Monday, March 2, 2015

Laura Kipnis on Rape Culture

Whatever you think of its influence feminism still has the power to drive an idea. Most recently, it has taken up the fight against what it has labelled a rape culture on college campuses.

It is easier to atttack rape culture than it was to defend hookup culture. I suspect that the brouhaha about rape culture is an effort to shut down the hookup culture, culture that was often promoted by sex-positive feminists but that was surely not in the best interest of women.

Given the current mood, it is nearly impossible for anyone of the male persuasion to take a stand against the idea of rape culture. Happily, several high-profile women have done so. They deserve considerable credit for their excellent work on the topic.

Among them Emily Yoffe stands out. Her articles in Slate have exposed the simple fact that the incidence of sexual assault on college campuses has been exaggerated.

And let us not forget that many liberal law professors have spoken out against the new college rules that are designed to deprive accused rapists of due process of law.

In order to increase the incidence of rape, promoters of the idea of rape culture have expanded the definition of the term to the point where almost any unwanted sexual advance can be considered a violation.

Now, Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis has written a long and detailed critique of what she calls the “paranoia” about rape on college campuses. She might have used the word “hysteria,” but that would certainly have gotten her expelled from the sisterhood for blatant sexism.

Kipnis begins with the concept of power imbalance, that is, with the idea that when a less powerful woman is seduced by a more powerful man she is being abused and exploited, even if she has nominally consented.

To expose the illogic in this idea, Kipnis notes that no small number of college professors are married to former students. Some are married to students who were in their classes as undergraduates. Some are married to students who were graduate students when they met. Some are even married to students who never attended their classes at all.

The new rules that are currently being proposed by college administrators would condemn all of these marriages.

Kipnis writes:

You have to feel a little sorry these days for professors married to their former students. They used to be respectable citizens—leaders in their fields, department chairs, maybe even a dean or two—and now they’re abusers of power avant la lettre. I suspect you can barely throw a stone on most campuses around the country without hitting a few of these neo-miscreants. Who knows what coercions they deployed back in the day to corral those students into submission; at least that’s the fear evinced by today’s new campus dating policies. And think how their kids must feel! A friend of mine is the offspring of such a coupling—does she look at her father a little differently now, I wonder.

It’s been barely a year since the Great Prohibition took effect in my own workplace. Before that, students and professors could date whomever we wanted; the next day we were off-limits to one another—verboten, traife, dangerous (and perhaps, therefore, all the more alluring).

Of course, the residues of the wild old days are everywhere. On my campus, several such "mixed" couples leap to mind, including female professors wed to former students. Not to mention the legions who’ve dated a graduate student or two in their day—plenty of female professors in that category, too—in fact, I’m one of them. Don’t ask for details. It’s one of those things it now behooves one to be reticent about, lest you be branded a predator.

She describes the current policies at Northwestern:

According to the latest version of our campus policy, "differences in institutional power and the inherent risk of coercion are so great" between teachers and students that no romance, dating, or sexual relationships will be permitted, even between students and professors from different departments. (Relations between graduate students and professors aren’t outright banned, but are "problematic" and must be reported if you’re in the same department.) Yale and other places had already instituted similar policies; Harvard jumped on board last month, though it’s a sign of the incoherence surrounding these issues that the second sentence of The New York Times story on Harvard reads: "The move comes as the Obama administration investigates the handling of accusations of sexual assault at dozens of colleges, including Harvard." As everyone knows, the accusations in the news have been about students assaulting other students, not students dating professors.

Speaking of predators the most egregious instance of a very powerful male taking sexual advantage of a powerless female occurred when Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky.

One notes with chagrin that the champions of the power-imbalance theory of sexual abuse went to the mat to champion Bill Clinton and to destroy Monica Lewinsky. Hillary Clinton herself declared that the story had been ginned up by the vast right-wing conspiracy. Why does this make her the perfect feminist candidate for president?

To keep it fair and balanced, Kipnis notes that some women students took pride in their ability seduce their male professors. One tends to ignore this fact because it does not fit the narrative, but it is worth noting anyway.

She explains:

As Jane Gallop recalls in Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (1997), her own generational cri de coeur, sleeping with professors made her feel cocky, not taken advantage of. She admits to seducing more than one of them as a grad student—she wanted to see them naked, she says, as like other men. Lots of smart, ambitious women were doing the same thing, according to her, because it was a way to experience your own power.

Feminists, Kipnis continues, are selling a fiction. And they are forcing everyone to live as though that fiction were true.

In her words:

It’s the fiction of the all-powerful professor embedded in the new campus codes that appalls me. And the kowtowing to the fiction—kowtowing wrapped in a vaguely feminist air of rectitude. If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama. The melodramatic imagination’s obsession with helpless victims and powerful predators is what’s shaping the conversation of the moment, to the detriment of those whose interests are supposedly being protected, namely students. The result? Students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing.

To make college women weaker, schools have more recently discovered the concept of “trigger” words, words that can cause exceptional trauma.

Kipnis says:

Students were being encouraged to regard themselves as such exquisitely sensitive creatures that an errant classroom remark could impede their education, as such hothouse flowers that an unfunny joke was likely to create lasting trauma.

Later, she adds this reflection:

But what do we expect will become of students, successfully cocooned from uncomfortable feelings, once they leave the sanctuary of academe for the boorish badlands of real life? What becomes of students so committed to their own vulnerability, conditioned to imagine they have no agency, and protected from unequal power arrangements in romantic life? I can’t help asking, because there’s a distressing little fact about the discomfort of vulnerability, which is that it’s pretty much a daily experience in the world, and every sentient being has to learn how to somehow negotiate the consequences and fallout, or go through life flummoxed at every turn.

The irony is rich indeed. For years feminists have insisted that no one should pronounce the word “woman” without adding the qualifier “strong.” They believed that their ideology would “empower” women beyond anything the patriarchy had imagined. Now, feminists are working to enfeeble women, weak, making them feel vulnerable and hypersensitive.

Unwanted fondling and groping have suddenly become rapes. And yet, as Kipnis says, how can a man know whether the touching was or was not wanted if he did not do it.

By these standards Joe Biden should have been indicted for his clearly unwanted manhandling of the wife of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

And yet, a disagreement or a misunderstand might now become a matter, not merely for campus authorities, but for public shaming. A woman feels she was taken advantage of. She denounces the professor who did it. He believes that she was consenting. He fondled her but they did not have carnal relations. He fights back in the courts.

The result: a public brawl that compromises the reputations of both parties.

Clearly, Kipnis notes, the power to shame is an extremely potent weapon, capable of destroying a person’s career and his life… without giving him very much recourse. It is even more powerful than the power imbalance.

For Kipnis, what matters is how well the people who get caught up in the public drama about whether or not an act was a violation play roles in a drama. Her analysis is excellent:

To a cultural critic, the representation of emotion in all these documents plays to the gallery. The student charges that she "suffered and will continue to suffer humiliation, mental and emotional anguish, anxiety, and distress." As I read through the complaint, it struck me that the lawsuit and our new consensual-relations code share a common set of tropes, and a certain narrative inevitability. In both, students and professors are stock characters in a predetermined story. According to the code, students are putty in the hands of all-powerful professors. According to the lawsuit, the student was virtually a rag doll, taken advantage of by a skillful predator who scripted a drunken evening of galleries and bars, all for the opportunity of some groping.

Kipnis, like Emily Yoffe and many others, believes that rapists and molesters should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Those who insist on keeping it all on campus—beginning with the federal government—believe that the court system unfairly protects the guilty at the expense of the innocent.

They protest because they feel that the court verdicts have often been unjust and because women are treated very badly by defense counsel in such cases.

To be continued.

Netanyahu, Obama, Israel, Iran

As has been widely reported, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s upcoming speech before Congress has provoked anxiety in Israel, and not only from his political opponents.

It signals the power of the American president and the wish of Israelis to stay on the right side of their most important ally.

Be that as it may, the Israeli website, Debkafile responds to those who have criticized Netanyahu. They explain the Obama policy toward Israel and Iran.

Debkafile reports:

It took time to catch on to Obama’s two-faced policy towards Israel because it was handled with subtlety.

On the one hand, he made sure Israel was well supplied with all its material security needs. This enabled him to boast that no US president or administration before him had done as much to safeguard Israel’s security.

But behind this façade, Obama made sure that Israel’s security stayed firmly in the technical-material-financial realm and never crossed the line into a strategic relationship.

That was because he needed to keep his hands free for the objective of transferring the role of foremost US ally in the Middle East from Israel to Iran, a process that took into account the ayatollahs’ nuclear aspirations.
This process unfolding over recent years has left Israel face to face with a nakedly hostile Iran empowered by the United States.

While Israelis and American Jews are worrying about whether or not Netanyahu will make Obama look bad, they ignore more important events:

Netanyahu’s political rivals, while slamming him day by day, turn their gaze away from the encroaching Iranian forces taking up forward positions in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where they are busy fashioning a Shiite Crescent that encircles Sunni Arab states as well as Israel.

It must be obvious that to bolster its rising status as the leading regional power, Iran must be reach the nuclear threshold - at the very least – if not nuclear armaments proper, or else how will Tehran be able to expand its territorial holdings and defend its lebensraum.

This is not something that Barack Obama or his National Security Adviser Susan Rice are prepared to admit. They are not about to confirm intelligence reports, which expose the military collaboration between the Obama administration and Iran’s supreme leader Aytatollah Ali Khamenei as being piped through the office of Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Israel is not the only country that is threatened by the expanding Iranian power. And it is not the only country that will be targeted by Iranian nuclear weapons. Israel is not alone in suffering the fallout of any deal that legitimizes the Iranian regime:

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the rest of the Gulf are as dismayed as Israel by Obama’s regional strategy, which, stripped of its diplomatic veneer, boils down to a straight trade: The US will allow Iran to reach the status of a pre-nuclear power and regional hegemon, while Tehran, in return, will send its officers and ground troops to fight in Iraq, Syria and even Afghanistan.

Perhaps the American Congress can do something to stop the advancing Iranian forces. But, if it is to do so, it will need to be sufficiently courageous to cause President Obama to lose face.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"Moody Bitches"

According to psychiatrist Julie Holland women are naturally moody. In her new book, Moody Bitches, Holland notes that psychiatrists have increasingly and unfortunately chosen to medicate women’s emotions.

She begins by noting a point that, for some feminists will count as heresy:

WOMEN are moody. By evolutionary design, we are hard-wired to be sensitive to our environments, empathic to our children’s needs and intuitive of our partners’ intentions. This is basic to our survival and that of our offspring. Some research suggests that women are often better at articulating their feelings than men because as the female brain develops, more capacity is reserved for language, memory, hearing and observing emotions in others.

These are observations rooted in biology, not intended to mesh with any kind of pro- or anti-feminist ideology. But they do have social implications. Women’s emotionality is a sign of health, not disease; it is a source of power. But we are under constant pressure to restrain our emotional lives. We have been taught to apologize for our tears, to suppress our anger and to fear being called hysterical.

Holland then outlines the current situation:

At least one in four women in America now takes a psychiatric medication, compared with one in seven men. Women are nearly twice as likely to receive a diagnosis of depression or anxiety disorder than men are. For many women, these drugs greatly improve their lives. But for others they aren’t necessary. The increase in prescriptions for psychiatric medications, often by doctors in other specialties, is creating a new normal, encouraging more women to seek chemical assistance. Whether a woman needs these drugs should be a medical decision, not a response to peer pressure and consumerism.

The new, medicated normal is at odds with women’s dynamic biology; brain and body chemicals are meant to be in flux. To simplify things, think of serotonin as the “it’s all good” brain chemical. Too high and you don’t care much about anything; too low and everything seems like a problem to be fixed.

Holland has objections to the overuse of SSRIs like Prozac:

The most common antidepressants, which are also used to treat anxiety, are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (S.S.R.I.s) that enhance serotonin transmission. S.S.R.I.s keep things “all good.” But too good is no good. More serotonin might lengthen your short fuse and quell your fears, but it also helps to numb you, physically and emotionally. These medicines frequently leave women less interested in sex. S.S.R.I.s tend to blunt negative feelings more than they boost positive ones. On S.S.R.I.s, you probably won’t be skipping around with a grin; it’s just that you stay more rational and less emotional. Some people on S.S.R.I.s have also reported less of many other human traits: empathy, irritation, sadness, erotic dreaming, creativity, anger, expression of their feelings, mourning and worry.

She continues:

If the serotonin levels of women are constantly, artificially high, they are at risk of losing their emotional sensitivity with its natural fluctuations, and modeling a more masculine, static hormonal balance. This emotional blunting encourages women to take on behaviors that are typically approved by men: appearing to be invulnerable, for instance, a stance that might help women move up in male-dominated businesses. Primate studies show that giving an S.S.R.I. can augment social dominance behaviors, elevating an animal’s status in the hierarchy.

Were we to ask where these ideas come from we would have to face the fact that feminists have, for decades now, insisted that gender identity is merely a social construct.

Remember the feminist who explained that in order to get raises and promotions women must lean in. Why should they do so? Because, according to Sheryl Sandberg, that’s what men do.

Sandberg may or may not be right about men. In some cases they are more assertive than women. And yet, leaning in, which feels like getting in someone’s face, is certainly not the royal road to a raise or promotion, regardless of gender.

It’s not so much that women have been implored to act like men. Too often they have been encouraged to act like caricatures of men.

Holland’s point is cogent and well-argued. I am not, evidently, qualified to agree or disagree with her judgment about whether psychiatric medication is over-prescribed, but I suspect strongly that she is right.

Perhaps she mentions it in her book, but in her Times op-ed she should have explained how contemporary feminism has contributed to the problem.

After all, many of today’s psychiatrists are women. Many of them are feminists. Even many male psychiatrists consider themselves to be feminists. I am confident that there are very few Tea Party psychiatrists currently practicing.

The feminist culture influences the way women construct their lives and the way they behave. It influences their attitude toward their feelings. It has even influenced the way the therapy culture addresses women’s feelings.

Feminists have declared gender identity to be a social construct and have actively encouraged women to follow life plans that resemble those undertaken by men.

Surely, the pharmaceutical industry and psychiatrists (more and more of whom are women) are colluding in this enterprise by overprescribing medication for women’s emotions. But if the cultural environment is contributing to the problem, we must recognize that feminism has powerfully influenced the way women see themselves and the way they understand their emotions.

Credit or debit where credit or debit is due.

Egypt Rising

When nearly two dozen Egyptian Christians were beheaded by ISIS terrorists in Libya, the Obama administration first refused to call them Christians. It did not want to imply that they were murdered for their religious beliefs. And it did not want to imply that the killers were acting in the name of their religion.

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi reacted angrily to the offense against his Christian citizens, sending bombers into Libya to attack ISIS strongholds.

Now, he is planning an invasion of Libya, the better to destroy more of ISIS.

Moreover, a court in Egypt has just declared Hamas a terrorist organization. Recall that when Israel countered Hamas attacks in Gaza the Obama administration decided to be even-handed, working to stop the Israeli counterattack, even endorsing a principal Hamas demand—to end the blockade of Gaza.

The Debkafile site has the stories, barely reported in other news outlets:

Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi has massed his troops for all-out war on ISIS strongholds in Libya, the first Arab ruler to challenge Islamist terrorists in a fellow Arab country, DEBKAfile reports. His initiative dramatizes the spillover of the Islamist State’s threat across the Middle East, and the ineffectiveness of the US-led anti-terror coalition’s efforts in Iraq and Syria. Egyptian commando and marine forces stand ready for imminent sea landings to seize Darnah and wipe out the Islamist militias, coupled with an air and ground campaign against their hideouts in Sinai.

Compare this to the Obama administration’s efforts to retake Mosul. Debkafile reports:

Our Washington sources report that the Obama administration’s planned spring campaign to free Iraqi Mosul from the Islamic State’s occupation is stuck in the sand. Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike accuse the president of having no clear war strategy and of holding back from the US-led coalition the fighting manpower necessary for a successful operation.


While Hamas' armed wing was previously branded a terrorist organization, Saturday's Egyptian court ruling was against the entire group on the basis of incriminating evidence of collaboration for terror between the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers and Al Qaeda-linked Sinai terrorists. Hamas condemned the verdict as “shocking and dangerous.” Recordings were presented to the court of Hamas leaders congratulating each other on the success of attacks they and Al Qaeda had conducted against the Egyptian army in northern Sinai.

When people bemoan the difficulty of fighting ISIS and declare that they do not know what can possibly be done, they can look to the example set by the new Egyptian president.

But, naturally, this is difficult when the Obama administration has engaged a fight against Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, a man who apparently threatens the administration’s unseemly lust for a deal with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. 

It is worth emphasizing that the Obama administration has always been in conflict with Israel. Its decision to be even-handed when Hamas attacked Israel and to support Hamas demands was certainly not the gesture of a friend.

As everyone knows, the election of President el-Sisi has ushered in more cooperation between Egypt and Israel.

Considering that the Obama administration favored the election of former president, now convicted criminal Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, one is not surprised to see him working to have the Muslim Brotherhood, a designated terrorist organization, brought into the Egyptian government.

Obviously, there is something wrong with this picture.

[Addendum: A Kuwaiti newspaper is reporting that the Netanyahu government was about to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities last year. It aborted the mission when the Obama administration threatened to shoot the Israeli jets down.

And you were wondering why Netanyahu does not feel beholden to respect Barack Obama.


I am sure that the American Jews who voted for Barack Obama are reassured to know that he has Iran’s best interests at heart.]

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Freud, Hamlet and Conscience

[This post is a continuation of the previous post on Adam Phillips’ psychoanalytic theories of self-criticism. See below.]

In the following passage Phillips launches a veiled attack on positive psychology, on the injunction to love oneself, to see the good in one’s character:

We are never as good as we should be; and neither, it seems, are other people. A life without a so-called critical faculty would seem an idiocy: what are we, after all, but our powers of discrimination, our taste, the violence of our preferences? Self-criticism, and the self as critical, are essential to our sense, our picture, of our so-called selves. Nothing makes us more critical – more suspicious or appalled or even mildly amused – than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism, that we should be less impressed by it and start really loving ourselves.

Of course, powers of discrimination and judgment need not always draw a negative conclusion. Unless you are armed with a flagellant’s whip and feel a need to punish yourself for your miserable sin, conflating judgment with criticism is unjust. Unless of course you are married to the Freudian theory of the superego.

Phillips may be speaking about himself, but there need not be any “violence” in preferences. He has fallen into this trap because, instead of dealing with moral sentiments and affections, he has limited himself to grand passions like love and hate.

When he says that calls to love ourselves make us suspicious or appalled or amused, he should say that he is speaking for himself, but that is all. Most people do not believe that an enhanced awareness of their positive character traits is a lure distracting from the dire Freudian truth.

If a life without a self-critical faculty seems to be an idiocy, what are we to say about a life that is commanded and directed by a self-critical faculty, thus by our feelings of guilt and our need to punish ourselves? Doesn’t the latter seem as mindless as the former?

Ultimately, Phillips will offer a way out of this box, box that is of Freud's creation. But, why is it necessary to get into the box in the first place. Phillips notwithstanding do not imagine that the Freudian truth is anything less than Oedipal and tragic?

At this point, perhaps not too strangely Phillips goes off on a long disquisition about the concept of “conscience” in Shakespeare. In itself this appears to be a worthwhile endeavor.

And yet, rummaging through Shakespeare to examine the different times he uses the word “conscience,” as Phillips does, is not necessarily the best approach. When he adds a series of learned definitions of words like conscience and catch, gleaned from an Elizabethan dictionary he merely beclouds the enterprise.

He would have done better to explore the dramatic context of the play. I agree that the dictionary definition has some relevance. I agree that other uses of the word in other contexts might be relevant. And yet, the dramatic context tells us more. Unfortunately, Phillips mostly ignores it.

Phillips begins with Shakespeare’s line: “… the play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

It is easy to overcomplicate this line. The play that Hamlet calls the “thing” is called “The Mousetrap.” It is the famous play-within-a-play that Hamlet asks some traveling players to present before the court.

With the performance Hamlet intends to show King Claudius a theatrical representation of his murder of King Hamlet. He hopes to provoke the king to expose his guilt in front of the court. After all, the King, we are led to believe, has a conscience, that is to say, a moral sense that knows he did wrong. (Obviously, if he was a psychopath Claudius would have a vastly diminished moral sense.)

It’s a ruse, a trap, but unfortunately, one that has little chance of success.

You know what happened. Claudius was moved by the play, but Hamlet was the only one who knew or thought he knew why. For all anyone in the court knew, Hamlet might have been revealing something about himself and might have been announcing his intention to kill a king.

But, if the court did not see the king’s actions as a sign of guilt, Hamlet’s revenge—had he taken it—might have been seen as madness, not as justice for his dead father.

After Claudius left the play, he went to pray, perhaps to do penance for his sins. Hamlet saws him at prayer. Armed with the certainty that Claudius is guilty, but disarmed by the knowledge that his action might well be misinterpreted, he did not take his vengeance.

Is this a sign of ambivalence? Not necessarily. It might well be a sign of a melancholic disposition, manifested in the fact that Hamlet can either over-react or under-react, but cannot get the action right. His is a melancholic disposition. He cannot find the mean between the two extremes, because, for him there is none. Funnily enough, for Freud and psychoanalysis there is none either.

A bit later Hamlet quickly murdered Polonius, who was hiding behind an arras in his mother’s bedchamber. Now he no longer needs to consider himself a coward, but if he is capable of murder and incapable of murdering Claudius, he still might consider himself as not quite up to the real job. He is capable of murder, but not when it counts. This might make him more of a coward.

Murdering Polonius does manage to shift the play’s focus from Hamlet’s revenge of his father’s murder to Laertes’ revenge for his father’s murder.

More on this is in my book, The Last Psychoanalyst

One is tempted to follow Phillips and Freud into Hamlet’s mind. And yet, Hamlet is a fictional character: he is what he says and what he does. By my interpretation, his failure to act exposes his anomie, not his desire.

By that I meant that if he has not succeeded his father on the throne of Denmark how does he know that he is his father’s son. And if he is not his father’s son, and if even his father does not know it, why would he be obliged to murder his uncle… who may, for all he knows, be his real father.

One might say that the action of the play tells all we need to know about the meaning of the word “conscience.” And yet, Phillips avoids such an analysis to look at the way the word is used in Elizabethan English and the way Shakespeare uses it in other contexts.

It is interesting to note, as Phillips does, that in Elizabethan usage, the word conscience is close to the word consciousness, perhaps because in French the word conscience bears both meanings. One imagines that this relates to the old Freudian idea that psychoanalysis was supposed to make the unconscious conscious.

According to Freud depression occurs when the ego turns its hatred for an object against itself.

Phillips summarizes Freud’s thought:

‘We see how one part of the ego,’ he writes in Mourning and Melancholia, ‘sets itself over against the other, judges it critically and, as it were, takes it as its object.’ The mind, so to speak, splits itself in two, and one part sets itself over the other to judge it. It ‘takes it as its object’: that is to say, the super-ego treats the ego as though it were an object not a person. In other words, the super-ego, the inner judge, radically misrecognises the ego, treating it as if it can’t answer back, as if it doesn’t have a mind of its own (it is noticeable how merciless and unsympathetic we can be to ourselves in our self-criticism). It is intimated that the ego – what we know ourselves to be – is the slave of the super-ego. How have we become enslaved to this part of ourselves, and how and why have we consented? What’s in it for us?

One must mention that cognitive psychology, to say nothing of cognitive therapy has definitively refuted this notion. One must add that a therapy based on externalizing anger and hatred has never been an effective treatment for depression.

Phillips offers this explanation of Freud’s use of Shakespeare:

In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud used Hamlet as, among other things, a way of understanding the obscene severities of conscience.

‘The loathing which should drive [Hamlet] on to revenge,’ Freud writes, ‘is replaced in him by self-reproaches, by scruples of conscience, which remind him that he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish.’ Hamlet, in Freud’s view, turns the murderous aggression he feels towards Claudius against himself: conscience is the consequence of uncompleted revenge. Originally there were other people we wanted to murder but this was too dangerous, so we murder ourselves through self-reproach, and we murder ourselves to punish ourselves for having such murderous thoughts. Freud uses Hamlet to say that conscience is a form of character assassination, the character assassination of everyday life, whereby we continually, if unconsciously, mutilate and deform our own character. So unrelenting is this internal violence that we have no idea what we’d be like without it. We know almost nothing about ourselves because we judge ourselves before we have a chance to see ourselves.

Freud is showing us how conscience obscures self-knowledge, intimating indeed that this may be its primary function: when we judge the self it can’t be known; guilt hides it in the guise of exposing it. This allows us to think that it is complicitous not to stand up to the internal tyranny of what is only one part – a small but loud part – of the self. So frightened are we by the super-ego that we identify with it: we speak on its behalf to avoid antagonising it (complicity is delegated bullying). But in arguing with his conscience, in trying to catch it, with such eloquence and subtlety, Hamlet has become a genius of self-reproach; his conversations with himself and others about conscience allow him to speak in ways no one had ever quite spoken before.

One hesitates to say it, but “the obscene severities of conscience” is a clumsy phrase.

Here Phillips is obscuring the essential Freudian truth. According to Freud Hamlet cannot act because he sees his desire in his uncle’s actions. Hamlet suffers from an unanalyzed Oedipus complex, nothing more or less.

Phillips is not quite correct to say that at one level Freudian theory sees us murdering ourselves, destroying our character because it is too dangerous to try to murder the one person we really want to murder.

He does, however, expose a basic truth about Freud. Freudian psychoanalysis is an extended effort is self-flagellation and self-punishment. It does not necessarily turn the ego’s hatred against itself, but it punishes itself for having such impure thoughts.

As I have explained, Freud is the father of negative psychology. To be fair, Phillips, following Lacan, wants to save us from our sins, but, one does not quite understand why anyone needs to descend that deeply into negativity before being rescued from it.

Phillips continues to explain that the superego tells us who we really are. This makes very little sense, unless, of course, you believe that you are functionally and essentially depraved and perverted.

Phillips also suggests that we enjoy the kind of moral flagellation that constitutes self-criticism. A medieval monk might very well believe, though medieval monks also believed in redemption and salvation and heavenly bliss... through the church:

The super-ego casts us as certain kinds of character; it, as it were, tells us who we really are; it is an essentialist; it claims to know us in a way that no one else, including ourselves, can ever do. And, like a mad god, it is omniscient: it behaves as if it can predict the future by claiming to know the consequences of our actions – when we know, in a more imaginative part of ourselves, that most actions are morally equivocal, and change over time in our estimation. (No apparently self-destructive act is ever only self-destructive, no good is purely and simply that.) Self-criticism is an unforbidden pleasure: we seem to relish the way it makes us suffer. Unforbidden pleasures are the pleasures we don’t particularly want to think about: we just implicitly take it for granted that each day will bring its necessary quotient of self-disappointment, that every day we will fail to be as good as we should be; but without our being given the resources, the language, to wonder who or what is setting the pace, or where these rather punishing standards come from. How can we find out what we think of all this when conscience never lets go?

Later in his essay, Phillips expands on Freud’s muddled thought:

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are as nothing compared with the murderous mufflings and insinuations and distortions of the super-ego because it is the project of the super-ego, as conceived of by Freud, to render the individual utterly solipsistic, incapable of exchange. Or to make him so self-mortified, so loathsome, so inadequate, so isolated, so self-obsessed, so boring and bored, so guilty that no one could possibly love or desire him. The solitary modern individual and his Freudian super-ego, a master and a slave in a world of their own. ‘Who do I fear?’ Richard III asks at the end of his play, ‘Myself? There’s none else by.’

Like all unforbidden pleasures self-criticism, or self-reproach, is always available and accessible. But why is it unforbidden, and why is it a pleasure? And how has it come about that we are so bewitched by our self-hatred, so impressed and credulous in the face of our self-criticism, unimaginative as it usually is? Self-reproach is rarely an internal trial by jury. A jury, after all, represents some kind of consensus as an alternative to autocracy. Self-criticism, when it isn’t useful in the way any self-correcting approach can be, is self-hypnosis. It is judgment as spell, or curse, not as conversation; it is an order, not a negotiation; it is dogma not over-interpretation. Psychoanalysis sets itself the task of wanting to have a conversation with someone – call it the super-ego – who, because he knows what a conversation is, is definitely never going to have one. The super-ego is a supreme narcissist.

Here, Phillips (following Freud) has introduced a twist. He presents the superego as something of an ultimate horror, a function of your mind that has nothing else to do but to beat you up and make you loathsome to yourself.

This might or not be true. Phillips and Freud take it as an article of faith. But, after they have created this pronominal monstrosity—recall that the German for superego is Uber-Ich—they propose to rescue you from it.

Evidently, as I have argued extensively, Freudian moral theory is based on guilt and the threat of punishment. Specifically, it is based on the threat of castration. Freud went as far as to say that women are moral inferiors because they are impervious to castration threats.

Phillips wants to redeem this aspect of the theory so he confuses the issue:
The super-ego, by definition, despite Freud’s telling qualifications, under-interprets the individual’s experience. It is, in this sense, moralistic rather than moral. Like a malign parent it harms in the guise of protecting; it exploits in the guise of providing good guidance. In the name of health and safety it creates a life of terror and self-estrangement. There is a great difference between not doing something out of fear of punishment, and not doing something because one believes it is wrong. Guilt isn’t necessarily a good clue as to what one values; it is only a good clue about what (or whom) one fears. Not doing something because one will feel guilty if one does it is not necessarily a good reason not to do it. Morality born of intimidation is immoral. Psychoanalysis was Freud’s attempt to say something new about the police.

True enough, guilt does not tell what one values. If so, then the Freudian attempt to produce a morality out of guilt fails. Phillips introduces his own concepts, like believing that something is wrong. In truth, this cannot function as a moral principle without there being a sanction for doing wrong.

And yet, Freud was not just trying to say something new about the police. The assertion is glib. Freud was attempting to recreate a form of human being that would have overcome shame and dispensed with the ethic that would make it into a social being. And he was leaving the way to salvation open-- for others to find.

He and Lacan wanted people to overcome guilt, but especially they wanted people to overcome shame. If desire is based on a taboo—the theory suggests that you only want what you are forbidden to have—then  Freudian creatures must descend into a constant conflict between their desires and the threat of punishment... as a prelude to redemption.

In the end, by my lights, they move beyond morality and beyond immorality… they attain to amorality. They defeat the superego and march bravely forth to fulfill themselves, to act on their desires … regardless of what anyone thinks.

For his part, Phillips believes in the redemptive power of love. One might say that, in so doing, he has merely confirmed by argument, to the effect that, at root, Freudian psychoanalysis was destined to become a pseudo-religion.

In his words:

What is this appetite for confinement, for diminishment, for unrelenting, unforgiving self-criticism? Freud’s answer is beguilingly simple: we fear loss of love. Fear of loss of love means forbidding certain forms of love (incestuous love, or interracial love, or same sex love, or so-called perverse sexuality, or loving what the parents don’t love, and so on).

Obviously, Freudian psychoanalysis must first convince us that we are criminals. Then it teaches us to punish ourselves with bouts of self-flagellation or self-criticism. Finally, in the hands of Lacan—though to a far lesser extent in Freud—it offers redemptive love… within a worldwide cult.

Other more timid souls will say that by overcoming and repressing these impulses we arrive at a later stage of object love and live happily ever after.

Phillips seems to belong to this camp. And Freud occasionally holds out such hope. The problem is that Freud’s great mythic creatures, Oedipus and Narcissus, did not live happily ever after.

To imagine that Freud’s late myth of the primal horde can possibly lead to true love and happy marriages is naïve to an extreme.

Phillips offers his own twist:

We are encouraged by all this censorship and judgment to believe that forbidden, transgressive pleasures are what we really crave; that really, essentially, deep down, we are criminals; that we need to be protected primarily from ourselves, from our wayward desires.

In essence, he is saying that psychoanalysis is a con. But what is the point of convincing us that our truest desires are to commit criminal actions, see the example of Oedipus, if they are not? If it opens the way to redemption, then perhaps it should be offering a way out of itself.

And yet, if Freud did not believe in the Oedipus complex he believed in nothing. Surely, Lacan believed that our desires are fundamentally criminal… and yet he held out a hope for allowing us to act on them—while redeeming us from the attendant guilt. Again, this would make human beings into supernormal creatures, akin to the Nietzschean Ubermensch.

How do you arrive at this point? If you are Phillips (and perhaps Zizek) you reduce the superego to a joke. You ridicule it. You make it like Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza.

And you think that the superego is going to take this lying down? You think that it will roll over and play dead, allowing you to do what you want… without fearing punishment?

After regaling us with the horrors of the superego Phillips is suggesting that psychoanalysis liberate us from a problem that is, after all, its own creation.

And yet, once you make it that strong and that dominating, why would anyone believe that you can flick your magic wand and reduce it to a clown.

Even Lacan, who often got beyond the restrictions posed by the superego, admitted publicly, late in his life, that he too had a superego. And, for that fact he was compelled to declare that psychoanalytic practice was a scam.

And yet, he too sought redemption. He knew that people would always need to belong to groups, but he did not quite know how to bring together a social group made up of Ubermenschen.

The question remains open.

Hate Your Neighbor As You Hate Yourself

Psychoanalysis may be finished, but Adam Phillips has apparently not gotten the memo. Soldiering on, Phillips has produced a long and intricate essay on the Freudian theory of conscience and self-criticism. 

To what purpose remains to be seen.

Since Phillips declares that we can over-interpret and under-interpret, it is worth noting that we can also overcomplicate and oversimplify matters. In his essay on self-criticism Phillips overcomplicates several matters.

Therein he joins those who made a career out of obfuscating Freudian thought. One suspects that they are doing so in order to hide the truth, but that would mean that true-believing Freudians are in the business of repression.

Who would’ve thunk it?

Anyway, Phillips begins by quoting the great obfuscator himself, my old friend Jacques Lacan. And he finds a place where Lacan’s thought is uncharacteristically clear. Here Lacan is taking issue with Christ, even though the rule first appeared in Leviticus 19; 18:

Lacan said that there was surely something ironic about Christ’s injunction to love thy neighbour as thyself – because actually, of course, people hate themselves. Or you could say that, given the way people treat one another, perhaps they had always loved their neighbours in the way they loved themselves: that is, with a good deal of cruelty and disregard. 
  
One appreciates the overly clever cynicism, but if human beings had really treated each other as badly as Lacan thinks they have, there would never have been any functioning human communities. And since human beings always live in communities, most of which function at one level or another, Lacan’s pessimism, as Freudian as it is, falls short.

Here, Lacan is being a good Freudian. Note the word “actually.” It suggests that your self-loathing is more authentic than whatever positive feelings you have about yourself.

Psychoanalysis is based on the notion that people all hate each other. Freud, we recall, believed that his fellow humans were trash. One is tempted to say that Lacan is just talking about himself and those who became part of his school, but that would appear to be churlish.

Still and all, if Lacan has offered the Freudian truth here he is implying that those who do not hate themselves and others have not been properly psychoanalyzed.

Phillips does not say so but he is really addressing the positive psychology of Martin Seligman et al. And he is attempting to undermine cognitive treatments that, by his misreading, attempt to ignore the fundamental badness of human beings in favor of a rosy scenario where people love themselves and even their neighbors.

One suspects that Phillips has addressed the issues raised by the cognitivists in other works. And yet, he ought to have mentioned them here, if only to specify his target.

Phillips continues:

‘After all,’ Lacan writes, ‘the people who followed Christ were not so brilliant.’

 Obviously, this is a gratuitous slur. Beginning with the disciples and apostles, most notably Saul of Tarsus, the people who followed Christ did found a major world religion. I leave it to you to decide whether this shows a lack of intelligence.

You cannot say as much about psychoanalysis, which currently stands as a dying cult. Besides, Lacan once said that the Catholic Church would easily outlive Freudian psychoanalysis.

When it comes to great minds, I venture that a Christian would happily take up the challenge, pitting Augustine, Jerome, Aquinas, William of Ockham and Teresa of Avila against Ernest Jones, Sandor Ferenczi and Melanie Klein. Those who still follow Lacan are no longer the best and the brightest.

As it happens, both Lacan and Phillips are obscuring the meaning of the Biblical rule. As it appears in Leviticus and the New Testament it sought to help people to overcome the law of the talion—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Leviticus offers two versions of the law. First:

Forget about the wrong things people do to you, and do not try to get even. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

And this, from Leviticus 19; 34:

But treat them just as you treat your own citizens. Love foreigners as you love yourselves, because you were foreigners one time in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

I explained these points in my book The Last Psychoanalyst. Apparently and inexplicably, Phillips has not read it.

And yet, for all I know he has read by book and is trying to respond to it in this essay. One does not like to imagine that he would not mention a book that has provoked his thoughts because he does not want to give it any attention.

Be that as it may, from whence cometh the self-loathing that is displayed by the Freudian superego.

Unfortunately, it makes some sense.

After all, your heart’s desire is to copulate with your mother and if you are willing to commit patricide to accomplish that end, then you might very well end up hating yourself.

If that is what you really, really want to do, then a goodly amount of crippling self-loathing might be necessary lest you act on your depraved desires.

In his essay Phillips is addressing the advent of the human moral sense. Since he, a good Freudian, can only understand it within the context of a culturally imposed narrative, he places it within the Oedipus complex.

He does not want to deny the Oedipus complex and wants to explain why more people don’t act on it, so Phillips like Freud and like Lacan must believe that the human mind is divided against itself, engaged in a permanent struggle against its depraved desires.

Phillips offers a clever twist here, one that Lacan might well accept.  Meditating on human ambivalence, he declares that love and hate are so closely entwined that we often love people we hate and hate people we love.

He writes:

If someone can satisfy us, they can frustrate us; and if someone can frustrate us we always believe they can satisfy us. And who frustrates us more than ourselves?

Unfortunately, this is a bit too clever. If someone who can satisfy us refuses, do we really want to destroy him or her? We might want to try to be more charming. We might look to someone else for satisfaction.

As often happens in Freudian thought, the narrative obscures reality.

Surely, it does happen that we grow to hate certain people, but often the reason has more to do with a betrayal than with a failure to satisfying our wants and needs. We hate people who threaten us, and a refusal to satisfy our wants and needs rarely counts as a threat to our being. We are more likely to hate a spouse who has humiliated us by having an affair with our neighbor than we are to hate him or her for turning down a sexual request.

As for the notion that we frustrate ourselves, this assumes that we are using ourselves to satisfy ourselves. This harkens back to an old definition of narcissism, to the effect that the narcissist takes his own body to be the object of his sexual desire.

One might have difficulty imagining why this formula would ever be frustrating. With the notable exception of your sexual functioning, your body, after all, is not going to say No to whatever you want to do to it.

With one notable and visible exception: the male sexual organ. One hastens to mention the importance of phallic functioning for Lacan's theorizing, but one would be remiss if one did not underscore, as I did in my book, that Augustine of Hippo first opined on the fact that this single organ did not respond to the will's commands. And it did not function automatically like the heart.

Friday, February 27, 2015

A Few Words from Camille Paglia

A few words from Camille Paglia to brighten up your day.

In an interview with the Catholic journal “America” Paglia responded to a question about contemporary feminism. Therein she addressed the current discussion about rape culture.

She wants colleges and universities to cease policing student behavior and she insists that the right place to deal with crime is the criminal justice system. She also believes that women, on college campuses and elsewhere, should take appropriate caution in their behavior. Every mother tells her daughter as much.

Without further ado, here’s Paglia:

After the great victory won by my insurgent, pro-sex, pro-fashion wing of feminism in the 1990s, American and British feminism has amazingly collapsed backward again into whining, narcissistic victimology. As in the hoary old days of Gloria Steinem and her Stalinist cohorts, we are endlessly subjected to the hackneyed scenario of history as a toxic wasteland of vicious male oppression and gruesome female suffering. College campuses are hysterically portrayed as rape extravaganzas where women are helpless fluffs with no control over their own choices and behavior. I am an equal opportunity feminist: that is, I call for the removal of all barriers to women's advance in the professional and political realms. However, I oppose special protections for women, which I reject as demeaning and infantilizing. My principal demand (as I have been repeating for nearly 25 years) is for colleges to confine themselves to education and to cease their tyrannical surveillance of students' social lives. If a real crime is committed, it must be reported to the police. College officials and committees have neither the expertise nor the legal right to be conducting investigations into he said/she said campus dating fiascos. Too many of today's young feminists seem to want hovering, paternalistic authority figures to protect and soothe them, an attitude I regard as servile, reactionary and glaringly bourgeois. The world can never be made totally safe for anyone, male or female: there will always be sociopaths and psychotics impervious to social controls. I call my system "street-smart feminism":  there is no substitute for wary vigilance and personal responsibility.

And then, Paglia was asked about post-structuralism, the ideology that came to infest Humanities departments in the late 1960s and that has pretty much destroyed the credibility of literary studies. Having expressed similar views myself on various occasions I am happy to applaud Paglia. She is right:


Post-structuralism is a system of literary and social analysis that flared up and vanished in France in the 1960s but that became anachronistically entrenched in British and American academe from the 1970s on. Based on the outmoded linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and promoted by the idolized Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault, it absurdly asserts that we experience or process reality only through language and that, because language is inherently unstable, nothing can be known. By undermining meaning, history and personal will, post-structuralism has done incalculable damage to education and contemporary thought. It is a laborious, circuitously self-referential gimmick that always ends up with the same monotonous result. I spent six months writing a long attack on academic post-structuralism for the classics journal Arion in 1991, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf" (reprinted in my first essay collection, Sex, Art, and American Culture). Post-structuralism has destroyed two generations of graduate students, who were forced to mouth its ugly jargon and empty platitudes for their foolish faculty elders. And the end result is that humanities departments everywhere, having abandoned their proper mission of defending and celebrating art, have become humiliatingly marginalized in both reputation and impact.