Photo Credit: Max Halberstadt/Wikimedia Commons
On November 1st and 8th, the Freud Museum, London will be hosting a digital conference on “Psychoanalysis and ‘Post-Truth’,” organized with Jordan Osserman and Foivos Dousos in partnership with the Ministry of Post-Truth and Waiting Times.
The event takes place during the weekends before and after the US election, offering critical commentary on the question of politics and public discourse in the midst of an apparent collapse of trust in scientific and authoritative knowledge.
Aimée Lê [AL]: I’d like to begin by asking about democracy, as this is one of the founding principles of Public Seminar. How does the topic of post-truth relate to the trajectory of democracy today?
Foivos Dousos [FD]: First of all, we maintain a somewhat open idea of what “post-truth” means. Having said that, we do think there is a shift in the way people relate to facts, linked to the rise of social media, popularization of conspiracy theories, and the demise of shared trust in experts to resolve contested claims. The “post-truth era” is also often conflated with another buzzword – that of populism. You will see politicians like Trump and political events like Brexit being referenced in both discussions. But then when it comes to populism you’ll also hear the names of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Syriza. For me it’s really crucial to reflect on the notion of “media democratization” – if we accept that social media offers that – and how it relates to the future of democracy. And this must include critically interrogating notions of populism: who are the “people” in the digital era, and how can we resist technocratic elitism?
Jordan Osserman [JO]: Democracy has become something of a battle cry amongst centrists opposed to Trump, who is charged with “destroying our cherished democratic institutions.” Yet we are also seeing the emergence of a more radical notion of democracy, which questions how “democratic” we really were prior to Trump’s election, and sees the sham of democracy as what, in fact, gave rise to his reign. In this sense “post-truth” also presents an opportunity to question hegemonic “truths.” Can we really have a democracy when billionaires own and run the press and the major political parties?
AL: So, in this sense, there is a kernel of truth to “post-truth,” in that it demonstrates the manufacturing of consent?
JO: Yes. I don’t want to pretend that the people we see as responsible for generating post-truth ideology aren’t problematic or indeed dangerous. Much of what we associate with “post-truth” involves the far right and the uncanny return of fascist ideologies. But this more inclusive, left-wing rethinking of democracy is part of an antagonism over the meaning of the term for which the stakes are necessarily high.
FD: There is also a different way you can speak about truth, which is at the level of the subjective expression. Psychoanalysis talks about the reality of enjoyment, fantasy, desire, and suggests that psychic “truth” is not always rooted in the structure of literal facts. Even though I think we are in urgent need of a political “truth” to organize our ambitions for the present, the insistence on a single truth seems doomed.
AL: Why have you chosen to focus on psychoanalysis as a method? Can psychoanalysis make sense of conspiracy theories like QAnon, and if so, how?
JO: I’m wary of trying to “make sense” of conspiracy theories. I think for a lot of people — some psychoanalysts included — their first response to this question of post-truth, Brexit, the Trump era, and so on, is to offer diagnoses: collective psychosis, the rise of narcissism, whatever. Psychoanalysis becomes aligned here with a pernicious attempt to “psychologize” collective and political phenomena. It’s intellectually dubious and also boring. We know that QAnon conspiracy theories are not “true,” and that there is some kind of madness here. What I think psychoanalysis can offer is a closer look at the contradictions and antagonisms at stake, the nature and structure of the fantasies at play, and an attempt to locate the type of “truth” that post-truth circles around or invokes.
FD: Psychoanalysis emerges as a tool to investigate the antagonism and the madness of common sense. We are not coherent, our thoughts come from a place that is foreign to us. We can see this in the basic Freudian conception of the unconscious, which disrupts the Cartesian understanding of the thinking subject. Accepting our own “madness,” therefore, is both liberatory and politically useful if we are to start understanding the world in a less moralistic way.
JO: There is a libidinal aspect to conspiracy theories — there always has been, although it is a question of why this appears stronger today — which means that they are not easily amenable to correction through the presentation of facts. We are attached to certain ideas in ways that defy logic, that speak to some truth of the self I was alluding to. Psychoanalysis offers a way of thinking through how this attachment works, and hopefully the possibility of alternative attachments.
AL: What about Covid-19 and post-truth?
FD: If we accept that there is in fact a “post-truth era,” I think it’s clearly being tested by COVID. Even though there is a whole anti-masker movement, in the face of death, people may be returning to traditional authorities: the state, scientists, legacy media…
AL: I’m not so sure, but this brings me to a useful follow-up question: Are these post-truth phenomena the result of a kind of crisis of the state, or the “hollowness” of the neoliberal state? Hillary Clinton herself suggested this line of inquiry in a Guardian interview alongside Tony Blair and Matteo Renzi after the election, when she stated that Americans “want to be told what to do and where to go and how to live,” and that Americans want a king or an authoritarian ruler instead of a President. This cynical diagnosis — that the 2016 election outcome shows that the population doesn’t want to govern itself — seems to reinforce the idea that the population shouldn’t govern itself.
JO: It’s a shocking statement. Clinton comes even closer to the truth of her ideology than she did with her “deplorables” line, doesn’t she? We know that elites look down on most of America. But it’s another thing to really grapple with how anti-democratic they are. We’ll have to see what this means for a potential Biden presidency.
I think we need to be very precise here about what this implies about Trump. Not that he is a harbinger of democracy. He is an authoritarian right-wing leader and he clearly wishes to exercise tremendous anti-democratic power. But he has done this through presenting himself as a voice of the masses. The idea that groups have what Freud understands as a “transferential” relationship with a leader means that at a profound, psychic level, something of ourselves resides in someone else. How can we contend with this without indulging the cynicism and elitism of the Democratic establishment?
AL: I want to ask also about the situations in which conspiracies have ended up having some potential to accurately reflect reality. For example, the “Pizzagate” narrative, which is unbelievably farfetched. Yet after Jeffrey Epstein’s indictment, we learned that he was involved in pedophilic sex trafficking which implicated some very rich and powerful people. Subsequently, calling attention to the unusual circumstances of his death has been called a conspiracy, but frankly in the context it seems equally bizarre to assume we know the truth about what happened to Epstein.
AL: It’s strange because the typical procedure of cultural studies or critical analysis has always been to point out that what we’re being told is not the whole truth. How do we make sense of these situations in which the truth does appear to be being manufactured? Why have right-wing conspiracies seemed to take up this space instead of a more grounded critical inquiry?
JO: There’s definitely some doublespeak in certain corners of academia — “be relentless in your critique” — which really does facilitate paranoia (queer theorist Eve Sedgwick named it: “paranoid reading”) — yet total shock/horror and distanciation when people truly take it on board and create Pizzagate. But to return to your point, yes, Epstein WAS the leader of a pedophile sex ring which involved some of the same people associated with Pizzagate. Perhaps here we should reverse the psychoanalytic point that “even if the CIA really is following you, you may still be a paranoiac”: even if you have paranoid fantasies about billionaires’ sexual practices, they really are social and sexual criminals.
Why not a more grounded critical inquiry? For some, post-truth is a triumph of instantaneity over elongation or delay — we don’t sit down and read, digest, and analyze the news, we receive and circulate information in a kind closed, hyper-active loop. What happens when you stage a confrontation between the slowness of critical inquiry and the frenzy of the present? That’s what we’re trying to do.
FD: There might be a problem of strategy as well. Like cultural studies using psychoanalysis and talking about the role of enjoyment in politics, but conveying these ideas in the driest possible academic discourse. In a way, trying to convey postmodernity’s impact on politics while using the stiffness and insularity of what Lacan called the “university discourse.” So while they were in theory predicting the coming of “post-truth,” they are in reality more irrelevant than ever. And of course we have to take into consideration the underfunding of humanities and all that materialist jazz, but it’s shocking how little contemporary social theory is producing now.
This interview was edited and shortened from its original form.
Jordan Osserman is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck (University of London) and member of Waiting Times, a Wellcome-funded project on the temporalities of healthcare. He is also a clinical trainee with the Site for Contemporary Psychoanalysis. Jordan recently published an article with Aimée Lêon COVID-19 and time in Wellcome Open Research, and he is a host on the podcast New Books in Psychoanalysis. His book Circumcision on the Couch will be published with Bloomsbury Press in 2021.
Aimée Lê is a Vietnamese American writer and scholar. She is an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at University of Exeter and an Associate Member of the Royal Holloway Poetics Research Centre.
Foivos Dousos completed his PhD on narcissism in new media cultures in 2019. In his creative practice as part of the artistic duo FYTA, has worked as a curator for the Athens Biennale and in 2020, was commissioned by the Alternative Stage of the Greek National Opera to present a queer adaptation of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.