Suppressing Psychoanalysis: (Un)Changing Ideas of Pleasure in Twentieth-Century Addiction Research

Christopher Rudeen


While many scholars note the traces of psychoanalytic theories in current addiction research, these legacies are often framed as pre- or pseudoscientific precursors or remnants to the “scientific” explorations of the mid- to late-twentieth century. By tracing the theories of the first psychoanalyst to fully theorize addiction, Sandor Rado, and the ways in which his understanding of pleasure was adopted, rejected, or modified, we can better understand not only how psychoanalytic thinking remains in use, but also the ways in which it is consciously or unconsciously forgotten even as it is invoked. Rado’s theory of addiction as resulting from a “pharmacogenic pleasure-effect” was rejected, I believe, due to an understanding of “pleasure” as standing in for the disparaged elements of psychoanalysis. Rejecting “pleasure,” whether by searching in the brain for a locus of “positive reinforcement” or casting older theories as overly emphasizing the role of euphoria, was a way of rejecting the disputed aspects of the discipline while reworking its ideas. In addition, I suggest that tracing these processes over the twentieth century shows a narrowing of the locus of the cause for addiction from society to self; the oft-invoked teleological narrative that defines progress by shrinking focus does not have room for psychoanalysis. In order to fully understand the impact of how we speak about the current opioid crisis, we must explore the history of the languages we have used to talk about addiction—especially those that have been suppressed, those still present but not always acknowledged.