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POSTMODERNISM AND THE SUBJECT; PESSIMISM OF THE WILL

by

Robert M. Young

The splintering and ephemeralization which characterize postmodernism seem new and alarming, but to a psychoanalytic eye they evoke familiar phenomena: fragmentation, being in pieces, splitting, part-object relations. Nor is the present the first time such topics have been considered in the Western intellectual tradition. The great fissure that exists in our fundamental scheme of thought arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the breakdown of Aristotelian organicist explanation (a topic I shall take up again in chapter eight). We have had a major split in our way of thinking ever since. There were tensions in the late Renaissance which were tugging away at Aristotelian explanations in terms of formal, final, material and efficient causes, but in the scientific revolution knowledge and reality were codified in such a way that mind and body, subject and object, culture and nature, fantasy and external reality and the whole and the part, were split.

I could go on to list other dualisms with which we have been faced. Of course, there have always been attempts to heal this fissure, many of them in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There have been various monisms or efforts to enthrone one side or other of the great Cartesian split. I am thinking in our own time of Gestalt, of holism itself, of organicism, of emergentism, of phenomenology and, in the Marxist tradition, the point of view of totality. So, let us also note that these are not altogether new questions. I always find that if I can reconnect something which startles me with the history of thought, it makes me feel a little better.

I want to begin what I have to say in this chapter with three statements. First, I am weary and live in a state of continual spiritual deprivation. Second, it is not given to us to complete the task, but we may not give it up. Third, One must imagine Sisyphus happy. I say these things so as not to be even more cliched and use the epigram for all serious progressives of recent times: ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ (coined by Romain Rolland but made into a programmatic slogan by the leading figure in Italian Marxism, Antonio Gramsci, as early as 1919; Gramsci, 1929-35, p. 175n). In more recent times, Paul Simon said, ‘I don’t know a soul that’s not been battered; I don’t have a friend who feels at ease. I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered or driven to its knees’ (Simon, 1973).

It is in this spirit that I want to approach the question: ‘Is there a domain of subjectivity which is irreducible to social determinations — incongruent with formal knowledge in any given discipline — yet relevant to and vital for the future of the human sciences?’ My answer is yes, but not just for ‘the human sciences’. This phrase begs the question: subjectivity is relevant and vital for humanity, not just for ‘disciplines’ which we all call sciences but also for human nature — for human nature inside history, for humanity, which is able to hope and to transcend the ‘is’ in the name of a vision of the ‘ought’, but not to be shattered by the gulf between them, which seems to me to be what we are faced with in postmodernist deconstruction.

I am not a close student of the history that has led people to ask if the time has come to treat the subject as a prodigal and allow it back into the family of our concepts. Even so, I am not just daunted by, but am also suspicious of, the rhetoric of this debate. For me, the subject never went away — for a reason you may at first find eccentric. Throughout the period during which formalisms, including structuralist and post-structuralist ideas, were appealing to the category of science or scientificity for legitimacy, my own research on the categories of science was finding subjectivity at the heart of the deepest scientific concepts. When I say deepest, I do mean deep: gravity/gravitas, affinity/attraction, and natural selection. These are the deepest concepts in the most respectable of the natural sciences — physics, chemistry and biology. Natural selection — an anthropomorphic metaphor — is the concept which links life to the rest of nature and human nature to the history of life. It is the basis of the historicity of all that is, and it is through the concept of historicity that in my own work I have tried to link Darwin and Marx.

I was finding purposeful and teleological reasoning in the most reductionist of the biological disciplines and anthropomorphism at the heart of the very human sciences which were themselves keenest to be seen as respectable according to the model of the physical sciences. Others (and this occurred rather early in my own training in the history and philosophy of science) were finding insight and perceptiveness in the secret places of the most behaviourist research programmes and deeply cathected language communities in the most analytically solipsistic private domains of the analysis of language. Charles Taylor (1964) persuaded us that behaviourist rats have insight, while Wittgenstein (1953) and his followers put paid to the possibility of a private language. These seem to me to be important analogies to what is being talked about here.

So, while others were finding science in Marxism and linguistics in the unconscious, I was among those who were finding humanism and values at the heart of the very sciences to which the formalists were appealing for legitimacy. Of course, I was not alone in this work. It had its roots in the critique of modern science’s reductionist paradigm of explanation, especially the mind-body dichotomy and the primary-secondary quality distinction which I discussed above in referring to the work of Alfred North Whitehead and Edwin Arthur Burtt, as well as the other attempts at holism mentioned earlier. These were (coming from different directions) close cousins to the humanistic Marxism of the Frankfurt School of critical theory and their part-allies (who may have lost their political nerve), the hermeneuticists. Coming from yet another direction are the American pragmatists, closely allied with a highly sophisticated group of analytical philosophers. I am thinking here of Richard Rorty on metaphor and stories at the heart of knowing. He, following Nietzsche, defines truth as ‘a mobile army of metaphors’, including and especially the metaphors at the heart of science (my remarks about gravity and gravitas are drawn from a lecture of his). He argues in ‘The Contingency of Selfhood’ (1989) for accepting metaphor over literal truth, for a humanocentric rather than an objective world, but he does so without loss of hope — that is, without jettisoning the concept of self or subject (Rorty, 1989, pp. 17, 27, 37-41)

One route to return to the subject, then, leads to narrative or, as I saw it put recently, ‘Let’s cut the crap and get on with the yarn’. We live, says Rorty, in story after story — coherent, with plots and meanings, however multi-layered. ‘Yarns’ is another way of appropriating the concept of narrative discourse, serving rather than supplanting the human subject. A failed narrative remains human, while a failed science is vacuous. We find that if we attempt to build a science out of the subject and we fail, we are left in pieces, whereas a bad yarn is still a yarn, a human story.

There is one more main strand in my argument, but I shall return to it later. It overlaps in some ways with the work of the Frankfurt School, that is, psychoanalysis, especially in its object relations form. It should be acknowledged that a deconstructionist would want to place psychoanalysis and the other traditions I have mentioned inside the history and sociology of knowledge, but the infinite regress generated by doing that plagues us all and does not favour nihilistic conclusions any more than objectivist ones. Psychoanalysis says to me that the expunging of the subject is simply not on, but I shall spell this out later in the chapter.

There is another important sense, already considered in chapter one, in which we have made this mess for ourselves, because of our own history and our own sense of historicity and contingency. If we say that human nature is an ensemble of social relations and that truth is made and not found, that is, if we insist upon the social construction of the self and of knowledge, we will find on the other side of the coin of social construction the possibility of deconstruction without remainder. My thesis is that the possibility of deconstruction (and I here mean this conceptually) finds the self at the heart of the project, just as the critics of other fragmenting and reductionist programmes find anthropomorphic and humanocentric concepts at the heart of their projects.

You may say that science is a tedious or irrelevant starting point, but I should remind you that modernism was itself a scientism — avowedly so — and postmodernism is a symptom of the failure of the abstracted scientistic project. Among the resonances of the modernist project were purity, universality, progress, decontextualised and self-reflexive objects (buildings and novels, for example), rather than articulated and contextualised ones. This is true in various ways of functionalism, positivism, Leavisite literary criticism and formalism itself, as a meta-discipline.

I well remember the grip of these scientisms during my own undergraduate education in the early 1950s. I took home from my first year at Yale a book on logic, because I wanted to ‘learn to think’. Believe it or not I would come home from working in a Ford factory every night and read a textbook on logic. I studied symbolic logic the next year and vividly recall an encounter in my final year. I was taking a stroll with the supervisor of my Scholars of the House Project on self-reflection, the eminent Whitehead scholar, Nathaniel Lawrence. We encountered the arch-positivist, Arthur Pap, walking briskly towards us on a New Haven street. Lawrence said, ‘Hello, Arthur. Nice day’. Pap replied, ‘I presume you are speaking metaphorically’. Nobody laughed.

I also recall how earnestly I tried to read philosophical articles which began, ‘Take an X such that...’ or ‘Y is true if and only if...’ This philosophical project was exactly analogous to the overall aims of formalism described by Raymond Williams as seeking to ‘displace and divert our diverse actual confusions, pains and anxieties’ (Williams, 1986, p. 31). It was not until decades later that I became fully aware that this was the high tide of philosophy looking to science for a model for all knowing, with other disciplines following suit. Richard Rorty, who had taught me in my first year, has written a lovely essay on this period, during which an attempt was being made ‘to get philosophy out of the "humanities" and into the "sciences" (Rorty, 1982, p. 219). He goes on to characterise more recent times in which scientific method is seen by many as ‘the mask behind which lurks the cruelty and despair of a nihilistic age’ (p. 229). That is how far the debate has moved since the 1950s.

As I see it, then, both formalism, with its isolation of the object, and contextualism, with its attempt to achieve an exhaustive analysis of articulations, have contributed greatly to our present distress. When a Marxist asks whether or not determinism and articulations exhaust the subject, this is the Continental version of the Humean empiricist question about the self discussed in chapter one. David Hume’s ‘bundle of sensations’ plays the same role as a candidate for lack of a centre as an ensemble of social relations.

However — and this is my key point — much depends on whether one embarks on such a project with a pessimistic or an optimistic aim. Social location and embedding can either dissolve the subject or achieve specificity and enrichment. It can exhaust it and scoop out its living, unique individuality, or it can illuminate the whole, analyse in order to reconstitute, to fathom, to enhance, to understand better. Contingency can fragment, or it can relate. The same is true of other helpful notions. I am thinking of ‘inscribing’, of structural and epochal causation, of multiple and multi-layered causation, of the concept of overdetermination. Each can enrich and illuminate or impoverish and exhaust.

Kierkegaard accused Hegel of building a huge castle and then finding himself sitting outside it. I used to take note of the outsideness; I now note the exiled location of the self. It is a silly place to end up. The ‘Marx versus Nietzsche’ lineages need not force us to a dichotomy between totality, on the one hand, and utter fragmentation, on the other. The fact that the subject and the concept of the subject are contingent does not eliminate either the premise or the possibility— the project — of coherence. The postmodernist is no longer sanguine about science but indulges instead in cynicism rather than critique. The object is jettisoned, while the point of critique is to interrogate in searching ways in order to enhance understanding, to do better.

I need hardly spend much time on despairing elements of the subject and the consequences of this for any unified sense of human nature. Both have been de-ontologised, while the signifier has been ontologised. Postmodernists claim that the link can be cut between the signifier and the signified, between the word and the object, by leaving out meaning, caring, values. The concept of mediation is itself thrown out. Marike Finlay describes postmodernity as ‘a psychotic defence against loss of referential identity’ (Finlay, 1989, p. 59). She also speaks of it as a culturally generalised psychosis. The late and greatly lamented Christopher Lasch says something similar in his writings on narcissism and the minimal self: that the commodity world is too alien to serve as a set of transitional objects and phenomena, that the current generation is characterised by ‘lack of project’, a position echoed in expositions of postmodernism (e.g., Newman, 1989). We are left with something fragmented, a bricolage , parody, small-scale, anti-utopian, abandoning the project of totality. It is consumerist, cynical, and offers only the diversions of play in return for all it takes away. The hopes of a vision of a better world have been labelled as idealization and trashed, converting the remains into a dumping ground, a patsy, a scapegoat. A person whose projects in the 1960s and 70s evoked my admiration, who now finds himself well-placed in career terms, said to me recently that his main preoccupation is how to deal with disappointment and how to avoid falling into bitterness.

As I was pondering these matters and trying to find a way of conveying my belief that we are dealing with both a logical point and a moral and political question about keeping the faith, I found myself reflecting on Cubism. There cannot be a more historically contingent phenomenon in culture than this one, which can be said to have begun with a single painting in 1907, Les Damoiselles d’Avignon, and peaked in the 1920s (a period during which Freud penned some of his major writings). Surely the point about Cubism, as about Surrealism and Dada, was to get past convention and the sieves of jadedness and to reach something deeper in the human spirit and more illuminating. The postmodernist seems to me to pronounce the jaded all we can have. Cubism, on the contrary, still holds the object; it fragments or rises above it in the name of reaching deeper. While breaking with the European illusionist tradition, its ultimate aims are realistic. Non-perspectival forms and multiple perceptions achieve discrete points of view that are meant to accumulate and then return to the composite shape. (Fry, 1966, p. 37).

The abstraction, the geometrization, the selective exaggeration, the deliberate abandonment of the techniques of perspective and foreshortening are all deconstructive, but they are all in the service of illuminating the whole and are always in tension with the imaginatively reconstituted object. The artist, like a Winnicottian good-enough mother, must know just how far to go so as not to break the link and produce hyperintellectualism or madness. The link with the primitive is evident in the influence on Cubism via what Picasso drew from African and Andalucian art, notably woodcarvings which stress the most basic shapes and images, especially of the face. All these points were forcibly driven home to me while wandering around the Tate Gallery exhibition of the Douglas Cooper collection of paintings by Picasso, Gris, Léger, Braque and Klee. The historical relativists and sociologists of knowledge will say that I am only digging myself in deeper. It does not take an art historian to point out to me what came after Cubism, and each may draw her or his own conclusion as to whether or not the object has been lost or the human spirit continues to be reached by abstract art. My own taste says no, it does not, but my knowledge of the potentialities of reconstitution and reparation insists yes.

I now want to turn an analytic eye to the urge to dismiss the subject. I experience it as despairing, spiteful and spoiling (I am using these terms in both a Kleinian and a lay sense). When Finlay uses the term ‘psychotic defence’, it is important to not both words. There is an agency conducting the defence. As R. D. Laing used to say, the psychotic has built a cocoon of symptoms to preserve the self. The hebephrenic or the simple schizophrenic, the autistic child — each can understand what is said to him or her. Anyone who has worked with catatonics in a mental hospital will have a story to tell about one who improves after prolonged immobility and silence and tells you something you said to them months or even years earlier when he or she was apparently completely out of contact. There are debates in psychoanalysis about this matter, but, as I said in chapter one, there is common ground that there cannot be no object. The self is not completely fragmented; there is always an ego; there is the coherence of a process. Otherwise the therapeutic work that has been done so successfully with psychotics simply could not get off the ground. It would be heartbreaking (instead of just very, very hard) and always a loser’s game. But it is not. As the work of Laing (1960), Berke (Barnes and Berke, 1971; Berke, 1989), Searles (1960, 1965), Barham (1988), Jackson (1994) and Rey (1994), among others (Ellwood, 1995), has shown, it is among the most exciting and rewarding kinds of work you can do.

In addition to those writers, Klein, Winnicott, Bion, Meltzer, Tustin, Rosenfeld and Segal have all looked into the vicissitudes of the most primitive, the regressed, the psychotic processes of splitting, fragmentation, projective identification, autism, the autistic cysts that exist in normal people (S. Klein, 1980). These analysts are close students of the fragility of the self and the role of symbolism in culture and in its maintenance. Closely analogous things can be said about the work of Balint, Fairbairn and Guntrip. We have damaged objects, part-objects, and failed primary object relations; we have transitional objects, spaces, phenomena. Indeed, Winnicott claims that all of culture exists in a transitional space (see below, ch. 6). Yet all their patients — even the most regressed and primitive and crazy — retain contact with the object and, as I explained in chapter one, the object relations theory which underlies current psychoanalysis presupposes it.

The work of these people allows us to take on board the phenomena of splitting, fragmentation and projecting the split off bits (unacceptable because despised or taboo) and continue to perceive these and other psychotic mechanisms as part of, rather than an epitaph to, coherent, albeit damaged, object relations. The mechanisms of splitting and projective identification lie at the basis of Bion’s theory of thinking (see Hinshelwood, 1991, pp. 179-208, 231-7) and, in exaggerated form, are at the heart of psychotic mechanisms at work in all of us (see Young, 1994, ch. 5; 1995). But these mechanisms serve ongoing object relations, that is, the survival of the subject. All experience, no matter how sophisticated, abstract, alienated or mad, continues to be mediated through the object. The primitive path is always trodden, never superseded. Not only does primitive emotional experience come first; it comes first, last and always.

I am saying at this point that psychoanalytic object relations theory can easily accommodate the distressed and cynical reaction of the failed hopes of the present generation, who dreamed so much a quarter of a century ago. The project then becomes one of survival, of holding on, and the extremely slow processes of containment, detoxification and reparation which have taken so many of us into analysis and some of us into becoming therapists. I want now to look deeper and further back in our intellectual tradition and end by speaking of ontology. I really meant this at its most fundamental, that is, the centrality of the concept of ‘person’ lying behind the original mind-body split in the seventeenth century, with its epistemological representation in the primary-secondary quality distinction (between shape, on the one hand, and taste, smell, colour and other ‘subjective’ qualities, on the other). We elaborate conceptual apparatuses. This is not a voluntary or individualistic process but a historical one: decisions were made about knowledge and ‘being’ in the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

As any one-time Maoist could tell you, voluntarism cannot throw off history’s — or nature’s — ‘insolent yoke’. Even so, an epoch or a culture or a sub-culture elaborates conceptual apparatuses; it is a cultural activity. It is the task of searching and transcending vision — of critique — to evaluate their deep assumptions and alter them, whatever struggle this may require. However, as we will consider at greater length in chapter three, a given ideology remains historical and amenable to contest: it is second nature, not first nature, no matter how deeply sedimented or embedded it may be. Before mind, body and language was the person. Strawson (1959) and others have shown that the concept of person is ontologically prior to that of mind and body, subject and object. The splits which plague our ontology and epistemology are secondary to the concept of person. As I said at the beginning, splits are the keynote, but the object is conceptually and developmentally prior.

A person in history has a biography. I offer the concept of biography as the place where the resolution of large- and small-scale forces meet and also where conscious and unconscious forces meet. I do not mean this in order to promote a possessive individualism but to place history inside the subject rather than dissolving the subject into history, since the concept of history has no meaning apart from the experiences of subjects.

Something similar has been said of language by Marike Finlay: ‘The major difference between the modern and the postmodern epochs resides in their respective attitudes towards the recognition of the split in language between sign and concept or referent. The modern constantly laments that cleavage and strives to repair the gap if separation by using the symbolic as mediator of identity and difference [hear the echoes of Winnicott and Segal]. The postmodern does not lament the split; it accepts it and dissolves the other, be it concept, referent or person, into nonexistence’ (Finlay, 1989, p. 53).

Note, however, that the possession of a capacity for symbolic language has been, at least since Descartes, a unique defining characteristic of human subjects (Young, 1967). Before discourse spoke the subject, the resolution of historical forces spoke the discourse. In the beginning were the instinct, the need, the impulse and the value, not the word. We must tolerate the contradiction that the word was God, while at the same time it was with God — the repository of a culture’s husbanded symbolism of the transcendent.

Theories and political positions mediate values through symbolism. For example, Marxism is about mediation, but it is essential to keep a grip on what things are mediations of. Otherwise, it is an undialectical use, a positivist appropriation, of Marxism. Language is a mediation. I insist that it is a mediation of collective subjectivity — epochal resolutions of forces, inflected through individual consciousness and the unconscious: inflected through, not inscribed upon. (Whenever I hear about things being inscribed I recall the Kafka short story where a person’s crime is carved into his body: crude and brutal punishment, not subtle.)

It is no accident that my language is becoming increasingly biblical, because it is to the Bible that I now wish to turn. One of the things of which postmodernism is a symptom — along with the failure of scientism and the idea of progress — is the absence of the transcendent in both psychoanalysis and Marxism, something Joel Kovel has attempted to rectify in his work on liberation theology and the spirit (1991). Lest I be misunderstood in what I am about to convey, I speak as a secular radical, but I want to close this chapter by reminding the reader of the deep and persistent existence of hope for coherence in the face of just how complex and awful the world is.

I have had reason to reflect on loss and endurance in my own life and in the face of the extinguishing of a shining beacon as a result of the death of Raymond Williams. How do we endure and hope? Who will be our role model, now that our role model is gone? How do we as a Kleinian would put it, abide in the depressive position? I here offer a word about my own object. As a child I longed to meet a certain Shirley Goodness, whose wonders were in such painful contrast with the incapacity of my own invalid and depressed mother. I had heard of Shirley Goodness so often in church. The caring object, the mixture of good and bad, the bearing of the truth in the valley of the shadow of death and in the presence of mine enemies: containment and peace in green pastures and by still waters. No irreparable depletion: I shall not want. An abundance: my cup runneth over. Read this in a special way. Try to experience it as the testament of a small child speaking to its object or source of security, of hope and endurance:

The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me

beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of

righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil: for though art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup

runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for

ever.

 

Shirley also brings to mind Bion’s childhood experience of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Arf Arfur...Oo Arf in Mphm’ (Bion, 1982, p. 9). (First Corinthians Chapter Thirteen invites a similar rendering with respect to faith, hope and charity.)

One of my reasons for drawing attention to the Twenty-third Psalm is to say something about historicity. Although the object is inside history, at the deepest level of the Judeo-Christian tradition, it transcends period. It does not do so completely, but if that psalm touches you, we cannot say that it does not transcend history at all. This is the best known of the one hundred and fifty Jewish psalms. There is a history of the psalms, as there is of any text or any cultural matter. They have been perpetually chanted in monasteries since the sixth century. Their settings have changed, as have the languages in which they have been chanted. They were sung in Latin for over a thousand years, put into the vernacular in the sixteenth century and into English in the 1530s. The psalms have served as a bridge from Judaism to Christianity and provided assurance, protection, well-being and comfort across the centuries and in the face of adversity.

Just in case all this example is a candidate for being dismissed as the nostalgic self-indulgence of a superannuated duffer, here are lines from the best-selling rock album from the U2 ‘Rattle and Hum’ tour (1988): ‘Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow, yet I will fear no evil. I will curse thy rod and staff. They no longer comfort me. Love rescue me.’ A similar poignant longing is found (complete with church choir) on the track, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’.

We must therefore find a place for relative historicity, our appropriation of the concept of relative autonomy in cultural studies. My point is that throughout our intellectual and spiritual tradition — pace the historicity of the subject — the object abides, and therefore so does the subject.

The self is an imputed concept, but so are human nature, subjectivity, totality, fragmentation, Kantian schemata, socialism, and, for that matter, the external world, whether we think it fragmented or coherent. To believe otherwise is despairing; it is paranoid-schizoid. In short, it is pessimism of the will. So I say again: cut the crap and get on with the yarn. We are all psalmists, all writers of epistles, whether to Corinthians or to lovedones or to colleagues.

In conclusion, I have a slightly sardonic observation: I believe that the formalists and post-formalists have painted themselves into a corner. People whom I found extremely haughty a few years ago are being nicer to me now. We asked them for bread, and they gave us stones. They are now finding this out for themselves. Many of the most Lacanian intellectuals are in Kleinian or Middle Group analyses. Each wants someone to love him or her best. Film-makers who did the most abstract exercises have returned to narrative naturalism (sometimes with a fig-leaf of lots of quotations from earlier films). People who took up the most extreme positions about social relations are now trying to struggle in couples and with children (and some left it too late and have deep regrets). Many things accused of being paper tigers have mauled their mockers — in the left and among feminists. Many of those who made the most scathing critiques of conventional culture are heard talking avidly about soap operas, post-Douglas Sirk readings of television series such as Dallas, the power of romantic novels and what it is that doughty Conservative women know that we do not. Just as religion knows something that we do not, so does conventional society. If our critique leads to an alienation that leaves us bitter, without hope, in pieces and freezing in the cold, we must think again about what we dismantle and from what point of view we do it. If our conceptual tools serve us ill, we must make a new testament.

 

Paper read at multidisciplinary conference on ‘Rehinking the Subject in Discourse’ McGill University, Montreal, March 1988; published inDiscours Social/SSocial Discourse 2: 69-81,1989; also in Free Associations. 16: 81-96, 1989; also to appear in a collection, Whatever Happened to Human Nature? (Process Press, in press).

 

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Copyright: The Author

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