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Renata Salecl

Worries in A Limitless World


Will Fergusson in his novel Happiness[1] envisions our society finally becoming truly happy.  This happens after people become mesmerized with a particular self-help book, which in the most compelling way offers advice how to achieve true self-fulfillment in life.  The small book becomes like a virus, which continuously spreads around society.  People who read it suddenly abandon their previous lives, simplify their clothing, stop buying make-up and expensive cosmetics, stop obsessing about changing their bodies with the help of plastic surgery, cancel their subscription to gym, give up cars and all other usual consumerist possession, and especially abandon their old jobs by placing on their office doors a note: “Gone fishing!”  These newly awakened people brim with happiness—their faces look relaxed, they constantly smile, their bodies move in a joyful way, and their whole demeanor exults serenity and contentment.  When masses of people become truly happy, capitalism falls into deep trouble.  Industries start collapsing one by one.  Deeply worried, the publisher of the book and the leading capitalists decide to find a way to stop this happiness movement.  They start searching for the author of this dangerous self-help book.  Soon it is revealed that the writer is not an Indian guru as it was stated in the book, but an old loner who lives in a trailer park.  When this man learned that he had cancer, he decided to provide financial legacy for his grandson by writing a book, which in essence combines all the major ideas of already existing self-help books.  The story ends when the publisher convinces the old man that his writing did more harm than good for the progress of society.  The author is then encouraged to write a new book on how to be miserable so capitalism can again flourish.

People often come to psychoanalysis in order to find happiness in their lives and they imagine that the analyst is a happy person.  If psychoanalysis is supposed to provide a cure for unhappiness, then the analyst must have been cured from this pathology in order to help the patient.  To such expectation, Jacques Lacan, mischievously adds: “It is a fact that we / the analysts / do not disclaim our competence to promise happiness in a period in which the question of it’s extend has become so complicated: principally because happiness, as Saint-Just said, has become a political factor.”[2]  But then Lacan concludes that: “It is a waste of time . . . to look for the shirt of a happy man, and what is called a happy shadow is to be avoided for the ills it brings.”[3]

The novel Happiness envisioned that a truly successful self-help book would bring capitalism to an end, since it is precisely capitalism that constantly encourages us to assess our current state of happiness and, of course, search for more of it.  Walter Benjamin took capitalism as a form of religion; as a celebration of a cult, which very much plays on the feeling of guilt.  His point is that “worries” become mental illness characteristic of the age of capitalism.[4]  What kind of worries are we concerned with today?  Does Benjamin’s prediction that feelings of guilt are a crucial part of capitalism hold true today?  Or is something changing at the start of the 21st century?

Benjamin had a conflicting relationship with psychoanalysis; however, looking at the nature of worries and guilt today very much demands our attention to what psychoanalysis says about the way capitalism affects subjectivity.  This article will look at the issue of worries in the context of the logic of social prohibition that we encounter in late capitalism.  Today it appears that, on the one hand, people are encountering less and less external prohibitions which in the past were transmitted with the help of traditional authorities (like father, state, or church leaders, etc.) while, on the other hand, people are imposing ever new prohibitions on themselves.

I.      “Be yourself!”

 In the Western world people are not only under the impression that there are endless possibilities to find fulfillment in life, but they are also encouraged to be some kind of self-creators, i.e., they are supposedly free to choose what they want to be.  In this highly individualized society, which allegedly gives priority to the individual’s freedoms over submission to group causes, people, however, face an important anxiety provoking dilemma: “Who am I for myself?”

The answer to this question is in no way simple, which is why there is a huge advice industry, which tries to guide people in their search for their “essence.”  On the cover of a recent Cosmopolitan magazine, we can thus read a promise that the magazine will help you to: “Become yourself, only a better one”; on the Internet various astrology sites provide free samples of insight into the “Real you”; and on television one can undergo a total body makeover which is supposed to allow people to forge a body image in which they will feel comfortable with themselves.

President Bush was reported to have said: “I know who I am, and I want to become who I am.”  The self is something to be aspired to, like the latest fashion or the latest consumer object.  Self-aspiration and the created self are seductive.  The winner of the most recent Big Brother contest in the U.K. was a Portuguese transgender woman, Nadia Almada.  When she was told that she had won, her response was “Now I am recognised as a woman.”  One question is why Nadia found such popularity with British television audiences.  It seems from anecdotal evidence that what many voters found seductive was the project of a self-journey, the realization of a desire to make something completely different of oneself.  With her self-transformation, she seemed to embody for the audience the ideology of self-creation that underpins today’s consumerist society.  It is perhaps not surprising that psychoanalysts report that they are encountering numbers of people who come into analysis with the demand: “I want to reinvent myself.”

However, in this attempt to remake oneself and become someone unique, one can easily observe a pattern of sameness.  Walter Benjamin already envisioned this move towards sameness when he observed that:

The commodity economy reinforces the phantasmagoria of sameness which, as an attribute of intoxication, at the same time proves a central figure of semblance. . . . The price makes the commodity identical to all the other commodities that can be purchased for the same amount. The commodity empathizes . . . not only and not so much with buyers as with its price.[5]

This phantasmagoria of sameness can easily be perceived in the way the ideology of “self-creation” actually functions.  Although, people are constantly reminded to make out of themselves what they want, they are actually following ideals of sameness.  One only needs to look at the results of body make-overs that one can observe on television, and one gets a confirmation that for the price one pays to get a new body one actually purchases a body image that everyone else adheres to.

The ideology that promotes the motto “Be yourself!” and relies on the Nike’s ad, “Just do it!” also encourages the idea that people need to be able to “manage” themselves.  One is constantly reminded by the dominant media to work on relationships[6], on parenting, to become a better person and especially to manage one’s emotions.  A simple search on in regard to how to deal with an emotion like anger gives us a list of 95,000 books that deal with this issue.  A quick look at the titles gives the impression that anger is a huge problem in today’s society.  We seem to live in “The Trap of Anger,” are dealing with “The Dance of Anger,” “Anger Kills,” there is “The Enigma of Anger,” which causes “Anger Disorders”; and there are “Angry Women” who seem to experience rage differently than men.  But especially important is “Helping your angry child” to become “anger-free.”  However, most of the books offer advice on how to get rid of angry feelings.  “Anger Management,” “Overcoming Anger,” “Beyond Anger,” “Conquering Anger, Letting go of Anger,” “Anger Control, Healing Anger, Working with Anger, Taking Charge of Anger” are only some of the titles of the books that are supposed to help us deal with this emotion.  But the next step is to “Honour your Anger,” to go “From Anger to Forgiveness,” and especially to realize that “Anger is a Choice.”

The idea that we are supposed to be able to manage ourselves and that there is a choice in how we deal with our emotions, is linked to the very perception of the self that dominates late capitalist society.  Today, the true self is increasingly self-made, and more than that, an individual project.  In the 1980s and 1990s, drawing on the work of Michel Foucault,[7] academic theories emphasized the social construction of the self.  However, now self construction has become a cultural imperative in the West, and the emphasis is not on social determinations, but on the individual project of self-making.  This is related to what Ulrich Beck[8] and others have called “individualization.”  While individualization takes many forms, it always involves a “fetishization” of the autonomous self, one that refuses to acknowledge the idea that society can set limits on self-aspiration.  Paradoxically, the ideology of a limitless world is itself a product of late capitalism and the relentless drive of consumer society with its emphasis on endless choice and possibility.

If, one the one hand, we live under the assumption that everything in life can be a matter of choice (on top of consumer and usual political choices, we can choose not only how we look, but  our sexual orientation, whether or not to have children, what kind of medical treatment we want, etc.), on the other hand, the very choice itself seems to be anxiety provoking[9] and deeply dissatisfying.[10]  That is why we often hear in the popular media that our society actually suffers from so-called tyranny of choice and an abundance of freedom.

Existentialist philosopher and novelist, Albert Camus, nicely described how everything in life is a matter of choice when he posed the question: “Shall I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?”  It is not simply that our existence is defined by the choices we make in our lives; our very existence is itself a matter of choice.

In regard to life choices, Freud has made quite skeptical comments.  When his friend asked him for advice about whether he should marry a particular woman, Freud allegedly said that when it comes to small matters in life, one should think long and hard before making a decision, but when it comes to the big one, like to marry or not, to have children or not, one should just do it.  One can speculate that no matter what we rationally choose in these circumstances, we will never be able to determine the outcome of our behavior since the unconscious will always guide us on paths that we cannot control.

II.     Troubles with Choice in Times of the Dissolution of the Big Other


Consumer choice seems to be most overwhelming problem in late capitalism.  Barry Schwartz starts his book The Paradox of Choice with the difficulty consumer’s face when they want to purchase simple pair of jeans.[11]  Does one want slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy or extra baggy fit?  Should the trousers be ankle length, normal, or long; faded or regular; black or blue; with button-fly or zipper-fly?  Consumer choice becomes even more anxiety provoking when, in any normal supermarket, we need to choose between 85 brands of crackers, 285 sorts of cookies, 360 shampoos, and 275 types of cereal; or when college students at American Ivy League schools need to choose between 350 courses of general education.  Although shopping is perceived as one of the favorite pastimes in today’s advanced capitalism, and people are spending more and more time in malls, they seem to be enjoying it less and less.

One area where choice is especially traumatic is medicine.  Doctors today no longer play the role of authorities—deciding what is best for the patients.  Rather, they are mostly informing the patient about his or her options and then the latter needs to make a decision and give so-called informed consent.[12]  However, do people really want to choose their treatment when they get seriously ill?  The idea of choice seems appealing before one faces a life threatening situation, however, when things get tough, people hope that someone else—an authority who supposedly knows—will choose for them.  Research has thus shown that when a group of healthy people were asked whether they want to choose treatment if they get cancer, sixty-five percent said yes.  But among people who actually did get cancer only twelve percent wanted to make this choice.[13]

Why is there such dissatisfaction in regard to choice?  Schwartz finds the problem to be too much choice.  Quoting psychological research that shows how people exposed to less choice are more satisfied, Schwartz proposes various forms of self-limitation that consumer should impose on him or herself in order to feel more content about his or her choice.  So, one should “choose when to choose”; be a chooser not a picker; be content with “good enough”; make decisions non-reversible; practice an attitude of gratitude; regret less; anticipate adaptation; control expectations; curtail social comparison; and especially “learn to love constraints.”

Why is it necessary that the person invent all these self-binding tactics?  When people complain that there is too much choice in today’s society and that they are often forced to make choices about things they do not want to choose (like who is one’s electricity provider), they often express their anxiety that no one is supposed to be in charge in society at large or that someone (for example, corporations) is already “choosing” in advance what people supposedly need.  These complaints very much concern people’s troubles with what Lacanian psychoanalysis calls the Big Other—a symbolic order that we are born into and which consist not only of institutions, culture, but primarily of language that shapes our social sphere.  It is Lacanian common sense that the Big Other does not exist, which means that the symbolic order we live in is not coherent, but rather marked by lacks, i.e., inconsistent.  There has been wide literature to think through what this inconsistency means and one way to perceive the lack that marks the social has been to think of it in terms of various antagonisms that mark the social.[14]  In addition to stating that the Big Other does not exist, Lacan stressed the importance of people’s belief that it does.  That is why Lacan ominously concluded that although the Big Other does not exist, it nonetheless functions, i.e., people’s belief in it is essential for their self-perception.

The act of choosing is so traumatic precisely because there is no Big Other: making a choice is always a leap of faith where there are no guaranties.  When we try to create self-binding mechanisms which will help us feel content with our choices and eventually help us to be less obsessed with choice, we are not doing anything but “choosing” a Big Other, i.e., inventing a symbolic structure which we presuppose will alleviate our anxiety in front of the abyss of choice.  The problem, however, is that the very existence of the Big Other is always our “choice”—we create a fantasy of its consistency.  And by doing so, we choose the possibility of not choosing.

The type of belief people have in the Big Other differs from subject to subject.  There are especially large differences between people for whom it might be possible to ascertain that they have neurotic structure and those who are psychotics.  While neurotics have a lot of doubts, uncertainties, and complaints in regard to the Big Other, psychotics might develop a much more threatening perception of the Big Other and, for example, start perceiving themselves as being persecuted by an invisible voice or gaze, and thus being overwhelmed by the Big Other’s massive presence.  The uncertainties that neurotics deal with very much prove that the Big Other does not exist as a coherent whole, which is why neurotics often engage in a game of searching for a master who seems to be in charge (and thus appear as a consistent Other), while at the same time they try to undermine the master’s authority.  With the latter gesture, neurotics in a paradoxical way acknowledge the inconsistency of the Other.

In the recent years there has been growing debate whether something changed in our perception of the Big Other.  Did the symbolic structure in late capitalism change?  Or was the subject’s belief in the Big Other altered when traditional authorities, which were often perceived as the embodiment of the Big Other (like state, church, nation, etc.), lost its power?  Pierre Legendre, already a decade ago, expressed a catastrophic view about the lack of social prohibitions by warning that: “We do not understand that what lies at the heart of ultramodern culture is only ever law; that this quintessentially European notion entails a kind of atomic bond, whose disintegration carries alongside it the risk of collapsing the symbolic for those generations yet to come.”[15]  Referring to psychoanalysis, Legendre points out that a subject’s entrance into language involves an act of separation:

What psychoanalysis designates by general formulas such as the original or the law of the father is nothing other than an original separation which inaugurates subjective life (in a sense of a separation of the infant from the maternal entity), as subject to the law of differentiation through speech.  Now separation supposes an aside (écart), a representation of emptiness, the integration, both by society and by the subject, of the category of negativity.[16] 

Legendre explores whether Western culture has given up on “introducing the subject to the institution of the limit,” while other authors question if on top of that we also gave up on the category of negativity.  It is a common reflection today that the subject is under constant pressure to enjoy—to find ways to fill up his or her lack.  Media, especially, seems to contribute to this “push to enjoyment.”

What does it therefore mean when we hear philosophers like Legendre saying that that we are living in a world without limits, or when psychoanalysts[17] are speculating that a man is more and more without gravity, or when sociologists are speculating that people feel so insecure and unhappy precisely because they seem to have far more choices in their lives than used to be the case in the past?  Do we really live in a limitless world?  Before we can make an attempt to answer this question, we need to explain what we mean by a limit.  Psychoanalysis has been from its beginning thinking about the logic of the limit that every speaking being needs to deal with.

One of the cornerstones of Lacanian theory is the idea that the subject, by becoming a speaking being, goes through the process of symbolic castration and becomes marked by a lack.  It is through the father that castration is passed on to the child.  It is not that the father is a castrating figure.  The agent of castration is very language.  It is the signifier that prohibits some primordial jouissance by replacing the thing with a word.  The role of the father is to be the agent of the signifier, i.e., he “utters” the prohibition.  However this prohibition does not come into being via a simple father’s “No!” that limits the close relationship between a mother and a child.  For the prohibition to be installed the actual father does not even need to be present, since what is crucial is the way prohibition is part of the very discourse with which a mother (or another primary caregiver) addresses the child.  That is why Lacan when referring to symbolic law uses the term the Name-of-the-Father.  Although in patriarchal culture it is often the father who is the transmitter of the symbolic law, the father actually does not embody this law.  Symbolic law, which “castrates” the subject, is effectively linked to the way language operates on the subject and the father is only a transmitter of this operation.  But it is crucial that father is castrated too.  Thus in the final instance the father is the agent of castration only in so far as castration passes through him.  However, if the actual father is not present, or if he in no way represents symbolic law, things might not turn bad for the subject as long as there are other ways through which the child becomes marked by the symbolic law (i.e., mother’s discourse or the influence of other significant people in the child’s life).

Although the lack that marks the subject is perceived by the latter as loss of some essential jouissance, it is actually a cornerstone of subjectivity—i.e., because the subject is marked by a lack, he or she will constantly try to recuperate the object that he or she perceives to embody the lost enjoyment and that might fill up the lack.  The very fact that the subject is marked by a lack is thus the engine that keeps his or her desire alive.

When dealing with his or her lack, the subject also encounters a problem that the Other is lacking, meaning that, on the one hand, social symbolic order is inconsistent, and on the other hand, other’s, like, for example, the subject’s parents, are also marked by a lack.  The most anxiety producing dilemma for the subject is how he or she appears in the desire of the Other.  Since there is no consistent Other which will be able to appease the subject and provide an answer as to what kind of an object the subject is for the Other, the subject constantly interprets, reads between the lines of what others say, guesses other’s gestures, etc.

If these are all “normal” worries that people have in regard to the lack that marks them and the social symbolic order, what then is the change with the worries that pertain to capitalism, which Benjamin invoked more than half a century ago?

In the early seventies, Lacan made an observation that in a developed capitalistic system, the subject’s relationship to the social field can be observed to form a particular discourse.  In this “Discourse of Capitalism,”[18] the subject relates to the social field in such a way that he or she takes him or her-self as a master.  The subject is not only perceived to be totally in change of him or her-self, the subject also appears to have power to recuperate the loss of jouissance.  In capitalism, the subject is thus perceived as an agent who has enormous power.

What does it mean that the subject is placed in the position of such an agent?  First, it looks as if this subject is free from subjection to his history and genealogy and thus free from all signifying inscriptions.  This seems to be the subject who is free to choose not only objects that supposedly bring him or her satisfaction, but even more the direction of his or her life, i.e., the subject chooses him or herself.

Lacan points out that one finds in the “Discourse of Capitalism” rejection or better foreclosure of castration.  This foreclosure happens when society more and more functions without limits and where there seems to be a constant push towards some kind of limitless jouissance.  This push to jouissance at all costs is especially visible in all kind of forms of toxic mania—from excessive consumption of alcohol, drugs, shopping, workaholism, etc.[19]  Capitalism more and more transforms the proletarian slave into free consumer.  However, limitless consumption paradoxically provokes the moment when the subject starts “consuming himself.”

And although the subject in Discourse of Capitalism is perceived as being totally in charge or him or her-self and especially free to make numerous choices, one sees a paradoxical trend that this possibility of choice opens doors to an increase of anxiety.  One of the way’s to deal with this anxiety becomes strong identification with the master.  The latter allows the subject to relinquish his or her doubt, to avoid choice and responsibility, and thus in some way to find a relief for his or her own existence.

The subject who seems to be liberated from the social constraints paradoxically appears powerless towards the figures of Time (Baudelaire): “Aging, dying, inscribing one self into the succession of the generations, all this became more and more difficult.  If one lives in the illusion of the eternal present, the child risks to be nothing more than another gadget, more cumbersome than dachshund and less original than a robot-dog.”[20]  It is not difficult to agree with the idea that aging looks like something unacceptable and traumatic in today’s society.  We can even say that aging, too, appears a matter of choice—it is up to every individual to “do” something against it, or better work on not showing the signs of aging, as well as try to follow many proposed suggestions on how to prevent death.

III.      How did Big Other Change in Late Capitalism?           


French psychoanalyst, Charles Melman, sees the change in subjects’ perception of the Big Other as being related to the overwhelming assumption that the world is rationally organized.  This assumption is also behind the idea of rational choice.  The domain of the Big Other seems to be over flown with information which is supposed to help people make choices in their lives.  However this expansion of information paradoxically increases people’s dissatisfaction.  Melman’s pessimistic conclusion is that the perception of rational organization of the world sometimes brings people to the point of not leaving any space for alterity of the Other—or better a space where there is no Big Other at all.

Almost a decade ago, two other French psychoanalysts, Jacques Alain Miller and Eric Laurent, also speculated that there is no Big Other anymore in today’s society and that today’s obsession with various ethical comities attest to this change.[21]  Scientific development opened many opened many questions and there are noauthorities on which one can rely for answers, which is why we create various temporary, ad hoc structures (like committees). The latter are supposed to help us in dealing with the inconsistency of the Big Other, but they, of course, always fail in providing certainty we search for. However, are we truly to be so pessimistic about the structure of the social order we live in?

French philosopher, Dany-Robert Dufour, presents his own version of pessimistic view about the demise of our symbolic structures.  Dufour departs from Freud’s presupposition that each culture in its own way forms the subjects who then try to discern the always-specific footprints leading to their origin.  “Which is why one paints the Other, sings it, one gives it a form, a voice, stages it, gives it representations and even a super representation, including the form of irrepresentable.”[22]  The Other supports for us what we cannot support—thus providing the ground which found us.  Which is why our history is always history of the Other, or better figures of the Other.  Dufour further points out that the subject is always subject of the Other, which in the past has taken many forms of some kind of big Subject—from Physis, God to King, the people, etc.  Throughout history, the distance between the subject and this big Subject reduced itself.  With modernity, however, there emerged plurality of the big Subjects, which is linked to the decline of the power of the church and the vast expanse of scientific progress.  However, the subject also becomes more and more decentred in regard to him- or herself.

Dufour concludes that in post-modernity there is no more an Other in the meaning of the symbolic Other, the incomplete ensemble to which the subject can address a demand, pose a question, or present an objection.  It is similar to say that post-modernity is full of semblants of the Other.[23]  In this late capitalist society, market emerges as a form of a big Subject.  Following Benjamin’s prediction that capitalism functions today as a new form of religion, some today are stating that Market appears a new God and anyone opposed to the dogma of the free market economy is quickly called a heretic.

In today’s culture, the subject is permanently decentred, however, also the symbolic place around him or her is more and more anomic and diffused.  Discussions on post-modernity have thus focused on the fact that there are no grand narratives anymore, that there are no strong authorities with whom the subject identifies, and that individualism seems to have been pushed to its limit, so that the subject more and more perceives him- or herself as self-creator.

Dufour places the moment when the subject becomes auto-refential at the time of Enlightenment.  This is when the subject stops referring to an outside Being, like God, land, or blood to confirm his being as a subject and becomes in some way his or her own origin.

One can easily agree with this proposition and gets confirmation for it by looking at the very notion of human rights that emerged in post-Enlightenment type of organization of society.  Human rights are supposed to protect precisely this auto-referentiality of the subject.  Since the expansion of human rights went more and more in the direction of neglecting the external determinants like race, nationality, sex, and age and protecting the subject as a neutral being, one can even speculate that rights in the final instance protect a certain lack in the subject, and essential indeterminacy that is at his or her very core.  When we claim to have rights regardless of our race, class, sex, etc., it looks as if we are saying: “I am who I am—that is why I have rights.”

IV.     The New Psychotics?


Today’s capitalist ideology seems to imply a proposition: “Be who you want to be!” which relies on the assumption that the subject is a self-creator.  Does this trend of promoting self-creating contribute to the apparent rise in psychological problems that psychoanalysis is concerned about?  Are we to believe that the worries Benjamin was talking about have escalated to the point of serious changes in today’s subjectivity?

While it is easy to admit that there have been changes in subjects’ self-perception, as well as in their perception of the Big Other, is one right to conclude that these changes contributed to an increase of psychosis?  Lacanian psychoanalysis takes psychotics as people for whom social prohibitions have not been operative in the same way as they were, for example, for neurotics.  The so-called Name of The Father, the social symbolic law has been foreclosed and a castration has not been operative in the upbringing of a psychotic.

Psychotics are thus people who have their own very special view of reality, who have not in Freud’s famous formulation agreed to give up something to be part of society.  Such individuals often function perfectly well for long periods of time until a small event in their life triggers a full-blown delusion.  As in Freud’s case of Schreber who was a respectable judge until he was elected Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and then developed the idea that he was turning into a woman with direct contact with God.

Nowadays, French psychoanalysts are looking closely at the cases of so-called non-triggered psychosis where there is no delirium to show that a person has a psychotic structure.  Some are thus reviving Helen Deutsch’s idea of so-called “as if” personalities: these are people who might not actually develop a full-blown psychosis like Schreber, but nonetheless have a psychotic structure.  Some analysts call these cases “ordinary psychosis” or “white psychosis.”  What distinguishes these individuals from neurotics is that they often express enormous certainty with regard to their perception of reality.  They are people without doubts.

One French psychoanalyst describes the case of a male patient who had a number of successful careers in his life.  As a young man, he had befriended a lawyer in a prominent firm and became a successful lawyer himself.  Then he met a sailor on the street and followed him into the merchant navy.  Later he encountered a businessman and he subsequently turned himself into a successful businessman.  Unlike Schreber, this was not a delusionary form of psychosis triggered by a particular event.  Rather it was a series of successful identifications where the patient not only mimicked other individuals, but also used these powerful identifications with people he randomly encountered to transform his whole life without experiencing any apparent anxiety or doubt about the path he had chosen.  When the psychoanalyst asked the patient why given his success he felt it necessary to enter analysis, he replied simply “My wife told me to do so.”  Not surprisingly, he became a very successful patient!

In 1956, Lacan took the “as-if” (which is nowadays often referred to as borderline structure) as “mechanism of imaginary compensations” to which subjects have recourse who “never enter into the play of signifiers, except by a sort of exterior imitation.”  This form of imitation can easily be understood as another version of simulacra and sameness that Benjamin was talking about.  When the subject is caught in this in this imaginary dimension, he or she has lots of problems with his or her identity (interweaving of identity, illusions of doubles, etc.). One of the features of psychotics is that they are obsessed with mimicry, shaping themselves according to one set of ideas and then just as quickly abandoning them, and especially by strongly identifying with other people.

Early capitalism celebrated “the self made man” who took entrepreneurial risk through exploiting his talent.  Late capitalism has taken this a stage further and made the self-made man a commodity.  There must surely be a small irony in the fact that Edward L. Bernays, Freud’s nephew, was one of the leading figures behind modern public relations in the beginning of the last century, known as “The Father of Spin.”  One of his great achievements was to introduce women to smoking through promoting the idea of women’s freedom.  However, he believed that people only buy something because an authority with whom they identify possesses that object.  Contemporary marketing relies on the premise that you create your own style—that you find in fashion a distinctive expression of self.  There is a definite irony in the fact that this ideology is promoted effectively through mass marketing and brand affiliation.  Yet is it really true that there are no authorities in the world other than the individual self?  It seems clear that the ideology that there are no authorities rests on new authorities, such as corporations.

But are they the only authorities; is the world really that different from the past?  Are we really living in a limitless world?  We have increasingly interventionist states, and authoritarian leaning leaders like Bush and Blair, and numerous other authorities in the form of self-help gurus, religious leaders, and the like.  Given that this is the case, then why does the ideology of the late capitalist self encourage us to live “as if” we were without limits, in fact free?  Is the modern self out of touch with reality, delusional in some sense?  Can we argue that late capitalism is producing more psychosis, as some psychoanalysts want to suggest?

This would be a duly simplistic and pessimistic conclusion.  There is certainly some evidence for increasing plasticity in forms of identification.  Players on the internet rarely appear as themselves, preferring in many cases to change not only their gender and sexual orientation, but also their race, religion, and age.  There is nothing new about fantasizing about being someone else, but modern trends suggest something more profound.  In the age group 18-25 in the U.K. , more young people not only report having had a sexual experience with both a person of the same sex and of the opposite sex, but they are unwilling to classify or categorize their sexuality on the basis of sexual practice.  The distinction gay/straight appears to have little purchase for these young people in terms of how they categories themselves and others.  As one commentator remarked “Homosexuality is over!”[24]

However, refusing categorizations and playing with your sexual identity is not the same thing in any sense as Schreber’s delusion that he had been turned into a woman.  Schreber had no doubt about his bodily transformation.  It is also not the same thing as the mimicry in the case of “the successful patient” described earlier whose transformations caused him no anxiety or uncertainty.  Whereas, those of us who are ceaselessly remaking ourselves in the contemporary moment have many doubts, and can often feel overwhelmed by the fear of failure.  Our play with identifications is quite different from the mimicry of the psychotic.  His or her certitude is replaced in the contemporary moment with something that looks more like the celebration of undecidability.

Yet, this undecidablity is itself caught up in capitalist circuits as evidenced by the rise—and subsequent marketing—of the metrosexual.  The metrosexual rather than being a sexual identity is more a set of consumer identifications.  So under late capitalism, shifts in identity and indeed in identifications are celebrated as the new vogue and turned into profit.

But, despite this process, there is little proof that contemporary society is increasingly psychotic.  People are still deeply concerned with the question of who they are for others, and how they should interact with others.  One reason, perhaps, why we are seeing an increasing obsession with self-help books.  We certainly live in a world that is self-centered and encourages us to “love ourselves.”  However, to follow this imperative is not a simple matter which is why finding an answer to it is a lucrative business.  A simple search on tells us that there are 138,987 books which try to help you love yourself.  Including one with the title the Learning to Love Yourself Workbook, which shows that labor is as important a part of capitalism as ever.

V.      New Forms of Intimacy


Some psychoanalysts are concluding that “Discourse of Capitalism” does not leave space for love, especially not space for sublime courtly love.  What we have instead is an increase of narcissistic illusion and a push towards sexuality that hopefully brings some lost jouissance.  Jean-Pierre Lebrun[25] concludes that today’s subjects have problems determining how to situate themselves in regard to sexual difference.  Sexual identification is linked to the way the subject places him or herself after going through the process of castration.[26]  With the changes in the level of the castration complex there seems to be more of a turn towards androgyny and bisexuality.  However, the main problem is that in Discourse of Capitalism, sexuality becomes perceived in a narcissistic way: “Since sexuality is a matter of competitive rivalry and consummation, it does not concern anymore a choice of a stable object. It is primarily a matter of seduction.”[27]

If one cannot easily agree with pessimistic conclusions that psychosis seems to be overwhelmingly present in late capitalism, one nonetheless needs to admit that something has changed in the subject’s relationship towards him or her-self as well as society at large, that there is a change in the nature of limits and that there is a push towards excessive jouissance.

Let us look at how the lack of limits affects personal relationships today?  In the society determined by the idea of choice matters of love and sexuality at first seem extremely liberating.  What is better than envisioning a possibility to be free from social prohibitions when it comes to our sexual enjoyment; how wonderful it appears to finally stop bothering about what parents and society at large fashion as normal sexual relations; and how liberating it seems to change our sexual orientation or even physical appearance of sexual difference.  It is more than obvious that such “freedom” does not bring satisfaction; on the contrary, it actually limits it.

In analyzing human’s desires, psychoanalysis has from the beginning linked desire with prohibition.  For the subject to develop desire something has to be off limits.  When the subject struggles with ever evolving dissatisfaction in regard to non-attainability of his or her object of desire, the solution is not to get rid of the limit in order to finally fuse with the object of desire, but to be able to somehow “cherish” the very limit and perceive the object of desire as worthy of our striving precisely because it is inaccessible.

Looking at today’s media talk about sexuality, it is not difficult to observe that there are very few things that are prohibited (with the exception of child molestation, incest, and sexual abuse), while there is an overwhelming “push to enjoy.”  Sexual transgression is marketed as the ultimate form of enjoyment.  The idea being that if one works on it, learns its tricks and then practices it relentlessly, there are no limits to the satisfaction a person can achieve.  Cosmopolitan magazine thus encourages those who have not yet mastered new techniques of reaching ultimate joys, to enroll in sex school.  Simultaneously with this marketing of enjoyment, one reads in the popular media about the very impossibility to enjoy.  John Gray, the famous author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus now writes about “Why my Grandmother seems to have more sex than I do?”[28]  His answer, of course, again turns into another form of advice: be more relaxed, follow these or that steps of arousing desire, etc.

When we look at how we deal with sexuality in this supposedly limitless society, it is easy to observe that limits did not actually disappear or that prohibitions still exist, however,  the locus where they came from have changed If, in the past, prohibitions have been transmitted with the help of social rituals (like initiation rituals in pre-modern society, and functioning of the “Name-of-the-Father” in the traditional patriarchal society), today the subject sets his or her own limits.  The contemporary subject is thus not only self-creator, but also his or her own “prohibitor.”

One can observe a particular form of prohibition in masochism.  Psychoanalysis takes masochism as a form of perversion.  Of course, the term perversion is not meant in pejorative terms.  For psychoanalysis, the pervert is the subject for whom castration has not been fully operative, which is why the subject endlessly searches for the law which might complete castration.  Perversion is thus not beyond the law, but an attempt to find the law.  A masochist is someone who especially searches for the law and wants to be punished by it.  However, he actually does not want to find a sadist to complete this task.  The term sado-masochism is a wrong description of two very different types of enjoyment in torture.  As Gilles Deleuze[29] said, a masochist and a sadist do not form a couple.  A sadist takes himself, as executor of some higher will, an ideal.  He takes himself just as a mere object through whom this ideal enjoys.  And the sadist tortures the victims because he is executing the desire of this higher will.  The masochist, on the contrary, searches for torturers whom the masochist himself will educate and instruct on how to beat him, etc.  In the masochist situation, the victim speaks through the torturer: here, it is therefore not the torturer who invents the forms of punishment; the inventor is the victim himself.

The torturer is usually a woman who takes on the role of the severe, cold mother.  It is essential for the masochist to establish a contract with the torturer that describes in detail the conditions of the torture.  The masochist is thus not simply tied by chains but by the power of the contract through which he invests in the torturer the symbolic power of the law.  The torturer acts like a cruel mother who humiliates the father figure, who is incarnated in the victim himself.  The masochist therefore invests the law in his mother—in the very object of incestuous enjoyment—and by doing so excludes the father from the symbolic.  Paradoxically, the excluded father then returns in the guise of the masochist himself, since the masochist takes on the role of the weak, humiliated father who needs to be punished.

For the masochist, castration has not been completed, which means that the symbolic law did not become fully operative.  This is why the masochist, in his torturous ritual, caricatures castration and tries to make the law operative through the contract with his mistress.  The subject (i.e., the hysteric or the obsessional) for whom the castration was effective is always unsatisfied with the ways he or she tries to fill up the lack: the subject thus complains about the law that supposedly prevents his or her enjoyment; however, the subject finds a special enjoyment in this very dissatisfaction.  But the masochist finds enjoyment in punishment imposed by the law that he himself establishes.  Since he lacks the symbolic prohibition, the masochist becomes an executioner for himself.[30]



When the subject deals with castration, he or she deals also with dissatisfaction.  However, today, what we are observing is an increase in frustration and not so much an escalation of dissatisfaction.  Frustration is, in a special way, linked to a subject’s problem with jouissance.  Jean-Pierre Lebrun thinks that “when will to jouissance dominates the social field, brotherly solidarity of proletarians is replaced by competition and competitive rivalry.  Which is where emerges exacerbation of social hate.”[31]  In contemporary racism, for example, the subject presupposes that the Other has access to some full jouissance which provokes frustration on the side of the subject.  In personal relationships, the problem is that the subject tries to get some excess enjoyment from the partner (for men, a sexual one, for women, a narcissistic one) and after this attempt necessarily fails, the partner looses importance and becomes one of the objects one can easily reject.  For the subject who lacks stable identifications, has fluctuating choice of objects, instability in affective investments, and quickly passes to act, one way to try to find the lost jouissance is with the help of addictive substances.  Which is why there is an increase in addictive behavior today.

But are we to predict a rather bleak future?  Instead of over-emphasizing the lack of prohibition in today’s society, I would rather stress that the nature of prohibition has changed.  On the one hand, the subject more and more searches for new forms of enjoyment and is thus under constant pressure to consume (which sadly often bring him or her to self-consumption), but, on the other hand, the subject desperately searches for new forms of social limits.  Self-prohibition does open doors for new forms of despair.  And with the lack of traditional authorities, the subject does not seem to be coming closer to “happiness.”  He or she rather desperately searches for new authorities.  A visit to any bookstore or a simple search on the internet shows us that the so-called self-help industry is one of the fastest growing businesses.  Which is why, it would be too quick to say that we live in society where the Big Other does not exist anymore or where subjects are more prone for psychosis.  Dependence on advice culture shows that subjects still need recourse via the Big Other.

Although Benjamin predicted that worries would become over-consuming in capitalism, he also made a puzzling remark that: “The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe.  That things are ‘status quo’ is catastrophe.  It is not an ever-present possibility but what in each case is given. Strinberg’s idea: hell is not something that awaits us, but this life here and now.”[32]  Maybe the gloomy prediction that we are entering into a society dominated by psychosis expresses this very enjoyment in catastrophes.  Is the biggest catastrophe of today’s society that not much has radically changed in the nature of our worries?  However, we do feel that we surpassed our predecessors in our suffering.

      [1]  Will Fergusson, Happiness (2003).

      [2]  Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection 252 (Alan Sheridan trans., 1977).

      [3]  Id.

      [4]  Walter Benjamin, Capitalism as Religion, in Walter Benjamin, 1 Selected Writings: 1913-1926 288 (Marcus Bullock & Michael W. Jennings eds., 1996).

      [5]  Walter Benjamin, Exchange with Adorno on “The Flâneur, in Walter Benjamin, 4 Selected Writings 1938-1940 208 (Howard Eiland & Michael W. Jennings eds., 2003).

      [6]  On the idea of working on love, see Laura Kipnis, Against Love: A Polemic (2003).

      [7]  See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: The Care of the Self (1988).

      [8]  See Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (1992); Ulrich Beck & Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, Individualization: Institutionalised Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences (2002).

      [9]  For more on this, see Renata Salecl, On Anxiety (2004).

     [10]  There is also a so-called Monte Carlo effect in choosing (especially in gambling) which shows that the longer the sequence of failure, the greater the expectation of success (which is why one increases the stake with every loss).

     [11]  See Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice (2004).

     [12]  On the troubles with choice in today’s medicine, see Atul Gawande, Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on Imperfect Science (2003).

     [13]  Schwartz, supra note 11.

     [14]  See Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s) (1996); Jannis Stavrakakis, Lacan and the Political (1999).

     [15]  Pierre Legendre, The Other Dimension of Law, 16 Cardozo L. Rev. 943 (1995).

     [16]  Id. at 950

     [17]  See, particularly, Charles Melman, L’Homme sans gravité: Jouir à tout prix, (2002) and Jean-Pierre Lebrun, Un monde sans limite: Essai pour une clinique psychanalytique du social (2001).

     [18]  Jacques Lacan developed this theory in his lecture at the University in Milan on May 12, 1972.  The original text is unpublished.

     [19]  One type of critique of late capitalism points out that consumer is just a semblant of the agent, following only a semblant of freedom.  In reality, he or she is under the pressure of demand. Now, this demand is not coming from the Master Signifies, but from the place of jouissance—the object small a.

     [20]  See Lebrun, supra note 17, at 250.

     [21]  Jacques-Alain Miller & Eric Laurent, The Other Who Does not Exist and His Ethical Committees, in 1 Almanac of Psychoanalysis 15-35 (1998).

     [22]  Dany-Robert Dufour, L’art de réeduire les têtes: Sur la nouvelle servitude de l’homme libéré à l’ère du capitalisme total 44 (2003).

     [23]  Id. at 70.

     [24]  I am indebted to Henrietta Moore for this assessment on U.K. culture.

     [25]  Lebrun, supra note 17.

     [26]  In his seminar on anxiety, Lacan placed castration as the ultimate prerequisite for male sexuality.  Men deal by castration by presupposing that it is “Daddy who took something from them.”  If the man thinks in this way, the, Lacan, says, all will turn out well for the guy—i.e., he will be able to find certain amount of satisfaction in his sexual life. And, whatever goes wrong is, of course, daddy’s fault.  See Jacques Lacan, Angoisse (2004).

          If castration has not been effective in man’s life, i.e. if there was no father’s “No,” then, as Lacan says, man perceives himself a sinner beyond belief and thus sexuality becomes very much prohibited for him.  As if the dead of the God we do not have sudden liberation, but rather an extreme of the prohibition, when castration has not been operative for the subject, his sexuality becomes prohibited, too.

     [27]  See Lebrun, supra note 17, at 251.

     [28]  This theme was discussed on John Gray’s web site.  See (last visited Feb. 1, 2005).

     [29]  See Gilles Deleuze, Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty (1991).

     [30]  More on this in Renata Salecl, (Per)versions of Love and Hate (1998).

     [31]  Lebrun, supra note 17, at 250.

     [32]  Walter Benjamin, Central Park , in Walter Benjamin, 4 Selected Writings (1938-1940) 185 (Howard Eiland & Michael W. Jennings eds., 2003).