“Peterson and Žižek, perhaps the best-known public intellectuals of the Right and Left respectively—are exponents of psychoanalysis: Peterson of its Jungian variety, and Žižek of its Lacanian one.”
“The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one. Some of those who have asked it have added that if it should turn out that life has no purpose, it would lose all value for them. But this threat alters nothing. It looks, on the contrary, as though one had a right to dismiss the question, for it seems to derive from the human presumptuousness, many other manifestations of which are already familiar to us. Nobody talks about the purpose of the life of animals, unless, perhaps, it may be supposed to lie in being of service to man. But this view is not tenable either, for there are many animals of which man can make nothing, except to describe, classify and study them; and innumerable species of animals have escaped even this use, since they existed and became extinct before man set eyes on them. Once again, only religion can answer the question of the purpose of life. One can hardly be wrong in concluding that the idea of life having a meaning stands and falls with the religious system, will therefore turn to the less ambitious question of what themselves show by their behavior to be the purpose and intention of their lives. What do they demand of life and wish to achieve in it? The answer to this can hardly be in doubt. They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so. This endeavor has two sides, a positive and a negative aim.” – Sigmund Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents
n the late 19th century, the Viennese thinker Sigmund Freud revolutionized the world when he claimed that the conscious mind was just one small part of who we were. Buried beneath the to and fro of our waking thoughts was the vast, undiscovered country of the unconscious mind. It was from here that our desires emerged—often presented to us in coded or distorted form and subject to repression and censorship when we were unable to deal with what we truly wanted. For Freud, much of this was framed in sexual terms, which scandalized his haughty middle-class clientele. The Oedipus Complex, penis-envy, and an emphasis on childhood sexuality are all contributions—or, if you prefer, falsifications—made by psychoanalysis to our understanding of the human mind. But beyond these well-known and oft-mocked mocked descriptions, Freud put forward compelling ideas about the relationship between human beings and civilization.
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud analyzed the tense relationship that always exists between the individual and society. On the one hand, society is necessary to privilege collective desires over individual ones—just look at the depression which has arisen from Coronavirus isolation—and to provide security. On this reading, Freud seems to be offering a conservative defense of society, focusing on order, stability, and the economic boon of cooperation. On the other hand, there was a darker side to this. Freud pointed out that society imposes serious social pressures on the individual that compels the super-ego, that part of the unconscious responsible for demanding repression. (Society nudges us to repress those desires that it deems we ought not have.) This means society is—in many respects—the ultimate source of unhappiness for human beings. This is a thesis that would seem to lead to the radical conclusion that society needs to be either overthrown or reformed. While Freud himself tried to chart a middle course between these extremes, his many followers in the years that followed were more inclined to gravitate to one extreme or the other, making it sensible to talk about a left and right wing psychoanalysis.
Now some readers may say this is all besides the point. After all, isn’t psychoanalysis a dying discipline? Ever since the critiques of analytic philosophers like Karl Popper, who famously castigated Freud’s theories as unfalsifiable and unscientific, many have taken to dismissing psychoanalytic theory as idle speculation—or even a dangerous waste of time. And certainly there are plenty of critical things to be said about psychoanalysis (Indeed, while continental philosophers abstained from deriding psychoanalysis for longer than their analytic counterparts, even they would eventually jump on the anti-Freud bandwagon—a shift heralded by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatari’s 1972 classic Anti-Oedipus). Still, there are signs that—like the Oedipus complex—psychoanalysis still lingers in our unconscious. In a 2016 article in The Guardian “Therapy wars: the revenge of Freud,” Oliver Burkeman describes how studies performed from the 1990’s onward (that cast doubt on the efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)) have helped breathe new life into clinical psychoanalysis. Moreover, psychoanalysis, while besieged by many academics and practitioners, has remained popular, something attested to by scores of television shows and movies—from The Sopranos to A Dangerous Method. There is also the ubiquity of psychoanalytic-influenced cultural phenomena like the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator test (the “no ENJFs!” Tinder bios).
Yet psychoanalysis’s greatest latter-day triumph is inarguably in the intellectual world, where its influence has all but resisted the encroachments of the clinic. Last year, for instance, psychoanalysis played an important role in “the Debate of the Century,” a rhetorical contest held between Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson ostensibly intended to address the question of whether capitalism or Marxism offered the better pathway to happiness. The debate was viewed by over 9,000 people—3,000 tickets were sold, while 6,000 people paid to stream it online (and this does not factor in the number of people who watched it on pirated streams). Both interlocutors in the debate—Peterson and Žižek, perhaps the best-known public intellectuals of the right and left respectively—are exponents of psychoanalysis: Peterson of its Jungian variety, and Žižek of its Lacanian one. This is also significant since it is a clear example of the right-wing psychoanalytic school confronting its left-wing antagonist on some very fundamental issues. Examining this can help us to understand certain broader tensions in contemporary society.
On Left and Right-Wing Psychoanalysis
“I discovered that beliefs make the world, in a very real way-that beliefs are the world, in a more than metaphysical sense. This discovery has not turned me into a moral relativist however. I have become convinced that the world-that is-belief is orderly; that there are universal moral absolutes (although these are structured such that a diverse range of human opinions remains both possible and beneficial. I believe that individuals and societies who flout these absolutes-in ignorance or in willful opposition-are doomed to misery and eventual dissolution. I learned that the meanings of the most profound substrata of belief systems can be rendered explicitly comprehensible, even to the skeptical rational thinker-and that, so rendered, can be experienced as fascinating, profound and necessary. I learned why people wage war-why the desire to maintain, protect and expand the domain of belief motivates even the most incomprehensible acts of group-fostered oppression and cruelty-and what might be done to ameliorate this tendency, despite is universality. I learned, finally, that the terrible aspect of life might actually be a necessary precondition for the existence of life, and that it is possible to regard that precondition, in consequence, as comprehensible and acceptable.” – Jordan Peterson in Maps of Meaning, Preface: Descensus and Inferos
To understand why psychoanalysis continues to enjoy this broad intellectual relevance—embodied by the philosophical personae of Peterson and Žižek—it will help to narrow in on the particular interpretations of Freud they apply. As mentioned before, Peterson is more influenced Carl Jung while Žižek is more influenced by Jacques Lacan, a supremely controversial theorist and psychoanalytic practitioner famously described as the “shrink from hell.” Jung and Lacan primarily differ in their response to Freud’s theory of the unconscious, so to understand the split between Peterson and Žižek, we need to turn there first.
It is often said that Freud’s most significant concept is that of the unconscious: a dynamic force that pervades human behavior and society and is the sum total of our suppressed, repressed, and forgotten desires. The unconscious famously first appeared in his 1899 text The Interpretation of Dreams, in which Freud argues that the manifest content of dreams conceals their latent content in two ways. The first is condensation, in which the manifest contents of dreams serves as an abbreviated version of their latent elements (an apt analogy here is the way that the theme of a literary text has to be discerned from its multifarious elements). The second is displacement, a process in which the emphasis is shifted from a latent element to a stand-in (the clichéd caricature of this being the way that any vertical upright object can be deigned a phallic signifier). Notable, too, is that dreams are not the only way through which the unconscious tension between life and death drives expresses itself; it can also be expressed through symptoms, slips in everyday life, and jokes.
Indeed, whereas for Freud religion is a “collective neurosis” that has long outworn its usefulness, for Jung it is a natural expression of the unconsciousness—one without which individuals risk succumbing to destructive tendencies, as with “the horrors of the [first] World War.”
Both Jung and Lacan, as adherents to the psychoanalytic tradition initiated by Freud, espouse belief in the potency of the unconscious. But they interpret it in markedly different ways. In attempting to expand upon his theories, Jung posited a cultural, “collective unconsciousness” that undergirds the personal unconsciousness of Freud. This collective unconscious is comprised of archetypes—universal, archaic patterns—that structure experience. While the number of archetypes is theoretically infinite, a few clearly enjoy a position of elevated significance within Jung’s oeuvre. The shadow, for example, refers to the elements of one’s persona that one must repress in order to actuate it—and is often by represented by snakes, monsters, demons, or other dark or exotic figures. The anima or animus refers to the feminine aspect that resides within men and the masculine that resides within women. And the “self” for Jung is the state of spiritual oneness in which the consciousness and unconsciousness can finally be brought into unison. This is something he associates—like the “paltry” aged man of Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”—with the pacific state one acquires prior to death. This exaltation of transcendence is connected to a larger rapprochement between religion and psychoanalysis that Jung pursued throughout his work. Indeed, whereas for Freud religion is a “collective neurosis” that has long outworn its usefulness, for Jung it is a natural expression of the unconsciousness—one without which individuals risk succumbing to destructive tendencies, as with “the horrors of the [first] World War.”
This brings us to the first major point of deviation that can help to explain why Jung would appeal to someone with more conservative inclinations, like Jordan Peterson. It’s clear that Jung’s assigning of greater importance to the collective than the individual—and his psychological essentialization of deeply ingrained Western narratives—implies a deep conservatism. Just how conservative his ideas are is another matter. In 1938’s Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype, Jung writes that “archetypes are not determined as regards their content, but only as regards their form, and then only to a very limited degree.” This is a position that would seem to preclude the wielding of the concept of the cultural unconsciousness for racially or culturally prejudicial ends. Yet, in his work, Jung nevertheless frequently cites non-white people—and black Africans in particular—as living embodiments of the primitive state of mind. This is an association sustained by his theory of “recapitulation,” which dictates that in process of individuation, a member of a more advanced species must progress through the previous stages experienced by a less advanced one. Jung’s political track record is similarly troubling; in the 1930’s, he proclaimed the superiority of the “Aryan soul” over the “Jewish psyche” and was initially sympathetic to the Nazism.
Saying that, Jung was not one-dimensionally collectivist, and his work does address individuality in a manner amenable to Peterson’s valorization of it as essential to the building of Western civilization. For Jung, modernity was characterized by the loss of sources of meaning, which individuals had relied upon to understand themselves and frame their identity. The most obvious was the loss of religious meaning with the advent of secularism in the 18th and especially the 19th centuries. This meant that modern man was compelled to fill a God-shaped hole in himself: to search for a soul, in the terminology of one Jung’s best books. Without the sense of meaning provided by religion, tradition, and other forces, modern man was left open to the pernicious influence of ideology and superstition to fill the void left by the death of God. At the same time, he was proclaiming himself a paragon of rationality. As Jung put it in the introduction to Man and His Symbols:
“Modern man does not understand how much his ‘rationalism’ (which has destroyed his capacity to respond to numinous symbols and ideas) has put him at the mercy of the psychic ‘underworld.’ He has freed himself from superstition (or so he believes), but in the process he has lost his spiritual values to a positively dangerous degree. His moral and spiritual tradition has disintegrated, and he is now paying the price for this break up in worldwide disorientation and dissociation.”
Given that Jung has been charged with both proto-fascism and the promulgation of pseudoscience, it is unsurprising that the most visible champion of his work today—Jordan Peterson—has had similar allegations lodged against him. Whatever one thinks of these allegations—and they are plausible—it is important to acknowledge the ways in which Peterson’s work differs from orthodox Jungianism. In the foundational text of his oeuvre, Maps of Meaning, Peterson endeavors to secularize Jung by interpreting his theory of the collective unconsciousness in relation to developments in the field of neurobiology. Thus, for Peterson, “chaos” and “order” can be understood as meta-archetypes, which are isomorphic to the left and right sides of the brain respectively. They are, further, identifiable with the archetypes of the “Great Mother” (chaos) and “Great Father” (order)—with the mediating role of consciousness between the two sides of the brain (Logos) represented by the archetype by the “Divine Son.” (Dwelling beneath these, additionally, is the “precosmogonic chaos” of “pure (latent) information, before it is parsed into the world of the familiar,” represented by the archetype of “uroboros,” the “dragon of chaos.”) Apropos this attempt to bring Jung up to pace with modern cognitive science, Peterson also de-emphasizes the notion of archetypes as collective memories, instead stressing the way that they emerge in the individual due to what Jung describes as “complexes” (in Peterson’s parlance, “heritable propensities for behavior or for classification”).
If much of this seems baffling, it is not purely due to the brevity of its recapitulation here. Maps of Meaning has an intriguing premise: who, after all, would not want to discover how the archetype of the “dragon of chaos” secretly resides in the cognitive structure of the human mind? However, in practice, it never comes anywhere close to rigorously justifying its boldest claims. Scientific or not, Maps of Meaning nevertheless is instructive regarding how Peterson thinks. For it is on the basis of his postulation of archetypes that Peterson is able to present social justice warriors—or “postmodern neo-Marxists,” if you prefer as seeking to pervert a biological dispensation that is manifest in Western (and sometimes non-Western) mythology and history. In 12 Rules for Life, for instance, Peterson pivots from a discussion about why you should not disturb children who are skateboarding into a tyriad against mothers who coddle their children. These mothers, according to Peterson, are a manifestation of the archetype of the “devouring mother,” the guardian figure who opposes himself or herself to “the reality of differential productivity” by attempting to insulate their progeny from “frightening and violent conditions.” And while Medea may seem the obvious archetype to draw parallels with, Peterson has other exemplars in mind: namely, the obese sea witch from The Little Mermaid and former liberal Premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne, whom he accused of being a “devouring mother” on Twitter for her support of legislative protection of gender identity and expression.
Jung’s archetypes, then, play a crucial role for Peterson. For it is from them that he derives the normative baseline upon which his thought functions. It also plays a role in how he interprets data. Peterson frequently stuns verbal interlocutors into submission by citing a fusillade of social scientific studies—say, that woman in more gender-equal countries are less likely to go into STEM fields than those in less gender-equal ones. Yet putting aside the fact that the study Peterson uses to make this point has now been discredited, even if it were true, it scarcely proves the broader argument he deploys it to make: that women are simply different than men, and that we must simply accept these differences rather than trying to amend them. The trouble with social science, as has often been remarked, is it has no placebo. It allows you to observe behavior, but it has a hard time isolating causality due to the complexity of the phenomena it surveys. For Peterson, deeply steeped as he is in a thinly-secularized Jungian mysticism, such problems are not seriously interrogated. In fact, more often than not, they’re not even acknowledged.
Lacan, Žižek, and Left-Psychoanalysis
If Jung inflates the Freudian notion of the unconscious, transforming it into a monstrous cosmological edifice, Lacan goes in the opposite direction. For Lacan, the unconscious is neither a feature of human biology nor a super-personal, cultural hive mind. Rather, it emerges—for all meaningful purposes—through language. The child, when it is born, is confined to the domain of the “imaginary.” Children are not, in other words, able to conceptualize what lies outside of their personal frame. As such, the child’s initial attempts to cultivate a sense of self-identity cannot succeed, as these efforts only result in them reflecting their own image back to themselves, as in the speculum of a mirror. This impasse is resolved through the arrival of language (the “symbolic”). For it is in language that the child both discovers a means of actuating their own identity, as well as initiating themselves into a cultural and social (that is, oedipal) system by which they can name the other. However, this initiation comes at a steep cost. Having lost access to the preverbal self, the drives and fantasies of the child are now subsumed by an unconscious that cannot be fully grasped or conceptualized. The result is a permanent longing for the preverbal unity of the “real”: for a world that is not subordinated to the limitations of social and linguistic representation.
For a thinker so identified with communism, it is interesting to note that the work of Marx often seems to be an afterthought to Žižek compared with metaphysical concerns which are overarchingly Lacanian-Hegelian.
Lacan did not, during his lifetime, express great enthusiasm for the politics of the far-left. At the height of the May 1968 uprisings in France, he famously declared to his students that “Revolutionary aspirations have only one possibility: always to end up in the discourse of the master. Experience has proven this. What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a master. You will have one!” In fact, Lacan’s insistence on the need for a “master”—or a politics of oedipalizaton—only became more defiant as he got older. It was a slow-motion capitulation that reached its zenith during his final lectures in the late 1970’s, when he dispensed with his Koyré-influenced efforts to realize the truth of the unconscious via mathematic inscription; he declared the imaginary/symbolic divide to be inexorable. Still, Lacan’s own skepticism regarding radical politics has not stopped many openly left-wing thinkers from adapting his socially constructivist take on psychoanalysis to suit their own ends. Lacan’s controversial claim that “Woman does not exist” (la femme n’existe pas), for instance, inspired a generation of psychoanalytic feminists—including Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. They took Lacan’s statement as illustrative of how femininity itself is a symbolic-linguistic status through which one comes to exist as an object of male desire. And Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, in their 1972 aforementioned Anti-Oedipus, attempt to break with Lacan by radicalizing him from within: by showing how desire can outstrip the oedipal structures which it previously fostered.
Compared with the above thinkers, Žižek adopts a comparatively reverential stance towards Lacan’s work. But this reverence conceals a deep source of disagreement. For Žižek, Lacan’s yoking together of psychoanalysis with Sausserian linguistics results in him viewing the real as the “hard inaccessible core of reality around which symbolic/imaginary fictions float.” In Žižek’s view, by contrast, the real is, in fact, a product of the symbolic-imaginary divide. It is, in other words, a fictitious “point of reference around which we construct difference [sic] versions of reality.” It’s for this reason—his incapacity to fully grasp the immanence of the real—that Lacan ultimately succumbed to the fatalistic view that it could not be accessed and that we thus need “fictions and illusions” to survive. But do we really? Taking a detour though Hegel, Žižek contends that the political and theoretical task of our time is to show how every “abstract universal” that purports to grasp the real—the existence of universal human rights, for instance—is conditioned by a “constitutive exception” that reveals its inconsistency. Rather than dispense with universality, however, we must instead “hegemonize” it by 1) identifying its concrete structure, and 2) broadening and transforming it. It is only in this way that we will avoid lapsing into a wishy-washy postmodernism that disavows radical political commitments. Instead, we revive the Western universalist political tradition that sliced through its history like a scythe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
For a thinker so identified with communism, it is interesting to note that the work of Marx often seems to be an afterthought to Žižek compared with metaphysical concerns which are overarchingly Lacanian-Hegelian. Where his Marxian side shows, however, is in his theory of ideology in capitalist societies. Žižek argues that modern individuals like to think that they have become more rational and free of ideological suppositions, when really we are more than ever embedded in “ideological cynicism.” For Žižek, as for Lacan and Hegel, we always want to impose a sense of completion—in Petersonian terms, order—onto a world which often seems beset by chaos. The problem is that there really is no firm way of completing this task because the world tends to be inherently more chaotic than orderly according to Žižek existence is change, after all. The way to circumnavigate this problem is to appeal to ideology, which helps to provide the sense of ordered stability that is lacking in existence itself. Ideology tells us that the world is inherently orderly, and it describes the presence of disorder through locating it in a specific source that is solely to blame. To give an example, capitalism is an inherently disruptive mode of production characterized by intense ups and downs, boom and bust cycles. Since many conservatives find capitalism appealing while at the same time longing for order, this would seem to pose a fundamental problem for their worldview. Ideology provides the answer by locating the source of disruptions not in capital but on some antagonistic figure or “other” who does not belong. Perhaps the other is migrants, the left, feminists, or racial minorities. Figures at the top of the hierarchy associate themselves with “sublime” qualities of completion and knowledge claiming “they, and they alone” can fix social problems and impose complete order on the world, while pointing the finger at the antagonists who are responsible for chaos. This allows individuals driven by ideology to ignore the fact that chaos is an intrinsic part of the their social system. In particular, it allows them to insulate capitalism from serious criticism.
While some on the left may chafe at Žižek’s reckless appropriation of Marx, there is still a distinct upshot. Žižek’s theoretical project attempts to overcome the traditional division between Marx’s socioeconomic theorizing and the domain of psychology by positing a unified theory that encompasses both. That this brazen metaphysical endeavor would clash with the post-ideological liberal consensus of the 1990’s and 2000’s—one that has itself slowly melted away after the Great Recession—is a given. A similar restlessness can be observed in Peterson’s shotgun wedding of Jung and neurobiology. 25 years ago, it would’ve been hard to imagine either thinker being taken seriously (though Žižek is a more formally rigorous philosopher than Peterson). Today, they hobnob with high-profile politicians, get paid lofty sums for lectures, and command legions of followers online.
Maybe this, then, is the answer to why we need psychoanalysis. When liberal capitalism works like it’s supposed to—arguably never—it’s easier to see the shortcomings in psychoanalysis’ vaulting conceptual ambition and its blatant unfalsifiability. It can also be better seen why alternative methods that are either more scientific or that assign more privilege to individual wants (as with the Deleuzian appropriation) might be preferred. When it doesn’t though, watch out—Mommy and Daddy come back. But between a Jungianism of the Right and a Lacanism of the Left, on whose side will they rule?.
Conrad Bongard Hamilton is a PhD student based at Paris 8 University, currently pursuing research on non-human agency in the work of Karl Marx under the supervision of Catherine Malabou. He is a contributor to the text What is Post-Modern Conservatism, as well as the author of a forthcoming book, Dialectic of Escape: A Conceptual History of Video Games. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and a catalogue of his writings can be found on Academia.edu.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at email@example.com or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.