years, where her work is now the chosen technique taught by the Centre for Voice In Performance.”

What was I doing there? A good question. I wasn’t entirely sure myself. I was sent to Nadine by my wife who had previously trained with Nadine, and who had an instinct that I’d find the lesson rewarding.

Her method is in a lineage that descends from Alfred Wolfsohn via Roy Hart. These were not names that meant much to me before this year. Suffice to say this is not an entirely performance-based tradition of voice work. Wolfsohn suffered shell shock during the First World War and used vocalising as a form of self-treatment after other therapies failed to help. While Nadine does not claim to be a therapist, she recognises that her work has therapeutic impacts.

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Grounds for optimism

By Martin Vogel

Not everything about chaos is miserable. We may be living through an epoch-defining collapse of the socio-economic settlement we have known for four decades. A reckoning with free-market, shareholder value capitalism is long overdue and it is happening in more disruptive ways than was needed. Things may look disturbing and confusing. But, as David Brooks reminds, out of chaos comes hope:

“There have been many moments in our history when old ideas and old arrangements stopped working and people chopped them up. Those transition moments were bumpy, and it was easy to lose hope, but then people figured it out. Never underestimate the power of human ingenuity.”

He doesn’t mean the kind of blind-faith, glib, muddling-through, bulldog-spirit, groundless hope that keeps churning out the same answers to new problems. He’s not British. He’s talking about the application of imagination to the invention of new paradigms; meeting a new reality with new strategies.

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Tracking down Conquest’s law on organisations

By Martin Vogel

The more it is cited, the more frustrated I become about “Robert Conquest’s Third Law of Politics” which is said to state:

The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

The aphorism strikes me as so profound and relevant that I have often tried to verify its attribution. Conquest was a renowned historian of the Soviet Union, so his opinions on the politics of organisations carry considerable credibility.

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Beyond codes of ethics to ethical maturity

By Martin Vogel

A recent article by Kara Swisher in the New York Times appeared under the headline Who Will Teach Silicon Valley to Be Ethical? Tech companies have been attracting a fair amount of criticism this year over their grasp of ethics. But they’re not alone in finding this area a minefield. The shareholder value view of firms, which has it that their sole purpose is to make a profit, still shapes leadership thinking in most organisations. This infects even those – like the BBC or NHS – that aren’t ostensibly profit focussed but where stripping out cost often crowds out other considerations. Where a reductionist view of purpose prevails, it’s not surprising that questions of ethics may receive scant consideration.

Kara Swisher considers various solutions including companies appointing chief ethics officers, putting in place official systems of ethics or (radical idea) chief executives stepping up to the plate to provide more leadership. She quotes an unnamed ethical consultant who complains that appointing custodians of ethics would be no more than window dressing because “we haven’t even defined ethics yet”.

Running through all of this is an assumption that ethics can be defined to delineate universal principles that clearly determine ethical or unethical behaviour in all eventualities. Coaching has been pursuing this track for some years. Every professional association of coaches has a code of ethics that its members commit to follow. And yet coaches, who are privy to ethical dilemmas more than most in business, must know that ethical choices are highly contingent on the contexts in which they arise. This is the essence of the well-known trolley problem: it’s obviously wrong to kill someone; but what if doing so saves the lives of five others? Continue reading “Beyond codes of ethics to ethical maturity”

Nick Cave as coach

By Martin Vogel

Nick Cave has initiated an interesting project answering questions sent in from his fans. The questions are searching. The meditations Nick Cave composes in reply are works of artistry in their own right.

Last year, I wrote about the transcendent experience of the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds concerts that followed the death of his son. The first of his epistles addresses this very theme. He describes how immersion in work and – in so doing – recovering a sense of wonder helped him find community and accept his grief:

“I kind of realised that work was the key to get back to my life, but I also realised that I was not alone in my grief and that many of you were, in one way or another, suffering your own sorrows, your own griefs. I felt this in our live performances. I felt very acutely that a sense of suffering was the connective tissue that held us all together.”

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