16 January 2007

Rough Theory-- The Apocalypse Edition

N.Pepperell over at Rough Theory has written a very nice response to my musings on the ubiquity of apocalyptic fantasies in contemporary culture, drawing on Adorno. Expressing hesitation over certain elements of my claims, N.P. writes:
Sinthome thus expresses the hope that apocalyptic fantasies manifest a desire for something other than their explicit content - something more than the desire for destruction and death. I raise this point, not to hold up Freud’s text against Sinthome’s appropriation - for we have no obligation for interpretive fidelity to Freud’s work and, in any event, even Freud’s “typical” examples contain permutations that might be amenable to Sinthome’s appropriation (Freud suggests that “typical” dreams can manifest historical content, for example - ephemeral wishes once felt, but long since rejected, etc.) - but because I think it provides a good frame for understanding Adorno’s very different attempt to merge psychoanalytic theory with sociology in the service of critique. If Freud offers two interpretive paths, one of which Sinthome has followed in the hopes that apocalyptic fantasy might signify a nonmanifest content - a longing for transcendence - we can understand Adorno’s work as an attempt to reflect seriously on the second path - on the possibility that certain mass movements might genuinely desire to achieve what their fantasies express: destruction and death.
I do not have much to add to N.P.'s excellent analysis, except to point out that I do not believe there's any substantial disagreement here between my claims and what she's drawing from Adorno. This point comes into greater clarity with regard to other fantasmatic structures. An acquaintance of mine suffers from an overwhelming sense of guilt that pervades nearly every aspect of his daily life. For instance, his wife will ask him to do something innocuous and straightforward and he'll be paralyzed by anxiety feelings of guilt, encountering her request not as a simple request, but as an accusation claiming that he failed to do something that he should have done. Similarly, whenever faced with some form that he must fill out for the government or his job, he encounters this form as implying that he's done something wrong in much the same way that Joseph K's engagements with the castle and the court all imply some ambiguous and unfathomable guilt in The Castle and The Trial. Finally, his dream life is pervaded by dreams where he commits some horrible act of crime and is to be punished.

The point not to be missed here is that the manifest content of this frame with respect to how he organizes his intersubjective relations and relations to the world-- the frame through which he views and interprets the address of others to him --is taken as a genuine and true reading of what is actually going on. He genuinely, for instance, experiences his wife as accusing him, and this leads him to act in response to these accusations, demonstrating that he is in fact innocent, that she is the guilty one (for not telling him before), etc., thereby generating conflict between himself and his spouse.

Over the course of our discussions-- which have largely been of a theoretical and impersonal nature, often about the structure of the moebius strip and rhetoric --he has increasingly come to believe that, in fact, these guilt affects have little or nothing to do with anything unfolding in the present. Rather, when he was very young his mother died of cancer and underwent a long and very painful treatment. During this there were times when he would wish for her to die. At present, then, his working hypothesis is that this ubiquitous guilt is a sort of return of the repressed wherein he seeks punishment for these wishes. Indeed, for Freud one of the central marks of obessessional neurosis, the mechanism of repression operative in repression, is a splitting that occurs between affect and signifier, such that the affect is displaced and appears elsewhere in our intersubjective relations. Freud points out that the obsessional, unlike the hysteric, is often quite aware of particular events, but recollects these events without their proper affective content. Instead, the affect becomes connected to signifiers that appear completely unrelated to the originary signifying content. My friend's repetition of this guilt in relation to events unrelated to his wish for his mother's death can thus be seen as serving two functions: On the one hand, it provides him with the punishment he believes himself to deserve. On the other hand, it gives him the opportunity to prove, again and again, his innocence by acting in the present with regard to whatever manifest content happens his way, demonstrating that he has been unjustly accused.

The point, then, that I am trying to make is that the manifest content can very well be treated as the "real McCoy", as the real problem, and we perpetually take up action in relation to this manifest content. The case is similar with regard to apocalyptic fantasies. It is both possible for apocalyptic fantasies to be expressive of frustration with social relations, yearnings for a different type of social order, and repressed wishes for all of society to collapse so that this social order might become possible, and for the subjects inhabited by these fantasies to misrecognize their desire and treat the manifest content as something to be promoted or fought against exactly as Adorno suggests. Zizek makes a similar point apropos the Jew and anti-Semitism. For Zizek, the anti-Semite's animosity towards the Jew is expressive of a series of social antagonisms that have nothing to do with Jews themselves. They are representative of the anti-Semite's own disavowed desire (for a more detailed discussion of Zizek's analysis of anti-semitism see here). However, none of this prevents the anti-Semite from targeting the Jew as a source of violence and unjust legislation, by treating the manifest content of the symptom as a genuine reality. For me, then, the question is that of how fetishistic fascination with the manifest content can be shifted so as to focus on both these disavowed desires and latent content pertaining to social antagonisms.

As a final caveat I would like to add that my basic position is that psychoanalysis is not a psychology but a theory of intersubjectivity. As Freud puts it in the very first paragraph of Group Psychology and the Analysis of Ego,
The contrast between individual psychology and social or group psychology, which at a first glance may seem to be full of significance, loses a great deal of its sharpness when it is examined more closely. It is true that individual psychology is concerned with the individual man and explores the paths by which he seeks to find satisfaction for his instictual impulses; but only rarely and under certain exceptional conditions is individual psychology in a position to disregard the relations of this individual to others. In the individual's mental life someone else is invariably involved, as a model, as an object, as a helper, as an opponenet; and so from the very first individual psychology, in the extended by entirely justifiable sense of the words, is at the same time social psychology as well. (SE 18, 69)
Lacan pushes this thesis to its logical conclusion, treating psychoanalysis not as a psychology, but rather as a transcendental theory of the analytic setting... Or more properly, transference. As such, all questions of psychoanalysis are already questions of the social field, not of individual minds. This is one reason that Lacan was led to investigate topology for forms of relation not premised on outside/inside binaries, but rather continuous relations between self, Other, and world.

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9 Comments:

Anonymous N. Pepperell said...

I'd agree with this - the difference between your position and Adorno's, with reference to the issues I was writing about, isn't the difference between a focus on manifest and latent content, but between the framing of the issue as a "psychological" one in Adorno's more traditional sense of the term, and the framing of the issue in terms of a theory that, while also seeking to make sense of individual perceptions and motivations, but by situating these within an analysis of intersubjectivity. Adorno's starting point arguably drives him toward theoretical pessimism; your position does not - which is one of the differences that interested me.

My focus wasn't so much on the issue of genuine/nongenuine desire (although my vocabulary suggested as much, and your clarification here is well made), as on how we understand what the desire is, and how particular interpretive frameworks allow us to understand the interactions between individual desires and a broader context. Your approach seems, to me, to provide a theoretical opening Adorno's does not, precisely because it doesn't "materialise" individual experiences into what purport to be psychological structures.

That said, Adorno does raise some interesting questions (which my discussion also didn't address) about the non-continuity between individual experience and social structure - Adorno's conception of more materialised psychdynamic structures allows him to make sense of some of the disjoint he sees between individual experience and social context. I'm not certain I would agree with the way in which Adorno approaches this issue, but I am sympathetic to the notion that we need more complex ways of understanding the relationship between subjects and their context than allowed by approaches that treat this relationship as transparent and direct (not that you would disagree with this, just by way of flagging why Adorno believes he must approach the problem as he does).

It was in this specific sense - that sociology tends traditionally to target overarching "objectivities", while psychology tends traditionally to target local "subjectivities" - that I would intend a call for an integration of a critically reformulated social and psychological theory: an integration that most likely would require both a psychology and a sociology that understand their objects of analysis (contexts and subjects) in a non-traditional way.

But the chances of my developing a clear and coherent vocabulary for talking about this until the temperature in Melbourne falls and I get more sleep, may be somewhat low... ;-P Apologies for the speculative character of this - and of the original post.

January 16, 2007 12:25 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

"That said, Adorno does raise some interesting questions (which my discussion also didn't address) about the non-continuity between individual experience and social structure - Adorno's conception of more materialised psychdynamic structures allows him to make sense of some of the disjoint he sees between individual experience and social context. I'm not certain I would agree with the way in which Adorno approaches this issue, but I am sympathetic to the notion that we need more complex ways of understanding the relationship between subjects and their context than allowed by approaches that treat this relationship as transparent and direct (not that you would disagree with this, just by way of flagging why Adorno believes he must approach the problem as he does)."

This sounds right. One of my gripes with a good deal of social theory is that it tends to treat the subject as maintaining a sort of transparent relationship to its social conditions, as if the subject is simply a fractal iteration of those social conditions, or a brute repetition of those social conditions like a mandlebrot set where the social is a macro-level iteration of the pattern and the individual is just a smaller version of one and the same pattern. The subject is conceived as being perfectly at home in its social setting or environment, such that the outsider is never able to understand another culture in the way that the insider is.

This strikes me as being a very distorted phenomenology of the social... One that is obviously false when we reflect. Drawing on Zizek, not only is the social or the cultural mysterious to the outsider-- "why do they behave in this way?", "why do the Jews get so worked up by having meat and dairy on the same plate?" etc --but these very same practices are mysterious to the insider as well. One need only think of the fraught way in which we navigate our social world to see the manner in which the social field is a constant source of perplexity and anxiety, where we wonder why things are the way they are, what exactly we're supposed to be doing, how exactly we're supposed to act, what exactly we ought to believe, etc. As Zizek puts it apropos Hegel: "The mysteries of the Egyptians are mysteries to the Egyptians."

Consequently I'm trying to reconcile two seemingly heterogeneous claims: On the one hand, there is, in my view, no subject without the social. I take it that, in part, you're getting at something like this in your recent reading of Hegel's lord/bondsman relation. On the other hand, the subject cannot be reduced to the social, but rather there's always something about the subject that isn't quite integrated, that sticks out, that is resistant and hystericized. I see much of the work of collective fantasy consisting in pacifying and navigating this opacity of the social and it's traumatic impact.

No need to apologize about the speculative nature of your posts. I suspect I'm far worse where idle speculation is concerned :)

January 16, 2007 6:53 PM  
Anonymous Joseph Kugelmass said...

Sinthome, I am delighted with the clarity and elegance of your formulation: the social interpellates the subject, the subject resists this assimilation and becomes hysterical in the abyss between her questions and the seeming impossibility of change, and fantasy acts to soothe and cathect this hysterical remainder (which would otherwise threaten the social).

It does seem to me that more than just fantasy is involved here, although the satisfactions within the system are always fantasmatic. For example, there are the established fantasies of sports, or of plots like the "lost heir" plot of Harry Potter; there are also the sorts of violent release-valves for rage to which Adorno refers, meaning everything from the Nazi "night of crystal" to the local rage that drives the film Boys Don't Cry.

January 16, 2007 9:01 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Thanks, Joseph. I'm not sure I understand the claim you make in the second paragraph. In my view the sort of violence you describe and fantasy are intimately bound up with one another. I use fantasy in an extremely broad sense, inclusive of very painful and troubling thoughts we have of what others want from us, e.g., that they want to discount us, steal from us, destroy us, etc. In short, I take fantasy to be any attitude that answers the question of what others desire, whether as a group or individuals. As a result, violence often follows.

January 17, 2007 7:43 AM  
Anonymous N. Pepperell said...

Just a quick thought on this:

Consequently I'm trying to reconcile two seemingly heterogeneous claims: On the one hand, there is, in my view, no subject without the social. I take it that, in part, you're getting at something like this in your recent reading of Hegel's lord/bondsman relation. On the other hand, the subject cannot be reduced to the social, but rather there's always something about the subject that isn't quite integrated, that sticks out, that is resistant and hystericized. I see much of the work of collective fantasy consisting in pacifying and navigating this opacity of the social and it's traumatic impact.

Although it's been quite common to conceptualise our ability to separate ourselves from, and react back upon, our social context in terms of concepts like "resistance", I'm not sure this is the only - or the best - option available to us. I'm also not quite sure it's the best term for capturing what you're trying to describe? (Note that the point I'll try to make here may just boil down to clarifying whether you mean this term "resistance" differently from how other approaches use it...)

In most approaches, "resistence" is essentially what I tend to call a "black box" category: it's a deus ex machina - fundamentally beyond the theorist's analytical grasp - which the theorist hauls out to "explain" the things that can't be grasped by the theory itself - principally, to explain how socially-determined subjects engage in various practices critical of their contexts, when the theory otherwise would predict that people's behaviours are socially determined. (Please note: I am not accusing you of doing this - I am exploring a difference between how you wield the term, and how the term is often wielded.) The "need" for a category like resistance derives from a form of social theory that can grasp social context only as a self-replicating entity - a closed loop. Once you posit social context as a kind of machine for self-replication, critical sensibilities are a black box, as it's difficult to see how or why they might arise - and hence the theorist gets thrown back on notions like "human nature" or some other ground that is posited as essentially beyond the reach of socialisation.

Your approach shouldn't require this, as it contains categories that would allow you to talk about abstract structures that must necessarily find a concrete manifestation - both the structure and the manifestation are equally "essential". Where this holds, behaviours that are often captured in the black box categeory of resistence - and thereby placed outside and beyond the grasp of theorisation, other than in a deus ex machina kind of way - become "graspable" by the theory, which can analyse both structure and manifestation (and, for that matter, the relationship between the two) in a determinate way.

You can still assert a transcendental status to the very abstract insight that this kind of structure-manifestation dimension of socialised human practice always exists (I would argue that you have to explain why we are able to recognise this transcendental reality now, and that this might have something to do with dimensions of our specific historical moment that operate this way on a more "concrete" level - but I'll have to leave this as a gestural, essentially speculative, point here...). My point, though, is that your approach in principle should open far more to theoretical analysis than most approaches that toss around the phrase "resistance" - meaning, among other things, that using the term might risk a degree of confusion (it certainly confused me at various points - and I still have to squash a reflex annoyance with the word... ;-P), since your version of "resistance" doesn't have to point to something that falls outside socialisation, but rather to a qualitative dimension of how socialisation works that enables critical sensibilities to arise.

I'm extremely tired right now, and so this may not be making any sense - and, in any event, the terminological issue is likely far less useful to you than it is to me, since you already know what you think... ;-P So apologies for the thinking-out-loud-for-my-own-benefit dimension of the post... ;-P I guess my point would be that formulations like "there's always something about the subject that isn't quite integrated, that sticks out, that is resistant and hystericized" suggest (to me, when read in light of other kinds of theoretical appropriations of similar terms) that you are participating in a "black box" form of theory that your approach actually doesn't require, because you have ways of grasping structure, manifestation and their interactions in historical terms.

It's of course possible to muddy the waters further: you complain about approaches that see individuals and societies as sharing a common fractal structure; I would add to this that most conceptualisations of social context are themselves too linear and closed - and that we have constituted a context that itself has a structure-manifestation dynamic unfolding through time. (If I were to mount a case for how you would ground your more transcendental claims, it would start by exploring whether and how our experience of living in such a context can make it a bit easier to search for other dimensions of human experience that might share this characteristic, etc. But I'm just babbling...)

In terms of what I'm trying to do with Hegel: I'll let you know as soon as I figure it out... (More likely, other people reading from the sidelines will figure it out before I do...) Unfortunately, an enormous amout of my theoretical work seems to be essentially nonconscious, and writing is the process by which I let myself know what I think... ;-P So my intuition is that there's something important (for me, if for noone else) to figure out through the reading I'm trying to construct, but I'm not sure yet what that might be... ;-P

Sorry for the long, sprawling post...

January 17, 2007 12:34 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Terrific comment! Resistance probably isn't the best word. We had a discussion a couple of months back regarding objet a that comes closer to what I have in mind. The idea is that in the process of socialization a remainder is produced that challenges the completeness of the social subject's identity-- it's a sort of non-integratable kernel that is both a necessary condition for identity and the constant subversion of identity --and that has no set place in the social field. In short, identity is in and of itself antagonistic. I'll try to write on this in the next couple of days, though I have a conference paper to complete this weekend for a conference the following week, so I'm not sure I'll get to it. I don't think this fully meets your requirements regarding the conditions for the possibility of critical consciousness, but it might be a start.

Hopefully the heat there lets up soon! We had the opposite in Dallas today: An icestorm and subsequent cancellation of classes. Being the dope that I am, I, of course, drove to the college without checking the website first.

January 17, 2007 6:56 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

One additional point: This remainder or antagonism at the heart of (social)-identity is itself highly ambivalent. It is both a motor of identifications and ideological formations, propelling the subject to identify as a means towards resolving this deadlock or non-concidence of identity that is itself identity (why would we repeat A in A = A if identity didn't already minimally differ from itself) and the failure of every perfect concidence of identity. This is why I emphasize that it doesn't solve the issue you've raised-- an issue I'm only vaguely beginning to understand, despite having written an essay before entitled "Critical Consciousness". If such a conception of subjectivity (which I hope to develop more clearly later) holds up under scrutiny, it is perhaps a necessary condition of the distancing and reflexivity required for critique that you're calling for, but not necessarily sufficient.

January 17, 2007 7:05 PM  
Anonymous N. Pepperell said...

I'm kind of dead on my feet at the moment, so I probably shouldn't be writing anything for public consumption... ;-P But yes:

If such a conception of subjectivity (which I hope to develop more clearly later) holds up under scrutiny, it is perhaps a necessary condition of the distancing and reflexivity required for critique that you're calling for, but not necessarily sufficient.

And, in addition, since this sort of necessary but not sufficient condition would, within your framework, hold true in a transhistorical sense, there are some things it cannot do, that a self-reflexive, historically immanent critical theory needs to do - specifically relating to grasping forms of subjectivity and objectivity specific to our own moment in time. But I'm realising as I write this that I'm simply too tired to develop the point... ;-) Consider it a placeholder - but, yes, this is one of the distinctions I've been trying to make in our discussions.

January 17, 2007 9:55 PM  
Anonymous Joseph Kugelmass said...

Hopefully I can make this all clearer.

First of all, while I certainly agree that a leap of imagination is required in order to "know" the desire of another (or the more general, philosophical Other), I do feel more comfortable maintaining a distinction between broad social fantasies and individual fantasies. I use the same word, as you do, and I consider some of the psychic mechanisms involved to be the same, but I differentiate between the potentially necessary fantasies of the person in love, who must anticipate her lover, and the unnecessary fantasy of the mob that substitutes their fantasmatic assumption for whatever dialogue would otherwise be possible.

Also, I want to differentiate between passive fantasies, in which the individual is presented with an imaginary bliss (as in the regressive experience of Harry Potter for an adult), and aggressive fantasies, in which the subject believes that she is empowering herself by hurting another person (the Jew, or etc.).

I say that more than fantasy is involved in aggressive fantasies out of deference to the common association of fantasy with idle dreaming.

I see the value to psychoanalysis in identifying the similarities between all these different processes. I differentiate between them in order to start to articulate a response; my response to a passive fantasy like Harry Potter is one of mild alienation at worst, and common enjoyment at best, whereas my response to a fascist pogrom is one of immediate political concern.

These are rather blatant examples, but they do point to the need for a differentiated vocabulary that can stand up in practice.

January 17, 2007 10:11 PM  

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