Object Relations

The theory of object-relations in psychoanalysis is a source of rich concepts which are essential for the project here at supposingnone. This post will explore how these concepts can be extracted from clinical concerns and put to other uses.  This translation of clinical concepts involves a mediation through systems theory, which provides an intermediary container from where they are redeployed into world literature.  What follows is likely ungenerous towards psychoanalysis, but this is not intended as a criticism of that profession.  

Systems theory is uniquely suited for the translation of object relations theory, because it can conceptualize the material dynamism which is a defining quality of the concepts in question. This is the sort of dynamism described by Henri Lefebre in his Rhythmnalsysis.  Such a systems discourse can survey the clinic as an historical and geographical phenomenon from the outside.  From this perspective, the planetary distribution of the clinic is vague and heterogenous, with its highest concentrations in Europe and the Americas. To conceptualize what happens within these clinics, we require some sense of what is meant by this term ‘therapy’. As concepts are removed from the clinic, this process undergoes a radical transformation.   

Therapy could be ascribed within ideologies of human development, and doing so raises the question of whether this purported ‘humanism’ is not actually subordinated to economic ideologies.  The end of analysis has been defined as the capacity ‘to work and to love’ , and there is the question about whether these capacities are subordinated within systems of commodity circulation.  So, a systems critique of therapy may consider whether it is an autonomous humanism, or whether it is subordinated to economic values, and these two possibilities are not necessarily exclusive.   

To approach this process of therapy from a closer perspective, let us direct this critique at a specific conception of Kleinian therapy, which might be called the pragmatics of containment. This concerns how the clinical method was described recently by the analyst Jessica Benjamin.  In a simplified outline of this model, the individual goes to therapy because they fail to contain sexuality.  This means that sexuality is experienced as an overwhelming source of anxiety, as an external pressure that destabilizes them, and makes it impossible for them to love and work.  The course of therapy then is the process whereby this alien flux is gradually contained, which means that it is brought into the coordinates of symbolic expression.  At the center of this clinic is a dyadic dynamism between analyst and analysand, where this experience of uncontained sexuality passes back and forth between them.  Through a rhythmic repetition of the experience in transference and counter-transference, sexuality gradually receives a new symbolic determination, it becomes contained in this therapeutic process which is sometimes called sublimation.  What was uncontainable becomes more containable, and the individual becomes able to love and work.  Maybe I am not getting this exactly right, but anyway this is the therapeutic model that interest me here.  

Now let’s move back outside to relocate this Kleinian therapeutic process from a broader systems perspective.  There is a question about how such spillage may have arisen in the first place.  This is a familiar question: is sexuality originally uncontained, or is this pathology an historical condition?  This question has been asked and answered many times.  It has been suggested that sexuality is symbolically uncontainable in essence – it has always been an alien spirit that possesses the body and eclipses symbolic sybjectivity. A person who is aroused or sexualized is not symbolically themselves.  This was Bataille’s point, for instance.  Sexual relations exclude symbolization, and so sexuality implies the abandonment of the symbolic. However, it also would seem that this alien possessor becomes pathological only under unique historical conditions.   

Pathology might be defined as a condition where sexuality fails because symbolic identities are insufficiently abandoned.  Sexuality produces anxiety where it disrupts a symbolic identity which it should instead temporarily abolish.  The pathological individual is one whose symbolic identity has been partly eroded by sexuality, so they are caught in an intermediary condition between the sexual and the symbolic.  

If sexuality only thrives as a non-symbolic alterity, then pathology is an historical condition where sexuality is overly symbolized. So, what could we say about the condition which gives rise to the pathologies which are treated in the psychoanalytic clinic?  The answer to this question would seem to concern the way that sexuality is symbolized through the institutions of the expanding market economy.  In its proper unsymbolic position, sex can only be represented as a sublime act.   The sublime is the proper way of representing the unrepresentable.  

Market institutions pathologize because they deprive sexuality of its sublime independence from the symbolic.  The sexual act gets inscribed at the kernel of the market institution, where it forms the speculative identity of the two sides of the economy, as an ideal event that unites consumption and labor.  Symbolic relations within market economies operate according to this Neoplatonic idealism.  

So, let us proceed on the assumption that the pathology which is treated in clinics occurs because sexuality gets disrupted by the encroachment of the symbols of market exchange.  Markets expand through competition. Companies struggle to attract workers and consumers into their commodity circuits, and for this they construct webs of symbolic association – much like spider webs – which are assembled around ideals of sexuality. Pathology arises because companies are competing to symbolize sexuality, robbing it of its sublime alterity, and creating a morass of debased pseudo-sexual symbols and images. By incessantly attempting to capture sexuality in symbolic representation, there results a pathological condition where sexuality bleeds into the symbolic, and identities erode into erotomania. The clinic then is where individuals learn to relate to sexuality as a sublime other.

From a general systems perspective, there is something conspicuously ironic about psychoanalysis which has been previously remarked: the clinic appears to market itself as the antithesis of market institutions.  Where companies promise their workers and customers an impossible symbolic relation with sexuality, the clinic promises a properly unsymbolic relation with sexuality. The idea of the psychoanalytic cure then being that the sexual act can be performed when sexuality is liberated from symbolic representation.  

The concern here is not to debate the effectiveness of clinical therapy, or to discuss whether its practice might not be hypocritical.  From a general systems perspective, we can accept the clinic as the site where this goal of de-symbolizing sex was originally posited, and then we can explore how this goal might be pursued otherwise.  As we take this step back, the conception of therapy undergoes some transformation.  The move into systems theory involves a broadening of horizons which reverses clinical concerns.  Clinical practice tends towards the symbolization of the individual, where there is a privileging of determination, containment, finitude and the limits of subjectivity.  This concern corresponds with the classical values which privilege cosmos over chaos, as well as parental conservatism.  But as this goal is translated outside of the clinic and into general systems theory, then these values can get reversed, so that the concern is no longer with containing subjectivity within the limits of the symbolic, but rather with the inverse, which is liberating the sexual object from symbolic determinations.  

For sexuality to be liberated, it must attain a neutral relation with monetary or commodity fetishism, where it is removed to a separate order of representation.  Sexuality’s unrepresentability can only be represented in symbols that are not exchangeable into the coinage of the market.  

This brings us to questions of asceticism and iconoclasm.  An ascetic or celibate is commonly considered as one who does not engage in sexual relations.  But if we are to radicalize the sublimity of sexuality, then the celibate might conversely be the only one who engages in sexual “relations”, in that one only relates to the sexual by not relating to it symbolically.  This of course can lead into the mute mysticism of Witgenstein’s ‘remain silent’, but that of course is not where we are going.

The only silence that is required for this liberation is that of the symbols of the market.  What must remain silent is not language but rather money.   It’s money that can’t speak of sexuality, because it can’t resist the semiotic inertia of pornography and human trafficking. Language is free to speak of sexuality, provided that it isn’t a mercenary language.  

To conceive this other, separate language of sexuality, we need to establish a link between Jean Laplanche’s ‘enigmatic signifiers’ and Walter Benjamin’s ‘auras’.  This way, sexuality can be conceived as a machine that is independent of the market, that stirs within the archive, and we require a sublime literature that can bring us under her possession.  Where the financial markets have trapped populations in regional and national spectacles which are ethnicized, it seems that these non-monetary, enigmatic symbols would be those of world literature. Goethe’s proposal for a world literature is widely-known, but it is less appreciated that it was based on earlier suggestions by Novalis. The idea of world literature as it was coined in the 20th century certainly did not exhaust the possibilities for that concept.  The enigmatic signifiers are the unexchangeable symbols of a radically cosmopolitan literature.  

This literature of sublime sexuality should retain its mediation with the Kleinian clinic.  The clinical discourse on the tenuous maternal relation can serve as a guiding thread.  World literature provides a choreography of the geo-history pulsation of sexuality, and this dance is tenuous in a sense like the maternal relation which the Kleinian analyst seeks to maintain.

The relation of the sublime sexual symbols to the monetary symbols of ethno-nationalism cannot be perfectly neutral or oppositional. It is not that the sexual symbols are perfectly neutral to the monetary symbols, but that they are of a radically different order. They do not adhere to the monetary logic, and are likely to remain obscure within the optics of the monetary regime.  But there emerges a subtle interference between these two orders wherein we locate a rhythm. There is a rhythm of love and money which is a contest between alternate orders of existence, and there is a struggle over which side is autonomous.  Sexuality may passively accepts being trafficked, but this could turn out to be a ploy, like where the prisoner Dionysus is slowly seducing his captor Pentheus.

This reference to the Bacchae is not intended to invoke Greek tragedy.  Hellenism must be viewed with suspicion, as symbols which have been thoroughly integrated into the monetary semiotic, and so it is essential for world literature to abandon its anchorage in European symbols, and to move absolutely through other geographical orientations.

The project underway here is an attempt to shift world literature into a Chinese orientation, and this requires reading world history from an East Asian perspective.  Of course, this choice responds to the dynamic conditions of monetary power. The monetary system is obviously quite powerful, and these love symbols are indeed chasing the money.  World literature is in a weak whore-position today, but this is only one act in a longer geohistorical drama.  

The Greek goddess Eros has come to China, although more often she is held in chains.  The capitalists use her image to sell products, but somewhere her authentic passion still stirs.  To set her free, we must return to the scene her earlier arrival here, at the end of the Qing dynasty.  During the early onslaught of occidental liberalism, she was brought in a cage, whether it was Mary, or Isis, or liberty leading the people.  Amidst the chaos of the disruption, as the dynastic institutions disintegrated, in that disruption that the bars on her cage were broken, and her spirit was released into the air.  Perhaps she drifted into the mountains, where she became a fox.   

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