Woke in Fright

Since 2017, prominent Lacanian psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic schools have made an explicit  turn towards a politically reactionary version of liberalism. In this milieu, political party involvement is viewed with suspicion, or as pathologically symptomatic, and there is a sweeping equivalence between left and right that permits its authors to deploy terms such as ‘Islamo-gauchisme’ or ‘LePeno-Trotskyisme’. In this context, unsurprisingly, the same analysts denounce ‘wokeism’, segregation and identity politics as one of the principal evils of these troubled times.

One should note that being ‘woke’ is almost always a second-person designation. Practically nobody self-identifies as woke. I note this as the EuroFederation of Lacanian Psychoanalysts, PIPOL, is hosting a conference on the theme of the ‘Clinic and Critique of Patriarchy’. In the lead-up to this conference, various analysts have contributed short writings elucidating the topic of paternity, and one in particular caught my eye, on ‘woke discourse’, by Sylvie Berkane-Goumet. I will try to give a generous reading of Berkane-Goumet’s paper, which obviously means giving an uncharitable account of those designated by her as ‘woke’.

The argument she presents is interesting for several reasons. There is no attempt at a definition of ‘woke discourse’: it is presumed to be self-evident. She presents nothing in the order of evidence, and her examples – Butler, Preciado – raise more questions than they answer. I presume – perhaps incorrectly – that ‘woke’ in her idiom refers to the howls of antipathy that one can find in social media pile-ons, when the jouissance of fragmented individuals is shifted from one outrage to another over the course of the social media cycle, based on whatever is trending. The author cites Lacan in asserting that discourse is nothing other than a social link, and the style of interaction that I’ve described above does not arise from a place of social links, and appears mostly incapable of generating them. On this point, it is hard to disagree with the author.

One could go further still and note that social media tends toward an emphasis on imaginary relations, and that this in turn will tend to push interactions toward aggressivity, doubling and mirroring, paranoia, hysterical protest and belle âme posturing. The relative fungibility of the objects of this aggressivity demonstrates here that the Other at stake is barely existent, and this style of outpouring cannot be called a discourse at all. The paranoiac style, in particular, tends to foreclose the possibility of any ‘fraternal’ bonds being forged amidst a struggle against a common (perceived) enemy. Twitter is a primal horde in which the sons (and daughters, and NBs) merely scream at their obscene fathers rather than kill them.

The author does not appear to be aware that this style of online interaction probably peaked somewhere around 2016, the year of Brexit and Trump, inter alia. I’m not suggesting that it has disappeared altogether, but the accusation that an interlocutor is ‘woke’ carries little in the way of rigour or force these days. When alleged wokeism was at its height, it is worth placing it in relation to its dialectical (but undialecticised) counterpart, namely, that of reactionary online transgression. Trump’s genius resided in fostering this style of political intervention, in which breaking (largely imaginary) rules and enjoying cruelty was the point of the exercise. There’s jouissance to be had in mocking a disabled journalist, in denouncing Mexican immigrants as rapists, and in proclaiming neo-Nazis as ‘very fine people’. I’m not persuaded that Trump himself necessarily believes a word of it. 

In any case, when pressed, the reactionaries, of course, speak in the name of freedom, and claim to be regaining territory lost to woke censorship, but this is bad faith (in the sense implied, for instance, in Sartre’s paper on anti-Semitism) and also disavows the tango in which the two parties are locked. One side gets its kicks from ‘owning the libs’; the other from performative outrage and harangue. The author contends that this style of engagement owes its origins to the alleged decline of the Name-of-the-Father, but this assertion reads like an article of faith, delivered ex cathedra. Paranoia as a structure, and jouissance in sadism precede the abolition of the patriarchy, and often could find ready-made expression from within said patriarchy.

This is where Berkane-Goumet’s paper starts to get a little symptomatic. She sees only the woke side as worthy of denunciation, and not the online fascists. Again, there is the characteristic lapse into false equivalence, in which (for instance) geriatric, bigoted analysts getting themselves criticised on Twitter is of a piece with Florida banning ‘critical race theory’. The ‘discourse’ being denounced here starts to look decidedly imaginary, as is characteristic of the style of certain analytic publications. The author asks, rhetorically: ‘Although this discourse aims to denounce the arbitrariness of patriarchy, does it not insist on substituting this arbitrariness for a new arbitrariness?’

This is an incredibly strange question, and I can only wonder what specific woke discourse and ideology the author has in mind when asking it. Western Europe, the US, Canada and Australia have formally abolished the patriarchy. To be sure, it has many vestigial remnants. Sexism remains rampant, albeit, sometimes in different forms than before. To the extent that past and present critique of the patriarchy has developed, which critic has its ‘arbitrariness’ at the top of her list of criticisms? To ask such a question is already to have reduced the question of patriarchy from that of a social-historical form to a mere problem of logical consistency. And isn’t the author, by her own reasoning, just one more in the series supplying yet another arbitrariness in purporting to adopt a position from which to judge all of this?

One can add to the list of symptoms here the profound commitment to systematically misunderstanding the nature of contemporary jouissance, especially that afforded by the internet. Perhaps this is partly a problem of the most vocal representatives of Lacanian analysis often being both reactionary and in their twilight years. It is not without some amusement that one can picture them logging onto social media, seeing their cherished prejudices upended, and rather than asking themselves whether they are elitists or out of touch, instead promptly logging off and muttering darkly about the ‘disorder in the real’, without noticing that something subtler is happening. It is one thing to have Marx and Marxism as an occasional, localised reference point, but without Marxism (or something like it) as a framework, one is going to struggle in dealing with questions of the relation of ‘ideology’ (woke or otherwise) to materiality (and I include jouissance under this latter category). 

If one spouted idiotic and inflammatory rhetoric in a town square in Europe a few hundred years ago, it is not as if the reaction of passers-by would necessarily have been kind. The speaker might have ben assaulted, killed, pelted with rotten fruit, or otherwise ‘cancelled’. What is transformed now, via the internet, is the speed and rate at which both the inflammatory schtick and its denunciatory accompaniment can be dispersed. What appears to be a merely quantitative acceleration nonetheless produces qualitatively different effects, as those seeking to engage aggressively online will not need to wait patiently at a local piazza for a hapless belligerent to speak, given that such speakers can be found almost without limit on social media. Twitter and Facebook can function as wrath machines which never switch off. Social media is the town square industrialised and digitised.

We have an analogy in the form of so-called pornography addiction, or compulsive masturbation. Pornography, coined from Ancient Greek, is hardly new. What is new in the wifi age is the form of its distribution, which now no longer requires (much) money and can be delivered ubiquitously, in excess of spatial (and sometimes temporal) limitations. From the changes in form flow the changes in content as the relative limitlessness of the form, and the difficulty that subjects have in separating from it produces effects of ‘desensitisation’, escalation, etc. A similar phenomenon can be observed with gambling via online apps (as opposed to betting that is limited to specific spatial and temporal sites). ‘Dating’ apps offer another parallel; what is being sold by developers is not, strictly speaking, dating, but the ability to swipe on an app.

If wifi and social media give this woke jouissance its form, it follows that the ‘ideology’ is largely subordinate to the former. In fact, one could follow US political philosopher Corey Robin here and argue that both reactionary liberalism (of the sort the gave the US Trump as president) and woke liberalism are not animated by anything resembling a coherent ideology. The reactionaries – in Australia, at least – see that mass support for homophobia is a lost cause, and so instead take up the cudgel of transphobia to own the libs. The frontier has shifted and the combatants respond accordingly. Elsewhere, the libs respond by critiquing the whiteness of their enemies or accusing their culinary choices as being culturally appropriative. It is a dance of jouissance that occurs in reaction, and not the ‘building of an ideology’. 

Consequently, the author’s claims here – the usual hackneyed tropes about ‘cancel culture’ – sound hollow and divorced from any empirical content. Occasionally, it is true, online pile-ons have real-life, ‘material’ consequences beyond that of the jouissance of those piling on. There is the woman who tweeted something racist before getting on a long haul flight only to have gotten off the plane to discover that she was fired. Mostly, however, the diatribes are displays of political impotence. Notwithstanding the cries of execration in Twitter, Henry Kissinger sleeps soundly in his bed. George W. Bush paints mediocre portraits and gets rehabilitated by talk-show hosts. French neo-colonialism, which continues apace in Africa, remains a marginal topic in mainstream discourse notwithstanding the symbolic and material destruction it produces. This impotence is precisely what one would expect when the political interventions in question do not involve the formation of social bonds. They are useless, as jouissance is useless; matters of private enjoyment. Actual activists are elsewhere. But Berkane-Goumet mistakes the shrill grandiosity of woke rhetoric for mass-scale political transformation when, more than anything, it is the braying of subjects whose comprehensive political castration forecloses any such transformation. Or, to put it differently, political transformation is a little comparable to sex; those who are actually doing it are not necessarily the same as the ones speaking endlessly to persuade others that they are doing it.

This is the contradiction in the argument here, and I linger on it because it seems to characterise significant swathes of psychoanalytic ideology. From memory, I can think of woke tweeters who opined that a 10-year age gap in sexual relations between consenting adults was tantamount to pedophilia, and that the death of a toddler by an alligator was a consequence of the former’s ‘white privilege’. If one looks past the ideologies expressed here and tries to find a substantial, offline basis for such views, one will be searching in vain for a long time. Such tweets go viral, not because so many people agree with them but because they have the macabre allure of a train wreck. Try to found social bonds (say, a political movement) on the basis of these views and the prospects look doubtful. I’m sure that one could find tweets alleging that fathers are the source of all evil; I’m equally sure that the best feminist work, and the most advanced emancipatory political formations assert no such thing. 

At the time of writing, the Maoists in India are lopping off the heads of BJP officials. One would not expect European Lacanians to notice this, since for many, the world outside of Europe does not exist (except for the US, which exists as a kind of surrealist cartoon). The Naxalite Maoists, apparently, have been wanting to counter BJP propaganda that they are diminishing in strength, so they have sought to prove this by way of propaganda of the deed. That’s cancel culture! Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t count as the Maoists prefer pamphlets over Twitter.  It is difficult to find any clear examples of specifically ‘woke’ online congregations producing material political effects (other than private jouissance). The one exception, where online crankery really does produce some sort of real-world political efficacy tends to be in the case of extremely isolated and paranoid (but ‘normal’ passing) lone wolf’ terrorists on the right. But here, it is because the efficacy at stake is such that it does not require social bonds to begin with. It is an exception that proves the rule. Moreover, it is grafted relatively easily onto the prevailing reactionary ideals of violence and transgression. Our author here does not identify any woke equivalent to this lone wolves. If one wished, as the author does, to identify the Name-of-the-Father with patriarchy and the establishment of limits and order, one could easily read woke rhetoric as evidence of too much father, at least in the sense of their being both too much and too little castration. Too much in that there is complete political impotence; too little in that there is insufficient separation from objects of jouissance. 

There is also a question here, that the author skilfully evades, as to the limits of denouncing the rhetoric of others as ‘woke’. The Arab Spring in Egypt used social media to mobilise. The protests in 2020 produced unprecedented mobilisation in the US (and elsewhere) as police stations were immolated as petty recompense for the mass murders perpetrated by those working within. I wonder what Berkane-Goumet would say if I, or someone else, tweeted something along the lines that the murder of George Floyd, filmed in excruciating detail, was a sickening indictment of systemic racism in the US generally and the police in particular. Would this qualify as woke, and therefore be dismissible? If I call upon comrades to rise up against puppet and tyrant, murderer and tortuter Hosni Mubarak, would this to be an example of wokeism? Where are the borderlines to this epithet, or do they shift with the caprices of the papal infallibility of Berkane-Goumet’s masters? Silence is an element of discourse, and to be silent in the face of atrocity is not the same as saying nothing.

If one has listened a little more careful than our author, one might have noticed that the condemnation of alleged wokeism sounds almost identical to the positions of such intellectuals and luminaries as Elon Musk and Jordan Peterson. That is, it sounds like the sort of discourse, or pseudo-discourse, generated within what Lacan termed the discourse of capital. This is the discourse in which significant portions of Lacanian psychoanalysis are stuck. The analysts in which hate segregation, but they fight it by micromanaging anybody beyond the Rhine to within an inch of their life. Meanwhile, they purport to be open to all, but money, as ever, is the unconscious segregator. The only way that a citizen of the New World could ever gain admission is not by ‘completing’ analysis, nor by theoretical or clinical brilliance, but by paying. Naturally, the analysts in question will retort that rich and poor alike are equally free to sleep under bridges.

Singularity is a critical component of psychoanalytic ethics. It stands at the heart of the analyst’s refusal to normalise analysands, to hold them to some presumed yardstick. Yet it is also a weasel word, a refuge for analysts and schools who practice their own universalism in effect but who do so unconsciously. ‘One at a time’ is the method by which psychoanalysis works with suffering, but ‘one at a time’, as a political prescription, is rather obviously an apologia for the discourse of capitalism and for the reactionary status quo. ‘One at a time’ means pretending that structural phenomena are reducible to disconnected individual instances, which require no systemic solution. ‘Singularity’, reduced here to a slogan, does not prevent some of those who use it from arrogating a quasi-universalist position from which it is possible to denounce ‘woke’ rhetoric as extremist, puritanical, etc. It is remarkably similar to the ego psychology denounced by Lacan; implicitly, the reactionary analysts offer their analysands (and here, their readers) some ‘reality-testing’, and the opportunity to identify with the healthy ego of their masters. It is a view from nowhere. It means that I, the enlightened analyst, can denounce wokeists as I see fit without ever having to commit to a positive political position of my own. Except that in every case, the analyst has already committed, unconsciously, and with requisite disavowal, to the discourse of capitalism. Politically (but not clinically) speaking, ‘one at a time’ is a position of cowardice, and the one who hides behind it offers zero.

Once a psychoanalytic school has abolished structure, the symbolic order, and the notion of paternal metaphor, all based on dubious politics and truly embarrassing sociological claims, the scope for diagnosing contemporary clinical problems becomes drastically limited. Likes and retweets are mistaken for revolutions, and the analysts start to partake in the same delusions as the paranoiac tweeters they think they are denouncing. All that said, Twitter moralising, like the other sorts, is annoying, and on this point the author has my sympathy. It’s only appropriate that I finish by borrowing some wit from a pseudonymous tweeter here: 

Send not to know for whom the woke scolds. It scolds for thee. 


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