Preface and Key Concepts from my book Psychoanalysis and the Politics of the Family

My book Psychoanalysis and the Politics of the Family has been published. This book came together over the course of many years of study in the Lacanian field. It was written for an incredible press called the Palgrave Lacan Series edited by Derek Hook and Calum Neill. Once I was approved to write the book in 2020 it all came out in a way that I think is more lucid and clear than much of my earlier writing. In the act of writing this book I insisted on shifting gears from a more obscure relation to concepts and ideas, towards a more clear transmission and mode of address. Towards this end, I offer a Glossary of Key Concepts which you can read here.

The book is a theoretical intervention primarily although its findings can be applied to sociological studies and political analysis. One area of discussion and debate the book aims to raise concerns the family and family abolition on the left, particularly the radical left. In the second chapter and in the conclusion I contend with family abolition and raise the question that I think is most important to this debate, which is to understand the psychic binds the family is situated in under capitalism in its present mode of production.

Once we understand the family in relation to social reproductive labor and to the mode of production we understand the family as a class formation. I have found the class debate in contemporary Marxism to lack a focus on the realities of struggle, toil and domination that occurs in the subjective life of the working class. The family is the locus of this subjective formation and the family is a class formation, not a neutral receptacle. The overcoming of the family forces Marxists to face a dimension of class experience that has gone overlooked for too long in my view and as such a conversation on the family from a Marxist perspective centers class in ways that I think are extremely important.

The other area of study that this book aims to bring to light is the legacy of anti-Oedipal politics and an analysis of the situation of Oedipal subjectivity today. I make the claim that our culture is not “post” Oedipal but pre-Oedipal and that pre-Oedipality describes tendencies towards resentment, censorial politics and anti-solidarity politics that have only accelerated in recent years. I aim to show how liberal thought perpetuates social relations that stunt Oedipality and that liberalism is founded on the necessary, albeit disavowed submission to untranscendable authority. The Preface, below, should give you a better idea of the main arguments of the book.

You can purchase the book or email me to request a review copy.

Preface

This book aims to start a conversation on the politics of the family in our time. It puts forward a theoretical framework for understanding the subjective afflictions that face the contemporary family and points to some ways to think and overcome these challenges. Perhaps unlike other academic works, this book maintains a perspective and a point of view. The author is interested in furthering the emancipatory tradition, i.e., the tradition that aims for a more egalitarian and universally just social and political order. The author commits to a class analysis from a Marxist perspective and thus pays particular attention to the working-class family.

This book aims to contribute to the wider debate about the family and offer insights specifically for the left, including the liberal left. It seeks to contribute to three areas of scholarly thought: the first is to Marxist and psychoanalytic debates on the family. Secondly, this book aims to make a theoretical contribution within psychoanalytic theory to analyzing the superego and its status in late capitalism and its role in politics. Thirdly, this book seeks to contribute to a richer theoretical understanding of the legacy of the Freudian and Lacanian theory of Oedipus and how it affects subjective life today.

The introduction is titled “The Family Crisis and Liberation.” Here, the politics of the family in the contemporary period are historically situated. The contemporary family is the result of the legacy of the bourgeois family of the nineteenth century and the modern family of social planning developed in the early to mid-twentieth century. We contend with the psychoanalytic historian Christopher Lasch whose work on the American family diagnosed many trends that are still present with the contemporary family.

We then consider the legacy of the 60s and 70s counterculture and argue the “revolution of everyday life” it furthered has mostly been abandoned and resulted in a “hyper-marketization of everyday life” or the tendency for intimate spheres of everyday life, including the family, to be overwhelmed by market and labor demands. This dynamic is not merely endemic to the ’60s and 70s counterculture, but that psychoanalytic theory accounts for how any liberation movement may face such defeats in what we call the “paradox of liberation.”

Chapter Two, “The Family Spirit and Social Reproduction,” begins with a discussion of how the bourgeois family invented a distinct mode of exchange that differentiated the family from other forms of wage labor and how this grants a family with the illusion of their own private existence. Next, we use Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of “symbolic exchange” to arrive at a theory for how the “family spirit” emerges within a given family and how it endows the family with a sense of its own uniqueness and separateness from the work of social reproduction.

The family spirit is an invention of the bourgeois family, but the proletariat has always—from the nineteenth century to the present—found a profound sense of subjective value in the bourgeois family, even though it has never been for them. The proletariat only experiences a partial form of the bourgeois family, forced to make it their own. We examine Marx and Engels’s critique of the bourgeois family and socialist-feminist critiques of the family, which extend this analysis even further. We analyze the legacy and contemporary role of socialist-feminist critiques of the family and some of the challenges and contradictions abolitionists face today when the “care network” of the family has largely been so thoroughly marketized.

Chapter Three, “The Social Superego and the Paradox of Liberation,” analyzes the composition of the social superego, the predominant form of the superego under late capitalism. It looks specifically at the political basis of Freud’s discovery of the superego and how Freud’s concepts, from Oedipus, death drive to the superego, must each be read with an explicitly political context in mind. We then turn to the work of Étienne Balibar and Kojin Karatani and apply their analysis of the Freudian superego to understand the way this concept changes more fully in moments of uprising, political instability and crisis, and how through this reading we can understand late capitalism as a time that is superego deprived. With this understanding of the superego in mind, we gain better insight into the paradox of liberation and how superegoic dynamics play into politics.

Chapter Four, “The Crisis of Initiation,” argues that a crisis of initiation marks our age, and it looks at the concept of initiation more broadly from a psychoanalytic perspective. It then analyzes the Oedipal process and how it was situated in the prior period before neoliberalism. Chapter five, “Oedipus: A Function of Initiation,” extends these themes by digging more deeply into Lacan’s theory of the Name-of-the-Father, his revision of the Freudian Oedipus complex. We discuss the historical periodization of the Oedipus complex and how the Oedipal function works for the subject. We then turn to how a crisis of initiation marks our time and introduce this problem through Lacan’s theory of the discourses, specifically the effects of the fifth “capitalist” discourse and its propensity to erode social bonds. We examine how the initiation crisis concerned Lacan in his later years and how it effects subjectivity today.

Chapter Six, “Initiation: René Girard and Alain Badiou,” analyzes two preeminent contemporary philosophers and how both theorize the Oedipal drama from a distinctive anti-humanist point of view. However, the two are very different in orientation. Each thinker provides a strategy for resolving the initiation crisis, and we examine the shortcomings and the important insights both thinkers offer to the problem.

Chapter Seven, “Accelerate the Social Superego? Critique of Deleuze and Guattari,” examines the legacy of the radical and liberatory work of Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. This chapter argues the revolutionary anti-Oedipal philosophy and critique of the family developed over this two-decade-long project has not been borne out by developments of late capitalism. Although many of the strategies of praxis developed in this work are valuable—and we discuss them—we argue the project fell sway to the wall of ultra-liberalism, which led to a dampening of the intensity of the project. We conclude with an examination of how Deleuze, in his later work, overcomes some of these political limitations.

Chapter eight, “Liberalism and the Oedipal,” picks up from where seven left off by looking at how liberal theories of the subject and liberal theories of the promotion of equality and justice perpetuate an Oedipal problem. To drive this argument, we consider two preeminent liberal thinkers: Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Rawls. We locate a similar paternalistic reliance on submission to untranscendable political authority figures in both Rawls and Emerson. We argue this creates conditions that foment resentment, rivalry, and anti-solidarity.

Chapter Nine, “The Political Stakes of the Social Superego,” discusses the idea of the political and the origin, or “birth” of the political in psychoanalytic theory by considering Freud’s theory of the primal father from Totem and Taboo. We argue that Freud theorized a distinct “non-subject” at the origin of any emergence of political change and thus of a re-composition of the superego. We then analyze what sort of non-subjects are important figures to think about today. We then turn to a popular culture example of the emergence of the political and a break with the social superego in Todd Philip’s 2018 film Joker with Joaquin Phoenix.

The conclusion, “Towards a Dialectics of Liberation,” considers the superego dynamics on the contemporary left by looking at the interplay between what Mark Fisher called the Leninist Superego and the Cultural Unconscious. The former tendency is militant, ascetic, and it tends to be joy-less, whereas the latter is care-based, affective, and tends to conceive of revolutionizing everyday life, thus linking our time to the counterculture of the 60s and 70s.

The conclusion then examines how these two tendencies can introduce a politics of patience to forge greater solidarity and not see one another as antagonistic. Next, we discuss the commune as an alternative form of the family which may help subjectivity more adequately face the crisis of initiation and deal with Oedipal dynamics. We end with a discussion of the contemporary working-class family through an analysis of the 2018 Roseanne reboot and the revolutionary potential of the Black family as two family forms that are essential for any thinking or praxis of family liberation today.

Often books that are rich in theoretical concepts make the task of reading them more difficult by not defining concepts directly. For this reason, we have decided to provide a Glossary of Key Concepts to help situate the reader more clearly into the arguments.

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