"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Possibility of an Ascetical Politics in Spite of Death (I)

I stumbled across this book and wasn't expecting much. I have read a lot over the last two years in the areas of psychoanalysis, Marxism, and Christianity, and the vast majority of those books have proven to be extremely limited.

But not so Todd McGowan's Enjoying What We Don't Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis. This is a fascinating and rewarding book that is at once deeply challenging to contemporary politics and theology alike. It explicitly treats the former at length and in very interesting and reflective ways; it rarely engages the latter except via polemical denigration and sometimes near-caricature, but I shall not hold that against the author because what he does say is nonetheless, in ways he does not recognize, very amenable to parts of the theological project of Eastern Christianity in particular. (The other benefit to this book, I have found--at risk of saying too much--is to understanding my own life and the operation of certain habits of mind, to which McGowan's book delivers a sharp and welcome challenge.)

There are themes in this book which are very reminiscent of those treated by Adam Phillips, as I noted here, especially in his two books Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life  and perhaps even more in Unforbidden Pleasures: Rethinking Authority, Power, and Vitality. I discussed both here and here.

In particular, both Phillips (whom McGowan does not seem to cite, at least in Enjoying What We Don't Have) and McGowan are concerned about changing how we relate to the world of advanced capitalism with its constant promotion of acquisition and accumulation. Both, in some senses--without using this term, which they might well recoil from--promote what seems to me to be a clear form of ascetical detachment that someone like Evagrius would find most commendable.

McGowan's point of departure is a relatively late, and often very controversial, work of Freud: the death drive, which he advances in the most detailed form in Beyond the Pleasure Principle of 1920.

For Freud, the death drive is not just or even primarily connected to death itself. It is most often encountered in the ways in which people sabotage themselves not once but repeatedly and on-goingly. Why do we do this? As strange as it may sound--though it seems extremely obvious to me--the very enactment and repetition is an attempt to get at something valuable, or perceived as valuable but lacking: “Subjects engage in acts of self-sacrifice and self-sabotage because the loss enacted reproduces the subject’s lost object and enables the subject to enjoy this object” (13).

As McGowan goes on
The repetition involved with the death drive is not simply repetition of any particular experience. The repetition compulsion leads the subject to repeat specifically the experiences that have traumatized it and disturbed its stable functioning. The better things are going for the subject, the more likely that the death drive will derail the subject’s activity. According to the theory implied by the death drive, any movement toward the good — any progress — will tend to produce a reaction that will undermine it (14)
The genius of McGowan's book is to take the death drive not as something to be lamented, or healed, or overcome (he doesn't really think any of those are possible, and to the extent that some suggest they can be, they are probably capitalists hawking some gimmick like "mindfulness," or "gurus" propagating some nonsense), but harnessed: he argues that it is by "adopting the death drive as its guiding principle that emancipatory politics can pose a genuine alternative to the dominance of global capitalism rather than incidentally creating new avenues for its expansion and development” (21).


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