"Philly On the Couch" Aims to Psychoanalyze Our Fair City

By Katherine Rochester
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 24, 2012

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Exploring the city’s psyche: What will "Philly on the Couch" reveal about our fair city? Go and find out.

If cities could speak, would they turn to a shrink? Given Philadelphia’s baggage, it might be a good idea. That’s what the advisory panel at Temple Contemporary thought when they invited psychoanalyst Robert Kravis of the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia to join Jeffrey R. Ray, senior curator at the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, to host an evening of urban therapy. With a wink to Sigmund Freud, Philly On the Couch aims to unpack Philadelphia’s fraught history via a psychoanalytic study of its historical objects. It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work.

PW spoke with Kravis and Ray days before what’s sure to be a compelling night of discussion.

How did you prepare for this event?
Ray: I thought I’d look at the sweep of the city’s history, and I approached it from moments of crisis and compromise. Here, in this city founded by William Penn—the first actual place in the world since the Roman Empire where freedom of religion could be expressed in Western culture—Penn arrives in 1681, and in 1682, the brig Isabella arrives, and a hundred or more Africans are sold into slavery within the hour. So, from the very start, there’s what Philadelphia wants to be, and then there’s what it is.
Kravis: One way of describing psychoanalysis is “the mind in conflict.” If we take conflicting values and then say, ‘OK, in an individual, there are conflicting impulses and prohibitions, and they have to be resolved in a certain way,’ then the resolution is often referred to as a compromise solution. We thought maybe we could approach the kind of thing Jeffrey was just talking about (the Quaker values on the one hand and slavery on the other hand) as just such a conflict and ask, ‘So, how did that get resolved?’ And what might it have to do with the formation of, let’s say, the personality of the city? You know, psychoanalysis is also a developmental psychology. The notion is that as people resolve the conflicts they come across, that helps shape their character of their personality. It is a little bit tongue and cheek because, as Jeffrey was indicating, psychoanalysts and historians don’t really analyze cities. But it’s fun to take the concepts and see if they work.

Usually, in psychoanalysis, the patient talks and you listen.
Kravis: Right.

So, you’re going to have a very different role in psychoanalyzing Philadelphia, where Philadelphia is relatively mute, and you get to talk. How is that going to be for you?
Kravis: That’s an interesting question. I guess to some extent, Jeffrey is going to be the patient or the voice of the patient ...
Ray: I was just realizing that!
Kravis: ... and rather than treating this as if it were a session in the consulting room, we’re treating this as an exercise in applying psychoanalytic principles to understanding the evolution of the city.

Jeffrey, is there a particular point in history that you feel has been misrepresented or neglected that you’re especially excited to bring to light?
Ray: The big problem I have with interpretations of Philadelphia or impressions that people have of Philadelphia is that it’s a dull place. The one thing I noticed in learning about the history of the city is that it was rarely, if ever, dull. There’s this idea of the sheen of the Quaker reserve, but the vast majority of Philadelphians were not Quakers. They lived their lives on the street and created a vast and dynamic street life and that’s very much a part of what makes the city what it is today. There’s definitely a character about the city, but getting to that is very hard. Can a collective organization like a city and the people in it be construed and understood as an individual? Is there a persona to Philadelphia? Philly on the Couch is maybe one very fun, hard, reasoned, and accurate way of taking a look at it.

Jeffrey aside, it seems like you’ll necessarily be anthropomorphizing Philadelphia to a certain extent.
Kravis: In our previous meetings, I was really struck by how little I knew about the city’s history. Some of the events and circumstances that Jeffrey is going to be talking about are really fascinating. And it goes back to the discussion: Do cities have characters? I think most people would agree that they do but to go beyond that and say, ‘Okay, what is the character of a particular city?’ I don’t think anyone can do that question justice. But if you pick certain events and say, ‘Okay, this is interesting; look how this worked out. How can we understand the outcome here?’ then maybe one way of understanding it is by thinking about conflict and conflict resolution and compromise formations. Another perspective is narcissism. How do we develop a good feeling about ourselves as people, how do we develop a good feeling about the city we live in?

Hmm, so, narcissism as a positive? Which leads me to another question—a fun one, I think: What’s your pet peeve misunderstanding about psychoanalysis or a common misuse of terminology?

Kravis: I have to say, my pet peeve is the characterization and the representation of psychoanalysis in films and common parlance. It’s gotten a really bad name. We have some of the blame for that. There was a time when psychoanalysis was quite popular, and people were lined up around the block to get appointments, and I think we got a little arrogant. But the pendulum has really swung in the opposite direction now. People want quick fixes; they want a pill to make them feel better, and they don’t want to spend the time and money and effort that is the work of psychoanalysis. And that’s okay. If you don’t want to do it, you don’t want to do it. But to then go one step further and say it’s worthless and outdated and outmoded and these people are living dinosaurs is unfair, I think.

Another, pet peeve is the idea of the analyst as a blank slate, not saying anything, patient does all the talking, analyst does nothing, and that’s what analysis is all about. That’s not what analysis is all about. The other peeve is that the psycho-sexual phases of development including "oral," "anal" and so on have worked their way into popular culture. So you hear people referring to other people as anal.
Yeah, “anal retentive.” that was the phrase of my teenage years and early 20s!
Kravis: See, they didn’t talk about "anal explosive," which is the other pole!

Woah! Maybe it’s time to usher that one in.
Kravis: We could do a whole program on that! It irritates me that all this has gotten into the popular culture, but that analysis itself now has a bad name.

Wed., Oct. 24, 6pm. Free. Temple Contemporary, Tyler School of Art, 2001 N. 13th St. temple.edu/tyler Reserve a seat at phillyonthecouch-templecontemporary.eventbrite.com.

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