Abolition of the Family,
Abolition of the Individual:
Notes on Anti-Oedipus

What is it that moves over the body of a society? It is always flows, and a person is always a cutting off [coupure] of a flow. A person is always a point of departure for the production of a flow, a point of destination for the reception of a flow, a flow of any kind; or, better yet, an interception of many flows…

How to respond to the idea that we should abolish the family?

Speaking personally, I have always had a complicated relationship to the notion. On the one hand, having always had a slightly perforated sense of family as an adoptee, existing somewhat on the fringes of more than one family, I have initially found arguments around the abolition of the family too often centre the experiences of those who have grown up in broadly functional families themselves and have no experienced the dysfunctions produced by a falling outside its bounds.

That being said, I certainly know what it is like to have parents. But as a child, despite being welcomed wholeheartedly into a new family, my difference within that same family was also often openly acknowledged. Not maliciously, but nonetheless in subtle ways that made me feel like some sort of outsider, because, symbolically speaking at least, I always was.

Later in life, I have experienced this in reverse. I have gotten to know my biological mother’s family — my father’s identity remains a secret to everyone but her — but having gotten to know them as an adult, I have also never felt able to develop any real sort of foothold. Any attempt to do so has often been too painful to see through.

Of course, none of this has much to do with what is being called for by family abolitionists. But in practice, I find myself oddly triggered by the discussion — supportive in theory; uncomfortable with the reality. These dysfunctions, for instance, are not a problem for family abolitionists but rather speak to the hold that the family has upon us. In cases of adoption most explicitly, we have historically been (and largely remain) reluctant to accommodate or rectify the injustices experiences by so many bastards.

This is even true on a more micropolitical level. For example, when I talk to people about the struggles of being an adoptee who feels somewhat estranged from any particular family, the response often given is: “It doesn’t matter — you can always choose your own family.” But part of me always baulks at this. The notion of “choosing” a family nonetheless feels dependent on having some sort of stable model on which to base your desires. Whether from within or from without, the family remains an uncomfortable point of reference that I’d almost wish we could away with altogether.

This is because, although you can certainly choose new members for your family, the family model itself remains steadfast through signifiers and forms of relation if not exactly within the same structure. (I wholly embrace being referred to as “queer uncle Matt” by friends at present, for instance, particularly those who are younger than me and may see me as some sort of elder, but I do wonder sometimes about our reliance on familial signifiers like “auntie” and “uncle” for those on the edges of our immediate others.) And so, what if you feel like you’ve never really had an experience of that kind of family? What if you don’t feel like you know what that “family” model really looks like? At least not in a way that isn’t in itself triggering…

I have a tendency to struggle with the maintenance of interpersonal relationships as a result of this, because the original example of kinship that so many of us possess feels fundamentally malformed in my experiences. The designated names of different family members begins to feel like a series of hollow signifiers, giving a sense of structure to my relations that may have no significance otherwise. The “mum” who is not really my mum, etc. But even this is a malformed thought process — what makes a mum anyway? As a result, I struggle to know how to relate to anyone, and so have a tendency to withdraw and close myself off.

But this is not a tendency that I particularly like about myself. I have developed an awareness of these thought processes as something to try and actively fight against. Again, the ways that my thought is structured by social expectations, givens and pressures runs contrary to many of my political beliefs. This does not, I don’t think, eject my politics into the realm of fantasy. Nor does it make me feel like my neuroses are particularly invalid. But it is towards the cleft between the two that a lot of my thinking has been oriented of late, and the return of family abolition to Twitter discourse has made me want to write some tentative thoughts down.

If I am to try and embrace such an attempt to think against myself, I am inclined to believe that my personal circumstances can also be considered a strength too. Having no expectations of what a “family” should be leaves a lot of space for reimagining certain kinds of kinship — which is the fundamental demand of most family abolitionists anyway: a new kind of kinship that is structured otherwise to the hierarchy of the nuclear family, particularly with regards to “patriarchy” as the male-centred form of its institutionalised organisation. But the centrality of the family as an ideal to social life nonetheless restricts our imagination of what a family can be, as well as our social relations as a whole, and that is just as apparent if we have grown up in loving families or found our familial relations to be maladapted.

But anyway, to affirm the positive, maybe I’m in the perfect position to think through this problem, I tell myself. Surely it is for the benefit of someone like me that these multiple senses of displacement — queer, adopted, etc. — are affirmed, so that the restructuring of power relations within the institution of the family can be rethought to include those who do not fit into its bourgeois bounds. But the idea of the family looms large regardless. It haunts as a loss, or something that I should grieve as such, even if the reality is quite different. Indeed, like Camus’s Outsider, the designations of “mother,” “father,” “uncle,” “auntie”, etc., all come with expectations of action and response. Whether experienced from within or without, the family’s hold on our psychic lives cannot be understated.

Again, it is clear that this brief overview of my own messy thoughts is notably devoid of any specific reference to things family abolitionists, past and present, have ever said or argued. But this is purposeful. Ultimately, I recognise why many people cannot get past the emotional response that is provoked by the phrase “abolish the family”, because I too, even now, struggle to move past it sometimes. It is undoubtedly the topic, above all others, that pushes my buttons and which I struggle to formulate any coherent response to. (All the more reason to start a PhD roughly related to the topic.) And I think that is true for many people as well. But we should all try to grasp it, I think, for reasons that we can easily transplant from elsewhere.

We should be suspicious, I think, of how vigorously our restricted idea of the family holds onto us — that is, precisely how it holds onto us rather than how we hold onto it. We are more than happy to hold such healthy suspicions of other ideas. But the family remains a hard barrier for many. To twist Mark Fisher’s famously borrowed adage: even the end of capitalism is now easier for us to imagine than the end of the family. But this is for many of the same structural reasons that our imaginations are stifled in other ways. As such, we should pay attention to how the two ideas are linked, not just in terms of their structural power but also in terms of how these ideas function ideologically.

To twist Fisher’s words in this way isn’t even much of a stretch. He made similar remarks himself, referencing Helen Hester’s work on the subject. I am reminded of the point he makes in his Postcapitalist Desire lectures when discussing Herbert Marcuse and Ellen Willis:

I actually think that domestic realism is even more powerful than capitalist realism in today’s world. Even when I was at school, in the 1980s, there were fairly serious debates about alternatives to the family. I remember when I taught teenagers, a few years ago, you’d talk about alternatives to the family and they were just horrified by the very thought of it. And the full tragedy of that was, of course, that many of them had come from very difficult family backgrounds. So, they had an idealised idea of the family that didn’t fit with their experience of the family at all. And yet that very idealisation implied that they still help up the family as an idea. The countercultural mission has almost entirely disappeared now as a widespread cultural phenomenon.

As ever, I wish we’d have gotten more from Fisher on this point — although this essay, on which the lecture is based, was clearly ripe for salvage in any hypothetical Acid Communism manuscript.

Fisher goes into a bit more detail on this point, which I think is worth considering below, as a way of further grounding what it is I actually want to talk about in this post:

I don’t distinguish, in a Kantian sense, between the family as a transcendental structure and a family as an empirical fact. The family, as an empirical fact, is under massive pressure. As I understand it, particularly in the UK … there are more people living on their own than ever before. Of course, divorce has increased beyond all proportion since the 1970s. So, the family is not empirically strong, I would say — it’s empirically weak but it is transcendentally strong. It’s strong as a sort of basic structure that is still normative. Now if you think of people living collectively, you think of that as a temporary phase, when actually there is more of that than there was in the 1970s, all because people can’t afford to live on their own, particularly in London.

So, there’s increasing amounts of people living outside the family structure, and yet the family remains normative, I would suggest.

Fisher’s argument makes the idea of a “domestic realism” (a la capitalist realism) seem self-evident. But I think it is interesting to further explore some of the ways we can think about the idea’s grip upon us.

One way of doing this is through the work of Deleuze and Guattari.

At the very start of his seminars, Fisher tells his students that, whilst it is nowhere to be found on the reading list, Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus is the unspoken foundational text of the course. Having been rereading it recently, as I sink my teeth into my PhD, I’ve found it to be particularly fascinating on this point. Indeed, though capitalism looms large as the primary object of their critique, as it does for Fisher’s, it is the family that comes in for a particularly forceful beating, at least as a transcendental idea passed down by the shortsightedness of Freudian psychoanalysis. And this is even more apparent in Deleuze’s seminars on the book, which are currently being translated by the Deleuze Seminars Project.

Following Deleuze and Guattari, there are arguably two ways of talking about our responses to the idea of the family and its abolition: there is a psychotic response and a schizo response. Given my prevaricating above about rejecting family abolition because it calls for the dissolution of something I’ve long wanted but never had, I can see how the psychotic response can all too easily be established.

For starters, Deleuze suggests that there are “two major kinds of interpretations” of psychosis in psychoanalysis. The first proceeds “in terms of degradation, decomposition”; it proceeds “under the sign of the negative”. Psychosis, in this sense, is what “happens when something breaks down, or when there is a kind of degradation” — a degradation “of the rapport with the real, with the unity of the person.”

This is a point that Deleuze and Guattaria reject outright. The individual, after all, is a relatively recent concept, born of Protestantism and Cartesian. Even the idea of a “person”, as an individuated subject, was integral to John Locke’s liberalism. And so the point is implicit for Deleuze and Guattari that any understanding of a “degradation” of individual personhood is nothing less than false problem, and rather speaks to the fallibility of the Cartesian subject and liberalism’s bastardisation of its constitution for political ends.

Given its reliance on a sense of unified selfhood, then, Deleuze describes this kind of interpretation of psychosis as “personological”. Psychosis interpreters of this ilk “always come back to take the ‘me’ as a basic reference … to mark a sort of defeat from the point of view of the unity of the person, and of his/her rapports with reality.” The questions he leaves hanging in the air of the seminar are precisely: what unity? whose reality? Neither of these things is a given.

Nevertheless, the influence of this kind of thinking is hard to shake off. On matters of the family, this is where I often find myself. Any discussions of the breakdown of the family as an idea are all too easily projected onto my own sense of disunity as a person, which is traumatic only in the sense that it seems to disqualify oneself from a “normative” understanding of what a person actually is — a transcendental idea in its own right, which is the direct product of that other transcendental idea: the family.

But there is another view of psychosis that is far more interesting.

The second major interpretation of psychosis is structuralist, Deleuze says (although not in the sense that it is a direct product of structuralism):

This time, psychosis is interpreted by virtue of “essential phenomena of the structure”. It is no longer an accident that occurs to people, in the form of a kind of mechanism of decomposition, degradation. It’s an essential event in the structure, related to the distribution of positions, situations and relationships within a structure.

On this point, Deleuze’s references Lacan — one of the few times he references Lacan positively, in fact — drawing attention to the ways that, in Lacan’s analysis, psychosis is a structure relevant to all of us.

It is worth affirming here that, in theoretical discussions of psychoanalysis, references to psychosis and schizophrenia are not synonymous with the “psychotic” and “schizophrenic” person encountered “in real life”. As Deleuze puts it, we must not overly equivocate “the schizophrenic and schizophrenic activity”, on account of the innumerable “ambiguities” that exist between the two. Theoretically speaking, then, we might say that each refers to a structure of thought rather than being an umbrella term for a specific clinical symptomatology. As Deleuze argued in Coldness and Cruelty, there is always a cleft between the clinical and the critical, and so what is being attempted in many theoretical discussions of such psychoanalytic structures is the undoubtedly very difficult task of creating “a kind of lyrical picture of schizophrenia” in particular, as well as of psychosis, neurosis, perversion, et al.

The psychotic, then, for Lacan, is someone with a particularly fraught relationship to the familial structure, which he understands through the absence of a paternal signifier, the Name-of-the-Father. For the psychotic, this signifier is foreclosed.

In Lacanian thought, the Name-of-the-Father is so named to emphasise its symbolic function. It is not “The Father” strictly speaking — it is not a necessarily gendered notion but one that nonetheless takes on the role of patriarchal authority and law; it is the person who “wears the trousers”, so to speak. For the psychotic, the Name-of-the-Father is foreclosed from the symbolic order and is instead only imaginary. This sense of foreclosure is different to a sense of loss — for the psychotic, as Freud writes, “the ego rejects the incompatible idea together with its affect and behaves as if the idea had never occurred to the ego at all.” It is not something buried in the unconscious but ejected from it altogether.

If Deleuze has particular sympathy for the Lacanian psychotic, it is that he sees this position as being far more common than psychoanalytic nomenclature may suggest. Indeed, it may be difficult for us to imagine such a psychotic. After all, who does not have a symbolic father of some kind; some kind of “father figure”. Such a symbolic relation may be established outside the bounds of the family, in the form of a particularly influential teacher, for instance, or more amorphously in the broader disciplinary structures of the State. But it is in the very notion of a “father figure” that the symbolic grasp of the family persists and is dragged over everything. It is as if a complete (psychotic) absence of patriarchal authority were utterly impossible in our current system. For Deleuze, this is simply not the case. This is because he takes a step back from this psychoanalytic structure and instead takes the more poststructuralist view — this time in its proper philosophical sense — and instead wonders how we might understand the processes that produce these structures in the first place.

On this point — and pouring a more characteristic scorn on Lacanian thought — Deleuze writes much later, in a series of reflection on Anti-Oedipus presented to his students in 1980:

What annoys me in psychoanalysis of the Lacanian camp is the cult of castration. The family is a system of transmission, the social investments of one generation passed on to another, but I absolutely do not think that the family is a necessary element in the making of social investments because, in any case, there are desiring machines that, on their own, constitute social libidinal investments of the large social machines.

To this end, the question seems to be, why must every authority figure be a father? There are other processes at work that produce the family as a structure, and it is towards these that we should turn our attention. The Freudian emphasis on the family is, in this regard, an underexamined foundation. Superseding the bounds of the family, why can’t we describe such figures in a way that is not behold to a familial sentimentality? Why can’t we just call a fascist a fascist?

This point is made clear in Mark Seem’s introduction to the English translation of Anti-Oedipus:

Reversing the Freudian distinction between neurosis and psychosis that measures everything against the former, Anti-Oedipus concludes: the neurotic is the one on whom the Oedipal imprints take, whereas the psychotic is the one incapable of being oedipalized, even and especially by psychoanalysis. The first task of the revolutionary, they add, is to learn from the psychotic how to shake off the Oedipal yoke and the effects of power, in order to initiate a radical politics of desire freed from all beliefs. Such a politics dissolves the mystifications of power through the kindling, on all levels, of anti-oedipal forces — the schizzes-flows — forces that escape coding, scramble the codes, and flee in all directions: orphans (no daddy-mommy-me), atheists (no beliefs), and nomads (no habits, no territories).

What is of particular interest to me, as I begin my PhD, is the role of orphans in this schema. Though we have a tendency to think of orphans, in the first instance, as tragic figures — think Oliver Twist. They are so often the heroes of our stories. (I discussed this in Krakow a few months back.) Indeed, we far more often herald orphans (or children otherwise displaced) as heroes for the ways that they can circumvent the mystifications of power that otherwise bind us to the status quo. It should be noted that few (although not all) of these figures are far from tired to the structure of psychosis in the ways that Lacan might argue.

Deleuze discusses orphans often, but culturally speaking, there are many examples we can draw upon and learn from that show how even the orphan is not somehow inoculated from oedipal forces. (Enter Batman.) But this is where the role of the schizo becomes most relevant. For Deleuze and Guattari, orphans are instead more at home on the schizo’s place of immanence.

For Deleuze, the schizo is a more positive alternative to the psychotic. Batman, for instance, is the psychotic proper. Following the traumatic break of his orphaning, his solitude is affirmed as allowing for a new sovereignty. Wholly independent — financially, interpersonally — the Batman attacks the family in negative. He sees the networks of a criminal underground and sets about rendering them asunder. Crime families become things for him to smash. Capable of shedding the symbolic significance of his family name, he moves through familial shadows, cutting off flows.

But Spiderman, however, as another superheroic orphan (of a type), proceeds otherwise. In Spiderman, there is — as per his namesake — a drive to establish new webs of connection, to take responsibility for those around him, to do what is best for the neighbourhood. Flinging webs around an expansive sense of community, criminals are instead those who would disrupt these extrafamilial bonds. Spiderman is the schizo proper in this regard, traversing great distances in a single swing and using this mode of extension to expand a sense of family explicitly.

Like Lenz in Anti-Oedipus, “he is in the mountains, amid falling snowfiakes, with other gods or without any gods at all, without a family, without a father or a mother, with nature.”

The problem with the Lacanian understanding of psychosis, then, for Deleuze and Guattari, is the ways in which it remains tied to the family unnecessarily. This is true of psychoanalysis in general they argue:

Let us add that by enveloping the illness in a familial complex internal to the patient, and then the familial complex itself in the transference or the doctor-patient relationship, Freudian psychoanalysis made a somewhat intensive use of the family. Granted, this use distorted the nature of the intensive quantities in the unconscious. Nevertheless it still respected in part the general principle of a production of these quantities. When it became necessary once again to confront psychosis directly, however, the family was immediately reopened in extension, and was in itself considered as the indicator for measuring the forces of alienation and disalienation. In this manner the study of the families of schizophrenics has breathed new life into Oedipus by making it reign over the extensive order of an expanded family, where not only each person would combine to a greater or lesser extent his or her triangle with the triangle of others, but where the entirety of the extended family also would oscillate between the two poles of a “healthy” triangulation, structuring and differentiating, and forms of perverted triangles, bringing about their fusion in the realm of the undifferentiated.

The schizo newly problematises the inescapability of Oedipus. There are countless examples of this figure — both fictional and actual — who humiliate Oedipus’s essentialised nature by psychoanalysis. (These include Oedipus himself, who falls back into the family in a movement of great irony, but whom, beforehand, was a orphan wandering the land who became a hero for the Theban people, with his schizoid thinking allowing him to make new connections and solve the riddle of the sphinx.) It is this pre-oedipal reality that is to be affirmed, and to do so beyond the realms of myth and infancy requires a rethinking not only of the family as an institution but also the potentials of its primary product: the individual.

Again, the task of family abolition in this regard is not to disavow your nan, but rather to reaffirm the potential revolutionary junctures accessible to all of us when we free ourselves from the family as a social machine, which primarily maintains the production of individuals, traditions and privations, all of which break apart potential flows. To hold onto the family as an ineluctable structure only obscures the processes that far exceed its bounds. It is to enter into a far wider sense of social production that reinvigorates each person with a truly radical political agency. If the end of capitalism remains at all unthinkable to us, then it is necessary we proceed in a more segmented fashion. Start smaller; start with the family.

Anyway, merry Christmas…

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