If you have paid attention even slightly to international news in recent weeks, you may be aware of a series of catastrophic bush fires in Australia. Images from the fires have done much to depict the horror of the situation, but some statistical supplementation adds to the context. So far, at least 28 people have been killed. The eventual number will likely be vastly greater, particularly as several of Australia’s major cities are shrouded in carcinogenic smoke, which is known to provoke a variety of health conditions. The scale of the fires is unprecedented in its size and intensity, with some generating their own thunderstorms, which, in turn, produce more fires. Estimates vary, but it is likely that over a billion animals have perished horribly from species that are now extinct. At the time of writing – mid-January 2020 – the fire season is not yet half-finished, and the devastation is far from concluded.

Two ominous stories may not have been so well-reported in the international media. Melbourne and Sydney are Australia’s two most populous cities, and between them, are home to over 9 million people. In December of 2019 – a few weeks ago – fires had entered well within the perimeter of metropolitan Melbourne, in the suburbs about 16 kilometres from the city’s central business district, and home to thousands of people. Rural Australia has always been vulnerable to fires, albeit, of a lesser scale, but this encroachment was as unique as it was concerning. Meanwhile, in the sprawling expanse of suburbs in Sydney’s west, the temperature reached a new record of 48.9 Celsius. Australia is becoming uninhabitable.

Psychoanalysis can offer some reference points to this destruction. The situation resembles, inter alia, the trauma and grief of terminal illness. In such cases, the loss is discernible both at present, and in an anticipatory fashion. It would be easy, and not wholly inaccurate to inscribe the current events in Australia as an effect of the capitalist discourse, of which Australians are entrenched participants. Lacan relates this discourse to consumption. Do not be seduced by Australian propaganda showing a nation of laid-back larrikins; above all, Australians are consumers. On December 26th, as much of the nation either burned or recovered from the orgy of consumption that is Christmas, traffic became gridlocked in major cities as shoppers went to the Boxing Day sales. In May 2019, Australians voted, by a narrow majority, to return to power a Government running on a platform of economic prosperity coupled with climate change denial. Its imperatives are the usual neoliberal ones: work and consume. These imperatives have lead to every-increasing individualisation of this crisis. Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, insists that Australians must undertake a strategy of ‘resilience and adaptation’ with respect to the catastrophe, in which the systematic causes of the crisis – Australia’s colossal carbon footprint – remain entirely untouched. This, to quote from the PM, is the ‘new normal’ to which Australians must submit.

Lacan affirms that the capitalist discourse centres demand rather than desire, and it proceeds on the basis of the foreclosure of castration. Addiction is one of the most contemporary of individual symptoms, and is perhaps the exemplary 21st century mode of enjoyment. We can observe the Verleugnung at its heart in the case of Australia’s economic and environmental policies, in which successive governments ignored dire warnings, and, even now, whilst partially acknowledging the scale of the disaster, is committed to business as usual. Just as every smoker knows that his habit is destructive, but does it anyway, Australia approaches its environmental problems by way of disavowal, where even this is not effaced by conspiracy theory[1]. Cutting emissions, according to both of Australia’s main political parties, must not be done in a manner contrary to the interests of the coal industry, as this would be economically destructive. Meanwhile, several other industries – the tourist and the agricultural, for instance – are going up in smoke. As Lacan indicated in his teaching, by way of a very small shift between $ and S1, the subject qua consumer ends up consuming all too well, and is, in the end, himself consumed[2]. I can think of no more apt name for this phenomenon than that given by Stijn Vanheule: ‘burnout’. In this reading of things, we Australians have, in Dantean fashion, constructed our own contrapasso.

This is not the full story, however, as the capitalist discourse, even in neoliberal, Anglophone Australia, has been not-all in its effects rather than totalising. Anecdotal accounts given to me from those in the disaster zone give testimony to the persistence of social bonds other than those of buyer and seller. Communities have banded together to protect life and property, to preserve wildlife, fight fires, distribute food, accommodation and health services to those in need. This activity has been very largely the province of volunteers rather than government. Given the enormity of the problems facing Australia, it is premature to see these efforts as grounds for hope, yet if there is despair, it is of a sort which has produced its own courage.

Famously, Lacan quipped that it was Marx, prior to Freud, who invented the symptom[3]. Political symptoms in Australia are normally characterised by inhibition, but public anger may yet generate something different this time. The Real effects of these fires are not easily dispatched by a disavowal. One need only step outside in one of several major Australian cities at present to experience acrid smoke coursing through deserted streets. (Despite it being school holidays at present, children under 15 are advised to remain inside.  Theoretically, protective masks can allow one to go outside safely in the haze, but the market is exhausted of its supplies). It may not quite be the apocalypse, but you can certainly smell it from here.

Lacan has given us a counter-discourse with which to confront apathy, and above all, ‘resilience and adaptation’, to which he expressed his horror, for being ‘conformist in its aims, barbarous in its doctrine[4]’. He was speaking of psychologism, but adaptationism is no less horrific for what it demands in other fields. In Australia, the barbarians are not at the gates, but rather, at the helm, funded by Australia’s two political titans, the fossil fuel industry, and the Murdoch media. With the exception of a belated and minimal response, the government has left the Australian people for dead, and the insurance companies are following their lead. Crisis creates opportunities. In this case, that may lead to mere hysteric refusal, or to a mere renegotiation of the addiction, as in the case of the drinker who replaces vodka with wine. Nonetheless, it may yet provoke a a new discourse, on with a desire literally, for life.


[1] The Murdoch media and certain government politicians have blamed the severity of the fires not on decades of ruling class negligence, but on a conspiracy or environmentalists and arsonists.

[2] Lacan J. (1972). Du discours psychanalytique, in Lacan in Italia 1953-1978. En Italie Lacan, ed Contri G. B., editor. (Milan: La Salamandra; ), 32–55.

[3] Lacan, J. (1974). RSI. Session 10/12/74.

[4] Lacan, J. (1964). Founding Act. In Television: A challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment.

Image:Credit @ Matthew Abbott for The New York Times