Presentation of ‘The Rebirth of the Idols’
by Jorge Ahumada
May 16 2001
paper presented at the Scientific Meeting of the British psychoanalytical Society
Presentation of ‘The Rebirth of the Idols’
Let me evoke the most pleasant surprise in my life: when, at the Santiago de Chile IPA Congress, David Tuckett stood up and announced my appointment as an Honorary Member of the British psychoAnalytical Society. Surprised I still am, and I take it not only as the grand distinction which it certainly is, but, foremost, as a commitment. With warm and heartfelt feeling, I feel proud to be able to speak now in terms of our society. My deep thanks to David Tuckett, who has organised and guided the International Journal with a tireless and sure hand through many years and through its share of storms. My deep thanks also to the President and Officers of the British Society, and to all and each of its members.
A decade ago, during the IPA Congress held at Buenos Aires, as I was having dinner with Thomas Hayley and David Tuckett, they were discussing the topic of the core British contributions to the affairs of this world, and I chipped in ‘empiricism’. It seems to me that empiricism, in the wide sense of an over-riding concern for a search for evidences, has been the backbone of the wondrous and manifold contributions to our discipline issuing from The British psychoAnalytical Society. When I say evidences I mean clinical ones, including a concern for the evidential clues on the operation of the method and the attention to our own impact on the clinical situation.
Even at the time of its greatest internal turmoil, during the Controversial Discussions in World War II, the main parties to the discussions, the Kleinians and the Anna Freudians, kept to this priority of clinical evidences. Notwithstanding their differences on the scope of the psychoanalytic method, on what may be deemed legitimate evidence, and on how such evidences were to be sorted out and conceptualised, as far as I can gather the basic dependency of our field on clinical evidences was at no time put to question. Nor was it questioned that the method, from free association to analytic neutrality, was set up and managed in order to allow the coming-to-the-fore of fresh evidences of the analysand’s psychic realities and, in later years, of the analyst’s ongoing psychic realities as adumbrated in his counter-transference. Thus both parties to the Discussions and, overwhelmingly, their followers to this day, have kept to Freud in his lifelong struggle to be faithful to the evidences. As he used to stress, after his teacher Charcot, ‘one must wait for the facts to speak’.
What precedes on the primacy of respect for evidences in the evidences-driven tradition of The British psychoAnalytical Society serves as a background for my theme today, which gains a sense of urgency from the troubling fact that stances vouchsafing the Nietzschean primacy of rhetoric over the respect for evidences seem, worldwide, to gain the upper hand in the current post-modern scene: foremostly in those academic and literary circles outside the limits of our discipline proper which have come to represent the field not only to the public, but also, to greater or lesser extent, in many of our societies.
What happens in Academy entails just a particular section of societal issues, on which I have held that expanding versions of social normalcy are steps toward a borderline culture. In his extended review of my book Disclosures and Refutations for the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Pere Folch Mateu underlines the disturbing uncertainties aroused when we compare the ideas underlining psychoanalytic thought with the cultural and axiological patterns of the post-modern world, as well as the gulf opening up between the demands of current cultural fashions and the psychoanalytic outlook, which pleads for the elaboration of the unrepresentable before it is acted out and discharged destructively and self-destructively. Folch adds that when compared with the prospects of immediate gratification, virtual or concrete, held by technology, the position and aims of psychoanalytic treatment may come to be branded as moralistic and self-denying, and hence inconsistent with the demands of post-modern culture. This is valid enough, but on the other side, in the context of the ‘Age of Image’ that Guy Debord in 1967 aptly called the ‘Society of the Spectacle’, the need for psychoanalysis, though unacknowledged and disparaged, turns out to be greater than ever.
On the vicissitudes of psychoanalysis in the post-modern ambiances of post-war French thought, it fits to say that its ‘return to Freud’ amounts to a Nietzschean reversal of Freud’s method and Freud’s aims. Where Freud aims at Durcharbeitung, at working through one’s unbeknownst emotional experiences by the discovery of the truth of one’s psychic and historical realities, Nietzschean rhetoric bolsters self-creation. To Freud, the road to psychic growth traverses the path of acknowledgment of psychic reality and of renouncement of primitive omnipotence, while Nietzschean rhetorics and its modern-day continuers from Kojève to Foucault and Derrida aim at gaining a perpetual self-renewal in a relentless fight against the received and the given. Unfettered self-creation becomes the name of the academic game.
In order to grasp the huge intellectual gap separating Freud and Nietzsche, giving anchorings to what I set apart as the ‘Freudian unconscious’ and the ‘Nietzchean unconscious’, we must keep in mind that to Nietzsche knowledge is nothing but an interpretative ‘will to power’, a play of undecidable metaphors which reinvents the real, pointing to apprehend and manipulate its objects. No difference here between mendaciousness and truthfulness: only the fair realm of illusion is deemed fit to live in. On from his very first book The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1871), Nietzsche calls Socrates the evidences-driven murderer of Dionysos; in his final notes, he holds, in a manifesto that will rule surrealism and then post-modernism, that ‘Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth’ (The Will Power, p822).
Which means that simulation is upgraded to a basic attribute of being, whereby the mind purports to mimic what is foreign to it in order to manipulate it. On the might of the primacy accorded to simulation we do well to take up his own testimony, as disclosed by a sketch for a new preface of Human, All-Too-Human. Says Nietzsch:
Onward! I told myself. Tomorrow you will be cured: today it is enough to simulate health. ... the histrionics of health was my remedy (Klosowski, 1969, p75)
The final goal is stated in aphorism 676 of The Will to Power: ‘In the long run it is not a question of man at all: he is to be overcome’, so that a new breed of human beings can come forward out of the moulding of oneself. Partly in dithyrambic effusions, but also out a deepening of suffering giving place to the highest feelings, the Hohe Stimmung signing this new human breed. This was written in 1886, some two years before his final collapse into madness, which adds poignancy to this formula for self-renewal and self-creation through mimicry, to his call to become one’s own work of art in the selfmodellings of a ‘histrionics of health’.
French-Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis, who in his later years took a serious interest in psychoanalysis and became a practitioner in order to accede to an insider’s view on its workings, poses in his book The Advance of Insignificance (1996) that, in a world in which the ephemeral has come to the point where the ten-second television spot is taken to be the most efficient communicational span, we are in a situation where the incorruptible judge, the honest public officer, the teacher devoted to his work, or the artisan to whom his work was his pride, are no longer conceivable. The system and the media take up the role of being the foremost educators - which means they systematically warp people’s time spans leading to an evanescence of meanings. According to Castoriadis, nobody now knows what it is to be a citizen and, given that sexual roles tend to dissolve, nobody knows any longer what it means to be a man or a woman. As quoted in my book, now a plain journalist feels free to admonish an eminent Spanish philosopher, Julián Marlas, on the fact that thought has gone out of fashion and this being so, children should dump their books and spend their time in the mindlessness of video clips.
So amid the histrionic antics of present-day media culture, psychoanalytic knowledge, in the sense of one’s learning to know about oneself, turns more necessary than it has ever been. But it won’t be easy to bridge the gap between the demands and capacities of people growing up amid cultural fashions of which the mind-erasure of the video clip is perhaps the limit example, and the psychoanalytic outlook, which as Folch aptly says, pleads for the elaboration of the unrepresentable before it is acted out and discharged destructively and self-destructively. There is an urgent need for authorpsychoanalysts to be able to reach the educated public pointing to what is obvious on the psychic vicissitudes of today’s unending adolescences, and there is also a dire need for us to learn to work analytically in the restricted insight
Let me now dwell, if briefly, on some main trends of the restricted psychic spaces found in present-day stressed-out, stretched-thin mindsets, arranging them in three psychic polarities, which may shift from moment to moment - antithetically to insight and psychic evolution - in the service of dampening or evading primitive anxieties. One of these can be characterised as ‘unplugged’, the other two as ‘plugged’.
The ‘unplugged’ polarity may be illustrated by a story told by someone living abroad in front of a monumental building, mostly of single women and men. At night time, on coming back from work, they put on the lights, then the TV sets, they open a can of beer or a soft drink, unpack their quick food and install themselves in front of the screen. This ‘unplugged’ pole is akin to autistic flotation or disconnection. One could just speak of plain entertainment, which it certainly is, but a night-by-night screen-glued state is much too often an open-term mindlessness. Clinical experience can be of help here: as the therapeutic process evolves, analysands come to delimit the times they are attending to a spectacle with their minds on, from those other times - which they learn to assay, and then to avoid - when they fall into screen-glued mindless states.
A ‘plugged’ pole of banal euphoria is caught by a joke circulating in Buenos Aires, and in other places as well. One girl asks another: ‘Tell me, what do you prefer, fucking or masturbating?’ To which the other girl replies ‘Oh, I’d rather fuck; you get to meet people’. Where Freud used to speak of a psychosexuality, we find an advance of insignificance in Castoriadis’ sense.
Let me recall what was told by a mother whose teenage son, a few days before, had bluntly confided that he had just had his first sexual relationship. Encouraged by the boy’s frankness, she asked how it had come to be. He responded, as one explains the obvious, that it happened where they got together in the evening for chats and dancing. At a certain time, instead of going dancing, a girl and a boy have a sexual relationship on the sofa of the salon, while the others make do as if nothing was happening; similarly the participants after the event. The boy explained that this is the way it is now, and that nobody talked about his or her own personal issues, expounding on them as they were doing. He did not talk at any length with his friends, nor did they so talk among themselves, nor with their parents.
In case I thought this was a soon-to-be-outgrown way of handling the adolescent fears of sexuality and amorous relationships by an autistic-like disconnection, I was called to my senses by an interviewee in his early thirties coming from a first-rate international think-tank, who had trouble adapting to the accepted manner of having relations: men and women about his age dropped by the beer place, drank themselves into oblivion in groups, and only on waking the next morning would they realise with whom they had passed their night. Then the incident would be left aside. Life went on in a mutual anonymity akin to the mindless, disconnected pole. Such euphoric eroticisms, hardly to be called amorous or even relationships, might be becoming a mark of the age. Reset. The ephemeral, fusional, orgiastic explosion of such heterosexuality mimics in its anonymity the homosexuality of urinals. As proclaimed by Foucault, here ‘Sexuality moves to the other side of the individual and ceases to be “subjectified”’ (1970, p40). Eroticism, Foucault sustains, takes up the space opened by Zarathustra in the death of God: the discovery of the Unlimited, and of transgression as the self-assertion of the limited being (Macey, 1993, p138).
At which point, since sexuality ceases to be ‘subjectified’ one might concede to Laplanche and to Stein that hetero- and homosexuality can both come to the service of the raptural dissipation of identity and the sacrifice of a personal emotional acquaintance of ‘subjects of knowledge’ in the counter-dependent orgiastic explosions of impersonal eroticisms. Acknowledged feelings, not to say amorous dependency on an individual other, are but a complication. Here, as distinct from healthy or neurotic psychosexuality, one may sexually bump into someone without actually meeting. Again, clinical experience shows, often with people well into their thirties, that, as the analysis evolves, they come to sustain and harbour, against dire anxieties, the pangs, the dependencies and the joys of the amorous individuation which, before the turning point of the ‘Age of Image’, used to be called love.
Euphoric banality goes beyond the sexual. In the dance culture fuelled by ‘recreational’ drugs, today’s revellers seek a dithyrambic version of the ‘Infinitised Instant’: the good night out. Uppers, downers and wideners - pot, cocaine, ecstasy - are, sustains Power (1999, p18-19) a proper part of the everyday notion of a night out.
On the third, ‘plugged’ pole, that of euphoric defiance, one can say that the advertising industry relies heavily on its might in to high impact, high-risk events, such as speed motorcycling, paragliding or bungeejumping. Risk feeds on itself, purveying in its ‘adrenaline shock’ a feeling of invulnerability.
‘Resets’ on impacting risk differ from the repression of the traumatic event as described by Freud for neuroses. In neurosis, trauma erases the memory of the event, but this mostly leads to an inhibition that precludes direct reenactment of the traumatic event. Contrarily, the ‘reset’ rises haughtily into a counter-memory, it reverts the anxieties of the trauma and furthers the flight into heroic, protagonistic self-overcoming. In its lack of tolerance for contact with one’s dependencies and frailties, counter-dependency mimics a protagonised form of autistic anaesthesia. Going on to hardier heroic goals in lieu of learning from the experience marks the defiant, hero-like counter-dependencies of the epoch.
Auto-creation in the head-on collision with death sportingly indwells the age. As I write these lines I have before my eyes a world-wide advert, putting one in the camera’s eye on a sighting of a close-up view of an aging man outlandishly garbed with a grandmother’s wig, dancing on the back wheel of his bicycle atop a pillar of what seems to be the Golden Gate bridge. One is invited to place oneself in the pants of the mocking hero, parodically reversing a scary out-of-your-wits scene. In a media-driven aesthetic of experience, self-creation in traversing annihilation anxieties pervades everyday life.
Once euphoric excitement is upgraded to a social criterion of health, it is hazardous to say what, if anything, belongs to psychopathology.
Already in the twenties Helene Deutsch (1925) spotted the role of sports in re-doing feelings of completude reversing massive feelings of inferiority linked to annihilation anxieties, as amplified years later by Otto Fenichel (1939) in his paper ‘The counter-phobic attitude’. This reversal is, though, not to be restricted to the gym or sports; it increasingly rules the workplace worldwide.
In the political scene, the world’s mightiest presidency has recently afforded an overt acme of a ‘histrionics of imposture’. And, as a downside to the autistic disconnection, the fleeting fusions and the triumph of euphoric defiance, the everyday logic of the void short-circuits in an up-shoot of suicidal implosions: the shadow of the Object crashes upon the ego, often for no obvious reason. Suicides in young men trebled in Australia in the last 30 years, with coincident findings elsewhere. In the United States suicide, the eighth overall cause of death, is third for 14-25 year olds, and fourth for 25-44 year olds. At Buenos Aires the suicide rate for 20-24 year-old males, from 1980 to 2000 went up fourfold, findings which hardly support Gilles Lipovetzky’s bland assumption in his influential book The Age of Void (1983) that the euphoric banality of narcissistic individuation displaces, dilutes and mitigates violence. Rather, the thinning-out of obdurately adolescent, counter-dependency driven, actionprone, protagonistically self-overcoming, unweaned mindsets instanced by the ‘Age of Image’ leaves young people open to violent implosion: the rebirth of idols in the aesthetics of experience here ends up cruelly enough. So there should be, I think, a proper place for psychoanalysis.
To finish, let me thank all of you again, and let me mention also my thanks to Horacio Etchegoyen, who has maintained, amplified, and helped me further, the broad empirical approach on which Freud’s method s grounded.
Copyright © 2001 Jorge Ahumada
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