Universal Knowledge of the Self? The Transnational History of Psychoanalysis in Calcutta (and Berlin and London), 1910-1940
The history of psychoanalytical knowledge in the 20th century is a decisively transnational one. The years before WWI saw the emergence of an international psychoanalytical movement and the substantial popularization of its ideas in various societies. This diffusion was not restricted to Europe or even the Western world. Already in 1922, the first non-Western psychoanalytical society was founded in Calcutta. In the following years and decades, psychoanalytical knowledge spread further to Japan, South-Africa, Argentina, Brazil etc. Nevertheless, many of the questions emerging from this history can best be addressed by placing the Bengali case in a global frame. All the relevant elements of the popular psychoanalysis were present for the first time outside the Western world: intense scientific-theoretical discussions about psychoanalytical concepts, a therapeutic-technical application of psychoanalytical methods in clinics and practices as well as an everyday-practical usage of psychoanalytical ideas for the understanding of dreams, wishes, emotions etc.
In the research on psychoanalysis, the transnational nature of its influence is frequently noted, but rarely explored in its depth. Most studies, including those on non-Western societies, confine themselves to the study of the national setting. The few studies on the international psychoanalytical movement, however, portray the Bengali (or, more generally, the non-Western) case as a curious detail without much importance for the general history of psychoanalysis. While the general historiography has recently focused much more on transnational and global phenomena like migration, colonialism, economic interactions etc., this case of a truly and – to some degree – astonishingly transnational movement of ideas, practices, and intellectuals still merits investigations. Finally, questions of the relation between the local and the global are of growing concern also for Indian and Bengali historiography. In the colonial context of early 20th-century Calcutta, psychoanalysis offered a variety of intellectual possibilities: apart from its therapeutic value, it could serve as a mode of Westernization, as a method to understand Indian and Hindu (religious) traditions as well as an intellectual form of colonial critique.
This research projects examines the transnational forms of popularization and diffusion by looking at three cities: Berlin, London and Calcutta. Thus, the project raises important issues of the nature of knowledge, that is its transnational as well as its localized urban quality. To take the example of Calcutta: on the one hand, it is important to reconstruct the local adaptation of this knowledge into a concrete setting of Bengali Bhadralok intellectuals as well as into the more general urban culture of Calcutta (through modes of popularization in the vernacular). On the other hand, the fascination with this specifically Bengali version of psychoanalysis should not render meaningless the global and globalizing dimension of this knowledge. As an intellectual theory and therapeutic practice, classical psychoanalysis presupposes a universal self. From this perspective, the creation of a Bengali version of psychoanalysis seemed to reinforce such claims to universality. At the same time, it was this very character of the knowledge that enabled the Bengali intellectuals to particularize psychoanalytical concept. Thus, on a cultural (and not on an overtly political) level, this history amounted to an early cultural critique of Eurocentric notions in the history of knowledge.