There are urgent new demands being made to psychoanalysts. They come in the form of requests for assistance: ‘help me to wake up from the nightmare of our current pandemic!’ Even Slavoj Žižek has recently confessed that he thought about going outside to contract the novel coronavirus so that he wouldn’t have to worry about it as a looming threat. This is one way to trick yourself into gaining the upper hand on the real, but it is unsustainable. Alas, there is no waking up from the nightmare. To wake up from it can only offer the promise that the dream will continue in a new form.
The nightmare is a return to the enigma of the drive, it is a return to the impossibility of making sense of it all. It also opens up the possibility of fabricating new solutions through science – which acts directly within the real – and through an everyday attitude of hyper-pragmatism. Indeed, we are quickly approaching the sort of pragmatism that functions in India, where I am currently writing. Indians regularly engage in active boundary maintenance strategies, active negotiations with their environment. And, as Max Weber so forcefully argued many years ago: the Dharmic position on reincarnation necessitates a fixation on the never-ending life-cycle of rebirths, the life which must finally be put to an end. This is a dream that we have already begun to dream in America. It is a twenty-first century dream of the real from which each subject seeks comfort within the dark and chaotic world.
The urgency has now reached a fever pitch while the demand that confronts us exposes itself more and more in its truth. Amidst all of this, psychoanalysis becomes a refuge by resisting the tendency to request that the subject isolate itself further into the real. Who wants to live in a world that forces a choice between science and the plague? The only choice that the subject sees today is to turn toward pragmatic science as a response to urgency or else hop around in a world of constant boundary maintenance to the point of exhaustion or loneliness.
Alas, the nightmare never ends.
Psychoanalysis resists these twin responses and institutes a pact with the nightmare by putting it to work in the cause of truth. It is not by chance that the pandemic fits all of the coordinates recently laid out by the World Association of Psychoanalysis, whose last few years of work have witnessed the development of the concepts of urgency, nightmares, panics, the real, enigma, and so on. These are the coordinates for our cold new world and they help us to map the space for a new invention.
Today we must discover a new mode of distanciation from the real without thereby losing our social thread. Psychoanalysis has confronted the enigmatic virus directly as the cornerstone of its discourse and as the thread of its new social bond. Thus, when Freud, on his way to America, said – although there is no evidence to suggest that he actually did say it – “they don’t realize we are bringing them the plague,” he was, in a way, placing psychoanalysis on the side of the plague. This is already enough to demonstrate that Lacan’s rejection of the cure or healthiness as a goal of psychoanalysis is in the spirit of the Freudian discovery. We should be very modest, then, since our goal is not to ‘cure’ folks from the plague: our goal is rather to find what within the plague offers access to a truth which determines us and might be put to social use.
The real threat today is not coronavirus, necessarily, but the real itself, which gives way to the coronavirus and to all other terrifying and lawless pandemics such as addictions, loneliness, depression, panic attacks, and so on. As we struggle to either plug up the real or avoid it (through various techniques of so-called ‘bio-politics,’ such as temperature scans, masks, self-isolation, and so on), we also risk failing to face the structures which gave rise to them. If airports and train stations used to be places of demarcation between one space and another, they have now become fuzzy spaces: the border that separated neurosis from psychosis, like the border that separated the public from the private, has collapsed. And this collapse implies that there will be those who rush to implement new and more cunning ways to manage and control the world.
Capitalism and the pragmatic philosophy underpinning it offer themselves once again as an antidote to chaos: pragmatic science, quick to dip into the real to find a solution, the free-market, and other Christian secular notions of impartial intervention, thrust to the fore while other narratives suggest that coronavirus was a consequence of unchallenged dictatorships. The implication is that capitalism – and the market which pushes practitioners to invent another gadget or pill, another quick-fix, and so on – is the only sane alternative. This narrative can only think of capitalism and dictatorship, of pragmatism and authoritarianism, which are, in so many ways, two symptomatic responses to the real. But pragmatism was never really a philosophy any more than capitalism was a political-economic system. If the radical philosophers, including Marx and Bakunin, were quick to ask ‘what about the alternatives?,’ then it was because they sometimes failed to see that capitalism has assumed the position of ‘alternative.’ Capitalism is the alternative (to authoritarianism, dogmatism, socialism, and so on). Capitalism sells itself not by its explicit convictions nor by its inherent liberties but rather by its ‘cash-value’ approach to truth (to borrow an expression from the American pragmatists): truth is truthful precisely because it produces an effect that is of some circumstantial value. Capitalism today sustains itself by offering itself as the pragmatic alternative to any sustain conviction.
The trauma of capitalism has its basis within the real. Whether we are subjected to environmental disasters, looming planetary collapse, or biological crises, we witness in all cases the never-ending return of the lawless real. This is what Michel Foucault and his followers today (many of whom have their letters recently published in the European Journal of Psychoanalysis) seem to miss: the return to ‘bare life’ or to ‘biopolitics’ is a restricted view in that it focuses and foregrounds management techniques without situating these techniques as responses to the new paradigms of jouissance. We must resist the temptation to see biopolitics only as an attempt to manage the real; it consists also of the real intrusions into any such attempt to manage and control it.
This is the engine of politics today, this is the truth of our time.