How the Thing Spoils the Picnic

How the Thing Spoils the Picnic


Does psychoanalysis restore symbolic capacity or provide a jargon of enchantment?

A primary aim of psychoanalytically-oriented critical theory is to recognize the artifactual as such, to restore alienated creative capacities by retracing the formation of what has become naturalized. For example, religious worship can be analyzed as derivative of a child’s awe-ridden relationship to its parent. The infantile relationship is maintained in the fantasied embrace of an immortal object, an embrace that strips its worshippers of power and leaves them open to manipulation by religious authorities and allied institutions. The critical aim is to break the thrall of the created object over the people producing it, restoring to the individual and the collective a consciousness of their real power and capacity for creative action, instead of calling on them to acknowledge the precepts of a fabricated divinity.

This emancipatory objective has become vestigial in Lacanian psychoanalytic criticism. Lacanian psychoanalytic criticism considers non-Lacanian psychoanalysis to be naive with respect to both the grounding and the resilience of psychological suffering, an important driver of critique. Indeed, Lacanian criticism dismisses the “psychotherapeutic” hopes of psychoanalysis, with its promise of relief by replacing unconscious defensive operations with a conscious reappropriation of what has been alienated through defense. Such hopes are seen by Lacanians as resting on a metapsychological error regarding the nature of the ego; in as much as it is narcissistically “de-centered,” to speak of an enlargement of its realm as curative is theoretically dubious. From a Lacanian perspective, the mundane recovery of alienated motives and meaning does not address the more central narcissistic problematic of an illusory lost wholeness that ensnares the subject.

As we shall see, this dismissal leaves Lacanian criticism in a contemplative posture. By this I mean that attention to the tumult of defense and desire, and the internalized object relations that constitute this tumult, fades out in favor of attention to static, indissoluble psychological structures that stand in place of those relations. Preoccupied with these structures, Lacanian criticism portrays a psychic reality that is curiously depopulated and mute; instead of the defensively-muddled babble of internalized objects, at the psychic core there is a silence of “non-meaning.” In parallel, the prospective cooperation between analyst and analysand, within which a new voice might take shape and be heard, becomes irrelevant.

In what follows I first show how the turn away from internalized object relations in favor of their narcissistic surrogates plays out in Stefan Gullatz’ analysis of a film by Peter Weir, “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” I specifically call attention to the way this theoretical shift serves to effectively subvert the prospective critical psychoanalytic dialogue, with its liberatory potential, and also show how this silence is reflected in collateral theoretical motifs. I then argue that an analysis of nationalism by Slavoj Zizek similarly deflects analytic critique by relying on a tendentious reading of the concept of the ego ideal, one that obscures relatively mundane psychodynamics contributing to nationalism. Both critiques illustrate how Lacanian preoccupations tend to trade the subversive/restorative potential of psychoanalysis for arbitrarily obscurantist assertions that have little to offer clinically or politically.

The Hanging Rock: scene of repression or realm of the Thing?

Stefan Gullatz’ interpretation of Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” exemplifies the tendency to direct psychoanalysis away from conflict analysis to a captivation with derivative symptoms. In the following quotation, he briskly walks us past seemingly clichéd sexual interpretations of Weir’s fictional mystery to focus on the concept of das Ding (the Thing) and corollary anxiety and disorientation:

Critics of a Freudian orientation have always remarked upon the ‘phallic’ protuberances and the ‘vaginal’ caves that riddle the rock representing the girls’ awakening sexuality. From a Lacanian perspective, the Hanging Rock itself constitutes a ‘phallic’ protuberance, a massive, powerful object exerting a mesmerizing force, representing a petrified fragment of the frozen substance of jouissance. According to Lacan, the object elevated to the site of Das Ding can be made visible through an anamorphic distortion of a part of reality …The Hanging Rock, a dense bulk sticking out from the surrounding countryside, appears to project a mysterious gravitational force. A ‘grimace of the real’ inscribed into symbolic reality, it designates a forbidden, sacred zone reminiscent of the holy places of the Australian aborigines.

The effect of the rock as a ‘spatial distortion’ is supplemented with a distortion in time as the girls ascend to the hilltop. This crucial scene, which is bathed in intense sunlight enhancing the ethereal effect, is rendered for the most part in slow motion. As the object elevated to the site of Das Ding does not exist ‘in its own time’, but only materializes a void of non-meaning, an approach to this object in a realistic time frame would ultimately reveal its nothingness. A very slow or precipitous approach, however, facilitates the perception that the object has been missed, and therefore possesses an objective, empirical existence. To further reinforce that deception, the watches of the picnic goers mysteriously stop just as the tragic events begin to unfold suggesting the intervention of a transcendental realm outside time. En route to the Hanging Rock, one of the teachers reacts to the coach driver’s naive reflections on the age of the rock with a meditation on the geological context of the Hanging Rock’s prehistoric formation, its volcanic origin millions of years ago. The reference to this enormous time scale and to the violence of the rock’s creation is evocative of the powerful forces underlying natural evolution. One is reminded of Schopenhauer’s will beyond the illusory veil of phenomena in time and space, or Kantian notions of the sublime in nature. This quality is heightened by the soundtrack of the film, which perfectly coordinates Zamfir’s haunting pan flute music with magnified natural sounds from the rock creating the impression of a strange sound that appears to emanate directly from an archaic, organic universe prior to the emergence of civilization.1 [my emphases]

To get a feel for what he is referring to, here is a pertinent clip of the film:

How is the Freudian interpretation different from the Lacanian, and in need of correction or augmentation? Risking caricature, a preliminary, orienting Freudian interpretation would run something like this: “The girls talk of purposelessness, and a vague longing for a ‘right time and place’ as they try to make sense of their maturation in a sexually repressive society. The hazy sense of torpor, the feeling of alienation from others, the longing for a mandate, are the outcome of defensive processes directed at sexual and aggressive fantasies, defenses that are instigated within primary family relationships shaped and buttressed by the larger society. These processes generate perceptual distortions, somnolence, and disorientation. Sexual feelings and relationships remain alien to them, reducing them to a passive, mystified state.”

But Gullatz declines the liberative disenchantment that Freudian interpretation anticipates. Ignoring what the girls’ musings might reveal, and passing over the sexually dimorphic phallic and vaginal quality of the rock formations, Gullatz describes the Hanging Rock as an essentially phallic and unitary “Thing” that, according to Lacan, brings with it symptomatic distortions of reality. From that point on, Gullatz foregrounds how the the film’s ensemble of effects successfully evoke the ambiguous meaning and reality of the Thing. The unconsciously resonant distortions of experience are reaffirmed in their opacity by a purportedly psychoanalytic discourse — the Thing, the “grimace of the real,” etc. – that undoes itself by emphatically cordoning off experience from the interpretive process.

Pivotal to this shift is the prioritizing of the symptomatic experience of “non-meaning.” Instead of considering whether psychodynamic formulations might help to dissipate their foggy, trance-like experience by articulating conflicts over obscured desires, Gullatz proposes a theoretical ratification of that fog. The encounter with an overdetermined and anxiety-charged Thing remains an “in-itself,” precisely because the unanalyzed subject apprehends the object through an overlay of unconsciously-charged taboo. Other nonpsychoanalytic discourses are enlisted piecemeal to affirm this void: Gullatz’ references Schopenhauer’s “will beyond the illusory veil of phenomena” or Kant’s concept of the sublime only serve to add to the mystifying jumble, much as references to ancient myth systems add to the mood of an H.P. Lovecraft story.

From a void of meaning to reenchanting jargon

This jargon of opacity, replacing troubling but mundane symptoms with dizzying “voids of meaning,” recalls Adorno’s critique of Heideggerian existentialism as a “jargon of authenticity.” In his view, Heidegger’s existentialism subverted the relationship of language to its referent. For Adorno, a word can be no more than a provisional representation of an object; it will always only be an approximate representation because meaning is historically open. Heidegger’s system uses words to compose a sonorous rhetorical field that conjures up the mirage of a final ontological ground, “Being,” beyond conceptualization and history. Adorno:

[In Heidegger’s system] Whatever more of meaning there is in the words than what they say has been secured for them once and for all as expression. The dialectic is broken off: the dialectic between word and thing as well as the dialectic, within language, between the individual words and their relations…The jargon obliterates the difference between this “more” for which language gropes and the in-itself of this more…When it dresses empirical words with aura, it exaggerates general concepts and ideas of philosophy…so grossly that their conceptual essence, the mediation through the thinking subject, disappears completely under the varnish. Then these terms lure us on as if they were the most concrete terms. Transcendence and concretion scintillate.2[my emphasis]

Within Adorno’s frame, psychoanalytic reflection seeks to restore a dialectical movement between language and desire. Instead of desire being represented as a “second nature” — rigid, defensively automatic behavior that is unmediated by thought — the analysand gains some room to reflect on their desire because its possible, historically open forms are symbolized. But what Gullatz leaves us with is the “varnish” of awe before a void of meaning. The aim is not to understand how this experience of a void has come about or, to give the somatic its due, to allow a more transparent experience of desire. Instead, the aim is to render the void palpable, to give it an auratic quality by, as Walter Benjamin would argue, establishing it as “in the distance,” beyond our ability to grasp and yet luring us on.3 And so in the film the girls either float away entranced or recoil screaming in terror.

A note on the sublime

In the above quotation Gullatz sees the huge time spans and volcanic forces associated with the Hanging Rock’s origins as recalling Kant’s notion of the sublime in nature. But in making this link, Gullatz overlooks the most significant element of Kant’s formulation of sublimity. Here’s Kant:

…we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the forces of the soul above the height of vulgar commonplace, and discover within us a power of resistance of quite another kind, which gives us courage to be able to measure ourselves against the seeming omnipotence of nature.4

As Leo Lowenthal maintained in his fine essay on Knut Hamsun,

[for Kant] It is man’s own knowledge and imagination which creates the conception of the grandiosity in nature that dwarfs him. In the end, the rational faculties of man are of a higher order than the elemental force of nature, and they allow him to see it as sublime, instead of simply terrifying.2

For Kant, the immediately overwhelming experience of the Hanging Rock would mobilize our subjective capacities that moderate its impact. Through exercise of our rational faculties, through reason, we can refine our response to its immensity so that it is no longer overwhelming. Thus Kant’s critical idealism anticipates the psychoanalytic view that the Hanging Rock’s apparent innate power draws, vampire-like, on the alienated power of the girls’ sexuality. Their loss of awareness and volition can be resolved if unconscious sexual fantasy can be brought to consciousness and acted upon. Reason, in the form of psychoanalytic reflection, undermines the powerful, confused experience of the Hanging Rock by de-reifying it and integrating that experience into the girls’ lives. From there they can additionally begin to challenge the stifling social relations, abundantly depicted in the film, that have promoted this confusion.

Dialectics in the play of a child: sublime tea

The disruptive force of “reason” implicitly draws upon internalized relationships within which forms of reason are enacted and learned. In this sense, to reason is to re-enact a memory of solidarity. To see this we can consider how it unfolds in the play of a child. Thomas Ogden, a psychoanalyst, situates the development of dialectical thought — here, the acquisition of symbolic flexibility — within the mother-child relationship. In this example, he shows how with the mother’s encouragement a child escapes the frightening “fact” of his immersion in a bath by mediating the experience through symbolic play:

A 2½-year-old child, after having been frightened by having his head go underwater while being given a bath, became highly resistant to taking a bath. Some months later, after gentle but persistent coaxing by his mother, he very reluctantly allowed himself to be placed in four inches of bath water. The child’s entire body was tense; his hands were tightly clamped on to his mother’s. He was not crying, but his eyes were pleadingly glued to those of his mother. One knee was locked in extension while the other was flexed in order to hold as much of himself out of the water as he could. His mother began almost immediately to try to interest him in some bath toys. He was not the least bit interested until she told him she would like some tea. At that point the tension that had been apparent in his arms, legs, abdomen, and particularly his face, abruptly gave way to a new physical and psychological state. His knees were now bent a little; his eyes surveyed the toy cups and saucers and spotted an empty shampoo bottle which he chose to use as milk for the tea; the tension in his voice shifted from the tense insistent plea, ‘My not like bath, my not like bath’, to a narrative of his play: ‘Tea not too hot, it’s okay now. My blow on it for you. Tea yummy’. The mother had some ‘tea’ and asked for more. After a few minutes, the mother began to reach for the washcloth. This resulted in the child’s ending of the play as abruptly as he had started it with a return of all of the initial signs of anxiety that had preceded the play. After the mother reassured the child that she would hold him so he would not slip, she asked him if he had any more tea. He does, and playing is resumed.6

Ogden follows with this interpretation:

The foregoing is observational data and does not emanate from a psychoanalytic process. Nonetheless, the observations do convey a sense of the way in which a state of mind was generated by the mother and child in which there was a transformation of water from being something frightening to being a plastic medium (discovered and created by the child) with meanings that could be communicated. In this transformation, reality is not denied; the dangerous water is represented in the playing. Nor is fantasy robbed of its vitality—the child’s breath magically changed dangerous water into a loving gift. There is also a quality of ‘I-ness’ that is generated in play that differs from the rivetted stare and desperate holding-on that had connected mother and infant in a very concrete way prior to the beginning of play.7 (ibid.)

As Ogden elaborates in his article, the mother’s intervention closely parallels a psychoanalytic process enabling the subject to co-create mediating symbols that break the seemingly inescapable thrall of the frightening object. Drawing on Ogden’s account, I would stress how for the child an alliance with the mother infuses the capacity to create symbols. The experience of “I-ness” that develops through the self-conscious exercise of the symbolic function — the child knows, or will know, that he is imagining the water to be tea — must formatively entail an internalization of the power of the collaborative relationship with the mother. In this respect, we can say that transcending a state of being overwhelmed to one of relative mastery, of Kant’s “courage,” involves an implicit “We-ness” as well as I-ness.8

But Gullatz’ interpretive emphasis on the void of the Thing precludes transformative symbolic action. It is not only that the Thing is teflon-like in its resistance to symbolic reformulation. It also precludes the acquisition of symbolic effectiveness, of a capacity for the metaphoric supersession, or aufhebung, of something dangerous and alien into something known. By suspending the symbolic-practical dialectic, the concept of the Thing promotes a withering away of the core animator of the psychoanalytic process, the analyst’s promulgation of the knowledge that the analysand’s entrapment in a rigid system of meaning can be broken. The “we-ness” on which critical capacity depends cannot develop.

The Thing and the analysis of nationalism

In Zizek’s writings, the Thing concept is part of a standpoint that gives preeminent weight to narcissistic psychodynamics and structures — for example, the formulation of the ego as an essentially narcissistic structure and the broad assumption that madness is the only alternative to narcissistic preoccupations (these ideas are more fully discussed here on this site). Zizek’s 1991 paper “Eastern Europe’s Republics of Gilead” draws on the Thing to account for the persistence of nationalism in the Balkans. As above, in this analysis the Thing concept – “the incarnation of Enjoyment” that fascinates the national collective – blocks interpretation of how that fascination is constituted within the play of object relations. Zizek’s statement is more developed than Gullatz’, and allows us to better delineate some of the theoretical underpinnings of the Thing. In what follows I argue that Zizek leverages a tendentious formulation of the concept of the ego ideal into a rendering of the Thing that turns nationalism into more of a regressive juggernaut than ever, with the possibility of its critique rendered theoretically remote, if not impossible.

The ego ideal as psychological structure or narcissistic deformation

Zizek’s opening paragraph renders relations between “the West” and Eastern Europe as akin to the plot line of the film “Sunset Boulevard,” in which an aging movie star surrounds herself with admirers:

Why is the West so fascinated by the recent events in Eastern Europe? The answer seems obvious: what fascinates the Western gaze is the re-invention of democracy. It is as if democracy, which in the West shows increasing signs of decay and crisis…is being rediscovered in Eastern Europe in all its freshness and novelty. The function of this fascination is thus purely ideological: in Eastern Europe the West looks for its own lost origins, for the authentic experience of ‘democratic invention’. In other words, Eastern Europe functions for the West as its Ego-Ideal: the point from which the West sees itself in a likeable, idealized form, as worthy of love. The real object of fascination for the West is thus the gaze, namely the supposedly naive gaze by means of which Eastern Europe stares back at the West, fascinated by its democracy. It is as if the Eastern gaze is still able to perceive in Western societies its agalma, the treasure that causes democratic enthusiasm and which the West has long lost the taste of. 9

However, Zizek’s formulation of the ego ideal as a wish to be gazed at by an admirer differs from its typical usage in psychoanalysis. For example, LaPlanche and Pontalis define it as:

Term used by Freud in the context of his second theory of the psychical apparatus: an agency of the personality resulting from the coming together of narcissism (idealisation of the ego) and identification with the parents, with their substitutes or with collective ideals. As a distinct agency, the ego-ideal constitutes a model to which the subject attempts to conform.10

Laplanche and Pontalis see the ego ideal as a model that progressively synthesizes the grandiosity of childhood. It integrates a longing for recapture of that state – the adored baby at the center of the universe – with the restraining judgments of the parents and, through them, society. The ego ideal defines a hopeful goal state, never to be achieved, both inspiring and oppressive.  In contrast, Zizek skips over consideration of these general properties and presents the ego ideal in a particular externalized form, wherein the admiring gaze of an Other is used by the subject to overcome the experience of tensions related to their own ego ideal. In this fantasy, the gap between grandiose ideal and reality vanishes as the subject basks in admiration: “See how they love me, I am what they want to be, perfection.”

Of course, taking account of this form of resolution of the pressures of the ego ideal can be very pertinent in social analysis. As Zizek suggests, a narcissistic externalization of the ego ideal informs the erosion of the capacity of the West – aka capitalist democracies – for “internal critique,” i.e. the critical assessment of society in light of the contradictory institutionalized ideals of capitalist democracy. For example, instead of acknowledging the very real desiccation of democratic self-determination by corporate power, we are instead distracted by an invitation to bask in the envy of the Third World. However, Zizek conflates the concept of the ego ideal with this projected, narcissistically determined variant. By confusing a narcissistic deformation of an “agency of the personality” with the agency itself, Zizek launches the essay with the first of a succession of revisions that theoretically deny the original intention of the concept, to broadly chart how the subject passes from primary narcissistic preoccupation to a more complex orientation to self and other. Accordingly, the scope of psychic reality contracts, and non-narcissistic options fade.

Zizek’s immediate reason for the redefinition emerges in the next sentence, in which he drops the ego ideal and focuses on the Thing:

The element that holds together a given community cannot be reduced to the point of symbolic identification: the bond linking its members always implies a shared relationship toward a Thing, toward Enjoyment incarnated…

This relationship toward the Thing, structured by means of fantasies, is what is at stake when we speak of the menace to our ‘way of life’ presented by the Other: it is what is threatened when, for example, a white Englishman is panicked because of the growing presence of ‘aliens’. What he wants to defend at any price is not reducible to the so-called set of values that offer support to national identity. National identification is by definition sustained by a relationship toward the Nation qua Thing. This Nation-Thing is determined by a series of contradictory properties. It appears to us as ‘our Thing’ … as something accessible only to us, as something ‘they’, the others, cannot grasp, but which is nonetheless constantly menaced by ‘them.’ It appears as what gives plenitude and vivacity to our life, and yet the only way we can determine it is by resorting to different versions of an empty tautology: all we can say about it is, ultimately, that the Thing is ‘itself’, ‘the real Thing’, ‘what it really is about’, and so on…. All we can do is enumerate disconnected fragments of the way our community organizes its feasts, its rituals of mating, its initiation ceremonies—in short, all the details by which is made visible the unique way a community organizes its enjoyment…..[my emphasis]11

Zizek’s objection to a “reduction to a point of symbolic identification” in favor of the Thing as “Enjoyment incarnated” is pivotal to his argument and requires explication. Contrary to Zizek, for Laplanche and Pontalis one of the cornerstones of the ego ideal lies precisely in its relevance to understanding group dynamics based on identification:

In [Freud’s] Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego the role of the ego-ideal is of central importance. Freud sees it as a formation clearly differentiated from the ego which enables us to account in particular for amorous fascination, for subordination to the hypnotist and for submission to leaders–all cases in which the subject substitutes another person for his ego-ideal.

This type of process is the principle on which the constitution of human groups is based. The collective ideal derives its efficacy from a convergence of individual ‘ego-ideals’: ‘… a number of individuals […] have put one and the same object in the place of their ego-ideal and have consequently identified themselves with one another in their ego’; on the other hand, these individuals, after identifications with their parents, teachers and so on, already harbour a certain number of collective ideals: ‘Each individual is a component part of numerous groups, he is bound by ties of identification in many directions, and he has built up his ego-ideal on the most various models.”12

Laplanche and Pontalis foreground an identification with idealized persons – initially parents, then derivatively teachers, political leaders and so on – that Zizek believes would obscure the subject’s relationship with Enjoyment – “the element that holds together a given community.” Zizek seems to be wary of an identification-oriented rendering because he is unwilling to acknowledge the possibility – in fact, the inescapability – that identification with idealized persons mediates Enjoyment. For example, the development of a taste for a “national cuisine” depends vitally on the presentation by parents to children of the hypervalued food; subsequently the food’s tastiness derives in no small way from being spiced by the memories of the family’s ritualized elevation of it, including the typically central role of the mother in its provision and the father in the regulation of that provision.

The Thing and the struggle against identification in the constitution of enjoyment

For psychoanalysts such as Chasseguet-Smirgel and MacDougall, the suppression of mediating identifications with parents in the constitution of Enjoyment is a hallmark of an exceptional, perverse developmental pathway. Briefly stated, they regard the perverse option as a desperate innovation aimed at overcoming the crushing experience of being a mere child who is excluded from the adult parental relationship. Often part of the solution is to create, in MacDougall’s terms, a “neosexuality” that elevates a pregenital practice – for example, urinating, playing with shit – to a level superior to the fantasized pleasures of adults. “I made this, and it is as exciting as any of your pleasures,” and “there is nothing I need that I don’t have” are the mottos of this omnipotent state, in which the elevated erogenous zone provides a somatic grounding for a schema of object relations that undoes the narcissistic injury. (An extended account of MacDougall’s analysis of a case of perversion can be found here.)

By referring to their work I wish to emphasize that their analysis of the perverse solution to childhood humiliation highlights how identifications are a routine part of the constitution of Enjoyment. In the perverse struggle against identification, the child tends to dispense with the usual fantasies about being mommy or daddy, about having what they have (when they grow up), and the progressive integration of these identifications (or counter-identifications) into their life horizons in more-or-less sublimated forms. Instead, the child tries to strike out on their own. However, they ultimately fail because the history of their immersion in their relationships with the parents constantly press against and shape their psychic enclave. (Again, see MacDougall’s case presentation for more on this.)

Returning to Zizek’s essay:

The Thing is not directly a collection of these features; there is ‘something more’ in it, something that is present in these features, that appears through them. Members of a community who partake in a given ‘way of life’ believe in their Thing, where this belief has a reflexive structure proper to the intersubjective space: ‘I believe in the (national) Thing’ is equal to ‘I believe that others (members of my community) believe in the Thing.’ The tautological character of the Thing—its semantic void, the fact that all we can say about it is that it is ‘the real Thing’—is founded precisely in this paradoxical reflexive structure…

Nationalism thus presents a privileged domain of the eruption of enjoyment into the social field. The national Cause is ultimately nothing but the way subjects of a given ethnic community organize their enjoyment through national myths. [my emphases]13

It is easy to appreciate how this stance dovetails with the emphasis on being admired that opens Zizek’s article. Within the immediacy of admiration the subject experiences a plenitude that allows them to escape awareness of any shortcoming, for they are fulfilled by becoming what the Other lacks. A complex interpersonal context offering a combination of frustrations and partial satisfactions — for example, the reality of a child who is excluded from the parental bed but whom the parents love and nurture, or the reality of working a boring temp job while trying to build a local community network — collapses into preoccupation with a fantasy of being desired. As Zizek develops his argument, the Thing serves as a collectively-affirmed object of desire that, when possessed, allows narcissistic transcendence. It is a desideratum that lends the subject, possessing it conjointly along with his or her fellows, a sense of wholeness and completion. In itself mundane, it comes to life through its exaggerated affirmation by the collective. “Enjoyment” is narcissistic balm.

As with Gullatz, Zizek’s insistence that the Thing is a “semantic void” with, nonetheless, “something more” suppresses the psychoanalytically mundane question of whether the void really does hold meaning that resists articulation. Thus, from the standpoint of the struggle against identification, one constituent of the void would be the repression of the experience of the parents’ insult and a replacement neosexuality substituted to ward off unspeakable narcissistic injury. Alternatively, to use the example of a national cuisine, a semantic void develops because the cuisine’s infinite and delectable availability hides the mundane grief that goes with permanent loss of access to mother’s body, a loss which cannot be spoken of, especially in terms suggesting cannibalism. Though these are themes far from the realm of public discourse, they are not a semantically null, and for Zizek to claim that they are affirms credulity over psychoanalysis.

Zizek continues:

What is therefore at stake in ethnic tensions is always the possession of the national Thing. We always impute to the ‘other’ an excessive enjoyment; s/he wants to steal our enjoyment (by ruining our way of life) and/or has access to some secret, perverse enjoyment. In short, what really bothers us about the ‘other’ is the peculiar way it organizes its enjoyment: precisely the surplus, the ‘excess’ that pertains to it—the smell of their food, their ‘noisy’ songs and dances, their strange manners, their attitude to work… 14

What is meant by “possession,” and how might stealing/spoiling/ruining by an Other occur? We might interpret these symptomatic expressions of nationalism and ethnic conflict in purely narcissistic terms. That is, the possibility of our enjoyment, which addresses our profound sense of lack and insufficiency, might be disrupted by this Other, with their own alternative enjoyments. For example, our belief that we possess something special such as a privileged literary tradition might be disrupted if we were to take the literature of another society seriously. We would no longer have something special, and the corresponding sense of loss can be concretely experienced as dispossession.

But this is far from an exclusive explanation, and Zizek has overlooked a well–established alternative account. Psychoanalytically-oriented social critics have often noted how the feelings of disgust mixed with envy, suspicion of perversity, etc. described by Zizek can play out in interpersonal relationships. Take, for example, the authors of The Authoritarian Personality (hereafter, AP), writing in 1948:

Among the tendencies which the typical [interviewee] tends to keep in a repressed state (but which nonetheless to find indirect expression in the interview) are mainly fear, weakness, passivity, sex impulses, and aggressive feelings against authoritative figures, especially the parents. Among the rich defenses against these tendencies there is, above all, the mechanism of projection, by which much of what cannot be accepted as part of one’s own ego is externalized. Thus it is not oneself but others that are seen as hostile and threatening. Or else one’s own weakness leads to an exaggerated condemnation of everything that is weak; one’s own weakness is thus fought outside instead of inside…

Repression and externalization of the instinctual tendencies mentioned reduces their manageability and the possibility of their control by the individual, since it is now the external world to which the feared qualities of the unconscious are ascribed. As long as social conditions are conducive to and furnish acceptable outlets for compensatory tendencies, a relative mental balance within the individual may well be achieved in this manner.15

To these authors, defensive projection of undesirable impulses does not presume a narcissistic organization. “Unacceptability” can develop through the pressures of the superego. That is, the subject frees themselves of fear of punishment and guilt — neither of which necessarily carry salient narcissistic implications — by projecting, for example, “excessive” sexuality onto the Other and condemning them. Instead of being driven by a sense of lack that can only be addressed by having the Thing, in this view the subjects of the AP seek to rid themselves of specific “bad” impulses to retain their “goodness” and thereby ward off punishment. “They are the disgusting sexual gluttons, not me!”


The tunnel vision inherent in a Thing-based analysis can be more clearly defined if we set it against an alternative standpoint, that of object relations theory. Object relations theory emphasizes how the enactment of relational fantasies is the medium of psychodynamics. An object relational view

…highlights that consistent set of units—a self-representation interacting with an object representation under the dominance of a certain affect—and frames the experience of concrete unconscious fantasies, wishes, and fears. Second, each defense-impulse organization is reflected in two mutually opposed units, so that both defense and impulse are reflected in a fantasized relation between self and object… at bottom, all identifications are not with an object, but with a relation to an object within which the patient identifies with both self and object and their roles in this relationship, with the possibility of re-enacting either of the two roles in it. fn [my emphasis]16

For example, a child’s wish to exclusively possess their mother, a wish that gives rise to hostile fantasies against a sibling, is defended against by other relational fantasies, perhaps being punished by mother if they hit the sibling, or being loved by mother if they rescue the helpless sibling from the ferocious neighborhood dog. These fantasies are fundamental units of psychic life, for they fuse references to desire and objects of desire.

Returning to the AP quotation, in these terms the experience of weakness – a common theme in nationalist propaganda – is defensively managed by projection onto another group. For example, German nationalists explained their defeat in World War I by claiming that Jews and Bolsheviks had stabbed the German people in the back, not because they themselves had failed to defeat the combined power of the Allies. The restoration of narcissism that this projection accomplishes supports a sense of power, the conviction that current and future object relations will be successfully managed. While it is certainly true that this power can be invested in a Thingly object or its mediator – a Führer – power is ultimately couched in a language of object relations. The “German people,” das Volk, is what it is because it is not what “lower races” are. Bluntly put, the nationalist Thing is only an isolated affirmative moment of “our Enjoyment” within an overall dynamic of projective valuation/devaluation in which one group serves as another’s wastebasket. Psychoanalytic criticism must disclose these fateful dynamics, not simply affirm a fascination with Things.

[The clip below, from Rossellini’s “Open City,” trenchantly depicts an SS officer converting the occasion of torturing a partisan into a test of the superiority of the German “master-race.” In his mind, breaking the victim through torture effectively defines the victim as a member of a “slave-race,” the victim becoming a vessel into which the Nazi can pour negative qualities, thereby elevating himself. His offscreen interlocutor, a war-weary regular army officer, doubts the distinction and refuses the projective delusion it offers.]

Summary and conclusions

The subject is formed and situated within object relations, and any fascination with defensive formations obscuring this relational matrix must be criticized. But for Gullatz and Zizek the concept of the Thing – a congealed defense against object relatedness — circumscribes critique by acceding to the narcissistic project. To recall Ogden, the Thing concept promotes a mere witnessing of a flight from narcissistic injury that travels along reified symbolic pathways; it is a linchpin of this reification that must be pulled if the painful psychic and social realities it hides are to be addressed. Thus for Gullatz the Thing-imbued Hanging Rock is no longer a scene created by psychological repression under repressive social circumstances, but of awe before the unspeakable. Psychoanalysis is left only to join in the idolatory chanting by adding deep ontological undertones and cancelling itself out. For Zizek, charting the Enjoyments of nationalism forestalls detailing the identifications that support psychodynamics associated with nationalism, and so the possibility of a revision of the subject’s psychic and social reality disappears.

What is the alternative? In both Gullatz and Zizek the Thing and its correlates mute any potential for critical dialectic; optional standpoints are barely mentioned. The narcissistic option preempts a liberatory collaborative project — a “We” anticipating a matrix of solidarity within which symbolic-practical powers might be regained. Yet Zizek’s exemplar of a fearful white Englishman, a figure at once familiar but also here serving as an apparition that justifies reified theory, is hardly an horizon of social life. All white Englishmen do not react in the way that Zizek describes, but are often capable of fraternal relationships with the nominal Other. Doesn’t the existence of an alternative relatively free of narcissistic distortions not only oblige theory to account for it, but also to promote it as a desirable social outcome? In other words, doesn’t this fact argue definitively against the Lacanian recasting of psychoanalytic social theory in a narcissistic register?


1. Stephen Gullatz, (2001). “Exquisite Ex-timacy: Jacques Lacan vis-à-vis Contemporary Horror.” Link to essay

2. Theodor Adorno, (1973). The Jargon of Authenticity, Evanston: Northwestern, p.12.

3. Walter Benjamin, (1982). “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, p. 223.

4. Immanuel Kant, (1911). Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, tr. by J.D. Meredith, Oxford, p. 110.

5. Leo Lowenthal, (1957). Literature and the Image of Man: Sociological Studies of the European Drama and Novel, 1600-1900. Boston: Beacon, p. 200. This deployment of the concept of Reason epitomizes its grounding in the struggle to limit fear of unknown natural forces, an inhibition of the fight-flight response.

It’s worth noting that Gullatz’ understanding of sublimity accords with Edmund Burke’s analysis in The Sublime and the Beautiful. In The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, Corey Robin notes that for Burke, the fear of authority must take on sublime qualities and become suffused with “delightful horror” to produce the contradictory effect of diminishing and yet somehow magnifying us.(Robin, p. 48) To me, there is a remarkable correspondence between a horror-driven feeling of becoming smaller and yet somehow larger and the dynamics around Oedipal identification, in which the child escapes feeling catastrophically inadequate in comparison to a parent by instead identifying with them. Resonating with this interpretation, in other parts of the book Robin stresses the degree to which conservative thought conveys a kind of melancholia for a lost past. Burke’s long, and often ridiculed, account of the downfall of Marie Antoinette has a rapturous, idealizing quality that certainly conveys anguished love, sublimatively reworked into a call to regain lost honor. However one traces the dialectic of the Oedipal and the class politics of that time, Burke aims to tap into a wellspring of politically useful regressive associations, a wellspring he himself was fond of drinking from:

“It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in, glittering like the morning star full of life and splendor and joy. 0h, what a revolution! and what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream, when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers!”

6. Thomas Ogden, (1985). On Potential Space. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, p. 130.

7. Ogden, ibid., p.133.

8. Over time, as is the case with other psychological structures, the evocation of an alliance relationship will fade, and imagination will seem more purely of the “I”. For example, a child will often display the forerunners of what eventually becomes a seemingly impersonal ethical system by acting like a forbidding parent. She will then supersede “acting-like” with a moderated form of internalization that reduces explicit reference to the parent while retaining some of the power and reassurance that comes with the fantasy of identification with them. Just as she becomes the moral legislator, she also becomes the dialectician.

Uncertainty over the connection between the therapeutic alliance and a capacity for insight into the constructive capacities of the mind is an ongoing issue in psychoanalytic writings. For example, in a recent paper Alan Sugarman nicely illustrates how the analysis of a girl, beginning at age 3 1/2, gradually allows her to achieve the capacity to reflect on the workings of her mind as she struggles with strong emotions associated with neglect and primal scene exposure. However, in his concern to demonstrate that representation of her conflicts in play allows a moderation of emotions that frees her to both conceptualize troubling situations and fantasies and to be aware of how she has constructed this frame, Sugarman seems hesitant to admit the impact of his alliance with her. Coming almost as an afterthought, it is only in the last pages that he acknowledges “It is likely that my willingness to remain interested in her mind, to not criticize her behavior, and to not overstimulate her also contributed to her mastery of the trauma.” See Alan Sugarman, (2008). “The Use of Play to Promote Insightfulness in the Analysis of Children Suffering from Cumulative Trauma,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 77:3, pages 822-24, passim.

Tangentially, it is worth considering whether the stubborn tendency to personify a deity might reflect not only a wish to feel protected and loved, but also that a fantasied collaboration with an Other is necessary for the religious experience to be playfully created.

9. Zizek, Slavoj. (1990) “Eastern Europe’s Republics of Gilead’, New Left Review I/183, p. 50.

10. Laplanche, J. and Pontalis, J. B. (1973). The Language of Psycho-Analysis: Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. In The International Psycho-Analytical Library, 94. p. 144.

11. Zizek, ibid., p. 51.

12. Laplanche and Pontalis, ibid., p. 144.

13. Zizek, ibid., p. 53.

14. Zizek, ibid., p. 53.

15. Adorno et al (1948). The Authoritarian Personality, New York: Norton. pps. 474-5.

16. Kernberg, O. F. (1988). “Object Relations Theory in Clinical Practice.” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 57:4, pps. 481-488 passim.

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