Enjoying What We Don’t Have: Interview with Philosopher Todd McGowan

Film theorist and philosopher Todd McGowan recently spoke with me about his new book, Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis. For however much we throw the word “accessible” around in academic discussions as the strength of a philosophy book, McGowan’s accessibility really is quite stunning. In one chapter he compared the DaVinci Code to Derrida as it relates to hermeneutics and signification, without sacrificing any of the meaty aspects of the ideas, and actually clarifying many psychoanalytic concepts. He frequently sums up big ideas of Lacan or Freud in ways that get to the core of the thought.

McGowan’s thinking is influenced by Slavoj Žižek, Alenka Zupančič, and Mladen Dolar (the Slovene School). In many ways, this is where I think McGowan gets his insistence on the Freudian death drive, his reading of ethics as the capacity to sustain the monstrous jouissance of the Other, and his focus on applying psychoanalysis to emancipatory politics. Despite his points of agreement with the Slovene’s, however, McGowan diverges from them and others, including Lacanian analysts, in interesting ways.

McGowan was kind enough to exchange his thoughts with me and I hope that you buy his book. This interview is slated to also appear on Berfrois sometime soon.

DT. In your new book, Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis, you argue that Freud’s singular contribution for thinking emancipatory politics is the death drive. You point out how Freud’s death drive prevents us from grounding politics on any notion of the “good” and of ever holding out the notion that we might overcome antagonism within the social order. The idea you point out, as I understand it is to learn how to confront the loss that is at the core of all social and psychical existence. This strikes me as an incredibly challenging premise to thinking politics, right?

Todd McGowan’s latest book, “Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis”

TM. I’m tempted to stop the answer at “yes.”  I understand why Freud at the end of Civilization and Its Discontents said that he couldn’t preach an alternative to the social order as it was, even as he saw it heading for total disaster.  Once he jettisons the idea of the good, it becomes almost impossible to envision political struggle.  The political thinker smuggles it back in, even when she or he accepts its explicit rejection, because some idea of the good seems to be a necessary condition for the possibility of politics.  But I wrote the book believing that the abandonment of the good still left a small opening for thinking politics.  And I don’t see any other way of doing it than focusing on the opposition between the good and enjoyment.  Once we accept that the good is antithetical to our enjoyment, is a barrier to our enjoyment, it becomes possible to think politics beyond the good.  The politics of enjoyment can eschew the good altogether, I think.  But we can’t fall into the trap of saying that the world will be better if we adopt a different organization of our enjoyment.  No, in some sense it will become worse because we would lose the justifications that accompany our failures to enjoy fully.  What we would gain, however, is what I would call an authentic relation to our enjoyment.  I think we have to insist absolutely on the concept of authenticity in order to conceive of politics, just as resolutely as we have to abandon the good.  In this way, I would replace the good with authenticity.  That’s what we can’t do without in fact, even if it has been discredited by the association with Heidegger.

DT. You point out that the role of psychoanalysis is to locate enjoyment, and not to merely tell us how our fantasies are constructed. What does this sort of critique look like?

TM. This is for me the key critical task.  We think of fantasy as the scenario through which we obtain what we desire and thus create an image of ourselves satisfied.  But if we look closely at the structure of fantasy, this is not at all where the satisfaction is located.  Fantasies always involve an act that deprives us of the object before we obtain it, and it is in this deprivation that we enjoy in the fantasy.  We fantasize the object at a distance in order that we can properly enjoy the object.  Once we recognize this, everything changes.  Even the most ideological Hollywood fantasies require this distance from the object to function effectively.  Our ability to enjoy these fantasies depends not on their ideological function of enabling us to imagine ourselves obtaining the impossible object.  We enjoy these fantasies because they make the object impossible.  Obtaining the object is a small pleasure that arrives at the end, never the source of the fantasmatic enjoyment.  Of course, there are ideological fantasies, but fantasy as such, if we understand it correctly, is not ideological.

DT. It seems to me that a frequent critique of psychoanalysis and politics is that in its inability, and perhaps unwillingness to propose concrete policy reforms or political projects, it falls back on a notion that everyone should just undergo analysis. Do you think that a political project that is informed by psychoanalytic teachings implies that we should all undergo analysis? You write in your book for instance that fantasy is a crucial point for facilitating a sort of un-bonding process from the larger capitalist mode of subjectivity. What do you see as the role of analysis and political emancipatory work?

TM. I will alienate many of my analyst friends with this response, but I have no political investment at all in psychoanalytic practice.  I’ve undergone some analysis myself.  However, I don’t believe that everyone undergoing psychoanalysis would change much at all politically.  What is important about psychoanalysis to me is its theoretical intervention, its discovery of the death drive and the role that fantasy plays in our psyche.  This is the great advance.  And political struggle can integrate these theoretical insights without any help from actual psychoanalysis.  What allows one to disinvest in the capitalist mode of subjectivity is not, in my view, the psychoanalytic session.  Instead it is the confrontation with a mode of enjoyment that ceases to provide the satisfaction that it promises.  This prompts one to think about alternatives.  Obviously, not everyone can become a theorist, but in a sense, everyone already is a theorist.  We theorize our enjoyment when we think through our day and plan out where we’re going to do.  Even watching a television show requires an elaborate theoretical exercise.  Making this theorizing evident and thus arousing an interest in theory is to me much more important than having a lot of people undergo psychoanalysis.  In response to your question about the universalization of psychoanalytic practice, I have more faith in a universalization of psychoanalytic theory.

DT. You provide an interesting critique of contemporary Hegelians who insist on grounding projects of egalitarian politics on Hegel’s theory of recognition. You claim that psychoanalysis, particularly in Lacan’s teachings, demonstrates that recognition blocks enjoyment. It deprives us of a certain proximity and exposure to the real other, and it’s also a failed approach to thinking political change because of the way that authority has changed. You write that in our world today, subjects do not experience a clear demand from social authority, and consequently, they do not discover the secret to the desire of the authority hidden beneath the authority’s demand. How does psychoanalysis help us to think this new relation to authority today?

TM. It’s impossible to understand how contemporary authority functions without psychoanalysis.  Lacan is very clear in his explanation of the superego as an agency not of prohibition but of enjoyment, and nothing is more evident in today’s authorities.  We are constantly bombarded with commands that we enjoy ourselves, and we feel guilty not for our sins but for our failures to enjoy as much as our neighbors.  Psychoanalysis shows us that this command to enjoy is integral to how authority operates and that obedience can feel transgressive.  This is the key to the power of contemporary authority.  We obey but never experience ourselves as obedient.  One of the important ideas of psychoanalysis is what our experience is necessarily and not just contingently deceptive.  Nowhere is this truer than in our relation to contemporary authority.  We don’t know how obedient we are, and we require psychoanalysis to show us.  I would even say that this has been the task of psychoanalysis from the beginning.  Patients would come to Freud believing that they were rebelling through their symptoms, and he would show them that their rebellion was anything but.  The task today is to see that we aren’t being revolutionaries so that we can be.

DT. I think a lot of psychoanalysis falls into an ethical trap that prevents it from being deployed to thinking emancipatory politics more critically. You write that the ethical position of psychoanalysis involves “sustaining the liberal’s tolerance within the conservative’s encounter with the real other.” In Badiou’s Theory of the Subject, he warns of the danger in Lacan’s teachings to reduce them to an ethics. How do we avoid this trap, and what do you see as the key difference between ethics and politics for Lacan?

TM. I know that both Badiou and Žižek insist on the difference between the ethical and the political while granting absolute priority to the latter.  Theoretically, I’m usually proximate to both of them, but here I would insist on some distance because I don’t accept the distinction.  When I say the ethical position of psychoanalysis, I’m equally saying the political position of psychoanalysis.  Of course, I understand the danger of giving priority to ethics, but my point is the opposite.  Ethics is unthinkable for me outside of politics.  All ethics is reducible to politics.  Someone who tries to sustain an ethical position without considering the political ground of this position is simply not sustaining an ethical position.  Both ethics and politics—I believe they are the same thing—are grounded for me in contradiction or antagonism and our response to it.  The ethical/political position embraces the antagonism and thus the necessity of loss.  There is no ethics outside of this for me, and there is no political project that doesn’t take this into account.

DT. I really found your chapter on the missing binary signifier and the DaVinci Code to be a clear example of how psychoanalysis differs from other political programs, from liberalism, to hermeneutics, to fundamentalism and even to say that of the vitalist projects of Deleuze and Hardt and Negri. The idea is that for psychoanalysis, we must identify with the missing signifier, and not seek its radical elimination. The missing signifier concerns the law itself, not those who are excluded. What does this sort of politics that seeks identification with the missing binary signifier look like? For example, how might we apply this to say Occupy Wall Street?

TM. Now I will offend some other friends of mine.  I was completely in support of Occupy Wall Street and even had several students who took part with my full encouragement.  That said, there is a theoretical problem, and it is located exactly at the point you bring up.  Occupy didn’t identify with the missing binary signifier but involves an identification with the excluded.  I have a real problem with the slogan that identifies the movement with the 99%.  What happens?  Instantly, a new Other is produced that is the 1%, and if we can just eliminate this 1%, then we will achieve the good.  That’s the logic at work.  In this sense, Occupy, despite its successes (including, I would claim, the re-election of Barack Obama), remained within a very traditional political paradigm.  Identification with the missing binary signifier would insist, in contrast, would involve an identification with the inherent failure of the Other or the system itself.  It would have to say something like “No One Belongs” rather than the two alternatives—either we are really the ones who belong or we are those who don’t belong.  Not we are all citizens but no one is a citizen.  We shouldn’t give the 1% credit with really enjoying themselves or knowing what they’re doing.  Badiou calls these finance capitalists legitimate gangsters.  I don’t disagree, but this creates the sense that they are on the inside while the rest of us are on the outside.  Isn’t the lesson of Michael Mann’s masterpiece The Insider with Russell Crowe that the insider is always an outsider and that enjoyment, despite what we believe, is located on the outside?

About Todd McGowan

Todd McGowan teaches courses in film theory, history, and genre at the University of Vermont. His areas of interest include Hegel, psychoanalysis, and existentialism, and the intersection of these lines of thought with the cinema. McGowan is the author of Enjoying What We Don’t Have: A Psychoanalytic Politics, Rupture: On the Emergence of the Political, and The Fictional Christopher Nolan.

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