Re-turning to narcissism?
In her work of 1997, The Psychic Life of Power, Judith Butler foregrounds the figure of the ‘turn’ as the key to understanding the ‘becoming’ of the reflexive subject (30). In contrast to sociological framings of reflexivity (Chapter 4), Butler’s presentation helps us to think further about the conceptual difficulties inherent in what we recognised above as the ego’s dual status (i. e. ego as subject and object).
In order to curb desire, one makes of oneself an object for reflection; in the course of producing one’s alterity, one becomes established as a reflexive being, one who can take oneself as an object. Reflex – ivity becomes the means by which desire is regularly transmuted into the circuit of self-reflection. The doubling back of desire that culminates in reflexivity produces, however, another order of desire: the desire for that very circuit, for reflexivity, and, ultimately, for subjection. (22)
Among the various attachments, displacements and substitutions that the ‘doubling back’ of desire allows for, the prominent place given to self-objectification (as the desire for subjection) reminds us that acts of defining and maintaining a subject position will always entail a violence (as per Freud’s comment above regarding the consequences of a man’s attempt to control his aggressiveness). Butler’s engagement with Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ essay, which is critical to her exploration of how desiring subjects come to desire their own subjection, points up the unknown loss at the heart of melancholia which ultimately marks the limits of the subject’s reflexivity (23).
With particular focus on the trope of the turn, she develops the paradoxical thought that ‘a subject emerges only through the action of turning back on itself’ (68). The logical and grammatical contradictions raised by Freud’s figuration of the ego’s ‘turn back upon itself’ become the stage for Butler’s negotiation of an account of melancholy as that which ‘interiorizes’ the psyche:
The turn from object to ego is the movement that makes the distinction between them possible, that marks the division, the separation or loss, that forms the ego to begin with. [… ] The turn thus produces the divide between ego and object, the internal and external world that it appears to presume. (170)
By suggesting that the ego is instituted through an act of identification with the lost object, Butler attributes to melancholia, which she calls a ‘compensatory form of negative narcissism’, a formative rather than occasional character (182). The reason melancholia does not simply indicate an object-loss which has not been sufficiently mourned, is
that its object is doubly lost; it is lost to the world but also to consciousness, which means it cannot be mourned. Melancholia ‘withdrawn and preserved in the suspended time of psychic life’, effectuates the ‘splitting off’ of the ego-as-object from the critical agency of conscience, and thus produces the topography of the subject (183). Freud’s psychic topography, Butler suggests, is ‘symptomatic of what it seeks to explain’, namely how the ego comes to be subjected to itself (179). That the ego forever fails to compensate for the object it has lost is familiar, as Butler admits, from the first paragraphs of ‘On Narcissism’. The act of originary identification with the doubly lost object which forms the ego also accounts for a melancholic self-berating in which the critical agency of the mind insistently communicates its dissatisfactions to itself. This speaking from where I am not (critical agency as subject) to berate what I am failing to be (ego-as-object) continues to communicate socially. Melancholia’s ostensible withdrawal from the world of objects, Butler suggests, performs in the theatre of its ambivalence the operation of social power within the subject.
The melancholic, then, despite her committed inwardness is not asocial. In this way she bears a family resemblance to our narcissistic infant whose myth of self-sufficiency continues to provoke the other in her environment of care. With this resemblance in mind, we may ask why Butler insists that ‘melancholia operates in a direction directly counter to narcissism’ (187). She goes on to explain:
Echoing the biblical cadence of ‘the shadow of death,’ a way in which death imposes its presence on life, Freud remarks that in melancholia ‘the shadow of the object fell upon the ego’ (249). In Lacan’s essays on narcissism, the formulation is importantly reversed: the shadow of the ego falls upon the object. Narcissism continues to control love, even when that narcissism appears to give way to object-love: it is still myself that I find there at the site of the object, my absence. In melancholia this formulation is reversed: in the place of the loss that the other comes to represent, I find myself to be that loss, impoverished, wanting. In narcissistic love, the other contracts my abundance. In melancholia, I contract the other’s absence. (187)
Butler is not alone in drawing such an opposition between narcissism and melancholia. For Margarita Palacios, for example, the two are ‘unmistakably different phenomena. The first [narcissism] is characterized by the not letting go of certain imaginary identifications with an idealized experience of "fullness" (or omnipotence), whereas the second [melancholia] refers to the embracement of the void and the "resistance" to fill it with fantasy’ (10-11). For Frosh (2006), melancholia signals an emblematic recovery of ‘depth and meaning’ and the ‘intensity of relational ties’ from the pathological sense of ‘interchangeability’ of relations which characterises the surface play of narcissism (369; 371). There is a negotiation of registers to be mindful of here: Frosh’s distinction points both to the contrasting phenomenology of the two conditions, and to the movement between them at the level of cultural discourse. Perhaps we can allow that the politicisation of melancholia – a discursive advance in which Butler’s work has been paramount – has encouraged an over-emphatic division between our two terms; Freud, after all, leaves us in no doubt as to their proximity when he explains that melancholia ‘borrows some of its features from mourning, and the others from the process of regression from narcissistic object-choice to narcissism’ (1917b, 250). Butler acknowledges this when she notes that melancholia ‘must be understood, in part, as a narcissistic disturbance’ (188).
Leaving aside for the moment the particulars of the narcissism – melancholia distinction, we might productively focus on the effect of its discursive prominence. It is interesting to note, for example, that while the distinction between narcissism and melancholia is invested with a special importance, the distinction between narcissistic and ana – clitic object-choice recedes from view. It was the same year as he wrote ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ that Freud added his following explanatory footnote to his ‘Three Essays’ first published in 1905:
Psycho-analysis informs us that there are two methods of finding an object. The first […] is the ‘anaclitic’ or ‘attachment’ one, based on attachment to early infantile prototypes. The second is the narcissistic one, which seeks for the subject’s own ego and finds it again in other people. (1905, 222n [added 1915])
In Chapter 1 we made the case that this distinction between the ana – clitic and narcissistic is not so clear cut, especially in light of Freud’s formative claim that ‘[t]he finding of an object is in fact a refinding of it’ (1905, 222). Freud implies that there is a regressive aspect to every object-choice, either moving to a narcissistic prototype (i. e. the subject’s own ego), or to an anaclitic prototype (i. e. the providing parent figure). Recalling the fabric of primary narcissism, however, where the boundaries of the subject’s ego do not necessarily exclude the mother’s breast, it is unclear whether we can preserve, alongside the regressive quality of object-choice, the categorical separateness of the anaclitic and narcissistic modes: If, in the place to which one regresses, there is a fundamental subject-object confusion, an ostensibly anaclitic choice can always mask a narcissistic attachment, and vice versa. That we can never be confident of distinguishing an object in the world from an object in the psyche is of course germane to Butler’s theorisation of melancholia. In fact she seems to tacitly support the idea that encountering objects in the world under the sign of love is characteristically narcissistic, at once eroding the distinctiveness of anaclitic object-choice, and replacing one kind of meaningful difference with another: instead of seeing the narcissistic – anaclitic distinction as most crucial to an understanding of how the subject relates to his world, she privileges a comparative evaluation of narcissism and melancholia, both of which, significantly, arrive at the object-world only through persistent ego-investiture.
Butler’s reading (via Lacan) that in narcissistic love ‘the shadow of the ego falls upon the object’, affirms Freud’s logic that the refinding of a psychic prototype occurs in every instance of love. The narcissist consistently (re)finds his ego in every object he encounters. The melancholic, though similar to the narcissist in her (re)turn to the ego, finds there not self-love, but love’s transformation into loss (she finds in herself the shadow of an object which is lost). The ethical suggestion at work in Butler’s position runs as follows: The melancholic return which enacts an identification with a lost object – and in so doing spatialises melancholic subjectivity – creates the conditions for an ethical relation to the other (‘In melancholia, I contract the other’s absence’ (187)). The narcissistic return, on the other hand, is but the appearance of return fabricated by an endless series of identifications: refinding himself continually in the other gives the narcissist’s ‘regression’ the character of superficial promiscuity (‘In narcissistic love, the other contracts my abundance’ (187)). The most problematic implication of this dual perspective is how it gestures towards consigning narcissistic identification to the self-preservation instincts, and melancholic identification to the death instincts, such that the first is characterised as essentially conservative, the second as self-destructive and potentially subversive. Put in such stark terms we can see how this bifurcation significantly underplays the extent to which the ego, created through identification, concurrently entails a loss of self. We recall that when Bersani referred to the mode of ‘self-jouissance’ linked to the act of ‘being less than oneself’ in social situations, he did so under the aegis of narcissistic identification (Chapter 5). This is a thought inherited from Freud’s ‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’ (1921).
Reading Gustave Le Bon on the psychology of crowds, Freud is particularly impressed by how the individual can have the paradoxical experience of feeling at once omnipotent and self-divested within the narcissistic dynamics of homosocial identification: the individual is both self-inflated, and giving himself away through his identification with the group. What Freud’s paper shows, in the most general terms, is how narcissism operates at a social level well beyond the selfpreservation of the individual ego. More specifically, by pointing to how an individual ego is left behind as the group ego is instituted via an act of identification, Freud reminds us of his conviction from his 1914 paper that the ego has to be developed. The group ego is developed through a process of agglomeration which always amounts to more than the sum of its parts; it is an ideal. Significantly, just as an individual can identify himself with a crowd (that which is more than himself), so it must be possible to perform a partial identification with a ‘common quality’ dissociable from a whole person or a complete object (that which is less than himself). Freud gives the exceptional example of his patient Dora’s identification with her Father’s cough, but also suggests, more broadly, that narcissistic identifications with common qualities discerned in others are critical to the formation of social ties (106-108). To resume Bersani’s line of thought from the last chapter, then, the imaginative act of identifying with ‘qualities’ – parts rather than stable wholes – suggests a potential alliance between narcissistic identification and the loss of the self, when identification with fugitive parts rebounds as self-fracture.
If we are to offer an alternative to the conceptual split between conservative narcissism and subversive melancholia – with all its ethical and political ramifications – then we need to enquire after the reality status of identification itself. Freud is clear about the illusory quality of group identification, which we might easily read as a gigantic recapitulation of the infant’s illusion of self-sufficiency. In light of this admission we are encouraged to question whether melancholic self-dispossession shares a similar illusory foundation. Whilst some recent theorists of melancholy have inclined to honour the lost object – for acting as a redress to narcissistic fantasies of self-presence – it is not immediately clear that the lost object is any less potent a fantasy than the refound object.
Indeed, that a libidinal object-cathexis is transferred within the ego conforms to the order of fantasy, with the added twist that it is a fantasy of impoverishment. Further, that the object is not simply lost but preserved through the marking of its loss, signals the peculiar irony of melancholic fantasy. By acknowledging this fantasy structure we enact an important shift in temporal perspective: namely, the retrospect of having ‘lost’ an object in the past which is at the same time preserved for the future (though in negative outline only) is supplemented by the prospect of imagining a lost object in the future when there will have been no object to begin with. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben establishes this melancholic ingenuity as follows:
[… ] melancholia offers the paradox of an intention to mourn that precedes and anticipates the loss of the object. […] If the libido behaves as if a loss had occurred although nothing has in fact been lost, this is because the libido stages a simulation where what cannot be lost because it has never been possessed appears as lost, and what could never be possessed because it had never perhaps existed may be appropriated insofar as it is lost. (1993, 20)
In other words, the lost object is a form of semblance which does not correspond to an original. If melancholia, as Freud suggests, borrows from mourning and from narcissism, then the latter engages the former by transforming it into the originary performance of loss (1917b, 250). As Agamben refines the paradox, because the object has not existed in the past it can be more entirely appropriated for the present; the ‘funereal’ contours of its interminable non-presence open up an ‘unreal’ space inside the self in which the object is secured (20).
When Slavoj Zizek (2000) extends the political consequences of Agamben’s work on the fantasy of loss, he suggests that the melancholic’s fixation on the lost object is in danger of bad faith. Arguing that melancholy ‘obfuscates’ the fact that ‘the object is lacking from the very beginning’, he addresses this in terms of the ‘deceitful translation of lack into loss’ (660). Mere object loss cannot fully account for the operation of desire which is determined by an original lack that no object can compensate for. For Zizek, fixating on the lost object inaugurates a predictive series of dissatisfactions with objects in the world that must become lost in the process of their being appropriated. Thus, the melancholic enacts a parody of capitalist consumption, but without the philosophical means to address the original terms of her libidinal fantasy.2
By developing melancholia as a prospective fantasy – i. e. the fantasy of the object that can only be encountered as already lost – Agamben and Zizek reconnect us to Freud’s assertion that the finding of an object is a refinding. The trivial point to make here is that the act of refinding implies the prior act of losing. More significantly, however, narcissistic investments which return us from the world of objects to the prototype object in the self (the ego), find in the self a fundamental non-identity: what the self refinds in multiple objects is intermittently more or less than itself. In ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ Freud buries in an aside to do with ‘somatic factors’ a formidable question: he asks ‘whether a loss in the ego irrespectively of the object – a purely narcissistic blow to the ego – may not suffice to produce the picture of melancholia […]’ (1917b, 253 my emphasis). By speculatively dispensing with the lost object, Freud tantalisingly suggests a vision of melancholic subjectivity which is narcissistic without being mournful. If there is such a thing as a ‘purely narcissistic blow to the ego’ then strictly speaking one does not have to have lost in order to lack, and we find within the narcissistic economy the conditions for reflexivity and self-fracture.