Site introduction

Welcome. I hope you find the site’s contents interesting  and useful.  In general, my aim is to present a loosely organized argument for the validity and relevance of the concept of ideology to critical social theory. In making that case reference to psychoanalytic theory is both relevant and necessary, and most recently Zizek’s writings, strongly shaped by his reading of Lacan, provide some of the most salient examples of psychoanalytic social criticism.  Hence his prominence, at least for the moment.

At this time there are ten essays, along with some related documents that I will gradually integrate. I’d like to preface the Zizek paper summaries by making it clear that, despite my strong criticisms, I’ve found Zizek’s work stimulating and appreciate his efforts. I hope he keeps at it, and the critical tone that inevitably comes across here should not be interpreted as a dismissal.

Zizek-focused papers

By way of a handle, though not the only one: one tack I’ve found myself taking with Zizek is that his approach to psychoanalysis is strangely undynamic, the dynamics of psychodynamic psychology have evaporated.  Or, what is dynamic has been stripped away from categories that are relatively close to experience, and have been arrogated to terms that acquire a mysterious quality.  Alienation is addressed with even more of the same.   This can lead to a quietistic understanding of both subject and society.  When you combine that with radical commitments, you block yourself into talk of ruptures, seemingly out-of-the-blue shifts that spring from what seems like an otherwise pacified situation.  (Clearly this has informed Zizek’s interest in Lenin’s turn to Hegel, one of Lenin’s responses to the soul-crushing start of the Great War and the disheartening integration of the Second International into imperialist projects.)  My idea is that if we more closely attend to people than Zizek is inclined, we see them having to manage tensions and conflicts in ways that are very relevant to radical politics.  By this I refer to how we are inclined to view not only others, but ourselves as well, with regard to an interest in radical change.  Hardly a new idea, but one that seems to require revival.

The Madness paper is the longest and most detailed. It criticizes Zizek’s unacknowledged emphasis on narcissistic psychic structures in his proposal for a  radical politics. Lacanian theory deserves much of the blame for this, not the least in Lacan’s frankly inept and unfair reading of the positions of other psychoanalytic schools, and I’ve included an example showing how Lacan misread and trivialized Ernst Kris’ understanding of a case. The bulk of the paper draws on other psychoanalytic writers whose work with analysands takes them into the same areas of psychic reality that Zizek refers to in a haphazard fashion, and their work suggests very different conclusions from his.

The Piano Teacher paper takes off from a reference to that film in Zizek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real. I develop some of the ideas of the Madness paper and use film clips to support my points. In essence, I argue that Zizek’s Lacanian take on the film obscures key object relational components of the protagonists’ psychodynamics, and therefore its contribution to a politically relevant analysis is at best doubtful. I argue that this failure may lie in Lacan’s avoidance of acknowledging the role of the mother in engendering the narcissistic problematic, and point to his paper on The Mirror Phase as illustrative of this error.

The Picnic at Hanging Rock paper bridges between comments by Stefan Gullatz on Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock to a Zizek article of 1991 on nationalism in Eastern Europe. It focuses on their use of the Thing concept and argues that the concept’s deployment brings a withering of the critical motor of psychoanalysis, the recovery of the subject’s dialectical capacity vis-a-vis psychic reality. This results in a contemplative recasting of psychoanalytic theory, and in some ways a reversal of its critical function into a theoretical agent of reenchantment. Adorno’s assessment of Heidegger as a purveyor of mystifying jargon serves as a critical reference point.

In the Wizard of Oz paper I argue that the film depicts a broad passage from a collective narcissistic conviction of lack to a mundane but more flexible and solidary way of relating to others that is relatively free of narcissistic mediation and distortion. It is somewhat whimsical, not only because of its grounding but also because I’m a bit uneasy with the affirmative note I draw from what I had thought of as a frivolous film.  Nevertheless, it does trace the shifts in self-understanding that might accompany a resolution of narcissistic fixation, and thus helps to convey a potential for transcending narcissism that is lacking in Zizek’s work.

Working class consciousness: false or constrained?

The Silva book review criticizes an approach to interview-based studies of working class consciousness that, in its rush to demonstrate the influence of neoliberal ideology, fails to acknowledge expressions of conflict and so inadvertently recapitulates a suppressive social process. I argue that Silva’s rote dismissal of the concept of false consciousness, nominally to inoculate her study against arrogant vanguardist presumption and to ensure fidelity to her interviewees’ understanding of their lives, instead leads her to ignore their own conflicted terms of experience that don’t fit into her ideology analysis.  This leaves the critical political intentions of her work without any clear grounding in their lives; despite her best intentions, her concluding appeal thereby acquires the abstract vanguardist qualities she sought to avoid. As an alternative, I use some of her interviews to illustrate how mundane, experience-near psychoanalytic concepts can guide an approach to interviewing and interview interpretation that is both respectful and politically engaging.  Given that such studies are used to assess the potential for political mobilization and alliances, their critique is now especially timely.

The Hochschild book review continues the thrust of my criticisms of Silva.  Again we find a theoretical commitment, in this case to discovering foundational social metaphors embodied in a “Deep Story,” casting dissonant experience into a theoretical and dialogic limbo.  But with Hochschild this suppressive movement takes on a remarkably deliberate form: the Deep Story is haunted by a spectral “non-story” of excommunicated experience that she explicitly demotes theoretically.  That this experience is lost to Hochschild even though it carries considerable emotional charge is all the more remarkable given her great emphasis on prioritizing emotions in her analysis. Hochschild’s formulation of a social metaphor thus resoundingly mirrors the ideological process itself; her theory of ideology loses track of precisely those contents of experience that ideology seeks to marginalize and banish from discourse. To undo this banishment, the psychoanalytic concept of a screening function can be used to analyze such social metaphors/fantasies.

I’ve added a response to Chris Maisano’s criticism of Hochschild that appeared in the Summer 2017 edition of Catalyst.  In dismissing Hochschild for her overemphasis on emotions Maisano sets up a false choice between cost-benefit calculations and emotions as significant elements in working class consciousness.  He ignores the emotional overdetermination of the process of determining costs and benefits,  an overdetermination that is particularly important from the standpoint of organizing against employer domination.  Drawing on critical comments by Jane McAlevey concerning the UAW’s failure to ensure protected venues for their recent VW organizing drive, I argue that organizing inevitably runs up against moral-emotional commitments workers have lived by.  Organizers must help workers critically synthesize these commitments with an emerging morality of class struggle, the possibility of which has been denied in their adjustment to employer coercion and its attendant fears.

It’s worth highlighting that both of these books reflect questionable resolutions of a kind of theoretical-ethical agony over the question of “false consciousness.” Both authors are guided by a mix of concerns blurring  political-epistemological questions with questions of interpersonal tact and respect.  Although both authors must be aware of the tremendous constraints on belief and action that weigh “like a nightmare” on the brains of their interviewees, those constraints cannot be discussed because it would apparently risk, in a reprise of objectivistic Marxism, posing a “true consciousness.”   Worry over this sets up a reflex-like lack of reflexivity about the constraints of their role in comparison to that of political organizers, particularly with regard to whether successful, system-challenging mobilizations must involve an arrogant “falsification” of existing consciousness, rationalizing political subordination.

Other topics

The Tabula Gaga paper follows up on an argument within US feminism between Susan Faludi and Jane Halberstam concerning the latter’s applause for a Gaga-Beyoncé video, Telephone. I argue that the video is remarkably clear about a potential connection between an apparent commitment to postmodernist notions of unbound, free signification and violence against those unwilling to cooperate in derivative fantasies. Fundamentally liberatory concepts can undo themselves when they become caught up in rectifying the universal narcissistic calamities of childhood. Being on guard against this possibility is necessary, because it is these calamities that the culture industry, with its rapidly growing capacity for fantasy representation, seeks to remind us of and regressively stimulate us to require remedies for.

The Scrooge paper takes issue with some aspects of an article on money by Joachim Kalka that appeared in New Left Review. I draw out how the cartoonist’s presentation of Scrooge’s obsession with money is eventually illuminated with the appearance of the Magica de Spel character. Magica’s nominally phallocentric preoccupation with Scrooge’s money fetish provides a standpoint for unpacking Scrooge’s own flight from object relations, and this interpretation is then brought to bear on Kalka’s understanding of Benjamin’s concept of aura.

The Jameson paper draws out how his astonishing capacity for sensitive conceptualization is incapacitated by his inability to recognize narcissistic distortions in his object of analysis.  His somewhat capricious resort to Lacanian thought — capricious in that it serves as a kind of shallow placeholder for a more developed psychoanalytic perspective — sets up what ultimately becomes a surprising disengagement from the object-determined misery driving narcissistic dynamics — exemplified by his glossy discussion of the case of a schizophrenic girl — when it is clumsily rendered as “a heap of signifiers.”

Finally, the paper on Horkheimer and Adorno’s treatment of  Sade in their Dialectic of Enlightenment serves as a touchstone for questioning their analysis of the corrosive effects of Reason. What appears to them to have been unbridled self-interested Reason leading  Sade over the cliff of fantastic bestiality is instead an assault on human connection driven by a counterdependency that is ultimately self-negating, not self-enhancing.  In support I analyze a recent film by Winans, Ink, and also discuss clinical material.

My political orientation? In brief, critical Marxist, a friend of the Frankfurt School, and feminist and anti-racist within those terms.

A comment on my style of presentation is in order. To me a great appeal of Internet-based writing is that it’s possible to escape some of the usual limits on quotation imposed by print publishing. This allows not only more extensive quoting of text — especially clinical reports, which are essential for conveying the dynamics of psychodynamics — and, as you’ll see, the quoting of film. Further, it also allows the site to help preserve work, such as Angyal’s summary of his treatment of a young man suffering from catatonic schizophrenia, that would otherwise, as far as I can tell, only molder on shelves. Thus at times I may simply provide a brief comment to bring an important work to your attention.

William Earnest

I can be reached at ideologystop

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