Reviewed by Tom Eyers
Psychoanalysis and politics have a shared history, one defined as much by conflict and misunderstanding as by collaboration and mutual enlightenment. Sigmund Freud was famed for his general lack of engagement in the politics of his time, although the arguments of his late works, especially Civilisation and its Discontents and Moses and Monotheism, evince profound political consequences, even if their tone is one of studied detachment and caution. Freud’s political equivocation has resulted in psychoanalysis having been recruited for a multitude of conflicting causes, with the gulf in scale and type between the interpersonal neuroses analysed by orthodox psychoanalysis and the wider sites of the political and the social often going unremarked. Generally, one might ascribe to orthodox Freudianism a profound political pessimism, rooted in the late identification by Freud of an implacable death-drive, impervious to the dreams of those who would wish to build a better world. To this degree, there seems an intimate link between Freud’s insights around the inherence of aggression and conflict in human life, and previous philosophical accounts of the precariousness and danger of human nature, going back to Hobbes. Despite this, many post-Freudian theorists have sought in the psychoanalytic account of the subject an explanation for how psychical life might both resist and aid processes of radical transformation, with the claim often accompanying such efforts that the supposed gap between the ‘individual’ and the ‘social/political’ is, in fact, implicitly challenged by the concept of the unconscious. In these accounts, the unconscious is understood less as the underside of the self-present subject of liberal philosophy, and more as the product of our collective immersion in language and in wider forms of symbolic activity.
If for some, the most well known of these attempts to inculcate an account of the unconscious within the wider sphere of political and social analysis comes from the first generation of the Frankfurt School critical theorists, and in particular Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, surely the most influential such theorist today is Jacques Lacan. Since his death in the early 1980s, the French psychoanalyst’s work has been repeatedly mined for its potential for political insight, not least in the work of contemporary radical theorists Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, whose emphasis on the contingency in Lacan’s account of the subject is drawn into a broader philosophical attempt to provide a ground for insurrection and momentous change. The attempt to claim Lacan for the radical and Marxist Left is bolstered by his having worked and lived within the more general milieu of post-war, pre-1968 French intellectual life, a context where the most abstract theory, gathered under the rubric of structuralism, would frequently find itself tied to the aspirations of Communist and other militants. The question remains, however, whether the political consequences of Lacan’s revision of Freud are as insurrectionary as sometimes claimed, or whether there is more than a trace of Freud’s own pessimism in Lacan’s modernist account of the subject captured and tortured by language.
To his credit, Ian Parker, whose book Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Revolutions in Subjectivity offers an ambitious and frequently suggestive argument in favour of understanding psychoanalysis through a political lens, recognizes the ambiguities inherent in the situation of Lacanian psychoanalysis under capitalism. As he writes in the introduction, “Lacanian psychoanalysis is one of the names for the contradictory subjectivity of late capitalism, virtual, precarious, neoliberal, but this form of psychoanalysis introduces some new twists and turns and ways out of this state of affairs.” (13) The task of Parker’s book is to outline what those ‘twists and turns’ might be, within the context of a more general enquiry into how Lacanian theory might “produce a theoretical articulation of the historical constitution of its own practice.” (1) Parker suggests that bodies of theory devoted to understanding historical and social change – he isolates feminism and Marxism in particular – have been especially concerned, at least in recent decades, with a reflexive appreciation of their own conditions of emergence, of how the political and social conditions that produced capitalism were also tightly bound up with their own histories. Psychoanalysis, Parker suggests, has been rather less concerned with such a critical self-analysis, and he convincingly argues for its necessity.
What is it, then, that makes Lacanian psychoanalysis in particular so conducive to such a project? For Parker, Lacan’s coruscating critiques of what he called ‘ego-psychology’, the largely American domestication of Freudian analysis that sought to reinforce the ego in a manner which accommodated the subject to the demands of capitalism, as well as his more general attack on the normalizing impulses of psychiatry, are crucial. Psychiatry, Parker argues, “has become one of the most powerful forms of social control under capitalism”, and it is in Lacan’s rejection of positivism and empiricism, as the ideologies that combine to “direct and justify the dominant diagnostic systems”, (24) that the root of a critical analytic practice might be found. Parker contrasts the historical roots of psychiatry, implicated in a project of making visible forms of pathology such that they might be controlled, and those of psychoanalysis, that, while often tied institutionally to psychiatry, nonetheless allowed the patient the right of speech, and thus the potential for growth outside the mandate of the medical establishment.
But it is in the question of speech, and its underlying material support in the signifier, that questions arise about some of the conclusions Parker draws. Lacan held that the subject emerges as a result of a particular regime of signification, allied to a set of identificatory and specular relationships with images of the Other, linked logically to images of the mother or father influential for the subject prior to the onset of the Oedipus complex. The signifier, as that which ‘represents a subject for another signifier’, forms the unstable and often opaque resource out of which the subject is formed, severing her from any final resolution of her desire. As a result, the subject is both constituted and constrained by something existing ‘outside’ her, with her unconscious formed of repressed signifiers that constitute the inaccessible core of her being. The subject, for Lacan, is inherently split by its constitution in the signifier, and it is only in the signifiers’ inability to form a totality, only, that is, in the gaps that remain in what Lacan called the ‘Symbolic’, that transformation is possible. Parker recognizes as much, but in his discussion of the forms of subjectivity prevalent in late capitalism, he occasionally elides the distinction between Lacan’s underlying theoretical account, and the symptomatic consequences of particular subject positions, as in the following:
Those who suffer in obsessional mode under capitalism are subjects who buy into the separation of intellectual and manual labour, the separation of thinking from being … Lacan argues that the question that haunts the obsessional neurotic concerns being, existence, their right to exist and whether they are alive or dead. (42)
While it is true that, for Lacan, the obsessional has a pathological attachment to questions of existence, Lacan will also insist on an underlying truthfulness to such questioning, in so far as the signifier institutes an irresolvable gap between being (as it recedes in the unconscious) and thinking as it plays out on the surface of signification. Parker’s wish to underline the transformative potential of Lacanian psychoanalysis risks imputing to mere pathology – here, the “separation of thinking from being” – that which is indubitably true and immovable for Lacan about human existence, whether defined by capitalism or not. We might speculate that it is in part through the unacknowledged interposition of Marxist themes, represented here by the distinction made between intellectual and manual labour, that such problems arise. One also notes the relative paucity of substantial quotations from Lacan’s oeuvre, perhaps explained by the difficulty Parker would have encountered in maintaining his arguments in the face of an extended dose of Lacan’s notoriously paradoxical and skeptical theoretical style. To be sure, Lacan’s point here seems to be a rather more intractable and pessimistic one than Parker is ready to acknowledge.
This is not to say that Lacanian psychoanalysis is, or should remain, a hermetic metapsychology unburdened by political or historical questions. Parker is generally convincing when teasing out the complex relations between the political potential of Lacanian concepts, the problems of clinical practice, and the wider conditions and constraints that capitalist social relations foist on analysis. In an impressive fourth chapter devoted to the ethics under which contemporary psychology labours, and which psychoanalysis rejects, Parker demonstrates how a seemingly clinical theory, in this case Lacan’s reflections on the paradoxes of the Symbolic, affords us much broader insights into the articulation of the clinic and its social context. Parker writes:
[A]t the same time as [the symbolic] gives substance to its own reference points, analysis desubstantialises what it refers to and seems to require as a condition of its own operations. In this respect … there is a dynamic logic in the analytic composition and decomposition of the symbolic which parallels the creative and desubstantialising power of capitalist production. (101, emphasis in the original)
In so far as the Symbolic, the site for Lacan of the subtantialisation and desubstantialisation of the subject, trades on the negative displacement of any final accounting of the subject’s desire, so too does modern capitalism, especially in its current mode of financialisation, defer and thus prolong the process of its own creative/destructive expansion. Here again, though, questions remain: what, precisely, does an emancipatory politics gain from the recognition of this parallel, except a shrinking of the space of viable critique, outside of such symbolic or economic logics? Here, I think Parker might have benefited from a closer focus on the third, and most important, of Lacan’s registers or domains, namely the Real. As mentioned above, Parker notes the paradoxical incompletion of the Symbolic, but he devotes little time to any systematic reading of Lacan’s Real as the positivisation of this failure of the symbolic, a positivisation that might provide new ways of conceiving the parallels between clinical and political change. Parker’s comments as to the ‘clinic in the real’ in his final chapter, where fleeting moments in analysis point to the transformative suspension of the Symbolic and the Imaginary, point suggestively in this direction, but one would have hoped for more.
Nonetheless, in his second chapter Parker acknowledges the move in the later Lacan to “rearticulat[e] the notion of ‘clinical structure’ as such through the conceptual device of the Borromean knot” (44), although he fails to mention the key term in this remodeling, namely the symptom recast as the Real ‘sinthome’, defined as the knot of sense-less jouissance crafted by the subject as a means of self-production and reproduction. Here, Lacan finally gifts his subject a certain, limited power of creativity and agency, and any sufficient accounting of Lacanian psychoanalysis in its relation to politics must, I think, seek to re-read Lacan more generally in the light of this late innovation. Parker’s book, sometimes repetitive and somewhat diffusely organized, offers us some crucial insights into the Lacanian field as it impacts on politics, on spirituality, and most forcefully on the depredations of late capitalist modernity. But there is further work to be done if the familiar Lacan of a high-minded, modernist political skepticism is to be banished in favour of a Lacan, and a psychoanalysis, firmly allied to the aims of the Left.
28 February 2011