This coronavirus pandemic is an historic event with unprecedented features, distinct from the multiple previous episodes of the plague in animals and humans. A pandemic is a disease that attacks all or most of a population, a universal to which there may be exceptions. Conceptually it falls within the discourse of science (‘science is an ideology of the suppression of the subject’) and that of sociology. In principle, the pandemic should be an avatar that homogenizes its inhabitants: everyone is or can be its victim but, as seen in this case, far from that, the disease highlights the differences of wealth and power, underscores the hegemony of the few over the many and makes evident the latent violence present in the social bond under capitalism. We are not all “in the same boat” as it was originally presumed.
However, the pandemic is not an object of the discourse of psychoanalysis, because the latter does not deal with the “all” (pan) nor with groups of population (demos), although it does deal with the inevitable repercussions of this jarring avatar of social life. In light of current events, it is clear that, as always, those “many” affected by plague, by war, by fear of the many forms of an apocalyptic future, are distinguished by each one’s particular circumstances. The threat that presently weighs on the population can be real and viable, like a nuclear war, or imaginary, like a UFO. In any case it is, and in an exemplary form, a phenomenon of language that can extend to planetary proportions and be the trigger of singular fantasies that are, indeed, objects of psychoanalysis, which in turn raise symptomatic formations and decompensations of structure with alterations in the Borromean chain. Many of these are reinforced by the transformations in the conditions and habits of everyday life in its different spheres (familial, work-related, sexual, etc.). Depending on its structure, every parlêtre informed by the disruption resultant of the pandemic, witnesses and suffers the activation of primary processes of the unconscious that determine its position in life (subjective position, not nosological) faced with the forced recognition of a threat with ill-defined contours, impossible to ignore, generative of obligatory legal restrictions that involve limitations on the freedom to circulate, travel and get together with others. Life is more than ever subjected to the possibility of death, like in war. The confinement demands a “voluntary servitude”(La Boétie 1576) which most of the population complies with for fear of illness and death.
Under these circumstances, in both our clinical practice and in our reflections, our duty as psychoanalysts, is to underscore the necessary distinction between “all” (pan – demos) and “each one” of our analysands, affirming the irreducibility of the sociological fact, supported by statistics, to the subjective experience reflected in the transferential situation that is characteristic of analytical work.
The coronavirus is a biological fact. Coming from who knows where, this contagious disease is an historical and social event studied by medicine. Information regarding the disease and the diverse approaches to combatting it are the focus of lively political and philosophical debates that absorb the attention of the populace of which few, if any, can escape in this media-saturated world. However, each one, as an individual, as a subject-object of communication and according to his own subjective coordinates, shapes a certain response, non-transferable and singular, that confronts the blind and faceless entity which is the virus lurking from its miniscule invisibility.
It is crucial that we do not confuse psychology (the cognitive-behavioral, the individual and social preconscious) with psychoanalysis, which is immune to calculation and statistics, those most contagious of diseases that are transmitted through the media whenever the conversation turns to the “mental” advantages and disadvantages of life in confinement.
What is specific to the psychoanalytic clinic teaches us that the subject of the unconscious, the parlêtre, the entity that comes into being because it speaks and confronts death, is faced with an unusual form of the object a, a segment of the real lacking a specular image, that carries with it the Unheimliche, an uncanny connotation of the possible imminence of its death and that of others. Around this ungraspable object (namely, the virus) fantasies are organized that combine the two poles of desire (will of power, symptom) and jouissance (eternal return, repetition compulsion), Eros and Thanatos.
Hence, the virus today represents the subordinating sun around which subjects of the demos revolve in whimsical orbits, called upon by the media to express themselves in this whirlwind of a prevailing confusion of tongues, where “everybody speaks and screams at each other, but nobody knows anything”. So too psychoanalysts: we are witness to these predictable but unexpected forms of civilization and its malaise, we are pillars upon which rest all of the fantasies brought to light by our “patients” in session as well as “expert” opinions, including we who are called to give testimonies, to render judgement, to express our prejudice and to manifest other preconscious formations.
We may conjecture – and this is another fantasy- that the virus with its unpredictable mutations – is here to stay and will change the conditions of life in every corner of the planet. It is an object a, aphonic, infans and ineffable, that has come to embody the position of both semblant and agent, in a wordless discourse that we have begun to feel and that can be thunderous and deafening. The outdated Cold War option, “freedom without security or security without freedom”, which defined the systems on either side of the Iron Curtain, is now heard applied to the ubiquitous and omnipresent virus qua great inquisitor and interpellant. The bell tolls with aeviternal questions: what can I know? what should I do? what am I allowed to expect or hope for? and ultimately, the fourth one: Who are you, parlêtre, to formulate these interrogations, who will listen to your replies?
We must respond in and with action. There are no subterfuges nor artifices: One is always responsible for one’s position as a subject. That relationship with the fantasy, brought to light via the analytic setting, is what summons our presence in so far as our individuality is the social subjectified (Korman 2020) and in so far as “the unconscious is the political” (Lacan). We are and will be the answers we give. We well know that one’s own death does not exist for the unconscious; death is always what happens to the other and this otherness is indelible and moreover underlines our inescapable responsibility for its life.
Within and through the fantasy, our “attitude towards death” (Freud 1915) is decided. In it is played out our position regarding reality which for the majority is that of a “naked life” (Benjamin 1940), the life of one who is dead without his murder constituting a crime, that of the homo sacer (Agamben 1998), that of the “human flow” (Ai Wei Wei).
This is how being exposed and vulnerable and the possibility of facing survival post-contagion become the objects of a biothanatopolitics. The virus has exposed the always known precariousness of existence as well as the growing vacillation of institutions, of democracy, of the remnants of freedom, of respect for the fantasy of the other, the inhabitant of manipulated choices in the life of the flock that is the polis. The virus today invades the cells of citizens with its burden of fear, anguish, terror, mistrust of the social bond, where the other is a fearsome source of danger. Covid-19 does not multiply like cancerous cells but destroys by infiltrating and disordering the intimate life of the attacked cell… and of the psychic apparatus. Thus, it reaches the neuralgic centers (certainly not neurological) where algorithms govern and make their decisions.
Amid the pandemic, the practice of psychoanalysis faces new horizons and must conform to the virtual nature of sessions in which the analysand or supervisee can say (and we now have experience of this): “I cannot speak about that via Skype or Whatsapp,” and where the invocation of the fundamental rule of our practice is of little use. This is not paranoia in as much as analysts and analysands well know that there do indeed exist suspicious persons, “flagged” on Google, that undertake their analyses and their supervisions under the possible gaze, and yet impossible to prove nor to stop, of that Other, the guard or sentinel.
The tentacles reaching out from the “societies of control” (Deleuze) belong neither to the realm of the imaginary nor the phantasmatic. It is there that lurks the danger for the life of the social and for psychoanalysis beyond the oft-praised advantages of digitalization – in the bio-psycho-technological control of the telematic power over the species. “They (human beings) know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety. And now it is to be expected that the other of the two ‘Heavenly Powers’, eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary. But who can foresee with what success and with what result?” wrote Freud (1931), by way of concluding his malaise in Civilization.
“Le cadre de la cure” is shifting directions. This has been transpiring at a rapid pace and in multiple ways for more than half a century with impacts on all the varied processes of psychoanalysis in both intension and extension. In the move from the analytic apparatus to that of screens mediating the psychoanalytic dyad with their corresponding satellite interposition and interference by the big Other, aren’t the basic conditions of the clinic transformed? And if so, who can foresee with what success and with what result?”
Translated from the Spanish by: Florencia Bernthal Raz and Fernando Castrillón
Agamben, G. (1998) Homo Sacer. Lo que queda de Auschwitz (Valencia: Pre-textos).
Ai Wei Wei (2017) The Human Flow. Filme, Alemania. En español; La marea humana. Se consigue en DVD y en streaming (filmin.es)
Benjamin, W. (1940) “Tesis de filosofía de la historia”. En Discursos interrumpidos (Barcelona: Planeta, 1994) p. 180.
Deleuze, G. (1990) “Postscriptum sur les sociétés de contrôle”. En Pourparlers (Paris: Minuit, París) pp. 274-278.
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Korman, V. (2020) “Usos personales de la topología lacaniana en la clínica”. Congreso de Lógica y Topología en Psicoanálisis, Barcelona, marzo de 2020, en prensa.
La Boètie, E. De (1576) Discours de la servitude volontaire (París: P. B. Payot, 2016).