Who said Psychoanalysis is dead? Psychoanalysis, politics and culture in the twenty first century – Part II

In this interview, Carmen Gallano, an experienced psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, analyses the relevance of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytical philosophy in contemporary politics and culture.  It covers the importance of a single ‘like’ on Facebook, the combination of narcissism and cynicism as well as the mental ‘concentration camps’ of modern capitalism.

The interview was originally conducted in Spanish (click here to read Part II in Spanish).

Read Part I here.

4 June, 2012

This interview was conducted at the private practice of Ms Carmen Gallano in Madrid, Spain, in early March. Ms Gallano studied medicine and psychiatry and worked several years in hospitals and mental institutions before training in psychoanalysis at the Paris School of Jacques Lacan. She is a member of the International School of Psychoanalysis of the Forums of the Lacanian Field (EPFCL), and she has worked for many years in her private practice in Madrid. Ms Gallano combines her work with teaching and has published extensively in Spain and abroad including books titled “The feminine alterity” and “Desire, texts and conferences” (available only in Spanish: “La Alteridad Femenina” and “Deseo, textos y conferencias”).

Q. You have previously noted that family and social bonds are diluting. Based on your 30 plus years of clinical practice, what role do you think social networks and the rapid emergence of virtual life are playing in human life?

A. Individuals use social networks in order to compensate for the breach of social bonds. New means of technology offer virtual connections that facilitate the establishment of global networks of contacts. These, in turn, may or may not bring about local and territorial connections with physical individuals. In order to better understand the rising impact of social networks I have sought guidance in the works of Lacan, in particular his studies on the move from a discourse of the Master to a capitalist discourse and his theory of the subject.

Lacan’s theory of the subject can help us understand how contemporary subjectivity correlates with signifying networks that contribute to global capitalism. That said, a network is not a structure. A signifying structure exists as long as a signifier organizer of a signifying limited chain exists. This is what Lacan referred to as the “Master signifier”. According to Lacan, the “Master signifier” represents the signifying order as a whole and guarantees a nexus between the subject and the knowledge derived from a signifying chain, having an effective bearing on the latter. In contrast, a network is a random signifying chain with multiple connections. These, in turn, are not subject to a principle of legibility capable of organizing a particular/determined meaning. Nor are they subject to any control capable of limiting and ordering a system in its entirety. In other words, internet has created global networked societies where binary logics of horizontal signifying interrelations bear no hierarchy amongst themselves.

Sociologists and other theorists agree that contemporary subjects seek to socialize via internet in order to create an identity in relation to an “other”. This is because individuals can no longer form an identity through the incidence of a hierarchic “Master signifier”. Instead, the human mass has become a crowd that weaves connections in order not to be reduced to a swarm of isolated individuals. This is seen in contemporary advanced societies where individuals live and communicate via the internet and the ‘apps’ found in their smart phones.

Thinkers have defined internet as a phenomenon that does not respect private boundaries. Users share their affections in the web knowing that others might see them. Personal diaries are shared in blogs in order to attract followers. This tells us something: contemporary subjects seek to build their own identity through social platforms. Insofar as their affections and libidinal life are publicised in public networks, they are capitalised. As a result, popular affections become capitalised, in turn leading other users to reproduce the same pattern.

Accordingly, the place and role of individuals in society is also determined by their presence, or lack thereof, in social networks. This is especially the case with young people. Many girls have cried in my private practice because no one left them a comment or ‘liked’ their status, therefore leading them to feel segregated. Others, instead, get agitated as they seek to interpret the comments that other users post in one of their photographs.

It is not without affection that contemporary subjects, especially those born and raised in the internet era, seek personal and social promotion via a “second life”. But those fast and plural connections generate a floating, erratic state where bonds are ephemeral and outsourced. I wonder if the language of internet (where we are witnessing the emergence of new forms of “verbal writing” including the increased use of emoticons and signs), is the way contemporary subjects seek to be heard and to attract the gaze of an “Other” who navigates adrift and who is increasingly less and less embodied. Indeed, one could argue that subjects seek to become “audible” and “visible” through social networks in order to be able to lead a life in which the absence of organizing bonds gives no meaning to their own existence. Of particular relevance here is the emergence of so called online dating websites or platforms which subjects increasingly visit in search for love. This increasing phenomenon reinforces Freud’s dictum that ‘the greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved’. Subjects do not content themselves with the self-erotic enjoyments promoted by the system and aspire to be something more than just an object in the eyes of an “Other”. That said, without a personal and physical encounter love and desire are reduced to a fiction of words, a mere enjoyment of the imaginary. As MIT Professor Sherry Turkle points out, “man-computer symbiosis is impossible, we feel lonely yet we fear privacy. Turn off your phones and computers and start living. Give a meaning to your loneliness”.

Q. “Start living”. Interesting comment and one that I am sure many people are starting to take very seriously. This makes me think of what has been happening since Tunisians took to the streets in late 2010. As you know, 2011 was a year marked by the emergence of several revolutions and social movements, from Northern Africa and the Middle East through to Europe and North America. Lacan himself is widely recognized as one of the prominent thinkers of the May ‘68 generation that followed the early Daniel Cohn-Bendit into a pseudo revolution. What would Lacan say of the movements seen in 2011 and beyond?

A. Social movements like those that led to the Arab Spring and those that followed, like the 15-M in Spain and the Occupy Wall Street in the US, are the result of a social symptom found in young and not so young people: that is, the destruction of social conditions in the hands of greedy financial markets and corrupt political leaders. Whilst the system pushes the masses to new modes of mass consumerism, these revolt against the power of the new indestructible and anonymous Masters. Such social movements form a new polis, woven horizontally, that generates new bonds of solidarity and identity. The most widespread slogan of Spain’s 15-M, “we are not merchandise in the hands of bankers and politicians”, reflected the feeling of thousands, perhaps millions of people. Social movements revolt against the idea of the contemporary subject losing its place in the market place, fearing being left with no future. In some sense, this was the subject of study of Richard Sennet, a sociologist from the London School of Economics, who described this process in his book ‘The Corrosion of Character and the Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism’. The difference, however, is that such corrosion is taking place today with even more strength. Moreover, protesters do not necessarily object being reduced to consumers. Rather, they feel consumed by the system.

So, what can Psychoanalysis tell us? I can still remember what Lacan told his students in May ’68: “the reason you vomit[1] the objects of consumption is because these cannot replace the cause of your desire. If you decide to revolt against the family and society, and throw yourself into sexual liberation, you will realise that doing so will not satisfy you either. In fact, quite the contrary”. Furthermore, he told students that their ‘revolution’, as with any other revolution, would only result in a shift of the discourse of the Master. In other words, after completing their revolution they would find themselves facing yet a new Master. He then added that they played the role of Spartan slaves or helots, as the system displays them saying: “Look how they enjoy”. I remember the days in which subjects sought to fight against the oppression of the family and the system by adopting new forms of hedonism and individual liberty. May ’68, with its experience of “freedom of speech and action”, failed to change the political system of the moment. However, it changed an entire generation by prompting us to explore beyond the conventional and to elaborate new discourses about the social place of the individual in the capitalist society. In that respect, May ’68 was a success that had a tremendous impact in many thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century.

What would Lacan say of the social movements seen recently? He would probably not repeat what he said in May ’68, although I am certain that he would warn about the naïveté of any “revolution” seeking to overthrow the capitalist power of the financial markets. There is a tremendous difference between the massive ‘68 rebellions, bred in the explosive cauldron of North American beatniks and European situationists, and those that broke out in 2011 in so many world squares.

Contemporary social movements do not seek to free the individual from the bourgeois modes of life. Quite the contrary.  They do not want to lose the conditions of life brought about by the rise of the welfare system. They denounce the weakness of the state and of their political leaders in the face of the power of the financial markets. I would even venture to say that they claim the opposite of those who took to the streets in May ’68: they seek more employment, better housing, a decent life, a bright future, and a real democracy for themselves and for their children. A good example of this is one of the signs most commonly seen during Spain’s 15-M camp in Madrid’s main square: “We are not against the system; the system is against us”.

Those who gather in Spain’s public squares to protest against the unfairness of the system feel threatened by increasingly precarious work conditions[2]. In short, they fear the system will turn them into non-renewable labour. Public outrage goes hand in hand with private fears that may result in psychological troubles in those who lack subjective support, emotional bonds, family ties, or compassionate colleagues. They feel ashamed and even guilty of being seen as “losers” by society at large.

What is more concerning here is that the system has crossed the point of no return. According to Lacan, the processes of segregation resulting from the later stages of capitalism produce a “generalised camp of concentration”. Lacan provided two diagnoses: on the one hand he talked of a generalized camp concentrating those spared by the system as a result of not being profitable; on the other hand, he predicted the emergence of a “universal capitalist immersion”. These two diagnoses led many psychoanalysts to explore how psychoanalysis could help subjects combat the capitalist discourse. This, I argue, while not impossible, cannot be achieved through the utopian channels of “revolution”. There are indeed many ways of combating the system from within the system therefore preventing its exactions. For instance, in Spain we have seen the emergence of several initiatives such as popular mobilisation to protect those threatened with eviction, the emergence of good-for-services exchanges amongst those who cannot afford rising prices, or social activities in urban neighbourhoods.

Based on psychoanalytical practice we can say with confidence that consensual, horizontal democratic practices lacking an organizing discourse cannot prosper. To expect large masses in a spontaneous congregation to decide and take action on a particular point is utopian. Subjects may share the same or similar social symptoms but without a signifying Master they may not all meet in a same collective symbolic discourse.

The recent movements of Western Europe and North America will vanish unless they result in collective forms of organization with a particular and shared understanding and knowledge of what has led them to the current situation. This is not the matter of psychoanalysts but of citizens themselves, and psychoanalysts are also committed as citizens. What psychoanalysis can do, however, is help us understand the workings of the human psyche and the relationship between subjects and the context in which they operate. In other words, it can help us understand the formation of subjectivity and the ‘libidinal economy’ that makes us all different from each other.

Q. One final question Ms Gallano. Upon reading your writings on the breach of social bonds and its effects on human subjectivity I was particularly captivated by the term coined by Colette Soler, “narcynicism”. How does this mix of narcissism and cynicism translate in practice? What are the origins of this phenomenon, and was this not always the case (i.e. did we not find this in earlier epochs)?

A. French Psychoanalyst Coletter Soler joined the words “narcissism” and “cynicism” to form the word “narcynicism”. In doing so, Soler condensed the narcissism and cynicism found in contemporary individuals. By narcissism we understand the personality cult found and promoted in the society of the spectacle where social success is what ultimately defines individuals. Contemporary neurotics wear themselves out for never achieving their ideals. They suffer for not being sufficiently cynics, even as they try hard. Neurotics, after all, find pleasure in pleasing others. Cynics, on the other hand, are no longer like a Diogenes defying a Master. Contemporary cynicism is self-promoted by the system. It seeks to adjust to the new Masters of capitalism where individuals, corporations and governments (which are made of individuals) seek their own benefit at the expense of others. It is a shameless cynicism where the dignity of the subject is no longer taken into account.

What is the origin of the current narcynicism? In short, its origin is to be found in the capitalist dissolution of a past symbolic order that helped put aside the self-interest of the individual in order to promote the social interests of civilisation. Politicians are a good example. They promise something during their electoral campaign, yet they do nothing to implement their promises once they are elected. Even worse, they deny they promised anything in the first instance, and they do so without visible traces of a subjective conflict. The concept and practice of narcynicism is reflected in inconsistent discourses. In psychoanalytical practice, we see how these new forms of narcynicism tyrannise the subject by pushing it to abide by the rules of success, as well as personal and professional promotion, which often takes the shape of making more earnings. Furthermore, we see how through this intoxication, the subject sacrifices his intimate wishes, desires and feelings, as if trying to delete his particular subjectivity in order to play by the rules imposed by society at large and private corporations in particular. Yet the art of suppressing one’s own subjectivity leads many subjects to develop mental and physical illnesses. They feel divided and develop symptoms that cannot be treated with psycho drugs or therapies intended to reverse so called cognitive errors.  They cannot be treated either through the application of standard “protocols”.

On the other hand, although absent from pervasive discourses and public and media attention, psychoanalytical treatment allows subjects to experience the knowledge of the unconscious. Indeed, it allows them to experience and verify in their intimate and social life that which psychoanalysis will have changed in them. Instead of perpetuating a self-defeated rhetoric and lament, psychoanalysis allows subjects to shape their fortunes. Instead of the pragmatism found in emerging forms of narcynicism, psychoanalysis offers subjects new ways of finding a “praxis” through which they can experience and apply their analytical lessons in real life, as well as engage in a new responsibility towards themselves and the others.

Thank you very much, Ms Gallano, for taking the time to answer our questions.

[1] Direct translation from Lacan’s use of the French verb ‘vomir’.

[2] 15-M protesters in Spain are popularly known as “Indignants” after French activist Stéphane Hessel’s book Indignez-vous! (published in English under the title Time for Outrage: Indignez-vous!),


2 thoughts on “Who said Psychoanalysis is dead? Psychoanalysis, politics and culture in the twenty first century – Part II

  1. Pingback: Who said Psychoanalysis is dead? Psychoanalysis, politics and culture in the twenty first century – Part I « InPEC

  2. Pingback: Weekly Psych Rounds 08-06-12 « Shrink Things

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