Living Thought Book Event: Other “Italians”?

Roberto Esposito’s Living Thought is a strange hybrid of a book. On the one hand, it’s an extremely erudite and yet readable history of Italian philosophy, but on the other hand, it’s also a creative and constructive work of philosophy. The burden of the argument is that there is something about the Italian experience of the late and never fully constituted arrival of a nation-state that allowed for the development of a style of thought that sits askew relative to the mainstream discourses of modernity — and that this is the reason for the contemporary success of Italian thought under the conditions of globalized late capital. He proceeds by pointing to a series of distinguishing traits that mark the tradition of Italian thought from its beginnings in Bruno, Vico, and Machiavelli: an ambiguous relationship to the question of “origin,” resulting in a curiously bi-directional concept of history; a mutual “contamination” of philosophy with other discourses and practices; and an emphasis on immanence and life.

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Drives and Drive-Fates

One of the most valuable parts of my summer seminar (which just ended yesterday) was that it gave me a chance to really work through Freud’s key texts on the drives. The one that has stayed with me the most is Triebe und Triebschicksale (Drives and Drive-Fates), which is normally translated “Instincts and their Vicissitudes.” The inappropriateness of “instinct” as a translation for Trieb is widely acknowledged, but what about “vicissitudes” for the puzzling “drive-fates”? As Eric Santner observed, “vicissitudes” has etymological roots in the area of the “vicarious,” and Freud does talk about how drives can substitute for each other, so basically there’s some justification — but at the end of the day, Freud seemingly uses “Schicksal” (in the meta-psychological writings and elsewhere) as a technical term for what one might call the “outcome” of drive-dynamics, and I think that “vicissitude” just doesn’t work for that usage. More importantly, though, really dwelling on the notion of “fate” has helped me to understand better what’s going on with drives, and the English translation, by covering up the systematic usage of “Schicksal,” likely never would have led me to the same insights.

To get at Freud’s concept of fate, we should look to Freud’s own favored point of reference in Greek tragedy: Oedipus Rex. Read the rest of this entry »

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Ontogeny and phylogeny in Freud

One thing that has jumped out at me in my recent study of Freud is his interest in the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny. He really wants to be able to extrapolate from the personal histories of his patients to the origin of the human race — and in fact, he even attempts to go back to the origin of life itself in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. I had always had the impression that Totem and Taboo was a later work, more or less marginal to his project, but it was actually published in 1913, toward the beginning of his period of greatest theoretical productivity. What’s more, he cites it near-obsessively in the later works.

Sometimes it can seem as though he believes that the fate of drives that was formed after the murder of the primal father is more or less “directly” passed down in some kind of quasi-biological way. The more “sensible” hypothesis would be that the structure is passed along through the process of socialization, yet the inheritance can seem just as unavoidable. And then of course there’s the matter of how the project of Moses and Monotheism fits in here — if all human culture is structured in this way, why can it make a difference that the Jews in particular repeated it in their own particular history?

Consider this an open thread. What do you think is going on with the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny in Freud?

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Notes on the death drive

Yesterday in the DAAD seminar led by Eric Santner that I’ve been participating in, we talked about Triebe und Triebschicksale and Jenseits des Lustprinzips. Prof. Santner emphasized the fact that the concept of “drive” is more the name of a problem than a solution and the fact that the concept of “death drive” seems particularly problematic and confusing — even down to the name itself. As we turned to the (bizarre!) sections of the text that deal with speculative cellular biology, I shared that I had found it somehow funny that Freud pictured the first living being coming into existence and experiencing it as a huge imposition: “This sucks! I want to go back to being primordial soup!” But once you start down that road, it seems as though there’s no reason not to push the point further. Perhaps consistent matter resented its condition and wanted to go back to being indeterminate quarks, for instance. Then Prof. Santner had a brilliant and hilarious insight: the idea that the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” could be put forward not as an occasion of wonder, but as a complaint.

It seems that more than death (because after all, the inorganic matter to which the living being wants to return is precisely not “dead”), what’s at stake in the death drive is a kind of persistent refusal, an inert “no” that must constantly be overcome. Zizek of course puts this refusal forward as the only possible ground of political change, and it seems that there is justification in Freud’s text insofar as he associates the death drive with the Wiederholungszwang or repetition compulsion that pushes neurotic patients to relive the painful experience that has (mis)shaped them — but it’s all in order ultimately to refuse that particular vicious cycle and shape themselves differently.

I wonder if we can make a connection to the Heideggerian being-toward-death here. What drives Heidegger to investigate the phenomenon of death, at least in my reading, is not so much that death is the “end” and therefore “completion” of a human life, but rather that death as such is a potentiality that always necessarily remains potential, that can never be actualized. After all, once “my” death occurs, “I” no longer exist. The problem with a human life in progress, from Heidegger’s ontological perspective, isn’t so much that it’s “not over yet” as that it contains potentiality, which is a distinct mode of being that the classical ontological categories have a particularly hard time grappling with. Being-toward-death is his way of articulating and grasping that potentiality so as to get a complete grasp of Dasein’s peculiar mode of being (as actuality and potentiality). Just as with Freud’s death drive, the emphasis on death as such may be partially misleading or distracting, but there’s a moment of truth insofar as “death” names a radical negativity in human life. For both Freud and Heidegger, then, it would be this negativity that gives us access to the potentiality to do something other than our automatic daily routines of neurosis or everydayness.

A rant on neuroscience and philosophy

Neuroscience has given rise to one of the most absurd and pathetic versions of reductionism ever seen, one that purports to “explain” one of the most complex realities we know — the subjective experience of consciousness — simply by pointing to physical phenomena that seem to accompany it. It’s like saying that cheese tastes good because it’s made of atoms. Far be it from me, of course, to disparage the idea that cheese is made of atoms or that the brain is the seat of consciousness, but it seems like this approach not only doesn’t answer, but actively blocks the asking of the most important and interesting question: how did the observed complex phenomenon arise out of the physical process?

The attempt to “explain” subjective experience by reference to the physical processes of neurons and hormones consists essentially in trying to explain what we already basically know (I feel sad) by what we can never directly experience (my hormones are acting up). In many cases, the “explanation” is simply a translation of typical descriptions of subjective experience into the terms of neuroscience. A great example of this is a New Yorker profile of the Churchlands from a few years ago, which portrayed them doing just that in their everyday life. Instead of saying that they were exhausted from work, they would describe the chemical process at work. It struck me as pathetic and sad that they would think further information was being added in this process.

People were able to learn a lot of interesting things about matter without knowing that the level of chemistry was grounded in the level of sub-atomic particles — indeed, without knowing what “atoms” were at all. They were able to learn a lot about evolution without knowing about the genetic vehicle, and in fact scientists still don’t really know precisely how genes give rise to traits. It’d be insane to say, “Well, now that we know about quarks, all the questions of chemistry are answered,” or, “Now that we know about genes, there’s no need to study actual animals anymore.” Doubtless more information about the “lower” or more “foundational” level would contribute to the study of the “higher” or “phenomenal” level, but not if the study of the lower level leads you to believe the study of the higher level is already redundant.

It is probably the case that an account of the connective tissue between the brain and the subject — the “dream-work,” if you will — is going to have to be much more speculative than most contemporary philosophers would really be comfortable with. It would probably look a lot more like Freud’s metapsychological writings or Beyond the Pleasure Principle than like a work of “proper” science or philosophy. I honestly wouldn’t even know where to begin. But unless people are willing to do that kind of work, it seems to me that just bracketing the brain and reflecting directly on the experience of consciousness is going to be a lot more useful than any direct reference to neuroscience could ever be under present circumstances.

A Freud question

In his essay on “Fetischismus” (Studienausgabe, vol. III, pg. 383), Freud’s first example is a puzzling one:

Am merkwürdigsten erschien ein Fall, in dem ein junger Mann einen gweissen “Glanz auf der Nase” zur fetischistischen Bedingung erhoben hatte. Das fand seine überraschende Aufklärung durch die Tatsache, daß der Patient eine englische Kinderstube gehabt hatte, dann aber nach Deutschland gekommen war, wo er seine Muttersprache fast vollkommen vergaß. Der aus den ersten Kinderzeiten stammende Fetisch war nicht deutsch, sondern englisch zu lesen, der “Glanz auf der Nase” war eigentlich ein “Blick auf die Nase” (glance = Blick), die Nase war also der Fetisch, dem er übrigens nach seinem Belieben jenes besondere Glanzlicht verlieh, das andere nicht wahrnehmen konnten.

He seems to be citing it only because of the weirdness of the cross-linguistic pun — which surely is weird and interesting! And yet there are other weird things going on here. Does he have a fetish for… shiny noses? How could that have originated out of “glancing up the nose”? He never returns to this example, so I’m kind of lost at sea here. Any ideas?

The Repression of Sexuality in Contemporary American Psychoanalysis

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading Conci’s biography of Harry Stack Sullivan entitled Sullivan Revisited – Life and Work: Harry Stack Sullivan’s Relevance for Contemporary Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. It’s a wonderful work that contextualizes the radical innovation of Sullivan’s contribution to interpersonal psychoanalysis. Sullivan is the grandfather of contemporary American psychoanalysis and Stephen Mitchell recognized his work as foundational to the contemporary movement. Sullivan began his work at Washington DC’s storied St. Elizabeths Hospital. He then went on to work at Sheppard Pratt Hospital, outside of Baltimore. While at Pratt, he began a therapeutic wing for young male psychotics who recently had psychotic breakdowns. He collaborated and influenced Frieda Fromm-Reichmann’s work at Chestnut Lodge, a hospital located in the DC suburbs (in Rockville, MD).

What was interesting about Conci’s story about Sullivan’s theoretical and therapeutic innovations was the ways in which he re-worked psychoanalytic theory. Although he relied heavily on Freud’s notion of transference (which he re-named) and had an appreciation of unconscious processes, Sullivan was innovative in stressing the social nature of human beings. Sullivan (like many other early dissenters such as Fromm, Thompson, Fromm-Reichmann, etc) argued that Freud had overemphasized the sexual in human nature. Sullivan also collaborated with many social scientists, believing that the cultural and political background greatly informs the ways in which society understands mental illness.

Although I greatly appreciate Sullivan’s contribution to the theory and treatment of schizophrenia (along with the other notables in the interpersonalist tradition such as Fromm-Reichmann and Searles), I was astounded to find how quickly these psychoanalysts dropped sexuality from their theory. Read the rest of this entry »

Repetition and Remembering – Thoughts on the Season Finale of Mad Men

1) The Bar Scene – During this scene, I really worried Don was going to have a conversion experience to Xianity. Instead, he punched the minister for offering him salvation and for damning JFK and MLK (although apparently Don was OK with Nixon). While Weiner draws our attention to another memory of Don’s life with the condemning minister, another idea came to mind. As Don is once again coping with his emptiness through alcohol, this minister attempts to offer him the ultimate escape: the fantasy of a redeemed past. Don rejects this illusion and beats the hell out of him. The past cannot be changed. Dangling the carrot of redemption in front of a broken man is torturous.

2) California – As usual, Don attempts to deal with conflicts and problems by wanting to run away. He hopes to escape the ennui of his existence and his frustration with his marriage and children. Given that he and Megan had good experiences in CA, Don believes he can magically save his marriage and himself through a change of scenery. Perhaps this represents Don’s attempt to reconnect with Dick Whitman who was only ever himself with Anna in CA. Of course, there is no holiday from one’s self. This becomes apparent in Don’s next major scene.

3) Hershey’s – After presenting his typical sentimental pitch to Hershey’s of an imagined childhood that he never experienced, Don begins to have a tremor in his hand. While everyone appeared satisfied with his presentation, Don cannot contain the repressed truth that is demanding to be spoken. He confesses his truth. He was an orphan raised in a whorehouse, neglected by his mother. He only obtained Hershey’s chocolate bars by stealing change from men who rented prostitutes. He then engaged in some ritual wherein he imagined (probably dissociated) having a life where he was wanted and loved. He fantasized about a life where things were sweet rather than bitter.

4) The Final Scene – Now that Don is being given an unspecified holiday, he decides to continue down the path of his own redemption. My friend reminded me earlier tonight that Sally had previously said that to Don, “I know nothing about you.” Don has decided to finally open up to his children about his past. He came from poverty and the “bad side of town”.

Analysis: In these movements of the episode, we see that Don is continuing to confront themes of redemption. In the first scene, Don violently rejects the myth of the redeemed past. He knows this is cheap. As is typical, Don imagines that he can only be saved by fleeing to CA and hiding. This reminded me of Freud’s (1914) beautiful paper “Recollection, Repetition, and Working Through” in which he argues that repetition is a defense against remembering (past traumas). Don’s entire life has been a series of repetitions of the same scenarios: impress, seduce, self-destruct and hide. CA would be another way to repeat the cycle. However, it would simply represent another attempt to avoid remembering, recollecting, and integrating the past traumas. Don’s salvation will only come through remembering and being honest about the horrors and suffering of his childhood. Moreover, Don will only receive grace by coming to terms with his own sins and confessing them to the people he loves, especially his children. No God can save him, however. Only through recollecting and mourning the difficulties of his past can he hope to live a life full of integrity, wholeness and honesty. This final scene represents the first steps of Don trying to be honest. Perhaps he will not survive this exploration of the past (many trauma survivors suicide during this painful phase). The number of repressed memories that resurfaced this season indicates that his unconscious demands to have a voice. The return of the repressed must be dealt with and alcohol cannot silence the truth of his history. Can Don survive the final season?

Balance and imbalance

Which comes first, balance or imbalance? Which is more primordial? Many would have it that balance comes first, that there is a preestablished harmony that is then disturbed, often by human willfulness. In our contemporary world, for instance, many would hold that the market is inherently balanced and is only thrown off by extraneous human interventions — a modern-day notion of the inexplicable intrusion of original sin into God’s perfect creation.

Yet there can be no such thing as a permanent, inherent balance, because balance always presupposes at least two things. If we see something that looks like a balance and is permanent and inherent, then it is only a balance by analogy — really, we are just looking at parts of one thing and noting how they go together. Balancing always means balancing things that are not the same, that are not inherently compatible, that don’t automatically fit together. Balance is always an achievement, and one that must be continually renewed.

This provides us with one way of interpreting Zizek’s claim, based in his reading of Hegel and Lacan, that the gap is primordial, that difference actually generates what seem to be its positive terms. Read the rest of this entry »

“I’m not here to tell you about Jesus”: Don Draper and the Death of God

In the first-season episode “The Hobo Code,” which in many ways is the most important of the series, Don Draper is selling Peggy’s copy to a reluctant client. He goes on the offensive, asking them to leave if they aren’t serious about changing their strategy, and along the way he makes an enigmatic statement: “Listen, I’m not here to tell you about Jesus. You already know about Jesus, either he lives in your heart or he doesn’t.” The pitch proves effective, and when Ken Cosgrove mentions how great “the Jesus thing” was (perhaps implicitly asking what it means), Don explains that “sometimes force is actually being requested.” I am probably not alone in finding this explanation, such as it is, less than helpful.

So what does the quote mean? Or better: What role does it play in the episode and the season? Read the rest of this entry »

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