Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Afterwardsness in the front-line

... there is so much life at the front-line, and that there is no alternative to capitalism without living this life to the full. The message is clear: enjoy the struggle, participate in it with your creative energies, be flexible and self-critical of your approach, throw away static ideologies, and reach out to the other. 
–Massimo De Angelis
If we had known before how we would become trapped by our lack of foreknowledge we would have prepared ourselves accordingly. If we had known what we know now, we would have anticipated and headed off those glitches in our plans which, as events unrolled, militated against our ambitions from within. As soon as we approach the question of agency, as soon as we raise the issue of living this life to the full, we also encounter both that which has already fallen and that which is soon to fall outside of our capacities. 


Through our failings we are thereby introduced to history, and to the weight of accumulated defeats of all those who took on the role of agency before us. That is to say, as well as coming face to face with our lack of preparedness, a strong and immediate sense of what we cannot achieve, we also find ourselves located within that genealogical line of what has gone wrong in every attempt to make the world answerable to desire. 





In the very moment we raise the question of action, that is of making a difference, we find ourselves constituting a field in which probable and certain errors, failures, crimes, underpowerings, overplayings, false inferences, goings-off half-cock, misfires, fallings short, impotencies, misunderstandings, mistaken relations, and mistimings clutter up our vision and constrict our leg room. 


As soon as we attempt to 'master the real problems of life' we also discover ourselves productive of those problems as the limit of our abilities. At the point where, as Freud terms it, we have reached a sufficient 'maturity' and we engage with the 'tasks of the present', we find we are already partially defeated by events that have occurred prior to our appearance and we are impeded by that which also floods into 'our' field at the very moment of our maturation.


What has gone before us, what has produced us at this juncture in a condition where we might act, at the same time does not allow us to escape this determination. 

We find that as we are about to act we cannot. All the vital components are already in place and all the significant events have occurred long before we arrive on the scene, there is no space for us to move. We discover that maturity, that is the condition in which we might act autonomously, is still a dependent condition and our dependency on our conditions is infantilising, de-maturing. 


Our need to act properly and our failure to do so causes us to become neurotic and chronically uncertain before doing what it is that we have been primed to think is expected of us. 


There is, within maturity, an override of surplus-maturity, which is an awareness of the limited nature of our willing it to be so. Only where this surplus-maturity is suspended are we able to act maturely, i.e. un-maturely, immaturely.


Where agency is seen to be the key indicator of maturity then dependence in the age of maturity is understood as regression: And thus the native hue of resolution/Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,/And enterprises of great pith and moment,/With this regard their currents turn awry, /And lose the name of action.

There are two framings of the problem of 'afterwardsness'. Both constitute the problem in terms of the means by which past events snag the autonomous maturity of the active agent, unmanning him and causing him to regress to an earlier, inauthentic (or neurotic) state, and rendering him unable to engage with the world according to the given model of maturity.


The first approach to afterwardsness is the most progressive, it understands the problems encountered by the neurotic to be generated in the present.  Freud represents the approach of his critics in these terms:
... that scenes from early infancy [...] are not reproductions of real occurrences, to which it is possible to ascribe an influence over the course of the patient's later life and over the formation of his symptoms. It considers them rather as products of the imagination, which find their instigation in mature life, which intended to serve as some kind of symbolic representation of real wishes and interests, and which owe their origin to a regressive tendency, to a turing away from the tasks of the present.
Discussions on the Wolf Man
Within this framework, the neurotic agent appears to be fleeing from his responsibilities into fantasies of an earlier decisive and controlling state; he abandons pragmatic behaviour as governed and assigned by the reality principle in favour of a hysterical autocracy by means of temper tantrums. From this perspective, his problems are essentially only an incommensurability in the present between capacity and confidence. Political activism and cognitive behaviour therapy are two resultant theories of this analysis. 

For example, in response to those who announce that they cannot escape the events of their past the CBT practitioner assumes that in fact the problem is located in learnt and solidified behaviour patterns of the present that have been converted into, and reinforced by, a fantasy representation of the hold of the past. This enchanted state can be overcome through learning new behavioural patterns. The neurotic's behaviour is reoriented by CBT to the 'here and now' via a series of gradated, goal-orientated achievements. 


The CBT project of reprogramming assumes the potential autonomy of the agent (and his capacity to take decisive action) in the present. It takes it as a given that the materials he requires for separating himself from his determinations are near to hand. 

A similar 'can-do' approach is adopted by many who advocate social and political change. For activists the achievement of a goal is only a matter of organisation, planning, will, tenacity, courage and so on (a version of this list is presented in the De Angelis quote above). The assumption is always that there is sufficient potential capacity available to the agent in the present to supply him with the means for transforming the present, and thus loosening it and himself from the hold of the past.

The second approach to afterwardsness is more pessimistic and Freud's own view:
The notion of a current conflict, of a turning away from reality, of a substitutive satisfaction obtained in a phantasy, of a regression to material from the past – all of this (employed, moreover , in the same context, though perhaps with a slightly different terminology) had for years formed an integral part of my own theory. It was not the whole of it, however. It was only one part of the causes leading to the formation of neurosis – that part which, starting from reality, operates in a regressive direction. Side by side with this I left room for another influence which, starting from the impressions of childhood, operates in a forward direction, which points a path for the libido that is shrinking away from life, and which makes it possible to understand the otherwise inexplicable regression to childhood. Thus on my view the two factors co-operate in the formation of symptoms. But an earlier co-operation seems to me to be of equal importance. I am of the opinion that the influence of childhood makes itself felt already in the situation at the beginning of the formation of a neurosis, since it plays a decisive part in determining whether and at what point the individual shall fail to master the real problems of life.
It is a characteristic of Freud's approach that the problems of the present are driven in one direction by traumatic events in the distant past. These traumas are not readily accessible in the present because they were not necessarily experienced or registered as traumas at the time they occurred. This perspective assumes that the significance of that which has already happened cannot be altered and may only, at best, be re-related to the present. The hold of the past may not be overcome, it will and must claim its portion of the present and does so by means of a complex retrogressive causality. 

According to Freud's version of afterwardsness (which is also a beforeness) the grip of a past traumatic event on present behaviour is held in a latent state until the moment it is triggered into fully manifest form (neurosis) by an occurrence in the present that, in some way, had already been prepared for in the earlier event (but which passed in its own moment as subjectively unexperienced). A trigger in the present produces, causes or actualises the past trauma which consequently manifests itself in the causal sequence 'before' its trigger in the subjective present and thus causes what it is the result of

The retrogressive activation of past traumas is a convention of fatalistic, prophetic and fairytale narrative. These tend to present the agent as being paradoxically bound to a context of tragic inescapablity by means of his freely chosen actions. Where your field of possible action is defined by the desire not to realise the prediction that you will kill your father, it is certain that all your acts of avoidance will lead you to precisely this outcome – because it has already happened

Within this register, the political group that would change the world according to its will, must end, through its own voluntary actions, in being changed by the world. That which presents itself as autonomous only succeeds in demonstrating itself dependent.  Regression is therefore written into 'maturity'. Incapacity is written into action. Stasis is written into movement. 

Within the convention of tragedy, agency is manifested at the very moment where mature capacity degenerates into a regressive narcissism. Certainty in the rightful possession of the necessary capacity to change things according to the agent's will is only reflected by that fantasy world which has been constructed by the agent in its fantasy of capacity

Agency resituates the infantile fort-da game, and manifests itself in a fantasy domain that is, above all else, most responsive to its demands. This 'front-line' domain is the location where the agent can 'live life to the full' and 'reach out to the other' – it is the world that the agent produces. 


However, the agent does not grasp that it is also produced by this domain... if it fantasises, then it is also fantasised. It performs a dependent function for the space and that function lies precisely in the fantasy of its automony of action. 


The capacity to act autonomously may be manifested only within the restricted space into which the agent has been written – an ironic space: Only the very young and the very beautiful can be so aloof. Hanging out with the boys, all swagger and poise.

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