After the coronavirus passes, so they say, the world will not go back to what it was before. When we emerge on the other side of the pandemic’s rabbit hole, they tell us, the world will be different and so will we. Current views suggest that a crisis is a door to the unknown and many try to speculate what the future holds, letting free a surge of fantasmatic and delusional forecasts. Nevertheless, the majority agrees it is yet too soon to estimate what may follow once the pandemic settles down.
Ninety years ago, when the world was in turbulence, in times of major political, social and economic changes, Freud published what was badly translated as “Civilization And Its Discontents” – “Das Unbehagen In Der Kultur”. Only ten years earlier he lost his daughter, Sophie, to the Spanish flu. The young democracy of the republic of Weimar was unstable and fragile, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing financial crisis took its victims and central European anti-Semitism was on the rise. Perhaps it was a sense of urgency that drove him to write this prophetic text.
In order to avoid dis-civilized mayhem, man must relinquish happiness and freedom, Freud claimed. For culture to be established and for it to endure, human beings need to forego their aspirations for complete happiness and whole-encompassing freedom. “We shall never completely subdue nature”, Freud wrote. “It seems to be certain that our present-day civilization does not inspire in us a feeling of well-being” he added, and “the liberty of the individual is not a benefit of culture” he concluded . Admirably, Freud went very far with his propositions, but perhaps he did not go all the way.
In his Seminar XI – The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis – Lacan said that “[The] split constitutes the characteristic dimension of analytic discovery and experience; it enables us to apprehend the real, in its dialectical effects, as originally unwelcome. It is precisely through this that the Real finds itself, in the subject, to a very great degree the accomplice of the drive” . The lost object which inhabits this split, as a void, is what bears the name in Lacanian algebra – the petit a.
We “have recognized the evolution of culture as a special process, comparable to the normal growth of an individual to maturity”, Freud maintained . Hence, we may accordingly maintain, that cultures, as subjects, are constituted upon a split, a Real, an object petit a, which is an accomplice of the drive.
In this respect, happiness and freedom waived on behalf of culture, are but mere objects of disposal, standing for object petit a, inhabiting the void of the Real and concealing castration, just for them to be constituted as lost objects to begin with. As such, they are but remnants, fragments, leftovers to be rid of, in order for culture to sustain itself.
Three years after the publication of “Das Unbehagen In Der Kultur”, Freud had witnessed how the National Socialist Party of Germany gained government control and embarked on a venture to create a new German culture and identity, while Jews where radicalized as an object a, embodying a Real excess that the fabric of Nazism could not incorporate .
Indeed, we cannot thus far tell how we will emerge on the other side of the pandemic, but be that as it may, whatever new forms of culture will appear, they will materialize according to the choice of that which will occupy the place of object petit a and will be the accomplice of the drive.
- Strachey, J. (1961). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXI (1927-1931): The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents, and Other Works. 1-273. The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, London.
- Lacan J. (1978). The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, London. Edited by JA Miller. Translated by Alan Sheridan. p.69.
- Žižek S. Object a and the Function of Ideology (2012) in: http://zizekpodcast.com/2016/04/19/ziz033-object-a-and-the-function-of-ideology-20012/