Madness Today, Or, The Analysis of Devastation


In Joachim Trier’s Thelma (2017) female rage and repression are put on the screen in a way that is not just analytic or horror movie generic. The story tells of  the main character, Thelma, and of her move from home with her creationist parents to ‘coming out’ at the University of Oslo. From early on we see a problem that may also be a fantasy, and a fantasy that may also be something more and less than a problem: the problem of omnipotence long scheduled in Freud’s thought as a danger and rite of submergence. Her father takes her hunting out over the ice and at the moment of the kill turns the gun on her. The repressive Christianity of the family is triggering, to be sure, and will later on include a drugged grandmother and other intergenerational hijacks. The coming-of-age most importantly involves a familiarisation with psychokinetic powers experienced first of all in flashback but then presently on campus in Oslo. Snakes, birds, the ice of a frozen lake, a rocking roof appendage at the opera house, there is no problem here except that Thelma is strictly speaking uncontainable. The extent and extend of her psychic feel for whatever madness consists of today is too much for the sensurround, for the parents, for the university. It is too much for and goes through the conceptualisation of psychic plastifciation like a dose of salts. She lives that and the film sees it. Where the worst of her omnipotence takes her into lonely pain, and the sheer interrupting (not so much death, but perhaps extinction tout court) of others, the best of it will present a new and risked self-possession. Like Anne Dufourmantelle, author of the still untranslated Eloge du risque, who risked herself all the way out of life last year in a congruence that seems not to have been analysed, Thelma’s way of life is risqué not by choice but as a matter of being who she is. The Scandi form of the Uncanny, the unhygge, gets jacked up to intolerable levels and the question becomes bearing that which on elastic terms it seems can’t be admitted. Her female uncontainability is an accurate carrier, given where we are now, and yet nobody, no context, can meet it. The film benefits from refusing to typecast her possession as occult; she is neither witch nor Scandinavian Carrie. Something carries further, and since we are used to the death wish as being one of the first carriers of the omnipotence of thoughts, there is a discrepancy here with that death wish itself.

I don’t think you want

the end

you’re dying for

What if psychoanalysis had never existed? Or again, what if psychoanalysis has never existed and that is what it meant? Are these mad questions? As if alongside the dossiers on Foucault and Derrida already available when it comes to madness, or rather as a crypt inside what already threatens to be a serial crypt across which we stray, there is also the dossier that might be opened on the madness of today—where today is, or at least claims to be, 2018—and where that madness is contagious, a crime scene, shared, ultraplastified, electroplastified, cut up, violent, benign, full of radiant disappointment, and a correction, a political correction, gone mad. This other dossier—or crypt of the contemporary—can feel daunting, overloaded, saturated with a madness that goes beyond any psychoanalytic or psychobiologic competence and reckoning. This experimental online session puts on the line this contemporary edge in madness, where madness might be imagined in terms of neurology and blind brain theory as a kind of absenteeing of the brain from itself: not so much a madness, then, but a going of thought. There is a blind awareness that I can no longer be aware of at all that needs to be tracked, the normative gap between knowledge and experience becoming a form of lesional devastation. It is as if everything leaks today, and what might happen, perhaps, what might be imperative, is attention to some of these leaks. I try here to spot a few splashes from what Laurence Rickels calls ‘the forgettogether that followed’. I try not to stay distracted. I act, like Thelma, and with Thelma, as if the uncontainable can be mopped up and contained. We try, in other words, to remain in active distraction; in analysis-devastation.

I’ve been interested for a while in a possible containment- or compromise-formation going on in contemporary aesthetic and deconstructive therapy, the stoppages and blocks that come with trying not to go mad working on what going extinct may mean. I’ve tried to be open to the mistake of thinking there is a difference here, a difference between extinction and death, and that it is this difference and distinction between extinction and death that might also be approached as mad. Cixous has a way of stepping in on this front, and then out of the vault on the other side, and knowing what it meant. There may be a trick here, knowing how to have gone there but not gone too far. Have deconstructions searched their souls, and since when? What does the neuroanalysis of the madness of today have on deconstruction? What does the automation of madness now have on us? By citing the neuro- here I am branching into the work of Malabou and especially perhaps her 2012 essay ‘Separation, Death, the Thing, Freud, Lacan, and the Missed Encounter’, which deals with the essential difference between psychoanalysis and neurology when it comes to perception of the death drive as an experience of what she repeatedly calls a ‘horizon’, or a precise lack of it. Malabou goes a long way with Freud, and then goes a long way in showing that Lacan is faithful to Freud in going even further than him in exposing the experience of the psyche as an attention to the Real of something that may just go missing (the ‘missed encounter’ of her title). While affirming that in Freud ‘the unconscious is nothing other than the form of the original relation between the psyche and its own destruction’ (p. 124, Malabou’s italics), and while attesting to the fact that in Lacan this mortalised psychic facticity may be doubly exposed (as the neoligised ‘Thing’), Malabou nonetheless goes further (or do I simply mean on?), even adding ‘a fourth instance’ to Lacan’s Real-Symbolic-Imaginary schema in the form of what she calls ‘the “Material”’ (p. 137). The crux of the confrontation between Freudian-Lacanian analysis at their most advanced and the neurobiology Malabou locates, ‘with respect to psychic destruction’ (p. 132), lies in the difference between the assurance that the horizon of effacement will itself stay in place (the missing encounter will itself not be going missing; its missingness remains in place and this is ‘the real’), and ‘the threat that the horizon itself might be destroyed’ (p. 132). Malabou’s attention throughout is on the possibility that ‘the neurological horizon of the anticipation of destruction is destructible’ (p. 132)—and the index of such an experience is the sheer madness (it might be better called an outside-madness, an outside of madness, since it really is not a madness at all) of ‘the damaged brain’ (p. 137).

In a somewhat uncanny way—uncanny and not unhygge—her argument is fully summarised by a darkly comic moment in the Gareth Edwards film Rogue One (2016) in which the destruction of the city of Jedha is accompanied by the line, ‘There’s a problem on the horizon . . . There is no horizon.’ The classical phenomenological guardrail of the horizon, passed from Husserl via Derrida onwards to a whole tradition of reflexive thought, is here as if torn to one side in Malbou’s use of neurobiological knowledge of what the brain experiences when it does not experience itself at all. Malbou tracks down something that broadly does not conform to the horizons of psychoanalytic sexual etiology. The brain’s absencing of itself is ‘a chance for cerebrality to resist sexuality’ (p. 136). While Malabou reads Lacan and Freud with a great deal of attention and in extenso, there is a certain sense (a very precise sense in fact) in which one has to blank them out. What do I mean here? There comes a moment when the psychoanalytic tracking of the death drive is so mortgaged out in advance to erotogenesis that one has to ignore its most advanced signs, because the prior sexualisation does not allow oneself to go far enough towards what might be described as extogenesis—it does not allow for the further plastifications of the unhygge that will allow Esther to finally combust the ontological settings of the father. Malbou does not quite say all of this, but it can be read off from the surface of her essay in small moments. For instance, she says that however far Lacan goes with Freud, and he goes far, which is to say ‘no matter what Lacan says’ (p. 136), there is an extra missing encounter, and one might surmise that this extra missingness does not (crucially) fall within the domain of the death drive (that is already in Freud the psyche’s tension with itself): Malabou comments that those with brain lesions do not have the experience of seeing themselves die (they have, in other words, the outside-to-experience of not experiencing themselves die or not seeing themselves dying). The crucial phrase here is ‘no matter what Lacan says’ because it suggests that what Malabou names ‘cerebrality’ cannot be inscribed using previous modes of thought. No matter what we say, and no matter how far we go, we only get to this thing by saying it, in its own terms, or by saying it in what de Man calls ‘linguistic terms’. In the language of my ongoing work I would hasten to add that Malabou’s breakthrough might be stated as an affirmation of the difference between  death and extinction, and as the idea that the death-drive (Todestrieb) is not the extinction drive (Aussterbenstrieb). I also now want to call this very situation the analytic of devastation.

To go back to Trier’s film, it is Thelma who works with devastation, whose own ongoing work is the work of devastation.  What Jean Epstein called in Intelligence of the Machine, in 1946, the ‘cinematographic robot-philosopher’ allows us to see and feel more of the extinction there is inside the order and circle of death than we can see and admit ourselves. Thelma’s movements through the film and the blows she receives again and again, the way she nearly dies, and the way her very being and body (films show and contain real bodies and hold them potentially forever) is not Anti-Oedipal in the style of 20th century philosophies but devastating of that order itself and its continuity schemes (she combusts her father at distance in the middle of the lake), all of this thinks and allows to be thought what Epstein calls ‘universal transmutations’: female omnipotence is allowed in excess not just of the male order but of the death drive that is its stand-in, which is to say it is allowed and followed (it cannot be stopped but only worked through like a purgative) as a sign of devastating liberation. Thelma achieves liberation here, at least in the form of non-heterosexual love and a right to violence and aberration to get free, together with the effect of a burn-through: one mustn’t be afraid to go mad to cut through and get into one’s own present, the ext and pure cut of ext in one’s own style. The youngest sibling is cut loose and the eventual arrangement (parents out of the way) is of certified killing, every serial killer’s daydream, and potential massification of that force, its repeat. Thelma assumes the vertical controls, as soon as possible, and that allows the robot-philosopher, who may also just be the blind brain, to think. It will be, as Rickels puts it, ‘the last born who outlasted the primal father’ (Vampire Lectures, p. 132), and here this can be meant in the broadest sense: killing time embraced by an extended fugue of tolerance, an enlarged immunogenicity, a refined ‘horror autotoxicus’, as Paul Ehrlich put it in the early history of immunology, a perhaps universal toleration. We tolerate Thelma and her like as a new part of us, and she, in effect, tolerates us. The disappearing act she pulls on her baby brother is a horror she lives through and so as if builds on: she extends the provocation of an elaboration and the elaboration of a provocation., and the brain may follow. To some extent the fact she is a remote climate-changer, a factor (the birds hit the library glasshouse when she appears to have a fit) is only in passing, a fragment of a larger telekinetic connect that is more devastating, and around which she impossibly arranges a life–at least as the film seems to end. What I mean, then, is that usually this form of elaboration is fobbed off with psychoanalytic devices and alibis; limited in advance. Everything Freud says and more of the death wish and omnipotence is true, but this time with the extension and forbearance in place. Thelma does not treat the parental like a region of the blow-up doll, to be pushed away and then back again (the world is gone; no, now it is not), but provokes the elaboration of its absolute absence, and of how that may be indulged, threatening to theorise itself specifically through what cinema can show. After the end of the film, the body count will rise, but that is okay since the analytic devastation is here on the track of a primitive liberation.

To go missing, then, as Malabou says, is perhaps to have an experience there where experience has gone missing from within itself. Malbou does not quite abandon the language of experience itself here (phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and perhaps even deconstruction and poetics) but she does attend to what neurology reflects back at us of an experience that we cannot have or have had. Is this why, right now, in 2018, we all feel like we are going mad? What I mean is that if experience itself is tinged or even situated by an experience with the missingness and legional seperatedness of the extinction-drive (Aussterbenstrieb) and not just of the death-drive (Todestrieb), then it is as if maddened without knowing it by an experience it cannot have. While Malbou does not devote her essay on Freud and Lacan to experiences of madness (brain damage is, to repeat, not broadly speaking a form of ‘madness’ even in the contested medical sense), it may be that the experience of brain damage is now so invisibly normative as a form of missing madness, a madness unmet, that I can no longer experience myself as here without experiencing the fact that I am missing it. Can writing go there? This is what might be asked, sometimes no doubt too much, and too far, or too little, always enough, there where the always enough is perhaps the most maddening of all. Malabou may be said to work backwards from the experience of brain damage, as if the arrow points not from an intimation of mortality in a psychoanalytic mood onwards to an actual end of the world (Schreber’s sense of Weltuntergang due to the shattering of the Weltordnung), but back from an absence I cannot have had an experience of to (paradoxically) a devastation of every horizon in the future. It is here, with this problem of the knocking out of horizons, that one may locate a vast, psychotelekinetic madness, as if leaking into and locked onto the intimacies of current mediatic experiences and expanses, and extents and extends, a kind of remote-controlled extinction wish. Is there now a dark deconstruction of the technology of madness’ various accelerations? Are we involved, whether we like it or not, in alt deconstruction?

The xenographic writer and theorist Amy Ireland captures something of the outside-brain experience when she describes from a certain angle the experience of being on Twitter,

But there is yet another, more horrific prototype for Twitter which, given the strip-like dispensation of information Twitter users have grown accustomed to, is even more suggestive: leng tch’e—the Chinese technique of execution by ‘slow slicing’. Just as it is possible to recognise in leng-tch’e a state of unimaginable rapture as the body experiences itself coming to pieces whilst still functioning (as did Bataille), Twitter can be grasped as initiating a comparable cognitive vertigo, dismantling one’s attention while the mind is still conscious . . . and better, complicit.

Malabou’s clue as to what surpasses psychoanalytic conceptual aporias is ‘certain subjects with brain lesions’ who ‘are deprived precisely of the possibility of seeing or feeling themselves die’. She adds: ‘A lesion or a synaptic rupture, therefore, can never coincide, symbolically or materially, with anxiety of the cut or of castration.’ (p. 132) Cut without felt cut. Hyper-castration. End of the world without end of the world at all. Though such a brain deprivation can hardly be willed, and is far from the ‘state of unimaginable rapture’ Ireland pinpoints in the phenomenology of Twitter, there is, perhaps strangely, a direct comparison to be made here between the mediatic lagoon of leng tch’e as self-slicing or self-torture and the experience (which is nobody’s) of not even being there to have an absence of experiencing of oneself as one goes. One touches here on the metabolisation of an experience one perhaps cannot have or have had or will have had and perhaps does not have, and this seems to locate itself blindly at the familial nexus and crypt of going mad and going insane, the one tripled over as the other. What is going here? I mean, what is going on here? How to metabolise the Aussterbenstrieb with and without, with and without knowing if it is there, what it is, when it is there and if it is there, and whether it is known by me even when I know it or don’t know it, without knowing if I am in or outside of my head when I say any of this of it, whether it will have been worth knowing if I know it or knew it, and who is speaking here at all, when somebody says or said it, when somebody closes this question down? In his memorial lecture for Mark Fisher, delivered in January 2018, Kodwo Eshun delivers a perhaps similar set of questions, asking ‘what do the dead give away and what gives when the dead give away and what gives itself away in death and in what ways does giving give itself way?’ Eshun’s question, following Fisher, partly has to do with ‘metabolising egresses’, which it so say learning how to accommodate and go with the conceptual and lived loopholes and inventions Fisher wanted to call (before he was interrupted) egressive. To be able to metabolise what going extinct means at the right pace, as an egress, so that one may not go mad, unless madness here means and has always meant something else, is part of what these online seminars mean.

If there is a supercut between death and extinction, and between deconstructive psychoanalysis and accelerative neurobiology, then perhaps one can and must claim a different kind of sanity when one signs, when one signs in writing, when one signs in in writing, when one signs under writing, when one signs in in the time of writing and under extinction conditions (we have to know, in other words, that we are no longer under capital: we are under the devastation of ext). There may be a certain calibrated desperation in saying this, and yet also a desperation in not being able to say anything else at all—we may be considering the dead giving away and over of a precise voice to desperation above all. The supercut of ext works in effect as an auto-amputation, a slicing of present experience away from itself that must constantly have felt (in the past tense), have been felt, be felt, as if one were about to go mad—and everyone surrounding you feels the same, they are about to go mad too. Tell me I am not going mad. Tell me we are not all mad. Malabou’s work is useful here because it does not mobilise an obvious performative style to take on the experience of not having an experience of extinction that the experience of extinction seems to be but cannot by definition be. She does not go mad in this extreme desperation that trying to say extinction without going mad means. In another essay she simply announces in the title a ‘mentality of the anthropocene’ (see ‘The Brain of History, or, The Mentality of the Anthropocene’). In other words, going mad in style does not always if at all compel extravagant stylistic affective choices. It does not always if at all imperil whatever subjectality may happen to be present. Delicious self-torture is not de rigeur, despite appearances, although it always can be, or may be more than we know. The antic disposition in Malabou has instead to do with making a statement about ‘the link between the current constitution of the brain as the new subject of history and the type of awareness demanded by the Anthropocene’ (p. 39). No matter how much previous work has to be put to one side to attend to the new field of Aussterbenstrieb metabolisation as a kind of Aussterbenstrieb-event (the mentality of the anthropocene), one can also make a clear statement here: one can say these things without acting out, or so it seems. As Derrida has stated perhaps more clearly and even more madly than Foucault, the resources of madness are already transparently and incredibly sane: rationality itself is usefully mad, and madness is disappointingly normalisable. Madness is user-friendly as a program that runs and goes, especially, as we will see, when all systems appear to go. At the same time, to draw up a map or schema for the new subject as it enters into a time of extreme passing—I mean going, an era of going—is still to invite the mentalness of whatever a mentality means or meant. In English, ‘to be mental’ or indeed ‘to go mental’ is to go mad, and so to ask questions about the cerebrality of extinction’s difference from death and the metabolisation of a new Aussterbenstrieb mentality is also to begin anew to go a little mad in devastation. It is to have new means. It is to have new meaning in being made to go mad.

The crudeness of what I mean is evident. You have to be mad to (not) follow (it). Only a mentalist mentality would want to speak to or of extinction in extenso. The aim and ordeal of her essay ‘The Brain of History, or, The Mentality of the Anthropocene’ is a kind of expanded field of metabolisation, in which the brain takes in both sociological conditions (the culture of death) and wider non-human ecologies (what I would call devestation without culture), and yet what if a further ordeal or test was that this ordeal wasn’t or hasn’t been needed? Would this fact itself require more or less than a further metabolisation? Not only does Malabou want to expand the zone of metabolisation—what conscious mentality can take and where it can and cannot go—but she wants to replace it. She comments,

The awareness of the Anthropocene, then, originates through an interruption of consciousness. Such is the problem. I intend to ask whether such an interruption opens the space for a substitution of the brain for consciousness. (p. 40)

Such a centring of the brain, the replacement of consciousness (and therefore unconsciousness) with the brain, feels significant and perhaps threatening from a human viewpoint in several ways. First of all, it suggests a fundamental alteration in the conception of what we still sometimes call mental illness. Not only would there be a form of advocacy in what Malabou says—an advocating for the normalisation of supposedly secondary mental states—but there is also the suggestion that they (the ‘secondary’ mental states) are epochally central to the mentality of going extinct. The problem she locates is that awareness of lack of awareness of the ongoing problem (extinction tout court) only comes to us through states that may only indirectly be related to what Freud might have called psychic danger. The felt danger here (death) is only ever a substitute for or top layer of the real danger (extinction) that can only ever be felt, made out, or even acted and acted out on as an original form of madness and distress that is not there. (There is no original ext, here, to be covered over or faced, bit by bit, but only an original acting out of madness in the form of mute devastation as the ext beyond itself already. A leaking.) Is there, therefore, any danger at all? Yes and no, absolutely. Secondly, if the brain may simply replace consciousness (and unconsciousness) as the model of accurate thought as a going concern, then ‘mental illness’ is perhaps discarded as the evolutionary window of opportunity par excellence onto future and beneficial cognitions. Once the interruption of consciousness is known as such, there is in fact no need to repeat it—at the very least not in extravagantly painful or costly forms. What may ultimately be most depressing (from the point of view of a certain type of mentality) is that we don’t need to be depressed to metabolise at high or medium speeds death’s replacement of extinction—and this set of facts itself will, perhaps, call out for hypermetabolic work (which is to say nonmetabolic work). ‘Depression’ would be a kind of function-tracer of the obsolescence of affect as old technology while accelerative technology simultaneously closes out the need for progressive human feeling. What I mean by this is that when neurology takes pole position the melancholic attachments that constitute the Freudian-Lacanian era of analysis and even style begin to go on the wane, as if fading into a different type of missing-in-action significance. In terms of my own work, mourning becomes not the law but the vibrant exception, and precisely because death is interrupted by or replaced by an experience of mourning the loss of death to extinction.

The paradoxical correlate of all this, to be made only locally for now, is that there is no extinction at all, no mourning, no going mad—as well as no future for humanity and no political progressivism whatsoever. There is only devastation. I, as subject, am effectively in the precincts of something I cannot and will not now think or know, no matter what I say, even in terms of outlining these very paradoxes and putting them online. This not-knowing of what I feel I must know but cannot, ever, looks for all the world like going mad, and perhaps is, and yet cannot be that either since it latches onto no object, let alone a new one, and continues to look civilised. That Malabou names all of this as a new mentality is in some ways a mistake, and yet an essential one. What is enough to send one mad is that there can be no mentality of the anthropocene at all—because then one would actually have to activate and deal with the self-swallowing and self-objectivation of the subject’s own thanatonic gaze; a type of self-vore—and yet one must already be in the feel of the invisible shattering that leaves all of this in its wake, like a shadow at night over snow. The extinction mentality is pure brain; pure mistake.

Malabou will note, then, as if the stenographer of a vast and yet vastly remote and new form of third-person,

Man cannot appear to itself as a geological force, because being a geological force is a mode of disappearance. Therefore, the becoming force of the human is beyond any phenomenology and has no ontological status. Human subjectivity is in a sense reduced to atoms without any atomic intention and has become structurally alien, by want of refexivity, to its own apocalypse. (p. 41)

Man becomes an ‘itself’ beyond personal or even revolutionised pronouns. The point here would not be the compelling of new uses of language but the neuroanalytic certainty of the statement of an impossibility. No matter what man says and does, no matter what it reads and proposes, it will have known nothing of this self-made apocalypse of which it claims to know everything in detail. ‘Structurally alien’ is important here: it opens a gap between everything the ‘it’ of man says and the structural indifference to it of the material-event of extinction and not death. The supercut of death from extinction (ext) and mourning from presence is here thought in terms of what Malabou calls (again sounding a little like Ireland’s Twitter phenomenology, but in this case quoting McLuhan) ‘auto-amputation’ or ‘self-amputation’ (cited p. 48). What Malabou describes is a subject ‘when it takes into account the experience of the impossibility to experience decorrelationism’ (p. 44). The amputatory moment here comes doubled, when mentalness is still offered to experience in the moment of supercut. A decorrelated sense of things is not separated out from the subject who experiences not the experience of their own absence, but the experience of the impossibility of having the experience of their own absolute absence. It is precisely here, and not anywhere else, in the impasses of e < > d, that the brain takes over, and goes. One may begin to speak of a neuroplasticity of the ext, a beyond of the thanatocracy of all erotoplastogenesis. ‘This is where the brain demands recognition!’

Inversely, this is where the ext demands recognition, and begins to dissolve itself! I spend my time, and will do, saying why and what this means here and elsewhere. But the sheer force of Malabou’s affirmations may be helpfully repeated. The mentality of the anthropocene—not a subject, but a new addictive regime—is ‘suspended by a spontaneous petrifcation, a geologization of both the gaze and the image’. In other words, I am stolen and stolen over by a kind of psychic stoniness. The numbness of the brain is not only achieved by the psychopolitical control systems of online life but lent out in offline terms as a new charge for what persists (and pretends to be able to insist) in the mental. The threat of extinction, insofar as the mental may take it in, is conceived by Malabou as a break—a super-interruption—in the architecture of what is called ‘psychoanalysis’. Where Freud already describes the psyche in terms of its unconscious dealing with death as an internal horizon and its serration, Malabou wants to say that no matter what Freud-Lacan say, the time in which we are now is defined by the madness of the supercut of ext as the time in which what matters alone does not yet and will not matter. Insofar as extinction exists then, as a kind of threat to threat itself, or as a mortalisation of mortality, it presents more than a dead giveaway. Eshun asks ‘what gives itself away in death’, and the transcription of an answer is given here: what gives itself away in death, especially perhaps when that death is self-willed and ‘chosen’, is the exorbitance of extinction over death in celebrality’s current self-conceptualisation out of which nothing can come except incredible sobriety in devastation. What gives itself away in contemporary death is extinction. What is given over by current extinction is devastation.




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