Portrait of the Researcher as Recovering Neurotic

Contribution to a Panel on Doing Psychoanalytic Research in Organizations

International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations

Jerusalem, Israel July, 2000

Howard S. Schwartz


I’m as narcissistic as anyone else, so when I received an invitation to talk, as part of this panel, about my own approach to doing psychoanalytic research on organizations, I was delighted. Yet even in the midst of that, I could not evade the suspicion that Yiannis Gabriel, who convened this group, had asked the wrong guy. That doesn’t mean I feel entirely out of place here, for I can certainly recognize much of what I do in the issues discussed by the other members of the panel. Nonetheless, I feel differentiated from them in one very important respect: I don’t do research.

A researcher, as I understand the term, goes into the world and finds things out. I don’t find things out; I make things up. I’m not a researcher; I’m an artist.

Having said that, I would like to tell you how I do what I do, whatever it should be called. Unfortunately, I cannot really do that. For most of what I do is done while I am asleep. I go to bed with a problem, and I wake up with a solution. Or, to put the matter perhaps more precisely, I go to bed with a confusion, a chaos, and I wake up with a clarity, a view.

Ordinarily I do not realize that I have this clarity until I am in the shower, when it comes to me that I am seeing things that I did not see before. Then, by writing, I work this through, and go back to sleep.

So for any of you who want to do what I do, whatever that is, I offer these bits of wisdom: First, get plenty of sleep. Second, spend a lot of time in the shower.

But this is a psychoanalytic group, and from what I have said, you will already have been able to infer a bit more about what I do than what I have told you. You will know that the work I do engages me very deeply and fully, that its product will be a direct expression of who I am, and express me in a way that the finding of facts never could. You will see that there is no way I could be neutral toward it.

Now, about this lack of neutrality you may easily say that this is not what we like in our researchers. They should be above this sort of partiality, and should speak to us in a language that is universal, making reference to matters that are available to all of us. And about your objection, all I can say is that you might be right. But then, after all, I have made no claim to being a researcher.

Still and all, for what it is worth, I would like to say a bit more about what I do, idiosyncratic as it may be, since I have an idea that, in the end, it may not be only idiosyncratic.

So what is it that I do? Near as I can tell, I am trying to make sense of the world in such a way that it would make sense to be me. I am imagining a world in which I would be at home. In this world, I could simply be who I am, and that would be all right. An example may be useful.

Some time ago, I was a devoted fan of Ernest Becker.

Becker held the view that culture was the denial of death and I, his disciple, showed how it applied to organizations. The very language organizations used functioned as the representation of an artificial entity that, as artificial, was not subject to the inevitability of death. Its solidity was a defense against the shadow of ephemerality that mortality casts over our self-image. People were driven by the terror of death to throw themselves into the life of this artifice, seeing to incorporate its potential immortality. All they lost in the process was the reality of their own lives.

My students hated me when I talked like this. I could easily deal with that by understanding that they were not great intellectuals, as I was, and were just not able to handle this profound truth. I sought to deal with their rejection by developing my position further and making its logic even more unassailable. It always surprised me that this didn’t help at all.

It should not have come as a surprise. The fact is my students were responding in a way that was entirely appropriate, but what they were responding to was not so much my theory as me. And, the reason that they hated me was that I hated them or, to be more precise, I had contempt for them.

With this theory I was bashing my students, showing them to be existential cowards, incapable of facing the truths of their own lives, and cloaking themselves in artifice as a means of denial. I was better than they were. I could face the truth with courage; I could look death in its face and call it by its name. They thought that what they were doing with their lives made sense. I showed them that the meaning of their lives was only inauthenticity and subterfuge. My life was the only one that made sense in the real world. In this context, the

idea that I could enhance the acceptability of my argument by making it stronger just seems silly.

But it was more than silly. And as it became evident to me, and as I sought its cause, I came to realize it was the key to the whole thing. It wasn’t my students I was trying to bash, it was my father. But while I was trying to bash him, I did not want to lose him. If I could bash him with sufficient eloquence, sufficient brilliance, I could draw my father to me. He, the man of logic, would approve of me and give me his love. Acting out this little tableau was what I called looking reality in the face, and on which grounds I placed myself higher than my cowardly students.

Over time, I came to let myself be aware of what I had always known this was about. I had always hated my father, though I loved him as well, and grew up trying to be as unlike him as I possibly could. The result was that I could not learn what he had to teach. What he had to teach was largely self-discipline and so I grew up without the capacity to learn from others I was widely and deeply incompetent, and incapable of subordinating myself to any external agenda. I was bright enough to get by, but how does one value one’s life under these circumstances?

The problem was that I felt myself indicted by every example of someone else’s achievement. Since I was incapable of doing anything, everything anyone did threatened to bring home to me my own inadequacy. In these circumstances, it seemed to me that maintaining a decent level of self-regard meant that I had to undermine their apparent competence. Ernest Becker’s philosophy fit in perfectly here. Their achievements were not really achievements, but only evasions, only appearing to have significance if you did not take a close

look at them. Showing this to them would have brought them into kinship with me, seen here as my father, and would have done so in a way that would have placed me right at the center of our mutual world. They would have looked up to me as their leader and would have acknowledged that, despite previous appearances, it was I who was the competent one, and not they. Causa sui, as Ernest Becker put it. I would be the father of my father, and therefore the father of myself. Destroying him, I would draw him closer to me.

So what have we got here? Have we got a theory of organizations? Well, yes, but we have something else as well. We have a set of ideas that serves a certain purpose, originally unconsciously, in the psychic economy of the theorist. A theory of organizations to be sure, but also a neurotic symptom.

And this brings us back to the original question I proposed concerning the idiosyncratic character of what I do, which is why should anyone take it seriously. How do I answer them when they ask me why anyone should waste time on my ideas, if they are simply the effervescences of a nutcase?

This question has three answers. First is that if they do not want to, that is fine. I don’t have to make any claim for my ideas. They are exactly what they are. If people find them interesting, I will be gratified. If they don’t, that’s got nothing to do with me. I just think them and write them. Reading is somebody else’s job. I’m an artist, remember?

But that answer, adequate as it may be as a form of defense, does not have much truth. In fact, I do care whether people take my ideas seriously and so I will offer two positive reasons.

First is that whether I am a nutcase or not doesn’t matter.

The ideas may serve a function within my psychic economy, but the way they are developed creates a structure that is invariant to the function that they serve. I had the idea while I slept, realized I had it in the shower, worked it through, and went back to sleep. But if the generation of the idea manifested a specific fantasy, and if the appeal of the idea was that it helped me orient myself within my life, the process of working it through was the standard, slogging work of the intellectual that creates the actual object of value. Making connections, drawing inferences, checking validity, looking for contradictions, finding the right words to make the meaning clear — this is the work through which value is realized. And if it is done soundly, the connections and inferences remain, and form part of the symbolic structure of understanding, available to anyone who wants to use them for whatever reasons make sense in their own psychic economy.

Second, and this is perhaps more important, the writer may be neurotic, but we are not stuck with our neuroses. And, in fact, looking back over what I have said, you will notice that it has not been a neurotic symptom at all. The original theory was a neurotic symptom, but what I have expressed here is not. It is an attempt, and I think not a bad one, at coming to grips with, at understanding, a neurotic symptom. And this coming to grips, this understanding, makes possible a universality that is itself a good indicator of truth. When I was using my thought to explain how my students, deluded as they were, had developed an idea of organizations that protected them from the truth, I created a hierarchy of human beings that, by placing me at the top, precluded, for me, a universal understanding. But when I understood the format of my own delusion, and the way it structured for me a theory of organization that served exactly the same function, I was able

to say something that placed us all in the same boat, which is where we all belong.