On Adolescence

A fundamental insight of psychoanalysis is that we never grow out of our childhood. It is not a particularly difficult thought; does anyone remember a clear moment in their lives when they qualitatively stopped being children? When they experienced themselves as somehow distinct from how they experienced themselves as children? When they stopped being tired, hyperactive, confused, excited, desirous, angry, jealous, insecure, and arrogant? The wager of psychoanalysis is that we never grow out of childhood, but only that we come to think that we have. As soon as we’ve done that, we close ourselves off to many possibilities and many of our own wishes. We become efficient but numb, perhaps even unhappy. It is at this point we might undergo therapy – to enter into a conversation with a trained analyst that might allow us to have a more honest and rich conversation with ourselves, our wishes, our pasts and our futures.

What was it like to be a child? What is it like to remain a child into one’s twenties, thirties, and forties? It was and is not to know what it is that we want, never completely knowing what it is we wish for when we wish for something. This is at once a rather convoluted but also a rather simple thought to understand. It is convoluted in that it assumes that we never really know what we want, when we think we want something, what we really want is something else that the first something stands for. It is simple because if one stops and thinks about it, that simply is how one comes to want and then not want things. Why am I in the mood for pizza one night and not another? When did I know that I wanted to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or an engineer? Why did I fall in love with this person and not someone else? Why did this relationship stop working? When did I realise I wanted to change careers? Why did I think I was ready to move? Why did I want that at that particular time? As soon as one puts these questions to one’s life, or to anyone else’s life, one finds that the answers sooner or later run out. “Because I just did.”

Psychoanalytic accounts of the mind pay close attention to these moments, the times when all one can say is “I just did that, I can’t quite say why. It was the right thing to do really.” The wager of psychoanalysis is that if one thinks about this moment long enough, and if one continues to describe and redescribe the process in which one came to want something through freely associating all of the thoughts, dreams, and intentions one had in the past – one will understand and be able to give some account of that wish. This account would be retrospective and incomplete by necessity. It would be structured by yet another wish that we are unaware of in the moment of reconstruction, but will come to the surface at a later point in our lives. We are always running behind the bus of our desires. Like bus schedules, our wishes are inexplicable to us. Yet they structure our actions – our actions make our wishes manifest to some extent, and the wishes become somewhat explicable. In their new explicability we find a new excitement and sense of power over ourselves.

“When I was finding myself in friendships with people who cheerfully abused me and took me for granted, I was merely repeating the friendships I had made in high school, and those friendships resembled my relationship with my best friend in primary school who constantly teased me excessively but seemed at the time to be the most dazzling personality I’d ever met… all this time I’ve been looking for his approval and didn’t know it!”

I was doing something knowable this whole time and I didn’t know it. The excitement of psychoanalysis lies in the thought, as Adam Phillips puts it, that we “suffer from a surfeit of meaningful intentions.” There’s so much thought and meaning put into every single one of our actions, our mistakes, our gestures, our laughs, our turn-ons that we can only be aware of a part of it at any point of time.

2

“I never ask that question until after I’ve done it.” Han Solo, The Force Awakens

Star Wars is such a pure concatenation of male infantile wish fulfilment, that it is worth dwelling on what it is doing now, what it is we are doing when we wish to see and talk about Star Wars. In his insightful essay, Bady writes the following:

“It’s easy and fair to complain that the original trilogy had precisely one woman in it, and that she played sister, love interest, and mother all at once. This is how infantile (male) fantasies work, and Star Wars is nothing if not an infantile fantasy… If you let society into your movie, it might tell you to stop being a child.”

What’s interesting about the new Star Wars is its reflexivity about how it fulfils all of our infantile fantasies. By reflexivity, I refer to its ironical deployment of almost the exact same dialogue and plot structure of Episode IV: A New Hope. Many grizzled Star Wars fans came away disappointed that they weren’t challenged and weren’t surprised by the plot of this new one. On first viewing, I came away with the disquieting sense that I had been given exactly what I had wanted – a bit like meeting someone who is just too good to be true, or someone so agreeable that you just know there’s something disagreeable about them that they’re hiding somewhere. Like having eaten two huge slices of chocolate fudge cake at 1 am: you’re too full and you stopped tasting the chocolate about ten minutes ago. Is this what you really wanted?

JJ Abrams is a smart cookie. He has co-written a book whose interest apparently derives from a conversation that emerges in its marginalia. I haven’t read it, but if the New Yorker is to be trusted – and it sometimes isn’t – it is meant to be quite a thriller. I bring it up because this fact comports well with my thought that the new Star Wars successfully spoke to two sets of viewers at once. The first, the Star Wars fans old enough to have seen the first six and oriented their lives around them to some extent. The second, the friends, family, and children of those same viewers, or the rest of the world which had thankfully been spared the madness until now–  who have never seen Star Wars before. For the first set, Abrams knowingly recycled or “composted”, as Bady put it, the plot of the previous films to provocatively say: “these aren’t going to be your Star Wars anymore. These are the droids that you were looking for, but someone else is going to be playing with them.” The lack of surprise for old Star Wars fans seems a way to deliberately withdraw from them and undermine their libidinal investment in the new franchise. Or at the very least to channel it into something manageable and understandable, the Bady position: “I guess they were all commercial schlock from the beginning huh?” Abrams allows us to revel in our childhood but deliberately makes us uncomfortable that we are reveling in the exact same childhood that we indulged in when we watched IV, V, and VI over and over again. Like Lucas, he gives us the enjoyment of a space western but unlike Lucas, Abrams makes us dwell on the uncomfortable realization that we are perhaps doomed to repeat our childhoods forever. Perhaps our childhoods, those of us who were Star Wars fans as children, were actually quite uninteresting.

This brings us to Kylo Ren. It is absolutely perfect that he is a left shark Darth Vader. Kylo Ren is what we Star Wars nerds looked like to non-Star-Wars nerds when we were growing up. We could just never let it go. The Force was always a fantasy about power and omniscience, and a part of being an adolescent is to forcefully experience a reckless wish for omniscience that makes one say and do rather thoughtless and hurtful things. “I don’t know, he just isn’t that scary of a villain. He’s kind of pathetic no?” Seeing this figure throw temper tantrums with his lightsaber, one can almost see the 😛 expanded over the face of JJ’s grinning Snapchat story for diehard Star Wars fans. He is a perfect send-up of all the adolescent boys who idolised Darth Vader growing up, and further, a send-up of a kind of fandom which is possessive, cranky, touchy, aggressive, and obsessed with power.

It is perfect that Kylo is played by Adam Driver – the abusive boyfriend from the TV show Girls. His character in Girls was also an apposite figure for our age: a brooding, tortured soul who prides himself on his integrity and creative potential while emotionally exploiting and repeatedly assaulting the women attracted to this relentless melodramatic intensity. It is just so perfect that the grandson of Darth Vader struggles to get auditions in Brooklyn and doesn’t understand what a mutually respectful and loving relationship with a woman might consist in. Abrams plays on this theme by giving Ren his extremely wooden and creepy interaction with Rey in the final fight scene (“You need a teacher!”) – something that could have been easily said to Hannah by Adam. In the deliberate Oedipal references in the original Star Wars and this film, Kylo’s inability to relate to Rey also suggests something about his father: about Han’s inability to relate to Leia. This is quite a simple but important thought; if our fathers and grandfathers taught us to be impetuous, inconsistent, emotionally withholding and dominating in our relations with women, what chance do we have of turning out differently? Like Kylo, we might even turn out worse. Abrams knows that the previous heroes of Star Wars never consistently treated women as equals. He even allows Finn to make the same mistakes they did in underestimating the one woman in his life and constantly trying and failing to seduce and rescue her – unlike Luke, Anakin, Kylo and Han; Finn (a former brainwashed Stormtrooper no less) seems to learn from these mistakes.

To first-time viewers, I imagine it is pure fun – and the performances and arcs of Rey and Finn transform drastically the valences of this infantile fantasy in comparison to the original white male instantiation. It will be interesting to see where they go from here. Star Wars fans should be grateful to Abrams for giving them a chance to explore their ambivalence about their childhood fantasies, and perhaps for a chance to reinterpret and reimagine them in a simultaneously new and familiar backdrop.

3

“Every member of the audience was once a budding Oedipus in fantasy, and this dream-fulfilment played out in reality causes everyone to recoil in horror, with the full measure of repression which separates his infantile from his present state.” Freud on Oedipus Rex, The Origins of Psychoanalysis

The enfant terrible of Critical Theory, as one is certain he likes to be called, Slavoj Žižek, is currently engaging in an interesting and symptomatic exchange with a young and prolific English writer who had earlier taken aim at the former’s thoughtless interventions after the Paris attacks. Like Star Wars, Žižek’s appeal to this era can be best understood in terms of adolescent wish-fulfilment. Just as Star Wars taught us how to wish to be our own heroes, Žižek defined for many of us in college and high school what it was to be a provocative left radical thinker – someone who dared raise the “question” of communism and then dared to refuse to answer what it could possibly mean. One of his most striking formulations was his reversal of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, given in many public appearances and notably in a speech to the Occupy movement: “these days, we are too interested in trying to change the world, the point is to interpret it.”

Žižek at his best was an adolescent wish for what a Left thinker should sound like and act. That is, he should be charismatic and omnipresent and omnivorous, but perhaps act not at all lest he make himself vulnerable to a specific criticism. He was always already incoherent, and this was what made him so tremendously exciting to those of us who fell under his spell. We could interpret him in any which way, but his insistence on making jokes about Kant, Lacan, Hegel, and Marx made us feel like we were in on them – like we were doing critical thinking while laughing with this hyperactive and eccentric Slovenian. When we consider the slapdash nature of his political interventions – he often protests he is first and foremost a “philosopher” who is forced to write about “shitty politics” but would rather only write about Hegel – we might realise why it is that his form of Theory generates a lot of interest in Marx, Lacan, et. al., but little clarity on what he considers a defensible politics. His public statements are those of a walking unconscious, someone who can say anything that strikes his mind, connect it quickly with Lacan, Hegel, Marx and the latest pop-culture phenomena – and somehow make enough sense to perplex us, even seduce us, but never to convince us. He is what we might allow ourselves to think if we allowed ourselves to think whatever we wished. For conservatives, a comparable figure might be Niall Ferguson or Jeremy Clarkson.

Žižek, the Han Solo of our collective adolescence – a distant, charismatic father-figure who never quite fully explained his motivations and repeatedly decried the possibility of loving anyone or anything, yet found himself “reluctantly” dragged into political debates – seems to have found his Kylo Ren in Sam Kriss. One of the most thoughtful and charitable interpretations of Žižek is that by Christian Thorne, who in three lucid essays does an admirable job of developing Žižek’s vision of the good life and a good society. Trying to formulate Žižek’s political argument in the first essay, Thorne comes up against the fundamental problem with Žižekian Theory that we have already mentioned: is he at all interested in politics?

“The question is, rather, whether it can also produce a genuinely political practice. Could ordinary people learn en masse how to sever their desire from authority? Could we agree collectively not to fuck the police?—because if we can’t, then Lacanianism would seem condemned to remain a therapy and not a politics, to be undertaken in near isolation by the unhappy and the kithless, and producing little more than a libidinal aristocracy, the few upon whom liberated enjoyment has been bestowed, the jedi of the sinthome, an order increasingly restricted to France and Argentina and the university neighborhoods of Buffalo, NY.”

By sinthome, Thorne describes the (apparently Lacanian) possibility of discovering a desire that is not related to authority. Žižek’s version of psychoanalysis “really doesn’t care how you take your pleasures—provided that these make no reference to the Master, provided, that is, that they aren’t even a rebellion against him.” What could this possibly mean? How is it possible to sustain a non-relational desire if psychic life is almost entirely constituted by relations to objects and people? What kind of life does Žižek wish we lead?

Thorne answers:

“…when he tries to imagine this Lacanian politics, the models he turns to are notably austere: Kantianism, Christianity, Leninism. He says admiringly that poor teenagers with almost nothing to their name can still have discipline, an almost literal self-possession, a martial bearing and a karate chop. That most of us have met no such teenagers—that fifteen-year-olds tend, indeed, to be bywords not for discipline but for its opposite—suggests only how committed Žižek is to a certain fantasy of restraint and composure and self-command.”

In his second essay, Thorne describes the Gothic style of Žižek’s thinking:

“Critical theory, this is all to say, needs to be read not only as a teaching or a storehouse of oppositional arguments, but also as a historically inventive crossbreeding of philosophy and genre fiction. The Frankfurt School Reader is, in that sense, one of the twentieth century’s great horror anthologies. If we now insert Žižek into this philosophical-literary timeline, we should feel less awkward naming some of his writing’s schlockier conventions: his direct emotional appeals to the reader; his sudden juxtapositions of opposed argumentative positions, which recall less the patient extrapolations of the dialectic than they do the jump cuts of summer-camp massacre movies; his pervasive intermingling of high and low, which marks Žižek’s arguments as postmodern productions in their own right, against which the genre experiments of Freud or Benjamin will seem, in retrospect, downright Jamesian and understated and belletristic. Das Ding an sich is just about hearable as the name of a B-movie: The Thing In Itself!”

Kriss takes this Gothic element of critical theory to its logical, horrific, and darkly humourous conclusion in his many essays on the apocalyptic quality of English society. In one, he imagines the triumph of neoliberalism in the UK as an asteroid that everyone is somehow vainly marching against. In another, the UK is cast as an apocalyptic hellscape where the only mandatory enjoyment is a Cheeky Nando’s: “The radiation containment zone now covers the entire mainland United Kingdom north of Wakefield and south of Inverness.” In one of his best such interventions, he awakes to life in London:

“Beyond the crumbling walls of old London, in the outer circles of the Underground zoning system, the suburbs plod, miles of limp terracotta and chicken-shop spleen. Nothing has ever happened here, and nothing ever will.”

To summarise his essays is to miss the point, they speak in a mythical, folkloric style. An ironic, funny manner that satirises and simultaneously demonstrates the kernel of truth of the thinking of the radical left as it surveys the wasteland of Western politics today. They longingly imagine another world where one could so clearly see how dire things are in this one. Our question hunts us down: is Sam Kriss, the son of Slavoj Žižek, interested in politics? What is his vision of the good life?

We return to the scene of the confrontation. Kriss finds himself being torn apart and wants to be free of this pain. The pain of the Gothic richness of Theory when it faces the rather Victorian reality that Theory might necessarily remain a fantasy that we can’t quite think through, that we can only perhaps cling to.

“Which raises the question of what theory is actually for. Is it essentially just a game, a way of forming entertaining readings of pop-cultural ephemera, to be put aside in favour of a level and pragmatic analysis as soon as Real And Important Issues such as migration emerge? Or is it something that’s actually essential in forming a sophisticated understanding of the world, and never more so than when the unspoken demand is that we put away our rhizomes and différances, and start dealing with reality? However guilty I might be of the former tendency, I’d like to believe that the latter is true.”

Žižek approaches Kriss, hypnotized and mystified, tries vainly to grab his lightsaber but finds himself skewered by it – killed as it were, by the force of Kriss’ disdain but ultimately, his own hand. He begins his response to Kriss’ question by admitting that Merkel’s decision to accept refugees was a “was a genuine ethical miracle, one that cannot be reduced to the capitalist strategy of importing cheap labor force”. Han shoots first: he tells Kylo to put away his toys and start dealing with reality. A remarkable moment in the history of Theory – a telling instance of the poverty of Theory – where an avowed Marxist is creating an either/or between a capitalist strategy and genuine ethics. The rest of his intervention goes into a Lacanian understanding of jouissance which is familiar, provocative and thought-provoking, but operating at such a level of generality that it gives one the impression of having thought without a sense of what it is that one just thought about.

Han Solo and Kylo Ren, a lightsaber battle about whether our fantasies really do help us structure our realities or whether they don’t. Do we need Star Wars? Was it any good? Do we need Theory Wars? What is it that we wish for when we stage such confrontations?

4

Žižek was always suspicious of the knowingness with which certain thinkers approach politics and philosophy. A knowingness he and Kriss, and other Theorists perhaps ironise when they make their vigorous interventions. A kind of disregard with the real world is actually the best thing possible for an “intellectual” or an academic to carry into their public interventions. Because their public interventions, if they are not on a subject of their expertise, should be occasions for rethinking, reformulating, redescribing the phenomena that vex and baffle us everyday. To redescribe something it can help to be able to describe it so poorly that those who know it well can come to see it anew.

We might be well served to rather “brandish our ignorance like a crucifix” (following the quotation on Bady’s profile in the New Inquiry). This is not to say we should disavow everything we say, and disavow political responsibility for our statements. Everything is not permitted when one is a perpetual adolescent. Everything was not permitted when we were all adolescents and we knew that.

Žižek has spent most of his career refusing to answer pragmatic questions. When, as in the last year or two, he answers them definitively – or as close as one can get to definitive with such an elusive writer – he opens himself up to criticism on whether his thinking was ever so radical after all. In his shocking reversal to Kriss, his mistake was not to finally show his cards after many rounds of outrageous bluffing, it was his attempt to put his adolescence behind him. In that essay he tried to say that he – unlike the leftists who he argues don’t want to say what they will do about an issue, they just assume it – will bravely tell us what to do about it. Yet after extolling Chancellor Merkel – a position endorsed by the Economist – he goes right back to his Lacanian jouissance games like a tired 8 year-old returning to his iPad.

To be an adolescent is to be constantly aware that one does not really know but to act uncertainly yet forcefully as if one does. People go through most of their lives thinking that they know more than they actually do, because an unreasonable measure of certainty is necessary for any kind of effective action (as Nietzsche might tell you: “Cheerfulness, the good conscious, the joyful deed, confidence in the future – all of them depend, in the case of the individual as of a nation, on the existence of a line dividing the bright and discernible from the unilluminable and dark; on one’s being able to forget at the right time as to remember at the right time…”).

Anyone who can afford some leisure to think about their lives can give themselves the space to be ineffective in their actions, and perhaps more importantly, their opinions. This is what writing, thinking, and talking are ultimately about. They are spaces where we are allowed to interpret, misinterpret, and reinterpret each other – to alternatively succeed and fail at talking with one another – so that we can surprise ourselves and learn something new. To be impetuous, mistaken, infatuated, and furious with the world is to have an openness to one’s curiosity and also an unreasonable confidence in oneself to dwell in those parts where one is most ignorant. This is the best part of being an adolescent.

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1 Comment

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One response to “On Adolescence

  1. catchingtheox

    This is a most thoughtful and interesting essay. So very nice that there remain those who value psychoanalytic visions of our nature…those who
    have not yet succumbed to the Death Star dictum of conformity to a life lived according to merely materialist/utilitarian values.

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