"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, August 20, 2018

Mourning and Melancholia, Sex and Capitalism: Two New Books

I have, on here and elsewhere, been testing out certain psychoanalytic ideas over the past few years in the context of considering both Eastern Christian and Islamic historiographical abuses. What I am increasingly coming to wonder in both cases--but especially the latter--is how much unacknowledged romanticized nostalgia is mixed up with a strange sort of unrecognized mourning for past glories.

Moreover, I have been returning to the whole category of "lament" to see how and where it has largely disappeared from contemporary Christian experience--e.g., the bowdlerizing or outright censorship, in contemporary lectionaries, of the psalms of lament, of Job, etc. And within a contemporary Islamic context, I am wondering if their developing of a literature of lament would not be useful in grappling with Western imperialism and its century of damage in the region, beginning with the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after 1918 and continuing through the Gulf War of 1991 and, above all, the utter disaster of the 2003 Iraq war which has destroyed so many lives, Muslim and Christian alike, across the entire region.

Finally, I have been watching with fascination as several recent critical theorists--starting with Todd McGowan--have begun the process of bringing Freud's theory of the death drive back in from the cold where it has been consigned by analysts and others alike for almost a century now.

All of these themes--mourning, lament, and the death drive--are on prominent display in two news books I've just finished, starting with Madelon Sprengnether's Mourning Freud (Bloomsbury, 2018), 288pp. (For a third book along these lines, see my discussion of Christopher Bollas's new Meaning and Melancholia: Life in an Age of Bewilderment here. For a fourth, see Freud, Psychoanalysis, and Death, which makes some good if at times over-obvious points about the neglect, both clinical and theoretical, on death as such in the Freudian tradition.)

Hers is a very insightful and important book, movingly written in places and offering important additions to and new directions for psychoanalytic thinking after Freud, with whom she is rightly not afraid to differ on certain points. I have never once understood the refusal of certain people--most of them now dead, I should think--to differ from Freud, or to treat such differences as some kind of treason. No human figure deserves unquestioned loyalty; but it seems especially ironic to treat Freud in such terms given the insights and tools he bequeathed to us precisely to see through both the demand for such loyalty and the urge to give it.

Moreover, the idea that psychoanalysis is somehow fixed for all time in Freudian theory has also never made sense to me. The developments after Freud--especially in the British middle or independent tradition--have been invaluable. There is, rightly, a variety of approaches and theories; and as Sprengnether later puts it in her book, "psychoanalysis as Freud conceived it does not come down to us as a fixed and internally consistent body of theory. Freud's texts interact with one another in myriad ways, repeating, revising, and commenting on one another as if to represent an ongoing internal conversation rather than a logically ordered set of ideas" (164).

In addition, she is further right in moving past that silly and protracted distraction of scientism which has been too conveniently used by both Freudians and his haters for too long to distract us from some of his key insights. Claims to psychoanalysis (and much else) being a "science" have never made sense for those with a modicum of understanding of the philosophy of science and its history. What the average person means by "science" (and even, alas, what too many so-called scientists mean) is a fantastical ideological construct used to ward off politically inconvenient questions. In this light, Freud was himself too hung up on some late-Enlightenment "scientific" claims as a way of securing for his "Jewish science" a certain kind of stability and respectability that minorities in Habsburg Europe needed to find for their own security. As Sprengnether puts it, "what Freud invented, in my view, is not an objective science of mind but rather a new form of subjective self-inquiry. The power of his discovery is in no way diminished by its lack of 'scientific' status" (183).

I found the most useful part of her book to be the one that might make strict orthodox Freudians (are there any left?) unhappy: her argument that Freud unhelpfully side-tracked himself (beginning in the self-analysis of his own life) down an Oedipal alley and in so doing missed the role of mourning, thinking instead that the "trauma" of childhood was about sex rather than loss. (Another point I've never understood: those who want to make, as Freud himself seems to do, the tale of Oedipus into something to be taken literally. That we have complicated libidinal-erotic-sexual feelings, understood very broadly, towards others, including family, seems unremarkable. But to go beyond that and posit anything further seems de trop.) As she puts it bluntly right at the outset, "the subject that Freud most clearly failed to confront in his life and his work, I maintain, is mourning" (1). As she later elaborates on this point, "oedipal theory performs the function of acknowledging anger toward the deceased (murderous wishes directed towards the father) while enshrining an idealized memory of maternal love" (55). He does this, she continues, because "he chose to theorize from a text that offered him more consoling images. Out of the tragic material of Oedipus Rex, Freud forged a hopeful, if sober, psychic construct" (85).

She goes on to show how this is not only the case in his own incomplete mourning for childhood figures, but is then projected onto the famous story he recounts--in Beyond the Pleasure Principle--of his own grandson's reactions to the death of his mother, Freud's daughter Sophie, who died of the Spanish flu. Freud's own reaction, and what he records of his grandson, both point to a man steeped in a kind of stiff-upper-lip stoicism that would not allow for open grieving--and this he projects onto his grandson.

A few final critical thoughts to end with: Sprengnether: to my enormous surprise she seems not to have read, or at least never cites anywhere, three contemporary theorists whose work overlaps considerably with her own, and who, in at least one case, would have strengthened her own case considerably. I speak here, firstly, of Adam Phillips (especially his discussions on the links between psychoanalysis and literature as seen in, e.g., Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature). Also nowhere to be found is Christopher Bollas. But finally Ana-Maria Rizzuto, whose work on Freud's mourning of his father in Why Did Freud Reject God 


Now on to Benjamin Fong's fascinating book, Death and Mastery: Psychoanalytic Drive Theory and the Subject of Late Capitalism (Columbia UP, 2018). There is a lot of wisdom here, but I'm not sure how well this holds together as a book. Nevertheless, there are many great insights scattered throughout this book. 

Fong begins not unlike Sprengnether: wanting to think with Freud, but also to develop certain of his ideas, to see how others after him (especially Lacan) have grappled with these problems, and in some cases to go beyond Freud.

After Freud, the other major interlocutors in this book are those of the Frankfurt school, above all Theodor Adorno, whose work on The Culture Industry is discussed with great intelligence and insight.

Marx plays a role, but very much in the background. Max Horkeimer is also featured prominently. Herbert Marcuse comes in for considerable, and highly critical, discussion. (I've never been able to take Marcuse seriously since MacIntyre so thoroughly trashed him decades ago.)

Hans Loewald comes in for extensive discussion. René Girard is also discussed here, and rather critically in such works as Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Fong is especially hard on John Milbank and others who have picked up ideas about violence and rivalry to trumpet a supposed Christian offer of peace.

Fong begins by noting that the death drive, to the extent that it is considered at all, often overshadows what he sees as a co-relative drive, viz., to mastery. Indeed, as he puts it early on, "the death drive becomes its own counter-drive, a drive to mastery" (18). This can manifest itself in many ways, and no drive is ever going to be totally contained; but, he says, they can at least be understood. One key example of this process, he says, is that of the drive to intellectual mastery, which is often a drive to overcome the destructive death-dealing effects of past trauma.

So too is the compulsion to repeat, as McGowan so abundantly illustrated in his book, as I showed in my discussion of it. We often repeat things that are very clearly destructive and death-dealing because in doing so we are seeking some lost or misplaced or inaccessible good. There is a logic here, though on the surface it may look perverse and self-defeating--thereby illustrating, of course, the importance of Freud's hermeneutic in The Interpretation of Dreams of looking not just at manifest but especially at latent content and meaning.

Fong's book is worth it if only for this central insight, which comes almost exactly half-way through: "there is perhaps no more confused assertion, for a critical theorist, than that capitalist society is becoming increasingly 'secular'." Why churchmen and others insist on using this term or its even more fatuous variants ("secular humanism") has never made sense to me--except, of course, to flog their hideous books.

Rather, capitalism is itself not just an ideology and substitute "religion." More to the point, as the final parts of Fong's book argue, it is "a committed psychic investment" and an "insidious....internalized social structure" whose "comfortable obviousness" makes it all the harder to distance oneself from and to think about with "self-reflective reason." As a result, "late capitalism is defined not only by a reorganization of production, radically heightened capacities of distribution, and a new ideology of consumption but also by a sea change in what Judith Butler calls 'the psychic life of power'" (86).

Such psychic effects, to be clear, have not totally robbed most people of the capacity for some critical thought. But too much of that capacity in too many people has been anesthetized by capitalism, and most recently and most especially by the technology that so consumes our life today. As a result Fong is quite right to say, as others recently have, that any dreams of any sort of "revolution" are never going to come to pass; for capitalism is extremely adept at using all its commodities to inculcate in people a "remarkably stubborn adherence to the status quo" (98). Such technology gains its power, he asserts, from first gratifying "a psychic need before it does material ones" (110).

Using classic Freudian terminology, Fong explains how this works: the culture industry works both sides of the ego, giving satisfaction to the id in various ways (that is, satisfying many basic material desires and wants) so as to blunt the force of the superego's critical capacities. If you doubt this, just think how often, in conversation with a defender of capitalism, you have immediately been met with the tedious rejoinder "Yes, but think how many people today own their own home" or "How many more have joined the middle class from poverty."

Nobody doubts that moving from poverty is a good thing, but that is not why such utterances are made. They are made to close down discussion because the apologists for capitalism know what a weak case they have in the face of massive psychic and spiritual costs--to say nothing of real, material costs, too, to lives devastated by its myriad social pathologies. As MacIntyre memorably put it in his most recent book, advanced capitalism today has “destroyed…traditional ways of life, created gross and sometimes grotesque inequalities of income and wealth, lurched through crisis after crisis, creating recurrent mass unemployment and left those areas and those communities that it was not profitable to develop permanently impoverished and deprived.”

In the end, Fong's very insightful book does not give us a lot of detailed directives on how to overcome these problems--which is, of course, a classical instance of Freudian "abstinence." Freud himself made it clear that an analyst should usually hold him/herself abstinent from the analysand insofar as the latter wanted the former to tell him what to do, how to live, and how to decide certain matters. It is up to us to begin to think much more critically about all this, and then to figure out what is to be done. We are in Fong's debt insofar as he has helped us to see all this more clearly and to realize the nature of the challenges we face. 

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