Personal/political Unconscious

March 10, 2008

I was reading some Monique Wittig today for my French Feminism class. In the pieces I was looking at, she complains that Marxist thought leaves no room for the single subject, eschewing it for the universal subject of history (i.e. the proletariat). Everything else, she argues, is dismissed as simply ‘bourgeois’. I think this points to what was at issue in what we were talking about at the end of the panel the other day: there is the personal sinthome, but we can’t forget the social synthome.

Zizek seems to think that there is no personal symthome, spending all his time on the social synthome. And it’s tied into the externalization of the unconscious – that is, the unconscious exits in the things we do rather than what we think, and as such are tied by social experience: “…the fundamental lesson of psychoanlysis is that the unconscious is outside, crystallized in institutional practices” (Zizek in an interview with Chris Hanlon). He goes on to say that Jameson reporaches him with the charge that “the inner self-experience disappears with me, that I externalize everything into social rituals”. This is close to what we were discussing – that is, what is the place of the ‘personal unconscious’?

This comes up in the ‘second interlude’ of Parallax View when the Z is digging into J.A.M.: “And the theoretical co-ordinates within which one formulates one’s position? The most boring old hermeneutic insistence on the uniqueness of the individual who should not be turned into a statistical unit, reduced to one-in-the-series-of-others…. Where are the days when it was clear to every critical individual that this insistence on the uniqueness of the subject is merely the obverse of ‘quantification’, the two being the opposite sides of the same (ideological) coin?” (261). This sounds just like what Wittig was writing about… I buy the idea that our problems are deeply rooted in social structures, and taking this all the way means that fixing these problems rather than assuaging them necessitates social change. Which is all to say that ‘you don’t exist’: you are nothing but your social unconscious.

The problem for Wittig, as I can surmise from the little bit of reading that I’ve just done, is with the declaration of a social problem as the social problem – i.e. capitalist exploitation over race and gender. Her argument is that taking captialist exploitation as ‘one exploitation to rule them all’ (this is more or less the position that David McNally at York was telling us in the ‘rethinking captial’ class I took) is to marginalize racial and gender issues as unimportant. She also wants to hang onto the idea that each individual subject is important. However, she establishes this negativly, i.e. by way of dismissing Marxist claims that subjectivity is ‘bourgeois’, so it’s hard to say if that idea has any legs …(maybe she gives a positive argument for it elsewhere…)

So, my first question is: do we think its correct to say that capitalism is the thing that needs to be eliminated, and all else will follow, or that there are several struggles, all of them equally valid? I’m leaning towards capital, but I’m not fully convinced that the second option doesn’t have something to it. That is, will the end of capital automatically spell the end of racism and sexism? If those are based in the exploitation of labour, then yes. If not, no.

This begs the following question: if exploitation for profit isn’t the basis for racism and sexism, what is? Fear? That seems a little simplistic. Some innate drive to dominate? that doesn’t seem right either…. I don’t know post-colonial or feminist theory well enough to guess what another explanation would be. Do you two?

My second question is: is there room for a personal unconscious? What does it actually mean when Z says that “the uniqueness of the subject is merely the obverse of ‘quantification’, the two being the opposite sides of the same (ideological) coin?”?

‘I think thow dost protest too much’, as they say – I think Z overlooks the potential in the idea that one must take each analysand as a unique incarnation of a single problem. That is, if we stick to the idea that capital is the problem, it seems to me that the ‘Leninist’ approach would be to read each struggle – both personal ‘passages a l’act’ and collective ‘passages a l’acte’ (riot, strike, whatever) – as a unique situation that has to be dealt with (i.e. directed through a poltical project, politicized) on a one-by-one basis. That is, what worked in a political struggle in Russia in 1917 isn’t going to work in a struggle in Canada in 2008 (And I’m sure Z knows this and has said as much. Hence ‘repeating Lenin’ and not ‘copying Lenin’). One a personal level, with an analyst, wouldn’t this mean the ‘end of analysis’ would see the analysand transformed into a revolutionary who tackled whatever social-ill most directly affected them (racial inequality; sexual abuse; labour exploitation)?

Otherwise, it seems to me, all that you could otherwise expect from analysis would be reconciliation with/in the situation in which you find yourself, rather than change…

And in a ‘Hegelian’ way, don’t we HAVE to say that the social-ill can only manifest in a particular being? That is, you can’t have a social ill without something to be that social ill. But, how is this not just another way of saying “I am nothing but the product of my social surroundings”? My guess is that there has to be people with particular ‘its’ (ids), who in wrestling with their own shit, come to the moment where they are able to say “I am responsible for all this” (i.e. formal-conversion) and then ‘Act’.



[Christopher Hanlon: “psychoanalysis and the post-political: an interview with Slavoj Zizek” in New Literary History, 2001, 32: 1-21.]


6 Responses to “Personal/political Unconscious”

  1. battleofthegiants said

    Given my dispepsia regarding having to read (and take a class on) 1000 plateaus, I decided to read Zizek’s anti-delueze/anti-deleuzian-epigones paper “The ongoing ‘soft revolution'”. In it, he speaks against the idea that there are multiple stuggles, that all struggles are brought together by an absent figure, i.e. captialism. So, I guess I’m squarely back in the camp of capitalism as the exploitation that rules them all: “Capitalism is the concrete universal of our historical epoch” (294). (this is to say that i’ve been re-hegemonized).

    There are a few other intersting things in this paper, though: 1) anti-utopianism. 2) Democracy is not a neutral space, but ‘the dictatorship of the bourgeois’ – i.e. the rules as to what truth is are pre-established. If you don’t fit into it, you’re excluded; all you get to do i vote on pre-authorized ideas. 3)The Brecht verse about re-electing a people is in here, and Z agrees with him, whereas in Parallax View he thinks Brecht is wrong (although, he Z uses the verse to talk about 2 different situations. So he agrees with Brecht when applied to the Israel/Palestine situation, but disagrees when applied to how ‘the people’ should be thought in terms of socialism and the role of the Party. 4) Fate is present here: he says we have gone back to thinking like the thrice married widow in BYPP: fate is inevitably outside our control. We can’t Act, but only be appalled at catastrophes: ‘What? something out of the ordinary can still happen’? (pages 316-7) 5)Holy wagers and temptations, Batman! I count 9 implicit or explicit ‘temptations’, and 3 wagers. Not only that, the paper ends on an implicit wager: a ‘gain everything, lose nothing’ choice…


  2. The Thing said

    Some thoughts:

    I am tempted (ha!) to suggest that the one battle to rule them all is the battle to traverse the fundamental fantasy and identify with the symptom. This is an attempt to evade both hegemonizing all struggles under the struggle against capitalism (I thought Zizek wanted a battle against democracy?) AND to evade saying that there are multiple struggles. It is fear, but less simplistic. The fear is of the fantasy ‘coming true’. However, the fearful fantasy is already a defense against the terrifying, opaque dark spot of the Other’s desire.

    I like the idea of the analyzed patient tackling the social problem they are most affected by, but it still seems a bit forced… moralizing, maybe. Tackling social problems? Where’s the absurdity, the humour? Where’s the excremental little piece of the real to which I’ve become arbitrarily stuck?

    I thought Z agreed with Brecht in Parallax?


  3. battleofthegiants said

    Re: Brecht – You’re right, but it think it’s a “Brecht didn’t realize how right he was” thing – that is, Brecht was being sarcastic when he wrote “We should re-elect a new people”, but Zizek says it IS necessary to ‘elect a new people’ in the sense of of ‘bringing them to class consciousness’ a la Lenin’s “What is to be done?”.

    Re: Analysis – I was reading the last paper in the new translation of _Ecrits_ yesterday, and Lacan can almost be read as saying that the analyst has to be political. That is, he seems to be saying what Z knocks J.A.M. for saying in interlude 2: That the analyst, unlike the practitioners of modern medicine, can’t ‘politically sequester’ (I’ll look up the actual phrase later) any patient as an anomaly. I.e. people can’t be classified as abnormal and slotted into a hole. He goes on to say something about the role of the analyst… I’ll look it up.

    Yeah, I think I was forcing a little too. But, I can’t shake the feeling that if you read what Zizek does to psychoanalysis with Marxism on the social level back into the analytic situation, the analysand would have to leave politicized. Evans’ entry under ‘end of analysis’ says that there is a difference between the aim and the end of analysis. Neither of these is to become happy or reconciled with what is – it’s just what you say: to identify with the symptom. So, for me, that either says 1) the end of analysis is to become the liberal ideal – a self-motivated, self making, active individual who exists independantly of Society, that is, in ‘equal competition’ with everyone else, or 2) engaged in social struggle, which, of course for Zizek is to be Marxist, because he takes capitalism to be THE problem.

    Z is against democracy, but because it is the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeois’, the dictatorship of the capitalists. So, I’m convinced that although any struggle can become the universal (i.e. a politicized feminist ‘passage a l’acte’, if pushed all the way, could stand in for all struggles) that universal is the struggle against capital. I think that this does mean hegemonizing all the struggles. So, instead of a feminist asking “how can a feminist eradicate patriarchy” a feminist would ask “how can a socialist struggle against the eradication of patriarchy”. I think that is the implication of what Z is saying.

    (Many feminists are of course already political. I mean ‘politicized’ in the sense of ‘stepping outside the bounds of the admissible, not trying to get accepted/recognized within the existing system’. )

    So, I really haven’t thought too much about the ‘dark spot in the other’, but my initial thought is this: Zizek is for sure pro-violence in the sense that it shouldn’t be shied from. So, to think that in tandem with the ‘dark spot’, it doesn’t mean infinite respect in terms of ‘you, liberal subject, you can do whatever you want so long as it doesn’t take anything from me.’ I think it means you wouldn’t commit violence for the sake of yourself, but for the ethical demands of the situation. Like I said the other day: what if the Other is doing something stupid? It would also mean taking responsibility for your mistakes (i.e. Lenin’s ‘x’ and the death of the 1200 counter-revolutionaries), and opening yourself up for destruction (The attempted assassination of Lenin by his enemies; the Brecht play about the young revolutionary who had to let himself be chucked into the pit…)


  4. battleofthegiants said

    Here’s the Lacan quote:

    ” Can the analyst take cover behind this ancient investiture [medicine as a religious cult] when it is moving in a secularized form towards a kind of socialization that can avoid neither eugenics nor the political segregation of anomolies?
    Will the psychoanalyst take up the torch, not of an eschatology, but of the rights of a primary aim?
    What then is the aim of analysis beyond therepeutics? It is impossible not to distinguish the two when the point is to create an analyst” (Ecrits, 724)

    Evans has this the “end of analysis” entry:

    Lacan rejects that the end of analysis is comprised of a “…strengthening of the ego, adaptation to reality, and happiness. The end of analysis is not the disappearance of the symptom, nor the cure of an underlying disease (e.g. Neurosis) since analysis is not essentially a therapeutic process but a search for truth, and the truth is not always beneficial”.

    This makes me think that everyone shouold walk out of analysis as an analyst (like you said yesterday), and that they’ll have to be political.

    Another thing that I like from the same ‘ecrit’ is this line: “The style of a philosophical conference inclines everyone, so it seems, to highlight instead his own impermeability” (724). I tried to write the paper I presented at Western as a series of ideas, and not necessarily as a coherent argument… and it was kinda liberating.

    I think it was a little extreme in the class I took at the institute: most people wanted to present non-commital thoughts rather than any ideas…


  5. The Thing said

    Love this, but find it confusing:

    “universal is the struggle against capital… So, instead of a feminist asking “how can a feminist eradicate patriarchy” a feminist would ask “how can a socialist struggle against the eradication of patriarchy”.”

    At first I thought you’d just been tricky and transfered the division between anti-capitalist struggle and feminist struggle from the object where I expected it (patriarchy vs. capitalism) onto the subject (feminist vs. socialist). But now I see that you have her struggling AGAINST the eradication of patriarchy. Why is that? Is it an ironic or rhetorical question that I haven’t caught the gist of? Is it a typo?

    Listening to the cinema and ideology lectures the other day, I thought I caught a bit of the personal unconscious / absurdity stuff in Z’s description of a couple of different stories. I didn’t catch the name of the key example (a movie about a guy who is willing to imperil his entire country in the name of justice after somebody hurts his horses and can’t be held to account for it), but he does end up using Antigone in the same way. His point (not that it’s new or anything) was about how the spark that sets off the blaze as it were is irrelevant, that it is even essential that it be some stupid irrational reason. He paraphrases Creon as saying something like: “Are you crazy? You’re going to ruin everything if you pursue this, and it’s not even really worth it! Polynices is dead and you can’t bring him back. Listen, if I give you this wad of cash to just forget the whole thing…” Now, Antigone is not as good an example, because she’s tragically standing for all this dignified stuff (burial rite as the cornerstone of human society, etc…). Much easier to see when it’s over horses. Who cares about horses that much? Wouldn’t the answer be: someone whose symptom leads them to.

    And I’m still thinking about democracy and capitalism, though not very coherently. What about the spear that heals the wound? Where does enlightenment rationality and equality stand in relation to democracy as bourgeois dictatorship and capitalism? What about the fundamental fantasy of capitalism itself?


  6. battleofthegiants said

    I actually meant a feminist-come-socialist would have to talk about smashing patriarchy from the perspective of the appropriation of labour, rather than from some other angle. I.e. Free labour in the home is exploitation too, and stands at the root of patriarchal domination…(that’s the perspective Delphy takes). That is, the universal stand-in/’hegemonizer’ channels all struggle through one central issue: any random thing becomes about the capitalist system, and not that random thing, and in turn makes all other random things into the struggle against capital too.

    That horse shit (er, stuff) sounds like that: some thing that outrages you personally turns into the reason you destroy the system…

    Z adds a level via Lenin’s “What is to be done”, though. That is, spontaneous outbursts tend to go the way of the dominant ideology – for Lenin that was Trade Unionism and ‘Economism’, which just means fighting within the capitalist system rather than demanding complete overhaul. The trick is to get people ‘class conscious’ so that when they do have an outburst, when someone does fuck with their horses, they will not tend towards making demands but go all the way and change shit (er, stuff)… That is, “There is spontaneity and spontaneity”, where the latter is horse-rage channeled through a political ideology.

    I think the ‘spear’ is the cogito, i.e. the unconscious. The Cartesian abstract individual is tightly tied to the death drive that tears things down to decide how to build them anew…(like the beginning of Ticklish and the destructive imagination (is that what it’s called?) as you talk about it in your paper – he aligns it directly with Descartes when talking about Hieronymous Boch’s monsters…). And like you said the other day, the Real (the unconscious) snatches something and says ‘this is it – this is the Real!’ – you have to have a sinthome, there is no Real pure and simple. That’s perhaps why Evans says the end of analysis isn’t the dissolution of the symptom: It’s the only thing that would in fact be left.

    Z’s answer to democracy as the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeois’ is the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which would of course be headed by the ‘party as analyst’. Instead of a group of capitalists deciding what to do, it would be communists…

    I can’t write anymore. Eyes hurt. Head tired…

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