Responding to one of Anxiousmodernman’s comments in my post on BP, Circling Squares writes:

Estimates vary but its been reported recently that 27 million Americans are on anti-depressant drugs. (1) That is a heck of a lot of people who are medically numbed; it is pretty difficult to be angry, righteous and politicised when you are taking drugs to stop you from feeling. (2) Besides the direct effect on those specific people, this indicates a far wider tendency, as you said, to individualise blame, to accept failure as one’s own fault and thus, because one is trapped into that circle (there’s no way out, nowhere else to go from there), self-harm and self-medication follow.

There’s more to Circling’s response, so please go read it. There are a few points worth making in response to Circling’s remarks. First, anti-depressants don’t prevent feeling, but rather depression prevents feeling. When, in the grips of depression, everything is bland or gray. Nothing interests, nothing motivates, nothing excites, nor is there much in the way of any affect whatsoever. The depressed person is more or less paralyzed or completely numb. It is thus a mistake, I believe, to suggest– if this is what Circling is implying –that if only we weren’t medicated, if only we embraced our depression, we would be capable of acting. The reverse rather seems to be the case. Moreover, when anti-depressants are at their best, far from turning one into a numb zombie, they actually liberate affect and the capacity to engage with the world. It becomes possible to care or be engaged with the world around us.

read on!

Here I think it’s worthwhile to be a bit Spinozist in our attitudes towards anti-depressants. Anything that increases our power of acting or conatus is accompanied by affects of joy and we should never sneer at joy. I am not suggesting that everyone should run off and get medicated– often there are serious and debilitating side effects to psychotropics, though occasionally one gets lucky –but am saying that we shouldn’t demonize or stigmatize psychotropics. There’s an old joke that Lacanians like to make about Guattari’s La borde clinic that sneers at how they began treating their schizophrenics with insulin. This is a stupid joke and reveals the limitations of Lacanian theory. Guattari– who, incidentally remained a member of Lacan’s Ecole his entire life and who himself did his analysis with Lacan –adopted an ecological approach to treatment that included the symbolic, collective relations, institutional structures, social structures, and yes, neurology. There is no a priori reason that psychotropics should be excluded from treatment– though clearly people shouldn’t be put in chemical straight jackets –and any actually practicing Lacanian analyst will tell you that there’s no contradiction between being in analysis and taking psychotropics. It seems to me that some puritanical attitudes we encounter towards psychotropics among those who adopt radical political orientations are premised on an untenable split between mind and body.

I do think, however, that there is some truth to what Circling says about the manner in which drug treatment of psychic maladies individualizes these maladies. As Circling suggests, all too often neurological and medicalized approaches to psychic maladies treat these maladies as a purely personal affair, ignoring the broader social context in which they occur and how that social context tends to produce certain forms of subjectivity. The psychic malady is treated as akin to a cold or the flu, as a virus the individual alone has, and the social conditions that render these forms of subjectivity probable are ignored. However, it’s important to note that the issue here is not an either/or. At birth, every neuron in our brain is more or less connected. Neurological takes place through the potentiation and depotentiation of synaptic connections that lead some neurological connections to atrophy and die off. This depotentiation of synaptic connections takes place, in part, through stimulations from the environment. Consequently, neurological structure is necessarily continuous with environmental relations, and this includes the social. This is why psychic maladies like a predominance of depression in a population (and during the last century, hysteria, can be treated as symptoms of broader social structures and as insights as to what is pathological in the social structure. Roudinesco has some interesting things to say about this.

However, it should also be borne in mind that while we might recognize, following Levi-Strauss’s path as announced in An Introduction to Marcel Mauss –symptoms as essentially social symptoms, we must also recognize that one condition under which the social frame in which symptoms are generated can be acted upon for itself is that subjects become agents of their symptoms rather than patients of their symptoms. Between Anna O. (Anna Pappenheim) who is unable to drink or eat and who has fallen into autism and Anno O. the social activist who fights on behalf of women’s rights and who is a fierce advocate of children, something has to take place in relation to the symptom… The symptom has to be transformed and one has to become an agent of the symptom rather than passively “speaking” the symptom through, for example, the medium of mute conversion symptoms.

I also find it perplexing to suggest that somehow Freudian and Lacanian practice are somehow Marxist or socially conscious in flavor. One of the standard Marxist criticisms of psychoanalysis was precisely that it individualizes psychic suffering in precisely the way that Circling suggests that neurology individualizes psychic suffering. The clinic is squarely situated in the dimension of the subject, and anyone who has either undergone analysis or practiced as an analyst knows, the content of the session is generally populated by the personal: one’s relations to parents, aunts, uncles, friends, work, lovers, etc., etc., etc. If one wants to get a flavor of what the clinical setting looks like, Guattari’s psychoanalytic notebooks (not his theoretical musings), provide excellent fodder. Here Zizek gives us an entirely distorted picture of what actually takes place in the clinical setting (and it is not surprising that Zizek is generally suspicious of the clinic). I point this out not to denounce psychoanalysis– I think this focus on the subject is one of its strengths –but only to suggest that the issue is more complicated than the formula “neurology-neoliberalism/psychoanalysis-Marxism”.

With respect to my post on the BP oil spill, we should raise the question of whether the problem has been properly analyzed. Is it really a question of people not getting worked up about these sorts of things? The sociologist Niklas Luhmann suggests something different. According to Luhmann societies are autopoietic systems. As Maturana and Varela define it,

An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network. (Autopoiesis and Cognition, 78)

Autopoietic systems continuously (re)produce themselves by constituting their own elements. Two key claims of autopoietic theory are that 1) autopoietic systems are operationally closed, and 2) that autopoietic systems form by constituting a distinction between system (self-referential) and environment (other-referential). The claim that autopoietic systems are operationally closed is the claim that operations within an autopoietic system only refer to themselves, not to an outside. The distinction between system and environment (all that is outside the system) is itself constituted by the system and reference to the environment only occurs through the distinctions of the system itself.

As a consequence, we cannot talk about information as something that is “out there” in the world or environment such that the system receives information that would exist regardless of whether or not the system existed, but rather must talk about systems constituting information through their own distinctions or organization. As Luhmann puts it,

…one could say that a system can only see what it can see. It cannot see what it cannot. Moreover, it cannot see that it cannot see this. For the system this is something concealed ‘behind’ the horizon that, for it, has no ‘behind’. What has been called the ‘cognized model’ is the absolute reality for the system. (Ecological Communication, 22 – 23)

Systems do not represent the world, but constitute a world through their own distinctions or organization. In Harman’s terms, systems only ever encounter objects as sensuous objects, never as real objects. Systems can be perturbed or irritated by other objects, but they will always transform these perturbations into information through their own internal “codes”.

If Luhmann is right (and I go back and forth on this issue) and societies are autopoietic systems, this has profound implications for how we think about the nature of political issues, for like any other autopoietic system, societies will be operationally closed and organized around a self-referential distinction between system and environment. What, then, according to Luhmann, are the elements that society constitutes, that compose a society (self-reference), and what is excluded from society? Luhmann’s hypothesis is surprising: Society consists entirely of communications. The autopoietic activity of society through which society reproduces itself is communication. Put in negative terms, society consists of communications alone and persons, psychic systems, are outside society, belonging to the environment of society.

It will be noted how nicely Luhmann’s thesis here meshes with key claims of object-oriented ontology with respect to mereology. Two of Harman’s key claims are that 1) objects are absolutely independent of one another, and 2) that objects are composed of other objects. As Harman puts it,

…we have a universe made up of objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects. The reason we call these “substances” is not because they are ultimate or indestructible, but simply because none of them can be identified with any (or even all) of their relations with other entities. None of them is a pristine kernel of substantial unity unspoiled by interior parts. We never reach some final layer of tiny components that explains everything else, but enter instead into an indefinite regress of parts and wholes. Every object is both a substance and a complex of relations. (Guerrilla Metaphysics, 85)

For me one of the most fascinating riddles of object-oriented ontology is how you can simultaneously have objects exist independently of one another and have objects wrapped in other objects. This riddle is what I’m referring to when I refer to the strange mereology of object-oriented ontology. We find a similar mereology at work in Luhmann’s systems theory. Society cannot exist without psychic-systems or persons, but persons are not parts of society, nor do– to make matters even more paradoxical –do persons even communicate. Communication only takes place in society and communication only refers to communications. As Luhmann puts it, “…the environment of social systems cannot communicate with society” (29). As such, persons are thoroughly in the environment of social systems. They are systems in the environment of another system, not themselves parts of social systems.

If this is the case, then the question of political change is quite different. If and insofar as persons belong to the environment of social systems, and insofar as systems are operationally closed, the issue is not whether or not people are worked up about events such as the BP oil spill. Persons can be worked up about a number of things pertaining to economic injustices, poverty, war, environmental destruction, etc., but persons belong to the environment of social systems, they are not themselves parts of social system. And as a consequence, the perturbations persons generate in social systems will often be registered as mere noise, rather than productive of information that selects new system states in the social system and sends it moving in a new direction. The question, then, is not so much that of how to get people worked up and engaged, but rather how to perturb an operationally closed system in such a way that the perturbation is not registered as mere noise but rather generates information that leads to the selection of different system states. And this requires a second-order observation of how systems are organized. Denouncing the apathy of people really makes little sense here, because what we’re talking about is not people, but about how particular social systems are organized.

The situation here is deeply analogous to that of Lacanian psychoanalysis (and Lacan was no stranger to cybernetics, cf. Seminar I and II). Freud learned early that simply telling patients the meaning of their symptom had little effect in dissolving symptoms. If this is the case, then this is because psychic systems, like social systems, are operationally closed. The environment cannot communicate with the psychic system, but rather the psychic system only communicates with itself. The question for psychoanalysis after the flight of Dora was thus two-fold: First, how is it possible to perturb a psychic system so that the system produces “information” that selects new system states? Second, how is it possible to relate to a psychic system in such a way that it becomes capable of “seeing what it cannot see” or the organizing distinctions that govern self-reference and other reference? Introduced by Freud, and formalized by Lacan, psychoanalysis adopted a much more passive listening approach to the analysand that intervened in the immanence of the analysand’s speech, emphasizing certain repetitive signifiers in the analysand’s speech in “distorting” ways (in Seminar 23 Lacan remarks that the “homophone” and “equivoc” are the tools of psychoanalysis”) that elide the logic of the psychic systems self/other distinctions and lead it to generate new system states.

Moreover, by occupying the enigmatic place of the “dummy hand” or “playing dead” while paradoxically being present, the psychoanalyst engenders conditions of second-order observation in which the analysand gradually becomes aware of the distinctions governing his self/other relations in transforming perturbations into information and how the other is not out there in the world but is a product of his own self-referential distinctions. This is nothing but the traversing of the fantasy insofar as it is the fantasy that governs these relations or that functions as the “ur-schemata” regulating relations to the environment. The analyst is able to promote the traversal of the fantasy precisely by not being where the analysand expects him to be. The situation is similar with respect to the social: In what way can elements in the environment of social systems (us, for example), perturb social systems in such a way that these systems no longer repetitively reproduce their schema but begin to drift in a new direction?