Psychoanalysis and the Polis

Critical Inquiry 9 (1):77-92 (1982)
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The essays in this volume convince me of something which, until now was only a hypothesis of mine. Academic discourse, and perhaps American university discourse in particular, possesses an extraordinary ability to absorb, digest, and neutralize all of the key, radical or dramatic moments of thought, particularly, a fortiori, of contemporary though. Marxism in the United States, though marginalized, remains deafly dominant and exercises a fascination that we have not seen in Europe since the Russian Proletkult of the 1930s. Post-Heideggerian "deconstructivism" though esoteric, is welcomed in the United States as an antidote to analytic philosophy or, rather, as a way to valorize, through contrast, that philosophy. Only one theoretical breakthrough seems consistently to mobilize resistances, rejections and deafness: psychoanalysis—not as the "plague" allowed by Freud to implant itself in America as a "commerce in couches" but rather as that which, with Freud and after him, has led the psychoanalytic decentering of the speaking subject to the very foundations of language. It is this latter direction that I will be exploring here, with no other hope than to awaken the resistances and, perhaps, the attention of a concerned few, after the event .For I have the impression that the "professionalism" discussed throughout the "Politics of Interpretation" conference is never as strong as when professionals denounce it. In fact, the same preanalytic rationality unites them all, "conservatives" and "revolutionaries"—in all cases, jealous guardians of their academic "chairs" whose very existence, I am sure, is thrown into question and put into jeopardy by psychoanalytic discourse. I would therefore schematically summarize what is to follow in this way:1. There are political implications inherent in the act of interpretation itself, whatever meaning that interpretation bestows. What is the meaning, interest, and benefit of the interpretive position itself, a position from which I wish to give meaning to an enigma? To give a political meaning to something is perhaps only the ultimate consequence to he epistemological attitude which consists, simply, of the desire to give meaning. This attitude is not innocent but, rather, is rooted in the speaking subjects' need to reassure himself of his image and his identity faced with an object. Political interpretation is thus the apogee of the obsessive quest for A Meaning.2. The psychoanalytic intervention within Western knowledge has a fundamentally deceptive effect. Psychoanalysis, critical and dissolvent cuts through political illusions, fantasies, and beliefs to the extent that they consist in providing only one meaning, an uncriticizable ultimate Meaning, to human behavior. If such a situation can lead to despair within the polis, we must not forget that it is also a source of lucidity and ethics. The psychoanalytic intervention is, from this point of view, a counterweight, an antidote, to political discourse which, without it, is free to become our modern religion: the final explanation.3. The political interpretations of our century have produced two powerful and totalitarian results: fascism and Stalinism. Parallel to the socioeconomic reasons for these phenomena, there exists as well, another, more intrinsic reason: the simple desire to give a meaning to explain, to provide the answer, to interpret. In that context I will briefly discuss Louis Ferdinand Céline's texts insofar as the ideological interpretations given by him are an example of political delirium in avant-garde writing.Julia Kristeva,professor of linguistics at the University of Paris VII and a regular visiting professor at Columbia University, is the author of Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art and About Chinese Women.Margaret Waller, a doctoral candidate in French at Columbia University, is currently translating Kristeva's Revolution du langage poétique.



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Julia Kristeva
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