Apocalypse Now?: Preliminary Notes on Barbarism, Psychoanalysis and the Subject under the Sign of Trump

Summary:

Engaging the texts of J.P. Lebrun  and Daniel Koren published here, the author argues that the temporal sequencing of Lacan’s discourses in the U.S., particularly California, differs from that of Europe, with important implications for the psychoanalytic clinic and the formation of subjectivity.

Everyone gets everything he wants.[1]

 

Barbarous is as Barbarous Does

Indeed, it is tempting.

In this moment of Trumpian triumph, replete with Twitter-honed authoritarian edicts, “Muslim Bans”, full-scale attacks on every sort of civil right imaginable, and the advent of an unrepentant and cynically undisguised variant of class and gender warfare, it is marvelously, deliciously tempting to succumb to Charles Melman’s words regarding barbarism and power, as cited by J.P. Lebrun:

Barbarism deserves a rigorous definition and I am happy to propose it to you. It consists in a social relation organized by a power that is no longer symbolic but real. From the moment that established power is supported, takes as reference its own force and nothing else, and does not try to defend or to protect anything other than its existence as power, well then we are barbarian. [2]

Arguably, easily in fact, Trump and the ostensibly “populist” revolutions sweeping the West could be read as impositions of barbarian power.[3] Power premised on violent force alone; a presumably psychotic supremacy having foreclosed any symbolic referent and existing outside of discourse, indeed outside of facts.  Certainly, the conveyance of policy and procedure via the impossibly restrictive sound-bite medium that is Twitter, speaks ironically to a lack of speech. We have code, communication, and an epistemic closure that disallows discourse. Seemingly, we are at the level of the number now: how many agents, followers, subscribers, hits, police, likes, armies, poll numbers do you have?

But this is too facile an argument. As Daniel Koren convincingly points out, power traces its elaboration via the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary.  His arguments suffice, so I will not repeat them here. However, I would like to highlight a tangential question raised by Koren; does Melman and Lebrun’s thesis also imply that power exists outside of the Imaginary?[4] This hardly seems the case. We need simply to consider Trump’s enduring obsession with the size of the crowd at his events to realize that the Imaginary plays as large a role in contemporary manifestations of power and power relations as it ever has.[5] However, our witnessing of social formations apparently held together via Imaginary identifications should not blind us to the divided subjects lurking underneath. The Imaginary holds such sway via the amplification devices we have termed the smartphone, the internet, and the television, that we can easily forget that its strength and allure is directly proportional to the dread of castration that marks its grounding.

It would be ill-advised, however, to allow this disagreement on the contemporary nature of power to steer us away from the other parts of Lebrun and Melman’s collective argument[6] that have direct relevance and consequences for the clinic.

 

On the Temporal Sequencing of Discourses

By way of addressing the prescient concerns that Lebrun, Melman and Koren elaborate, I bring to bear the fact that I am writing these words in California, where my psychoanalytic practice is located. And while the vines that grace California’s famed vineyards are French in root, the vintage of these words is decidedly North American. Which is to say that while I would certainly agree that Lacan’s 4 discourses provide us with an extraordinary and unmatched means by which we can interpret the always fraught relationship between the subjective and the social, the history and entanglements of these discourses in North America, and California in particular is something wholly different than what is posited for Europe.

Case in point: In Koren’s lucid account of the relationship between the Master’s Discourse and that of the Capitalist, he quite rightly notes that the latter discourse obeys the same structure as the former, “while giving the illusion of being radically different”.[7] What strikes this reader is why this illusion of distinction has been so important for Europe, while in the U.S. it has been of little consequence[8]. In reading nearly any history of European political economy[9], one consistently notes the enormous efforts expended by early capitalists to mark a difference between themselves and previous regimes of production and their corresponding politics. Early capitalists wanted to be seen as different, and frequently advertised that difference as somehow liberatory; the familiar, recycled motif of the new throwing off the shackles of the old.

This observation, of course, is nothing new to any serious student of European history. What is striking is that this same interpretation of the relation between the capitalist and the feudal lord (along with the absolute monarch, the classical representative of the Master) has often been assumed for what in fact was a quite different arrangement that existed in North America from its earliest moments. By the time of its formal founding in 1776, the United States of America embodied both capitalist and feudal aspects. Let us not forget that the Puritans founded Boston in 1630 under the auspices of the Massachusetts Bay Company. While there are clear and significant differences between these early capitalist arrangements (focused as they were on farming, commerce and trading) and later industrial revolutions which incorporated technology and manufacturing in a more thoroughgoing manner[10], the fact remains that markets were a fundamental feature of the political economy of the U.S.A. from the start. As such, North American capitalists were not at great pains to distinguish themselves from previous feudal arrangements. If anything, there was an interest in ridding the U.S. of perceived vestigial feudal institutions such as slavery, so as to more readily ensure northern rather than southern market supremacy.[11]

As will readily be noted, this is a temporal issue. The founding of the U.S.A. as a country, and even as a colony was subsequent to the early rise of capitalism, which was the obverse of the situation in Europe. By the time people of European descent began to colonize what is now California in great numbers (beginning with the Gold Rush in 1849)[12], markets and market relations were normative and central to North American political economy and had been so for some time.[13] To put it succinctly, the capitalist transformation of California coincided with its North American colonization. While there certainly existed a romantic fondness for regimes governed by the social bond characteristic of the Master’s discourse (i.e, “Old California” under Spanish and then Mexican rule), this was regarded as a thing of the past, and gladly superseded by an arrangement governed by the discourse of the Capitalist.[14]

If anything, California signals the quintessence of the Capitalist’s discourse. Not having to labor under the heavy weight of a previous epoch marked by a Master’s discourse, Californians were free to, in Koren’s words, produce objects “aiming at, not satisfying needs, but tantalizing the hollow of the subject’s lack, fascinating him with objects whose role would be to fill in the lack”.[15] Is it any coincidence, then, that Hollywood and Silicon Valley took place, took hold, came out of California?

 

 

On the Subject of Subjects

What is the relevance of all this for the clinic?  Existing solely within a political economy dynamically governed by a discourse of the capitalist, political subjects in California have principally operated in a realm in which a grand promise or illusion has been continually and systematically articulated: namely, that castration has been or can be foreclosed “from all the symbolic fields”[16]; a situation that Koren terms “trompe-la-castration[17]. This is nothing other than the fabled “California Dream”. Cue the tropes that have always haunted this stretch of the West: unending abundance, no limit, the whole person, you can have it all…manifest destiny.

One way of framing the discussion is to ask the seemingly simple and perhaps naïve question: what is a psychoanalytic practice within a symbolic field seemingly bereft of castration?[18] One way of answering this, of course, is to note that psychoanalytic practice itself brings castration into play. And while this is certainly the case, particularly when undertaken in a Lacanian key with our use of the variable-length session, it is also important to note that this becomes a very distinctive endeavor when executed within a larger symbolic field in which castration has been ostensibly rejected.

By way of illustrating this problematic, let me say a few words about my work with analysands in terms of the differences brought about by the language in which the analysis is conducted. I see analysands in both Spanish and English: My English-speaking analysands are primarily U.S. born, either long-term residents of California or more recent arrivals from other U.S. states. My Spanish-speaking analysands are nearly all Latin American immigrants with a few European immigrants thrown into the mix. With the notable exception of the large Asian and Asian-American population that exists here, this is a largely representative sample of the greater population of California and of the San Francisco Bay Area in particular.

Something that caught my attention early on in my practice and that has continued to impress me is the consistently quite divergent manner in which the “cut” or scansion is handled according to the language spoken in the analysis. There is much I could say about the difference in practice brought about by the idiosyncrasies of either English or Spanish, such as the polyvalence of language being more readily taken up and played with in Spanish than in contemporary English. The larger point I want to arrive at, however, is the either generative or non-generative function of the scansion and how this ties into the language being employed in the session.

Most Lacanians would readily agree that the scansion is a sort of cut, a castration of sorts, and its value for our practice is undeniable. Like castration, the scansion is taken to be generative. As Lacan writes, “it shatters discourse only in order to bring forth speech”.[19] As proof of this, he wryly notes,

I was able to bring to light in a certain male subject fantasies of anal pregnancy, as well as a dream of its resolution by Cesarean section, in a time frame in which I would normally still have been listening to his speculations on Dostoyevsky’s artistry.[20]

And indeed, I witness this proliferation of speech consequent to a scansion again and again and nearly right from the beginning of a treatment, with analyses conducted in Spanish. It is marvelous to witness the opening up of their speech, the coughing up of new signifiers, the all-out race to speak, associate, interpret before the session is unpredictably called to an end.

The state of affairs with analyses conducted in English is altogether different. More often than not, in these analyses, early intimations of the scansion are received as threatening, rejecting and worst of all, stifling of speech. I have to work up to the scansion in English, actively bring out the analysand’s reaction to the cut, via speech as opposed to action (including the exiting of the analysis itself). After some time, the scansion in English does become propagative, but only after we’ve traversed a purgatory of near-misses and instances of acting-out that call forth direct interpretations on my part.

Of course, what I have just described is characteristic of many an analysis regardless of language. That it happens with considerably greater frequency in analyses conducted in English is what I find remarkable and believe merits study. Why this difference?

The question brings us back to observations made earlier in this paper. Staying close to Lacan’s words regarding the Capitalist’s discourse: “what distinguishes the discourse of capitalism is the Verwerfung (foreclosure), the rejection from all the symbolic fields of the consequence I already spoke of; the rejection of what? Of castration”.[21] If Lacan’s assessment is accurate, then how can we expect analysands operating in a discourse premised on the exclusion of castration to respond to the scansion with anything other than paranoia, fear and closure? The promise at the heart of the social bond itself is being subverted!

Language here counts for everything. For my English-speaking analysands, there is a congruence, a confluence of language in and out of the family. For my Spanish-speaking analysands there is not. For while outside of the consulting room, nearly everyone in my practice operates in English and within the Capitalist’s discourse, my Spanish-speaking analysands, particularly those born and raised in Latin America or Latin Europe, inhabit a discursive landscape quite different from the one we find in English-speaking California where the Capitalist’s discourse predominates. For my Spanish-speaking analysands, operating in an ecologically-rich discursive field as it were, the “trompe-la-castration” was not the only thing on the horizon. While castration was repressed, there was no pretense of foreclosure on all fronts. And that signals a substantial difference that makes itself evident in the speech generated consequent to the scansion.

 

Californication or the Future of an Illusion

The implications for the clinic are vital, and while I have touched on some of them in this essay, I address these concerns at length in a work currently in progress.[22] However, I’d like to conclude these preliminary notes with some thoughts regarding the future.

By any measure, the Discourse of the Capitalist proceeds apace. And it has yet to burn up in the process of consuming itself.[23] If nothing else, California is an early instance of what has happened and is happening worldwide. And while California, via its communication technologies and “culture industries”[24] is a full participant in the exportation of the California Dream, the “introjection” as it were of this illusion by spaces and peoples around the globe operates according to a set of logics that go beyond anything Californian and this already too-encompassing an essay.

To speak directly to Melman and Lebrun: are we witnessing the birth of “new” pathologies and even new or neo-subjects? No, I don’t believe so. But it would be too easy to leave it at that, since there have been some significant recent developments, particularly in terms of the relationship to the object as Koren speaks to, that have direct relevance for the direction of the treatment and how we position ourselves in the transference.

While the subject is not “new”, the discourse(s) it is implicated in have undergone exchange, and the relationships between discourses have likewise been transformed. And this alone is sufficient to make us sit back and reflect.

As for Apocalypse? No, not now. Why? Because castration(s)[25] are constitutive of who and what we are as speaking beings. Which is to say that Apocalypse Past would be more accurate a tone, as in the cut has already taken place, necessarily, despite any illusions to the contrary. To argue for its event now or in the future is to deny castration its past-due. In contradistinction to the quote at the beginning of this essay, we didn’t get what we wanted. And keeping that in mind might allow us the capacity to listen past the noise, Trumpian and otherwise, which desperately tweets that we can have it all, or that we once did and can again.

 

Albany, California, February 2017

 

Bibliography

Beckert, S. & Rockman, S., eds. (2016) Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press)

 

Henderson, G. L. (1998) California & the Fictions of Capital. (Philadelphia,:Temple University Press).

 

Holliday, J.S. (2002) The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience. (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press).

 

Koren, D. (2017) “On an Apocalyptic Tone Adopted Today in Psychoanalysis” in European Journal of Psychoanalysis. http://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/on-an-apocalyptic-tone-adopted-today-in-psychoanalysis/

 

Lacan, J.:

-             (1953) “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis”, Ecrits. Bruce Fink, ed. (New York: Norton)

-            (1974) “La troisieme”, Lettres de l’Ecole Freudienne, 16, pp. 178-203.

 

Lebrun, J.P. (2000/2017) “The 21st Century will be Lacanian or it will be Barbarian” in European Journal of Psychoanalysis. http://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/the-21st-century-will-be-lacanian-or-it-will-be-barbarian-1/

 

McCraw, T. (1998) Creating Modern Capitalism: How Entrepreneurs, Companies, and Countries Triumphed in Three Industrial Revolutions. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

 

Starr, K. (1973) Americans and the California Dream: 1850-1915. (New York: Oxford University Press).

 


[1] Francis Ford Coppola (1979) film Apocalypse Now (United States, United Artists).

[2]  Lebrun (2000/2017).

[3] At the very least, the pronouncements and proposed policies of these new “radicals of the right” are most assuredly barbarous.

[4] Koren (2017).

[5] Adorno’s work, particularly his indispensable essay Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda, along with Freud’s foundational text, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, provide the necessary signposts in this terrain.

[6] As detailed by Koren (2017).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Indeed, in the U.S. the distinction to be made was between Europe and the New World.

[9] Amongst others, Fernand Braudel, Max Weber, various members of the Frankfurt School.

[10] McCraw (1998).

[11] As newer economic historians are making clear, North American slavery, for all its seemingly feudal aspects, was a market-driven set of arrangements. In other words, slavery was a capitalist institution, and was the bedrock from which industrial capitalism arose. As well, the civil war is now being interpreted, not as the struggle between a capitalist North against a backwards and feudal South, but as a struggle between two competing market-arrangements. Beckert & Rockman, eds. (2016).

[12] Holliday (2002).

[13] Starr (1973).

[14] Henderson (1998) pp. ix-xix.

[15] Koren (2017).

[16] Cited in Koren (2017).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Please note that I am not saying that the symbolic is actually bereft of castration. This is too simple and literal a reading of Lacan (which is precisely what Melman and Lebrun have done and which give rise to their notions of the “new subject” and “ordinary perversion”), and goes against Lacan’s words on so many occasions where he notes that castration is the fundament of the symbolic for the subject. Which is to say, that there can be no symbolic without castration.

[19] Lacan (1953), p. 260.

[20] Ibid, p. 259.

[21] As cited in Koren (2017).

[22] My multi-volume work California Psychoanalyst: Subjectivities and Clinical Praxis in the Far West.

[23] I am referring here, of course, to Lacan’s 1972 lecture at the University of Milan, as cited by Koren (2017).

[24] Again, is it any coincidence that Adorno and Horkheimer wrote The Dialectic of Enlightenment whilst living in California?

[25] “We cannot speak of castration in the singular, but only of castrations in the plural.” J. Lacan (1974).

Published by I.S.A.P. - ISSN 2284-1059