On Political and Sexual Epistemological Crises

Posted July 8, 2017 10:42 pm by Dr. Adam DeVille

I have several times previously drawn attention to Adam Phillips, the English literary scholar and psychoanalyst, certainly the most prolific and quite likely also the most interesting analytic writer today. There is, I have suggested, a clear “apophatic” theme and impulse in much of his writing, and that is perhaps nowhere so clear as in one of his early, short books I have just finished: Terrors and Experts (Harvard University Press, 1997), 128pp. I hope to develop this apophatic connection in more detail elsewhere, showing how much in Phillips is very sympathetic to, and thus useful for dialogue with, Eastern Christian spirituality.

It is sometimes a cheap trick to claim that a book or an idea from decades or centuries ago is directly “relevant” in light of the headlines of today. But I would suggest that this book is not so much relevant now as superfluous, but in a good way, that is, as having fulfilled its purpose, albeit belatedly: the very thing it calls for is now to be found in abundance. Thus, with ongoing eruptions of “fake news,” the uses and abuses of propaganda of all sorts–whether from Russia, ISIS, or others–and the widespread scorn for, and collapse of the authority of, “experts” (whether in politics, the media, Church, climate change science, and elsewhere), we seem more than ever to live in an age where “experts” are treated with skepticism at best, and scorn at worst.

This is precisely the sort of thing Phillips would seem to encourage: “psychoanalysis…radically revises our versions of competence.” Here, as in his many other books, he sees the usefulness of psychoanalysis precisely insofar as it undermines unhealthy (neurotic) certainties and loosens things up, allowing people new thoughts and new freedom, including the freedom to forget about themselves. To the extent that psychoanalysis itself becomes an ideology enforcing various lines of authority and various forms of orthodoxy, it has, Phillips says, lost its usefulness and deserves to be ignored: “Psychoanalysts run the risk of believing that there is a King’s English of the psyche and everybody is, or should be, speaking it.” Psychoanalysis is, rather, at its best when it ranges itself “against the enemies of ambiguity” and gives free reign to its capacity “to both comfort and unsettle.”

We have recently seen several attempts at understanding Western politics and politicians via psychoanalytic categories, including this very interesting article, as well as regular, and by now tedious, discussions of Donald Trump’s “vulgarity” and his “id.” Regardless of what one thinks of all this, Phillips argues that once one accepts the reality of an unconscious mind, all attempts at certainty and “dignity,” at acting authoritatively or expertly or “presidentially,” at speaking unequivocally, are perpetually undermined: “the unconscious, at least as Freud described it, is another word for the death of the guru.” A guru claims to offer us a solution to a problem he has himself largely invented, and further claims there is only one solution, his, which will solve the problem. But the unconscious, Phillips reminds us by quoting Freud’s The Claims of Psycho-Analysis to Scientific Interest, “‘speaks more than one dialect’.” It is an unruly cacophony, and it mocks all gurus and bourgeois mandarins and prissy etiquette experts with their notions of what constitutes “appropriate tone” or “appearing presidential” rather than “vulgar.”

Radically unsettling and undermining notions of competence, expertise, and authority are not things that most of us encourage others to do: “politicians in Western democracies do not get elected on the basis of their capacity for hesitation, or their willingness to sustain contradictory points of view, or their ability to change their minds, or their impassioned support for the opposition’s point of view,” Phillips notes. That is greatly to be pitied, for as Alasdair MacIntyre has often noted, the greatest need today is precisely the ability radically to put to the question all the claims of Western politicians on behalf of the structures of neoliberal capitalism, which too often largely remain hidden from us, offering us only a chimera of choice between alternatives that are, on closer examination, the same: conservative liberalism, liberal liberalism, or radical liberalism.

In such a context, the role of both a moral philosopher such as MacIntyre and an analyst such as Phillips (who both come out of the British left, and know each other’s work) is to become, ironically, an “expert on the truths of uncertainty” and to resist the tendency, much in evidence in this country since 9/11, to defer to “experts” in the name of what I think has become the most pernicious American idol today, viz., “security.” For part of the problem here is that, at least sometimes, “the expert constructs the terror, and then the terror makes the expert.”

If Phillips, here and in other books (especially his Unforbidden Pleasures:Rethinking Authority, Power, and Vitality, which I reviewed here) offers much that is useful to undermining contemporary politicians and politics, with their bogus claims to certainty and authority, then in the latter parts of Terrors and Experts he offers much to put to the question the politics and ideologies of sexuality, not least in the grotesques of “gender ideology.” Too much of what passes for discussion of these issues today is a cheap amalgam of essentialism, romanticism, and nostalgia; too much nonsense is spread about by those unwilling to recognize the legitimate differences between culturally conditioned and contingent gender roles on the one hand, and the sexual differentiation given by the Creator on the other. Here there is plenty of fault to go round: those demanding that nobody be permitted to deviate from preferred pronouns and nomenclature, and those resisting that with equal hostility and certainty. When it comes to sex and gender, most people, it seems, are, as Phillips might put it, themselves both terrors and experts! In a slightly different idiom, found in his book On Balance, when it comes to things we are most passionate about, including our sexual identities, we become unbalanced and instead emerge as intolerant fanatics.

As I have argued elsewhere, Catholic and Orthodox Christians are guilty of making the tradition say what it has not, of pulling the fabric too far to patch holes of their own making, when they attempt to argue that, from the premise “God created us male and female,” certain prescriptive conclusions for how men and women are to act and think must inexorably follow. (It’s the same slippery and over-hasty procedure used by those who assume that from a few vague buzzwords in Pastor Aeternus of Vatican I, the pope can do whatever he wants in any and all matters. Not so. Not in a month of Sundays.)

This is not to cast doubt on historic Christian teaching about sexual morality, which I support, but only to suggest that much of the contemporary theological debate on these issues is often unconsciously bound up with many other issues, especially those of social class, economic standing, and cultural conditioning, almost all of which go unrecognized. Moreover, it pretends to a certainty that I think few of us have, and then it attempts to enforce that certainty on others. From the Creator’s “is” we are over-hasty in trying to draw our own “oughts.” What and whom does that really serve well?

Instead of racing to unsustainable and intellectually vacuous “answers” about sexual differentiation, we need to be much more careful here about getting some of the questions right. My friend the Orthodox biblical scholar Edith Humphrey, whom I look forward to seeing next week at a conference in Minnesota, has recently done some of that here in a piece I commend to your attention.

Phillips will be radically unsettling to those who like their sexual roles and regulations highly detailed and prescriptive. Good luck with that. As he repeatedly notes, “there is nothing like sexuality…for making a mockery of our self-knowledge. In our erotic lives, at least, our preferences do not always accord with our standards.” Moreover, Phillips rescues Freud’s original insight into human bisexuality, and reintroduces Ferenczi’s idea of “ambisexuality.”

The result of all this is to note that “from a psychoanalytic point of view, nobody can know about sexuality” in part because “we are never one thing or another, but a miscellany. (For how long in any given day is one homosexual or heterosexual, and can you always tell the difference?)” We seek to be one thing and never another, and certainly Christians try to prescribe this, but that, at the very least, is, Phillips suggests, merely an expression of our “wish to be defined [which] is complicit with the wish to be controlled.”

Rather than always and everywhere seeking control and certainty, seeking refuge from the terrors of the world and of love (including God’s love, perhaps the most terrifying of all, though Phillips does not suggest this) in the shadow of the expert, the healthy mind is one that is free to forget, free not to focus on itself, free to avoid making a “fetish of memory,” and free to kick out its own resident “enraged bureaucrat” who is always trying to organize, structure, and control thoughts. In the end, Phillips says that psychoanalysis, theology, politics, and anything else has to resist the descent into what he calls “Cartesianism,” that is, into highly and tightly structured systems of thought in which we think we have thought everything there is to be thought, and no new or free thoughts are to be had. Psychoanalysis, like Christianity, works best when it reminds us that “too much definition leaves too much out.”

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