Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, by Noëlle McAfee

Devorah Baum is fascinated by a look at how politics needs to take much greater account of the experiences of early childhood

September 12, 2019
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Fear of Breakdown is remarkable for both demonstrating the critical importance of psychoanalysis for politics and, unusually for scholarship of this kind, suggesting “political practices” to save democracy. Real political engagement, its author claims, means stating not only what you think about the situation but what you’d be prepared to do and, indeed, give up in order to change it.

Bringing a wide range of psychoanalytic and political thinkers into dialogue with each other, McAfee shows how even theorists not necessarily known to be sympathetic to psychoanalysis, such as Hannah Arendt, can nonetheless be read productively in this context. She also criticises other political theorists who turn to psychoanalysis for what are, in her view, misappropriations. Thus Judith Butler’s adaptation of Freud’s writing on melancholia is viewed here as a misprision counterproductive to political agency, while Jürgen Habermas’ rational communication is deemed unfit for political purpose for failing to acknowledge the unconscious’ truly disruptive nature, the reality of ambivalence and the need, even after deliberation and decision-making, for “working through”.

To save democracy, McAfee contends, we must recognise the common nodes of democracy and psychoanalysis (desire, otherness, discourse) and grasp at democracy’s radical idea: “human beings can create self-governing practices out of nothing but their own aspirations”. If we are democrats, then we are not “subjects” but “citizens” – that is, people, regardless of our status, with the agency to call a meeting. Such meetings will be fraught, they’ll fail to include everyone they should and they’ll lack a priori truths upon which those gathered can agree. This uncertainty can make participants insecure, but it’s the uncertainty that makes democracy possible. To remain open to all, democracy demands awareness of the role the imagination plays and has always played in creating constitutions, institutions and representations. It also demands that citizens understand world-changing power as something they already have, even if they’re oblivious to it. Indeed, claiming to be oblivious to one’s own power could well be a defence against democracy.

Fear of Breakdown (the phrase comes from Donald Winnicott) alludes to the primitive agonies and defences that arise, unbidden, when we fear in the future what has already occurred, but was never quite experienced, in the past: the moment of originary separation from the mother or “holding environment” when the infant first distinguishes “me” from “not me”. Although a necessary phase of socialisation, this moment of felt “maternal abandonment” may subsequently be defended against in ways paralleling certain malign social and political tendencies – patriarchal misogyny in particular. As such, if we’re to avoid drifting into our more treacherous “fears of breakdown, along with trauma, loss, and persecutory phantasies”, this is the moment we need to repeatedly work through, not just personally but collectively. Such work is daunting, but we can start small by practising what McAfee helpfully coins “everyday mourning”. Everyday mourning recognises reality: that we can’t have it all, that there are always paths not taken and that something, invariably, gets lost and needs grieving even when the fairest decisions have been made. It’s a painful process, but worth it, says McAfee, because by dealing in realities, rather than “idealities”, we can hope to save our democracy, and our future. 

Devorah Baum is associate professor in English literature at the University of Southampton.


Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis
By Noëlle McAfee
Columbia University Press
312pp, £70.00 and £24.00
ISBN 9780231192682 and 2699
Published 4 June 2019

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