Photo of Justin Clemens by Nicolas Healey-Walton
Justin Clemens, a Society and Space board member and faculty at 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 book by Justin, coauthored with A. J. Bartlett and Jon Roffe, also with Edinburgh UP to be published next month: Lacan Deleuze Badiou.
MARY: 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: 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.
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?
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