Nina Könnemann, „Blackpool Illuminations 1991-2005“, Halle für Kunst, Lüneburg, 2012, Installationsansicht / installation view
Psychological categories are usually considered problematic in modern political and aesthetical discourses despite their persistent presence in both fields — be it because they excessively impregnate social conflicts with emotions, or because they may suggest that personal motivations and biographical influences are the ultimate foundations for the production and the perception of artistic works. However, the following essay by Helmut Draxler from Issue No. 68, which we are republishing here while looking ahead to our September issue on “Envy,” argues that psychoanalysis — in its theoretical approaches aiming at the dynamics of social and institutional relationship patterns — does provide a set of methodological instruments that also allows for scrutinizing the interaction of psychic dispositions and social conditions, forbearing to merge the one into the other effortlessly.
“Privation” and “abundance”, foundational figures for many theoretical models, generally exclude the psychological from their argumentative constructions. They reduce it, each in its own way, to a mode of social and/or structural functions and thus dismiss it as a problem. Conversely, the two terms, as almost perfect complements, give rise to anthropological models, each with its own motivations, that lend themselves to political overdetermination of all sorts. A variety of “deficient beings” and virtually inexhaustible “potentialities” populate the horizons of political theories. Within aesthetic theory, too, one can distinguish approaches that are characterized by a rigorous renunciation of psychology from others that consist of nothing but psychology. In my view, it is time, then, to desist from deciding in favor of privation or abundance and instead to attempt to think that which the two concepts have in common in a less reductionistic fashion. In this context, aspects of “relational psychoanalysis”, which has by and large bid farewell to Freud’s psychology of the single person founded on a theory of drives, seem particularly helpful in the attempt to think privation and abundance neither as absolute opposites nor in the sense of a “dialectical” sublation of this opposition but instead as different modalities, united in polar interrelation, of one regulative process. At stake in this attempt are both the recovery of social and psychological dimensions within political as well as aesthetic theory and the reconstruction of the different forms of their interrelation.
ABYSSES OF PSYCHOPOLITICS
“Psychologizing” reduces social relations to subjective and individual experiences: such was the common reproach within the left against any attempt to draw on psychology for an understanding of political states of affairs. However, the figures of progressive argumentation, like others, have always already been interspersed with elements of the psychological interior. Such psycho-political aspects enjoy as much popularity in the context of today’s critiques of globalization as among the latter’s conservative antagonists concerned with traditional values. The careers of concepts such as greed, envy, hatred, hypocrisy, anxiety, wrath and pride run through the entire political spectrum. Having been dismissed from the Christian canon of vices, they have long become political fighting words, even today lending themselves to rhetorics of simplification and outrage although they have in themselves become replete with a variety of subtle ideological overtones. The “virtuous” emotional shades of love, compassion, friendship or solidarity are hardly far behind; their actualizations, between political utopia and the concrete promise of consumption, unlock dazzling scenarios of meaning that, in most cases, prove to be no less treacherous than the “vicious” ones.
The problem is most often the tendency to assign these psycho-political categories to individual social groups, such as greed to the capitalists or envy to a culture of protest in any form. Analogously, anxiety or depression then represent the consequences of capitalism, and hatred becomes a source of outrage and resistance. The right, in turn, tends to turn to the notions of hypocrisy or resentment in order to rail against religious or leftist moralizing and the “bleeding-heart” sentiments that can be traced back to it; wrath, pride and honor, by contrast, serve its assertion of self. There is no doubt that some of these concepts are exchangeable also within the various political frames of reference. Still, the classical schema of the struggle of virtues against vices generally dominates on the left, while the right tends instead to stage a battle of different vices against each other; a scenario that in turn has a long pre-history in tactical checks on isolated sacrilegious excesses. Still, the forms of argument remain comparable across argumentative cultures, as they recur, again and again, to basic psycho-political concepts, effectively refusing to raise the argument to a decisively higher level. Instead of such essentialist claims and ascriptions, one would need to address the dynamics of the argument itself: how psychological dispositions relate to social constellations, how reciprocal these relations of exchange really are, which cultural codes are transferred in the process, and which opportunities for change, emancipation, and civility, which Étienne Balibar calls the three decisive terms of progressive politics, can be derived from all this.
Psychology, then, is always already part of the game. Indeed, the field of politics might be understood as one that is to a particular degree about the calibration and mutual engagement of psychological and social aspects. Social differences are indubitably capable of description as facts, yet whether they are perceived as unjust is a question that presupposes socially and culturally mediated value criteria that moreover must be adopted and felt by individuals before they can become indicators for political action. Correspondingly, specific criteria with respect for instance to fairness and liberty can be developed only from the mutual recognition of psychological and social dimensions of the political. I would reserve the term “psycho-politics,” by contrast, for those short-circuited arguments that allow all too quick conclusions from the psychological to the social or vice versa, suggesting or aiming at an immediacy of relations. In my view, they lose sight of the moment of tension in which the social can prove to be more than an aggregate of states of individuals, and the psychological, more than a mere social pattern. The term “psychosocial” is often used lightly, yet in the very irreducibility of its two components it constitutes quite literally the space in which political action takes place.
My question regards the role that psychoanalysis, as a theory and as a clinical practice, can play in this “domain of political action.” For on the one hand there can be no doubt that it is itself infiltrated by psycho-politics. In its doctrine of drives, in particular, it is deeply rooted in political theories of the passions since Machiavelli and Hobbes in the sense that the libidinous passions must be culturally transformed and the destructive passions politically curbed, whence both the discontent with and the necessity of social institutions. Freud vacillates between these two positions depending on whether he is envisaging the libido or the death drive. To this day associated primarily with the name of Wilhelm Reich is the view, insisting on an early conception of Freud’s doctrine of drives, that culture and society must be understood exclusively as suppressive; to this view, the “liberation” of the drives from their cultural and social constraints thus became the decisive political aim. Here lies the distinctive impulse of the Freudo-Marxism rampant in the 1960s and 70s, a model that is still seen by some as an important hinge between politics and psychoanalysis even though Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Foucault have already rejected or transformed it, each in his own way.
However, these thinkers discarded or ignored also those approaches of ego psychology and object relations theory originating in the “late” Freud which have in the meantime, in the form of inter-personal, inter-subjective or systemic theoretical conceptions, critically engaged the drive-theoretical inheritance of psychoanalysis in many ways. Yet it is precisely these conceptions that now seem to me to be of much greater political interest, despite the objections that have been raised against them, in particular the one that their orientation is too strongly therapeutic and hence toward an “adaptation” to social norms. For by renouncing a drive-theoretical, and hence also psycho-political, foundationalism, or at least by limiting such a foundation in its argumentative reach, they unlock in different and yet comparable ways a variety of relation-theoretical constellations; only the latter permit a true establishment of the psychosocial field of the political. That is to say, they take up the complex psychosocial mechanisms, analyzed already by Freud, that regulate the affective economy with respect to guilt, shame, anxiety, melancholia, ennui, desire, aggression and even trauma, and differentiate these mechanisms further with a view to its “interpersonal and institutional” aspects, specifying the “ego-feeling” (Paul Federn) as a specific perception of boundary experiences within a complex relational process; thus the Oedipal triangulation itself can also be historicized and opened up toward more extended forms of interaction that/which commensurate with altered structures of kinship and personal relationships that appear increasingly “post-familial.” These theoretical approaches seem compatible also with the equally differentiated philosophical-phenomenological portrayals of affects; we have such portrayals by Albert O. Hirschman on the general interrelation of passions and interests, by Käthe Hamburger on compassion and by Rainer Paris on envy. Yet their importance might also reside in the fact that they can help to reflect on and situate certain forms of the political such as constructions of pure perpetrators and victims.
The biggest problem with these approaches, however, resides in their strong clinical orientation accompanied by a deficit in academic and political theorization. It would not be entirely unfair to understand them as forming parts of the contemporary culture of therapy, an association which they have so far shown little inclination to disown clearly. Still, in comparison with the meta-theoretical fixation and the academic and anti-therapeutic impulse that dominate the reception of Jacques Lacan’s work, these inter-subjective conceptions of relations and stagings nonetheless seem to me to hold a potential as yet unexhausted by political theory; in particular with respect to one of the most significant theoretical debates of the past decades, between a view that situates desire in an anthropology of a structural privation (Jacques Lacan) and one that has this desire emerge from the abundance of the social body “mechanically” and as immediate productivity before and against any imposition of structure (Gilles Deleuze). Privation and abundance here appear as secondary psycho-political categories that condense, as it were, the traditional catalogues of virtues and vices. Precisely against such an essentialization of privation or abundance psychoanalysis would be called upon to act as a flexible instrument between the registers of the therapeutic and the analytical. For the psychological is neither a machine nor a rigid symbolically structured language; rather, it develops as a dynamics of affective cathexes in which desire cannot be thought independently of current modes of staging and relational constellations. In this respect, Wolfgang Trauth’s metapsychology in particular seems to me to offer a meaningful framework in which to address not only the “polar opposition” of privation and abundance but, more generally, the social conditions behind the variety of bifurcated or communicative forms of affect regulation. At the same time, this view permits a better understanding of the structurally conservative aspects of psychological processes, aspects that may be among the decisive obstacles to progressive politics. This would seem to make it possible to avoid both one-sided attributions of psycho-political qualities to specific social groups and anthropological determinations according to the pattern of privation-or-abundance, with the attendant political conceptions (the “Leninism” that is to compensate for privation in Slavoj Žižek, the spontaneous “constitutive power” in Antonio Negri). Instead, privation and abundance can be understood as the poles of a complex ensemble of processes of interrelation and delegation; undoing the distortion and increasing the differentiation of this ensemble within the spaces of the psychosocial might be what the goals of change, emancipation and civility demand.
FOUNDATIONAL FIGURES OF PSYCHO-AESTHETICS
Since aesthetics was conceived in the 18th century as the theory of sensory perception — even before it was transformed into a theory of art — it was closely associated with psychology in a quite immediate sense: perception, after all, cannot be thought as independent of emotional processes. If this aspect moved to the background as a consequence of the triumph of idealist aesthetics, it never disappeared entirely; it gained new impetus for instance with Gustav Theodor Fechner’s “Vorschule der Ästhetik” (“Aesthetic Propaedeutic”, 1876), a work that continues to exert influence over today’s experimental psychology. Ernst H. Gombrich, for instance, was one of the few art historians who intended to conduct art history strictly as an experimental psychology of perception. In the late 19th century’s “aesthetics of empathy”, in Friedrich Theodor Vischer or Theodor Lipps, by contrast, the theory of perception had already become closely entwined with the experience of art. At issue were here no longer the modalities of sensory perception but the acts, conceived as much more active, of “endowing with a soul” and “symbolization”, which permit the viewers to appropriate works of art for themselves in the first place. The experience of art is thus assigned to a special place where the bifurcations of the scientific thinking of subject vs. object seem capable of being overcome; the aesthetics of empathy thus appears as a hinge between Romantic conceptions of art on the one hand and the phenomenological methods of the 20th century, which were again motivated by a rejection of psychology, on the other hand.
This contrasts, however, with the rigorous repudiation of everything psychological in the work aesthetics and, later, text aesthetics that dominated almost all of the academic discourse on the arts until the 1960s. In this context, “psychological” meant both the import of the artist’s life for his or her work, whence a rejection of biographical elements as well as intentional motivation, and indeed authorship altogether; and the various concepts of a psychologically motiva-ted reception, ranging from the “sentimental pleasure” of the 18th century to the empathetic act. Today’s experiential aesthetics largely seeks to avoid such rigorous anti-psychologism in favor of a reflective aesthetic experience adequate to the work without returning, however, to an aesthetic of empathy.
At least one thing thus becomes clear: the psychological can be neither expurgated from aesthetics in the name of idealized conceptions of a work or of “pure” form, nor limited to the aspect of the psychology of perception or of an empathetic act. For aesthetics, understood as a theory of art “as such,” on the one hand examines aspects that are not necessarily associated with perception or with emotions in general, and on the other hand, it deals with complex value-horizons that art in the modern sense associates with its institutional and discursive networks. That is to say, works do indeed not originate in biographical moments easily legible in them, but neither do they appear out of social thin air; rather, they can appear as works in the first place only within specific historical constellations, that is to say, as an immediate conjunction of institutional requirements and discursive expectations, of practical traditions and singular events, in which institutions, discourses and practices meet; their confluence can in the end only be interpreted as a complex psychosocial dynamics. For it is not the psychological that is questionable about the category of the art work but precisely the claim to a site beyond psychology: as the works are located without the confines of the subjective, they are also placed beyond contention, enabling them to secure their value as quasi-objective. This is what institutions, discourses and markets desire; it is against this that artistic practices, as subjective assertions that are always also directed against other such assertions, can be mobilized at least temporarily.
In the aesthetics, too, then, psychology is always already part of the game. The question is only which role one wishes to assign it; how great its import is to the various facets of possible action in the aesthetic field, from aesthetic experience and the hermeneutic understanding of art works to their political and tactical placement in the social space of exhibitions. More generally, one might frame the question as follows: how can we understand the various facets of the psychological involved in production as well as in reception? At issue here is not only the psychology of concrete personal agents who communicate through works exhibited for public viewing, but very much also the psychological dispositions embedded, as it were, in the structures and settings of institutions and discourses, such as implicit hierarchical ways of communicating, firmly rooted value criteria, or, then again, quite concrete procedures of social inclusion and exclusion that the participants in the aesthetic field have to face in ever new configurations.
What promise, then, does the development of psychoanalytic theory hold for an illumination of these dynamics? To answer this question, it is of decisive importance that psychoanalysis is not merely a method that would be more or less objectively applicable, as it were from an outside perspective; rather, psychoanalysis has long since become an agent of its own within the aesthetic field. The particular way in which it effectively imparted the Romantic idea of unconscious production to Surrealism, and thus could be drawn on to support a conception of aesthetic communication that rested no longer on subtle acts of empathy or experience but on a “concatenation” of mechanical and unconscious states, rendered it a flagship discipline, fascinating to many through the 1970s, from which a “renewal” of artistic procedures was expected. This implied also a perspective on the “art of the Others” — of the mentally ill, the naïve, animals, children or “primitives” — in which this mode of production seemed clearly recognizable. From today’s perspective, it is striking to what extent this adaptation of Freud’s ideas both suggested itself and was yet crassly simplistic and lopsidedly Romanticizing, especially in view of Freud’s meta-psychological writings or his “second topography” with the categories of ego, id, and super-ego. This concerns especially the notion of the unconscious as a wholly other that has nothing to do with coping with life on rational terms, a notion that did not recognize that the very defense mechanism of “rationalization” can very well be an expression of the unconscious. The equation of artistic with unconscious articulation, something Freud already gently ridiculed in Breton, seems equally problematic, as does the argumentative figure of a “renewal” of the avant-garde through an act of appropriation of alterity.
In the context of theories not so much of art as of film, a psychoanalytically inspired view has been established since the late 1960s that focused on unconscious reception rather than unconscious forms of production by addressing the interrelations between institutional structures on the one hand and the contents of images and the ways they are received on the other hand: the theory of the apparatus. To this end, it projected, as it were, Plato’s Cave Analogy onto Lacan’s mirror stage and applied them to the situation of the cinematic presentation. The cinema thus became the site of a fundamental deception; the filmic image, the signifier of an imaginary with which the viewers identify themselves, for instance via the camera. They thus find themselves inserted into prefabricated structures of desire and misrecognize themselves. At the same time, this construction bears gender-specific markers, situating men as the bearers of the gaze, women as its objects. Important as these approaches were, they must yet be regarded as failed insofar as they attempted to present an unambiguous solution to the problem of the psychosocial structures of interaction of film. The modalities of symbolization even in the most traditional narrative movie are significantly more complex than is indicated by the theory of the “imaginary signifier;” it has long been recognized, moreover, that the positions of identification are many and fluid; and, most importantly, the cinema itself has ceased to be the central site of film reception, rendering the metaphorical applications of the Cave Analogy largely obsolete. Nonetheless, these theoretical approaches continue to be highly stimulating if the question is not one regarding one unitary cinematographic apparatus, but a more general one regarding the psychosocial dispositions within the apparatuses, i.e. within the field where changing technologies meet institutional and discursive forms of processing. Regarding film, these changes seem to be quite immediately evident in new ways of using and viewing it introduced by the digital age: they can no longer be interpreted as a one-dimensional “manipulation” of desire; the variegated forms of activation and feedback they offer give rise to a multi-layered field whose ideological dimensions can yet hardly be surmised. With respect to the art world, calling the network of increasingly professionalized agents who curate, critique, debate, consult, collect, scout locations and promote events a “therapeutic institution” is certainly insufficient yet hits the mark, as the term addresses those more or less unconscious psychosocial dynamics of the aesthetic field within which the participants exert themselves for the sake of a seemingly pure value, art, and yet at the same time practice something altogether different, a culture sui generic of art administration.
The question is not so much whether that is a good or a bad thing, but rather to which degree these constellations govern not only today’s forms of reception but also, and not just since yesterday, the forms of production of art; to which degree they have long become a part of what is at stake in them. Here, again, “relational psychoanalysis” seems to me the most suitable tool for an attempt to address the dynamics between institutional, discursive and practical dimensions — that is, precisely to avoid distinguishing between the notion of pure authorship, a pure work and an equally pure aesthetic experience, and to examine instead the conditions that in each case constitute authorship, work, intervention or experience with respect to their psychosocial dynamics. These are hotly contested issues that are engaged less over the things in themselves than circumstantially, that is: during events and openings, but also at semi-private functions and parties. Now, these psychosocially charged and highly competitive situations, pitting people against people but also against institutions, have long become an important “material” for both artistic and critical production. A distinction must nonetheless be made between practices that enact these struggles for recognition — in a way that is frequently both Bohemian and exclusionary — and those that address and problematize them. In this respect, aesthetic theory can learn from artistic practices. For it is itself by no means above the inconveniences of everyday psychosocial entanglements, neither as a doctrine of perception nor as a theory of art. By virtue of its value-horizons, it is deeply mired in these more or less conscious dynamics, competitions and struggles for recognition. Yet at the same time, it is called upon to reflect on the changing reality of what must be regarded as artistic “material.” Again, then, the psychological encroaches upon the aesthetics from two sides: here, too, forms or “politics” of negotiation are needed that would be capable of regulating these engagements.
Translation: Gerrit Jackson
Helmut Draxler is an art historian, cultural theorist, and professor for art theory at the University of Applied Arts Vienna.
Image credit: Nina Könnemann, photo by Hans-Jürgen Wege