Twilight Psyche

Psychoanalysis becomes tenuous when it encounters neurology. The problem is not just that neurology has some concepts psychoanalysis cannot process, but much more seriously, that neurology doesn’t even rely on any concepts because it works with images. So psychoanalysis appears antiquated and endangered by a pending dynamist revolution in scientific research. Many psychoanalysts have spoken out against such an event, and defended the psyche as a bastion of humanity. Here I bid farewell to any such nostalgic phenomenology, and generate an  evolutionary model for the death of the psyche itself. 

Freud explained the emergence of the psyche from the nervous system. He said it emerged because of some pressure that the brain couldn’t deal with. The brain was inadequate because it lacked the capacity for representation needed to manage this free energy. The pressure that required representation was instinct becoming drive, or instinct becoming liberated from its determinate nature. The distinct mobility of a drive required the capacity to attach and detach from objects. So the psyche was a response to this extra instinct that demanded the plastic quality of representation. So where did that extra thing that was demanding representation come from? What could have generated that energy? The model I propose would assume that extra energy was secreted by Hobbes’ Leviathan.  This way Freud discovered the strange secretions of homo lupus, wolf man, the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire…. perhaps the extra energy in the nervous system was a disfunctional surplus of biopolitical flux.

As a specimen of such a phantasmatic spell of imperial terror, consider the Han historian Sima Qian on the origin of his own dynasty. After the fearsome Qin were defeated by the armies of Chu, a war broke out between the Chu generals Liu Bang and Xiang Yu.  Xiang Yu was an aristocrat with monstrous double eyes, and who never worked because he was confident about a prophesy that predicted his greatness. Liu Bang was a regular hard working peasant. These two generals are a very strange double at the mythical origin of the Confucian state. At one point, Xiang Yu’s army was holed up in a castle where he threatened to kill Liu Bang’s father. When Liu Bang heard this he yelled over the castle wall “we are all brothers of Chu, which makes him also your father, so you go ahead and boil the water, and together we’ll enjoy our father in a soup!” Then Xiang Yu’s army bolted from the castle, and were pursued down into a cavernous ravine. As he reached the bottom of the cavern Xiang Yu’s army had deserted, and he was fleeing with just one concubine. They heard familiar songs sung in their native dialect by the advancing troops behind them. Before she killed herself, the concubine said “four sides Chu songs”, a common Chinese idiom meaning utter defeat. Liu Bang then became the first Han emperor and took the imperial name “tall ancestor”, a master signifier that returned to name the founders of succeeding dynasties. 

This archaic myth demonstrates schematically how the state of exception and primal horde fit together in the negative ground of the imperial symbolic. My hypothesis is that this mode of exceptional fantasy corresponds with the excess of nervous energy discovered by early psychoanalysis. The Leviathan then becomes the drive-organ that goes by various clinical names – hysteria, psychosis, imaginary, primal horde, libido, lamella…  reconstructing these concepts within a biopolitical discourse stages the end of psychoanalysis, where the bones of the state are uncovered as a program that generates excess energy causing a split between conscious and unconscious called the psyche. The state generates an alienating excess as a resource in its symbolic operations (i.e. the superego), but when those operations disintegrate then the unstable excess is left to disturb individuals. With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire the state of exception became a personal hysterias, as Freud’s patients received their own private sovereign exceptions as collateral damage from the crumbling symbolic infrastructure, their own traumatic residues of the empire.

There is something hopeful about this model which links finite psyche with finite imperialism.  If the psyche is a miserable residue of sovereignty, then the further progress of liberalism could eliminate it completely. There is an old distinction between two deaths – to die biologically, and to die culturally – which our institutions take for granted. A weakness in symbolic efficacy is our inability to separate the natural death of physical bodies from and the historical death of cultures. The psyche itself is modelled on a related distinction, and when the psyche dies of old age, then that could be an event in natural history which is simultaneously cultural and natural. If the psyche is the state, then the stateless would have no psyches, and the death of the state would be the death of the psyche.  Maybe this points to a cerebral politics that would liberate the brain from the imperial psyche, and herald the return of the Paleolithic emotional cerebrium.  

(this post combines theories from Catherine Malabou’s “The New Wounded” and Eric Santner’s “Royal Remains”, both of which are highly recommended)

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