The Art of Shrinking Heads - On Psychoanalysis and with Lacan

Psy-Complex in Question: Critical Review In Psychology, Psychoanalysis And Social Theory - Ian Parker 2018

The Art of Shrinking Heads
On Psychoanalysis and with Lacan

Dufour, D-R (2008) The Art of Shrinking Heads: On the New Servitude of the Liberated in the Age of Total Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Dany-Robert Dufour’s diagnosis of the malaise of the neoliberal subject provides a synoptic overview of historically necessary connections between Kant and Freud. The Freudian subject, who is subject to guilt, is paired with the Kantian subject who submits to ethics, and it is the task of the book to describe how that ’double-subject’ has been eroded, thereby to redeem it. It becomes increasingly clear that, for Dufour, a ’sociological’ analysis of the postmodern condition — Bourdieu is here viewed as an inspiration and irritation — must be augmented by an analysis of the predicament of the human subject as such. The theoretical resources are contemporary debates in Lacanian theory, and this little four-chapter book is valuable because it engages with aspects of that theory that are not readily available to an English-speaking audience. On the one hand, this opens up some new perspectives on problems that have already been explored by Žižek (who along with Jacques-Alain Miller is not referenced in the text). Deleuze comes in for criticism at many points, mainly because Deleuze celebrates the very fluidity of the subject that contemporary capitalism itself requires. There is a useful range of references to existing French debates in the book, and the book is a good contribution to these debates, and so also, as a consequence to some parallel debates in the English-speaking world.

The compass points here are provided by Paul-Laurent Assoun, and a return to the Kantian tradition in Lacanian psychoanalysis is thus a counterweight to dominant readings of Kant among English-speaking Lacanians (who too-quickly reduce the categorical imperative to a super-egoic injunction to enjoy that is to be found in the writings of the Marquis de Sade). But then, it turns out that although there are indeed some new theoretical resources, traditions of work that serve to illuminate from a different angle some well-worn debates about the degenerative ills of capitalist society, there are also some all-too familiar targets. It is here that Dufour’s argument needs to be approached with care, and some of the claims teased apart. There is a string of complaints about contemporary child-rearing and educational practices, for example, and about the role of television — children watch too much of it, we are told, and it engineers a ’desymbolization’ that neoliberal capitalism then feeds upon (elaborated in Chapter 4). A recurring theme in the book is that liberation of the subject is only meaningful after there has been alienation, and that neoliberalism promises a fake freedom, and now a ’new servitude’ that proceeds without prior subjection to another (described in Chapter 3).

The corrosion of the (Kantian) ’critical distance’ that enables a subject to think, to have the courage to think for themselves, thus operates through the abolition of generational differences, and also — and here Dufour warms to this theme in Chapter 2 as he mires himself in some of the more reactionary motifs of psychoanalytic theory — sexual differences. So, it is necessary that adults instruct children, and that the human subject encounters a real of sexual difference that places limits on who they might become. Lacan’s formulae of ’sexuation’ are described as grounded in what is termed in this book ’sexion’, an immutable binary that gives to each subject a genetic ’text’ and a series of ’natural determinations’. Dufour thus pits himself against ’Foucauldo-Deleuzo-Lacanian’ tendencies, and deviations from psychoanalysis that he detects in the writings of Jean Allouch, deviations which chime with queer theory and other neoliberal crimes against mankind that emanate from the United States. (Now we also start to see why Bourdieu should have been a target earlier in the book, for he is also, it transpires, complicit in the erosion of sexual difference.) One could surely just as well interpret the gender binary that Dufour defends as an imaginary construct, as an idealisation of sexual difference that facilitates commodification, but this interpretation would need to be developed in a critical reading of the theses outlined in the book, one in which the reader would themselves take some critical distance from it.

There is a modern categorical imperative driving the book which is that the consolidation of what Dufour terms ’total capitalism’ should be resisted, but it is unclear whether this resistance is to be to capitalism as such. The name of the enemy shifts in the course of the book, and the descriptive label ’postmodernism’ which is used most of the time begs more questions than it answers. What, for example, might be the significance of a third ’Marxian subject’ that he mentions in passing in the first chapter as operating alongside the modern double-subject? It is symptomatic of the conceptual problems that Dufour so lucidly explores that the label ’postmodern’ has already been consumed and its empty husk discarded by social theorists avid for something new, and this book has to be read against the grain of sociological work that is also structured by the commodification of its subject.