Looping psychoanalysis into film

Our life-world of film, a domain of reality that is an intimate part of our society of the spectacle, has in some respects been shrunken down during this latest pandemic. Film is now not only an intimate part of the spectacle, but intimate to us; the forms of subjectivity it rolls in front of our eyes quickly unspool behind them, inside us, becoming part of our own subjectivity. Psychoanalysis has always had something to say about the big screen, and now, of course, it has more to say, it has an even more richly elaborated array of discursive devices to speak to us about who we become in the more intimate space of our own home, when the screen is smaller. But we need to ask why that is, why it is that psychoanalysis speaks to us about film almost as deeply as film itself does.

Contented form

First, there is a question of content, of the feeding of psychoanalytic motifs into film, so that film criticism becomes an exercise in unravelling what has been spooled into the object being examined. This happens in US and then globalised film culture remarkably early on, and film then becomes one of the virtual microbial cultures of psychoanalysis. Take Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire, for example, from 1941, in which characters refer explicitly to ‘psychoanalytical’ explanations of the message unwittingly or covertly, it is not clear which, passed from Barbara Stanwyck to Gary Cooper. This box office hit also sent a message to the audience that marked significant interpersonal, and, by implication, intra-personal messages as being in some way ‘psychoanalytical’.

Second, more potent still is the question of form, of how it is that the texture of film, flickering snapshots of reality are chained together to fabricate the illusion that there is a moving image on the screen that is more vibrant, charged with affect; this so that the plot money-shot injects not only a sense that there is something cathartic about the compression and conclusion of a narrative, but also another message about the nature of reality and subjectivity itself. Directors have often struggled to portray dreams in film precisely because film already harnesses and reconfigures reality as if it were a dream fragment that, at some point, will yield its meaning. The Dalí sequence in Hitchcock’s 1945 Spellbound is a notorious case in point. The critic and academic are hooked into this game as surely as is the viewer, but they draw on a specific kind of language to pin it down, a language that is often structured as if it is psychoanalytic.

Then, as we learn to speak about film, those of us who are not critics or academics, the uncanny and unsatisfying, the realistic and moving character of what we have watched together in the cinema also become, bit by bit, structured by the same range of psychoanalytic rhetorical devices. Psychoanalytic discourse now inhabits everyday life, appearing to give access to hidden depths while repeatedly structuring the sense that there are hidden depths – in the film and in ourselves as we respond to it – in the working over of content and in the replication of form. In both cases, to be able to convey to someone else who has seen the same film that one ‘understands’ it requires that the meanings be grasped and moulded; the meaning of film always lies in its use. Filmic discourse does not only describe the world but creates affiliation, identification even, among those who employ that discourse, identification that often also requires disjunction, disagreement, the idea that the film is not completely exhausted of meaning. Film is, in this sense, constituted as if it were a subject, never fully able to reveal itself to us.

One of the effects of the streaming into the home of film, and of the blurring of boundaries between cinema and television, is that this enigmatic and inexhaustible character of the filmic narrative is intensified. The box-sets we glut on take on even more the character of a dream, extended, fragmented and inconclusive. In contrast to the apparently rounded out delimited vignette that a classic mass-market film usually is, the box-set narrative usually begins with a premise, a promise and then by series four, say, a lingering unsatisfying trailing off. This is then less triumphant finish than ruined orgasm, something closer to what it is to shy away from impossible enjoyment, and in that case the teasing and failing is a function of viewing figures and advertising revenue. The drivers are economic, but the drives are privatised, and the excitement and disappointment located inside each individual viewer.

The time-compression and sense of personal control of what streaming into the home brings are new questions for psychoanalysis. Or rather, an intensification of the old questions about how we are positioned as subjects in relation to a symbolic medium that seems to express what we want while impressing on us a complex contradictory series of wants from somewhere beyond us. Now it is as if the Other is with us inside our homes asking us what we want while instructing us about the permissible parameters of what we can want and tantalising us about the prospect of there being something more. It was ever thus, but now, in the context of the Pandemic, the small screen reminds us that there is a big screen to which we might one day return, should want to return to.

Looping

This is what ‘looping’ is, with psychoanalysis as one of the looping effects of film and television, and now the more intensely privatised experience of streaming the moving image into our own homes. Psychoanalysis is very well able to comment on what is happening here precisely because it is woven into the phenomenon itself. A looping effect is a particular kind of feedback in which we are subjectively implicated in what is described such that what we describe to ourselves becomes the stuff of our subjectivity. In the case of psychoanalysis, this looping is tantalisingly incomplete; it must be so for psychoanalysis to work, for film re-activates the discourse and the experience of there being something unsaid, something unconscious. One of the indications that the psychoanalytic looping effect is at work is when phenomena specific to the clinic, specific to the strange artificial relationship between analyst and analysand, spill out into everyday life. Then we resonate with them onscreen because we assume that what we see resonates with the kind of beings we are.

I have one TV example. The CEO of Netflix tell us that their only competition is sleep, but this example is from the dream-world laid out by Amazon Prime Video. Take episode three of the 2015 mini-series Mr Robot, for example. Mr Robot, played by Christian Slater, masterfully incites and manipulates what we might quite understandably take to be ‘transference’ to him on the part of Elliot Alderson, the neurotic hacker played by Rami Malek. Mr Robot, the master, goads Elliot about his relationship with his father and repeatedly ‘interprets’ this failed relationship as also concerning him, Robot; he thereby structures the choices Elliot must make, not so much as the way in, but as if the way out of his prison, and that means Elliot must choose to work with Mr Robot. It is as if Christian Slater is also simultaneously playing the part of a stereotypical IPA-analyst from hell, provoking, constituting the transference so that it can be put to work, as if what drives it comes from inside his victim. Never underestimate the canny ability of the writers to pop in to the box-set what we then imagine we are so clever in detecting there. What should be noticed here is not merely the framing of the relationship, but its own internal looping effects within the narrative of the series, and then, of course, the questions it raises about why it would be that someone should carry on watching the thing.

We carry on watching this stuff because we enjoy it, but it is the patterning of that enjoyment that is the issue here. Of course we then enjoy excavating new meaning, mastering what is unresolved in the narrative. Rather like this particular pandemic itself, which is a narrative with an uncertain beginning and even more uncertain ending, every attempt to create a metalanguage that will master film must fail. We can then be sure that the parasitic industry of professional academic criticism, including journals and conferences devoted to psychoanalytic discourse, will find confirmation of underlying psychoanalytic assumptions that they make. The work of interpretation here is unending because there is nothing to be done save plugging and unplugging the gaps in subjectivity that film plays its own part in creating and re-creating.

This is part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

ACR is a thing! Revolutionary Marxist organising now

The process of constructing Anti-Capitalist Resistance has taken a significant step forward. Ian Parker was there.

The two-day online event took place on Saturday 30 and Sunday 31 January, bringing together revolutionary Marxists from England and Wales, and visitors from elsewhere. This is one culmination point of a process that has been taking place over the last year. It brings together Mutiny – a small group discussing key texts, developing their own analyses, and intervening as individuals in different campaigns – and Socialist Resistance, and comrades old and new looking for an alternative, an alternative way of organising together. We know that things have to change, not only in developing a fresh political alternative that re-energises revolutionary Marxist politics, but in the way we work, learning lessons from different liberation movements and different traditions on the far left.

The two days were designed to showcase where we are up to now, and to emphasise that our internationalism is not an abstract flitting from one solidarity campaign to another, but entails a deeper process of linking our struggles with others around the world, and appreciating the cultural diversity of the working class here; our working class in the so-called ‘United Kingdom’ is multi-faceted, profoundly international in character, and must be internationalist in order to realise its potential as a progressive force so we are able to take control of our own lives together. This means that this new Anti-Capitalist Resistance, ACR, organises itself in England and Wales, in solidarity with revolutionaries organising separately in Scotland, and we will work to establish a revolutionary movement in Wales. An ACR North group has already been set up with a public meeting set bringing together activists from Scotland, Wales and the North.

Saturday was an open public event – ‘From Resistance to System Change: Prospects for 2021, A day school for anti-capitalists’ – with speakers Gilbert Achcar, Ana Cristina Carvalhaes and Phil Hearse bringing perspectives from the Arab world, Latin America and from within the British state, this in a first impressive session on the theme ‘The world crisis and the revolutionary left’. Some of the opening talks were too lengthy – we should have learnt some lessons about the limits of Zoom by now – but around 100 comrades came together to debate and take forward key issues that impact on every aspect of our work here.

The second session keyed into direct political challenge facing us now; in ‘Britain after Corbyn – what next for socialists?’ guest speakers Michael Chessum, Seema Syeda and Simon Hannah opened up a lively discussion, effectively opening the way to the task of developing an organisation of revolutionaries fit for the tasks ahead. This set the tone for our internationalist perspective, critical of the EU while refusing to fall in line with xenophobic Tory Brexit promises of ‘taking back control’, and clearly ‘ecosocialist’ and feminist, with the oppressed and never with the oppressor.

Sunday was a closed event, with fewer people of course, but in some ways more ambitious. This was a ‘Members Conference’ tasked with setting up Anti-Capitalist Resistance.

This day was crucial, and was proof positive that the careful comradely discussion – sometimes sharp and always respectful – that had already taken place over the past year would be put to the test in the organisational questions that too-often divide revolutionaries from each other.

Before we could begin work on Sunday, however, we quickly formulated a message of solidarity with the Russian Solidarity Movement, comrades across Russia demonstrating that weekend in the bitter cold. Our message read ‘This conference of Anti-Capitalist Resistance sends its comradely greetings and solidarity to the Russian Socialist Movement and other progressive forces demonstrating against the Putin regime today, Sunday 31st January, and suffering police attacks and detainment.’

There was detailed discussion and voting on documents on the international situation and Britain, including amendments, discussion and voting on an ‘ACR: What We Stand For?’ document, including amendments. And, this sounds really dull to be honest, the day concluded with discussion and voting on a constitution, including amendments, and the election of a steering committee and appeals committee. It was not dull actually, and as well as intense concentration and handling of disagreement, there was energy and will to take this forward to the next stage of the process. It was important to define ourselves, for instance, as an organisation committed to revolutionary democracy, not a top-down caricature of ‘democratic centralism’, but something that can intersect with the experience of the exploited and oppressed.

Breakout groups in the middle of this day highlighted one of the real strengths of the new organisation. There is an active women’s group inside ACR that has been meeting regularly, and a trade union group for comrades to discuss strategy. There were also break out groups on ecology – the largest group, an indication of how seriously we take ecosocialism as part of revolutionary politics – and on Zero Covid, a campaign ACR has been working together on. Key campaigning priorities for ACR will be Zero Covid and this year’s COP 26 UN Climate Change conference.

This is possible; another organisation that really breaks with the stultifying sectarian way of doing things that divides us and holds us back, and that has demoralised so many on the left in the wake of the defeat of the radical revival of socialist hopes under Jeremy Corbyn inside the Labour Party. ACR is an alternative, but comrades who are working independently are also in active solidarity with comrades who remain active inside the Labour Party. There will be multiple lines of defence and attack in the next years, with some ACR comrades active in the Labour Party, some working also as members of Left Unity as a ‘broad left’ project that also includes revolutionaries, complementary perhaps but very different in political scope to ACR. And, of course, members of Socialist Resistance will still be working together in solidarity with the Fourth International. Those different allegiances are not obstacles, but will be our strength, if we can really work together as revolutionary Marxists.

The two-day ACR event was not perfect, either in form or content, but what compromises we made, and will make, will be part of a dialectical process of learning and activity, of practice. It will be practice that will be the key, and Socialist Resistance is committed to following that through, working now, among other things, towards the second stage of the process, the founding conference later this year. Edited footage of the first day and documents for the Sunday founding conference are here in the latest newsletter of ACR.

You can read this again and comment on it here

Zero Covid now

Now, late January 2021 – 2021 when we thought it would all be over – we are well over 2 million deaths from COVID-19 worldwide, with the league table of deaths per million in different countries putting the UK at 6th, now heading toward 100,000 deaths. That really puts us in the world-beating league. But the problem is that Coronavirus is beating the world, posing questions about how we organise ourselves on the planet and what kind of priorities we have. Each dip in the numbers gives false hope, which the government claims credit for, and the next wave, like the last, will be blamed on us.

The UK government under Boris Johnson was clear from the start what its priorities were, with a brutal ideological agenda that was summed up very early on in the phrase ‘herd immunity’. What Boris Johnson meant by ‘herd immunity’ is one survival-of-the-fittest version of the phrase, one which lets the virus rip through a population, that’s us, the ‘herd’, and which weeds out the weak. The admission of Boris Johnson to hospital could have put paid to that, but he survived, and no-one should have been surprised at the headlines in the right-wing tabloid press; he survived because he was ‘resilient’, as if he was tough enough to beat the virus.

Under pressure from scientists, who the UK government at least has to pay lip service to, the ‘herd immunity’ story was put on the back burner, but has always been in the background. What we had instead was deadly ambiguity. It is difficult not to see this ambiguity as deliberate, calculated, designed to provoke anxiety while seeming to assuage it. What is for sure is that the mixed messages from the government, alongside amazingly crooked business deals for their school-chums and neighbours, chimed very well with their political-economic agenda.

What we have seen is an incitement to suspicion of the scientific evidence, not as explicit as under Trump but there nonetheless, and, more dangerous, and in the mix with that suspicion, incitement of individual choice. The message in whatever lockdown we’ve had has been that business has to be protected, that is, when it comes down to it, employer’s rights to bring people to work, and, crucially, it is up to you to decide if and when to break the lockdown. The message is work from home if you can, but go out to work if you have to. This is fake choice, one that the mass of the working class, those in work, cannot avoid to really make for themselves.

The incitement to individual choice is part and parcel of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, remember consists of stripping back the welfare functions of the state, making individuals responsible for their livelihoods, education and health, and, something sometimes forgotten, though Chile 1973 as the first big neoliberal experiment should make us remember it, strengthening of the state’s police functions. It is a combination to which we have another ingredient added, another ingredient that also provokes resentment and anger among those in lockdown when they see the likes of Dominic Cummings flouting the rules; that is conspiracy theories of different kinds, now some really bizarre ones.

What all this amounts to is death on a massive scale. Whatever your take on the origins of the Coronavirus, what is certain is that this is as much a human-made disaster as a so-called ‘natural’ disaster. Boris Johnson is responsible for many of these deaths here. Again, for them, and the idea pops out of the mouths of members of the ruling class every now and then, these are deaths of those whose lives are of ‘less value’.

One way of thinking about this is to see this COVID-19 disaster as what some medical researchers called a ‘syndemic’. A paper in The Lancet late last year argued that while it is useful as shorthand to call this crisis a ‘pandemic’, its character as a ‘syndemic’ draws attention to the way that transmission and morbidity is a function of many different existing factors. That is, the likelihood of catching and dying of the virus is linked with your other life chances and susceptibility to illness. This is a better way of thinking about it than talking about ‘underlying health conditions’, as if those underlying health conditions were the fault of those who suffer and die.

We have a key example here of the ‘intersectional’ nature of the virus crisis, the way that class, race and disability, for example, multiply your chances of dying. The Lancet article politely names this as a problem of ‘inequality’. This virus crisis intensifies every form of exploitation and oppression, and this while the super-rich have been getting richer over the past year. It is exactly a form of the ‘shock capitalism’ that is engineered through military coups, as in Chile in 1973, and wars; an economy is destroyed so it can be rebuilt and in the process the people are crushed, rendered powerless.

So, along every dimension, we have the virus hitting those already oppressed, hitting them more: Whether this is on the lines of class, with hollow cynical advice that you can stay at home to work if you choose, even that you can exercise on the tennis court in your back garden; whether this is disabled people who make up two-thirds of deaths from the virus in the UK and are told their lives are of less value; whether it is BAME people who are more likely to die and more likely to be arrested for breaking lockdown; or whether it is the working women who, according to a recent TUC report, are refused furlough seven times out of ten.

We need a response that speaks with the oppressed instead of against them, a campaign that is working from the base up. The Zero Covid campaign was set up to include the voices of the exploited and oppressed and to provide clear open scientific debate about evidence and strategy. The ‘banner drops’ organised by the campaign, for example, have made it clear that the message must be ‘eliminate the virus’, rather than pretend that the virus is a hoax, and protest rallies have been socially-distanced. We protect each other as we aim to protect everyone.

That means that we need sharp clear lockdown with security and compensation for those unable to go to work. If we had that from the start then we would have been in a different situation than we have today. We need a test and trace system that is really organised through the NHS, with real support for health workers, this instead of the private scam apps. We need a vaccination programme for all, and that must reach out to those who are undocumented, this when there are reports that foreign workers may be excluded. We must be clear that we are against the ‘vaccine nationalism’ that is being pushed not only the Tory government but by the pathetic opposition Labour Party that has spent much of the time agreeing with the government measures. Already the going rate is 25k for a flight to UAE for a jab, while Starmer congratulates the Royal Family on getting jabs saying it is ‘wonderful news’ (for them surely it should be jobs before jabs). And, of course, it means wearing our masks; wearing a mask is a sign of our solidarity with each other.

This is not ‘beyond politics’. This Coronavirus crisis is a political crisis, a function of the kind of political-economic system we live in and struggle against, and now we must struggle in and as part of the Zero Covid campaign.

Why Palestine Solidarity in Anti Capitalist Resistance?

Anti Capitalist Resistance (ACR) is an internationalist organisation currently being set up by revolutionary Marxists. Its internationalism is expressed in the attention it gives to struggles for self-determination and liberation around the world, with key international links already in place through participation in ACR of members of the Fourth International. That attention to self-determination, and the right of subject nations to organise themselves independently, is also expressed in the decision by ACR to organise itself in England and Wales, not in Scotland. We work with comrades north of the border to support their autonomous organisation of revolutionary Marxists in Scotland, and so to hasten the break-up of the so-called United Kingdom. We are working with revolutionaries in Wales to hasten the point where they organise themselves independently of direction from England. The break-up of the British state apparatus is part of our struggle for an alternative socialist society that respects local and regional and national self-organisation.

So, why flag up Palestine solidarity as a particularly important issue here? Well, first, of course, the British state is historically implicated in the foundation of the state of Israel, the gifting of land belonging to another people to the future Israeli state. That gives us particular responsibilities as revolutionaries. It should be noted that the Balfour declaration in 1917 which promised ‘a national home for the Jewish people’ on Palestinian land was not actually welcomed by many Jews in Britain. They suspected that this declaration was designed to increase pressure on them to leave Britain, their home, and settle somewhere else. They had been victims of racism here, among the first so-called ‘aliens’ to be targeted with immigration legislation, that is anti-immigrant legislation, and there was significant support for the foundation of Israel by antisemites. Up to the present-day many antisemites support Israel because they want Jews out of their own countries. This antisemitic support for Israel is consolidated by Christian Zionism, which is prevalent in the United States. Those Christian Zionists who expect the end days of the world to be marked by the ‘rapture’ after the Jews have been gathered in Israel, and do not give a damn about the Jews, or the Palestinians.

Palestine is one of the touchstones of solidarity with a people that suffers from institutional racism today and the traumatic collective memory of when Israel was actually founded in 1948. The ‘Nakba’ or ‘Catastrophe’ of 1948 saw many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians expelled from the land, forced to flee their homes, with many families and descendents ending up in refugee camps. The Gaza strip at the border with Egypt has effectively operated as a massive open-air camp, and when the people in Gaza kick back they are subject to air attack, with many thousands murdered over the years. Land use, building regulations, the road system, education, health care, and now the vaccination programme in Israel intensify the exclusion of Palestinians from state power by Israel. They are increasingly confined to Gaza and the West Bank, and when their representatives and allies speak out in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, they are suppressed. Often the bizarre accusation is given out by the Israeli state for local Jewish and international diplomatic state and corporate mass media audiences that their complaint is antisemitic. Their very existence is a threat, sometimes alluded to, even voiced by the right, described as an ‘existential threat’. Sometimes we are also hypocritically told that boycotting Jewish settlements in the West Bank harms local people, harms Palestinians, as if they care.

The Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment, BDS, campaign actively called for by many Palestinian organisations and actively pursued in Britain by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign is indeed a threat to the Israeli state, a state that we should be clear about is an apartheid state. The largest Jewish human rights organisation inside Israel working in the Occupied Territories, B’Tselem, has said this explicitly. Israel is an apartheid state. To say this is such a threat that legislation has been passed in Israel prohibiting individual citizens and organisations inside the country, organisations like The Boycott Within, from voicing support for BDS. It is difficult for internationalist Jews working politically in the best traditions of solidarity with subject peoples to voice support for BDS inside the country, but they have done so, and they have been on demonstrations and they have been subject themselves to physical attack. Our solidarity as Palestine Solidarity is also with our comrades inside Israel, Palestinians and Jews working together who are under attack from this apartheid state. In fact, we face many of the same responses by the right, by supporters of Israel, when we argue for BDS as we faced when we argued for the boycott of apartheid South Africa. This is why it is also worth noting that support from inside South Africa from partisans in that historic struggle now for the rights of the Palestinian people, including from Jewish partisans who call out Israel’s false accusations of antisemitism directed at the solidarity movement, is so important.

This struggle is an international struggle, has an international dimension. We do not single out Israel because it is especially evil, but demand that it is brought to account according to international standards claimed of any other supposedly democratic state – and brought to account in that way precisely because Israel promotes itself as a civilised oasis in the midst of authoritarian and dictatorial Arab states. We hold no brief for those Arab states, but for the peoples struggling also for human rights, struggling alongside the Palestinians, and those inside Israel. It is international also because it is a touchstone for the right, with strong supporters of Israel inside the United States, and now, with the departure of Trump, a new president and vice-president who have declared that they are strong supporters of Israel. Israel is a touchstone for Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India, and Orbán in Hungary, Orbán himself who is feted by Netanyahu despite engaging in antisemitic conspiracy campaigns against George Soros. And it is a weapons base, selling deadly armaments to a number of brutal regimes around the world. Again, we need to repeat, we are in solidarity with the Palestinians because we are for the right to self-determination of subject peoples, and because we are against racism of all kinds, including antisemitism. Antisemitism has no place in the Palestine Solidarity movement, and is called out by us whenever it appears.

And now, as Anti Capitalist Resistance gathers together revolutionary Marxists who have been forced out of the Labour Party, while also working with our comrades who are still inside the Labour Party, we argue for Palestine Solidarity in a context where not only the right lines up with Israel, but also the right-wing of social democracy. Keir Starmer declares that he is a Zionist, as do even some members of Momentum inside the Labour Party. The space for Palestine Solidarity there is being shut down there. We need to keep it open. We are keeping that space open for Palestine Solidarity, and joining Anti Capitalist Resistance is one expression of a political choice. This is a political choice that is, in the words of Marek Edelman, activist in Poland during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis, words that give the tagline of the Jewish Voice for Labour group, that we are ‘with the oppressed and never with the oppressor’.

One way of being involved in these questions is by joining Anti Capitalist Resistance.

On the Dialectics of Psychoanalytic Practice

This book review of On the Dialectics of Psychoanalytic Practice (Fritz Morgenthaler, edited by Dagmar Herzog, London and New York: Routledge, 2020; 199pp.) was written by Ian Parker for the journal Psychoanalysis and History22, 3, pp. 382-384 [DOI: 10.3366/pah.2020.0357]

The fraught connection between psychoanalysis and politics has been forged, broken, rediscovered and remade in different cultural contexts during Freud’s working life, and, after his death, in different schools devoted to his clinical practice as well as in radical movements that have often been keen to find in psychoanalysis the promise of liberation. This book – ten lectures by the Swiss analyst Fritz Morgenthaler who died in 1984 – enables the reader to see something of the contradictions that beset attempts to make this connection from within the organisational heart of psychoanalysis, the International Psychoanalytical Association, the IPA.

Morgenthaler was a prominent member of the IPA, engaging with the tradition of ego psychology, dominant in the IPA diaspora after the Second World War, and, towards the end of his life, with the object relations and relational currents of theory developing in the United States. It is that ‘relational’ aspect of his work that is claimed in this book of lectures; the useful contextualising essay introducing Morgenthaler to an English-speaking readership by Dagmar Herzog, the chapter end-notes and the supplementary material are together deployed to shift emphasis from the more conservative aspects of Morgenthaler’s clinical practice to a particular conceptual and political project.

Herzog’s introductory essay explains why Morgenthaler is historically and politically important, drawing attention to two axes of his work that are relevant in that respect. The first axis of his work, questioning assumptions about ‘race’, was of interest to the West German Left; the title of the popular co-authored ‘Whites Think Too Much’ (Die Weissen denken zuviel) is both indicative of the nature of the question and contains a clue as to the rather romanticising answer Morgenthaler proposed. Morgenthaler adverts, in his lecture on ‘Modes of interaction in perversions’, for example, to the way that in Africa ‘rituals can be joyful celebrations that allow participation in sensual pleasure’ (p. 181).

The anthropological studies Morgenthaler carried out in Africa and Papua New Guinea, and published with his co-workers, were influential resources in the development of ‘ethnopsychoanalysis’. This anthropological aspect of his work is not explored in this volume, though it is present in the concern with opening up psychoanalysis to the possibility that there are different forms of subjectivity in different cultures, something that perhaps led Morgenthaler to make his well-known break with homophobic assumptions in clinical practice.

It is that aspect of his work, the second axis of psychoanalytic critique, that is more present in this book, though we still need the editorial and supplementary text apparatus to draw out what was most radical about it. It concerns sexuality; Morgenthaler makes an important distinction between ‘the sexual’ (das Sexuelle) of the primary process and ‘organised sexuality’ (organisierte Sexualitãt) which he likens to a kind of dictatorship. Morgenthaler was one of the first IPA psychoanalysts to speak out against the pathologisation of homosexuality, and, in one of the supplementary texts included in this book, he takes Heinz Kohut to task for that. Morgenthaler’s take on the distinction between ‘the sexual’ and ‘sexuality’ enabled him to key into the emerging lesbian and gay liberation interests of the West German Left in the 1970s, this without adopting the rather moralising precepts of Wilhelm Reich.

This is where Morgenthaler’s clinical work is actually, potentially, most liberating, for he values the space of the clinic as one in which no particular presuppositions are made about what is ‘normal’ about sexual object choice (unlike Reich, who wanted to gear the clinical process to what he saw as a radical hetero-orgasmic political programme). More than that, Morgenthaler begins to question the implicit assumption in much psychoanalytic practice, one voiced by Freud, that the aim of analysis is to enable the analysand to live a more productive life. That productive element locks psychoanalysis into a concern with adaptation, something that Morgenthaler sets himself against; ‘Analysis is also no good for quickly reassimilating to the dominant societal morality a patient who is in a nonconforming position vis-à-vis society’ (p. 151).

Note the rather cautious and elliptical formulation here. It is potentially radical, but that needs to be drawn out and made explicit by his readers. Morgenthaler comes to the conclusion that there should be no prescribed end-point of analysis beyond it introducing some ‘turbulence’ into the analysand’s internal life. These arguments were enough to encourage the West German Left to invite Morgenthaler to contribute to their Kursbuch in 1977; his essay ‘Modes of interaction in perversions and perversion of modes of interaction: A look over the fence around psychoanalysis’ is reprinted as one of the supplementary texts in this book.

One can well imagine that Morgenthaler’s comments on the nature of an ‘ill society’ (p. 169) that requires psychoanalysis, and his suggestion (to Kohut, for instance) that interpretation of society as well of the individual in the clinic could be possible and useful would have been attractive to elements of the Left who were already intrigued by psychoanalysis. However, the lectures themselves are replete with existing ego-psychological and quasi object-relations themes, with quite long stretches of the text devoted to successful ‘reconstructive interpretations’ that would be avoided by many psychoanalysts today.

The subversive nature of Morgenthaler’s ruminations in these lectures and the suggestive comments he makes about ‘perversion’, including perversion present in the analyst, are well-worth excavating and making visible now, and that, perhaps, justifies the effort the reader must make. These lectures are not, Dagmar Herzog warns us, easy reading. There are hints and false starts and twists in the argument, and there is sometimes some special pleading on behalf of Morgenthaler in the chapter end-notes, reminding the reader that he does not really mean what he seems to be saying about ‘feeble-mindedness’ and ‘frigidity’, for example.

The title of the book is indicative. Although ‘dialectics’ will, no doubt, hook a reader who wants to find in these lectures a connection between the process of personal transformation in psychoanalysis and political-economic transformation and, perhaps, some attention to the nature of alienation in a society organised around the commodification of sexuality, they will be disappointed. Morgenthaler’s ‘dialectics’, it turns out, is concerned with the nature of ‘contradiction’, nothing more than that, contradiction that speaks of the internal conflicts of the human subject whatever society they live in. He edges towards Marxism in these lectures, but does not arrive there.

The next steps, beyond Morgenthaler, need to be taken through developing traditions of psychoanalytic and political praxis. His comments on the ‘sequential’ form of analysis are reminiscent of later attempts in psychoanalysis to return to the properly Freudian retroactive character of trauma, self-accounting and interpretation. The ‘relational’ current of work reads back into his lectures a particular trajectory, but his opposition to adaptation and his refusal of the once-popular image of the psychoanalyst as cleansed of pathology could just as easily lead us to other forms of psychoanalysis; to Fanon, who is absent from this book, or to one who was persona non grata in the IPA, the barely editorially end-noted Lacan.

The book speaks of the democratising hopes of psychoanalysis in Europe after the Second World War, but does not, in the lectures themselves, take us much beyond that. Editor Dagmar Herzog opens a door, shows a path, but readers will need to take the next steps themselves.

This is one part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

Coronavirus and the end of the world

David Pavón-Cuéllar address to the College of Psychoanalysts – UK international conference Psychoanalysis in Adverse Conditions on 7 November 2020

Perhaps the pandemic seems to us like an end-of-the-world movie. Maybe all we want now is to get back to normal. It may be that we have not realized that normality is the real end of the world.

Normality is the devastation of everything by capitalism. It is the destruction of all life for the sake of capital accumulation. It is more and more inert money at the cost of all life in the world.

Normality is the disappearance, in the last 150 years, of almost half of the fertile soil on earth. It is the loss of an equivalent of 40 football fields of tropical forest every minute. It is the daily extinction of 150 species of animals and plants. All this is already the end of the world.

We are also witnessing the end of the world when we read that wildlife populations have fallen by more than two-thirds in less than 50 years, that land-based insects have been declining at nearly 1% per year, that annual rate of current desertification is more than 3 per cent. This global devastation is the normalcy to which many want to return.

The normal is that air pollution kills twenty thousand people per day in the world, that is, more than double of the total number of deaths from coronavirus at the peaks of the pandemic. This data allows us to understand a puzzling news that was spread in the beginning of the pandemic. The British tabloid Daily Mail reported that thousands of lives had been saved in China since the coronavirus appeared. The information was right: the interruption of industrial activities due to the pandemic drastically reduced the emission of gases, which, in turn, saved more lives than were lost by the pandemic itself.

We see that the coronavirus is much less lethal than just one of the many effects of capital. We also know that the functioning of capitalism has been affected by COVID-19, which makes us place our hope in this viral agent to cure us of the capitalist terminal illness. It is with this hope that Žižek, from the beginning of the pandemic, conceived the coronavirus as a possible deadly blow against capitalism.

It is obvious that the capitalist system will not die of coronavirus and that Žižek is not naive enough to think this. He knows what we all know, that the circumstances created by the coronavirus can help us, but that we are the ones who must free ourselves from capitalism. At this juncture, as in any other in which the space of uncertainty expands, the outcome will depend mainly on us as subjects, on the subjects that we are and that we will become.

If we want to avoid the end of the world we are living in, we need to transform ourselves. It is necessary to reverse our subjectification by the capitalist system. We must stop being possessive and cumulative, competitive and destructive, compulsive consumers, white-collar murderers, ecocidal and ultimately suicidal individuals.

It is by shaking off capitalism that we will be other than who we are and thus avoid the worst and save ourselves. At the same time, as Žižek has said, “it is through our effort to save humanity from self-destruction that we are creating a new humanity”. All this is the same process of reinvention and salvation, of liberation and transformation, in which we do not distinguish what happens before or after, since everything has to happen at the same time.

Simultaneity requires a certain anticipation like that prescribed by Rosa Luxemburg at the time of the Second International. We have to save ourselves today in order to save ourselves tomorrow. We must anticipate our destiny, prefigure what we fight for, what is achieved through our own struggle, in its development and not only in its outcome. We have to understand that our time is up. We must get rid of capitalism now, at this precise moment, through each of the manifestations of our existence, because the next moment will be too late.

We have to reject a procrastination, such as that represented by Karl Kautsky in the Second International, which will only serve to let the current cataclysm continue to unfold until its final consequences. We cannot accept that the end of the world is, as Kautsky would say, “a necessary direction of evolution”, and that our only task is to “recognize it” and wait, without pretending to act as “revolutionaries at all costs”. What we need right now is precisely a revolution at all costs. There is no time to wait.

Instead of a typically neurotic Kautskian procrastination, we should opt for a Luxembourgian hysterical prefiguration in which we do not waste the only time we have left, the present. It has never been so pressing to learn from Rosa Luxemburg when she warns us against the “vicious circles” that condemn us to wait for something, whatever it is, “before we can make history”. The best thing for us, right now at the end of the world, is to decide once and for all to intervene in the catastrophe, thus making history, which is precisely, for Jacques Lacan, what we call “hysteria”.

No matter how much damage we cause, it will not be comparable to what is happening. The worst would be that everything remains the same until at the end there is nothing left. Any error is now preferable to the patience and supposed prudence of those who fear to rush and make mistakes. Currently, in the absence of time, the most prudent thing is the haste to anticipate the end. In Lacan’s terms, the “too early” of hysteria is better than the “always too late” to which the neurotic procrastination leads us.

Even when we behave like neurotically blameless citizens, we do not want the end of the world either. Death terrifies us and it is for this very reason that we prefer to wait, sometimes betting on the imminent collapse of capitalism. We thus play the neurotic role that Lacan associates with that of the slave in the Hegelian dialectic: that of the one who “yields to the risk of death”, since “he knows he is mortal”, but for the same reason “he also knows that the master has to die”, so that “he can accept to work for the master in the uncertainty of the moment when the master’s death will come”.

In the uncertainty, we continue to work for capitalism, for the end of the world. At least we are sure of staying alive. But perhaps we should not be so sure about it, because “while we wait, we are already dead”, as Lacan warns us. We are already dead like our gestures that translate the functioning of the system, being repeated in a blind, neurotic and compulsive, mechanical way. We are already dead like puppets, like the gears of any machinery, like the zombies, who not by chance obsess us today.

We are already dead in the first place because we renounce our life, because we allow all of it to be possessed and sucked out by the vampire of capital, only hoping in vain that some of it is returned to us at the end of the day, on the weekend, in the next holidays, in retirement or in the collapse of capitalism, which obviously never happens, not only because we are already exhausted to live, but because the lost life is never recovered. But we are also already dead because the only life that is lived is that one that is risked, because there is only self-consciousness of life, as Hegel has explained, in “the fear of death, the absolute master”. We can only exist, as Heidegger confirms, in the anguish of being for death. We only live fully when we relate immediately to death, when we touch it, when we fight to the death against what threatens to kill us, which at this very moment is mainly capitalism. Being anti-capitalist is perhaps the only way to be truly alive, alive before death, in our current situation.

At the point we’ve reached, resigning ourselves to capitalism is abandoning ourselves to our death for the very fact of forgetting it. It is dying in the unconsciousness of dying. It is allowing oneself to be killed in the absence of what Marxism still calls “class consciousness”: consciousness that our life is being annihilated by capital. Lacking this consciousness is, in Lacan’s terms, depriving ourselves of the “knowledge” that should stop us, preferring “jouissance”, the enjoyment of capital that drags us into “progress marked by death”, into the inertia of “death drive”, on the “slope towards the inanimate”.

Instead of knowing that we could face death and thus avoid the worst, we indulge in the ideological fictions of capitalism that operate exactly like the neurotic’s excuses for Lacan. They only serve to keep death “at a distance”, away from us, distracting us from it, forgetting it while we abandon ourselves to it. This is what the cultural industry of capitalism is for, but also the demagoguery of those neoliberal and now neo-fascist politicians who dedicate their lives to supporting fictions such as green capitalism, inexhaustible resources, perpetual growth, responsible companies, consumerism favorable to prosperity, the invisible hand, the self-regulation of the market, the benefits of the competition of all against all, and the democratic character of bourgeois democracy and its rule of law.

As Jorge Alemán has well noted, the “constitutive fictions of capitalism” have been “stripped” by the pandemic. This global crisis offers us a chance to break through fantasy and see capitalism for what it is behind its fictions. This is what we discover in the rows of graves for the victims of coronavirus, in the corpses scattered through the streets of Ecuador and in other images that remind us of end-of-the-world movies.

You can see David deliver this address to the conference here: https://youtu.be/7q83VlPcC9g

This is one part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

Lockdown Again: Securitisation and Social Solidarity

We have already been locked into the contradictions of capitalism, too often shuttling between bad options, and COVID-19 makes it worse. It is not only the left that is faced with these contradictions, but also those who are attempting to manage all this. They are botching it, but their incompetence is not accidental. When it is not contrived, which it sometimes is, it flows from the nature of the system they are desperately intent on keeping going, for their benefit. These five contradictions of capitalism are what make the increasing securitisation of society into such a deadly danger, and what make it necessary for us to organise in and against these measures in a way that puts social solidarity at the forefront. For that we need analysis and action, theory and change, praxis in times of lockdown.

1. The economy is torn between the imperative to generate profit – to extract more surplus value from our human labour is the organising principle of this political-economic system – and the need to keep the workforce active, to generate that surplus value that is the lifeblood of the ruling class. So, we oscillate, how else could this play out, between the demand to return to work and limited support for us to stay healthy and productive. One way the ruling class attempts to resolve this contradiction, which does not solve it but simply smoothes it for a bit, is to continue with the ‘herd immunity’ narrative in which the sick go to the wall and the strong survive. Our way through this contradiction is to say ‘to hell with surplus value’ and that kind of ‘growth’ and the kind of economy that relies on it, and to insist on the creative production of a world in which we can all live, the starting point of a decent society, an alternative to capitalism.

2. Capitalism itself is torn between appeals to society as regulative container of conflict and to the individual as the ideological linchpin of competition. Here again we oscillate between herd immunity as what Trump, in a telling slip, called ‘herd mentality’, and standalone resilience in which the message is that if our leaders can beat the virus then so can we. This is the basis of the ideological gap between the collective responsibility urged by the World Health Organisation in which our care for everyone is care for each individual, and the individualist competitive spirit relied on by the right in government in which each separate isolated unit uses their ‘commonsense’ to make sense of the rules. Our way through this is for the collective option, but one which is democratically arrived at through self-conscious appropriation of the means of production and the application of rules in times of emergency that are consistent and clear and understandable.

3. Neoliberal capitalism twists and exploits this kind of situation in order to search for profit in the rubble. It is torn between destruction, a deadly drive unleashed from the early days by capitalism as it tears down existing forms of life in order to rebuild and generate profit for a few, and adaptation in which each worker must find ways of retraining, ‘re-skilling’, living in these precarious conditions. Neoliberalism, remember, returns us to the nineteenth century times of capital accumulation, with a difference. The difference is that, alongside the message that each individual should compete to work and that collective healthcare and welfare support hampers free choice, the state becomes a powerful force, enforcing control, and now the mechanism for enforcing lockdown on its own terms. This is the kind of surveillance and control we resist, not self-destructive individualist breaking of the measures that protect us, but the active refusal of outsourced ‘security’. Defunding of the police means building accountability at every level, in every community.

4. This is where we come up against a key contradiction of the capitalist state, at base a body of armed men designed to protect private property and operate as a gigantic committee for best managing the interests of the class that is tied into that state by a million threads of privilege. The state is now torn between maintaining control, treating its population as if it were a mindless herd, and provoking disobedience, inciting individuals to distrust authority. This contradiction is the running sore of the right governments, the source of the ‘ambiguity’ and ‘confusion’ that so many of us complain about as we try to make sense of the mixed messages. The effect, egged on by government advisors, is to sow distrust, including distrust of expertise, of science itself, and to encourage every kind of irrational ‘theory’ about who is doing what and why. Our way through this is to insist that this is not our state, that it is structurally systematically geared to the needs of those with power and property, mainly white men, and that a broader more inclusive community mutual resource network is needed to build alternative forms of production and distribution and guarantees of the safety of all as the basis of the safety of each.

5. There is an underlying ideological contradiction at work here in the state and in the very economic system it is designed to protect, one which bursts forth like a lanced boil at times of crisis, a contradiction between structural stable sets of relationships – the kind of well-behaved ‘community’ or ‘big society’ that supports the existing order of things – and conspiracy. Conspiracy is demanded and fed by capitalism, already at work in the idea that those with money have it through some uncanny ability to create it out of mid-air, and mobilised at times of threat; it is then as if the problem is not structural, internal to the nature of the system, but the result of someone behind the scenes pulling the strings. This is a dangerous game for government, for conspiracy theory also threatens to rebound against it, but it is willing to play that game if it can channel resentment against others, outsiders. Our way through this is to insist, at every point, that conspiracy theory is a trap, a distortion of our analysis of the nature of this economic system that runs like a machine, and that our open resistance is the diametric opposite of conspiracy.

At no time is it more urgent that we protect ourselves, and that we organise against this rotten system that will manage this emergency in ways that works against us, intensifying exploitation and oppression. This means that we do not refuse ‘lockdown’, but embrace it, claim it, reconfigure it as ‘our lockdown on our rules’, with the rules of the game being our collective responsibility for those who have already been criminally sickened and weakened by a political-economic system that makes the poor pay and the already-excluded suffer. Yes to the masks, symbol of our care and strength and solidarity! Yes to distance as a sign of respect, the basis for working together in a different way! Yes to the new networks of mutual aid that prioritise those as yet reduced to nothing.

You can read this again and comment on it here

Psychopolitical cults

The term ‘psychopolitics’ has a sinister edge to it now, but it was not always so. The term has undergone significant shifts of meaning. In studies of fascism in the 1930s to the New Left rebellions of the 1960s it referred to the attempt to connect subjectivity – our personal experience of who we are in the world – with political change. Progressive use of the term ranged from psychoanalytic accounts of the way relations to authority become embedded in individuals – ‘internalised’ – such that people feel isolated and unable to change, to feminist insistence that politics is to be found inside our intimate relationships as well as in the struggle against economic exploitation.

With the fading of revolt in the 1970s and the later apparent victory of capitalism in the 1990s, more was learnt more about the involvement of the security forces in psychological propaganda during the Cold War and against the Left. Now psychopolitics came to refer to the fear of brainwashing and the destruction of individual autonomy, but the horrible twist to these revelations was that psychological theories as to why the world was a miserable and destructive place became even more powerful. The increasing influence of psychological discourse – stories about what the mind is like and how it is possible to master it – has meant that psychopolitics is something that people are in awe of, even afraid of.

The accusation that this or that group is a ‘cult’ is infused with this new discourse, and psychopolitics in the sinister meaning of the term is used to mobilise our fear of groups and collective action. Now, instead of explaining why we are isolated and made to experience our oppression as individual – down to each of us to tackle on our own – the psychopolitical explanations of cult behaviour are designed to make us suspicious of anything other than individual experience. The ground-rules for this psychopolitics of collective action, and of organised groups that seem to threaten our precious individuality, mean that anyone who refuses to believe that the label ‘cult’ is useful must themselves be labelled as cultish.

This is a good example of how everyday commonsense comes to feel so right when it is not, and this intense fear of cults, and especially cults that aim to change the world, is exactly the kind of fear that the old progressive psychopolitics tried to understand. Someone who does not believe in the devil is still capable of making a judgement about right and wrong, and someone who does not believe in ‘cults’ may have other very good explanations as to why some groups are or are not destructive.

In the early 1990s I went to New York to meet with the ‘social therapists’ led by Fred Newman. They combined some kind of radical politics with some kind of radical therapy, and I already knew that this explosive combination of Marxism and psychology had led some of their opponents to label social therapy as a ‘cult’. But why was it so explosive? Precisely because they were linking Marxism – dangerous enough when it was put into practice outside the academic institutions where it had been confined since the 1970s – and psychology. But they were doing something very different with psychology than psychologists do, and the fact they did not really seem to take it seriously as a collection of facts about behaviour and the mind enraged many academics and practitioners. The psychology, fear and awe of psychology coded as dangerous ‘psychopolitics’ seemed to overshadow all of the critical debate about their work. Ex-members and political opponents were more obsessed with Fred than other members of this supposedly cultish organisation or their ideas about social therapy (of which there are various forms).

I gathered a lot of material – journals and leaflets by and about the various social therapy front organisations, of which there were many – and wrote a long critical article called ‘Right said Fred “I’m too sexy for bourgeois group therapy”’. The allusion was to a British band called Right Said Fred that had a chart hit with ‘I’m too sexy’. Lois Holzman – one of the leaders of the group – wrote a reply ‘Wrong said Fred’, and our friendship cooled somewhat I think. But the sense of misunderstanding and betrayal eventually stabilised into an uneasy arms-length distance relationship with social therapy that was most probably helped by us being on different sides of the Atlantic. I did not mean my article to serve as a test, to see if they could withstand criticism, and it did take a while to puzzle over what they were up to, puzzling that continues to today.

This puzzling could be easily ended by grabbing onto the label ‘cult’, for that in itself would also explain why they do not really seem to behave like a cult. Psychopolitics today is like a kind of conspiracy theory that is directed at oppositional groups rather than at the powerful, and it works its way into images of groups that people do not like by making us feel that if they don’t seem like a cult then that must be because they are even more devilishly cultish than we first thought.

I know, for example, that saying how nice those folks are won’t cut much ice with people who don’t like them, and I know that telling you how Fred is at the centre of what social therapists do in their performance work and in their politics will only confirm what you think you know already, that he is obviously the cult leader. In fact, this perhaps hopeless attempt to persuade you that I am not just another gullible fool who has been taken in by this gang is bound to fail, and so I write this in a rather defensive and cautious way (even as I try not to be). To say I was ‘defensive’ is to borrow a term from psychoanalytic psychotherapy that now has wide currency among the Left and liberal chattering classes. As I write this account I am reminded about how defensive and cautious I was when I first met them, as if at any moment they were going to whip my brain out and wash it thoroughly in some East Side Manhattan magic potion. All the social therapy group talk about ‘transference’ (in which past relationships are replayed onto the figure of the therapist) fed my sense that I should keep up my defences when near to them. Their psychoanalytic reference points provoked in me some psychoanalytic responses, deep lived and even with this armoury a little fearful.

It is worth reading the stories circulating on the internet, and with prize of place on websites devoted to exposing social therapy, of people who have left Fred. The paradox appears time and again is that these people seem to have learnt a lesson about collective action from social therapy, but then, I think, drawn the wrong conclusions. At the one moment they have absorbed some of the progressive ideas about psychopolitics that are still alive in this group and at the next they have made sense of those ideas in the frame of present-day discourse about ‘cults’, a discourse that will explain nothing and which merely serves as ammunition against their old comrades. The narrative in the complaints often goes like this: I was in a bad state with lots of personal problems; I met the social therapists who said the problems were in the world; I got drawn into political activity that they said was therapeutic; I gave years of my life and got burnt out; I realised that this was a cult that manipulated people; I got out to save myself from being manipulated; I now campaign with others against the group to expose them.

You can hear this kind of narrative from many people who have once been involved in other radical political movements, and if they change their minds (when they decide that they cannot change the world) they then bitterly resent the resources they put into it. They feel they were duped, and they feel better if they can now put some energy into warning others against getting involved; and (so you can see how easy it is to psychologise political choices) we could then say that their activity now serves as a guarantee to themselves that whereas they were once in the grip of a cult they are now really free. But should we not treat this talk about ‘cults’ as something that also grips us all? We have a choice, it seems to me.

 We can either notice how a set of terms is used to pathologise politics, in which case notions like ‘cult’, ‘brainwashing’, ‘internalisation’ and ‘defensiveness’ are treated as buzz-words which indicate that someone has bought into and is endorsing a particular version of psychology (a version of psychological commonsense that is infused with quasi-psychoanalytic notions which we might at other times treat with suspicion). That would give us some room for manoeuvre, and it would enable us to have a debate about different political strategies (even, heaven forbid, including members of the organisations labelled as cults). Or we can line up with those who tell horror-stories about themselves or others as if they were mindless victims who could never have really had any opinions different to what we take to be ‘commonsense’ unless there were deep and dangerous ‘psychological’ reasons, reasons to explain mistaken ideas away. Every few years there is a new wave of allegations and panic about Fred and Co., and every time the panic draws sections of the left into alliances with those who seek to use psychology against politics, and then, of course, this kind of alliance ends up using psychology as a form of politics to discredit all of the left.

The ground-rules of debate in psychological culture individualise our experiences, our responses to political debate and especially our membership of political organisations. Those who care enough about a political cause to join a group are almost immediately pathologised and treated with suspicion. Actually, the social therapists have had some very interesting things to say about this process, taking the link between ‘transference’ and power seriously for example, but while they have used some psychoanalytic ideas they have also refused to sign up to psychoanalysis or to any particular kind of ‘psychology’ as such. The irony is that while these ideas are wiped out of the debate, the ones who are actually drawing on psychology do so by surreptitiously attributing it to the ‘cult’ they attack. What if we could refuse to sign up to psychology too? Perhaps we would then really be able to take the political role of psychology as a form of psychoanalytic reasoning in popular culture more seriously and find something better to do with it than passively accept that we are victims of some peculiar cult mentality.

This article on Psychopolitical Cults was a chapter in Ian Parker’s 2009 Psychoanalytic Mythologies published by Anthem Press.

This is one part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

Why the Clinic is Politics

This paper was presented by Ian Parker at the ‘Psychoanalysis and the Public Sphere: Social Fault Lines’ Zoom conference hosted by the Freud Museum in London in September 2020

The clinical work we do is political, the clinical is political, but that’s easy to say, and it’s a statement that is dangerously multivalent, with consequences that take us in diverse contradictory directions, clinically and politically. The real question is how it is so, how does the political realm enter into our clinical practice, and, as the flip-side of the question, how does clinical practice find its way into politics.

The difficulty we face in trying to answer that question is, among other things, because the conditions in which the clinical and the political are linked, the ways they intersect, are profoundly contextual and historical. There isn’t one answer to the question, and the underlying nature of the political-economic system that has given rise to the ‘clinical’ as a distinctive phenomenon, a recent phenomenon, is characterised by unremitting mutability, by continual deep transformation of what is social and what is personal.

Marx captured the nature of this specific difficulty in this political-economic system, capitalism, when he noted that its innovative spirit is such that all existing social relations are dissolved, repeatedly dissolved, that, as he put it, ‘everything that is solid melts into air’. But just as certain configurations of social structure and interpersonal relationships seem to evaporate, so others form to take their place.

They re-form around the underlying material parameters of this society in which alienation is endemic, capitalist society, the kind of society that calls upon clinical practice to heal the psychic wounds and to adapt people to unliveable circumstances. And they re-form around relations of power, including hetero-patriarchal relations that were critically challenged by the socialist feminist slogan that the personal is political.

So, we have a task of mapping the coordinates of a complex changing society, a society which constitutes the ‘clinical’ in a particular way. And we have a more difficult task, of mapping the changes that make some kinds of political intervention at the level of subjectivity possible. That second more difficult task includes mapping changes that make some kinds of political intervention at the level of subjectivity impossible or, at least, that make it susceptible to immediate recuperation, neutralisation and absorption of our work back into the very thing we thought we were pitting ourselves against.

Now it is understandable that one response to this situation is to appeal to what is really there under the surface, to what has been disclosed by scientific reason, as if the rot set in with postmodernism and relativist cultural discourse rather than being a condition of life under capitalism. That way, in our clinical training and practice, lies the lure of neuroscience and, to put it simply, a return to psychiatric versions of psychoanalysis.

It is equally understandable that another response to this situation is to appeal to deep connection between people, an intuitive relationship in which there is quasi-telepathic access of unconscious meaning via counter-transference or even a reciprocal disclosure of experience in order to create deeper social bonds. That way, in our clinical training and practice, lies the lure of commonsensical humanism and, to put it simply, an embrace of psychotherapeutic versions of psychoanalysis.

We learn from historical analyses of surveillance and confession that operate in such a way as to provide the cultural apparatus of a globalised capitalist economy that these two responses are not in simple immediate competition with each other, but are twins. They, surveillance and confession, together lock us into social relationships that, at the one moment, define how patients are expected to think and feel, and, at the next moment, require clients to configure their experience according to dominant structures of feeling.

The danger is that psychiatric and therapeutic versions of psychoanalysis very easily channel their own clinical discourse into paths that intensify the public character and public evaluation of personal life as well as the political moral regulation of the private sphere. Rather than provide gentle reminders that it is good to talk and to share feelings, psychoanalysis is thereby drawn into an incitement to speak in a certain kind of way and to reinforce models of subjectivity that pretend to define what is normal and what is abnormal.

Psychoanalysis that respects the singularity of the human subject also necessarily stands against the globalisation of its discourse as if it were a universal grid, as if it were a worldview, and against the reduction of analysands to particular constellations of pre-defined characteristics. We shift our focus from the fantasy of an immutable biologically given bedrock of development and disorder to the relation between the subject and language. We treat the elements of the mind we refer to in our work not as having been discovered by Freud and his colleagues but as being invented for us to make use of in our clinical work. And we refuse to use our own understanding of these processes as a tool of suggestion either inside the clinic or outside it.

That is why we need political analyses of the place and role of the clinic, to treat the clinic as a form of politics as a problem as well as an arena of struggle, as an arena where we struggle against the very form that enables our work to take place.

This is one part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

The Importance of Freudo­Lacanian Psychoanalysis to Liberation Praxis

Robert K. Beshara writes:

In this essay, I will argue for the importance of Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalysis to liberation praxis by briefly unpacking some of the former’s central concepts: language, the unconscious, the Gaze, and singularity. But before I do that I would like to begin by defining liberation praxis. Praxis, a key signifier for both Karl Marx and Paulo Freire, is the merging of theory and practice or reflection and action. In this sense, psychoanalysis, as a science of the unconscious, is praxis: a theory of psychical structures (neurosis, perversion, and psychosis), as a function of different forms of negation (repression, disavowal, and foreclosure), which is practiced in the clinic. The praxis of psychoanalysis is dyadic (between analyst and analysand) and dialectical in the tradition of Socrates, Hegel, Marx, and Freire. The dialectic between analyst and analysand echoes the dialectic between the subject and the Other (i.e., any representative of the Symbolic order for the subject). This Symbolic Other is distinguished from Imaginary others (i.e., other egos) because it is more abstract given its representative function, which transcends any actual being. The Symbolic order is the register of language and law in which we are born and which, subsequently, forms us as subjects to it. The praxis of psychoanalysis is radical because its dialecticism is not merely dialogical but, more significantly, psychosocial—that is, psychoanalysis is concerned with the fantasmatic link between the subject and the Other. Similarly, liberation (as opposed to freedom) is a collective praxis, which is led by the oppressed but whose goal is the humanization of all because oppression dehumanizes everyone.

The meaning of the concept of the dialectic has changed over time: for Socrates it was the dialogue between two individuals, for Hegel it was the universal antagonism between two ideas (synthesis and antithesis), for Marx it was the historical struggle between two classes (bourgeoisie and proletariat), and for Freire it was the codependent relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed. The analyst and the analysand are certainly two individuals, but they can also represent two ideas (objet a and barred subject), come from different classes, and reenact oppressive dynamics that exist in the larger social context.

The objet a is the object-cause of desire, a fantasmatic or impossible object, which we think we lost even though we never had it in the first place; subsequently, we imagine it will bring us plenitude once realized, but, paradoxically, failing to realize the objet a is a source of (masochistic) jouissance for the subject. Therefore, the barred subject, who is barred by language because he or she must desire through the Other, is a lacking subject.

At the heart of psychoanalytic praxis is a Real (dialectical) antagonism between the individual and the collective: we are who we are as a function of our place in the collective, yet our being is a symptomatic form of existence (or singularity), which also leads to our uneasiness in culture (e.g., we can only desire through the Other, but the Other may be racist). In sum, we yearn to become liberated from oppressive individuals, ideas, and groups, which are the source of our pathologies. But this yearning is inherently psychosocial; therefore, liberation praxis is the collective liberation of all speaking beings at the very least, but I would go further, following the Bodhisattva ideal, and ambitiously call for the liberation of all sentient beings.

The reality of our interbeing provides us with more clarity as we think and act through the ongoing environmental breakdown, which is a function of a modern/colonial opposition: man vs. nature. Man versus nature is not dialectical; it is a binary opposition that follows an either/or rhetoric, which is sustained by a self-over-other logic. On the contrary, a dialectical approach, like transcendental materialism, situates the human subject in the materiality of the environment without reducing him or her to some form of biological essence, wherein there would be no distinction between speaking beings and non-human animals. Similarly, the human subject cannot be reduced to some form of cultural essence, which is the narcissistic tendency of nationalism. The human subject is the Real gap between biology and culture, he or she is the traumatic enjoyment that results from desiring in the face of biological needs and cultural demands. Biological and cultural racists reduce the other to an essence in an effort to suture this Real gap that characterizes all speaking beings. To interbe with the environment is not a statement about ontological identity (i.e., being = environment), but a recognition of our complex relationship with all that is: being-in-the-­environment.

Language

Lacan famously wrote in his Écrits, “the unconscious is the Other’s discourse” (emphasis in original). Psychoanalysis, known facetiously as the talking cure, is radical in its emphasis on language as the site for unknotting complexes in the psyche. This insight stems from the reality that we are born into language, a strange and complicated system that exists before and outside us, but on which we heavily depend for the formation of our subjectivity. Before entering into language, we are instinctive animals with biological needs. Once we enter into language, as mediated by our primary caregivers, we become barred and caught between our biological needs and the cultural demands imposed upon us by our primary caregivers through language and law. Having internalized this strange and complicated system called language, we begin to articulate our desire through it. However, what we want is unconscious and comes to us from outside because we have internalized a system not only of communication but also of morality, which is how repression works. Subjectivity then is the complex of signifiers that informs how we desire and how we enjoy our symptoms.

Because the unconscious is the Other’s discourse and is, as Lacan writes in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, “structured like a language,” it is inherently psychosocial and not personal. We desire through the Other, we desire the Other, and we desire what the Other desires. Desire is a linguistic phenomenon that has to do with the unconscious movement of signifiers (e.g., metaphoric condensation and metonymic displacement) as a function of repression. In other words, we do not consciously know what we want, but we can learn about what we desire and how we enjoy from the way we speak, dream, and joke. For example, in Decolonial Psychoanalysis, I show the metaphoric condensation at the heart of the ‘war on terror’ discourse, wherein war = terror. Then I illustrate how this discourse is sustained by an Islamophobic/Islamophilic fantasy that involves metonymic displacement: Muslim → terrorist. This psychoanalytic emphasis on language is not a denial of the body; on the contrary, language is inscribed on our very bodies, it is materially embodied, which is why we experience symptoms that do not have a biological cause, yet are bodily symptoms.

In sum, liberation praxis, as a process, entails a reflection on the way oppressive language works along with its material effects. In other words, liberatory practices are enacted through liberatory discourses. However, in case I am misunderstood to be promoting the policing of speech which would be antithetical to the principle of free association, I must emphasize that, regarding liberatory discourses, the oppressed have a duty to cut through any and all fantasies that suture the traumatic Real. Hence, the importance of the dialectic as the recognition of the irresolvability of Real impossibility, which is a key feature of any future politics.

The Unconscious

The unconscious decenters the ego and sheds light on the primacy of the psychosocial over the psychic. Consciousness-raising is important, but it will not succeed without unconsciousness-raising, which is a political intervention at the level of the Other’s discourse. In other words, to be antiracist one has to also speak of an antiracist unconscious, which implies transforming the culture of racism and replacing it with an antiracist culture. To put it differently, the subject cannot be antiracist as long as the Other is racist. The paradoxical question of racism is: how do we acknowledge human, and cultural, differences beyond racial categories without being color-blind? In other words, we must collectively come to terms with both the denial of racism (which is also a denial of colonialism) and the overpresence of racial discourses as an effect of religious, scientific, and cultural racisms. We do not yet have a post-racial language and we may not have one anytime soon since undoing modernity/coloniality may take hundreds of years, but we can at least try to prefigure a transmodern/decolonial world-system through our liberation praxis.

The Gaze

Unfortunately, many confuse the look with the Gaze. The confusion can be traced back to early psychoanalytic film theory, which is known as screen theory. In her 1975 essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey wrote about film spectatorship qua the ‘male gaze’. While this phrase is popular today and sounds feminist, it is actually non-psychoanalytic and maybe even antifeminist since it equates spectatorship with maleness. In her 1989 essay, The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory and the Reception of Lacan, Joan Copjec not only cleared the confusion in psychoanalytic film theory, she also inaugurated Lacanian film theory by anchoring it in the register of the Real, that which cannot be symbolized. The confusion between the look and the Gaze is a function of screen theory being more Foucaultian than Lacanian, wherein the Gaze is conceptualized in terms of panopticism as exemplified by the all-seeing guard in Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. The panoptic look is shot through with misrecognition, for it is essentially an Imaginary look of mastery that has to do with a fantasy of power, rather than desire per se.

The anamorphic Gaze, on the other hand, is on the side of the screen (not the spectator), or the prisoners (not the guard). In other words, the Gaze is always on the side of the object (not the subject), and it is the form of the objet a in the scopic drive. To put it differently, the Gaze is that which we cannot see but which causes our desire through its absence. Therefore, a non-identity politics based on this insight is not grounded in Imaginary identifications, but in the alignment of our desire and, consequently, the jouissance of our solidarity.

Lacan’s most famous example of the Gaze is a 1533 painting by Hans Holbein called The Ambassadors. In the painting, Holbein used a technique called anamorphosis, which resulted in a distorted human skull at the bottom center of the painting that can only be seen from specific angles. The skull, which symbolizes the absolute master (death), stains the painting by reminding viewers that the vain merchants who are showing off their wealth are mortal beings as are the viewers. Because anamorphosis drives the viewer to move in order to see the distorted object, this example demonstrates that the viewer is not a passive recipient of the painting but an active participant (a subject) whose unconscious desire is caused by the painting’s Gaze. The same principle is at work in cinema, but given the dynamic techniques of film there are more opportunities for spectators to experience the Gaze. Todd McGowan has written extensively on the filmic Gaze, most importantly in The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan.

The example that I would like to use is Albrecht Dürer’s (1525) Draughtsman Drawing a Recumbent Woman. The draughtsman on the right exemplifies the subject’s male look; however, the recumbent woman on the left represents the objet a‘s anamorphic Gaze. In other words, she is not only objectified by the male look, but also subjectifies the draughtsman by causing his desire—like an analyst vis-à-vis an analysand in the clinic. The Real Gaze is a more nuanced approach than the ‘male gaze’ one, which actually negates female subjectivity. The look–Gaze dialectic may be applied beyond sexual difference to colonial difference, for instance, wherein we can speak of the colonial look and the decolonial Gaze.

Singularity

There is a transversal link between the singular and the universal. It is this link which illustrates the continued relevance of psychoanalysis as a science of the unconscious. However, given the specific context of the development of psychoanalysis in Austria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we must also speak of the pluriversal in order to acknowledge the cultural difference between the Global North (the West) and the Global South (the rest). This cultural difference is Real as a function of modernity/coloniality since 1492. In other words, there is universality to psychoanalytic concepts vis-à-vis modern subjectivity, but this universality must be put into question if we are interested to account for transmodern subjectivity (i.e., subjects of modernity and its alterity).

Identity politics is premised on the primacy of particularity, which is rooted in a form of cultural essentialism. The question of cultural difference for me is one of language and materiality vis-à-vis modernity/coloniality. While I was born and raised in a particular culture (Egypt), of which I am unashamedly proud, I am a singular subject who can only represent himself. My link to my particular culture is both linguistic and material, but that does not mean that my politics is premised on my identification with being Egyptian. On the contrary, I am much more interested in identifying with a politics of affiliative solidarity that links singular transmodern subjects with a pluriversal process of liberation, that is, decolonizing the modern Other. Decolonizing the modern Other, along with its colonial unconscious, prefigures the transmodern Other and the decolonial unconscious. While the oppressed are the subjects leading the way to liberation, the politics actualized in this praxis is global in scale, for transmodernity is the best of modernity and its alterity and decoloniality is the humanization of all.

References

Beshara, Robert K. Decolonial Psychoanalysis: Towards Critical Islamophobia Studies. Routledge, 2019.

Copjec, Joan. “The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory and the Reception of Lacan.” October, vol. 49, 1989, pp. 53-71.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. Translated by Bruce Fink, Norton, 2006.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Translated by Alan Sheridan, Karnac Books, 2004.

McGowan, Todd. The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan. SUNY Press, 2012.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, 1975, pp. 6-18.

Robert K. Beshara is the Director of the Critical Psychology certificate program at The Global Center for Advanced Studies, Ireland/USA. He is the author of Decolonial Psychoanalysis: Towards Critical Islamophobia Studies (2019) and Freud and Said: Contrapuntal Psychoanalysis as Liberation Praxis (2020), the editor of A Critical Introduction to Psychology (2019), and the founder of criticalpsychology.org, a free resource for scholars, activists, and practitioners.

This is one part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements