Selected Writings by Noëlle McAfee


Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, Columbia University, May 2019.

Democracy and the Political Unconscious, Columbia University Press, March 2008.

Julia Kristeva, Routledge, 2003.

Persian translation with Nashr-e-Markaz, 2006.

Korean translation with Reading Books, 2007.

Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship, Cornell University Press, 2000. 


“Trump and the Paranoid Schizoid Politics of Ideality,” published on Julia Kristeva’s official site as well as in Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, 21:5, 556-563, DOI: 10.1080/17409292.2017.1437705, March 2018.

Dreaming in Dark Times: Six Exercises in Political Thought by Sharon Sliwinski. Contemporary Political Theory, (2018).

“Neoliberalism and Other Political Imaginaries,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, Volume: 43 issue: 9, page(s): 911-931 Article first published online: June 29, 2017; Issue published: November 1, 2017.

“Neoliberalism, the Street, and the Forum,” in Reclaiming Democracy, eds. Albena Azmanova and Mihaela Mihai, New York: Routledge, 2015.

“Acting Politically in a Digital Age,” in in From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age, eds. Danielle S. Allen and Jennifer S. Light, University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Democratizing Deliberation: A Political Theory Anthology, with Derek Barker and David McIvor, Kettering Foundation Press, April 2012.

“On Democracy’s Epistemic Value” in The Good Society, Fall 2009, Vol. 18(2): 41-47.

“Democracy’s Normativity” in Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 2008, Vol. 22(4): 257-265.

“Three Models of Democratic Deliberation” in Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Special Issue on Pragmatism and Deliberative Democracy, 2004, Vol. 18(1): 44-59.

“The Ends of Arendtian Politics” in Hypatia, Vol. 19(4) Fall 2004.


Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis

Fear of BreakdownMy new book is coming out in May 2019.

Noëlle McAfee uses psychoanalytic theory to explore the subterranean anxieties behind current crises and the ways in which democratic practices can help work through seemingly intractable political conflicts. Fear of Breakdown contends that politics needs something that only psychoanalysis has been able to offer.

In exploring the fear of breakdown that underlies human existence, McAfee creates a genuine intellectual breakthrough—her book is a stunningly original exploration of the political significance of mourning. This is one of the most thrilling books I have read in years.Mari Ruti, Distinguished Professor, University of Toronto

You can preorder it here.

Feminist Political Philosophy

I’ve been authoring an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy since 2009. I update it every few years. Beginning with this most recent update, published this past week, I’ve got a new co-author, Katie B. Howard. Below is a snippet of our entry. Or go here for the whole thing.

While feminist philosophy has been instrumental in critiquing and reconstructing many branches of philosophy, from aesthetics to philosophy of science, feminist political philosophy may be the paradigmatic branch of feminist philosophy because it best exemplifies the point of feminist theory, which is, to borrow a phrase from Marx, not only to understand the world but to change it (Marx and Engels 1998). And, though other fields have effects that may change the world, feminist political philosophy focuses most directly on understanding ways in which collective life can be improved. This project involves understanding the ways in which power emerges and is used or misused in public life (see the entry on feminist perspectives on power). As with other kinds of feminist theory, common themes have emerged for discussion and critique, but there has been little in the way of consensus among feminist theorists on what is the best way to understand them. This introductory article lays out the various schools of thought and areas of concern that have occupied this vibrant field of philosophy for the past forty years. It understands feminist philosophy broadly to include work conducted by feminist theorists doing this philosophical work from other disciplines, especially political science but also anthropology, comparative literature, law, and other programs in the humanities and social sciences.

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Julia Kristeva

My entry on Julia Kristeva has just been published in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Here’s a snippet:

Born in Bulgaria in 1941 and an emigré to Paris in 1965, Julia Kristeva is a world-renowned philosopher, novelist and practising psychoanalyst. Author of more than 30 books and a professor emeritus at University of Paris VII–Denis Diderot, she has been awarded Commander of the Legion of Honour, Commander of the Order of Merit, the Holberg Prize, the Hannah Arendt Prize and the Vaclav Havel Prize. Her early work, Revolution in Poetic Language (1974), distinguished her as a major poststructuralist thinker, especially for its new ways of conceiving of the speaking being as one who is always subject to the revolutionary power of the affective dimensions of language, that is, the semiotic dimension, which, with the symbolic dimension, produces signification. In her major works of the 1980s – Powers of Horror (1980), Tales of Love (1984) and Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (1987) – she developed new psychoanalytic theories of early development which gave ‘the maternal function’ a central role that had been neglected by previous psychoanalytic theories. Kristeva is also the author of numerous works of fiction, mostly detective novels with female protagonists, in which she tries to exemplify some of her theoretical ideas. These include The Old Man and the Wolves (1994), Possessions: A Novel (1996) and Murder in Byzantium(2006). Over the past 20 years she has turned to intellectual biography with the trilogy Female Genius: Hannah Arendt (1999), Melanie Klein (2000) and Colette (2002); and more general social theory with Hate and Forgiveness (2005) and The Incredible Need to Believe (2009). She has also continued her inquiry into revolt with books on the importance of self-reflection, critical questioning and inquiry in works such asProust and the Sense of Time (1994), Intimate Revolt (1997) and the essay, ‘New Forms of Revolt’ (2014).




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.

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.