Justin Clemens, a Society and Space board member and faculty in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, discusses his book Psychoanalysis is an Antiphilosophy.  The book was published last spring with Edinburgh University Press.  Hot on the heels of this interview is another forthcoming book by Justin, coauthored with A. J. Bartlett and Jon Roffe, also with Edinburgh UP: Lacan Deleuze Badiou.  It will be released next month (February, 2014).



Mary Thomas:  Your book is a collection of essays that all have a common target:  the idea that philosophy can apprehend all forms of knowledge.  Could you tell us how you became motivated by this argument?

Justin Clemens: One of the things I found so fantastic and liberating about encountering psychoanalysis was its reintroduction of matter and the body into thought, whether according to the routines of the pleasure-principle, sexual difference, death drive, or what-have-you. All the great psychoanalytic thinkers — Freud himself, Ferenczi, Klein, Winnicott, Lacan, etc. — engage in extraordinary experiments in how, by means of an entirely new discursive practice, new thoughts of the paradoxes of thinking can arise, paradoxes that undermine knowledge routines without simply being sceptical. On the contrary, psychoanalysis is an eminently constructive project.

The work of Jacques Lacan is exemplary here. I really like that he targets the irreducibility of the phantoms of absolute knowledge, even in psychoanalysis itself. So he proliferates not only radical and shocking propositions about this phenomenon, but forms of utterance that compromise themselves as an integral aspect of their functioning. Let me give three connected instances. First, Lacan wants to show how philosophy (as providing paradigms for all sorts of “knowledge” more generally) is essentially linked to expropriation of the symbolic powers of others; power and knowledge are entwined, and apparent resistance is itself a key part of the motor of power-knowledge (this is in fact, as Lacan points out, an early psychoanalytic recognition of Freud’s). Second, Lacan shows how the ontologies of philosophy are themselves dependent upon a logic of counting, and above all upon a kind of cruel mysticism of the One, of the unit, of the totality, of the whole; here, he shows that the philosophical thought of Being is first dependent on a lack of Being (in the terms provided by key philosophers themselves, not as some silly assertion by Lacan himself) and second upon their concomitant unthinking adherence to a form of Oneness. Third, Lacan constantly mocks his own pretensions regarding such propositions, e.g., ‘If you knew everything that I was ignorant of, well then you would know everything.’ But this should also alert us to the fact that psychoanalysis is not at all a bundle of doctrines (except in the dreams of its enemies, some of whom are its eminent practitioners), but a new practice of care for the other through free association.


Diego Velázquez's Aesop

Diego Velázquez’s Aesop

To lose the abstractions for a moment, these are some reasons as to why the chapters of my book return to quite fundamental yet diverse experiences of the situated body: there are chapters on drugs and addiction in Freud’s early work, on the figure of the slave in psychoanalysis, on some relations between ontology and love, on the narrative structure of Aesopian fables, on contemporary justifications for torture in allegedly democratic countries through their contravention not of free speech but of “free silence,” and on the medico-politico-technical uses of the figure of the swarm and swarming. What binds this diversity — if anything — is a psychoanalytic approach that is antiphilosophical, that is, engages in an ontological subversion that returns us to the problem of worlds…. To put it more bluntly, psychoanalysis, like the key political struggles that ultimately enabled the triumph of the revolutionaries in the English Civil Wars against the tyranny of the Stuarts, self-confessedly constitutes a sequence of failed-but-vital attempts at a ‘self-denying ordinance.’ Against this, we find the tyranny of various licensing procedures that market themselves as liberty. I am actually quite terrified by the current global tendency to prohibit all and any self-denying ordinances of any kind at every scale: what is this but yet another Return of the King, more spectacular and more repulsive than ever?

MT: As a statement, “Psychoanalysis is an antiphilosophy” communicates something differently than would “Psychoanalysis as an antiphilosophy” or “psychoanalysis against philosophy”. These are all phrases which appear in the book, but you foreground “is”.  Could you explain how you made this decision?

JC: I guess I do foreground “is”! The title sums up in a short sharp statement the book’s central contention. A less laconic take on the title might run as follows: it situates itself between manifesto and matter-of-factness in a zone of unequivocal ambivalence. Perhaps psychoanalysis isn’t a lot of things, as I try to show in the book, but if it is anything, it is contemporary. “Is” is contemporary, designates the contemporaneousness of psychoanalysis in that sense, as it simultaneously provokes a question about what that “contemporaneousness” might be…. If we look around at the bulk of current scholarship, most people – to the extent that they care at all about psychoanalysis – consider it done and dusted. To the extent they deal with it, neuroscience, philosophy of all stripes, cultural and geographical theory, etc., now pick up psychoanalysis as an historical phenomenon or a whipping boy or, at best, something that can only continue to have purchase if it’s supplemented by German Idealism or ethnography or evolutionary theory or some such.

These attempts are totally fine, except for the fact that they thereby body forth a desire that corrodes their own claims, as if we can now have psychoanalysis only by not having it. Hence the necessity and desirability in my mind for this title. Moreover, as I seek to show throughout the book, psychoanalysis is not simply something that one should consider “as” or something that’s simply “against,” but a positive and unique practice – entirely sui generis –  which articulates “science” with “literature” in a very particular way. “Is” is also shorthand for this here. Drawing as I do from Alain Badiou on this matter (who himself picks up the term “antiphilosophy” in his own confrontation with Jacques Lacan, who himself repurposed the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, who himself repurposed certain anti-Enlightenment forebears), while attempting to divert Badiou’s critique, psychoanalysis is an anti-philosophy in a kind of vectorial sense. For Badiou, philosophy properly speaking begins when Plato injects mathematics into poetry; for me, psychoanalysis properly speaking begins when Freud injects literature into science, without a reduction of one to the other. In any case, one of the things I guess that my book is against is any collapse of psychoanalysis into science, into the arts, into politics or into philosophy. In fact, the recurrent metastatic drive to do such things is precisely an index of a resistance to psychoanalysis (among much else). Of course, psychoanalysis – as I further argue – is also constantly doing this to itself, giving way on itself, betraying itself. In other words, I take Freud utterly literally when he denominates psychoanalysis an “impossible profession.” The is is therefore also an assertion of impossibility.

MT: Could you tell us about the process of assembling the book, particularly the kinds of research and reading you did as you wrote each article/chapter?  I loved the first chapter on Freud and cocaine, and it’s evident that you did extensive research for it.  You write about empirics and epistemology throughout the book, so you must have put great thought into your own empirical labors.

JC: The book has been in process for well over a decade now, and I am still hoping I didn’t apprehend its development too prematurely. The thing began as a sequence of quite diverse studies into various aspects of psychoanalysis, from Freud’s pre-psychoanalytic mis-adventures, through metapsychological questions, through commissioned articles on contemporary thinkers like Giorgio Agamben, to themes which may initially seem somewhat marginal to psychoanalysis, such as torture and slavery.




As it happened, the cocaine chapter was the first: I had been teaching a subject at the University of Melbourne in the mid-1990s with Philip Morrissey called “Genealogies of Addiction,” and had become struck by the fact that the traces of Freud’s early “cocaine episode” seemed to traverse the entirety of his oeuvre in not-very-evident-yet-insistent ways. The research for that chapter immediately led me towards all sorts of biographical, biological, medical, and theoretical details that until then I had underestimated, ignored or misunderstood. And it further led me to a new understanding of the necessity of the emergence of metapsychology in Freud, the very peculiar relationships that psychoanalysis had had to forge with literature in its quest to understand human psychology – but without ever really being able to follow the literary all the way, as it were.

In other words, the diversity of these topics started to resolve into a paradoxical articulation at a metapsychological level. I wouldn’t really call it “dialectical,” but I do now think it’s possible to track some extraordinary shifts within Freud’s practice – and of course the practice of the psychoanalysts that followed him, above all Lacan – along the lines of a theoretical becoming that cannot simply be scientific nor philosophical, no matter how much anybody would love this to be the case. In realising this, however, what also became urgent for me is that the attentiveness of psychoanalysis to “empirical details” is of an unprecedented kind: no detail is too small, no detail can be assured of the signature of its origin, no detail can be simply or immediately placed in a structure in which it has a settled place. Regarding the cocaine chapter, for instance, it became clear that the context was at once determining and overdetermined: Freud’s friendship with Wilhelm Fliess, the latter’s theories of the nose, the history of anti-Semitic discourses around male Jewish menstruation, the contemporaneous rise of giant chemical companies and the modern synthesis of drugs, the emergence of recognisably modern accounts of addiction, Freud’s marriage plans, and so on. Hence the strange situation I found myself in (which you can probably track in the often-wildly differing kinds of references through the book), whereby I started to reread the history of the relation between the “body” and its “situation” across different kinds of media, in a way that was not-quite empirical, not-quite theoretical…perhaps the word’s something like “topological.”

As the chapters burgeoned and almost spontaneously started to link to one another, I became more attuned to why Lacan had been tempted to invoke “antiphilosophy” as a term in the first place: not so much for its reactionary post-Enlightenment significance as for the scabrous use made of it by the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, who wrote a hilarious little piece entitled “Manifesto of Monsieur AA the Antiphilosopher.” Belatedly I realised – just as a slew of books were coming out with “antiphilosophy” in their titles too – that Lacan wasn’t just joking around.

MT: The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben is a significant presence in your book. You suggest that his work is heavily indebted to psychoanalysis – that is, to antiphilosophy – and yet his work is nonetheless genuinely philosophical, exceeding a psychoanalytic closure.

JC: From the moment I first read Agamben in the mid-1990s, I was extremely impressed by his scholarship and the extraordinary way in which he seemed to be rebroaching a kind of ‘left Heideggerianism’ in a way that was quite different from, and indeed often contested, the dominant French reinterpretations of Heidegger associated with Jacques Derrida, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy. I found StanzasThe Coming CommunityLanguage and Death and The Man Without Content quite amazing, suggestive interventions into philosophical questions concerning subjectivity, aesthetics, language and events. Then came the further sequence of Homo Sacer books, which really made Agamben’s reputation as a thinker of “political theology.”

Despite the paucity of references to psychoanalysis throughout his oeuvre (there are nonetheless a handful of indications), I started to recognise very significant affiliations between some of his conceptual techniques and psychoanalytic ones, above all with Lacan’s. I am now convinced that this is the case: to pick up the language of Harold Bloom, it’s demonstrable that Lacan should be considered Agamben’s “prime precursor,” insofar as some of the key operations Lacan analyses in psychopathology regarding the structural division of neurosis, psychosis and perversion and their relationship to language, as well as his theorization of sexual difference as non-relation, can also be discerned in Agamben – if Agamben translates their functioning and vocabulary into completely different fields (take his analysis of the sovereign exception in law, theology and politics).

In other words, and generalising this, a great deal of contemporary philosophy should really be considered the (often unconscious) continuation of psychoanalysis by other means. On the other hand, I am also concerned not to get too reductive or doctrinaire about this, so I’m also concerned to identify places where Agamben is really “philosophical,” that is, not psychoanalytic at all. The crucial dispute hinges on the relation between the body and its language(s), between words and things, more technically on the status of a conceptual archaeology.

MT: You write that psychoanalysis has a “peculiar ‘ontology’” (page 47), and that psychoanalysts like Freud weren’t really interested in ontology.  Why are you?

JC: Well, it is true that Freud and others found “ontology” a mildly otiose if not irrelevant concern, certainly for clinical practice as well as for their theoretical constructions. In fact, I’d be tempted to say that, generally speaking, any psychoanalytic interest in ontology, to the extent that there may appear to be such an interest, is not only peculiar but somewhat parodic, even hostile. Even (or especially) in Lacan’s work – which is notoriously marked by a continual and explicit return to the “philosophical tradition,” above all in his extensive references to Socrates and Plato, to Descartes, to Kant, to Hegel, to Heidegger, and so forth – “ontology” is a slightly shameful formation (he will rather speak of “hontology”), and, against much of the recent enthusiasm in Lacanian scholarship for “compare and contrast” exercises vis-à-vis one philosopher or another, one philosopheme or another, I rather think Lacan’s engagement is not one of affirmation but regulated by the impossible necessity to keep trying to purge philosophical elements from psychoanalysis. He’s not doing philosophy; he’s trying as hard as he can not to do philosophy. You need a lot of love to be able to keep on trying not to stop not doing it. So Lacan is constantly making jokes about philosophy, and its pretensions to ontology, for instance in his cracks about the young philosopher princes of the ENS, which is of course an acronym for an exclusive state educational institution which literally – literally! – spells out ‘being.’ Ontology is a philosophical aid to the master, as Lacan emphasizes. Also, there’s something essentially stupid about ontology and ontological investigations, which is not at all the case for poetry and mathematics by contrast. Yet, as I point out in the book, it’s not easy not being philosophical, and so it’s maybe best to confront your enemies at their strongest point, to try to not pretend that one can simply evade the inscription of philosophical conceptuality recurring in all sorts of unexpected places. As Lacan says about university discourse in Seminar XVII, “in seeking to escape from the university discourse one implacably reenters it.” But it’s a mythical apotropiacal labour so to speak, having to undo and undo again the clinging shrouds of ontology, its “whited sepulchres.” It’s a work of tough love, to put it in pop-psychology terms. To advert to your opening questions again, the is is in such situations itself an emblem of tyranny.

MT: Do you think that there might be a way to ask questions about ontology that can escape the catch of philosophy-antiphilosophy?  Is there a way, in other words, to confront tyranny?

JC: Tyranny is a form of rapacious thoughtlessness. Although there’s no real point in even saying this, I still want to complain that most of the stuff that bills itself as ontology today bears the tyrant’s brand squarely on its forehead, comprising diverse postures and impostures of enthusiastic servitude, whereby we regularly meet, as Lacan puts it, slaves-who-think-they-are-masters. One symptom of this is that the sorts of things that current self-billed speculative ontologies start to describe as “objects” or “non-correlationist thought” or some such directly reproduce the technological strictures of contemporary communicational media, but thereby promulgate a logic that is outdated (e.g., crude deployments of a crude comprehension of the status of the principle of non-contradiction), have recourse to metaphors that are drawn from the lower end of popular computing discourses (“hard-wired,” “the universe is a digital computer”) or even project, say, the experience of blogging onto what is essentially a disavowed numinous beyond-within (any object you can think of is immediately a real object about which one can expatiate endlessly without ever entirely knowing), etc. Aside from anything else, it’s mystification: the eschewal of any empirical research or any sense of the irrevocability of philosophy’s enmeshment with its media situation entails the return of these determinations in an unrecognized, unthought and stupid form. To come back to your previous question, it’s partially a question of method: to go through the “empirical” to see if one can come out the other side, rather than the abrupt decision that one can happily have nothing to do with it whatsoever from the start.

But there are of course other ways to go about it. To give you a less embittered response…the very separation of ontology from philosophy was something I found unbelievably brilliant and effective about the work of Badiou. As he notoriously puts it: mathematics = ontology. This has a number of immediate consequences. First, ontology is not the special realm of philosophy; rather, it’s entirely external to philosophy, and goes along happily without philosophy. Second, this means that philosophy can’t simply go it alone, it’s completely dependent on its external conditions; aside from anything else, this stalls the operations of philosophy as a master-discourse, as philosophy now explicitly has to take its directives from varied outsides. Third, ontology can thus be separated from empirical and linguistic elements (unlike the formations I was just dissing, this does not depend upon a naïve break); pure mathematics is to say the least “relatively autonomous” of whatever empirical situations it may be working in and through. Fourth, it ups the work of reason required before anybody thinks they can simply say what they think as if that’s good enough; egalitarian in its address, mathematics famously requires a great deal of work, discipline, to undertake at all. Fifth, mathematics qua ontology does this by effecting a paradoxical torsion: rigorously identifying in its practice the points that decide the mobile boundary between consistency and inconsistency at the same time that it rigorously prevents itself from being able to thematise consistency as such (i.e., if a system can prove its own consistency then it’s inconsistent). Once again, a rigorous, rational, and egalitarian form of a self-denying ordinance that should force philosophy to think a little harder and a little better. There’s obviously more to say on this topic, but I’ll conclude by repeating: what I like about Badiou and Agamben, however different they are from each other (and in contrast to many contemporary thinkers), is that their genius depends on their having gone-through psychoanalysis in order to come out another side (and I would probably say the same too about earlier generations of influential European philosophers, such as Deleuze, Derrida and Foucault). Those who haven’t done this, however, can too easily end up as scary reactionaries expatiating endlessly and noisily upon their own putative radicality.

Here, psychoanalysis has some things to say. First, if you’ll permit a stupid formula, at the level of its “ontological” attentiveness, psychoanalysis prioritizes the singularity and diversity, the irreducibility of means. Second, it does this by a practice of free discourse which, in its way, has close affiliations to what I said above concerning mathematics: to engage in a disciplined project of free association in the teeth of its impossibility.

MT:  What’s next for you?

JC: I have a book coming out in February 2014 with Edinburgh UP titled Lacan Deleuze Badiou, co-written with A.J. Bartlett and Jon Roffe. It’s quite a crazy book in some ways, in fact practically schizoid, given it was written by three different people who don’t agree about anything about three different people who don’t agree about anything. But it picks up and extends some of the points we’ve been discussing above, particularly regarding the status of ontology today. A.J. Bartlett and I are also currently writing another book on Badiou together, this time about the category of impossibility in his work. With Adam Nash, a games designer, I’m finishing a manuscript titled Civilization and its Internet. Finally, I’ve got a big project with Tom Apperley and John Frow on the role of avatars in new media: the variable and vital interface functionaries that serve to bind users to the inhuman affordances of contemporary communication technologies.

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Mary Thomas is Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University, the author of Multicultural Girlhood: Racism, Sexuality and the Conflicted Spaces of American Education, and former review editor and editor of Society and Space.