"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).

Friday, January 26, 2018

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

Continuing on with McGowan's extremely interesting book Enjoying What We Don't Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysishe advances some insights into how the consuming impulses are exploited by capitalism through very subtle but powerful unconscious influences, including a play on nostalgia for a past we are only dimly aware of at best. Products are marketed to us but this, McGowan says, is based ultimately on a false promise: “Objects of desire are desirable only insofar as they attempt to represent the impossible lost object” (30).

Rather than try to work around this, McGowan says the genius of psychoanalysis is that it redirects our attention to the very thing we think we are missing (as Adam Phillips also does, as I noted in earlier parts of this essay), and says this thing is in fact what we should focus on: "psychoanalysis frees the subject to find satisfaction through the subject’s symptomatic disruption rather than continuing to view the disruption as the obstacle to the ultimate satisfaction that the subject is constantly missing” (57). Put more simply, in some cases rather than lamenting one's "symptoms" or what appears to be lacking in one's life, realize instead that the apparently lost object is a lie offering false hope that will never really satisfy even if one could attain it. Desire is always holding itself out as something we want, but always just outside our range, perpetually frustrating us. Desire doesn’t want satisfaction but continued desire. Capitalism depends on this. 

Our failure to come to this realization is due in part to the "cross-contamination," as it were, of desire on the part of what Freud controversially called the death drive: “The neurotic mistakes the experience of the death drive for the experience of desire" (59). The task of psychoanalysis is to help the analysand see this and move past it.

On a broader cultural level, though, the great insight offered by psychoanalysis is to frustrate capitalism by shifting focus away from the often mindless desire to accumulate the ever-new objects claiming to offer us, yet again, the hope of satisfaction that has hitherto eluded us. We do not find these objects; and in the few cases when we think we do, it turns out that satisfaction is not very satisfying and so we quickly get back into the consuming loop, thereby fueling capitalism, which needs limited dissatisfaction—just enough to propel people to think that the next object will in fact satisfy them. As McGowan says, “The fundamental project of capitalist ideology involves identifying accumulation with enjoyment.”

Unlike other theorists who have treated these issues, McGowan rightly criticizes the Marxism that is sometimes too facilely counter-posed to capitalism, arguing that Marxism itself has failed to challenge this identification of accumulation with enjoyment. In Marxism and communism, the focus shifts to the means of production, assuming that a free proletariat will produce endlessly because this is the way to endless enjoyment -as-accumulation.

What is the answer to this? Though McGowan does not use theological language about ascetic detachment, it seems very clearly to me that this is what he has in mind: “The point is not to take a vow of poverty and attempt to live without any commodities at all but to transform one’s relation to the commodity. The commodity does provide enjoyment, but only insofar as one doesn’t have it” (85). Once one has acquired the commodity, then, the enjoyment declines and ceases, in some cases almost at once; but the desire motivating its acquisition in the first place roars on, seeking new things to consume. What is the antidote to this? According to McGowan, “more enjoyment — that is, the recognition of our satisfaction — is only possible insofar as we abandon the imperative to accumulate.”

That seems a fine message to think on more deeply as we move into the detachment which is the Lenten desert in just a few short weeks.


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