One Or Several Critics

A large part of my research at the moment is revolving around Deleuze and Guattari’s chapter on Freud and multiplicity in A Thousand Plateaus, “One or Several Wolves.”

Here, the pair argue that Freud, incapable of thinking multiplicities, had a tendency to essentialise everything. They argue this based on his Wolf-man case study but also based on his tendency to speak of “the”.

The penis, the mother, the father — they diagnose Freud’s obsession with oneness and make the case for this tendency being the downfall of his theories. If only he hadn’t boxed himself in! Then we might have more use for him.

This is also why they emphasise the schizo- over the psycho-. Psycho- is so individualised and monolithic. Schizo- is socialised and amorphous.

However, at the moment, I’m reading Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis & Feminism and I am finding that this tendency is not Freud’s alone. In fact, with a certain irony, it seems to be that Freud himself has been individualised.

Deleuze and Guattari’s view of Freud was, interestingly, a popular one during the 1970s — but it was not the only one. Mitchell stakes out an alternative view. She emphasises the ways in which his writings, which wriggle around and find themselves adapted and expanded through his life, are more often essentialised in a cascade of interpretative readings by others, and through which Freud himself is reduced by his own theories.

Her argument, which will no doubt remain controversial in many corners today, is that the feminists of the 1970s misread Freud fundamentally. They essentialise his concepts as conscious acts of thought rather than appreciating his various phallocentric symbologies are attempts to describe mechanisms of the unconscious. This is to say that whilst Freud’s theories may be uncomfortably gendered, the mechanisms being described are, as far as he is concerned, universal. They are explicitly sexualised terms for a objet petit a, as Lacan would later refer to it. The issue for Freud is that everything comes back to sexuality. So, in declaring Freud’s use of penis-envy or castration-anxiety as essentialised and misogynistic forms within his thought, is only to reduce them to a function that he himself never sought. The tension within Freud’s work — or so seems to be Mitchell’s argument — is that he attempts to give form to the formless; he consciously imagines the productive mechanisms of the unconscious.

I’m finding Mitchell’s argument really interesting — that is, from a position of interest in psychoanalysis’ intellectual history– because, whether correct or not, she uncovers a tendency that I have been noticing within all sorts of theoretical thinking recently. It is, indeed, a tendency that Deleuze and Guattari seem to be critiquing themselves — the flattening of machinic desires onto apprehendable forms. It is, ironically, something that even effects readings of Deleuze and Guattari, just as it effected Freud. They are victims of their own readership, not so much machinically plugged into other avenues, as they may have hoped, but instead stripped for parts.

With this in mind, the issue is perhaps not that Freud couldn’t think multiplicity but rather that this is a problem within all of us. The irony is that the apparent failure of Freud’s theories also goes some way towards vindicating them. In this context, the mechanisms of the unconscious have a tendency to reveal themselves most clearly when we misdirect our descriptions of them into the realm of conscious action. No image can hold the unconscious.

For example, how many people now cloyingly criticise Deleuze and Guattari for fetishising “schizophrenia” when the term has always been amorphous and was mistakenly applied as a monolithic symptomatology already by others? It’s not politically correct to use the word “schizophrenia” so liberally, some critics argue, but it has seldom been diagnostically correct either, since it is a descriptive term for the presence of a multitude of disparate and even contradictory mental ailments. (There’s an great overview of some misreadings and where they emerge from here by Joshua Carswell.)

Freud himself knew this. He preferred “paraphrenia” to “schizophrenia”, writing that Bleuler’s use of the latter term was “open to objection … so long as we forget its literal meaning.” As Freud put it, schizophrenia was so named due to its being constituted by “a characteristic … which does not belong exclusively to that disease, and which, in the light of other considerations, cannot be regarded as the essential one.” Rather than defining schizophrenia by its ill-fitting nature, however — its distinction from other symptomatologies — he preferred the para- prefix as if to emphasise the ways in which the paraphrenias appear alongside, within and beyond other more constrained diagnoses rather than distinctly apart from them.

The particulars of psychoanalytic semantics aside, the issue here is that objections to the use of the term schizophrenia seem to treat the term in a way that it was originally coined to resist. To decry the political incorrectness of “schizophrenia” is to essentialise it and entomb it within a diagnostic infrastructure — an infrastrcuture that it was originally coined to designate the rupturing of.

This confusion of critiques with the systems they are critiquing is endemic and, in recent weeks, I’ve found myself observing it everywhere, especially in interpretations of Mark Fisher’s work, which I’ve been contemplating persistently, once again, on the eve of my book’s release date.

Everywhere we turn, whether to accelerationism or hauntology or, more broadly, postmodernism itself — I may have a post brewing on the latter — we find critiques deployed as central components of the systems they were initial critiquing. Just as accelerationism has been reduced in the popular imagination to a kind of violently nihilistic praxis that it was initially deployed to critique — in Freudian terms, equating murderous intent with an unconscious death-drive, once again confusing mechanisms of the unconscious with conscious action and thereby separating the original descriptions from their original context — the same has happened to hauntology where the critique is confused with those who first formulated it. (I have an essay on this coming out in The Quietus this week — watch this space.) Furthermore, when we point to postmodernism, for example, as Jameson did, as “the cultural logic of late capitalism”, it is bizarre how frequently today this critique is then essentialised and made integral to the thinkers who interrogated it.

Postmodernism should not be defended. It is a name given to our contemporary capture. And yet, as soon as someone like Jordan Peterson deploys it as a negative critique of leftists themselves, many leftists then jump to defend the standing of something which was a leftist critique of thought at the end of history anyway, in a way that only demonstrates this thinking rather than resisting it.

Put in far simpler terms, what I’m asking here is: Why must we transform “critics of the postmodern” into “postmodern critics”? Why are those who are attempting to think acceleration transformed into “accelerationist thinkers”? The slippage is subtle and, to many, no doubt pedantic and useless to apprehend, but I think anyone who has experienced this kind of slippage will be frustratingly aware of how damaging it is to the work being done. Indeed, it becomes symptomatic of the capture being resisted, as a pointed critique is blunted by the short-circuiting desired by mob-thought and, as such, it feels inescapable for those otherwise looking for an exit.

But here emerges a secondary problem: In denouncing the idiocy and misreadings of others, it is far too easy to fall into a defensively reductive position of one’s own. In saying your accelerationism or your postmodernism is not the real accelerationism or postmodernism, then avenues of further thought are still violently cut off. The very position that people are trying to stake out — loosely, nomadically, deterritorialising givens through critiques of their constituent parts — is disrupted when these coordinates are transformed through a sense of reflexive impotence into territories for defending.

I feel like the right knows this. I feel like Peterson knows it especially. His critiques of postmodernism, as woeful as they may be to those who are invested in certain thinkers of the postmodern, do nothing but bring out examples of a thinking that the original critics surely hoped to obliterate.

We are captured. Critics attempt to capture the capture. Ideologues attempt to essential the critique and, therefore, recapture us, making us internalise the logics we once attacked and are now mistakenly defending.

The process continues ad nauseum. Here’s hoping describing it might spread the seeds of a more virulent vigilance.

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