The Treachery of Images

The scene was the mass uprising of students and workers across France in 1968. Famously, Lacan engaged with some of the students involved in the attempt at revolution. Two IPA analysts, writing under a pseudonym, denounced the students as would-be Stalinists acting out their infantile Oedipal problems. The IPA analysts, however, were not merely expressing a political opinion, but explicitly articulated their position in terms of the psychoanalytic jargon of their school, lending it a veneer of ‘scientific’ authority. It is a good example of University discourse, in other words, in that it places (psychoanalytic) knowledge at the centre of what in fact is a thinly-veiled partisan political intervention. (This great piece by Rabaté discusses the episode at length).

Lacan denounced this political intervention in ‘scathing’ terms, noting that the analysts in question were not participants of his school, Lacan’s school having been accused by the IPA analysts of ‘intellectual terrorism’. Beyond the retrograde political opinions of the pseudonymous authors, Lacan seemed to view their book as rather lacking, in theoretically speaking.

I was reminded of this episode when reading a brief paper by Agnes Aflalo, entitled ‘Ordinary Anti-Semitism’. The French original is located here, and a pdf of the English translation, to be found in Psychoanalytical Notebooks (2018) can be found here.

The author’s thesis is that whilst ‘extraordinary’ anti-Semitism was responsible for the Holocaust, in our times, anti-Semitic bigotry has been ‘banalised’, especially with respect to what she calls the ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’. Anti-Jewish activity is on the rise, and the author’s contention is that this persecution is insufficiently denounced by intellectuals because of ‘a hatred they themselves don’t recognise’, namely, unconscious anti-Semitism. According to Aflalo, Jews themselves are not immune to this unconscious predilection, since they are susceptible to ‘self-hatred’. Right and left are on the same side on this issue, more or less.

Consequently, the author explicitly condemns any principled critique of Zionism, or Israeli policy, for that matter, as merely so much masked, unconscious hatred of Jews. Aflalo is critical of leftist attempts at universalism, accusing them of extremism. “All equal without exception” is how Aflalo characterises the left, and this, she says, is a position that, in addition to concealing hatred of Jews, also disavows ‘the satisfaction proper to each’, and especially disavows the satisfaction of the leader, who would be the one directing the ‘equals’.

But wouldn’t placing Jews, or any ethnic group, for that matter, into the position of ‘exeption’ be pretty racist? Aflalo concedes this point, but ascribes it to the far-right, who allegedly make too much out of Jewish ‘difference’ and ‘exception’. The centrism that would avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of racial hatred on the difference-equality axis is not particularly well-elaborated in Aflalo’s paper, but following it would, according to her, offer ‘a chance to be a heretic in a good way’.

What can one say about this intervention by Aflalo? First, one might note the style, which is characteristic of certain Lacanian authors. There is no evidence, empirical or textual, used to substantiate any claims. Instead, the author proceeds by mere assertion and references to Jacques-Alain Miller. Naturally, this gives the piece a very imaginary character, a point to which I shall return.

We cannot accuse the author of ignorance or stupidity, as she has published other writings on psychoanalysis which, in my view, are excellent. It is also true that the situation in France, politically speaking, and for Jewish people in particular, is not identical with that of the Anglophone world. Yet note that the position here that she calls that of the ‘heretic’ is in fact that of pretty much every Western government, and particularly the US. Note also that by generalising every attempt at principled critique of Israeli colonialism and occupation whatsoever into bigotry, the author reproduces the anti-Semitic position of identifying Jews unequivocally with Israel. By her logic, Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders and Israelis who refuse military service to become political prisoners are anti-Semites, just unconsciously, and with bad faith. The like of Bolsonaro, Orban, and even Richard Spencer, all great friends of Israel, are let entirely off the hook. They exercise proper respect for Israeli jouissance.

One of the consequence of argument via imaginary assertion is that any position becomes paranoiac, and devolves into that of the belle âme, even if the author is trying to avoid this. In good imaginary fashion, the entire piece can be refuted by asserting that the defenders of Israeli government policy have their own unconscious hatred (of the displaced and terrorised people under the Israeli jackboot); as well as their own unacknowledged jouissance (in bloodshed, settlement-building, demolition of villages, maiming children, or whatever). An argument of two imaginaries, unmediated by anything else and undialecticised, quickly ends in impasse, like two Twitter adversaries accusing one another of ‘projection’.

By characterising the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by the IDF and settlers as a two-sided ‘conflict’, Aflalo lapses into the cheap universalism of which she accuses the left. We in Australia have some expertise in colonialism and ethnic cleansing, but nobody here, even among the openly racist, refers to a two-sided settler-indigenous ‘conflict’. Principled criticism of the domestic and foreign policies of Australia by Australians is not necessarily taken as a sign of self-hatred. No doubt Aflalo would object to this by referring to Israeli ‘exception’, but let’s not forget that exceptionalism is the position par excellence of extraordinary psychosis, especially paranoia. Exceptionalism is also the same political logic that the USA uses to justify its many coups and invasions, as well as its ongoing support for the dispossession of Palestine (but here, Aflalo might argue that I am lapsing into anti-American racism). Aflalo says that it is the beautiful souls who stage a ‘refusal of the Other’, but the Other fantasised in Aflalo’s paper is that of paranoia, reduced to a prop for the defense of one’s ego. Note the staggering egocentricity required to claim that silence, or insufficient denunciation, is a proof of unconscious hatred, as if, a priori, the position of Jews is the central concern for everybody everywhere. Note also how what I am generously calling Aflalo’s argument collapses entirely with the briefest consideration of the material conditions of Palestinians, or of the hate-filled rhetoric of Israeli settlers and their political representatives for that matter.

Whilst I don’t share the opinions expressed in this piece, I highlight them not so much to stimulate debate about Israel and Palestine (this is not a debate on which many change their minds) but rather to take this piece as symptomatic of certain problems within Lacanian psychoanalytic thought. Specifically, I think at least four key points can be drawn here, though I’m sure readers can draw others.

First, what are the conditions under which this piece – so poorly reasoned and offensively inflammatory, possiubly the worst Lacanian piece of all-time – could be published? Note that the two publications it is in do not provide any debate whatsoever on the issue at stake. There are no contrary opinions given, and the piece is presented without qualification or caveat. That such a wildly accusatory political intervention can pass through institutional transmission without the slightest hint of criticism suggests that the conditions underpinning its publication can only be those of the most sheltered and conformist gerontocracy. It is mildly astonishing that anyone could feel authorised to pass off their most lurid fantasies about their political antagonists as psychoanalytic theory without rejoinder or embarassment.

Second, the imaginary style of argument exemplified in the piece is shared by a number of older psychoanalytic authors. That the style is presumably received as credible by at least members of its school is a testament to the fact that it circulates within the discourse of the University, and not that of the analyst. Its legitimacy derives from its authors name, and the names (Lacan, but mostly Miller) of those invoked by the author. The discourse of the university functions not by coercion by indoctrination and assimilation. A perusal of institutional publiations demonstrates that Masters do not need to dominate their schools with an iron fist for their student-disciples to endlessly (and voluntarily) repeat their imaginary assertions as something akin to scripture. Thus, during the most recent French presidential elections, analysts wrote papers elaborating upon Jacques-Alain Miller’s tweets. Miller himself, in a recent interview, invented an entirely imaginary version of Lacan, stating that if Lacan had lived to the present time, he would have revised his views on capitalism to the point of seeing no possible alternative to it (i.e. he would have revised his positions to be more Millerian). It’s like a very shoddy version of the ontological proof of God’s existence. If anybody can conceive of a contemporary, still-living Lacan who opposes capitalism, Macron, or IDF atrocities, this is logically no less valid than Miller’s reveries. That is, of course, unless one takes the entire piece as an argument from authority, and has unconditional faith in that authority.

Third, since at least 2017, Miller (and therefore his followers) have directly engaged in political discourse with a view to promoting a version of what can be called ‘sensible centrism’, in which left and right alike, Melenchon and Le Pen, are equivalent and equally deserving of criticism and suspicion. This position, however, is neither psychoanalytic nor neutral, and for all of the claims of its adherents to be accounting for their own unconscious, it is difficult to find any opinion that would be differ from what might be expected of geriatric, white European bourgeois thought. The parameters of this thought permit some political discourse – the recognition of anti-Semitism as a serious problem is an example here – but it is also notable for what it excludes. Colonialism appears to be systematically absent. Class oppression is ill-suited to fit within this version of liberal centrism, and transphobia is more or less openly tolerated, and forms of racism that aren’t reducible to anti-Semitism are largely invisible. As ever, liberals are blind to liberal collusion with fascism, but the liberal alliance with capitalism is overt, with Miller, as the symbolic (though not administrative) head of his school identifying himself with the anti-left liberal politician Guizot. Moreover, it is not altogether clear why analysts whose formation occurred in the 1960s, 70s or 80s unhesitatingly imagine themselves qualified to channel the contemporary zeitgeist.

This leads to my fourth, and final point, concerning the political orientation of Miller and his followers. Just as Miller, in his paper on the six paradigms of jouissance, gave a periodisation of Lacan, so too can one periodise Miller. Roughly, one could begin with a position from the 1960s that was informed by philosophy and militant politics, followed by a period in which Miller supplied a comprehensive exegesis of the logic of Lacan’s teaching, to a period coinciding with the years of this century. In this latter portion of Miller’s work, transmitted under the rubric of ‘the late Lacan’, almost every innovation that one could call ‘Millerian’ involves transforming the Lacanian subject into a figure that corresponds to the atomisd, isolated subject of contemoporary neoliberalism (and that happens to coincide with Miller’s political current tendencies). The so-called ‘One-all’Alone’, the supposed ‘autism of jouissance’, the refusal of dialectics and the alleged non-existence of the Other all point in this direction. (There is also the issue of Miller’s wild sociological claims, but I’ll address them somewhat in a forthcoming paper). This transformation seems to go unnoticed in psychoanalytic literature but once seen it is hard to unsee. If this reading is correct, then it is not merely a situation in which there is psychoanalytic theory and praxis on one side, and reactionary politics on the other, as something incidental but are woven into the fabric of the theory itself, and quite possibly, the praxis. The paper by Aflalo is an egregious symptom of this theoretical direction. If conformism and apologias for miliitarism, occupation and the ruling class constitute a ‘heresy’, then it’s that of evangelical Pentacostalism in which one need never question the certainties generated by one’s imaginary.

1 thought on “The Treachery of Images

  1. Pingback: Woke in Fright | Archives of a Divided Subject

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