Politics & the Work of Mourning

Here’s something I’m working on….

There are many languages of reason, but perhaps the most powerful and insidious one is the unconscious logic that emerges during political, ethnic, and religious conflict. What may at first seem madness, is, if looked at with the right lens, a very cool calculus of justice aimed at righting past wrongs — no matter how out of scale the “solution.” The unconscious is not mad. It keeps careful tally. It never forgets insults, injuries, traumas, or wrongs. It waits for its moment to set matters straight. And the unconscious of a people traumatized and bereft will bide its time for centuries, if need be, waiting for an opportunity to set matters right. Consider what lay behind the shot that set off World War I: six hundred years of grievance and political melancholia. Psychoanalytic hermeneutics can help make sense of the effects of political traumas. Might it also help people work through them? With his all-too-vague notion of “working through,” which shows up in dream work and the work of mourning, Freud thought he found an antidote to traumatic remembering and repetition, a process that could calm and bind the psychical excitations that trouble the organism. Considering a political body of restless people haunted by past traumas and injustice, what kind of Arbeit can help political communities deal with buried traumas and insults before they explode in vengeance? Without some kind of work, politics becomes an enactment of fantasied, unrealistic expectations; demonic projections; and persecutory anxieties. In this paper I draw on and move beyond Freud’s model toward a post-Kleinian one that can be tethered to the political process of public deliberation. In my account, political deliberation is not just a process of reason giving and consideration, which many political philosophers think it is, but an affective process that helps people work through fantasies of denial, splitting. and revenge and toward a position that can tolerate loss, ambiguity, and uncertainty, that is, the human condition.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

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