15 January 2007

Apocalypse Now Redacted

In an interesting post over at I Cite, Jodi Dean makes reference to a pessimistic discussion about the future unfolding over at K-Punk and Poetix. In the context of this discussion, the question revolves around the issue of whether or not the damage to the world is irrevocable and whether another world is possible (i.e., whether there's a limit to capitalism or an alternative to capitalism). Rather than directly taking a stand on these questions, I would instead like to approach the issue psychoanalytically from the standpoint of collective fantasies.

One of the things I began noticing a few years ago is that I was encountering patients whose sexual and amorous fantasy life was deeply bound up with visions of apocalypse or the destruction of civilization. For instance, I would encounter patients who had all sorts of fantasies about post-apocalyptic settings such as life after an eco-catastrophe, nuclear war, a massive plague, or a fundamental economic and technological collapse, where, at long last, they would be able to be with the true objects of their desire and their life would finally be meaningful (struggling to survive, to rebuild the world, etc). As I reflected on this phenomenon a bit, I began to notice that these sorts of fantasies populate the social space everywhere. In cinema there is an entire genre of apocalyptic films from both rightwing and leftwing perspectives such as Independence Day, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, Dante's Peak, Volcano, Deep Impact, and many more I cannot remember. In the world of "literature" the Left Behind novels have been a stunning success, selling millions of copies and leading to popular television shows and made for television movies. In news media, of course, we are perpetually inundated with apocalyptic threats from eco-catastrophe, to the bird flu, to the threat of massive meteors hitting the earth or supervolcanos exploding or even a star going supernova and evaporating our atmosphere, to terrorist attacks employing nuclear or bio-weaponry. The Discovery and Science Channel regularly devote shows to these themes.

While I am certainly not dismissing the possibility of these threats, the psychoanalytic approach suggests that we ask how our desire is imbricated with these particular representations or scenerios and enjoins us to analyze how our thought collectively arrives at these visions of the present rather than others. How is it that we are to account for the the ubiquity of these scenerios in popular imagination... An omnipresence so great that it even filters down into the most intimate recesses of erotic fantasy as presented in the consulting room? In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud presents an interesting take on how we're to understand anxiety dreams such as the death of a loved one. There Freud writes that,
Another group of dreams which may be described as typical are those containing the death of some loved relative-- for instance, of a parent, of a brother or sister, or of a child. Two classes of such dreams must at once be distinguished: those in which the dreamer is unaffected by grief, so that on awakening he is astonished at his lack of feeling, and those in which the dreamer feels deeply pained by the death and may even weep bitterly in his sleep.

We need not consider dreams of the first of these classes, for they have no claim to be regarded as 'typical'. If we analyse them, we find that they have some meaning other than their apparent one, and that they are intended to conceal some other wish. Such was the dream of the aunt who saw her sister's only son lying in his coffin. (p. 152) It did not mean that she wished her little nephew dead; as we have seen, it merely concealed a wish to see a particular person of whom she was fond and whom she had not met for a long time-- a person whom she had once before met after a similarly long interval beside the coffin of another nephew. This wish, which was the true content of the dream, gave no occasion for grief, and no grief, therefore, was felt in the dream. (SE 4, 248)
No doubt this woman experienced some guilt for her desire for this man and therefore preferred to dream her nephew dead as an alibi of seeing him once again, rather than directly facing her desire. Could not a similar phenomenon be at work in apocalyptic scenerios? In all of these films there is some conflict at work at the social and romantic level. For instance, in The Day After Tomorrow, the husband is estranged from his wife and the boy lacks the courage to announce his love for the young woman. Society is also presented as having run amock in its pursuit of capital, as can be seen in the deleted scenes involving the Japanese business man and the shady deal prior to his death. In short, Freud's point is that we should look at horrifying manifest content such as this as enabling the fulfillment of some wish. My thesis here would be that whenever confronted with some horrifying scenerio that troubles the analysand's minds or dreams, the analyst should treat it like a material conditional or "if/then" statement, seeking to determine what repressed wish or desire might become possible for the analysand were the scenerio to occur (e.g., being fired would allow the analysand to pursue his true desire, the loss of a limb would allow the analysand to finally escape her father's desire for her to play violin, etc).

Here, perhaps, would be the key to apocalyptic fantasies: They represent clothed or disguised utopian longings for a different order of social relations, such that this alternative order would only become possible were all of society to collapse. That is, could not the omnipresence of apocalyptic fantasies in American culture be read as an indication that somehow we have "given way on our desire" or betrayed our desire at a fundamental social level? That is, these visions simultaneously allow us to satisfy our aggressive animosity towards existing social relations, while imagining an alternative (inevitably we always triumph in these scenerios, even if reduced to fundamentally primative living conditions... a fantasy in itself), while also not directly acknowledging our discontent with the conditions of capital (it is almost always some outside that destroys the system, not direct militant engagement).

As such, these fantasies serve the function of rendering our dissatisfaction tolerable (a dissatisfaction that mostly consists of boredom and a sense of being cheated), while fantasizing about an alternative that might someday come to save us, giving us opportunity to be heroic leaders and people struggling to survive rather than meaningless businessmen, civil servants, teachers, etc. Perhaps the real question with regard to this pessimism, then, is that of how the utopian yearnings underlying these representations and the antagonisms to which they respond might directly be put to work.

Special props to N.Pepperell for drawing my attention to this discussion... Though N.P. has no responsibility for my lame and simplistic thesis.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is very interesting, esp. since I teach a course on the imagination of apocalypse.

One contradiction strikes me about your thesis: in Freud's case study, the analysand was not conscious of her object of desire; in the cases you mention, your analysands are. Could it be that your analysands are experiencing an over-coding of their desire by, say, capitalism to the exclusion of objects they have coded as desirable?

January 16, 2007 12:20 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

This is a good observation. I'm hesitant, however, to speak of "over-coding of desire" as it suggests an opposition between socially constructed desires and genuine personal desires. I take it that insofar as the subject only emerges as a subject in relation to the Other or a social field-- observe, for instance, the difference between a feral child and a child brought up among others --such a distinction doesn't hold up under scrutiny. In short, to my thinking there is no such thing as a non-social desire or a non-"over-coded" desire.

January 16, 2007 12:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't want to argue Anon's case or anything, but surely there are degrees of social determination, yes?

January 16, 2007 4:38 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

I don't see that I've anywhere suggested that everything is socially determined, if by "determined" you mean something like a sort of Newtonian causality in the social world. I made the claim that desire is continuous with the social field like a moebius strip. That said, the signifier being what it is, there are nearly an infinite number of ways in which desire can organize itself for any individual. How many sentences is it possible to construct using the English language? Does the person that constructs these sentences still use the English language?

January 16, 2007 5:39 AM  
Blogger Dejan said...

It seems to me that k-punk is proposing something different: when he says that it is no longer possible to imagine different worlds, that to me implies that the utopia is hauntological, something that never was and yet persists. When your clients can still imagine an utopia, they can still be either disappointed or hopeful. But this is no longer possible when you cannot imagine things.

January 17, 2007 8:51 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

My post wasn't intended as a criticism of K-Punk, Poetix, or I Cite, but just used their reflections as a launching point for other themes that have been on my mind with regard to apocalyptic thought. I am, however, a little more skeptical about whether it's possible for there to be alternatives to our current social structuration. The very fact that the issue is being so seems to suggest otherwise.

January 17, 2007 9:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is interesting to compare this phenomenon to Zizek's citing of the traumatic lack of sense which appeared when the crowds converged on Budapest at the end of the Ceausescu regime. The point seems to be that the momentary disintegration of the Symbolic (the inability to borrow sense from the future) resulted in a failure of the imagination. In other words, no one could answer the question: what do we do next?

So perhaps what we should do is promote a non-existent post-apocalyptic movie (which promises to be the best ever, of course) and when the masses turn up for the premiere, reveal to them that there is no movie... Then they will have to decide what to do next. From desire to drive.

January 18, 2007 7:28 AM  
Blogger Dejan said...

I'm sorry I did not momentarily grasp that you were building upon his thesis rather than countering it, but in any case your explanation helped me to understand his idea better.

January 18, 2007 10:12 AM  
Blogger Dejan said...

It is interesting to compare this phenomenon to Zizek's citing of the traumatic lack of sense which appeared when the crowds converged on Budapest at the end of the Ceausescu regime.

I think this one behaves just like K-punk's description of the Saddam trial, actually. Zizek was riding on the social-democratic separationist horse already done, but his analysis has very little to do with the event in Romania.

January 18, 2007 3:48 PM  
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