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Impious Fidelity

Anna Freud, Psychoanalysis, and Politics


 Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg


Ithaca (New York): Cornell University Press, 2011

Hardcover. x+245 p. ISBN 978-0801450341. $39.95


Reviewed by Deborah P. Britzman

York University (Toronto, Ontario)



What a rare occasion for the work of Anna Freud (1885-1982), daughter of Sigmund Freud, to be brought into the thickets of contemporary political theory and be handled with imagination. More typically, when psychoanalytic thought is taken beyond the clinic in the English-speaking world Lacan, Klein, or Bion serve as psychoanalytic emissaries with visitation rights to cultural and political theory. Stewart-Steinberg accounts for why Anna Freud’s work presents a more difficult case for social theory, even as her influence in child custody policy, adaption laws, and child and adolescent education—surely all affairs of politics—remains unmatched.

Stewart-Steinberg’s interest is in exploring the political designs of Anna Freud’s notion of the ego to propose the self as both the stalwart of democracy and democracy’s on-going task. When reading this text it is worth thinking—through Anna Freud’s accomplishments—why and how through group life individuals come to their matter. She left behind eight volumes of writings, an archive of letters, book reviews, critiques of psychoanalytic training, talks to teachers and social workers, and a method for studying the nurseries and documenting lines of development. The British Psychoanalytical Society has a stream in their training dedicated to the Anna Freudians. While she did not found a school, she did extend the valence of Ego psychology with the clinic of child analysis and onto the new project of psychoanalytical education for teachers and parents. Over the last few years, through the historical work of Riccardo Steiner that documents the socio-political and cultural contexts of psychoanalysis in the twentieth century, we are also learning more about Anna Freud’s significant role in moving Jewish European Psychoanalysts between the years 1939-1944 to countries of safety. Much of this recue work was behind the scenes, also emblematic of her style: her tact in meeting historical contingencies.

Yet beyond the psychoanalytic community, and perhaps with the exception of the field of education and the expansive discussions by Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, Anna Freud’s biographer, neither she nor the ego appears as a resource for cultural criticism. As persona, fantasies abound—Anna Freud is out of date, rigid in her views, and often burdened by strong negations such as: she is “only” a child analyst; her psychoanalytic viewpoint is conservative; she ignored Freud’s theories of the drives and the unconscious; and, in the worst case, is dismissed as Freud’s puppet. In certain ways theory handles the ego in a similar fashion, particularly given the influence of post structural thought. There, we grapple with splitting: can the ego be both imaginary and the basis for something like a self? I image Anna Freud would be interested in understanding the practical use of this confusion and why, for example, personal attacks in the guise of psychoanalyzing the other’s character destroy honest critique.

Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg’s book analyzes these complications and presents Anna Freud by passing her work through theories of democracy, literary psychoanalysis, mythology, and contemporary theories of sexual difference. The author’s main focus is to consider Anna Freud as insisting on grounding “politics” in the inter-subjective space of the nursery—that is, through the destiny of our earliest libidinal attachments, childhood reveries, identifications, and infantile theories. Politics, on this view, cannot be devoid of affect and its reaction formation, a transformation of envy through cries of equality, the fantasies of nice stories, and late ego defenses that reach into higher aims. Stewart-Steinberg then focuses on the perils and pleasures of democracy from the inside out. Rightly the author elaborates why a psychoanalytic theory of affect would help social thought sort through the dilemmas of aggression and envy in democratic life and dare to ask two new questions: what type of emotional life may sustain and be sustained by the desire for social justice, and which psychoanalytic and political mythologies may help move the project of democracy to an autonomy not yet in place? From this perspective, we leave the cast of an abstract, unaffected individual used by theory and may enter both the actual world and fantasies about it.

Stewart-Steinberg’s large claim, developed throughout the study, is that democracy requires the paradox of strong egos yet the strength at stake is feminine and belongs to flexibility in pleasure and a capacity to surrender to or “stepping out…between the passively received command of a banishment and the active gesture of a leaving’ [215-216]. The author finds within Anna Freud’s discussion of the ego’s defense mechanism of altruistic surrender a fragile ethic that leans on fantasy but is also subject to displacement and turning against the subject. Too much surrender or altruism, in other words, is destructive to the self. In following this emotional logic we should remember that the ego is a bodily ego and holds gender in store, but mainly from the side of its phantasmagorical qualities. Stewart-Steinberg features the erotic gender dilemma as it plays between phantasies of fathers and daughters and then, in the case of Anna Freud, has a second life, or a strange brand of loyalty that the author calls “impious fidelities.”

The ego is only strong, and this is Anna Freud’s contribution, if it can surrender its envy (the father’s contribution) and move between the defenses of identification with the aggressor and altruistic surrender (the daughter’s contribution). Stewart-Steinberg brings a great deal of theory and imagination to this claim: contemporary Freudian Oedipal theory, gender theory, deconstruction, and the politics of Hannah Arendt and John Rawls (both of whom wished to set aside the private from the public).

This bridge between politics and psychoanalysis is built from a complex reading of Sigmund Freud’s 1919 paper, “A Child is being beaten,” where he works out positions in phantasy: watching, waiting, wanting, doing, and displacing aggression throughout the imaginary of love and hate. Stewart-Steinberg then brings into play Anna Freud’s “reply” in her own 1922 paper, “Beating fantasies and daydreams.” These papers are read as fantasy dialogue and Stewart-Steinberg emphasizes Miss Freud’s abiding interest in the ego’s capacity to repair its conflicts through daydreams, nice (yet boring) stories, and ultimately transforms conflicts into new modes of living with others. It is this capacity of the ego that permits democracy its imagination and the repression of its violent origins. How such capacity may be created and whether democracy may contribute to new modes of subjectivity, however, remains our deepest question.

The figure of Anna Freud is taken through the prism of Sophocles’ Antigone and is often called by the author, “Anna Antigone.” Stewart-Steinberg skillfully moves in and out of these the various claims of loyalty, and perhaps a bit like Anna Freud, seeks a compromise between psychoanalysis and social thought. What is not compromised is the author’s interest in the desire to become a self with others. This desire to become someone, Stewart-Steinberg argues, is both the heart of democracy and its pathos, given that selves are always interfered with by the actual world of others and psychical design. As for the emotional world, the self must paradoxically lean upon phantasies and give them up.

At times, the reading road is bumpy. The multifarious and often conflicted theoretical lens the author employs tends to blur the object of the study. Perhaps this cannot be helped since the ego, too, is a panorama of conflicts, themselves rooted in functions that run from reality testing, defenses, perception, and judgment and to defenses made from primal wishes that search the external world and re-find in the mind lost and abandoned objects: the original one being the breast and the rest, more or less adequate substitutions. As both the seat of anxiety and the fountain of love the ego, as Sigmund Freud reminds us, is not master of the house and yet cannot flee from it. So this compromise creature, as he also named it, bears the sum of its functions and, through identifications, the weight of its history of losses.

Anna Freud is known as the theorist of the ego’s mechanisms of defense, and her 1936 book with the same title, is in strong dialogue with Freud’s 1926 paper, “Symptoms, Inhibitions, and Anxieties,” where he turned to the problem of various forms of angst or anguish made from the loss of love. Miss Freud originally named ten defenses against anxiety, but in a revised edition added what Stewart-Steinberg views as the most significant for thinking politics: identification with the aggressor and altruistic surrender. It is this last defense that the author uses to imagine the relation between father and daughter from the side of internal aggression and its transformation. The more sustained question is what the ego must give away for a gain in meaning and still manage to find pleasure in democratic life.

Stewart-Steinberg has taken on a difficult task in figuring the psychic life of politics. And after reading this text, a few questions are worth asking. Do politics signify something new when handled with psychoanalytic theory? How might clinical material, the most idiomatic and unrepeatable representation of an encounter with the other, along with a working sense of all that is behind the scenes in the psychoanalytic field, be used as an allegory for politics? Or, what we would have to give up and rethink and what sort of altruism is at stake in the field of politics in order to imagine what we do not yet know, mainly the difficulties inherent in consciousness and unconsciousness? What would it take for political theory to think with both psychical and material reality as two sides of the same coin? Finally, how might transference to democracy be narrated?

In his 1915 recommendations to psychoanalysts, “Observations on transference love,” Sigmund Freud argued that the transference is pervasive, unconscious, and saturates practices in everyday life, including our theories of it. Yet handling the transference would be the greatest challenge to psychoanalysis, and mainly due to our resistance to the nursery, femininity, and fantasy. Years later, Winnicott wrote that that the public cannot be expected to consider the unconscious. Might it be the case that social theory shares dimensions of this problem? Stewart-Steinberg’s scholarly text makes a strong case for the persistency of psychical reality as both the means for knowledge and ignorance. Her interpretations should be of interest to the clinic of culture and to the culture of psychoanalysis. Holding such a balance, however, is indeed difficult and if at times Stewart-Steinberg tips the scales with flights of metaphors, she also shows us why the work of Anna Freud matters beyond the clinic.


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