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.

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Roudinesco, in spite of everything

When it comes to Roudinesco’s latest work – a kind of condensed life and times of Lacan – I have some reservations, as with the other of her works that I have read. Nevertheless, three points in particular stood out to me.

First, as Roudinesco tells it, Lacan ‘rejected the idea of describing symptoms separately from the subjective lived experience of insanity’ (p. 25). This idea remains radical, and within the clinical realm, is almost (though not totally) unique to psychoanalysis. One of the implicit assumptions of prevailing diagnostic systems is that one’s symptoms are more or less incidental to one’s life, and one’s subjectivity. This is turn justifies the peddling of dubious medications and generic ‘techniques’ for self-management.

Second, the following passage is worth mentioning:

‘Far from being the result of a conscious decision, freedom thus pertains to an imperative logic, unconscious in kind, which alone can break the subject’s adhesion to the imago of its servitude. In other words, in order to be free, it is necessary to be capable of assessing the determinations imposed on subjectivity by the unconscious’.  (p. 38).

In this account, psychoanalysis can be understood as upholding an ethic of freedom, albeit, by degrees, notwithstanding the structural determinism that some reduce it to. It is a very specific kind of freedom – far removed from Sartre’s conception of it, for instance – and has a number of clinical, philosophical and political implications. It is one of the reasons why Lacanian psychoanalysis is incompatible with tyranny.

Finally, Roudinesco upbraids the followers of Lacan who lapsed into total silence and apoliticism. Indeed, there remains a popular misconception that Lacanian treatment involves silence in the clinic, and silence in the world. Obviously, any analytic intervention must be carefully chosen, and silence may be a reasonable tactical manoeuvre at times, but responsiveness – whether in the clinic, or in the world – involves taking a position. There is no prudence in silence when one’s country (in my case, Australia) practices cruel forms of biopolitics over subject populations (there are many, but asylum seekers and Aborigines are perhaps the most egregious examples), or when one’s discipline (in my case, psychology) is complicit in a range of unethical activity, from Guantanamo torture and workfare (as I have observed elsewhere), to imposing norms of compliance under the cover of pseudoscience.

Roudinesco reminds us that psychoanalysis offers a praxis with something to say about human psychology, politics and freedom, and in this, it is unique among the psy-disciplines, and its discourse is all the more urgent for its being increasingly suppressed and marginalised.