The Persistence of Psychoanalysis in the CyborgOrg, Part II

My friend and colleague Simon Western is the author of influential books on coaching and leadership, founder of the Analytic-Network Coaching System , and President of ISPSO .  In a recent update he sent out the the ISPSO membership, Simon wrote:

I was working with a global leadership team in an internationally renowned high-tech company… and was struck by how receptive they were to psychoanalytic thinking.  My experience was that the dynamics of the high-tech world are very focused on producing objects, hardware and software, virtual and real objects, but always objects. The HR and OD teams unconsciously turn people into objects too. The missing piece for me was the great need to focus on subjects and subjectivity: to look at the world not only through an objective lens, but also through a subjective lens; and there is no better way of doing this than engaging with psychoanalytic thinking and methods.

For me, Western’s description of a product-/object-obsession nails something both obvious and ignored.  In my office, there are product plans on big screens on the wall; dashboards show progress towards product release goals; weekly emails color-code product status -green, yellow or red.  We have a Product division, a Product budget, Product Managers, Product Marketing, a product dev philosophy, competitive product analyses, etc.

I’ve thought of the effect all of this has on what we build, how we build it, how we sell it, and how our customers use it, but I’ve never turned the mirror around and wondered how it’s affected us.

Perhaps what has changed is the very way we distinguish subject from object, creator from product from user.  Perhaps the modern organization thinks of what it produces differently.  It’s no longer just a widget or a commodity; it’s a solution.  It’s no longer an item to be exchanged for money in a one time transaction, but an ongoing relationship (a subscription, a license, a brand, a franchise, etc.).  In other words, we make offerings to the other, where our subjectivity itself depends on the other’s desire for it.  In this world, our product development and go-to-market has its own object-relations; our business models have their own attachment theories.

To follow Western’s argument, then, subjectivity is deeply intertwined with its objects–its products–to such an extent that it’s easy to forget which is primary.  The subject has only the security of its products to assure its salary, to establish its value and its meaning.  And this logic doubles back to Western’s critique: we’re projecting our humanity onto commodities as a defense against its very precariousness.  The threat of redundancy–of uselessness, valuelessness–hangs over us all, should our products not meet a need (or should that need be fulfilled for less elsewhere).

Not only is our subjectivity resting precariously on our technological product, it also has been colonized by the products of others.  Products free us from many of our traditional organizational roles: we no longer have to keep our own records, maintain our own payroll, balance our own books, store our own data, track our own inventory, etc. The humans that used to bring a subjective dimension to the workplace—the receptionist who greeted you; the clerk who kept the office supplies; the admin who processed your receipts; the support staff that picked up the phone when you called; etc. —are all as anachronistic as the scissors and glue you used to use to cut and paste your text.  (Perhaps our subjectivity itself has been outsourced, to some part of the world that can still afford the labor costs of being a subject.)

Western positions psychoanalysis as the wedge against the loss of our consciousness of ourselves as human subjects.  To me, psychoanalysis can serve this function not simply because of its attention to the deepest parts of the human experience, but paradoxically because of its anti-humanism as well.  Freud wrote his most powerful works from World War I up through the rise of Nazism.  He wrote during an era of unprecedented technological progress and unfathomable inhumanity.  Even as he dethroned the enlightenment individual, elevated unconscious dynamics above our flimsy conscious intentions, and subjected the ego to the id and superego, he simultaneously established the way we understand the irreducible remainder that is our subjectivity, beyond the splits, alienations, objectifications, etc. that define our contemporary existence.  Thus psychoanalysis–and psychoanalytic approaches to HR and OD challenges–are the alternative to treating humans as production machines, with efficiencies to be gained, productivity to be optimized, cognitive processes to be standardized, and value to be captured.

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