Psychoanalysis and the Transformation of Misery - Carol Owens
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Psychoanalysis and the transformation of misery
In other words, rather than being neurotically miserable we should be just ordinarily unhappy.
Often presented as a by-product, a secondary benefit of the treatment, this ‘something other than misery’ is not something that we readily lay claim to having caused. No more than psychoanalysts can promise happiness, nor do we quickly take responsibility for having caused it!
From the Latin miseria for wretchedness derived from miser it came into usage as denoting the condition of one in great sorrow or mental distress. In 1825 it indexes a reference to bodily pain leading to the more general usage of the noun to describe a state of suffering that is the result of poverty or affliction. And in 1930 we have Freud declare that what we call our civilisation is responsible for our misery.
Given the historical and enduring status of misery, and as the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan argues – that the tragic element constitutes the forefront of our experiences as psychoanalytic practitioners, why should we not be concerned with the only variables involved? Miserable people.
Happiness is an entitlement. No one should have to experience unhappiness. In this climate of equal access and rights to happiness it’s hardly surprising that misery is going out of fashion on the one hand and has to be justly earned on the other. Ordinary unhappiness has in fact become relegated to the realm of misery. I believe that this is a consequence of our time. We seem to be living in a time of the ‘extraordinary’ where people measure their well-being against grand-scale disasters of experience. We could say that the weight of the ‘extraordinary’ bears heavily on the human subject. There is a kind of ongoing theatre of the extraordinary, staged concurrently via multi-media spectacles of annihilating scenarios. Since 9/11, the idea of ordinary unhappiness as the standard response to the discontents of civilisation has largely been reframed. Now queuing up like cattle for inoculation as we are herded through security at airports, we submit ourselves to the ordeal of removing belts and shoes and outer garments, wallets, phones and bags, to walk in only the way that humans can walk in public places without their shoes and personal things.... it’s the soft shuffle of the vulnerable. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. At first we pretend that it is normal and in fact it becomes normal. In the wake of 9/11, the huge scale of human tragedy has marshalled a new response from professionals of the psyche. Troops of counsellors, armies of psychotherapists and psychologists were summoned to listen to the stories of survivors. We have witnessed here in Ireland in the aftermath of the commission on child abuse report, the extraordinary large scale response by helping agencies available to listen 24/7 to victims of abuse. We live in a time when companies employ ‘suicide task-forces’ to keep an eye on employees at risk of taking their lives as a response to the discontents of the workplace. In our extraordinary daily observations, large aircrafts can disappear from the sky, noxious viral infections threaten to wipe out thousands of human lives and all of this against the backdrop of an ever threatened eco-system. Ultimately, indeed, our very planet is miserably at risk. Such atrocities, such tragedies mark out a territory of suffering which leave our patients who suffer from misery in a no man’s land: neither suffering in the extreme when they compare themselves to the survivors of terrorism, abuse, torture or disease, nor yet able to mobilise a transformation which would allow them to vacate the waiting room of the miserable.
analysis or therapy in an attempt to transform that misery into something else and that they are not just indulging themselves since after all, compared to all those other atrocities that people suffer from and all things being equal couldn’t they just put up and shut up?
So how does psychoanalysis think about misery? What can it do with miserable people?
Another thing it can do is offer to fill an essential psychic function for the miserable patient, a function not carried out anywhere or elsewhere naturally for the patient. In other words: psychoanalysis can attempt to theorise the social and treat the particular.
Some of these particulars would include the analyses of the misery of absence on the one hand, and the misery of presence on the other. In the case of the former, loss is inscribed in the psyche in such a way as to cause immiseration, a kind of subjective destitution, and in the latter, far from suffering loss or experiencing lack, what is experienced is in fact the lack of lack as the presence of the other is all too present and causes the misery of anxiety.
on looking at the misery associated with living in so-called civilized societies. Freud’s notion was that one of the reasons why civilisation essentially disappoints us is that in the light of what he calls the progress of the voyages of discovery, more so-called advanced societies came around to thinking that in actual fact these primitive societies, peoples and races seemed to be leading a ‘simple, happy life with few wants’, a life, Freud says, such as was unattainable by their visitors with their superior civilisation. Thus in spite of ever increasing developments in technology, the conquering of nature by science, and so on, humankind becomes the more miserable the more civilised the society they live in becomes. Or rather, and this is the point that Freud makes so well, the fantasy is that someone, somewhere, some tribe, some other is enjoying life more than I or we. In other words, there is someone, somewhere who is enjoying: It just ain’t me. In so far as there is this idea, this notion that there is an enjoying other, the fantasy becomes all the more powerful and takes on the strength of myth. So we can say that at least one source of misery emerges as a consequence of subscription to this myth as an organising principle. This is how it works: ‘when is it going to be my turn’, ‘when do I get to be happy like all those who get to have sex more than once a year/month/week/day, or why can’t I have or be, the perfect lover/wife/husband/car/dog/kid, or never be sick/poor/tired, or just if i could just get a break/have a break/break his or her neck’ and so on. The pared down minimalist version is: I just want to be contented. I’m not asking for the moon.
I have heard numerous complaints over the years in my consulting room about the bad neighbour, the one who would literally destroy you if they could get away with it. It is in just this way that when Freud and later Lacan and even later the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek illustrate the impossibility of loving thy neighbour as thyself, what they show up is in fact that the neighbour is really and can only ever be your rival, the one who is getting off while you are miserable. The neighbour is always a potentially enjoying other. Here’s Freud:
He seems not to have the least trace of love for me and shows me not the slightest consideration. If it will do him any good he has no hesitation in injuring me, nor does he ask himself whether the amount of advantage he gains bears any proportion to the extent of the harm he does to me. Indeed, he need not obtain an advantage; if he can satisfy any sort of desire by it, he thinks nothing of jeering at me, insulting me, slandering me and showing his superior power; and the more secure he feels and the more helpless I am, the more certainly I can expect him to behave like this to me. (p.110)
Zizek fully brings out the attendant obsessive fear of harassment that accompanies liberal tolerance. In other words, and as he puts it: ‘the Other is just fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive...’ (p.35, violence). In the place of the injunction: ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, Zizek advocates a ‘fear thy neighbour as thyself! A neighbour is ‘primarily a thing, a traumatic intruder, someone whose different way of life (or, rather, way of ‘enjoyment’ materialised in its social practices and rituals) disturbs us, throws the balance of our way of life off the rails, when it comes too close..’ This also gives rise to an aggressive reaction, as noted by Freud and by Lacan, that aims at getting rid of this disturbing intruder. So, number one, we don’t enjoy as much as the other, and number two, the other’s enjoyment causes us misery. Number three, we are driven to get rid of the disturbing intruder. This observation is especially relevant today in our society which every time is more multi-cultural and multi-racial.
However, as we also see, the cause as such in part is constituted as ‘cause’ in so far as we ourselves fantasise and attribute an enjoyment to the other at our own expense. And even more peculiarly, there is something within us that may even enjoy trying to get rid of this neighbour who enjoys too much whilst we are left longing to be where they are, desiring to have what they have and all the time left unsatisfied with what we do have, with who we are. Psychoanalysis understands a great deal about this kind of desire to have and to be – other than what one has or is, but psychoanalysis doesn’t apply itself to the consolidation or crystallisation of the cause of misery in this way. In other words, the practitioner doesn’t say: yes that’s right, if it weren’t for those dreadful neighbours, or that mean boss or that nagging partner or that whinging child, life would just be so much better, you’d be happy! The psychoanalytic practitioner tries rather to allow for the exploration of the fantasy that things would be better if only....
Given that so much of our human misery is caught up with the experience of living and being in civilized communities, it is hardly surprising that another great source of our misery is to be found in the workplace.
In Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud poses the question: What does mankind demand of life and wish to achieve in it? He considers that the answer to this question can hardly be in doubt: happiness! Humans strive after happiness, wanting to become happy and to remain so (Freud, 1991: 76). The endeavour to be happy involves the reduction of the experience of pain and unpleasure, and at the same time, the experience of ‘strong feelings of pleasure’. Freud introduces the notion of ‘sublimation’ as part of a solution for dealing with suffering. Sublimation effects a shifting of instinctual aims such that they cannot in the same way come up against frustration from the external world or the world of others, and it is as a by-product of his general discussion on the possibilities afforded by sublimation that Freud will comment for the first time on the function of ‘work’ as a sublimatory solution to the frustration of the instincts. Whereas the artist is capable of experiencing the joy of creating and the scientist the joy of discovery – these two terrains amounting to the obtainment of the higher and finer satisfactions for Freud – the rest of us (non-artists and non-scientists) have to fall back on what Freud calls ‘ordinary professional work’! Here, Freud makes some crucial remarks on the function of work as sublimation. He notes that ‘no other technique for the conduct of life attaches the individual so firmly to reality as laying emphasis on work; for his work at least gives him a secure place in a portion of reality, in the human community’ (Freud, 1991: 80 n.1). He goes on to argue that ‘work’ offers the possibility of the displacement of a large amount of libidinal components, (whether narcissistic, aggressive or even erotic) onto professional activity and onto the human relations connected with it. Even so, he notes that work is not highly prized by people who only really work because they ‘need’ to, not because it offers them a path to happiness.
However it is important now to remind ourselves that where perhaps the workplace once functioned as the place of work, it has now become the location where selves can and indeed must be actualized. It is not enough any longer that we show up to do a day’s work, but that we must be ‘happy in our work’. The imperative to be ‘happy in your work’, is an aspect of what we can understand as one of the hegemonic practices of organizational control under capitalism and is manifest in the idea that work is a route to self-fulfillment and happiness. As such, we can see an interesting movement away from the idea of work as labour – the notion of labour as something dragged from the subject, often under conditions of torture – to the notion of work as a route to the avoidance of misery due to self-unfulfillment. The ‘happy’ hype promoted in the localized language of the organization is often supported by a dedicated team of what the French psychoanalyst Miller has called ‘techno-shrinks’, i.e., counselors, and behavioural and cognitive behavioural psychologists, who interrogate the worker/subject for signs of what has become a pathology of unhappiness. It is not too extreme to see that the so-called appraisal system routinely deployed in many workplaces and almost universally in large-scale organizations, is a method for divining those worker/subjects who are less than happy in their work and thus suitable for in-house psycho-services.
changes over time. Broadly speaking – and for our purposes here this morning – we can think of the big Other as designating language, institutions, culture and everything that collectively makes up the social space in which we live at a specific time.
So we get to experience the thing and maybe a little bit of its enjoyment value without any of its toxic or threatening aspects.
Here are some of the outcomes of twenty-first century neo-liberalist strategies of capitalism: where once there was the boss, now there are team-leaders; where once there was the manager, now there are human relations operatives. Where once there was the employee, now there are agents. Where once there was a desk with your name on it, now there are ‘hotdesks’ belonging to everyone and no-one. Where once there were discernible cuts in the time you sold to the workplace in the form of coffee breaks and holidays, now there is flexi-time and ‘leave’ of various kinds, such that the human subject’s very relationship with time itself is complicated, restructured, and de-signified.
It seems to me that at least one of the things that psychoanalysis can do is to go some way toward examining this essential Freudian notion rather than fostering the illusion that human misery itself is pathological.