Mass Psychology in the Age of Trumpism: Chiara Bottici, Judith Butler, Jamieson Webster

Mass Psychology in the Age of Trumpism: Chiara Bottici, Judith Butler, Jamieson Webster

This event was part of the Philosophy Colloquium and of the “Fascism: Old and New” initiative in Public Seminar. Click here for more info on the Public Seminar initiative


Summary by Evan Malater:

1) Jamieson Webster: On The Taboo on Virginity

When faced with certifiable big questions, the tendency is to reach for canonical or authoritatively supercharged theory. Jamieson does an end run around the hoary paralysis of major theory by mixing the inevitable discussion of Group Psychology with a minor, infrequently cited Freud paper called The Taboo on Virginity.

It is a deft move on her part because this paper has some equally daft and brilliant reflections on the sexual bond in group psychology. By contrast, Group Psychology is often emphasizing the way groups contain sexuality in order to arrive at group cohesion. Jamieson begins by sketching Freud’s argument that inhibition leads to anaesthesia. Freud adds that such inhibition involves mourning in all the familiar Freudian ways – but adds the specific loss of libido as another sort of loss that must be confronted in its own right.

The importance of Virginity lies in the manner in which the sexual bond will create a lifelong bond between partners and so to be the first is packed with significance. Freud makes an anthropological foray that leads him to examine De-virginization rituals in other cultures. This leads to the conclusion that such practices consider all women as taboo. The ritual balances the desire to posses vs. the aversion to woman.

From here Jamieson pivots to ask what happens when resistance is not considered from the male side but from the woman. For the woman, no man is the right man, because the right man would be daddy. And that would not be right etc.

Ok what saves us from all of this morass? It is shagging! Or more properly speaking, it is ‘the sexual.’ The sexual is that which eludes the massification of group psychology, a massification that is characterized by possession, bondage and hypnosis. So then, asks Jamieson, how does this then become sexual?

Against the trio of bondage, possession and hypnosis, we therefore have another trio, three CURES for what ails us in group bondage:

1) Sexual love 2) Neurosis and 3) Psychoanalysis.

Freud can only praise the wonderful diversity of ties embodied in the neurotic symptom. Likewise Psychoanalysis is in its own way asocial – the analyst is subtracted the real world and this subtraction is the condition of its efficacy. Yet Jamieson notes, this is a one by one process with patients that does not translate to effects on larger groups in any obvious way.

Jamieson ended with a discussion on somaticization and conversion disorder. Her forthcoming book Conversion Disorder insists against the modern trend that sees today’s patient as somehow disinhibited or possessed of weird new symptomatic configurations requiring new diagnostic lingo such as Ordinary Psychosis. In contrast, Jamieson insists that the patient today is absolutely inhibited in a manner not very far removed from the classical patient. Accordingly she sees her work with patients today as often dealing with those deep inhibitions – inhibitions that are all the more striking – and somaticized – for being misrecognized or unseen as such even by today’s psychoanalytic truisms.

Well I am weaving my own description onto Jamieson’s words, so I hope she will correct me where I am taking liberties. Later Judith Butler asked Jamieson to clarify why Freud says that homosexual bonds can actually support group cohesion while hetero bonds dissolve it. You will have to listen to hear how Jamieson absolutely nails the response without breaking a sweat. I was sweating for her and all i could imagine myself saying in response at that point was something like um, sameness, with much stammering and obfuscating.

2) Judith Butler: Alliance is not Identification

Butler begins with a discussion of Group Psychology and pays particular attention to what she calls the ‘excitable cruelty’ of the masses. We are treated to an evocation of the Choral nature of the Trump Crowd, its joy in cruel chanting sing song (LOCK HER UP!). All this is bound together and authorized around the name TRUMP.

Very quickly we can see however that both the excitement and cruelty are characteristic of what Jamieson traced in her discussion of the taboo on virginity. It is not Hillary alone who must be contained and locked up but WOMAN. Notice how locking up would be overdetermined as both possessing and keeping at bay the power of the woman, again just as Jamieson narrated in her opening salvo. We can see these effect multiplied in the form of: stories of African American violence by police forces — or a recent story where a woman refuses to rent her room as agreed on Air B and B to an Asian woman, citing TRUMP as her rationale for being able to discriminate so brazenly—or take the weird glee with which conservatives greet the possibility of taking away health care from 24 million people. In all of this there is a twisted call for freedom such that the left is cast as the new Superego and a call for the free market promises to free us from politically correct nonsense like respecting women and caring for the needy by making sure they don’t die.

Butler tells a personal story of being in a restaurant where a man is being cruel to a woman he is with in a way that makes her feel alarmed. The man says to the woman, YOU WILL NEVER HUMILIATE ME AGAIN. That is why Trump is president now! Butler takes her concern to the staff in charge, still holding on to a flailing belief in some effective authority but is quickly disabused of any sense that anything untoward has happened. That is just life, nothing happened, move on.

All of this shows us the sense of superegoic liberation from what were movements of human rights that themselves were movements of freedom – so how did this inversion of symbolism occur?

Butler then goes back to the basis of Group Psychology and LeBon. She shows that Freud had to add what is left out of LeBon’s account – the unconscious. Again we confront the spectre of inhibition and disinhibition via contagion and hypnosis, suggestibility, the use of ‘grand gestures’ and powerful images. The crowd wants to fear its master. The crowd wants to believe in a leader who is himself (always him) in thrall to a powerful belief. His will becomes their will. There is a paralysis of critical faculty. The Mass inhibits thought.

From here we are lead to consider the relationship between disinhibition and identity. In identification there is a loosening of boundaries, one takes on a power that is not one’s own.

At the same time, Trump might seem vexing in that there is nothing impressive about him. He is coarse, inconsistent, poorly spoken etc. Yet it appears that this is precisely what enthralls. The lie is exhilarating. Not only are we set free from tiresome political correctness of having to consider others and not say stupid things to them but as an extra bonus we get to lie without limit or consequence. Guess why? Because we have power! The lie is exhilarating. If Trump is above the law, so to are we who identify with him above the law. Wreck the law! Become free of constraints. And again, the only remaining barrier is the wan left with their superegoic calls to conscience.

Moving to her final remarks, Butler refuses the hyperbolic take on identity and its discontents. As I wrote earlier, her emphasis is on the need to form ‘unlikely alliances.’ Specifically, to honor the police who refuse to police immigrants in LA (yes the police! she says). The liberal lawyers staying up through the night, those going to town halls, the whistleblowers in the state department. She bids that we rethink the jouissance of purity or the one true solution or diagnosis to the problem and instead rethink the contours of Alliance. Identification is not the basis of alliance.

3) Chiara Bottici: On Refugees and a close reading of the MAGA Cap

Chiara also goes back to Freud’s Group Psychology but now with a twist. She notices that before Ch 6, the text is very much open, pointing to the variegated possibilities of mass formation, from stable to unstable, from fixed to transitory. But then, all of a sudden, in order to tackle the question whether the leader is necessary in order to have a mass, Freud chooses for his models of the group the army and the church – these pillars of group life at the time that Freud and LeBon wrote (but maybe no longer?). Moreover Chiara emphasized that this writing comes at a time when army service has become mandatory – making this hardly representative of the group or an indication of what is essential in humans in groups.

Instead of beginning with such a stable grouping, Chiara proposes us to go back to the original movement in the text, and try to think with it about two possible forms of incorporation.

The first part, which I think will be memorable to many of us who saw it, was a demonstration on how Chiara does a close reading of an image. This was an example of stable mass psychology, and in particular of a fascist one, where the creation of the mass depends on the identification with the leader. In this case, we had a picture of Trump with his doofus Make America Great Again red baseball cap. Chiara first took on the slogan, breaking down the different components: nostalgia for a greatness that never was, the call to action in the command to “make.” The part that took me by surprise was her reading of the cap itself as a coach. That is right, Trump is the life coach in chief. The image is calculated to give the image of today’s boss leader as a coach – and this positions him as both a typical authoritarian in a hierarchy yet also part of the team, wearing the same hat that you wear, calling you to wear your colors and be part of the team. A coach of the corporation that will feed you, he presents himself as a bit mommy and a bit daddy — very different from fascist leader of the past who fed on archaic fantasies of protection from an unachievable, all powerful father.

Instead of taking such stable, boundary fixed example of mass, Chiara proposes to begin with movement itself. Human beings, she argues, since their first arrival on earth, have constantly been migrating: the homo sapiens is a homo migrans. This leads Chiara to showing the impressively global migratory patterns of homo sapiens across the earth in the very early stages of humanity. “At the beginning was the momevent”: The group of humankind is a moving group, in motion. What work then would it do for us to begin by reconceiving the group as a group in movement?

This led to a discussion of the modern refugee, their constant attempt to resist identification, by traveling without documents or even by burning their finger prints. The latter is a very diffuse procedure in the mediterranean, because the EU regulations impose to migrants to remain in their first state of arrival, often Italy or Greece, and thsu preventing them to reach richer countries and more desirable locations for the refugee in search of better conditions like Germany or elsewhere. This gesture can lead us to further think of the group without identification or identity as this unassimilated mass – as I commented in reply to Robert S. earlier. It also indicates the high stakes of identity and literally what is at stake in burning off identity.

Next Chiara thrilled us with a bit of Spinoza which later caused paroxysms of rhetorical feedback by Luce DeLire who probed her reading of the Trans-human in Spinoza – you will find this in the discussion – including Judith Butler’s reply to Luce on Spinoza. Suffice it to say that Chiara was gentle on those who get scared when philosophy is spoken and she illustrated the trans-human by way of simple imagery showing that the human is always in process of being made via breath, food, intake and outake – the human as trans-human. Yet it is not at all clear how we might utterly rethink our sense of relation to group and mass by way of this image of the trans-human. Again, Chiara’s work is filled with illustrations of images such that the images take the lead.

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