How to Enjoy a Dead Father

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In this essay, I’ll explain how we might enjoy a dead father as I explore the politics to be found in Todd McGowan’s new book “Enjoyment Right & Left.”

McGowan takes a psychoanalytic approach to politics, a Freudian approach. He understands the world and the people in it to be governed or determined by unconscious desires, fears, and wishes, and see’s the left’s role to be similar to the role of an analyst during a clinical session.

As the late Rick Roderick explained in a lecture entitled Philosophy and Post-Modern Culture: Freud compares the conscious mind to a garrison…a captured, tiny garrison in an immense city. The city of Rome, with all its layers of history, all its archaic barbarisms, all its hidden avenues, was covered over by civilization after civilization. That’s our mind, that whole thing. But the conscious part of it is that one garrison that’s clear, that sort of holds out in this captured city. So the goal of analytic treatment would be for those unreflected massive areas to become part of the garrison as it spreads out to things we are clear about.

This aim of making the unconscious parts of our mind conscious, the unreflective parts of our personalities reflective, aligns with the aim of the Enlightenment as Immanuel Kant once defined it. The aim is to reach maturity, dare to use one’s own reason, and break from external control based on mere authority.

Psychoanalysis aims to help the analysand to understand and overcome unconscious structures which only appear to be external to the patient, not in order to achieve any ready-made and already mapped out healthy consciousness or personality, but in order to provide neurotics with the freedom they need if they are to understand their own identity. Psychoanalysts challenge their patients to take responsibility for their dreams, their presuppositions, and all other aspects of their lives. Another enlightenment figure named Karl Marx likewise sought to make the unreflective and therefore determining aspects of our lives reflective and undetermined. While Freud traced our unfreedom to structures in our minds, to the way our unconscious is set in place by the traumas of childhood, Marx looked in the direction of our productive material relations, and the way our daily productive practices reinforce all manner of political, cultural, and psychological attitudes and beliefs, in an effort to free us from what only appears to be determined objectively.

These two approaches, the Freudian and the Marxist, are not opposites nor do they contradict one another, but the two disciplines begin from different starting points and have different concerns.

As Herbert Marcuse once explained: Marx did not concern himself very much with the individual, and he didn’t have to because during his time the very existence of the proletariat made this class a potentially revolutionary class. What has taken place since then is the large-scale integration of perhaps the majority of the population into the capitalist system. The organized working class no longer has nothing to lose but its chains, but a lot more. This change in the working class took place not only on a material but also on a psychological basis. The consciousness of the dependent population changed. The ruling power structure could manage, manipulate and control not only the workers’ conscious thoughts but also the subconscious and unconscious of the individual. Therefore the Frankfurt school considered psychology one of the main branches of knowledge that had to be integrated with Marxist theory. And, it was not only the Frankfurt school philosophers who saw the need to integrate Freud with Marx but many others.

For instance, the Freudian Marxist Wilhelm Reich took up and altered Freudian insights when he proposed that the damming up or suppression of sexual release and a consequent “pleasure anxiety” within individuals led to authoritarianism and reaction in populations that, failing to experience tremendous orgasms, rejected life and paternal substitutes for their own authority. Whereas the contemporary critical theorist Todd McGowan, taking his cues from Zizek and Lacan, mixes Freud and Marx by offering up a more complicated, even negative, understanding of sexual and other forms of enjoyment.

According to McGowan, the category of enjoyment (jouissance in French) is always excessive. To enjoy is not merely to feel pleasure, which is itself merely a kind of relief from some sort of anxiety or pain. Rather our enjoyments are always excessive. What we enjoy is not something that serves us, helps us, or relieves us, but rather something that goes beyond us, something that is more real than we are, and something that we have to make a sacrifice to receive and that can even lead to our own destruction.

In a recent interview for the Sublation Media channel McGowan illustrated the excessive nature of enjoyment by referring to the thrill a person might receive from parachuting as an example:

Take the enjoyment one receives from skydiving or parachuting. There is a difference between the pleasure of the air flowing over your body and the enjoyment, the rush, that comes from parachuting. The rush that comes from it necessarily comes from the sacrifice that you’re making. That’s the sacrifice of your life chances. It’s not a great chance, but there is a chance that your chute doesn’t open.

In the interview, McGowan emphasizes the feeling of impending doom that a parachutist feels as he falls, with the air blasting all around him, toward the hard and unforgiving ground.

However, I would say that Thomas Mann’s 1896 short story “Disillusionment” provides another explanation for the parachutist’s enjoyment.

In the short story, the narrator recalls meeting a “queer man” in a stiff, wide-brimmed, black hat. The man described how he has, since a very early age, felt defrauded by life. Specifically, the man in the black hat related how he had survived a fire when he was a small boy. His family home had been set ablaze in one way or another and when the house was all gone, nothing but ash, and his family had looked upon the ruins, the boy had felt that something essential was missing. “This was what it was to have the house on fire. Was that all there was to it?” Apparently some vague, formless idea of an event even more frightful than what the man had actually experienced lingered on. He imagined some terrible version of a fire that left the reality of the real destruction seeming flat or empty by comparison.

I think the enjoyment a parachutist gains is perhaps the opposite of the feeling that afflicted the man in the stiff black hat. By rushing toward oblivion but never reaching it, the parachutist can hold onto the illusion of a meaningful, terrible, fully worked out and fully present calamity. His enjoyment is both destructive and conservative at the same time. He acts out his feeling of lack, of his own mortality, flirts with it, but doesn’t abandon the fantasy of it nor allow it to abandon him by destroying him.

This double move of rushing toward destruction while ensuring that destruction will be averted is, I think, built into what McGowan would characterize as “right-wing” enjoyment. The conservation of our fantasies and the avoidance of our disillusionment set up repetitions and help us to avoid the truth of our desire. Rather than seeking fulfillment, rather than seeking something whole and complete, what we desire is to be overwhelmed, overtaken, or perhaps abolished.

In Thomas Mann’s short story, the man in the black hat quotes Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”: “What is man? Asks young Werther–man, the glorious half-god? Do not his powers fail him just where he needs them most? Whether he soars upwards in joy or sinks down in anguish, is he not always brought back to bald, cold consciousness precisely at the point where he seeks to lose himself in the fullness of the infinite?”

According to McGowan, right-wing forms of enjoyment avoid the truth of the human condition. Rather than face how neither sorrow nor joy can complete us, rather than admit that we are cut off from the infinite, right-wing forms of enjoyment maintain the illusion that there could be a power, a pleasure, that will not be truncated or left wanting.

This form of enjoyment takes a political form as a love of authority and the projection of unconstrained enjoyment upon what is imagined to be an omnipotent father figure. This father figure represents the fantasy of what the philosopher Carl Schmitt called the exception. Whereas ordinary citizens are constrained by the law, the sovereign individual, whether a king or a dictator, is authorized to move beyond the law. This exception as embodied by a dictator is, for Schmitt, necessary for the proper functioning of the law in a democracy, for while the law must be applied to everyone, someone must claim the power to interpret the law and to apply the law in various contexts, if the law is to be operative. Put another way, naked power without justification is the backstop for the power of reason. For Schmitt, liberal modernity is faced with the same limit that the neurotic subject faces when he confronts his desire and forms of enjoyment. While the dream of liberal modernity is one wherein all authority is derived from self-transparent reason and cooperation, there is a need for unabashed and even aggressive authority built into the liberal vision. In the same way, a parachutist might dream of the pure unsullied thrill of falling through the air, dream of taking delight in the sensation of the air rushing by, a delight thatis not attended by fear, his actual enjoyment is necessarily founded on the prospect of a calamitous obliteration.

What both Schmitt’s political exception and the imagined impact awaiting a skydiver have in common is that they are both fantasies about a divine and overwhelming authority. They are fantasies of completion, of discovering what is, and what it is to be made, fully and directly real, especially as the impact of that discovery is dreamed up as an overwhelming force that surpasses or obliterates the limited subjectivity questing after it.

McGowan proposes that we attempt to create a politics that does without these exceptional fantasies. He proposes that we find forms of enjoyment that do not rely upon an imagined other who can fully enjoy for us, or some destiny that when enacted will complete us.

In order to set up what might be a left-wing alternative to right-wing exceptionalism, McGowan turns to popular culture and films. He describes the plot of the 1940s Christmas classic “The Shop Around the Corner” in order to illustrate how radicals seeking emancipation might learn to enjoy the absence of, or the castration of, the father instead of relying upon a dominant father as a figure who can enjoy more fully than they can. McGowan writes: “In The Shop Around the Corner, the failure of the father figure allows a collective to form on the basis of his lack. We see this occur when the workers at Matuschek and Company come together to work on Christmas Eve. Matuschek’s absence is the site of the bond among the employees, the point through which they collectively enjoy. This structuring absence, the result of the father’s evident lack, facilitates the connection between the workers that did not exist while he was at the store. The father figure guards the barrier that creates belonging and hides collective nonbelonging.

His failure and absence render this collective nonbelonging visible

and create the possibility for a collective enjoyment of it.”

If you have never seen The Shop Around the Corner the intent of these lines might be easy to misconstrue. They could be read as advocating a kind of scapegoating, the taking up of resentment as emancipatory, and as a cruel and dehumanizing rejection of the significance of the paternal figure in the film. However, what has to be emphasized is that the employees do not discover their own wholeness, their own strength, or their own unmediated enjoyment once the boss is deposed or humiliated. Rather, the two lovers in the story find each other precisely by recognizing their own frailty and own limitations. It is only after they see each other as limited, and recognize each other through their common propensity to misconstrue fantasy for reality, that they connect. It’s important that the main plot of The Shop Around the Corner involves two employees who have been writing love letters to each other anonymously. The salesgirl Klara Novak (played by Margaret Sullavan) has placed an ad in a newspaper seeking correspondence with eligible men who want to discuss art and literature. Another sales clerk named Alfred Kralik (played by Jimmy Stewart) has taken up her offer.

Through the exchange of letters the two salesclerks fall in love, but not with each other. Never revealing their identities, they each fall in love with their own fantasies about themselves, fantasies that they project upon each other. Each one is taken in by the other’s ideal version of themselves.

But by the end of the picture a true love and bond is established when they recognize one another, not as they wish they might be, but through their mutual error. It is by seeing each other as mutually deluded, seeing in one another their own fallen and confused condition, that they connect.

And in the same way, the fall of the boss brings him into the community rather than making an example of him, or an exception out of him.

Theodore Adorno once worried that in the western world the competition between generations and the sexes was leading to a psychological condition that was worse than neurotic. He wrote, “Our society is beginning to regress to a state versed, not in the Oedipus complex, but in parricide.”

But, what McGowan is suggesting in his book Enjoyment Right & Left is not parricide, but rather the recognition of the dead father, the castrated patriarch, in ourselves. He is not taking a side in the war of the sexes either. Instead, he is suggesting that we might enjoy the impossibility of either side ever winning such a competition.

Douglas Lain is the novelist behind Bash Bash Revolution, the podcaster behind the Diet Soap podcast, the former editor of Zer0 Books, and the CEO of Sublation Media.