On YouTube, you can watch the encounter between black British Guardian journalist Gary Younge and American white nationalist Richard Spencer (6 November 2017). Younge proceeds as if the normal rules of question and answer apply, but Spencer’s speech takes no account of that and just becomes increasingly offensive and racist as the three minutes tick by. Younge and, no doubt, the hapless viewer become increasingly distressed. Spencer is not lying -he is disavowing the very idea of truth, forcing jouissance onto the other, separating him from his trusted assumptions about truth and the familiar pathways of reason. Try as he may, Younge cannot get a purchase on the conversation because it simply doesn’t occur to him that truth may have no place in the equation for Spencer.
As the scenario unfolds, one gets a sense that physical violence is not far away. Indeed, there is a whole series of YouTube clips that show how close the violence is. In a different set of videos, in an exchange between another interviewer and a well-dressed, quietly-spoken Spencer in New York on Trump’s Inauguration Day, January 2017, Spencer is stating that he is not a Nazi or a member of the alt-right, and he says, in fact, that ‘they hate me’. It is when the interviewer notices a cute little lapel badge on Spencer’s smart jacket and Spencer begins to explain ‘Oh, yes, that’s Pepe the Frog’ that violence crashes in from one side of the frame. A hooded figure jumps in and punches Spencer in the head. The video clip that I was watching had been edited and set to a track called ‘Blue Monday’, by the band New Order. There are many different versions of this clip, each with different music, each one making use of the beat of the music to repeat the moment of the punch. The unpleasant amount of jouissance that was mounting in this viewer got transformed into laughter by the artistry of the video and left the body with the force of a gale.
It is not a question of whether it is ‘right or wrong to punch a Nazi’, which was posed by the next video, automatically cued to play after this clip. That would be the never-ending argument awaiting anyone who can’t allow themselves to laugh at Spencer’s temporary discomfiture. The real question is who is going to be the object of the inevitable violence, and when. In Younge’s encounter, no one actually got punched in the head, but both the viewer and Younge ‘take a hit’ from Spencer’s jouissance that truly takes time and effort to recover from.
Let’s just go back and take a look at that lapel badge. Pepe the Frog is the best-known meme associated with the alt-right. It is often to be seen asserting white supremacist ideas on various chatrooms and social media platforms. Despite its origin having nothing to do with the alt-right, Pepe the Frog was added to the Anti-Defamation League’s database of hate symbols in 2016. As we continue into the early years of this 21st century, it is going to become more and more important to understand how superficially anodyne images and signifiers, or even statements like ‘we are not racists’ (a constant trope in the PR strategy of the Football Lads Association), become mobilised and play a role in the mass channelling of jouissance in potentially (and sometimes actually) wild, destructive ways. What is operating when a mass starts moving? How are we taking our bearings in the new societal arrangements that are emerging in the post-paternal era? What accounts for the triumph of masses today?
These are some of the questions that are being addressed by a growing group of readers as they prepare to take part in a marathon reading of Freud’s classic text, Massenpsychologie. We are going to read it in English at the Freud Museum on Midsummer’s Day in what could be called ‘a reflexive performance’. We are gathering ‘en masse’ at Freud’s house to take it in turns to read a few pages each of Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (Hogarth Press, 1955). There is already a debate about the translation – is it only those who identify as ‘English’ who pledge allegiance to Strachey’s translation? Our European colleagues seem quicker to pick up the new translation by J.O. Underwood (Mass Psychology and the Analysis of the ‘I’, Penguin, 2005). The text will be read in English, but in a range of different accents, both regional and international.
What makes this event especially poignant is that it will take place 80 years after Freud arrived in London; the Nazis had annexed Austria in March 1938, and Ernest Jones had gone to fetch Freud, mobilising help in France from Marie Bonaparte and William Bullitt (the American Ambassador), and in England from Lord De La Warr, the Lord Privy Seal (see Chapter VI of Volume III of Jones’s biography of Freud).
In the opening lines of his text, Freud proposes that the difference between individual and social psychology is not as great as one might think. In trying to understand and to be a part of the subjectivity of ‘our times’, we could do worse than approach the questions via Freud’s observations. Changes in the social context are linked to the subjectivity of each one, but how? Our poster of the murmuration of starlings gives a clue to the spirit of the time and encourages us to think again about how we act in relation to others, how we unconsciously identify with them. These murmurations are frequently used as motifs in the context of mass migration. Freud was careful to mark the difference between a horde with a leader and some kind of organisation, and a herd without one, but today, with the aid of the internet, we seem to have greater masses of people acting without obvious leaders but being mobilised by master signifiers nonetheless. Pepe the Frog is one example of an unlikely ‘leader’ for our times. As the old master signifiers become redundant, and the traditions and hierarchies of order that they used to command lose their power, we see great masses of ‘equalised’ subjects, ‘the people’, rallying behind phrases and symbols of identification.
We shall have some fun. We shall do some work. We shall take up some space. We shall bring Freud to life in London, and we may even be on TV. Yes, the BBC has chosen that very weekend to film a documentary about contemporary civilisations and their discontents.
Come! Gather! Add your voice to Freud’s words in the house in which he found refuge and where he completed ‘Moses and Monotheism’. This will be an organised reading, with participants preparing their contribution in advance: if you would like to be considered as a reader, please get in touch by end of May (at the latest).
The Freud Museum has generously offered to host the reading and to provide refreshments for performers and listeners alike who wish to stay to discuss the ideas and questions that the reading will surely raise. The event itself is free when you purchase an entry ticket to the museum (on the door, or online).