Dreaming into the World: Beyond Neurosis, Perversion and Psychosis
by Peter Rollins
April 04, 2015
One of the critiques often leveled against psychoanalysis is that it is effectively a normalizing discipline. That it aims to integrate the individual back into the social fabric that she feels alienated from.
Politically speaking this is viewed as problematic, for the very experience of psychic alienation testifies to a problematic environment. The truly radical move is not then to reintegrate a community into that system from which their symptom erupts, but rather to help weaponize them so that they might better overcome it. The positions of neurosis, perversion and psychosis are thus romanticized and read as potent outbursts against oppressive systems.
In short, our world is in crisis and the supposedly psychic anomaly of a subjective “disorder” is in fact the Archimedean point to be used for toppling the oppressive system that gave rise to it.
From this perspective the normalizing of the individual or community implies a form of reintegration into a politically, socially or religiously oppressive environment. Instead of birthing a properly dissident political subject, one produces docile and obedient citizens. This critique gains even more persuasive power when one considers how impossible it would be to sustain a therapeutic clinic that seeks to increase dissatisfaction and alienation. The posture of analysis would thus seem to be in opposition to a radically political one.
In light of this there is a tendency for some academics to celebrate the political vitality of neurosis, perversion or psychosis.
Leaning on the insights of Todd McGowan in his excellent Enjoying What we Don’t Have I want to push back on this celebration of such conditions in individual or communal form.
It is true that neurosis, perversion and psychosis are cries against the system that gives rise to them, but the problem in each case lies in the particular way that they remain impotent to change what they cry out against.
In the case of neurosis, the individual or community retreat into fantasy as a means of escaping the exigencies of life. The fantasy provides a way of imagining sexual, political and religious freedom, yet this fantasy doesn’t touch upon the social reality it rejects. It tends to be a retreat from the world as it is, into a purely private world of fantasmic pleasure.
In perversion the individual or community does fight against an oppressive, repressed, and hypocritical system. They don’t retreat into some fantasy life, but attempt to live out their fantasy. Yet the problem here is that the perverse act requires what it fights against, gaining pleasure from provoking the system it rejects. Because of this it becomes a type of transgression that demands what it rejects in order to sustain its libidinal economy.
Finally, in psychosis, one can definitely see an attempt to construct a different type of world that would overcome the one that presently exists. Yet it rarely gains a foothold. In paranoia the individual or community forms a world at radical odds with social reality. It is a world full of dark conspiracies, maniacal villains and insidious plots all aimed at undermining them. Because of the extreme nature of these fantasies it is only in rare moments that they gain any traction at all. The paranoid vision is just too bizarre to make a change and remains on the fringe.
In contrast, psychoanalysis outlines a different approach. It is true that ego psychology can be seen to offer a way of reintegrating people into their social environment, adapting them to their world. However the properly Freudian tradition rejects this. In this tradition [it is] the “normal” individual (one who does everything that a given society judges decent, right and upstanding) is considered to be exhibiting a particular type of abnormal reaction.
For Freud, the "healthy individual" was not someone with only a minimal need for fantasy, i.e. someone so content in their world that they don’t require much of a fantasmic supplement. Rather the "healthy individual" is able to mobilize their fantasies of a better world so that they directly touch upon the social fabric, contributing to its ongoing transformation. Instead of retreating from the world, the healthy individual or community is able to let their dreams impact the world that sustains them and work for real change. Finding satisfaction in this act.
To contrast this with the neurotic act we can say that our fantasy of a better world is not what we use in order to cope with the painful one we inhabit, but rather is the fuel that feeds our desire to make that world less painful.
This is the difference between a hope that we use to avoid changing the world (e.g. the hope that the next world will be better than this one), and a hope that demands our involvement in changing the world (e.g. the hope that there will be justice for minorities brutalized by the State). In other words, a hope that requires my involvement to become a reality. A theme I take up in The Divine Magician.
In short, dreams shouldn’t take us out of reality, but inspire us to change it.
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You Can Fulfill Your Dreams… Just be Prepared for the Abject Horror
by Peter Rollins
May 05, 2015
In a previous post I contrasted neurotic, psychotic and perverse political strategies to a psychoanalytic approach that attempts to help people realize their fantasy in reality (rather than in a retreat from, or protest against, it). The problem here, as Todd McGowan points out, is that the political potential of psychoanalysis can start to sound like a sophisticated form of the motivational poster that asks us to fulfill our dreams. This however fundamentally misses the truly subversive politicial potential of the discourse.
In order to gain a better understanding of the relationship between fantasy and reality in psychoanalysis (which is a large subject) we should first consider how the realization of the fundamental fantasy in an individual’s social reality is actually traumatic to the subject rather than joyous.
The reason for this stems from the idea that our basic fantasy is a type of lie we tell ourselves in order to cover over the trauma of an originary loss. To directly realize one's fantasy (rather than simply achieving some practical goals) means confronting the deception of the fantasy and thus feel the tremor of an inner lack it covers over. This can be described as a type of failure that is hard baked into the very heart of success.
The success of achieving one's fantasy is ultimately a failure insofar as one perceives their desire as connected to the object that the fantasy aims at. For instance, if one directly fantasizes about becoming a millionaire, then achieving the goal exposes, at a subjective level, how the true function of the fantasy is precisely to keep one from achieving its aim, so that one can keep the fantasy alive. The goal posts must thus be changed by the individual in order to keep the fantasy (and the function of the fantasy) alive. If this doesn’t happen the individual can suffer from a breakdown.
In psychoanalytic theory one of the reasons for confronting our fundamental fantasy is not so that we can better “achieve our goals,” and find fulfillment, but precisely so that we can confront the lie of our fantasy.
The point is not to do away with fantasy, but to try and change the relationship we take up in relation to it. The new relation is one that doesn’t locate the pleasure of the fantasy in achieving it, but in directly assuming the fantasy regardless of fulfilling it. The individual realizes that the goal of fantasy is not in its being swallowed up in some final victory, but is concerned with keeping our desire alive.
Politically speaking, this means that we engage in a certain cause without deferring our pleasure to the point when the cause is achieved. This approach does not simply drain the pleasure out of fighting for the cause in the moment, but it also ensures that any ultimate success is experienced as a type of subjective failure or destitution.
Instead, we must try to reposition ourselves so that we can directly enjoy our commitment to the cause itself; learning to directly embrace it as an end in itself. To do this means that we give ourselves to it in a mode of action outside the realm of economic exchange. From the position of rational calculation this can seem like a form of madness, for if we embrace our cause as an end in itself we might end up giving ourselves to seemingly lost causes.
This is one of the lessons we might take away from the Norse gods. From what I’ve been told (I’ll need to do some research to check), some clans would follow Norse gods destined to defeat. If this is in fact the case, then it gives a powerful expression of the approach outlined here. Namely, that we pursue our highest goal regardless of the ultimate cost or outcome for the pleasure is found in the commitment itself.
Take the example of environmentalism. What if we truly embrace the idea that we’re past the point of no return, and that a catastrophic crisis is just around the corner. That there is nothing we can do to avert a coming environmental apocalypse. If we then give up trying to actually make a difference; our activism is likely still caught up in a deferred desire for a positive outcome. Here we misconstrue the role of fantasy as its disappearance in fulfillment. If however we still give ourselves unconditionally and absolutely to the cause, then it is possible that we are directly assuming our excessive desire for the cause as an end in itself.
Not only is this type of relation to our fantasy healthier, but the type of uncompromising action that comes from this stance is precisely what marks a true militant for truth.