Reading Seminar X : Anxiety by Jacques Lacan that directly addresses desire and anxiety and the way the two are closely related in relation to the object cause of desire, seems to have mirrored X-mass, for me, this year.
“I desire you, even if I do not know it.”
“If this were sayable, what would I be saying by it? I would be saying to the other that, desiring him without knowing it of course, still without knowing it, I take him as the object unknown to myself of my desire, namely in our conception of desire that I identify him, that I identify you, you to whom I am speaking, you yourself, to the object which is lacking to yourself, namely that by this circuit that I have to take to reach the object of my desire, I accomplish precisely for him what he is looking for. It is indeed in this way that innocently or not, if I take this detour, the other as such, object here you should note of my love, will fall necessarily into my toils.”
‘The Will of the People’ has become the unary political slogan since the referendum, however it appears to be gradually denied as the will by many on both sides of the divide as the separation process progresses. I always found it an odd expression that immediately evoked Schopenhauer’s concept of the ‘will to life’. Schopenhauer was a big influence on Freud and you can see early resonances with his concept of the trieb (drive). For Schopenhauer (and you can see his partial resonance with Buddhism) the will to life is where mankind finds all his suffering and for Schopenhauer aesthetic pleasures are the only things that can give us momentary escape from this suffering.
You can see the parallel with psychoanalysis, where we have a subject divided between two kinds of motivation. On one side the drive which derives from the body with it’s demands and needs and on the other side the motivation of a sublated ego, where the mind can engage with language and image, imagination and act out in all its psychodramatic varieties, with metaphor and metonymy in different registers. The Will is also, of course linked to a person’s death and for Freud the life drive, or the will to life, is also related to the death drive, the drive to return to the organic stasis from which man originated.
Hearing the word ‘snowflake’ on the Moral Maze a few nights ago and the word coming from the mouth of the person who apparently coined the phrase had me thinking. The context of its use on the Moral Maze was that certain student unions on uni’ campuses were too easily offended and that they were banning particular speakers (this regular BBC guest being one of them) from a platform because they represented a certain way of thinking that the students didn’t, by consensus believe reflected their way of thinking.
The position upheld by this particular guest was familiar and went something like; it is necessary, in order to be a progressive modern citizen to be open to all lines of argument and make rational choices based on listening to all sides – it certainly seemed like a robust argument.
However what about the way arguments are elaborated and formulated at the highest levels – don’t they always rely on a strong element of limitation. A mathematician doesn’t work on all aspects of their field but narrows the spectrum down to something very specific. A philosopher will work within a very specialised area of thought and so on and so on. As the great and charismatic scientist, raconteur, teacher and musician Richard Fynman used to say “I’m happy to not know everything … in fact I find the idea of not knowing everything very exciting.”
And in any case isn’t it delusional to think that because we are exposed to a vast amount of information that we are somehow omni-educated, omni-thinking, omni-political, omni-wise – sitting on our throne of knowledge and regally making and acting on in-formed opinion.
Perhaps rather than being blinded by the information snow, we should be ‘happy not to know everything’ – turn the radio off, turn the TV off, and yes, sometimes perhaps, be a little selective about views expressed on our uni’ platform.
My provocation today comes from thinking about the idea of how politics has now become gossip or rather that gossip has become politicised. If you want to make it in politics you’ve got to be skilful with gossip. Policy now has the form of casual or unconstrained reports about other people(s), typically involving details which are not confirmed as true.
And response to gossip has the character of a dramatisation “Oh, no, really? Can (s)he really have said that?”
Gossip political functions as an economy of pleasure. Pleasure because one person or a group of people can be used to generate a sense of community, of belonging because the enemy or enemies have been identified and we can create bonds formed at the personal expense of other people.
In psychoanalysis most of the work involves gossip. It’s called empty speech, but the empty speech is taken very seriously, as seriously as the full speech which is when the unconscious gets involved, because it is in the empty speech that we find the full speech. But to access the full speech requires a different kind of relationship to language, to the idea of truth and the idea that we function in different registers.
The thing about the gossip political is not that it’s become a part of our lives, but that we are still in denial as to how it really is here. We are aware enough to be able to point the finger at it but we are not aware to the extent that gossip political is using us, how it enunciates who we are.
This classic piece of BBC TV from 1967 – Hans Keller interviewing Pink Floyd is so great.
Keller “The music is so loud, it is so repetitive, it requires an audience, I obviously don’t get it.” “I grew up with the string quartet.”
Floyd “Well we didn’t grow up with the string quartet and we like the loud sound”
Keller “Well a lot of people haven’t grown up with the string quartet but don’t play so loud”
Keller “Well it’s like a regression to youth, and I guess there is nothing wrong with that.”
Hans Keller was great for making an intervention into the known, questioning preconceived notions and passionately upheld the importance of the individual soul. He escaped Nazi Vienna and was always haunted by the memory of the religious Jews’ resolve against the aggression of the Nazi followers and legalised thugs who would beat up Jews on the street. He took that memory capture as a model for his own life.
With Pink Floyd he must have been confronted by the swagger and youthful libido of these privileged British lads, who could play loud for no other reason than they liked it. But maybe he also appreciated their bold stance against the establishment.
Kellers passion for Freud (apparently he had read and knew it all) led to what he described as a ‘self-analysis’ – which consisted for him of sitting down everyday for five years and writing a free association; of whatever came into his mind and he applied his discoveries to his understanding of classical music.
In a way Keller was making interventions in the way an analyst would. Picking out inconsistencies, excesses that stuck out of the consistent ideological material, loudness, repetition, audience, context, music form, patterns, meaning …
Psychoanalysis teaches us that Negation after all is also an affirmation of something. The loudness affirms quietness, repetition accentuates singularity, large halls long for small chambers, individuality only exists in the context of the crowd, politics manifests the personal, the strict forms of classical music manifest the radical revolution of Beethoven, the tight class system the eruption of a rock band.
Perhaps when Keller was talking of a regression to youth he might also be alluding to the trauma of birth and before that to the womb where the loudness for the foetus inside the womb of the repetitive heartbeat the comforting muffled sound of the mother’s voice which the foetus has been shown to respond to
The Office for National Statistics have announced that England is happier since the referendum vote. I don’t know how they think that you can measure happiness but some people obviously think that you can. I wonder whether happiness/depression and pleasure/anxiety have become conflated?
In any case it is great that mental health has been brought out into the open especially as one can imagine that there are certain occupations and work environments where it simply isn’t easy to talk about. All very well for writers or people in the entertainment industry to open up about their problems in getting from one end of the day to the other but what about people in the construction industry or road builders … “mate, I’m just not feeling it today…”
The current argument seems to be around whether mental health should be less prioritised than physical l health or placed on an equal basis?
One thing is for sure, our psychic world seems to have been gradually degraded over a period of time and replaced by a ‘biocomputer model’ where functionality can be measured; ability to process useful applications, move seamlessly between standby and full operation, procreate perfect new models, communicate with ease, manage work flow without too many surges and so on and so on. Isn’t the whole idea of mental health based on whether the individual fits into the biocomputer model?
Psychoanalysis has become unpopular in part because it doesn’t fit into this set of assumptions. Analysis used to be available on the NHS, not just 6 sessions but several times a week for several years. Apart from the issue of time and money that dominates every area of life today, psychoanalysis became unpopular because it was fundamentally subversive.
Freud said that people present neurotic symptoms not because they can’t cope with the system but because the system that they have been moulded into, generates the symptoms. The process of adaptation to the system involves the repression of infantile pleasure and trauma into socially acceptable and useful activities.
Happiness and depression simply aren’t addressed in the 40 years of Freud’s work and writing. It’s a modern phenomenon and fuelled by the pharmaceutical industry.
Psychoanalysis is more interested in anxiety and pleasure and how they are related and bound together. For Freud anxiety split into automatic anxiety – the kind of anxiety that is triggered by say suddenly realising that you’ve lost your mobile and signal anxiety – the anxiety which is triggered by a response to an archaic trauma, and it was this signal anxiety that he started to use in his analysis of neurotic patients. This kernel of anxiety marked the place of a trauma that the analysand felt a compulsion to explore and at the same time a resistance to enter with equal measure.
This is why in psychoanalysis, signal-anxiety is considered the most profound affect or emotion, because it says most about our psychic construction. The problem with the happy/depressed economy is that it creates a decoy – it gives in to our resistances. The truth is that our resistances are a part of our neurotic symptom.
In light of this isn’t happiness just a conformist category exploited by governments to keep a workforce ignorant to what they perceive to be our miserable lives?
The sexual predator, from the psychoanalytic perspective is influenced by psychic drives that develope in the early years of life. In a way the infant starts off as a pervert, ie enjoying sucking the breast, enjoying shitting, staring at objects for pure pleasure and then through a process of socialisation turns what are perceived as antisocial pleasures into more acceptable ones. At a certain point there is an intervention (usually the father) to separate the infant from the mother. This is a seismic moment in the development of the child and the trace left in the psyche of the boy (obsessive neurotic) deposits the interpretation; I can’t have the mother but I can have every other woman. For the girl (hysteric neurotic) the separation is accompanied by what is known as the ‘turn to the father’ and there after the search for ‘the one’.
So the story of sexuality in it’s cliche mythic form is, after puberty men go searching for every other woman (except ‘the one’ who is inaccessible) and the woman searches for the one.
This psychoanalytic story or myth doesn’t function on a conscious level, it is there as a psychic distortion of our conscious decisions, which is why you might get a ‘progressive man’ being exposed as a sex addict or a feminist woman repeatedly ending up in abusive relationships.
The dramatic high profile exposure of sexual predators will bring welcome questioning of what we have allowed to be considered acceptable in our society but a deeper change in sexual and working relationships and situations between the sex divide will probably require a more layered and complex examination of how personal history, sexual drive and ego drive become enmeshed and interrelated.
Liberal society traditionally tolerates sexual assault up to a point, “it’s a natural instinctive behaviour for men, particularly if they are virile and high achievers – in any case if you repress it with political correctness it will only make the situation worse.” This argument hangs on the concept that men have an natural instinct as a constitution, a rudimentary ego and superego, but psychoanalysis teaches us that the ego doesn’t exist; it is a construct. You don’t reach to touch that knee because of some ‘natural instinct’ beyond your control, it’s because your unconscious is distorting your conscious behaviour.
The strength of psychoanalysis is that you acknowledge and take seriously not only your conscious thoughts but your unconscious distortions too.
Watching Louis Theroux’s BBC program Talking to Anorexia I was interested by what seemed to be two distinct motivations for not eating or literally ‘eating nothing’. On the one hand there seemed to be girls who were conflicted by being underweight and would really like to return to a healthy weight but had developed an obsession around a particular symbolic association maybe as an avoidance of some trauma and on the other side those who appeared to need control over eating as a way of generating a certain kind of psychic consistency.
None of them said that it was to do with external pressure to conform. It might have been initiated by the rejection by a partner, or other trauma but thereafter they all said that it was an internal conflict.
The approach to therapy was to identify problems the girls were having with authority, self criticism, the fear of growing up – the archetypal power struggles that originate in the early development and then an examination of the relation to food as object. But the problem that seemed prevalent in the program with this approach; based purely on these distinctions is that it quickly pushes up against impasses. When you identify that the problem is that the girl has a fear of growing up, or has introjected a vicious superego, or has acquired an unrealistic relationship to the physical world where do you go from there, apart from lending a sympathetic ear or attempt to introject a more healthy superego?
The name of the program ‘Talking to Anorexia’ seems indicative of our contemporary culture and approach to therapy where the focus is exclusively on the symptom rather than an exploration of how the unique language functions for the individual – how words have become so heavily charged with libidinal investment that language itself has become imprisoned by it’s own demands.
In my psychoanalysis seminar in London I’m one the very few British students. For some reason psychoanalysis is very popular in South America and France, in fact in Argentina it is the norm but not so much here in the UK. A few weeks ago we had a seminar on Psychoanalysis and History and we had someone speak on the subject of the Cold War, another on Lebanon and an Iranian psychoanalyst on the subject of analysis in different languages.
In the open discussion at the end of the talks I asked what impact Brexit had had on the work in the clinic in terms of official history and subjective history. Two of the psychoanalysts answered that not a day goes by when it doesn’t feature heavily in their work and elaborated on the effects it has had in the psychic world of their patients. The exit seems more far reaching than a straight political reorientation. It cuts deep into the psychic and social fabric of the British society and particularly EU citizens who have chosen to live and work in London.
I asked the question in a room where, as a British citizen I was in the minority – an extraordinary, wide ranging group who have become analysts or are in the process of studying to create this unusual thing called the ‘analytic situation’ where people can discover their own truth in a process called psychoanalysis, which Sigmund Freud brought to London when he escaped Nazi Germany in 1938.
I do hope that Brexit UK doesn’t lose the fascinating range of cultural diversity that we have enjoyed for most of our lives, at the expense of flirting better trade deals, securing border control and that we can reinstate culture and art in the prominent position that we have traditionally placed it.