At the end of conformism, on the edge of a hole

Глеб Напреенко29/01/23 20:563.6K🔥

An abridged version of this text appeared on the e-flux website in the «Contemporary clinic» section (edited by Aaron Schuster) exactly on the eve of the mobilisation in Russia. This coincidence turned out to be very accurate: I think much of what is described in this text has shifted with the start of the mobilisation, although many things remain true: for example, this war is still prohibited to be called «war» in Russia. Nevertheless, this text is rather a witness of the situation in Russia during the war, but before the mobilisation.

Lots of people are now leaving Russia. I have left too, which makes it more problematic for me to judge what is happening in Russia, but this has turned my interest towards what I have formulated as «jouissance of exile», where jouissance should be understood in the lacanian sense, largely as suffering.

Rodion Kitaev, The Last Dance. From “The Black Dawn” series. Spring 2022.
Rodion Kitaev, The Last Dance. From “The Black Dawn” series. Spring 2022.

1. Rupture and continuity. Censorship and propaganda

In Russia, a few months after the beginning of the war, we hear these questions today — both in public spaces and in the psychoanalyst’s cabinet:

What I continue to do — to work, to go to the café, to see or to produce artistic works — does it make sense during the war?

What makes sense now?

It“s so strange that life goes on, isn”t it? Like nothing ever happened.

For many people, a war of Russia against Ukraine seemed impossible. It is they, of whom I am one, who were seized by the outbreak of this war as a real outside-of-sense, a rupture that questions the familiar reality and bonds. I will quote from my presentation at the «Forum of Psychoanalysts: Russia-Ukraine-Мир (Мир is a word in Russian that could mean both World and Peace at the same time)» organised by colleagues in the early days of the war:

«Since the 1990s we have lived in a situation where it seemed to everyone that a universal way of bonding a jouissance had been found — the capitalist discourse. Some even spoke of the “end of history” in relation to the end of the Soviet Union and the establishment of global neoliberal capitalism. It was assumed that all sorts of historical excesses were limited by the logic of capitalism — that no one was ultimately prepared to be deprived of its benefits, which took the form of commodities. On the second day of the war with Ukraine, I came across the cover of Time magazine, dedicated to the war, with the caption «The Return of History». I“m not sure that”s quite the right description of the situation, but it“s possible to say that what has happened is the return of jouissance in its most destructive form. The vast majority of political experts were saying that there would be no war. That it was unprofitable, that it did not conform to any economic logic, any capitalist rationality, that there was no reason for it. Only the USA intelligence service was saying “yes, there will be a war”, referring to the pure facts without any attempt of understanding. But no one wanted to believe it. I too thought it was all just blah blah. Although we could remember that always not all jouissance is absorbed by discourse, by social bonds, that there is extra-discursive jouissance in the symptom, for example. But anyway, we didn”t want to believe it. What has happened is a move beyond discourse, beyond social bonds. In this sense we could call it a passage to action, a passage a l’acte. There has been a breakthrough of jouissance, of jouissance that is non-negativized, non-dialectized, whose consequences everyone who comes to our cabinet risks facing. Everyone has their own way of dealing with this invasion of jouissance — which finally is related to one’s symptom» [1].

On the contrary, Russian propaganda seeks to create an effect of continuity of reality, claiming that everything is under control, that «our president knows where he is leading the country» (as Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said), explaining that what happens ensures order and regularity. In fact, all social institutions have an inherent tendency to inertia, to the reproduction of their functioning — which, however, implies the possibility of including what remains repressed in their functioning into the dialectical process. But today the functioning of Russian propaganda and censorship resembles rather foreclosure than repression as psychoanalyst Mikhail Strakhov pointed out once.

Foreclosure, the Lacanian translation of the Freudian term Verwerfung, is usually described as a psychotic mechanism in contrast to neurotic repression, Verdrangung. Whereas in repression some signifier that refers to jouissance is withdrawn into the unconscious, having already been included in the symbolic order, in foreclosure the signifier that could contribute to the treatment of jouissance is discarded without this inclusion. The effect of this lack of inclusion of key signifiers in the symbolic order is the return of jouissance in the real.

To explain this opposition between repression and foreclosure in context of propaganda and censorship, it’s important to introduce the notion of continuity of chain of discourse or the chain of signifiers — because the logic of repression and of return of repressed is always connected with establishing some chain of signifiers (all the examples of repression from Freud are about reconstructing this chain which was corrupted by repression), and in case of foreclosure there is no such chain which could be reconstructed in unconscious. It can rather produce the radical fragmentation of the discourse. Or as Antonin Artaud described the beginning of his psychoses — the feeling that all his phrases are unfinished, that there is a hole in the end of each phrase that cannot be closed. Actual putinist propaganda just declares the continuity of discourse (such as “traditional values”), but doesn’t actually produce it. Working together with censorship, they don’t really give a consistent ideological way to explain what’s happening, to produce chains of interpretations, that is to be successfully delusional — rather they produce lots of holes, of fragmentation of reality, for example, attacking some concrete ket signifiers such as “war”, expelling them from legal circulation, without even much explaining why. Mikhail Strakhov speaks about it in his interview [2].

We actually have lots of elements of a state of emergency, a military situation and a censorship — but none of them are not declared as such: officially there’s no war, no censorship and no dictatorship. This distance between de facto and de jure also corresponds with foreclosure (one can refer again to a case of Artaud who declared the radical disconnection of words and things). Propaganda and censorship here make an effort not simply to repress, but to exclude the very possibility that something that would indicate the nature of actual war and political situation might enter their discursive system. The fundamental lacanian logic of foreclosure is “what is not recognised in symbolic returns in the real” — and I believe that the “return in the real” of this unrecognised war is quite dangerous in actual situation — think of the nuclear danger etc. Or in the actual rhetorics of those who support the war one can hear rather presence of death drive than Eros — that is rather drive to destroy the supposed evil Other (West/NATO/Ukraine) than even love to what is called Motherland. This provocation of death drive is supported by rhetorics of Russian authorities.

Finally, this totally paranoid rhetoric of authorities bordering on transitivism in psychiatric sense of term, where all the intentions and vices attributed to the evil western Other can be read as an impossible confession about themselves, also makes one think of foreclosure — the foreclosure of the third element in this mirror relationship.

(I leave aside the question of foreclosure at the heart of the position of the Russian president, Putin, for whom the main reference point seems to be an imaginary ideal of masculinity in the spirit of a respected member of a gopnik group, and the only mistake which he can admit for himself is that he trusted someone too much.)

2. Towards a generalized foreclosure

The two poles — inertia/rupture, sense/outside-of-sense, conformism/solitude, pleasure principle and its beyond — resonate today in the analyst’s cabinet. The continuation of seemingly peaceful existence «by inertia» for some people can be marked by a touch of initial, prearranged impotence, passivity in relation to the real of war — an impotence which can have a soothing, drowsy, anesthetic character — «nothing can be done about it», «we do not know the whole truth». But psychoanalysis, as well as some other social practices, instead of the impotence in default that rules out an attempt at a dialectic between these two poles, allows you to put them into a play with each other and to move to another impotence, impotence turned into impossibility, — through the work of sometimes long, even exhausting, examination of what you are capable of as a subject.

But to do this, as one can conclude from psychoanalyst Inga Metreveli’s text [3], you need to be touched by the war exactly as a divided subject, as a bearer of the symptom, that is, as a living being marked by the encounter with the signifier and experiencing its morbid consequences on the level of a relationship with jouissance — a being unable not to enjoy, but also unable to enjoy without looking back. Not giving a delirious system of explanation of situation, as a “normal” ideology should do, Russian propaganda nevertheless produces (as any other propaganda) cliches which collaborate with Ego’s tendency of supporting the illusion of wholeness, of consistency of the image of Ego and the world, and, following Metreveli’s theses, only the division of subject can subvert this Ego’s tendency. And then one touched as a subject can treat the intrusion of the real of war as something one can hypothetically try to learn to deal with: as something to be deciphered and related to the repressed — or as something which demands an invention. But this search is driven precisely by the fact that there is something that opposes it, that there is something that refutes it — the irritating existence of something that can never be dealt with well.

The invasion of the real may call for an unlimited production of sense. The analytical journey can allow us to go to the point where sense is exhausted. Outside-of-sense highlights the inevitably fictitious, artificial character of all sense. The search for sense attempts to frame a hole in the fabric: there is no hole without fabric, but there is no fabric without a hole either.

The machine of interpretation of what I encountered in the war has been set in motion within me: in dreams, in thoughts, in speech that claims to bring relief. The word in analysis does indeed bring relief in part. But in deploying more and more sense, it leads to the realization that there is something uninterpretable in the fact of war — an opaque point that escapes deciphering. And if I described psychoanalysis above as something that can be opposed to a propaganda foreclosure — because psychoanalysis establishes a specific discourse — it can be said at the same time that analysis is able to bring us to this point, which Jacques-Alain Miller called «generalized foreclosure» [4] (inherent in everyone, as opposed to a psychotic foreclosure).

My unconscious, this delirious system of interpretation, in dreams and associations assimilates the outside-of-sense of war with the already known versions of the unintelligible, the foreclosed which are the non-existence of sexual relationships and the question «what is a woman?» This substitution, what does it mask? What does it point to? Does unconscious tries to produce the equation of traumatism of this undeclared war to the holes in its own sexualised discourse — holes of “generalised foreclosure” beyond all the repressed chains of signifiers which can be reconstructed?

But psychoanalysis is not just to declare that the real of war is just an avatar of some fundamental traumatism of human condition. It is true inside the game of psychoanalytical discource, psychoanalytical treatment — but the experience of psychoanalysis teaches us not only to listen to unconscious but also not to believe to it too much — to listen to it as to a delirious. So psychoanalytical discourse is a discourse that touches its own limits. It’s here where an impossible moment of awakening can also be touched. Awakening against the dream of the unconscious which tries to assimilate the real of war — awakening against the assimilation of the existence (of war) to the being (of discourse).

3. Activation of the symptom

Propaganda tries to create such a swarm of clichés that it avoids coming up against what is outside-of-sense. Unlike what might happen in the course of a psychoanalysis, knowledge in propaganda is sealed off, excluded from the movement of dialectics, frozen in ready-made formulas — the phrase «our president knows where he is leading the country» is indicative in this respect — knowledge is proclaimed here, but in no way revealed or unfolded. That’s why the contradiction between propagandistic clichés doesn’t exist for propaganda: a contradiction can only arise when knowledge is explicitly unfolded. The clichés just coexist, working for the illusory integrity of the picture of the world. And being in the analysis, you can see that your own swarm of clichés, your own system of ready-made meanings that come into your tongue and under your arm, works as a kind of perfect propaganda. Here too, the law of contradiction does not work — as Lacan says in his seminar 20 «the unconscious is the fact that being, by speaking, enjoys, and wants to know nothing about it, wants to know nothing at all». It can be said that everyone is the victim and carrier of his private propaganda — this is a revelation that can become unheimlich. «The unconscious is politics».

Speaking in analysis, we engage a kind of knowledge which possesses us — knowledge of what and how to speak (the principle of free association can be reworded this way) — but this knowledge is tacit, knowledge as know-how. Work in psychoanalysis is directed, in a sense, against the unconscious: at first it is an attempt to translate the implicit, unconscious knowledge that drives your speech into explicit knowledge — an attempt which always more or less fails, and therefore confronts the individual with both his subjective division and well as with inconsistency of the Other — but which thus leads one to the question of untranslatable jouissance at the core of his symptom.

It is the activation of the symptom that I observed in these times of war — in myself first, which allowed me to be more attentive to it in my analysands. By activation, I do not mean so much an aggravation of the symptom itself as the facilitation of the attempt to say something about the symptom and about the ways to deal with it — and to teach oneself from this saying.

War activates the symptom in its function as a frontier, as Freud spoke of: the symptom both as a means of satisfying the drive and of protecting oneself from it. Or, as Jacques-Alain Miller puts it, the symptom is double: one side is oriented towards sense, the other towards jouissance outside of sense.

We can also see the symptom as a junction between conformism and singularity. The symptom turns out to be a partner that cannot be taken away from you when everything else is threatened, when war and migration tear apart human bonds — between colleagues and loved ones, friends and relatives.

This activation of the symptom parallels the activation, in some artists, of a path of art as a response to what war suddenly brings to the surface. Freud emphasized the same structural locus of art and the symptom as responses to the real.

For many subjects in analysis, symptomatic reactions testify that their fundamental relationship to the Other is being questioned. These questions, sometimes voiced openly and sometimes latently, could be phrased like this:

Who am I for the Other? What makes me different from the others?

In what way am I a part of humanity?

How do I protect myself from my partners? And what binds me to them?

These questions are surely quite actual in the situation of migration also.


[1] (in Russian)

[2] (in French)

[3] (in French) and (in Russian)

[4] (In French)


This article is an expanded version of a paper read in July 2022 at the New Lacanian School congress in Lausanne. This text would not have been possible without the exchange of ideas with my colleagues and friends, my analyst and analysands.

Gleb Napreenko is a psychoanalyst, oriented by the New Lacanian School. Born in 1989 in Moscow.

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