The Psyche and the Carrion

This is a draft version of my short talk given at John Hope Franklin, Duke university:

The Psyche and the Carrion

This presentation is centered on one of the earliest concepts forged in the tradition of psychoanalysis that lead Freud to develop his theory of death drive. This is Sándor Ferenczi’s concept of the alien will, a manifestation of an intrusion so powerful that it pulverizes the psyche and from psychic ashes, it animates a walking corpse, eternally holding a grudge against its former psychic life, while living in the shadows of rot and degradation.

Death drive as described by Freud is merely a generalized tendency, a series of circuitous paths—or in Freud’s word, Umwegen—by which the inorganic baits the organic. It is general because it is shared among all that lives. For the psyche, however, death drive takes on a different connotation, it becomes the very infrastructure of the unconscious. A tendency that fights back against the conscious will to live in an almost Schopenhauerian titanic battle where the will to live is exposed for what it has always been: an inflection—rather than a reflection—upon death. Schopenhauer’s allegory of this tendency is the bulldog-ant. In The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer remarks,

“But the bulldog-ant of Australia affords us the most extraordinary example of this kind; for if it is cut in two, a battle begins between the head and the tail. The head seizes the tail in its teeth, and the tail defends itself bravely by stinging the head: the battle may last for half an hour, until they die or are dragged away by other ants. This contest takes place every time the experiment is tried.”

Unlike the death drive, the alien will is not a general force or tendency. It is in fact not even inexorable. The alien will is the register of a quotidian yet at the same time malevolent power which is bent on destruction precisely because it is the expression of a power that has gone unchecked, unmoderated and unnoticed as if it was something inevitable, something that is just a part of the order of things. As such the alien will is a possessive power. Yet unlike the demonic possession, where the demon flaunts its power by inflicting explicit pain and punishment on the agonized possessed person, the alien will is sinisterly subtle. It silently encroaches upon the will—whether as the rational will which is necessary for individuation or as the capacity for choice and the exercise of freedom. Its ultimate mission is to deprive the person of its will for the sake of mundane advantages. First by pretending that it is in fact part of the person’s will, part of its desires and goals. Once, the encroachment phase is successfully accomplished, it then initiates a thoroughgoing destruction of the person’s psyche step by step.

Every brick that is removed is replaced by a brick fabricated by the alien will. Once the reconstruction of the psyche according to the alien will is finished, once the ashes of the old psyche are given to the wind, the alien will begins to haunt the person, but not in an explicit form of pain infliction. The afflicted person wakes up like any allegedly normal day and carries on a life that is supposedly his. He does not question why he thinks X and not Y, has these choices and not others, live this way rather than another. It is all just part of reality and thus considered as the given, inevitable and unquestionable. The afflicted person does not know that everything he thinks and does is the exercise of an alien will, that he is in the state of rot and once he is consumed, once he is merely an emptied husk, he will be left to die in agony in a cold and harsh reality which is the revelation of having been possessed all along, having been expendable like a disposable razor throughout the entire life. There are nevertheless some signs that once in a while show up like cracks in the fabric of a given reality as if the alien will has not managed to completely erase the traces of the old psyche. There are still voices from the original will making muffled screams beneath some shallow grave, all, however, in vain.

If we were to adopt another insect allegory for the concept of the alien will, it would be far more disquieting and far less conspicuous than the allegory of the bulldog ant. What I have in mind is the parasitoid blue butterfly p. rebeli, notorious for its intricate social parasitism on a species of ants called myrmica ants. The blue butterfly lays eggs close to the ant colony. Its broods discharge the same chemical signals by which ants distinguish their own. By mimicking the ants’ pheromone, the butterfly broods trick the ants into carrying them into their nest. once they are in the nest and as they mature, by mimicking the acoustic signals the queen ant uses to mobilize worker ants to bring food to it, the butterfly larvae climb the social hierarchy of the ant colony. Associating the mimicked acoustic signal with their queen, the worker ants begin to bring food to the parasitoid larvae, in the process starving their queen—the only ant that can detect the larvae as aggressors—to death. However, for the myrmica ants the nightmare does not end here, for the oversaturation of pheromones as the result of the activity of both the ants and p. rebeli’s parasitism lures yet another parasitoid to the ant colony—the ichneumon wasp cited by Darwin as evidence that shakes the very idea of a ‘beneficent and omnipotent God’. To live by an alien will is to live to be exploited at everyone’s whim.

In his clinical diaries, Ferenczi on multiple occasions discusses the stages by which the alien will murders the psyche. In perturbing details, Frenczi describes what happens to the structure of the ego once the alien will takes hold, first in the case of a patient who goes by the initials R.N. and then by a general description likening the incineration of the psyche to something more like a rotting black phoenix rising from the ashes of the old psyche. It is worth citing these passages in full:

“This lavalike eruption came to an end in total “incineration,” a kind of lifelessness. But the life of the body, compelled as it was to breathe and pulsate, called back Orpha [what Ferenczi identifies as the organizing life instinct], who in despair had herself become inclined toward death. She managed, however, as if by a miracle, to get this being back on its feet, shattered as it was to its very atoms, and thus procured a sort of artificial psyche for this body forcibly brought back to life. From now on the “individuum,” superficially regarded, consists of the following parts: (a) uppermost level, a capable, active human being with a precisely-perhaps a little too precisely-regulated mechanism; (b) behind this, a being that does not wish to have anything more to do with life; (c) behind this murdered ego, the ashes of earlier mental sufferings, which are rekindled every night by the fire of suffering; (d) this suffering itself as a separate mass of affect, without content and unconscious, the remains of the actual person.”

Ferenczi then in a few pages later makes this observation:

“The insane and evil will, after a maniacal outburst exceeding anything that had happened before, suddenly sobered and withdrew from the person it had occupied hitherto; and from now on it turns against the person in whom it had until now vegetated, as it were, in the form of a pure will to kill. The consequence is a tremendous void in the person who had become accustomed to having the alien will as a skeleton of his own person. As soon as the crazy person has made the decision to with- draw, the remaining part of the person finds himself in a state of insecurity resembling an earthquake. But at the moment of the attack, all illusion is destroyed, the sudden insight into this terrifying existence in the power of a madman cannot be accepted, and the state of being split that has existed up to now gives way to a state of complete dissolution. After that has run its course, as when fireworks have burnt themselves out, the entire sector of this experience disintegrates into a mass of atomized debris.”

What is noteworthy in these citations are the metaphors by which Ferenczi describes the alien will and the afflicted person: Volcanoes, geological strata and formations which bear the sign of the deep Darwinian time. What we take as rock formations—the ordinary person—is as a matter of fact the product of churning indifferent processes of time that maintain a façade of the ordinariness, or more precisely, worldliness. Yet they are traces of past extinctions, very much like forensic maps of past crimes which can be mistaken—as in these metaphors—as the inevitable order of reality, something from which we are all made of and therefore, is not criminal in its nature. The scale-sensitive vision of trauma where the causal mechanisms impinge upon the order of personhood is something that is shared by both Marx and Freud. The only difference between the two is that for Marx such mechanisms are social causes rather than natural causes which Freud incorporates in his cosmological theory of trauma.

Unlike Freud’s desensitization of trauma through the generalized principle of the death drive, Ferenczi is making a far more radical claim: The worst traumas are not those which are parts and parcels of an inevitable reality. In fact, a trauma that renders us like corpses, is not caused by some mystical death drive but by a mundane yet malevolent register of an oppression that keeps haunting us. Something that should be avoidable, but for some inexplicable reason, is still there and despite all our efforts does not go away. The worst traumas are inflicted not by that which is inevitable but by that which is avoidable yet dismissed as the reality of our world.

In this scenario, the alarming symptoms we may exhibit are disregarded by ourselves as normal, for we have accustomed to an alien will. The suffocating feeling of helplessness, being disposed of and not being heard of that will eventually materialize are precisely the expressions of the fact that we have mistaken the sources of our traumas as parts of an ordinary reality that cannot be changed, because it is what it is. And to that extent, we have no resolution other than recourse to death. If we can’t tolerate it then we should take our lives—the suicidal impulse that Ferenczi describes as the moment where we notice our life-long delusion. But this is a consciousness that does not necessarily lead to a disillusionment, only to more misery because we fail to imagine another reality, a different choice, a different world. Disillusionment in the absence of an alternative to the logic of illusions will only lead to more pain.

Now the question we are confronted with is that then why should we even think about our human misery, to even mention that we might have been abducted and molested by some alien will? Wouldn’t be better, less painful to just ignore these issues and live the life we thought was ours, the set of our conscious and examined choices and thoughts even if they weren’t? I don’t think Freud ever manages to answer this question coherently. His Schopenhaurian cosmic pessimism which is borderline a mystical whitewash over the conditions of the possibility of trauma does not allow him to even think about this question in earnest. In failing to answer this central question, Freud’s vision of psychoanalysis fails miserably. As long as, we do not justify why life should be lived exploitation-free, we have no justification for how we cure or console those who are living. Absent the former, the latter i.e. the psychoanalytical investigation can indeed be another form of exploitation and trauma, another method of becoming unwilled corpses.

In tandem with Ferenczi’s thesis, my answer is that regardless of us being traumatized or not, regardless of us thinking our lives are rich and exploitation-free, we have a duty to hypothesize that our lives might not be rich, rewarding, healthy and free from the most sinister expressions of exploitation. We must hypothesize that we might be as a matter of objective fact, walking corpses, not persons whose lives should be treated with dignity here and now. As such the psychoanalytical invocation of the unconscious should be regarded as a powerful hypothesis that must be posited and correspondingly, investigated in favor of self-consciousness, rather than as a mere term that only serves a mundane reality that is deemed to be as-a-matter-of-factish and inescapable.

In hypothesizing the presence of some alien will in the realm of the unconscious, we are making a distinction between the order of thought and the order of a given nature which may seem to us as unavoidable. Thinking—in the broadest, most rigorous and consequential sense—does not concern itself about death. It only investigates death as a matter of fact, something that can thought of, but not something that should be brought to bear upon the axiological structure of thinking itself. Claiming to the contrary is tantamount to confound the distinction between living and thinking, a vitalist eschatological trope which is fully theological.

In other words, even if the fact of exploitation was part of the order of reality, thinking should dismiss it as the order of illusion. For thought, reality is not a given, it is something that is questioned and reinvented by thinking. To confound thinking with life such that an inevitable death that puts an end to life is taken for granted as a reality to which thought must conform is to undermine the ambitions of thought. To undermine the ambitions of thought is to undermine the dignity of all life, for only in virtue of thinking we can assert the richness and the value of all life and thus consider exploitation as something both against value and detrimental to life-forms. Life by itself does not give us any values, it does not even explain why exploitation in the broadest possible sense of the term should be obstructed. It is as Schopenhauer has observed as callous as the will to kill, the compulsion to murder the ego, to terminate any value that life might possibly have.

It is now rather obvious why I suggested in the abstract that the concept of the alien will properly speaking belongs to the realm of politics. Hypothesizing about the presence of an alien will—a system of exploitation—even if we think we possess our own will, our own choices and thoughts is the very first stage from which political investigation must start. Put differently, to postulate the possibility that we are animated by an alien will is the stepping stone for imagining a counterfactual life for everything that lives. Just as Ferenczi’s cases who took their lives at face value yet were animated corpses, we can never assume that our life is actually ours or that our most egalitarian maxims are not already seized by a system of exploitation. In postulating the reality of the unconscious we do not advance a noumenal real as what humiliates thought. Positing the reality of the unconscious as the possibility of causal mechanisms which can commandeer the order of thinking is a postulate of thought. All consciousness—as a matter of critical cognition—can already be a vassal for the order of causes. But to even reflect on this fact, to realize the absence of autonomy of mere consciousness, its possible enslavement is something that can only be achieved by the system of self-consciousness.

If we do not question what we take as the reality of our world, we are living by an alien will. Wresting ourselves from an alien will means we are living differently, it means that we have postulated and built a different reality, insofar as we have questioned the integrity of our cherished reality. The unconscious hypothesis—i.e., positing the reality of the alien will as that which allows us to live this way but not others–is then what enables us to think of a different life and reality. Without entertaining the possibility of a different reality or life and without understanding the significance of the unconscious as what empowers us to doubt our ordinary lives, we are indeed carrions, incapable of thinking and incapable of understanding what life could possibly be for us and others. In that case, the world we imagine is correspondingly nothing but a mass grave, in which echoes of muffled screams are never heard, for they are mistaken as the voices of the dead who have no longer any business in the realm of life.


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