New in Actuality

The Real in the 21st Century
Presentation of the Theme of the IXth Congress of the World Association of Psychoanalysis

Jacques-Alain Miller in Buenos Aires, 27th April 2012



Anguila - (Eel)


The author examines the intimate, slippery, and electric relationship between psychoanalysis and politics: although "psychoanalysis is the exact reverse of politics," "the unconscious is politics." Moreover, "psychoanalysis is undoubtedly not revolutionary," but it "is subversive" and did "tremendous damage to tradition."

By Jacques-Alain Miller *

The unconscious knows no time, but psychoanalysis does. Psychoanalysis provides what Stendhal called "the daring of not being like everyone else." This was undoubtedly Lacan's case, although he was often reproached for his way of not being like everyone else. As regards politics, he taught above all mistrust towards the ideals, systems, and utopias which fill the field of politics. He didn't believe in the laws of history. No word of his makes it possible to believe that he upheld the idea of the perfect city, be it in the past or projected into the future. No nostalgia and no hope, but rather great sobriety towards politics, with comments ranging from irony to cynicism, punctuated by sarcasm and mockery, highlighted that politics is both comical and murderous. He always remembered this sentence from Cardinal de Retz's Memoirs: "It is always the people that pay the price of political events." He also described the conqueror, always arriving with a command in his month: "Work!" For Lacan, alienation from work was a structural fact, but one which did not introduce a collective revolt proper—a class struggle encouraging the exploited to fight to become tomorrow's exploiters. To sum up, we can say that in politics Lacan was against everything which stands for something.

Furthermore, politics works through identification. Manipulating key words and images, it seeks to capture the subject, whereas psychoanalysis operates in the opposite way, acting against the subject's identifications. One by one, the cure undoes them, peels them away like onion layers. It confronts the subject with his own void, thus enabling him to clear the system which, despite him, ordained his lessons and his fate. In this sense, psychoanalysis is the exact reverse of politics.

But the unconscious is something else entirely. Lacan usually said that "the unconscious is politics." It is not a substance concealed in the individual, in his closed world, which one would have to force. The unconscious is a relationship and takes place within a relationship. For this reason, we can access it in a relationship with the other who is the analyst. In a subject's psychical life, there is always an other already involved as a model, object, support, or obstacle. Individual psychology is already social psychology. If man is a political animal, it is because he is a speaking being and a being that is spoken by others. A subject of the unconscious, he always receives something from an other, from the discourse circulating in the universe, the words that dominate him, that represent him, and also denature him.

Psychoanalysis teaches something about power, the influence that can be exerted; not much is needed to impose oneself: essentially, a few well-chosen words. Advertising, which has become a crucial industry for consumption, has made wide use of this fact. In democracies such as ours, politics cannot be aimed at those who are still called citizens without going through advertising. Political marketing has become an art, even an industry which produces many acronyms, slogans, mottos, catchphrases, all on the basis of the data collected in opinion surveys, polls and focus groups. Listening to what is said there serves first to delimit the terms than can be imposed on opinion. It is a stunning fact that these manipulations, far from being concealed, are exhibited. The public, aware of their existence, wishes to know about them, to go backstage, at least, one of the backs of the stage.

Practitioners of politics are first to know that this is no longer a question of great ideals but of small catchphrases. They go on with this and citizens seem to want it like this. That politics is not more politicized is not a misfortune for democracy. No doubt this is its fate, its logic and, if I may say so, its desire. The generalized decadence of political absolutes is obvious which is good in contrast with fanaticism, but which does not make way for rational debate between dispassionate citizens. We live in the kingdom of opinion. Public debate takes place against a background of disbelief, of deceit, of explicit and consensual manipulation.

This is the rule of the game, and deploring it is also part of it. Nobody decries this as abject, except for a few swearing and preaching figures which we have already reduced to powerlessness. If any of them has any talent, we rejoice in the spiciness which he brings to public debate. It is part of the very development of civilization that it ceaselessly reveals the artificial, constructed nature of all things in this world: social links, beliefs, meanings. Psychoanalysis partakes in this, as it has been more powerful than any other discourse in shaking the semblances of civilization.

Anyone who practices psychoanalysis will obviously wish to have the material conditions for its practice. The first one is the existence of a civil society stricto sensu, different from the State. There is no psychoanalysis where irony is not allowed. There is no psychoanalysis where the questioning of ideals is punished. Thus, psychoanalysis is clearly incompatible with all totalitarian regimes. By contrast, psychoanalysis supports freedom of expression and pluralism. Where division of labor, democracy, and individualism have not done their work, there will be no space for psychoanalysis.

However, liberalism is not the political condition of psychoanalysis. In the United States, for instance, although Lacanian psychoanalysis is of interest for the intellectual, its real practice merely subsists. According to Freud, psychoanalysis became denatured when it crossed the Atlantic; the emigrants who spread it left Europe behind them like a bad memory, and could only adapt to the values of the American way of life. This expression fell into disuse, while this lifestyle is increasingly becoming ours. Even though the different sensibilities and customs in the United States and France, even Europe, crystallized on a political level, in no way did they prevent the ongoing Americanization.

As such, is psychoanalysis revolutionary or reactionary? This is Janus, a ruse, which is explicitly used in social debates in which psychoanalysis is made to state both one thing and its opposite. But its doctrine only requires that the analyst should be there to psychoanalyze first and second to make psychoanalysis advance and spread it in the world; even better if to this end he takes part in public debate.

Undoubtedly, psychoanalysis is not revolutionary. Undoubtedly, it highlights unchanging elements rather than place its hopes on political changes. It is meant to operate on a more basic level of the subject, where the points in space-time are in a topological, no longer a metrical, relationship. What is farthest suddenly turns out to be what is closest. A psychoanalyst strongly subscribes to the idea that "Nothing is new. The more something changes, the more it remains the same." Except that maybe something can become worse, if it was ever thought that it might be better.

Psychoanalysis is not revolutionary, but it is subversive, which is not the same thing, that is to say, it acts against identifications, ideals, key words. It is a well-known fact that we worry when an acquaintance enters analysis: we fear that he will stop honoring his father, his mother, his partner, and his God. There were some, however, who fruitlessly aspired to an adaptive rather than a subversive psychoanalysis.

Let us not fool ourselves, "the more things change, the more they remain the same," but they change anyway! For something to remain the same means that what is gained on one side is lost on the other side, and is not reabsorbed. If psychoanalysis is subversive, it is not thereby progressive or reactionary. Is it hopeless then? Let us rather say that psychoanalysis operates on hope. It removes hope and thereby provides a certain relief.

Not only are psychoanalysts not psychoanalysis militants—except sometimes, and not necessarily happily—but they are rather given to irritate militants. Thus it is claimed that psychoanalysts are often quite overwhelmed due to their operation, which shook all semblances, particularly all standards that used to temper the sexual relationship by locating it within the family and procreation. Psychoanalysts would thus wish that the semblances of yore resist to the end of time. Far from it! Psychoanalysis did tremendous damage to tradition. To these ravages were added the unheard-of possibilities offered by advances in biology, assisted reproduction, cloning, the decipherment of the human genome, the view that man himself should become a genetically modified organism. It is clear that the Name of the Father is no longer what is used to be.


* The text transcript of the conference "Anguille en politique," issued on radio France-Culture in 2005, was translated into Spanish especially for Página/12 regarding the visit of Jacques-Alain Miller at the Eighth Congress World Association of Psychoanalysis, "The symbolic order in the twenty-first century is no longer what it was," being held these days in Buenos Aires.



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