This is a fairly ambitious post. Here I attempt to show how the theory of neurosis developed by the early psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, particularly his theory of pseudo aggression or aggression that is fundamentally fictional and a defense of a deeper source of antagonism can provide an excellent addition to the standard theory of ideology as “fetishist disavowal”, or “I know very well, but.” What pseudo aggression can add to a theory of ideology is a logic for how social antagonisms are treated and how contradictions are ignored. To tease this idea out I draw a distinction between a minor and a major contradiction in terms similar to the Maoist idea of contradictions.
The Baby Boomer-Millennial divide is a profound difference in quality of life driven by fundamentally different and profoundly unequal economic conditions that have faced the two generations. The fact that Millennials tend to live in structural debt insecurity and lead a far more economically precarious way of life than their Boomer elders is not merely a conflict of collective experience, what’s significant about it is that it is a contradiction in the sense that it cannot be thought collectively.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we know that generations do not act in concert and there is a great deal of rivalry within a given generation. Classes on the other hand think far more uniformly than do generations even though classes don’t know that they have shared interests. You could say there is a greater degree of contradiction in terms of class than there is of generational-based conflict.
For a Boomer to not have the lived experience of debt servitude that Millennials live with is one such example of a symptom of the generational conflict, and it is one that cannot be spoken of because if it were then it would threaten to disrupt the order of a whole series of essential assumptions that make up the order of our world. Bosses would lose efficacy, the morals and standards of viewing the world would be seriously doubted across generations. And of course this happens!
But the generational divide is not consistent enough of a contradiction to elevate to what I will call a major contradiction. It is arguably the case that there is no equivalent sacrifice that the Boomer generation has made compared to the living hell of Millennial life — they have no clear form of subjection they have had to endure collectively. But yet to bring this knowledge out in the open, to make this difference real to people, would risk upsetting the function of our shared world, it would simply be too difficult to confess this difference. What comes in the face of this difficulty are defense mechanisms.
The idea of ideology as structured on fetishist disavowal is one way to explain why the generational divide cannot be acknowledged by Boomers through a logic of belief. Because Boomers believe in an ideology such as Bootstrapism, Algerism or the equality of capitalist meritocracy, they disavow the legitimacy of the centrality of the generational difference as determinative to the conflict.
Minor contradictions such as the generational divide, or major contradictions such as the class contradiction can be read as cutting holes in discourse. Contradictions are holes where the unthinkable affects us both subjectively and in discourse. This is my preliminary definition of a contradiction. Now, I want to think a theory of ideology that can speak to what happens to us in the wake of the hole that contradictions sear in discourse and social life.
The generational divide is a minor contradiction due to the fact that it produces an unthought but one that is not consistent. After all, it is not a consistent contradiction because generations do not have shared interests in the way that the working class has a shared interest. The working class does not know that it has shared interests but that does not take away from the fact that they do have shared interests.
Whether the contradiction is minor or major is determined by the potential for that conflict to spill over to draw out unsaid antagonisms within the social and political situation. In this way, ideology is about covering over antagonisms.
In the Zizekian theory of ideology the governing logic is fetishist disavowal – the “I know very well, but” i.e. the “but” relies on a particularly strong belief to the denial of another one, for example: “I reject the basis of class struggle because my belief in the magic power of the market to solve social class problems” for example. This means that there is a belief behind the disavowed reality on offer, a rejection is at work.
But this rejection is far more subtle and deep. It follows a deep and structural logic that is embedded in the capitalist mode of social relations, i.e., fetishist disavowal also refers to a more structural feature of commodification itself – namely to the fact that reification functions to conceal the way that commodities are merely things. Fetishist disavowal is the function that legitimates the smooth flow of commodification: we must act as if commodities they are endowed with properties they do not have as a precondition to participate in capitalist social relations. Does that mean that we have to have a belief in ‘capitalism’ proper in order to live in the world? No! The logic does not necessarily require an empirical belief in that sense.
However, there does need to be some object by which the denial makes its pivot whether that object of belief is convincing to the subject or not. To return to our idea of a contradiction as producing a hole in the situation of what is co-thinkable, how can you disavow a hole or a nothing?
Here is my argument: the hole that contradictions develop produce guilt as a result of the void they cut into social relations. A contradiction creates an impasse, a point of nonsense, but what comes in its wake? This is what we have a hard time describing with a theory of ideology based on fetishist disavowal. In other words, wow does subjectivity relate to this loss and impossibility that is of course repetitive across many contradictions – both minor and major? One plausible answer is that we feel guilt. But not only guilt. Let’s say that we experience a series of negative affects that are characterized by ambivalent attachment to the loss that the contradiction has brought about.
This is why the class struggle is not merely a conflict but a struggle. It refers to a deeper, far more consistent logic of social organization. In this way we can see why class struggle is the paramount and major contradiction precisely because it cuts and performs so many scissions and holes in our shared reality, more than any other. It is a receptacle of contradictions that aren’t spoken of and often therefore remain fundamentally repressed. Not all contradictions produce as much nonsense — and I want to argue, guilt and negative affects – as class struggle does.
This begs the question of what a contradiction that is given a great deal of visibility does to its repressed status? Here we can think of the way that corporate and media culture elevates racial conflict in ways which circumscribe it as separate entirely from class. In this way every time race is elevated as a stand-alone contradiction you know something is wrong with the presentation. Race is a true contradiction in that is sears a hole in discourse. So when we have a culture that attempts to repair that hole at all costs, often desperately so, this is a sign of pseudo aggression. What I am suggesting is that the class/race binary is a false binary. Class and race are not separate contradictions, especially in America, but when they are treated as separate contradictions one can sense a pseudo aggression at play. I would suggest, at least provisionally here, that race and class are major contradictions that must be thought in tandem not as binaries. The forced binary of race and class is an indication of ideology.
Ok, so what exactly is pseudo aggression?
Bergler, pseudo aggression and ideology
If guilt is still a very common form of affect that animates our political discourse, particularly in the wake of these losses brought on by un-thinkable contradictions, than Edmund Bergler’s theory of pseudo-aggressions is a very helpful way of analyzing ideology. It is worth noting that Lacan will privilege the affect of shame as the predominant affect that is an effect of the university discourse and the capitalist discourse. But Lacan acknowledges that guilt is still very much at work in our social world even though we know that the superegoic demand to enjoy has shifted to a les prohibitionary basis than it had been historically constituted during Freud’s time.
Yet despite this superego shift that does not mean that guilt is nonexistent today. Lacan says guilt in contemporary life is located at the level of alienation, he says that “if familial repression didn’t exist we would have to invent it” Lacan states in Television. We have to invent guilt, according to Lacan, so that its prohibitions enable us to mythify the impossible, which is the true origin of guilt. We are guilty of the real, we are guilty of the impossible.
Bergler’s idea of pseudo aggression refers to how at the core of subjective life there is a reservoir of guilt that creates the self in a masochistic structure and this deeper layer creates a superego censor model that prevents access to it. When facing a site of social conflict that is unmanageable or overwhelming, when its quotient is too true, the ego pleads “moronity” (Ibid, 63) according to Bergler.
The idea of being moronic in the face of an obvious social conflict is a very common feature of our discourse today. Trump perfected this aloof and moronic position and attitude to the realities of social conflict. This is what makes Trump a Bonapartist figure of discourse and here I mean a figure who is pure pseudo aggression all the way down. We will see below that it is possible to operate outside of pseudo aggression, i.e., it is possible to not adopt the position of psychic masochism if one works through it.
We have argued above that the fact people can deny the legitimacy of a social conflict based on disavowal is dependent on the efficacy of another ideology. In order for one ideology to be disavowed there must be another one that has a better belief function for the subject. But in pseudo aggression another belief is not necessary. Pseudo aggression therefore refers to the ways that our ambivalent relation to guilt creates repetitive aggressive actions. This gives us a great explanatory account of the way that ideology, at the level of discourse, functions as a seemingly aggressive terrain but the nature of the content of those aggressions that are debated seem to have low stakes. Have you ever wondered why people seem to care so much about things that make them so mad when in reality the substance of those things they care about are quite minor? This is ideology as pseudo aggression.
For Bergler, each neurotic has a “real masochistic self” (82) and neurotics harness a libidinous guilt from a reservoir of pre-Oedipal masochism. This libidinous guilt is warded off with pseudo-aggressive secondary defenses: “Guilt is accepted except for the lesser crime, pseudo-aggression, and the scene of the crime is shifted to the outside. The neurotic sufferer from fear, therefore, behaves as if he were guilty of “aggression,” and his fear seems to pertain to outside dangers” (70). So here we see that pseudo aggression is a way to not face the impossible, to not face the hole that contradictions open up in a situation.
Bergler’s theory of neurosis connects with a Marxist theory of bourgeois ideology: the neurotic is overwhelmed with “pseudo aggressions” i.e., there is a mistaken series of accounts — epistemological errors that are structural — based on the fact that the neurotic cannot adequately face this reservoir of guilt. What this means is that ideology is a collective social reality that is fundamentally fraudulent, a defense against a more primary scene/crime/antagonism. Bergler notes that pseudo aggression is “a mechanism of merciless exposure of pseudo-crimes in substitution” (Bergler, 63).
Bergler writes, of pseudo aggression that, “the external aggression is meant to provide an alibi for conscience – in pseudo aggression the choice of weapons and the technique of the fight is always ineffective” (110). What pseudo aggression helps us to see is how the perpetuation of a society that is riddled with contradictions — both minor and major — creates a fictional status to that social order. The psychic masochist, Bergler writes, “misuses reality in order to simulate one”
One very brilliant example of pseudo aggression Bergler offers is in his psychoanalysis of Herman Melville in Moby Dick. In a brilliant way, Bergler argues that the famous novel is an example of the way that Melville rescued himself from masochistic submission by denying it via identification with the fanatic captain (98). For Melville, the character of Ahab was a means for coming to terms with guilt and of finally confessing to it. This deeper confession came about in his novel on incest which he was only comfortable writing after he had some notoriety in Moby Dick. In Pierre or the Ambiguities Melville lays his guilt bare. However, the public notoriety of Moby Dick led Melville to eventually dis-identify with Ahab (a figure of unbridled masochism). It was this dis-identification with Ahab as the primary masochistic resolution obejct for Melville that exhibits what Bergler calls sublimation.
To think an outside of masochism is to sublimate. We thus have a theory of sublimation that is capable of forging a way to an escape from the capture of masochistic ideology. For Bergler, the driving power of sublimation is narcissistic pleasure in having outsmarted the superego. Thus, sublimation is based on the tenacity of the original conflict and the ability to get the better of the superego (Bergler, 65). In this way we can also see that Bergler offers a theory of sublimation in which ideology can have an outside. Is there no outside to ideology?
This has been an axiomatic claim of Slavoj Zizek. However, I think we can forge an alternative to this Spinozistic vision when we think pseudo aggression and sublimation as means for breaking with ideology.
- I have quoted Edmund Bergler’s work The Superego: Unconscious Conscience (1952) throughout this essay.