Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis

I’ve got a new book forthcoming with Columbia University Press: Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis. Here’s a snippet…

A week after Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency, a former student wrote to me seeking guidance because, she feared, she was watching democracy crumble before her eyes. Referencing two of the books we read in a course five years earlier, the first by Jeffrey Goldfarb and the second by Jacques Derrida, she wrote,

Given the current situation I am looking back on all of our course readings. I no longer feel like The Politics of Small Things or Rogues are theoretical.  Unfortunately, I am coming to believe these works are now textbooks with potential guidance for the dangerous state of our democracy.

What else might she read, she asked, and what tactical solutions are there for this situation we are in? Her email made me realize that the present book that I was in the process of writing was timelier than ever, that I needed to wrap it up quickly, and that I might change the title from Deliberation, Politics, and the Work of Mourning to the more direct, How To Be A Country That Will Not Tolerate a Dictator—a phrase I learned from those who led the “No” campaign that got rid of the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. I only flirted with that title, but the idea still infuses the project. In the end I decided on Fear of Breakdown: Politics and the Work of Psychoanalysis, a long title, but one I hope captures the complex relation between primitive agonies and a politics of working through. It took me longer than expected to finish up this book, eighteen months. And in the meantime, the world over, things have not gotten much better. While Emmanuel Macron did defeat France’s extremist party, Le Pen, far right parties have spread across much of Europe and elected leaders in Hungary (which just reelected Viktor Orban to a fourth term), Poland, and Italy. Countries once heralded for their open-mindedness and liberalism are now split between moderates and right-wing nationalists.

To try to understand and address this phenomenon, this book returns to a theme I’ve tangled with before: the relation between psyche and society. Troubles in the psyche show up in the forum, as do ghosts, crypts, secrets, which can pass from generation to generation, as well as fears of breakdown, which can show up any time. Because of these unconscious intruders, politics theory and practice need psychoanalysis.

It is also at the intersection of democracy and psychoanalysis that one can find what crisscrosses both domains, the fundamental phenomena of desire. Desire drives both our efforts at collective self-governance and, as individuals, the choices we make about how to live our lives. From a democratic perspective, the trouble with desire is the one that Marx encountered: false consciousness, how it is that people desire what may in fact be antithetical to their own self-interest. Psychoanalytically, the trouble with desire is that, first, it often operates unconsciously and, second, it is often not really one’s own, at least not in any kind of original way. That is, one’s own desires are often cultivated, manufactured, deposited by the desire of the Big Other, whether society, family, the Man, transgenerational ghosts, crypts, and hauntings. Put democracy and psychoanalysis together and we get the compounded conundrum of finding ourselves ruled by others even when we think we are ruling ourselves. Again, if democracy means ruling ourselves on the basis of our own self-rule (a seeming tautology) then paradoxically when democracy works best we are at the mercy of our own collective desires, which have been deposited in us by our culture, language and history, which emanate from the trickster unconscious, urging wish fulfillment cloaked in distortion. I might ask myself: are the desires I am advocating for my own or are they inculcated in me by the Big Other of the political unconscious—by centuries of wounds, buried grudges, secrets, phantoms, and ghosts? Perhaps “self-rule” is always at bottom other-rule, heteronomously shaped. Perhaps democratic autonomy is a total illusion or delusion.

But there is another way of thinking about democracy and desire. In the mid-twentieth century, Cornelius Castoriadis developed the idea that human beings have the power of imagination to institute something radically new, such as the founding of a country. “In a democracy,” he writes, “society does not halt before a conception, given once and for all, of what is just, equal, or free, but rather institutes itself in such a way that the question of freedom, of justice, of equity, and of equality might always be posed anew.”[i] Castoriadis is both appealing to Enlightenment values of justice, freedom, and equality but also acknowledging that these ideas need to be questioned. This may have been what led him from his early Marxist orientation to a later psychoanalytic one, folding together aspirations for freedom with acknowledgment that we are often strangers to ourselves. Where the Enlightenment holds that human beings should be autonomous in the sense of their own sole discourse, a discourse that is their own and not that of the Other (culture) or others (other people), Castoriadis knows quite well that one’s discourse is never fully one’s own, moreover “the notion of the subject’s own truth is itself much more a problem than a solution.”[ii]

Rather than try to eradicate alterity, especially the alterity of the unconscious, including all the Other’s desires that have shaped it, Castoriadis aims to make use of it:


How could we dry up this spring in the depths of ourselves from which flow both alienating phantasies and free creation truer than truth, unreal deliria and surreal poems, this eternally new beginning and ground of all things, without which nothing would have a ground, how can we eliminate what is at the base of, or in any case what is inextricably bound up with what makes us human beings—our symbolic function, which presupposes our capacity to see and to think in a thing something which it is not?[iii]


Contrary to many schools of psychoanalytic thought, which aim to free the ego from the otherness of the id and the superego (especially the more normalizing discourses of ego psychology), Castoriadis is proposing a different relation between the conscious and the unconscious. Instead of a project to buck up the ego and free it from the other within, Castoriadis acknowledges that we are caught up in webs of others’ discourses to the point that they become our own. And, he believes, these can be enriching. Freedom can come from making use of these rather than trying to jettison them. “The total elimination of the discourse of the Other unrecognized as is an unhistorical state.”[iv]

The work of the early Freud seems to be caught up in trying to abreact the traces of the desire of the Other, to make conscious whatever has been repressed, to work through resistances. As I trace in these pages, Freud’s exploration of how psychoanalysis can make conscious what has been unconscious led him to focus on the analysand’s resistances. Working through meant dealing with resistant defenses that stall the analytic process. This led him from his 1914 essay “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through” to his 1926 “Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety.” On the way he writes Mourning and Melancholia, where he realizes that the problem is not exactly unconscious repression but internalization of a foreign object. This is key, as André Green writes, “because here for the first time we see that there are some pathological structures, like melancholia, in which the problem is not a problem of representation or cathexis. It is the problem of the object and it is the problem of…the oral cannibalistic fixation.”[v] In seeing the “ego splitting itself in order to replace the lost object,” Green writes, the problem is no longer simply unconscious processes but our relations with internalized others. Moving from a topographic model to a structural model, Freud changed his focus from making the unconscious conscious to working with conflicts between ego, id, and superego. While the early approach seems foreign to Castoriadis’s project, the later Freud fits better. It addresses anxiety, but not an anxiety resulting from repression (the old model), but an anxiety that seems existential, perhaps stemming from birth trauma or some other early agony. That is the Freudian approach I use here as explore what these deep agonies might be, how they give rise to defenses that can be very destructive, and how those defenses can be worked through.

[i] Cornelius Castoriadis, World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997, p. 87.

[ii] Castoriadis 1987, 103.

[iii] Castoriadis 1987, 104.

[iv] Castoriadis 1987, 104.

[v] Green 2008, 1033.

Diet Soap Podcast on Roderick and the Political Unconscious

Here’s an old podcast from 2014 conducted with me by Douglas Lain, talking about the late Rick Roderick and my book The Political Unconscious.

The guest this week is professor and philosopher Noelle McAfee and we discuss her friendship with the late Rick Roderick and her book Democracy and the Political Unconscious.

You’ll hear a lot of clips of Rick Roderick in this episode as well as music from the Art of Noise, the theme from the motion picture The Candyman, Charles Ives 3 Quarter Tone Pieces, and Luc Ferrari’s Societe II.


On Alfred Frankowski’s Postracial limits…

Here is the text of the talk I gave today at the American Society for Aesthetics’ book session on Al Frankowski’s The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization: Toward a Political Sense of Mourning

Before offering a commentary on Alfred Frankowski’s sublimely monumental book, The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization: Toward a Political Sense of Mourning, let me first share my reading of it by taking up the key elements of its title. I will then offer a Freudian account of the melancholic aspects of the very memorial culture that Frankowski describes without ever using the word melancholia.


The term post-racial occurs throughout the book as a modifier for all manner of matters: post-racial discourse, post-racial politics, post-racial society, post-racial violence, post-racial memorialization, and post-racial memory; yet it is never taken at face value. Rather, in every use of the term, Frankowski sets it in italics. While he does not comment upon the typography, the meaning becomes clear: post-raciality is not a fact but a trope, one used to hide the reality of ongoing racism, a trope that attempts to erase what needs to be remembered. Its use always marks a contradiction: “The contradictions of post-raciality are clear,” Frankowski writes, “the bodies of the racialized are prefigured in their exploitation and create the material symbols that hold up a society that appears to be post-race and yet are politically thoroughly racist” (9). The effect of this contradiction is material, it leads to “a transition of meaning, in which violence is learned, adapted to, and framed out of thought both in terms of what counts as knowledge and whose lives count as world-historical” (9).

Post-racial discourse,” he writes, “is always already implied within the ways we represent oppression and implicit in how we perceive and come to know both the oppression of the past and the oppression of the present” (107). Usually this is by way of depicting past oppression as over and reconciled and by neglecting ongoing phenomena of oppression. The past is neatly relegated, the present context neglected.

Limits of Memorialization

Whenever memorials, however well-meaning, are erected in an attempt to reconcile with the past, to announce that things are better now, to provide closure, Continue reading

Humanity and the Refugee

Recently published in Social Philosophy Today, my paper, “Humanity and the Refugee: Another Stab at Universal Human Rights,” takes up the questions of (1) how the refugee crisis exhibits the fault lines in what might otherwise seem to be a robust human rights regime and (2) what kinds of ways of seeing and thinking might better attune us to solving these problems. There is surprising agreement internationally on the content of human rights, although there is a huge gulf between international agreements on human rights and the protection of those most vital. The subtitle of the paper, “another stab at universal rights,” has a double entendre: in the midst of a crisis that is stabbing international agreements on human rights to its core, I will take a stab at using the crisis situation to point a way forward toward a cosmopolitan social imaginary that uses human imagination, not just as an ability to represent in one’s mind what one has seen elsewhere, but also as an ability to imagine something radically new. This social imaginary points to the necessity of according everyone, refugees included, as having a right to politics and thus a hand in shaping their own world, including their new, host communities.

Deliberation and the Work of Mourning

I’ll be giving a talk in May 2016 in Prague on the following themes.

There are many languages of reason, but perhaps the most powerful and insidious one is the unconscious logic that emerges during political, ethnic, and religious conflict. What may at first seem madness, is, if looked at with the right lens, a very cool calculus of justice aimed at righting past wrongs — no matter how out of scale the “solution.” The unconscious is not mad. It keeps careful tally. It never forgets insults, injuries, traumas, or wrongs. It waits for its moment to set matters straight. And the unconscious of a people traumatized and bereft will bide its time for centuries, if need be, waiting for an opportunity to set matters right. Consider what lay behind the shot that set off World War I: six hundred years of grievance and political melancholia. Psychoanalytic hermeneutics can help make sense of the effects of political traumas. Might it also help people work through them? With his all-too-vague notion of “working through,” which shows up in dream work and the work of mourning, Freud thought he found an antidote to traumatic remembering and repetition, a process that could calm and bind the psychical excitations that trouble the organism. Considering a political body of restless people haunted by past traumas and injustice, what kind of Arbeit can help political communities deal with buried traumas and insults before they explode in vengeance? Without some kind of work, politics becomes an enactment of fantasied, unrealistic expectations; demonic projections; and persecutory anxieties. In this paper I draw on and move beyond Freud’s model toward a post-Kleinian one that can be tethered to the political process of public deliberation. In my account, political deliberation is not just a process of reason giving and consideration, which many political philosophers think it is, but an affective process that helps people work through fantasies of denial, splitting. and revenge and toward a position that can tolerate loss, ambiguity, and uncertainty, that is, the human condition.

New Paper on Kristeva and Arendt, Inner Experience and Worldly Revolt

In my new article just published in the Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy, I ask: What is at stake when political revolt depends upon radical inner experience? Is the only route to cultural and political change, as Kristeva seems to argue, through personal introspection and revolt? If we want more from life than the freedom to channel surf, as she says, need the direction of inquiry be primarily inward? Need there be an either/or of psychical versus public life? Is the only answer to social and political dead ends really found by turning inward? Is the micropolitics of the couch the path to freedom? “Today,” Kristeva writes, “psychical life knows that it will only be saved if it gives itself the time and space of revolt: to break off, remember, re-form. From prayer to dialogue, through art and analysis, the crucial event is always the great infinitesimal emancipation: to be endlessly recommenced.” In this essay I ask whether we might move Kristeva’s “New Forms of Revolt” from the couch to the polis with the help of one of her major interlocutors, Hannah Arendt, who reminds us that thinking is always a plural affair. I develop a link between Arendt’s thinking and Kristeva’s revolt to show how thinking-as-revolt puts subjects in relation to each other and to the political. Such a political culture of revolt can engage in the work needed to move beyond adolescent fixations in melancholic times. And with it we might in fact create more meaning for our lives.

The full article is here.

Kristeva Circle 2014

gonepublic: philosophy, politics, & public life

Kristeva Circle 2014

Julia Kristeva skyped in to the Kristeva Circle meeting at Vanderbilt this past Sunday to give a brief talk and take questions for over an hour. For a Skype session, it was amazingly intimate and personal, a great way to end an amazing meeting organized by Kelly Oliver and Rebecca Tuvel. I had the pleasure of being part of a panel on Saturday on Concepts of Women, Visions of Feminism. I talked about Kristeva’s recent article published in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

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