La contra Adorno: The sex-economic problem of Platypus
Platypus Review 57 | June 2013
"Think of us like the psychoanalysts of the Left."
This was one of the descriptions that a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society offered after I had made some probing, perhaps doubtful, remarks about the intentions of their organization. As someone who identified with the radical Left and psychoanalysis, I found this statement to be rather instructive and, really, born out of a genuine insight into the current state of the Left.
It coalesced with the various self-descriptive materials which are made available on the project’s website. It might as well have read:
Dr. Platypus is for the therapy, education, and, ultimately, the practical reconstitution of the subject. At present the subject appears as a historic ruin… Dr. Platypus contends that the ruin of the subject as she stands today is of a history whose collapse was largely self-inflicted, hence at present the subject is historical, and in such a grave state of delusion that she can no longer cope coherently with sociopolitical reality. In the face of her traumatic past and present, the first task for the reconstitution of the subject is to recognize the reasons for her historical collapse and to facilitate the recovery of the subject for the present and future. If the subject is to change the world, she must first cure herself!
The conceptual translation of this argument from the register of the political to the psychoanalytic could perhaps proceed indefinitely. It threatens to consume the entire project, producing what would amount to an epic case study of the subject as she gets conceived through the terminology of “Marx, Lukács, Benjamin, and Adorno.” It could even provide an opening into the psyche of the analyst, who has come to doctorate himself not without a desire to do so, and not without a theory which, owing to the particular lineage of the aforementioned forefathers (which, no doubt, weighs on the conscience like a "nightmare"), results in the affirmation of an endless interpretation via the trap doors of negative dialectics.
But without digressing too far down this darkened path into the abyss, reminiscent of the secret passage found in Mark Z. Danielewski’s masterful work House of Leaves, the translated quotation featured above should be enough to make the following point: what is relevant about Platypus today is exactly this observation -- that the subject is sick, that she needs help. While this is not insignificant in terms of waging revolutionary struggle, it remains to be seen whether articulating the grimness of the condition constitutes the most effective therapeutic procedure, that is, in terms of resolving her case and enabling the subject to make a breakthrough.
The Marxian Left, where it is not implicated by its conspicuous absence, appears as a spurious infinity of sects and hodge-podge syndicalists who, like ambassadors of Babel, enter the world to spread dissention and misunderstanding amongst the ranks. Each group claims their own personal expression of Marxism, oblivious to why Marx, chagrined by the mongers of "radical" phraseology who went forth to proselytize in his name, once affirmed: “ce qu'il y a de certain c'est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste.” Meanwhile legislatures are run rampant with corrupt former-Leftists who have sold out to serve the status quo, with pseudo-fascists waiting in the wings; neither no longer required to pledge allegiance to a revolutionary project which promises to emancipate the masses, a political development that we should not be surprised was already anticipated by Marx and Engels in their classic description of how exploitation under capitalism goes from being “veiled by political and religious illusions” to “naked, shameless, direct, brutal.”
Despite this, the various Ideological State Apparatuses, as identified by Althusser in his important essay on the subject (religion, school, family, union, media, etc.), are still functional, more than ever. But how can this be, if capitalism strips away at illusions? As one Lacanian put it, “in our allegedly ‘post-ideological’ era, ideology functions more and more in a fetishistic mode as opposed to its traditional symptomal mode.” Hence the importance of understanding the dynamic of “fetishistic disavowal,” which, aside from alluding to Marx’s scientific treatment of the phenomenon of money in Capital, clings to the simple formula of repeating some language as a fetish in and of itself: “I know very well, but still…” This ellipsis, standing as it does for that X factor which cedes power to the bourgeoisie to maintain ideological hegemony over society (insofar as this factor can be isolated as independent from the physical and structural powers of politics and economy), is a riddle that has taunted every serious social critique of the advanced capitalist countries since the beginning of the postwar era.
Once one learns to see the fetishistic basis of ideology - how it operates on a pre-conscious level, how it reproduces itself as a material practice, already interwoven into social relations, despite what we tell ourselves about it - the mistakes made by past attempts to forge a totalizing critique of everything existing begin to glare. And it is understandable that mistakes have been made. It is no easy feat to mount a critique of both base and superstructure, that combines a Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie with Ideologiekritik, a task akin to climbing two mountains at once.
This is why it is difficult to have to blame the first-wave Freudo-Marxist Wilhelm Reich for mystifying the scientific theory of “repression,” since this allowed him to attribute the cause of Nazism to the ‘conformist’ character which capitalism forces on people through frustrating their sexualities, through repressing them (or, at least, getting them to repress themselves), and harnessing that energy for aggressive ends. These can range from Holocausts to what Reich called the "progressive character of fascism," a question which was already answered by Trotsky in an article from 1932 that concerned "the organic character of fascism as a mass movement." In any case, the approach is the same: Reich thinks as if repression was a problem invented by capitalism, and no less the main one to turn masses into fascists. But anyone with a historical interest in the alleged “repressive" character supposedly inherent in the Nazi ideology should pay particular attention to the character of Weissmann from Thomas Pynchon’s sublime novel Gravity’s Rainbow. Also, see Pasolini's Salò (1976) for more commentary on the obscene knot that ties together fascism with anarchist sympathies.
Whereas Freud stressed the structural necessity of repression as a constitutive feature of consciousness and Kultur (which later got pegged to the human condition of being in language), Reich proved himself to be more like an anarchist than a Marxist in wanting to overthrow repression, as it were, all at once, instead of dissolving the problem over time by coming to displace the question: taking repression for granted as a constant of human consciousness, how does one establish or maintain a sinthomatic mediation in the world today, fraught as it is with so much squalor and dissatisfaction? I can assure you that the demand is older than Mick Jagger, which is not to say that Mick Jagger is not old but that he is remembered to have not quite asked, but demanded rather emphatically: “I can’t get no satisfaction!” Surely he was right to suggest that cigarettes, cars, and even useless information plays just as much a part in this demand for erotic satiety as the attraction of men and women and other bodies.
It is also difficult to have to censure the second-wave Freudo-Marxist Herbert Marcuse, whose inconsistency as a theorist is symptomatic of the Frankfurt School as a whole. He is responsible for introducing the misleading category of “one-dimensionality” to account for the sorry state of the emerging postmodern subject circa 1968. It melded together the primordial tension between sex (individuals) and economy (groups) as both take place under a capitalist society with the clunker “repressive desublimation.” This clumsy term is posed to stand for nothing but an entire field of topics and perspectives which accounts for the subject matter of the full career of one psychoanalyst in particular, whose name and teaching should be on all of ours lips. That is, for those of us who want and see the need to hold the line on what accounts for proper psychoanalytic procedure, a perspective which must take into account the niceties of both its theoretical component and the method of its practice.
If therapy is what we really want and need to apply to the subject of the ailing Left, to ameliorate the fact that her psyche is self-destructively trying to flee from the immanence of her contemporary predicament – environmental, economic, and cultural – by lapsing into the false but adequate dreamworld supplied by bourgeois ideology in its “postmodern” cynical (i.e. fetishized) form, then there is no reason to not get our psychoanalysis firsthand. Here we cannot settle; we must go straight to the source. One does not reconcile the ameliorative therapy of the subject and the progressive development of class consciousness through reading a Marxist and then another Marxist who, unlike the first Marxist, happens to talk about psychoanalysis as well. We reconcile these approaches through reading both Marxism and psychoanalysis. This simple point, so simple but for so many so hard, can be captured in the following reformulation:
Not: Marx, Lukács, Benjamin, Adorno.
But: Hegel, Marx, Freud, Lacan.
Not Marx and then a Hegelian-Marxist, but Marx and Hegel as the dual poles of logical (i.e. dialectical) thinking. Not Benjamin, whose gnomic and intertextual writing style is like Lacan’s, and Adorno, who would often employ psychoanalytic terminology without crediting Freud, but Freud and Lacan as the sources of psychoanalytic thinking. Even Adorno, late in his career, in 1959, supported the substitution of Frankfurt School critical theory with the awesome power of Freudian psychoanalysis:
above all, we should think of psychoanalysis, which is still being repressed today as much as ever. Either it is altogether absent, or it is replaced by tendencies that, while boasting of overcoming the much-maligned nineteenth century, in truth fall back behind Freudian theory, even turning it into its very opposite. A precise and undiluted [!] knowledge of Freudian theory is more necessary and relevant today than ever. (italics added)
The class nods their heads in agreement, yet few read Freud. So Lacan comes to stand for the “return to Freud,” as a principle. And the “meaning of the return to Freud is a return to Freud’s meaning.” Only we must note that Lacan’s return to Freud’s meaning takes place in the postwar era of so-called “late capitalist ‘permissive’ society.” This makes Lacan’s meaning much more relevant and closer to our own: that is, diachronically speaking, considering that we still inhabit the same (synchronic) ideological coordinates for the most part.
This makes Lacan no less essential than Freud, as he who points out that the notion of repression is itself repressed. This comes to mean that Freud is repressed, that what we are repressing is Freud, or more specifically the discovery of the one who, it so happens, is he who first spoke of repression. What Lacan really does, then, is show the doubling of repression, as a phenomenon that reflects into itself, acts as its own double-negation. This makes Lacan, as it were, the return of the repressed, insofar as he repeatedly recalls the Freudian teaching over the course of his works, in order to indicate that the repressed is here, it has returned to announce what amounts to a humiliation of the “entire humanist tradition” which had hitherto presumed to own the rights to Rationality. We no longer can allow ourselves to mistakenly view Reason as a dumb static positivity, as A=A, both because this way of thinking affronts dialectics (Hegel/Marx) and it obscures the basic insight that there is no such thing as Reason, that is, at least not without its shadow, its unheimliche, or, at the very least, its discontents (Freud/Lacan).
Lacan teaches what Freud means for the second half of the 20th century, just as Lenin taught us what Marx meant for the first half. Lacan also allows himself to involve and encompass in his Freudian discourse practically everyone else under the sun who seems to have said anything ever. While preference is given to physicians, scientists, philosophers, litterateurs, artists, patients, and priests, Lacan stumbles past an amazing diversity of signposts over the course of his theoretical tour de force, all the while carrying Freud on his back in an attempt to redeem in the eyes of the reader the name of the father of psychoanalysis. And just as Freud was hawkish in outlining his theory of psychoanalysis to prevent it from getting smudged or misstated, not so much by his outright critics but his imitators (Jung, Adler, Horney, Klein, etc.), Lacan is for the closest and most precise reading of Freud. In pointing out the (Saussurean) structuralist principles which, inherent in Freud’s discourse, raise him above the rest of the neo-Freudians in terms of systemic consistency and scientificity (not to mention materialism), Lacan makes the overly simple (yet still repressed!) point that there is no better Freudian to read on psychoanalysis than Freud himself.
At the same time, as Lacan would be sure to tell you, this does not make Freud the final word on the subject. Like the science of Historical Materialism, psychoanalysis transcends its originary formulation as first found in Freud’s writings so as to develop over time upon the project for a scientific psychology which he made it his life’s work to establish. Lacan not only inherits this project but also pushes it forward, through making concrete contributions to the understanding of certain Freudian principles as well as revamping its delivery and elucidation for contemporary sensibilities. Like the relationship between Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism and Marx’s Capital, Lacan builds on but also refines and ultimately recasts the basic problematic that is laid out by Freud in his writings, in order to be able to think it afresh in the contemporary moment.
Without allotting time and space to the most important texts of psychoanalysis, particularly those that pertain to the critique of ideology, a curriculum designed to educate students in the ways and perspectives of revolutionary Marxism will fall short of the task that it sets out for itself to accomplish. Not only do Marxists need to understand the nature of ideology for the sake of orienting their own messaging and communications operations, but in order to better diagnose and help the Left subject make a recovery from her current illness, to rehabilitate her to become more like the (class conscious, fighting) proletarian subject of yesteryear’s class struggle, whom it feels has not been seen in the advanced capitalist countries since the ’70s.
But this has all been written under the assumption that "therapy" and the "collapse of the subject" is the appropriate metaphor to use in describing the particular political task that we are faced with today. It has been taken for granted here that the standard Leftist political techniques of agitation, education, and organization are not working because the subject suffers from an ideological delusion of some sort, which is presumably due to the counter-stimuli of consumerist pacification, the “triumph of advertising,” and direct political oppression coupled with self-perceived political impotence. What this character profile of “one-dimensional man” invites us to miss, however, is that no socioeconomic analysis is taken into account by adopting such an orientation to the problem.
As Marxists we cannot allow Freud to fall through the gaps in our understanding, or what would amount to the same thing, to become the catchall term that ‘explains’ all of the Left’s failures that have taken place since World War II. Here it should be noted how the Reagan era coincided with the speculative credit bubble that maintained the momentum of the postwar economic boom, a fact which also must be fully internalized to understand why the subject currently acts the way she does. This behavior persists even though it has become clear that the economic conditions which supported the development of an aloof "middle class" subjectivity in the advanced capitalist countries will no longer hold for the emerging 21st century. Marxism entails that we should return to the primary task of orienting towards the critique of political economy, which would entail striving for a better understanding of the economic gravity of the post-WWII boom and its impending bust. This should help us to "explain" the seeming undue passivity of the workers in the advanced capitalist countries, better than any muddled appeal to ideological manipulation or repressed sexuality, since much like Althusser’s description of the superstructure as an effectivity which is “in some way dispersed into an infinity,” this latter approach leads us to overcome the problem only by dissipating it into a cloud of half-finished answers.
Which is not to say that it is also not true, that the Left does not need to regroup and recalibrate its strategy. Here I second Dr. Platypus’ opinion that the Left needs therapy. The collapse of the Soviet Union had a mortifying effect on a generation of old guard Marxists who are now completely disoriented in their politics. Many of these former Marxists have abdicated leadership of the class struggle to a younger generation of activists and organizers who, inexperienced and unfamiliar with the methods and perspectives of revolutionary Marxism, repeat the mistakes of the 19th century over and over again for want of a historical education. Thus the present generation does not even resemble the French working class of 1848, described by Marx as being like “the Jews whom Moses led through the wilderness.” The “crisis of the revolutionary leadership” which Trotsky, writing in Mexico, was able to isolate as the chief feature of the present “world political situation as a whole” means that we have not even a Moses to guide us in our current hour of need. Instead we are like the Jews before the plagues, waiting for the staff to fall to announce the coming of a new religion and, with it, a new age of strife. We must first usurp the Pharaoh and topple his pyramid before facing the wilderness, which we shall have to wander through in order to get to the Promised Land. If Marx and Lenin both described participating in the proletarian revolution as a task akin to climbing the tallest mountain, then one can perhaps see why such imagery came to mind.
But we should not doubt whether the thresher of history – fuelled as it is currently by the capitalist drive for “creative destruction” – is strong enough to tear apart even the most inertial ideologies that cling to all types of prejudices and cultural detritus, in order to forestall the development of consciousness amongst the working class. As Marx and Engels stated in the glorious lines of the Communist Manifesto, “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify… man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” That this process of “constantly revolutionizing… the relations of production” will not also dispatch the politically blasé and cynical subject of postmodern capitalism in the upcoming years is hard to believe, especially considering the current condition and implied trajectory of the world capitalist system for the foreseeable future. Hence this is why some of us are not ashamed to admit of having hope, even optimism, about the future, so long as one keeps in mind that hope is what you have when you have nothing else about which to be optimistic, and what makes “interesting times” more interesting than times of class peace is exactly the lack of it.
Let us reaffirm our commitment to Marxism by taking the time to fully absorb how he saw the dialectic of crisis and revolution, which is to say, as a dialectic: “A new revolution is only a consequence of a new crisis. The one, however, can be as sure to come as the other.” It will be only through keeping this tenet of Historical Materialism in the backs of our minds that psychoanalysis will not get misrecognized as to how it can aid Marxism in the task of a “ruthless criticism of everything existing”: the field of psychoanalytic experience has the power to complicate our predictions of when, not if, the capitalist crisis will come to a head. |P
. See “Statement of Purpose,” /about/statement. Also, the feminization of the subject is intended to depict the reality and outlook of the proletarian subject, comprised of the workers and wretched of the world, as inherently feminist, that is, as opposed to the reactionary attitudes of male chauvinism.
. Danielewski, Mark Z., House of Leaves, 2nd ed. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2000).
. Marx, Karl, and Guesde, Jules, “The Programme of the Parti Ouvrier,” (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm.
. Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich, Manifesto of the Communist Party (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm.
. Althusser, Louis, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an investigation)” (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm
. A case for this is made by Žižek, Living in the End Times (2nd ed.) (London: Verso, 2011), p. 414.
. Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), p. 65.
. For an exposition on the Freudian origins of this concept, which gets used often by Žižek, see For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (London: Verso, 2002), p. 174.
. Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), p. 18.
. For a basic critique of “Reich’s simplistic account” of psychoanalysis, see Stavrakakis, Yannis, The Lacanian Left (Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), pp. 27 – 28.
. Reich, Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933/46).
. Trotsky, Leon, "How Mussolini Triumphed," Fascism: What it Is and How to Fight It (Chippendale, Australia: Resistance Books, 2002), p. 9.
. Pynchon, Thomas, Gravity’s Rainbow (New York: Bantam Books, 1980), p. 115.
. Freud calls his theory of repression “the cornerstone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests” (“The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement,” Collected Papers: Volume IV (New York: Basic Books, 1959), p. 168).
. As early as 1908, Freud claims that “Our civilization is, generally speaking, founded on the suppression of instincts” (“‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervousness,” Collected Papers: Volume II (London: Hogarth Press, 1950), p. 82.
. See Lacan, Jacques, “Science and Truth,” Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 2006), p. 737.
. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the Rolling Stones, 1965.
. For an important analysis of the “pseudo-concept” of “repressive desublimation,” see chapter one of Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment (London: Verso, 2005), p. 22.
. On the first draft of this essay, one editor commented, “You don’t discuss Hegel enough to warrant his inclusion on this list.” Fair enough. I had mistakenly assumed it was common knowledge that, as Jean Hyppolite once said, “one doesn’t go beyond Hegel” (Lacan, Jacques, Seminar II, ed. Jacques Alain-Miller, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli (New York: Norton, 1991), p. 71). Furthermore, that Marx not only “openly avowed [him]self the pupil of that mighty thinker,” decrying those who dared to treat Hegel as “a dead dog,” but Lenin too supported a “propaganda of Hegelian dialectics,” demonstrates the givenness of Hegel’s inclusion in the tetrad as a precondition of Marx (Marx, Karl, Capital: Vol. I, 2nd ed. (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p3.htm; Lenin, V. I., “On the Significance of Militant Materialism,” trans. David Skvirsky and George Hanna (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/mar/12.htm). However, for a persuasive argument on the relevance of Hegel to Lacan’s thinking, see chapter 8 of Žižek, Slavoj, Less Than Nothing (New York: Verso, 2012), pp. 507 – 556.
. Adorno, Theodor, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” Can One Live After Auschwitz: A Philosophical Reader, ed. Ralph Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 15.
. This “return to Freud” is explicitly announced by Lacan in his paper “The Freudian Thing, or the Meaning of the Return to Freud in Psychoanalysis,” Écrits, p. 337.
. Žižek, “The ‘Thrilling Romance of Orthodoxy,’” The Puppet and the Dwarf (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), p. 69.
. Lacan, paper “The Freudian Thing,” Écrits, p. 334.
. The cornerstone of Lacan’s unique interpretation of Freudian psychoanalysis is the observation that Freud “anticipated” the linguistic perspective of structuralism found in the Course in General Linguistics. The question of how “could Freud have become aware of that structure when it was only later articulated by Ferdinand de Saussure” is directly posed in “The Direction of the Treatment and the Principle of its Power,” Écrits, p. 520.
. The introduction of the “mirror stage” to the Freudian account of childhood development is considered to be a major addition to psychoanalytic theory which is not explicitly contained within Freud’s works. See Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” Écrits, p. 75.
. For a thorough analysis of what this notion entails, see Adorno, Theodor, and Horkheimer, Max, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Dialectic of Enlightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 136.
. This should be considered in relation to what Lenin says about imperialism and the production of “superprofits,” which is that “capitalists can devote a part (and not a small one, at that!) of these superprofits to bribe their own workers, to create something like an alliance… between the workers of the given nation and their capitalists against other countries” (“Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,” trans. M. S. Levin and Joe Feinberg (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/oct/x01.htm.
. Althusser, “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Penguin Press, 1969), p. 118.
. Marx, part three of The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850 (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1850/class-struggles-france/ch03.htm.
. Trotsky, Leon, part one of The Transitional Program (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tp-text.htm#op
. See Marx, “Preface to the French Edition,” Capital: Vol. I (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p2.htm; see Lenin, “Notes of a Publicist” (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/feb/x01.htm.
. This term, which stands for “the essential fact about capitalism,” is elaborated upon in chapter seven of Schumpeter, Joseph, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1976), p. 83.
. Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party.
. For an informed analysis of this trajectory and what we can expect in the future, see the various draft discussion documents shared by the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) on “World capitalism 2012” at In Defence of Marxism: http://www.marxist.com/perspectives.
. “In China, so they say, if you really hate someone, the curse to fling at them is: ‘May you live in interesting times!’ Historically, the ‘interesting times’ have been periods of unrest, war and struggles for power in which millions of innocents suffered the consequences. Today, we are clearly approaching a new epoch of interesting times” (Žižek, Living in the End Times, p. 403).
. Chapter four of Marx, The Class Struggles of France, 1848 to 1850 (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1850/class-struggles-france/ch04.htm
. Marx, “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing,” (Platypus): http://platypus1917.home.comcast.net/~platypus1917/marx_earlyphilosophicalcritique_mereader9-15.pdf