Earlier today, I was curious about some aspects of a discussion taking place at I Cite, which itself referred to discussions at K-Punk and Poetix, and which revolves loosely around questions of apocalypticism. Since I’m still easing myself into the thought-space of these blogs, I wasn’t confident that I was understanding the theoretical context for the discussion, and so I drew Sinthome’s attention to the discussion with a few questions, which then led to a very nice post over at Larval Subjects on how we might use a psychoanalytic framework to interpret apocalyptic fantasies manifest in various contexts. I wanted here to pick up a few threads from Sinthome’s post – hoping that it’s not too rude first to draw someone else into a discussion, and only then decide to jump in myself… Perhaps it will minimise my rudeness somewhat, that I intend to write this post at a slight tangent to the original discussion, and to focus, not so much on apocalypticism, as on the importance of psychological theory to the project of critical theory.
In my writings thus far – both on this blog, and in more formal contexts – I have tended to focus heavily on how critical theory can provide an historically immanent and self-reflexive account of the forms of subjectivity it wishes to criticise, as well as the forms of subjectivity expressed in its own critical ideals. I’ve adopted this emphasis because I find that many critical theoretic approaches – including some that would describe themselves as self-reflexive, immanent critiques – seem to struggle to conceptualise critical ideals in a thoroughly historical and immanent way. From my perspective, this failure places such approaches – often quite unintentionally – into a non-reflexive position that, from the standpoint of a more consistent historical theory, can be shown to mystify elements of our social context that are generative of critical ideals. While this criticism may sound somewhat abstract and scholastic, I believe it has some profound implications for critical theory’s ability to connect with social and intellectual movements “on the ground” – a stance that, admittedly, I am far from having grounded adequately in my writings thus far.
As I have focussed on these issues, however, I have remained aware that simply establishing the historicity or the social grounding of critical forms of subjectivity is only part of the task. Such a critical historical analysis can take us to a certain point: it can help us understand the forms of subjectivity – including critical forms of subjectivity – that are historically plausible at specific times and – crucially for political practice – it can help us understand the relationships that connect these forms of subjectivity in specific ways to elements of our social context that we experience and articulate as forms of “objectivity”. From here, though, the path to be followed by critical theory becomes much more complex, because it is from this point that we have to ask ourselves whether we intend just to understand the world, or also to change it.
This question, I should note, is less acute for theoretical approaches that believe that critique speaks with the voice of the future – that critical ideals are simply giving voice to the way in which history would trend in any event. For approaches that reject this position and believe that subjectivity matters – that desired political outcomes will not be achieved through some kind of automatic and “objective” movement of history – some kind of psychological theory is, I suspect, required to complete the project of critical theory. The resultant critical theory would thus deploy both sociological and psychological theory to understand the possible, likely or probable actions of subjects whose actions constitute, and are conditioned by, a particular field of historical potentials.
The most basic kind of psychological theory – a theory whose specifically psychological character is often not recognised as such – is the simple faith that bringing truth to light itself has a transformative power – that if you teach it, or reveal it, they will act. This psychological theory is in some respects quite pervasive – grounded in a (tacit or explicit) belief that wrong acts are the result of error, and the correction of error (or the achievement of self understanding, or similar ideal) will therefore result in correct action. An element of this theory probably underlies most visions of critique, even if most contemporary critical theories would qualify and limit their belief in the power of truth to various degrees.
A number of more explicit psychological theories have been developed to account for those cases in which “truth” has been brought to light – and yet the anticipated transformative effect has not taken place. These theories – of “ideology”, “false conciousness” and the like – are quite varied: at some point, I should go through them more systematically on the blog. For present purposes, since the topic of apocalyptic fantasy started me on this tangent, I will explore only one: Adorno’s proposal for how a critical psychology might complement a critical sociology in making sense of the appeal of social movements that seem oriented specifically to destruction.
Since Sinthome’s post provided the immediate spark for these reflections, I’ll briefly draw attention to some elements of that post to get us underway. Sinthome begins by citing examples of apocalyptic fantasies from a wide range of contexts, and then asks how we should understand this phenomenon. I’ll quote Sinthome’s analysis at some length:
…the psychoanalytic approach suggests that we ask how our desire is imbricated with these particular representations or scenarios and enjoins us to analyze how our thought collectively arrives at these visions to present rather than others. How is it that we are to account for the omnipresence of these scenarios in popular imagination… An omnipresence so great that it even filters down into the most intimate recesses of erotic fantasy as presented in the consulting room? In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud presents an interesting take on how we’re to understand anxiety dreams such as the death of a loved one. There Freud writes that,
Another group of dreams which may be described as typical are those containing the death of some loved relative – for instance, of a parent, of a brother or sister, or of a child. Two classes of such dreams must at once be distinguished: those in which the dreamer is unaffected by grief, so that on awakening he is astonished at his lack of feeling, and those in which the dreamer feels deeply pained by the death and may even weep bitterly in his sleep.
We need not consider dreams of the first of these classes, for they have no claim to be regarded as ‘typical’. If we analyse them, we find that they have some meaning other than their apparent one, and that they are intended to conceal some other wish. Such was the dream of the aunt who saw her sister’s only son lying in his coffin (p. 152). It did not mean that she wished her little nephew dead; as we have seen, it merely concealed a wish to see a particular person of whom she was fond and whom she had not met for a long time – a person whom she had once before met after a similarly long interval beside the coffin of another nephew. This wish, which was the true content of the dream, gave no occasion for grief, and no grief, therefore, was felt in the dream (SE 4, 248).
No doubt this woman experienced some guilt for her desire for this man and therefore preferred to dream her nephew dead as an alibi of seeing him once again, rather than directly facing her desire. Could not a similar phenomenon be at work in apocalyptic scenarios?… In short, Freud’s point is that we should look at horrifying manifest content such as this as enabling the fulfillment of some wish. My thesis here would be that whenever confronted with some horrifying scenario that troubles the analysand’s minds or dreams, the analyst should treat it like a material conditional or “if/then” statement, seeking to determine what repressed wish or desire might become possible for the analysand were the scenario to occur (e.g., being fired would allow the analysand to pursue his true desire, the loss of a limb would allow the analysand to finally escape her father’s desire for her to play violin, etc.).
Here, perhaps, would be the key to apocalyptic fantasies: They represent clothed or disguised utopian longings for a different order of social relations, such that this alternative order would only become possible were all of society to collapse.
It speaks to Sinthome’s gentleness and optimism that the inspiration for this analysis is derived from what Freud labels “atypical” examples of dreams of death. While quoting enough to alert the reader to the existence of another interpretive direction, Sinthome unfolds an interpretation solely from that category of dreams that Freud says “we need not consider”, and elides direct reference to those dreams Freud regarded as more “typical”, namely:
It is otherwise with those dreams in which the death of a beloved relative is imagined, and in which a painful affect is felt. These signify, as their content tells us, the wish that the person in question might die…
Sinthome thus expresses the hope that apocalyptic fantasies manifest a desire for something other than their explicit content – something more than the desire for destruction and death. I raise this point, not to hold up Freud’s text against Sinthome’s appropriation – for we have no obligation for interpretive fidelity to Freud’s work and, in any event, even Freud’s “typical” examples contain permutations that might be amenable to Sinthome’s appropriation (Freud suggests that “typical” dreams can manifest historical content, for example – ephemeral wishes once felt, but long since rejected, etc.) – but because I think it provides a good frame for understanding Adorno’s very different attempt to merge psychoanalytic theory with sociology in the service of critique. If Freud offers two interpretive paths, one of which Sinthome has followed in the hopes that apocalyptic fantasy might signify a nonmanifest content – a longing for transcendence – we can understand Adorno’s work as an attempt to reflect seriously on the second path – on the possibility that certain mass movements might genuinely desire to achieve what their fantasies express: destruction and death.
Adorno’s argument (if I can use this term for someone so committed to avoiding linear, developmental analytical forms) is complex – and not necessarily in ways that are productive for theoretical reflection by those not committed to Adorno’s own framework. For present purposes, I won’t attempt to outline Adorno’s interpretation in any comprehensive way, but will instead comment on just a few elements within a single text: Adorno’s “Sociology and Psychology”, published in the New Left Review in two parts, in Nov-Dec, 1967, and Jan-Feb 1968.
Adorno begins this text with a rejection of the concept of objective historical laws, and suggests – as I have suggested above – that this rejection implies the need to supplement a critical sociological theory with a critical psychology. Much of the article then revolves around two interrelated, aphoristically unfolded, arguments: first, a critique of other attempts to merge sociology and psychology, with particular focus on Talcott Parsons, but with frequent sideswipes at many other theoretical traditions; and second, an often scathing critique of Freud and of various psychoanalytic traditions, in the service of an attempt to appropriate Freudian categories in a more historicised and critical form. Adorno’s arguments are often brilliant and provocative, and I will try to revisit them in appropriate detail in another post. For present purposes, however, I want only to isolate out a couple of points that seem – to me, at least – to have potentially broader relevance for theoretical reflection on the psychological undercurrents of mass movements.
What I find particularly interesting and disturbing in this text is the very simple and, once stated, obvious question that motivates Adorno’s analysis: what might happen, psychologically, to individuals who possess critical sensibilities in circumstances in which those individuals are too frightened or overwhelmed to act?
Adorno unfolds an extraordinarily pessmistic analysis in response to this question, focussing on the strain placed on an ego whose reality testing abilities enable it to discover both the potential for transformation – and thus the non-necessity, the non-doxic character, of sacrifices imposed on the individual within this form of social life – and the isolation and impotence of the individual to bring such a transformation about. Adorno argues – and I won’t elaborate on his analysis here – that much of what Freud took to be innate psychological structure derives, instead, from the violence of socialisation into such a context, from the scars inflicted by the ego on itself when, confronted with its own powerlessness, it responds by repressing conscious awareness of potentials for transformation, and driving emancipatory impulses into the unconscious realm.
Adorno suggests that several consequences follow from this form of socialisation: a brittleness and attenuation of the ego, which renders it easier for the ego itself to be overwhelmed by infantile and irrational impulses; the presence of unusually strong barriers separating the unconscious from other dimensions of psychic life, which has the effect of “freezing” the unconscious in an infantile state, and undermining the ability to sublimate infantile desires; and – because on some level the awareness of transformative potentials persists – an unconscious reservoir of rage at the unnecessary sacrifices imposed by an unjust society. All of these things, Adorno suggests, encourage susceptibility to forms of mass mobilisation that are directed specifically against the realisation of potentials for transformation, and that tap into impulses to destroy others (particularly members of vulnerable minorities whose social exclusion can be misrecognised as unmerited freedom from hated social constraints) as well as desires for self-destruction.
Adorno’s account thus suggests that widespread desires for destruction or self-destruction might be “typical” – particularly in moments when individual powerlessness comes to be experienced as particularly acute. While fuelled in some sense by an experience of transformative potentials, these destructive desires are not, within Adorno’s framework, masks for utopian longing, but blind rage and pain at sacrifices unjustly imposed – a rage and pain that, as I’ve discussed here before, can sometimes try to “rationalise” its own sacrifices through the destructive imposition of equivalent sacrifices on others.
I’ll stop here (it’s getting very late on my end and, in any event, I’ve probably said as much as I can on Adorno without diving into the murky depths…) with just one final point of clarification to avert possible confusion: the structure of this post, ending as it does with Adorno’s account, may suggest that I approve of his interpretation. In reality, I’m actually quite critical of this dimension of Adorno’s work. Specifically (and I can’t fully develop this point here, as I haven’t explored the issue sufficiently above), Adorno uses this appropriation of psychoanalytic theory, among other things, to account for certain qualitative characteristics of forms of subjectivity that I think can be explained far more easily via sociological analysis. As well, there is a certain element to Adorno’s reworking of Freud that – for all its scathing criticisms – is a bit too literal and loyal, such that the analysis at its core likely requires Freud’s psychodynamic structures to be more “material” than I suspect they’re regarded even within most psychoanalytic traditions. Although I’ve outlined a few elements of Adorno’s analysis above in order to give a sense of what he is trying to do, I’m not particularly drawn to the actual contents of his psychological theory.
I am, however, drawn to his question – the question of whether the experience of living in a society that suggests the potential for its own transformation might, under certain historical circumstances, render likely the emergence of abstractly destructive sensibilities.
At the same time, I am cautious of elements in Sinthome’s post – of how quickly the interpretation jumps from the claim (which the Freud quotation already reveals as somewhat contentious) that manifest fantasies of destruction might have some kind of non-destructive latent content, to the even more contentious claim that the specific latent content might be utopian in character. (I want to be very careful here, as I’m aware that Sinthome was writing an off-the-cuff conversational piece – and with some provocation from me, at that – and I don’t want to criticise the post as though it had been intended to represent a fully developed theory.)
I am, however, drawn to way in which Sinthome’s approach captures the intersubjective character of what we generally experience and articulate as individual and subjective experience – avoiding Adorno’s reduction to a materialistically conceived notion of psychological “structures”, and opening the potential to analyse the ways in which our intersubjective interactions can enable us to rearticulate even the forms of trauma to which Adorno calls attention, while opening a way beyond the pessimism intrinsic to Adorno’s approach.
I’m unfortunately not in the position of offering a personal sense of how I would tackle these issues – a side effect of my focus on the sociological side of the equation. I do, though, think the underlying issue of the role of psychological theory within critical theory is an important one, which I should revisit with much greater regularity than I’ve done here thus far… For the moment, though, I’ll give the topic – and myself – a bit of a rest… ;-P
Updated to add: Sinthome has responded over at Larval Subjects, with some important qualifications to my analysis, which then leads me – as a novelty – to try to explain what I actually mean. ;-P I’m not sure I do a better job over there than I did here, but perhaps in all this circling around my point, I’ll eventually uncover what that point might be… ;-P