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.

March 11

All day yesterday I kept looking at the date, March 11, March 11, March 11, and thinking: why does this date mean something to me? Is it a friend’s birthday?   3/11.   March 11.   A blank.

Today it just hit me, March 11, 2004, the day of the Madrid train bombings, the day I heard the resounding echo of the repetition compulsion of trauma, the calamity and destruction that seem to know no end; the day I heard a Spanish minister promising to hunt Spain’s enemies down, annihilate them, never talk with them. And I wondered, will this never end?

That day I started writing a book — Democracy and the Political Unconscious — that’s about to be published by Columbia University Press, a book that tries to fathom the roots of terror and trauma and possible avenues for working through it all and getting past the repetition compulsion also known as the endless war on terror.

I began writing this book on the day of the Madrid bombings, when it seemed that the clash of civilizations between East and West was suffering a repetition compulsion, with each side promising to annihilate the other and both sides vowing to kill rather than ever talk. Why not talk? I wondered. Why this thought that talking with perpetrators was a kind of caving in, a submission, a negotiation (as in, “we do not negotiate with terrorists”)? Why the terrible apprehension about engaging the other? What was going on, to put it boldly, in the world’s political unconscious? How might we get out of this seemingly endless cycle of traumas and repetitions, this endless war on terror? Putting these questions in this way, as addressed to national and even global psyches, calls for an answer that is bold, even preposterous. It calls for mapping out and conceptualizing the subterranean repressions, longings, and misconceptions of a political unconscious. At the same time it call for teasing out the potential within the political unconscious for democratic transformations.

Four years later, the book is now a few days away from publication. And four years later it’s clear that war has indeed only furthered these repetitions. It’s time to start talking with each other; it’s time to aim for democratic change and engagement, not more death and destruction.