To the Left…

July 4, 2008

If we’re going to waffle, I’d rather waffle to the left than waffle to the right. – Ed Broadbent.

If we had to chose between an excess of patriotic fervour and the total absence of civic spirit, or the stagnation of mederantism, there would be no hesitation. A vigourous body, tormented by an excess of sap, leaves more resources than a corpse. – Robespierre, “On the Principles of Revolutionary Government”

It is here that one has to make the choice: the ‘pure’ liberal stance of equidistance towards leftist and rightist ‘totalitarianism’… is a priori false, one has to take sides and proclaim one fundamentally ‘worse’ than the other – for this reason, the ongoing ‘relativization’ of fascism, the notion that one should rationally compare the two totalitarianism, etc., always involves the – explicit or implicit – thesis that fascism was ‘better’ than Communism, an understandable reaction to the Communist threat. – Zizek, In Defese of Lost Causes, 262.

The other day in a reading group on The Parallax View the topic of the constant fragmentation of the left came up. Why, for example, did the Waffle movement arise in the NDP, to later get kicked out? Why did the International Socialists (which members of the waffle joined) later split into the New Socialist Group? (etc, etc). Somewhere (perhaps in Parallax…) Zizek notes that the various institutional dissolutions that Lacan was behing were a ‘Leninist move,’ an attempt to keep the movement from solidifying and stagnating. The ‘factioning’ of the psychoanalytic movement from Freud (Jungian psychoanalysis; Kleinian psychoanalysis; ‘culturalism’…) to the divisions in the Lacanian movement in France, to perhaps even the two psychoanalytic societies here in Toronto, resemble the splitting of the Left. Why doesn’t this happen with, say, the Liberals? You get factions of loyalties – the Cretien/Martin split a few years back, and perhaps even now a Dion/Ignatieff split; Or you get Wajid Khan crossing the floor the join the Conservatives. But it all happens within the party. Why don’t you get a splitting of the Liberal party? Even with the Conservatives, you see Reform and PC joining, not further breaking themselves apart. I think part of the answer can be discerned in the fifth chapter of Sherry Turkle’s history of the Lacanian movement (where ‘another part’ would be to look at how the Liberal or Conservative parties deal with their internal; and still another would be to look at how the Canadian Commonwealth Federation was able to bring a large section of the Left together).

Turkle’s description of the problem in the psychoanalytic movement begins with a discussion of the Lacanian ‘pass’. She describes how the pass arose in response to the problem of accreditation – part of Lacanian self-authorization meant having your name added to a list that was published by the Freudian School of Paris. From non-Lacanian circles came the objection that this could lead to under-qualified practitioners being implicitly legitimated by the School – that is, authorization didn’t come from the ‘self’ so much as from an institution. Many, according to Turkle, saw this as a case where analytic theory (self-authorization as the answer to a personal ‘calling’; the rejection of the need to be legitimated by a ‘master’) and practice came into conflict.

The pass was introduced as a way to solve this problem, as a way to demonstrate an analyst’s ability to use their analytic experience as research. It was not designed to judge an analysts ability to practice. This immediately set up a hierarchical division in which people who made it though the ‘pass’ were considered “School Analysts” rather than just members. These “School Analysts” were recognized for their abilities as theoreticians and not their practiccal expertise. The latter was recognized by the status of “School Member”, and was considered as lower on the totem pole, largely because of Lacan’s position on the pass committee – he got to decide whether or not people’s presentations were of an adequate level of sophistication. The implications centred largely around the transference: being ‘passed’ by one’s analyst, and then by Lacan, or, conversely, not getting passed, could give rise to all sorts of effects. A hierarchy had been established, whereas school was founded on the rejection of the power structures of the International Psychoanalytic Association in France.

The pass was put forward in Lacan’s “Proposal of October 9, 1967”, a document with a very political sounding title, I’d like to point out. And it became “a focal point for conflict” within the Freudian School (Psychoanalytic Politics:127). In an institution already riven by conflict, one of the results of the vote that ratified the pass at the beginning of 1969 was the formation of the “Fourth Group,” the members of which wanted to avoid “the agony of watching Lacan himself undermine his own teaching” (129).

What we see is a split precipitated by a theoretical difference that affected practice.

Turkle argues that from Freud to Lacan, these types of splits were the result of the central contradiction (she calls it “a very deep paradox”) of the psychoanalytic institution: to become an analyst one must overcome the transference, overcome the need for a master (hence psychoanalysis as the discourse of non-mastery, as the “other side” of the Master’s discourse). But, to perpetuate the psychoanalytic movement it need be institutionalized to train large numbers of analysts. The institution in effect serves as a master to which the analyst must adhere. Turkle puts it this way: “The institution protects the individual analyst from what might be intolerable personal pressures if all there was in psychoanalysis was relationships between individuals, and it ensure the perpetuation of the movement. So the psychoanalytic institution, for ‘the good of psychoanalysis,’ strikes back at dissenters. In doing so, it maintains transferential bonds that successful psychoanalysis aims to dissolve and retard the development of psychoanalytic science which requires individual independence” (130). This tension can be seen in Lacanian Monique David-Menard’s “Lacanians Against Lacan,” in which she argues that “Lacan brought psychoanalytic theory and practice out of it’s psychologizing rut” (99), but that towards the final breakup of the Fruedian School (and the rise of the J.-A. Miller group) the “transferential dimension of theoretical work was foreclosed.” (This paper was translated Brian Massumi, who also translated the two Schizophrenia and Capitalism books, and is obviously a political move in the land of theory on his part. I don’t think it’s a totally solid critique: I have issues around her assessment of Psychoanalysis’ relation to the Law and the difference between ‘lack’ and ‘hole’…)

What we have is a philosophy and practice that aims at the central paradox that is the subject, and can’t keep itself together because of it. To be ‘free’ one has to realize that there is no big Other and confront the frightening prospect of having to chose, but one needs a social space, the space of a big Other, in which to accomplish this work.
What I’m trying to suggest is that something similar goes for the left: where its concern (should be) for the central antagonism of our times – the exploitative nature of capitalism, the class struggle – it can’t agree on the theoretical space in which this work should be done.

In 1974 a forum called “Confrontations” was established, and served as a place where different Lacanian groups that leaned more towards the practice side of things could gather and discuss theoretical problems. While this might sound like a utopian meeting place, where different groups can get together and get along, Turkle gives a big caveat: this space was a supplement and not a replacement. It “seems to be filling needs that the Freudian School is not attending to” (136) – focusing on practice rather than theory (Turkle wrote the book around 1974 and updated it in 1992, so I don’t know if this forum is still in existence). However, it is a space in which theory is discussed. Confrontations refuses “any responsibility for training analysts” (136). That is, it doesn’t take responsibility for perpetuating the movement or monitoring how psychoanalysis is actually practiced. It relies on other institutions to accomplish that.

This is precisely the argument that Zizek has been making for a long time, and makes explicit in the seventh chapter of In Defense of Lost Causes: You can’t have the multitudes without the political space in which they act, that of the state (which is to be seized by the Party which would institute the dictatorship of the proletariat and transform the state accordingly). That is his criticism of Critchley, who he sees as leaving the everyday working of society and all that such work demands to the state in order to leave a space for alternative movements outside it. Zizek takes up Negri on the same point (although seeing far more potential in Negri’s formulation that in Critchley’s, who’s position he sees as “an almost perfect embodiment of the position to which my work is absolutely opposed” (DoLC, 339)), writing that “Negri’s motto ‘no governing without movements’ should therefore be countered with ‘no movements without governing,’ without a state power sustaining the space for movements” (377).

This is because for Zizek there is no possibility of a direct democracy. He holds (and has since at least the first chapter of SOI) that there has to be a minimum of alienation for people to be free. That is, you don’t know what you want or need, you don’t know what you desire, and so need an other to make this desire explicit (by returning your own messages to you, of course). Perhaps this is what Turkle means when she writes “the institution protects the individual analyst from what might be intolerable personal pressures if all there was in psychoanalysis was relationships between individuals” (quoted above). Based on how Zizek describes Levinas, this sounds like the impasse of a politics of ‘respect for the other’ – if you have to approach each and every person that you meet as a singularity, you would be emotionally drained after just a few encounters. Getting a coffee would become a huge ordeal. Without a shared space where there are shared assumptions you couldn’t get anything done in multiple person-to-person relationships, let alone on a mass scale.

The solution that Z gives to the problem of being left is, of course, to start a mass party. The problem from there is how to do that at home, which of course only those of us at home can solve…

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