LGS Thoughtpiece

Resistances of the Psycho-political

Posted: Thursday 01 Oct 2015
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If the publication last year of Slavoj Zizek’s doctoral thesis in English translation was intended to lend additional scholarly weight to the project of reading psychoanalytic categories into structures of philosophical thought (The Most Sublime Hysteric: Hegel with Lacan has been taken to present Hegel as a Lacanian avant la lettre), this only extends the recent taste for analysing both the intricate ‘text’ of philosophy and the contested domain of the ‘political’ using concepts derived from psychological interpretation. In the process of such re-articulation, of course, politics, psychoanalysis and philosophy undergo certain mutations that reopen and transform our understanding of each of these fields. Is it possible, though, to identify a psychoanalytic category that is not susceptible to such elaboration, one that resists these kinds of migrations—indeed, one that might therefore be used to trace the limit of this kind of reading? Phobia, for instance, was downplayed early on by Freud himself as merely a basic reaction to anxiety, and thus not worthy of the conceptual dignity accorded to his idea of obsession, of which it was found initially to be merely a privative version. This, however, did not so much insulate a psychoanalytic term from exposure to its ‘outside’, as deprive it of psychoanalytic potential altogether. And, of course, this attempt failed—as we know, the question of phobia was central to some of Freud’s most famous case studies, including that of ‘Little Hans’, written in the first decade of the twentieth century, long after his seeming dismissal of phobia as a proper term of analysis in the 1890s; a case study, in fact, whose interpretation Freud revised in the 1920s as the result of an abiding dissatisfaction with his original conclusions. What was it about phobia that so powerfully resisted either critical exclusion or conceptual closure? What allowed it to persist in forms that continued to beg the question of phobia itself?

It is perhaps because Freud begins by characterising phobia as only a faux or partial object of analytic interest that the trouble occurs. As Lacan, Freud’s most famous inheritor, makes clear, phobia arises in psychoanalytic terms at the point the paternal function or metaphor lapses (thus, Little Hans’s fear of horses is linked by Freud to the persistently weak presence of his father). It is this lapse that impedes the authoritative division of the subject (the child) from the object (the mother) of desire. For psychoanalysis, the collapse of such a distinction risks a terrifying drift towards psychosis. The phobic object—source of Han’s equine dread—stands in for, or stands against, this lack or privation. Freud’s original aversion to phobia—what might even be termed a phobic reaction, or a certain phobophobia—may thus be detected in the faux nature of phobia as a proper ‘object’ or category for the budding psychoanalyst of the 1890s.   Yet such an insight, far from reducing phobia to a personal affliction on Freud’s part, also sheds light on the highly conflicted structure of that which he fell short of analysing satisfactorily. If phobic reaction stems the onset of psychosis, such psychosis may be thought of as characterised by certain key features. Lacanian psychoanalysis tells us that the psychotic quickly relinquishes doubt, and is capable only of forms of certainty. The psychotic’s discourse is largely devoid of metaphor or inventive figures of any kind. Psychotics violently refuse symbolization, so that psychotic foreclosure represents a catastrophic, near irreparable disturbance of the symbolic order, becoming quite different from the comparatively functional repressions that accompany neurosis. Rather like the discourse of the sadist as understood by Gilles Deleuze, psychotic language tends towards grinding repetition rather than illuminating explanation. In particular, psychosis denies itself opportunities for self-questioning. It is given to delusions of grandeur, placing the psychotic centre-stage in a delusional world of his own making. If, then, psychosis violently dispenses with doubt, the phobia that for psychoanalysis blocks psychotic experience is sufficiently double or duplicitous in nature (indelibly marked as it is by an internal resistance to itself, one that not only troubles but indeed defines Freud’s discourse on the subject) that its ultimate effectivity must remain highly doubtable. And yet, at the same time, phobia’s very ‘doubleness’ may be what impedes the passage to ‘psychotic’ certainty. Phobia, in other words, resists psychosis by means of its own resistance to itself, a resistance that at the same time threatens its power of resistance in relation to psychotic ‘becoming’. Phobia resists itself—it is itself phobophobic—so as to maintain or, rather, risk this double possibility. Such insight into the phobic condition perhaps helps to explain Freud’s own difficulties on this matter, going far beyond of the attribution of some individual ailment.

Psychoanalysis, as we have seen, sets phobic reaction against the backdrop of a lapse in the paternal function or figure, one that leaves the subject badly lacking in terms of paternalistic prohibition or the authoritative limitation of their desires more generally. Here, drives become sufficiently unmodulated or unregulated as to risk a terrible drift toward psychosis as a psychological state in which the subject-object relation itself begins to go awry, unless phobia steps in to simulate the reintroduction of a ‘proper’ separation of the two. To the extent that the diminution of any higher principle of authority combined with the intensifying production of unregulated desires might be taken to characterize key features of twenty-first century existence as it seems to wheel out of all possible control, it would doubtless be possible to interpret modern life as in many ways phobic life. (No doubt one could even analyse global politics or neoliberal domination in just such terms.) From this perspective, all of our ‘objects’ would risk becoming phoney or incomplete forms substituting for a potentially devastating loss that threatens our psychic constitution as such.

But one must still remember, as Freud’s own example teaches us, that phobia is as much the vehicle of (psycho-) analytic discourse as it is its interpretative tool. In 1929, Alfred Adler, noted one-time follower of Freud, produced a case study of ‘Miss R.’, the young daughter of a Viennese tailor, in which he offered a lengthy commentary on her lupus phobia. Lupus is an auto-immune disease linked to tuberculosis that reached its heights during the nineteenth century, before the bacillus causing tuberculosis was isolated and before light therapy treatments of the condition had been developed. (Since lupus was also linked to raw milk, the introduction of the pasteurization process was seen as another factor in its long-term decline, and indeed Miss R.’s phobias include a powerful love-hate relationship to milk, including mother’s milk, about which much could be said.) Although it could affect several body systems, lupus was identified foremost with unsightly facial skin lesions that often developed into horrendous ulcers as the disease became chronic and progressive. Found at the crossroads between the sprawl of the city and the birth of the clinic, one might say that lupus’s historic arc reflects the early history of psychoanalysis itself. (Although, tellingly, Adler is writing some time after lupus had reached its peak, as if he is looking back from the vantage point of a certain decline.) Interestingly, Adler associates Miss R.’s phobias with a continual desire to avoid her own inferiorization in the family setting (her phobic dramas are little more than control techniques), but they are also connected to a deep-rooted fear about life on the outside (an ‘outside’ seemingly pervaded by terrifying lupus-sufferers). The prospect of holding a safe and secure place within the family is thus always highly uncertain, and subject to competitive rivalries, but equally the world beyond the family is fraught with unimaginable dangers. Adler’s case study itself offers a clue to the relationship between analyst and analysand, who, so it seems, never actually met. Adler interprets most of the young girl’s behaviour in terms of an egotistic (perhaps near-psychotic) desire of a spoilt child to hold centre-stage, so as to not be overshadowed by others; yet perhaps revealingly the case history itself is constructed out of extemporized remarks that Adler makes before a captive audience of zealous followers, presumably to show off his own analytic brilliance (in contrast to, say, Freud’s, whom he takes every opportunity to disparage, just as Miss R. routinely degrades her own peers). As we begin to wonder whether Adler might inadvertently be talking about himself as much as Little Miss Show-Off, then, the case study begins to offer some insights into the split with Freud in 1911. Not least, reading Adler’s text carefully, it is possible to trace connections between the auto-immune condition of lupus, the near auto-immunitary instability of the (paternalistic) family (for instance, that of Miss R., itself characterised by a feeble father), and the self-destructive collapse of the Freud circle in Vienna in the early years of the twentieth century, a circle that finally could not be dominated by a one-time father-figure to end all father-figures. That lupus receives its name through an etymological link to the wolf prompts recollection of Freud’s famous dictum Homo homini lupus (man is wolf to man). Just as lupus eats away the face—a face glimpsed horrifyingly in the cracked mirror of Adler’s case study, driven as it seems to be by a family conflict that continues to eat away at him—so vulpine ‘man’ (which might be to say: psychoanalytic ‘man’) devours himself. Here, then, lupus phobia is not merely the ‘object’ of psychological analysis or discourse: it is its very medium or mode. Phobia is not just a contested topic between Freud and Adler (the latter seeking for it more of a ‘social’ than a ‘sexual’ meaning). Instead, phobia itself points to the ‘self-eating’ form their very relationship takes. Put differently, what we are calling ‘phobia’ names an irreducible heterogeneity that no doubt inhabits and destabilises the ‘politics’ of this relationship from the outset. What this might teach us about the complexity of reading philosophical texts or political situations in terms of psychoanalytic categories may be all too clear, and yet it warrants a perhaps impossible vigilance whose end is difficult to foresee.

Phobia by Simon Morgan Wortham is one in a series of books due to appear in 2016 as part of a new Bloomsbury Shorts’ list, including titles by Alain Badiou, Michel Henry, Catherine Malabou, Elissa Marder, Rosi Braidotti, Scott Wilson, and others.




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LGS 2017 Summer Academy Progamme: '1967'

Tuesday 09 May 2017
Posted in Blog

This is the final programme for the 2017 London Graduate School Summer Academy in the Critical Humanities, on the topic of '1967': Monday 26 June 1pm...