Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Duane Rousselle is a Canadian professor of sociological theory, author, and a practicing psychoanalyst. He reports to Julie Reshe on recent mutations in postmodern ideology.
Why don’t you like the TV hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy?
Something strange is happening in Western culture. For a few decades we’ve talked a lot about postmodernism. Jean-François Lyotard first developed his theory of postmodernism in 1979 in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on the Status of Knowledge. At precisely the same time a profound change was happening in political economics, namely the onset of neoliberalism. In noting this, Fredric Jameson made an interesting claim: that postmodernism is the ideological doctrine of neoliberalism. Well, it seems to me that Grey’s Anatomy exemplifies the most recent developments of postmodern ideology, concerning such things as identity politics.
In that light, the first thing we should ask ourselves is: what is Grey’s anatomy? I emphasise the noun to highlight that it is something the show’s central character Dr Meredith Grey believes she possesses. In other words, the show deals with enigmatic questions about the body, gender, and sexuality. Every week the show stages a confrontation with the fundamental questions facing humanity. To answer these questions, the protagonist develops a technique of repetition, which occurs in two registers simultaneously: first, through the practice of medicine; second, through particular self-affirmations or ‘life lessons’. These lessons retroactively provide a justification for the traumatic mystery that compels the original questions of gender, sexuality, even death.
These fundamental questions inevitably reach a climactic moment in each episode. There’s always a moment when they reveal themselves as impossible to answer. If you want to locate this moment, pay attention to the background music as it intensifies, as the medical pretense withers away, and the irresolvable psychological trauma increasingly confronts us. At some point, the music stops suddenly and a silence follows. This is the moment of truth. It is betrayed by the soliloquy which follows, often from Dr Grey herself, in the form of a life lesson that retroactively soothes the trauma.
It is clear that these life lessons are pragmatic, frequently beginning with declarations such as “Sometimes it’s okay that…” But what is most interesting in relation to postmodernism is that these lessons never seem consistent with each other: each one stands on its own, separate from the life lessons offered in other episodes. It’s conceivable that they even sometimes contradict one another. The point is never consistency; it is rather to express a make-shift solution to trauma. And when one life lesson no longer does the trick, there’s always another one waiting for us in the future.
My work charts such ‘postmodern epistemology’ – the postmodern ‘way of knowing’ – within various avenues of culture; for instance, in the rising sales of ‘word art’: Instagram poetry, the poetry of Rupi Kaur, words of affirmation on social media, inscriptions on bubble-gum wrappers… If this were only a simple philosophical investigation into the status of claims to knowledge, then we would have no reason to be concerned. But these cultural artifacts also indicate something at the level of policy.
Let’s take an admittedly naive example. If fascism operated according to a logic of ‘universal prohibitions’ – for example, the universal exclusion of particular identities – then the new postmodern logic operates through ‘particular affirmations’ – for example, incontrovertibly affirming particular rights based upon religious identity. The most obvious example of that shift is the recent Citizenship (Amendment) Act in India, whereby citizenship is offered to illegal migrants but only to those with particular religious identities, implicitly excluding Muslims. We can see the way in which even progressive causes that we might otherwise support can open up dangerous precedents. For example, the infamous Bill C-16 in Canada is controversial because according to some interpretations it classifies failure to use a person’s preferred pronouns as hate speech, and so compels people to talk in a particular way.
What could be the alternative or remedy for the traumatic impossibility of answering our fundamental questions? Do we even need remedies to survive in a postmodern world?
I try to avoid the words ‘alternative’ and ‘remedy’ in my clinical, political, and philosophical work. Postmodernism is already a remedy to an underlying trauma. The problem is that it cannot sustain itself for long. It burns out. The remedies offered to us by Grey’s Anatomy are grounded in what I call ‘capitalist-science’ in its ‘medical-biological’ wing, and are typically offered in haste to solve the most pressing problems. On the one hand, it presents regressive attempts to reestablish patriarchal authority, and, on the other hand, there are progressive attempts to manufacture temporary solutions for our gaping psychic wounds. We should refuse to accept that these are the only options on the table.
A ‘remedy’ has only one purpose – a fact that can be confirmed by etymology dictionaries: to offer a provisional solution to chaos. Despite himself, the controversial Jordan Peterson has been popular around the world for many reasons, one of which is because he claims to offer an ‘antidote to chaos’. Alas, even his own antidote couldn’t save him from the mess of our times. In 2020 he found himself waking from an induced coma in Russia after passing through the trauma of a physical dependency on anti-depression medication.
Well, Grey’s Anatomy is no less an addiction. You binge watch it, you quickly move from one episode – I nearly said ‘capsule!’ – to another; then one season to another. Hence, it is now in its eighteenth season, with numerous spin-offs and adaptations. Capitalism develops these little mechanisms to protect us from burnout. But the trauma of our time has no antidote. It is a nightmare from which we cannot seem to awaken.
As I see it, the problem with discussing alternatives is that such discussions are too much situated within the prevailing ideology. The ‘light phone’ is an alternative to the ‘smart phone’. You know, in the good old days of revolutionary theory, the Marxists used to endlessly provoke anarchists by asking them to spell out an alternative to state socialism, even as they themselves forever busied themselves with providing an answer to that same question. The problem today is that neoliberal capitalism and its latest postmodern form no longer presents itself as one possible universal system, but rather as the only alternative. Capitalism is the alternative to totalitarianism, fascism, and so on. This is its obscene epistemological justification. In the final instance, it is always a justification based on being the only alternative to something that would be far worse: for example, American capitalism is the only alternative to Chinese capitalism; or the Biden establishment is the only possible alternative to the Trump administration, and so on. This strategy aims to monopolize the field of alternatives and exceptions, to present itself as the only game in town. Or, as Giorgio Agamben and Marie-Helene Brousse have put it, we are now witnessing the exception as universal. So we must stop endlessly articulating and defending alternatives to capitalism, and instead focus again on the big philosophical questions. Back to the drawing board. This is why philosophy and theory are needed now more than ever.
Photo by Julia Reshe
As a negative psychoanalyst, I approve of this answer! However, as a philosopher, how do you envision the role of psychoanalysis in the contemporary world? We usually perceive psychoanalysis as if it were an alternative treatment. Is it a real alternative: does it offer us a cure?
It is nice that we have discovered a manner of bonding around the edge of a trauma. This interests me, not only as a psychoanalyst but also as a philosopher situated somewhere alongside the clinical context.
It is well-known that Sigmund Freud accused philosophers of being ‘system builders’ intent on ‘patching up holes in the universe’. Freud seemed to have viewed them as cowards running away from an unacknowledged primordial anxiety. But this did not stop him from engaging with some of the most important philosophical positions of his day.
The situation is a bit different today. Psychoanalytic clinics and schools exemplify a manner of bonding that philosophers should investigate: they are places where socialization can happen around the rim of trauma. The psychoanalytic philosopher Jacques Lacan played on the French word trou or hole to coin the term troumatisme. By doing so he highlighted what is truly at stake: the trauma of a hole in our personal and social lives. Nevertheless, the clinic shows us that the loneliness and trauma of our time doesn’t prevent us from forming relationships with one another.
This is perhaps even a nice entry point to discuss love. Psychoanalysis, which is often dubbed ‘a cure through love’, and philo-sophy, as a ‘love of wisdom’, could form a bond with one another based on their mutual interests in matters of love.
Could you elaborate how it is that we can bond around the edge of a trauma? The conventional understanding seems to contradict that. It is typically presumed that traumas and lacks are points of disconnection or dissolution from the social bond.
It is true that ‘lack’ – a technical word in Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory – and trauma seem initially to be quite close to one another conceptually. However, I would propose that they exist in different registers. Lack is linked with social bonds: it indexes something missing socially. ‘Hole’ is an altogether different beast.
Consider a child whose parent has prohibited the playing of video games during the weekend. The child’s desire to place video games is sustained in spite of the prohibition. But the prohibition opens up a gap, something lacking for the child vis-a-vis his or her enjoyment. Put differently, the child feels as though something has gone missing, and so attempts, impossibly or unsatisfactorily, to reintroduce it. The loss can never be recovered, and so seeking to recover it is only endlessly redoubled. This is how desire functions in psychoanalytic theory: always against the backdrop of a prohibition, which in turn, installs the desire to regain what one believes oneself to be lacking.
Trauma is different from a simple ‘lack’. It poses a much more fundamental problem, at the level of a ‘hole’. With trauma we are not dealing with a loss that the child hopes to recover, but rather with a loss that has some sort of ‘agency’: the hole threatens to devour the child’s entire world. It is like quicksand, sucking away everything, including at times our very sense of self and all our desires. In any case, where there is a hole, there is no desire. The prohibition is non-functional. Trauma is a life unanchored by universal prohibitions. I have read testimonies about teenagers who found their attention so captured by their screens while playing video games, that they went hungry, or defecated or urinated themselves rather than take a break.
It is true that both trauma and lack pose challenges to the social order, but they do so in quite different ways. Lack implies that one already feels oneself within a social order, within which something is missing; and that, precisely, is the problem. Perhaps we desired a promotion, or harmony in our marriage. The problem is even more worrisome because in the modern world we are each alone in our little worlds, working from home, sleeping in separate beds, going on ‘solo-moons’ [honeymoons for individuals], having sex with dolls, and so on. We cannot seem to escape the echo-chambers of our solitary worlds. We really do seem to each have ‘a room of our own’, and we’re in lockdown inside it! Where is ‘lack’ here? Quite often, the social dimension of what we’re missing must be invented.
If I mention love here, it’s not because it is an antidote to chaos, and not because it seems to offer itself as a ‘way out’, but rather because it offers a ‘way into’ the social bond. It wasn’t all that long ago that infidelity was considered a major problem to be solved. Conversely, today it seems that fidelity must be treated. If one falls in love – that is, if one is willing to risk one’s career, one’s happiness, one’s everything– then one may be thought ‘sick’ or ‘pathological.’ Here, sickness seems to be a cure for trauma.
If I said the bonding happens ‘around the edge of a trauma’ it was because it is clear that trauma radically resists the very possibility of social bonds. Trauma says ‘the social bond doesn’t exist.’ The traumatic world is quite simply a world without others. The rim, however, delimits the contours of the trauma. It is a zone of possibility, a place where the miracle is still possible. The hole of trauma could be like the hole around which a beautiful vase is crafted.
It is important to return to the topic of love, our preoccupation as lovers of wisdom. We must invent love out of whatever ingredients are at hand. This creates a love that is never without idiosyncrasy. When it happens, love is a sign of triumph, a miracle around the trauma of destitution. We cannot know in advance what will hook people together, but if we are patient we might stumble upon opportunities to share the inexpressible, the nonsensical, and the painful. We must do it, we must fall in love. Especially today, when some believe that it is too aggressive, or too impossible. The contemporary aggressivity and impossibility of love is related to the rise of social movements such as #MeToo and the Incels. They exist in a world where the very possibility of love has been relinquished. But as philo-sophers, we must rescue the category of love.
Lyotard smiling and serious by Bracha Ettinger 1995 (Creative Commons)
How can we rescue love in a world of all-pervasive loneliness or solitude?
The evidence suggests that we are increasingly closing in upon ourselves, all alone. This contrasts to a time when exceptional people – activists, anarchists, communists, feminists, and so on – seemed perfectly justified in rising up against social prohibitions. And that’s what we did. We knew the game was rigged, unfair, and we saw the suffering it produced. Yet, for all that suffering, exploitation, and destruction, nobody thought yet to call it ‘traumatic’. This is not to suggest that trauma wasn’t already on the social radar: the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once claimed, quite provocatively, that the Holocaust wasn’t an aberration, but rather the realization of what was already embedded within the modern social bond. As I mentioned, the Nazis exemplified the logic of ‘universal prohibitions’. Any perceived inconsistencies were brutally, murderously, excluded from within the consistency of ‘their’ group, in a way that is difficult for the rest of us even to conceive. No wonder the philosopher of postmodernism Jean-François Lyotard also talked about the impossibility of there being a judicial language capable of speaking about the horrors of the Holocaust. Nonetheless, he wrote a whole book about it. In any case, as I said earlier, today’s traumas are putatively silenced through particular affirmations, or if you prefer, through the universalization of exceptions. In this context, I am forced into a very unsettling conclusion: modern activism, even its apparently revolutionary forms, doesn’t break with the universe of exception. Quite the opposite. So, what, then, is to be done? There are no easy answers. We must go back to the drawing board.
The philosophical difficulties we now face are perhaps grasped through a political example which, I think, provides a small glimmer of hope in these dark times. Slavoj Zizek noted the exemplary character of former American presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during the inauguration ceremony of President Joe Biden. Although all of the other politicians were wearing their best suits, standing tall, smiling for the cameras, and so on, Sanders sat, slouched in his chair with his legs crossed, holding a large brown envelope, wearing a dull grey winter coat and mittens. Did he not appear to be in total disregard of the situation? I believe that this image went viral because it offered a paradoxical point of identification for those who are fed up with neoliberalism. In that moment, Sander did not reject the ceremony itself, but rather embodied ‘rejection’ as such. He refused the vain display of virtue, and simply remained indifferent.
• Julie Reshe is an APPA-certified philosophical counselor who maintains a private practice in negative psychoanalysis (necropsychoanalysis).
• Duane Rousselle’s most recent book, Real Love: Essays on Psychoanalysis, Religion, Society, was published in 2021 by Atropos.