In the comments section to one of my earlier posts, Dana expresses some reservations about my recent references to happiness in the context of Freud and Lacan. As Dana writes in her/his insightful and generous comment:

I’m confused by your insistence on the promotion of happiness in relation to psychoanalysis, only because I’ve encountered so many instances of Freud, Lacan, and analysts I’ve actually spoken with explicitly stating that this is NOT the goal of psychoanalysis. Lacan often associates it with (American) egoism and I’m sure you remember Freud’s famous definition of the ‘cure’ of neurosis as granting the ability to experience common misery. Perhaps ‘happiness’ is referred to here in a different context?

This is all quite right. Psychoanalysis does not promise or promote happiness as its therapeutic end. However, I do think it’s important to ask some questions as to what psychoanalysis might be getting at in rejecting “happiness”. Central, I think, to psychoanalysis’ rejection of happiness as a therapeutic goal would be the insight that what dominant culture proposes as “happiness” is often a source of great suffering, indeed the origin of a variety of symptoms, for the subject. In part, this would be because what the social world we live in proposes to us as a source of happiness can often involve a betrayal of desire. For example, consumerism and settling down in the suburbs, starting a family, and devoting one to creating the most beautiful lawn on the block might very well amount to a betrayal of the ethical core of the subject’s desire. At the level of the pleasure principle, these things might all be very “enjoyable”, providing a number of gratifications, but insofar as they involve a betrayal of the subject’s desire, they can lead to overwhelming guilt and the production of all sorts of symptoms (and here we might think of the compulsive nature of the consumerist lifestyle, the manner in which it often seems to be searching for something it can never find, as well as the low-grade alcoholism and depression that seems to haunt this way of life).

In this connection, I’m reminded of the title of Lacan’s nineteenth seminar, …ou pire. …or worse. Part of the point of Lacan’s title seems to be that a repression of desire– in the specific Lacanian sense not to be confused with appetite –is that the outcome of this repression is worse than an acknowledgment of the desire itself. Living one’s desire might entail great hardship, suffering, and struggle, it might entail all sorts of grief and sacrifice, but Lacan’s point seems to be that the alternative is worse. That which is repressed always returns. Consequently, within a Freudo-Lacanian framework, a life characterized by arete or excellence, a life characterized by eudaimonia— which we inadequately translate as “happiness” –would be a life that, as Lacan will put it in his later seminars, “identifies with its symptom”. (And here I should add that a number of Lacanian analysts have very little patience with Zizek’s romantic picture of desire, traversing the fantasy, and above all his characterization of the Kantian moral law. They see the ravages of this sadistic moral law every day in their consulting room).

read on!

What I have been trying to get at with my recent forays into eudaimonistic ethics is the diagnostic and practical dimensions of these ethical models of thought. It’s important to note that here the question of just what eudaimonia is, is an entirely open question. Is it a life of simple pleasure, as the Epicureans argued? Is it a life where we attain peace of mind and freedom, as the Stoics argued? Is it a life characterized by excellence or arete as Aristotle argued? Is it a life that does not give way on its desire as Lacan argued? These are all open questions. The only thing that these diverse thinkers agree on is that eudaimonia involves “becoming active” in some sense or another. Becoming active doesn’t entail that you jump about all the time or that you’re all twitchy. Rather, becoming active entails becoming an agent or becoming free. In this regard, I’m far more inclined to see figures such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Che, Lenin, Marie Curie, Badiou, Zizek, Socrates, etc., as examples of eudaimonia, than the person who lives a quiet pleasant life, filled with all sorts of little pleasures. These lives were all, in their own way, punctuated by struggle, discontent, grief, and so on, but they are no less examples of eudaimonia for all that.

Returning to my reference to the diagnostic dimension of eudaimonistic forms of ethics, my point is that these sorts of ethical philosophies focus not on deontological rules governing action (what I reserve the term “normativity” for), but rather are focused on the analysis of what a good life should be, and what stands in the way of the production of this life. This entails an interrogation of desire and what desires and values are worth having and what are forms of ignorance on our part. It entails an interrogation of society and how society is structured in such a way so as to diminish the possibility of this form of actuality for people. And so on. This is why I see Marx as being an essentially eudaimonistic philosopher. He has little patience for normatively driven, deontological philosophies, seeing them as abstract, but instead investigates how society is organized in such a way as to pervert human beings and generate massive suffering within us.

Likewise, Freud and Lacan would be squarely situated within the eudaimonistic tradition. What Freud and Lacan investigate is the manner in which we suffer from our own desire. Look at what takes place in the clinic. The patient gradually discovers how their social relations in the present are disguised repetitions of infantile relations and traumas. Through the work of free interpretation and the analytic act, the patient perhaps discovers that his ire with his boss isn’t really about his boss at all, but repeats an old family dynamic. Through free association and the analytic act the patient perhaps discovers that her straw crossed loves are repeating a dynamic that characterized her parent’s relationship and her place within that relationship. As a consequence of this, it becomes possible to separate from these dynamics and repeat these dynamics differently. The famous Anna O, for example, apparently replaced her debilitating symptoms with writing children’s stories and developing organizations in pursuit of women’s rights. In other words, she found a way of living her repetition that diminished the misery caused by her symptoms, finding a way to live these symptoms, this repetition, otherwise. Rather than being a patient of her symptoms, she became an agent of her symptoms.

Yet what we find here in the Freudo-Lacanian, is exactly what thinkers in the Epicurean, Stoic, and Spinozist tradition all called for. Each of these traditions emphasized that often we believe we desire things that we don’t really desire (and that cause us suffering), that our wires get crossed and we confuse entities that merely resemble some object of our desire with the object of our desire itself, that society instills us with all sorts of false beliefs about what is worth desiring and truly of value, that society also breaks us and turns us into sick beings, and that if we are to attain some form of flourishing it’s necessary to engage in a deep therapy of desire. Indeed, not only must we engage in a therapy of desire, but we must engage in an activism that extends beyond the realm of the individual to the transformation of society itself.

Dana does not quote Freud’s entire statement on misery. Freud does not simply say that the aim of analysis is to make us capable of ordinary human misery. No, Freud says that the aim of analysis is to transform unbearable misery into ordinary human misery. On the one hand, Freud recognizes that a great deal of our misery is unnecessary and self-inflicted. On the other hand, Freud recognizes that there is no such thing as a perfect or pain free life. Part of the aim of analysis is to diminish this unnecessary suffering. Another aim of analysis is to find a way to live with this suffering that is intrinsic to the nature of life. These are eudaimonistic questions. Indeed, the are at the heart of eudaimonism. When Lacan says that the aim of analysis is not happiness, we should not take this to mean that Lacan is claiming that analysis doesn’t aim for something qualitative better– and thus closer to eudaimonia –than what is available without analytic technologies. Lacan is essentially saying that a life without truth cannot be characterized as eudaimonistic. Just as the Stoics wondered how we can live a flourishing life in a world where we have no control or mastery of our bodies, our reputation, society, or the natural world around us, the psychoanalysts, those modern day Stoics and Epicureans, wonder what we can hope for in a life where desire is structured in such a way that it has no object that could ever satisfy it and where the more we pursue the pleasure principle the more we’re pervaded by guilt and symptoms as a result of betraying our desire. This is a major difference between eudaimonistic models of ethics and normative models of ethics. In the former we need knowledge of ourselves, the social world, and the natural world to answer our ethical questions. In the latter, we can appeal to a set of a priori rules, such that the knowledge pursued by the eudaimonists is largely irrelevant. One gets the creeping suspicion that normatively driven models of morality are largely irrelevant (has the wretch ever been persuaded by arguments based on the categorical imperative?).

In my view, normative driven models of ethics (and I resolutely refuse to use the term “normative” to characterize ethical thought in general) push us further away from these eudaimonistic goals through their focus on rules of judgment. No, if there is ethics then it aims at improving life, freeing us from fear, and enlarging freedom. We seldom see discussion of any of these things among the normativists. They might respond by saying “but we want these things too!” Well if they wanted these things they would notice that reaching these goals requires the development of a practice that is based on a genuine knowledge of human psychology and society, what errors and nightmares it is susceptible to, and how these things can be overcome. But that’s exactly what we don’t see among the school principles and policemen of ethics. We see no concrete practice, we see no clear statement that these are the goals, and we see a style of thought and argumentation that is completely inadequate to these goals. As a consequence, it is impossible to escape the impression that these styles of thought are handmaidens of oppression and suffering, or of the state that produces these things.

I’ll close with a brief remark on Zizek. I get why Zizek theorizes desire as he does. He wants to create a space for a form of revolutionary desire that is willing to resolutely face the sacrifice and suffering that revolutionary action often entails (this came out very clearly in 300). Zizek’s worry seems to be that in conditions where times are not ripe for revolution, people will be unable to resist the pleasant lures of consumerist culture. He thus looks for some sort of motive that would be strong enough to resist the pleasure principle. The whole problem, as I see it, is that Zizek doesn’t really give us any sense of why an alternative to capitalism is desirable. Rather, he just argues that it is what death drive demands. In this respect, his ethical philosophy resembles Kant’s moral philosophy, where the categorical imperative has nothing to do with improving the life of the moral person or society, but follows from pure duty alone. However, does such a conception of ethics make any real sense? Shouldn’t part of our revolutionary desire arise from the solid conviction that a post-capitalist world would be superior to the world we live in now, both for each of us as individuals and collectively? Isn’t one of the most compelling aspects of Marx’s critique of capital the insight that another way is possible and that this way would be more satisfying than the world we live in now? Zizek, it seems to me, throws the baby out with the bathwater in hitching is post to Kantian duty, underestimating the ability of an alternative life that would be more satisfying has in motivating people to act.