In the run-up to the general election Lene Auestad considers the politics of the unconscious

On Psychoanalysis and the Politics of Representation


Thinking psychoanalytically about a phenomenon involves conceiving of it in a way that takes account of a dynamic unconscious, which can be understood differently within different psychoanalytic paradigms. It means reflecting on how we experience everything on an unconscious as well as on a conscious level, what Bion referred to as ‘bifocal vision’. When the object of reflection is social and cultural phenomena, unconscious representation of experience can be both individual and shared by several people in a social system, unit or subculture. Unconscious symbolisation and patterns of affect are always already marked by external others and by fantasies about these others. Human beings relate to others even when we are alone, as enemies, supporters, objects of desire, rivals and sympathisers. At the same time, unconscious fantasy has a capacity to transcend fixed patterns of identification, thereby challenging established social arrangements. Think of how in our dreams we can be young or old, big or small, or take various animal or human shapes; these rich identifications transcend fixed social categories and hegemonic ideas, thus carrying an emancipatory potential.

As opposed to ‘society’ or ‘the social’, ‘politics’ carries the connotation of activity, of having to do with human actions. Where ‘the social’ is associated with something passive, already there and established – “essence is what has been”, in Sartre’s words – ‘politics’ implies something that is continuously shaped by human actions, choices, support, and not set once and for all. It is about what could potentially be different. My understanding of ‘politics’ is influenced by Arendt, to whom it is not about rule from above or bureaucratic routine, the field as professionalised, but rather about different people coming together, debating issues of shared concern to them all. The central metaphor involved is spatial, “we each illuminate the world from different angles”, thus real encounters with others who see a matter differently is what may expand our understanding. Opposed to this are, on the one hand, too homogenous spaces where everyone speaks with one voice as it were, and on the other, exclusion of certain others from public spaces where dialogues take place.

Manufacturing Consent: 'Conformity' by Lucy Telford

Manufacturing Consent: ‘Conformity’ by Lucy Telford

In thinking about prejudice; racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, islamophobia, sexism and homophobia I am concerned with analysing their a-rational aspect as founded in primary process logic and magical thinking, together with their social aspect as fantasies that are shared and shaped by past and present inequalities of power. Thus psychoanalytic thinking is necessary but not in itself sufficient when it comes to grappling with these phenomena; it needs to incorporate critical reflection on its own social and cultural position. In the opposite case, what often result are analyses of the more extreme expressions of prejudice, formulated in terms of pathology, which leaves ‘normality’ untouched and unquestioned. Sadly, some of these forms of prejudices have been ‘normal’ for centuries, others – think of xenophobia and islamophobia – have recently become more normalised so as to increasingly escape reflection. These phenomena are seen more clearly from some vantage points than from others, points of view that are often socially and politically suppressed.

People do have a need to communicate, to share with others, though they also have a need to identify with powerful and idealised leaders and authority figures, to submit to their will, thought and ideation – and to merge with homogenous groups where sameness prevails. These tendencies, supported by many structures and institutions in ‘democratic’ societies, lend support to attacks on people conceived of as ‘others’, disguising the element of personal desire involved, while also delegitimising and excluding from view the ‘living targets’.

The Art of Non-conformity: Representation and Space

The Art of Non-conformity: Representation and Space

On this basis, it may become clear why ‘representation’ is central to ‘politics’ – and to thinking, you may add. As Abramson points out in relation to Freud’s study of Little Hans, “self-knowledge waits upon first being known to another”. To psychoanalysis, self-knowledge is an achievement between two minds, not something achieved in isolation. When our subject is knowledge or understanding of social and cultural phenomena, this insight should be extended to a more complicated field where there are multiple others, and where some voices are strong and others barely heard or silenced. The concept of ‘triangulation’ though it only counts up to three, so to say, assigning a form of objectivity to a successfully achieved oedipal stage. In a social and cultural sense, ‘representation’ and thus the reach of understanding is infinitely expandable, though, in any person’s real life, it always remains finite and fallible. Having an unconscious mental life means that we are sometimes taken aback by our own actions, our own reactions, by a sudden encounter with someone who is not who we thought we were, and whom we would not want to identify with. In terms of sensing, and making sense of, other positions in social space, art and literature provide valuable, indeed irreplaceable sources. The creation of fora that challenge the petrified doxa of the in-group, whether conceived in terms of intellectual fields, psychoanalytic directions, nationality, gender, religion or skin colour, opens up another such source of thinking anew about how we live with others, and with ourselves.

Lene Auestad, PhD, is Research Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Oslo, and affiliated with the Centre for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities, Oslo. She moved to the UK to pursue long-standing interests in British psychoanalysis. Working at the interface of psychoanalytic thinking and ethics/political theory, her writing has focused on the themes of emotions, prejudice and minority rights. Her recent books include Psychoanalysis and Politics: Exclusion and the Politics of Representation (Karnac Books, 2012),  Nationalism and the Body Politic: Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Ethnocentrism and Xenophobia (2014), and Respect, Plurality, and Prejudice: A Psychoanalytical and Philosophical Enquiry into the Dynamics of Social Exclusion and Discrimination (2015).

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