Michael Barkun is professor emeritus of Political Science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, specialising in political extremism and the relationship between religion and violence. He is the author of A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, University of California Press, 2003/2011, as well as numerous other books.
TLR – The phenomenon of conspiracism, although it is present in Europe, and especially so since the advent of the Internet, seems more developed in the United States. Could you tell us whether you agree and, if yes, why you think this might be the case?
Michael Barkun – Europeans commonly think Americans are more prone than they are to view the world in terms of conspiracies. Since I examine American conspiracism rather than European, I am not in a position to judge whether the European view is correct. However, I can say there is a danger in stressing the uniqueness of American experience. For example, if we look at the beginnings of conspiracism in the United States, we see that it is focused on Masons, the Illuminati, and Catholics – these theories are clearly based on European models. And at the same time, some other forms of European conspiracism did not put down roots here. For example, the witch craze that tore through parts of Europe had few effects here, despite such dramatic and well-documented cases as Salem. And although there was certainly American anti-Semitism, it rarely resembled the political and racial forms that developed in Europe in the late 19th century.
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In the sense of unleashing a real without law, the crisis that has traversed and tested my analysis has been that of the couple. How to conjoin love and desire, how to resolve the antinomy between my thirst for love and my desire for liberty? I was inhabited by the illusion that the love of a man would allow me to escape my feminine solitude, and I was not able to undo myself from this amorous obsession. To please, to seduce, to do everything so as not to displease and risk being rejected, this was the necessity that was imposed on me in an implacable manner…
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The end of my cure has not been a crisis for me, but an unknotting. And a new knotting.
At the end of my cure I was determined to go right to the end of the experience. In the last few months there were a lot of therapeutic and catalytic effects, but without a proper crisis; there has been an effect of liberation, something soft and very cheerful, a simplification. Crisis had actually been linked with neurosis. The end of the cure meant a paradigm shift, in Thomas Kuhn’s terms:3 quitting the paradigm of fantasy. But whereas a scientific paradigm shift requires working out a new paradigm, for me it was just a question of consenting to a knowledge built up during the cure, knowledge being one of the names of the unconscious, as in Lacan’s sentence: “it is important not to understand to understand”. I interpret this sentence as letting go of one’s will to understand, and seizing (grasping) the knowledge of the unconscious.
1 René Char : « Tu ne peux pas te relire mais tu peux signer », Feuillets d’hypnos, n° 96.
2 Jérôme Lecaux (AE), is a psychoanlyst, member of the École de la Cause freudienne (ECF, France).
3 Khun, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
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I left my analyst on evidence: I had nothing left to say; the very early departures from Bordeaux were tiring for me. I was coming to sessions to feel the satisfaction of appearing, disappearing and reappearing at the next session. A dream of an end of analysis made me conclude: ‘Enough of this alternation life drive/death drive: the drive is a constant thrust anyway, now I can leave you’. The constancy was that of life putting an end to the deadening identification with the uncle reported missing, and the involvement of the gaze. The analyst confirmed my decision. But I had a debt for missed sessions, unpaid because of a trip that had allowed me to disappear and reappear as I saw fit. In haste I returned to settle this secret jouissance and was welcomed by the analyst raising his arms wearily. My request to present the procedure of the pass was made in haste, because paradoxically, there is certainty in a moment of not knowing. All I knew was that the experience was ending on this point. Relieved of the gaze, believing that I had acquitted myself of my debt, what remainder pushed me to accomplish this act? The end of the experience, tied to the perspective of the pass, was not a moment of crisis for me, as the not knowing bore on the existence of this very remainder...
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Today, to speak about one’s unease, one’s difficulties, one’s symptom, means having to speak of them in a new language. Or at the very least it means accepting that they may be translated into a foreign language, which would allow for both a rationalisation and a resolution of these problems. The new language aims to describe the difficulties of the mind in logical or mechanical terms in the clearest possible way. What language is this and who speaks it? This new language is spoken by the theoreticians and practitioners of cognitivism.
The contemporary movement of ‘scientific’ psychology emerged in the 1960s. It used new concepts such as ‘long-term memory’, ‘short-term memory’, ‘encoding’, ‘information recall and storage’, ‘declarative knowledge’, ‘procedural knowledge’, ‘problem solving’, ‘expertise’, ‘semantic memory’, and ‘episodic memory’, in order to describe how our psyche works. Using these new labels, we can speak about a problem that the subject encounters in his life as though we were speaking about a mathematical or technical problem.
The new language seeks to translate what resists all scientific observation into cybernetic terms, namely the tortuous paths of our thoughts and their associated emotions. To explain thought, cognitivism relies on the model of the machine.1 If we manage to describe the system of thought in the same way as we explain the functioning of a computer, we will come close to a valid theorisation of the human mind, since it is an objectifiable one. What does it mean to approach life problems through a model essentially derived from artificial intelligence? If some people castigate psychoanalytic concepts as inapt to describe the reality of difficulties encountered by patients2 we can, for our part, question the use of concepts derived from information theory to speak about our ‘subjectivity’.
Can we compare psychical symptoms to computer dysfunction? Can we hope to resolve existential problems as we resolve a mathematical equation with two unknowns?
1 Daniel Andler, Professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, clearly defined the field of cognitivism as structured by mathematical logic and cybernetics in the programme “Panorama des sciences cognitives” on radio France Culture, Les Chemins de la connaissance, Monday 23 October, 2005.
2 Jean Cottraux asks “Is psychoanalysis a theoretical mountain that has finally given birth to a therapeutic mouse?” in “La psychanalyse soigne-t-elle ?” in Le livre noire de la psychanalyse: Vivre, penser et aller mieux sans Freud, Les Arènes, Paris, 2005, p. 347.
(…) The Innocents photographed by Taryn Simon are the great witnesses of (the rise of forensic evidence in police investigations). The reason is that, after being accused and sentenced to death on the testimony of witnesses who had been interrogated for a long time according to old methods, most of them were finally cleared by genetics. This means it took these men seven, ten, fifteen if not eighteen years’ waiting until a DNA test they underwent testified to their innocence. Wrongly convicted, these men were exonerated thanks to DNA tests conducted by an association, the Innocence Project, an NGO present in the United States, in Canada, in the United Kingdom, in Australia and New Zealand, the goal of which is to demonstrate the innocence of victims of miscarriages of justice, by resorting to counter-assessments based on DNA tests, thus invalidating old theories which led to charges, and founded in their turn on the sole basis of testimony, or even on the expertise of the forensic police. Significantly enough, Innocence Project joined Taryn Simon’s project.
The forensic DNA analysis method is quite recent in forensic science. It has spread since the late eighties. Forensic police laboratories existed much earlier. Since the seventies they had been conducting analyses of genetic markers (blood-types, rhesus, etc.) but at that stage it was not referred to as DNA yet. Pursuing Oswald Avery’s work on desoxyribonucleic acid as the basis of heredity in the forties, the double-helix structure of DNA was discovered by Watson and Crick in1953, but the first genetic profile to be observed was the 1985 profile given by a British geneticist, Alec Jeffreys, who thereby paved the way for identification tests. The first DNA tests were operational and commercialized in England in1987.
The method was used for the first time that very year, in the Colin Pitchfork affair. A fifteen-year-old teenager was found raped and murdered in the neighbourhood of the English village of Narborough, in the county of Leicester. The only clue the police could find were traces of sperm, which was not sufficient evidence to find the culprit. Three years later, in 1986, in the same region, another fifteen-year-old girl’s body was found; the girl had been raped too. A young baker’s assistant was interrogated. After first admitting to being guilty, he retracted. The police had a blood sample taken and called on doctor Alec Jeffreys for a DNA test. The latter compared the genetic print of the suspect to the one obtained from the sperm found on the first girl. The genetic analysis proved that the young man was guilty of neither crime. The police, convinced as they were that the author of the murder was someone local, then decided to subject the whole male population of three neighbouring villages to a blood test. This was how four thousand five hundred men underwent a DNA test. The first use of DNA in the criminal field was thus simultaneous with the first mass test. But it will also require a stroke of luck to unmask the murderer. One day in 1987, in a pub, a policeman overheard a conversation: a man called Colin Pitchfork had allegedly paid someone to have a blood test in his place. Pitchfork was arrested. The DNA tests confirmed he was the murderer of the two teenagers. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in January 1988. From their first judicial use, genetics have exonerated, genetics have condemned (…)
Now, what makes Taryn Simon’s work so forceful does not lie in the praise of the DNA test. Her portraits are not a plea for the use of biotechnologies in criminal affairs. What basically gives life to her work is of a different nature; it is something which strictly determines its shape, in this case, the use of photography. Also it reveals that the stories of these men are linked to a single essential datum. The miscarriages of justice of which they have been the victims all have the same source: from the outset these innocents have all been found guilty, tried and sentenced to death by images.
(To be continued…)
Psychoanalysis is changing (…)
For example, we cannot fail to see that there has been a break, when Freud invented psychoanalysis under the aegis, as it were, of the reign of Queen Victoria, a paragon of the suppression of sexuality, whereas the twenty-first century is seeing the vast spread of what is called "porno", which amounts to coitus on show in a spectacle that is accessible to anyone on the web by means of a simple click of the mouse. From Victoria to porno, we have not only passed from prohibition to permission, but to incitation, intrusion, provocation, and forcing. What is pornography but a fantasy that has been filmed with enough variety to satisfy perverse appetites in all their diversity? There is no better indicator of the absence of sexual relation in the real than the imaginary profusion of the body as it devotes itself to being given and being taken. ...
... This is something new in sexuality, in its social regime, in its learning patterns, among young people, the young who are just starting out on this path. Masturbators are now spared the task of having to produce their own waking dreams by themselves because they find them readymade, ready dreamt for them. When it comes to pornography, the weaker sex is the male, who gives into it more readily. How often do we hear men in analysis complaining of their compulsions to follow these pornographic frolics, even to stock them up on their hard drives. On the other side, on the side of their wives and mistresses, women practice less than they keep themselves informed of their partner's practices. And then, it depends: she might think of them as a betrayal, but she might think of them as an inconsequential amusement.
This clinic of pornography belongs to the twenty-first century. I'm mentioning it, but it would deserve to be looked at in detail because it is insistent and, for the last fifteen years or so, it has become extremely present in analyses.
But how can we not mention in regard to this very contemporary practice what was pointed out by Lacan as the upsurge of the effects of Christianity in art, effects that were carried to their height by the Baroque? Just back from Italy and a tour of its churches, which Lacan referred to rather nicely as an "orgy", he noted in his Seminar Encore that all that amounts to an exhibition of the body that evokes jouissance. This is where we've got to with pornography. Nevertheless, the religious exhibition of swooning bodies always leaves copulation itself "off-screen", just as it is out of bounds in human reality, as Lacan observes.
This is a curious re-emergence of the expression "human reality". Réalité humaine is the expression that the first translator of Heidegger into French used to express Dasein. But it's been a long while now since we cut off the path of allowing any Being to this Dasein. In the technological age, copulation is no longer confined to the private domain, feeding the fantasies of each of us, now it has been integrated into the field of representation and has passed onto to a mass scale.
There is a second difference that needs to be underlined between pornography and the Baroque. In the way that Lacan defines it, the Baroque aimed to regulate the soul by means of viewing bodies, through bodily scopy. There is nothing of the like in pornography. There is no regulation, but rather a constant infraction. The body-scopy in pornography functions as a nudge towards a jouissance that is designed to be gratified following the pattern of "surplus jouissance", a mode that transgresses the precarious homeostatic regulation in its silent and solitary realisation. The ceremony ordinarily fills the screen with its wordless achievement, save the faked sighs and gasps of pleasure. The adoration of the phallus, the erstwhile secret of the mysteries, remains a central episode – except in lesbian pornography – but is now something quite banal.
The global spread of pornography by means of the electronic net has without any doubt produced effects that are being vouched for in psychoanalysis. What does the omnipresence of pornography at the start of this century represent, what does it say? Well, nothing more than that sexual relation doesn't exist. This is what is echoed, and in some sense chanted, by this incessant and ever-available spectacle, because only this absence is likely to account for this infatuation whose consequences we are already having to follow in the mores of the younger generation in their style of sexual behaviour: disenchantment, brutalisation, and banalisation. The fury of copulation in pornography reaches a degree zero of meaning that reminds readers of the Phänomenologie des Geistes of what Hegel said of the kind of death that was inflicted by "universal liberty" in the face of the Reign of Terror, namely that it is "the coldest and meanest of all deaths, with no more significance than cutting off a head of cabbage or swallowing a mouthful of water." Pornographic copulation possesses the same semantic vacuity.