A right-wing rad­i­cal on how West was lost

The Anti-Oedipus Com­plex: La­can, Crit­i­cal The­ory and Post­mod­ernism

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Rob Doyle

By Rob Weather­ill Rout­ledge, £31.99

Rob Weather­ill, one of Ireland’s lead­ing psy­cho­an­a­lysts, has since the 1990s been writ­ing sober­ing, force­ful books that utilise psy­cho­an­a­lytic the­ory – pri­mar­ily the work of Sig­mund Freud and the post­struc­tural­ist Jac­ques La­can – to probe the af­flic­tions of mod­ern so­ci­ety. The Anti-Oedipus Com­plex, his ex­tra­or­di­nary new work, di­ag­noses a western cul­ture blighted with anomie and deso­la­tion, and asks if any­thing can halt “the fi­nal seem­ingly un­stop­pable vic­tory of the in­hu­man”.

Weather­ill posits two cul­tural events as herald­ing the present malaise: first, the stu­dent up­ris­ings and li­bid­i­nal erup­tions of the 1960s; and, sec­ond, the pub­li­ca­tion, in 1972, of Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Gu­at­tari. This icon­o­clas­tic work of “schizo­anal­y­sis” be­came a favoured text of the anti-au­thor­i­tar­ian left. Weather­ill’s the­sis is that ever since this “orgy” of cul­tural and sex­ual revo­lu­tions the left has been ter­mi­nally com­plicit in con­sumer cap­i­tal­ism’s com­mand to en­joy no mat­ter what the cost.

The “anti-Oedi­pal” turn re­jects “the ba­sic ma­trix of mar­riage and fam­ily” in favour of “free-wheel­ing in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic modes of plea­sure”. Weather­ill ar­gues that this re­ver­sal has en­cour­aged a ha­tred for all forms of au­thor­ity, tra­di­tion, moral­ity and re­straint. Whereas Freud had in­sisted on the ne­ces­sity of fa­thers to en­sure men­tal health, post­mod­ern cul­ture takes a vis­ceral glee in the hu­mil­i­a­tion of all fa­thers, both real and fig­u­ra­tive. Equat­ing au­thor­ity with fas­cism, we ec­stat­i­cally slay our pa­tri­ar­chal masters, cheer­ing our “lib­er­a­tion” even as we re­move the last bul­warks against the in­hu­man ra­pac­ity of the mar­ket.

Sternly con­ser­va­tive

At times Weather­ill as­sumes a work­ing knowl­edge of psy­cho­an­a­lytic the­ory, in­clud­ing La­can’s no­to­ri­ously jar­gon-knot­ted work, and of 20th-cen­tury phi­los­o­phy. But the more aca­demic sec­tions are worth brav­ing for the real story here, which is that of a pro­found spir­i­tual and so­cial cri­sis with no easy end in sight.

Weather­ill en­lists var­i­ous rad­i­cal thinkers, among them Friedrich Ni­et­zsche, Slavoj Zizek (who is given a whole chap­ter), Jean Bau­drillard and Emmanuel Lev­inas. Krautrock, punk rock, cin­ema, lit­er­a­ture, geopol­i­tics, re­li­gion and his­tory are sounded out in the anti-anti-Oedi­pal cri­tique.

Although Weather­ill is fas­ci­nated by Bau­drillard’s post- Marx­ist ac­count of the dis­ap­pear­ance of re­al­ity and the vi­ral repli­ca­tion of the same, and cel­e­brates the left­ist Zizek for sin­gle-hand­edly re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing psy­cho­anal­y­sis as a sub­ver­sive the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work, the un­der­ly­ing val­ues here are sternly con­ser­va­tive.

At i ts most provoca­tive The Anti-Oedipus Com­plex ac­cuses lib­er­als and pro­gres­sives of abet­ting con­sumer cap­i­tal­ism’s degra­da­tion of hu­mankind in the name of “en­joy­ment unto death”. In­deed, he traces the con­tem­po­rary left’s strate­gies back to fas­cist ori­gins. The unspoken aim of pro­gres­sivist causes, Weather­ill ar­gues, is to clear the way for anti-Oedi­pal lives of un­fet­tered en­joy­ment and ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Abor­tion is vir­tu­ally cel­e­brated among con­sumer lib­er­als: “The ‘right to choose’ [is] the sig­ni­fier of mod­ern lib­eral demo­cratic con­sumers.” Moder­nity’s “gi­ant abor­tion ma­chine” dis­places the sac­ri­fi­cial vi­o­lence of the scape­goat onto the foe­tus, which, “lit­er­ally un­seen, has no rights, no voice, and rep­re­sents the ul­ti­mate out­cast, trash, oth­er­wise-than-be­ing”.

Anger sim­mers

Although the tone is cool and au­thor­i­ta­tive, anger here and there sim­mers be­hind a screen of irony. Fem­i­nism is not be­yond crit­i­cism: “Just think of the many achieve­ments to be notched up . . . 42 per cent of mar­riages in the UK end in di­vorce, mostly ini­ti­ated by coura­geous, in­tel­li­gent women who are free to live lives of sex­ual free­dom again.”

Weather­ill ac­knowl­edges the un­bri­dled misog­yny of the anti-Oedi­pal era but in­sists that the dis­man­tling of pa­tri­archy and the de­mon­i­sa­tion of men (whereby “white male” has be­come a deroga­tory phrase) have abet­ted cap­i­tal­ism’s ni­hilis­tic agency and in­ten­si­fied the “mon­strous cold” of the con­tem­po­rary.

Among fas­cist con­sumer left­ists, no dis­sent is tol­er­ated: “The fas­cist trick was/ is to hit those un­en­light­ened few who ques­tion these force­ful and emo­tive nar­ra­tives of pride­ful right­eous­ness and en­ti­tle­ment and shame them pub­licly.” Se­ri­ous think­ing is for­bid­den, “be­cause it is likely to of­fend, cause con­flict, trig­ger warn­ings”. Thus cul­tural change is ef­fected l argely with­out chal­lenge, “spurred by key so­cial ac­tivists and a younger anti-Oedi­pal gen­er­a­tion on so­cial me­dia who can­not be­lieve their luck as they find them­selves push­ing at an open door”.

Even those who share Weather­ill’s dis­may at the shal­low­ness of much pro­gres­sivist dis­course may find el­e­ments of his rhetoric ob­jec­tion­able. Avowedly anti-Is­lamist, he for­goes the com­plex­ity of thought else­where in ev­i­dence by cherry-pick­ing ci­tat i ons t hat blithely af­firm t he Trumpian/Ban­non­ist view that Is­lam is dan­ger­ous in it­self, ir­re­spec­tive of geopo­lit­i­cal fac­tors at play in the so-called war on ter­ror.

Con­cerns about eco­log­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion are treated as lit­tle more than a neu­rotic delu­sion. Drugs, “in­ward­ness”, “mys­ti­cism” and Bud­dhism are writ­ten off as symp­toms of our anti-Oedi­pal re­jec­tion of value and tra­di­tion, with no ac­knowl­edg­ment of the eth­i­cal en­cour­age­ment many find in such prac­tices.

Although it is not clear that the au­thor is a be­liever, the Catholic Church is en­dorsed as “of­fer­ing the only se­ri­ous cri­tique to these lines of de­struc­tion”. Chris­tian­ity’s litany of his­toric crimes is all but ig­nored.

So be it: if this book did not pro­voke it would en­act the same cat­a­strophic drift that it de­cries. Pre­cious few writ­ers are en­gag­ing in ques­tions of this breadth and se­ri­ous­ness with the au­thor­ity and learn­ing that Weather­ill dis­plays here. Few con­so­la­tions are of­fered. This is the bad news that we make so much noise drown­ing out.

Rob Doyle’s most re­cent book, This Is the Rit­ual, is pub­lished by Blooms­bury and Lil­liput Press

Herald­ing a malaise: part of the Paris stu­dent up­ris­ings of 1968, whose lead­ers in­cluded Daniel Cohn-Ben­dit (cen­tre). PHO­TO­GRAPH: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

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