Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Lacan and Jonathan Zerzan: Alienation and Psycho-Normalization

I'm reading the Mirror Stage essay again in preparation for teaching it today, and as often occurs (particularly with Lacan) I'm grasping it much more deeply this time around (and will likely grasp it even better the next time around).  In particuar, I'm finding it very productive to go back to that essay after my first venture into the work of Jonathan Zerzan, who at first blush seems to have put into very clear terms many of the concerns and questions that have been driving me for years now, without my quite being able to articulate them.

The question that has dogged my reading of psychoanalysis is that of the political - when we read Freud's famous quotes that (paraphrasing) the goal of psychoanalysis is to change dysfunctional mental illness back into everyday human misery, or that the universality of civilization will mean the omnipresence of neurosis, are we hearing a lament, or a sanguine acceptance?  Are the processes of repression, civilization, and symbolization described by Freud and Lacan universal constants to whose pains we must resign ourselves in exchange for greater benefits, or are they open to challenge?

Zerzan himself has some very clear positions on all of this (and is clearly strongly influenced by psychoanalysis, particularly Freud), but for now I just want to stick to the "Mirror Stage" as I warm up to class.  I think that (despite Lacan's notorious opacity) there are points where it is clear he is quite critical of the process of socialization he's describing - certainly, more clearly critical than Freud ever was.  Some of these are subtle, almost poetic - for instance, the description of the assumption of the specular self-image (that is, the leap to figuring out that thing in the mirror is me) in terms of putting on armor, or of a quest to enter "a lofty, remote inner castle" - martial imagery that doesn't bespeak a happy life.

Lacan occasionally suggests the situation might be constitutive and unavoidable, but even then he's quite clear that it's unpleasant.  As he puts it, "the mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation" - that is, from the fragmentation of the infant's experience to the adult's constant desire for a return to "wholeness" that will someday be achieved.  But in that same passage, Lacan uses a crucial term - alienation, which he uses to characterize the assumption of the body in the mirror as one's own.  Particularly given the essay's genesis after Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Englightenment, it seems safe to guess that Lacan used this term quite knowingly.

Perhaps Lacan's perspective shifted by the time of May 1968, when he would be accused of being a counterrevolutionary.  But at least in this essay, it seems he was doing work that was, more than most people tend to grant, well athwart the progress of history, capital, and the mediatized world we now live in.


Mung said...

Having read that essay once and from the class discussions that I rememmber I have to say that Lacan's use of "alienation" is different from the Marxist concept. For Marx the concept is as much about alienation at the workplace as it is a critique of modernity.

Adam Harper said...

Hi there, sorry to leave a comment on a different topic, but I couldn't find an email address for you. I noticed that you tweeted "Awesome, Simon Reynolds on Chillwave just as I'm getting entangled in a major journal article on it" a little while ago. I'm actually researching lo-fi pop at the moment, so I'm interested to know, what was the major journal article you mentioned? Many thanks, Adam

David Z. Morris said...

Mung, you're obviously right in the sense that Marx's diagnosis was much more restricted. Lacan's alienation, I think, could be said to include, or at least to suggest, the consequences of the division of labor as well as the divisions of language, self from image, etc. Lacan's position (if you accept that it's a critique) is actually a more profound version of Marx's early insight.

David Z. Morris said...

Adam, I was referring to the article I'm writing right now. I'd love to discuss and share, though.

Adam Harper said...

Ah, OK! Let me know when you finish it, thanks indeed.