September 20, 2022

The Contemporary Clinic #3: Psychoanalytical Notes from Russia during the Ukraine War

Gleb Napreenko

Rodion Kitaev, The Last Dance. From “The Black Dawn” series. Spring 2022.

In Russia today, several months after the beginning of the war, we hear these questions—both in public spaces and in the psychoanalyst’s office:

What I continue to do—to work, to go to the café, to see or to produce artistic works—does it make sense during the war?

What makes sense now?

It’s so strange that life goes on, isn’t it? Like nothing ever happened.

For many people, a war waged by Russia against Ukraine seemed impossible. It is they—of whom I am one—who were seized at the outbreak of this war by a real outside-of-sense feeling, a rupture that questions familiar reality and bonds.

Russian propaganda seeks to create the effect of a continuity of reality, claiming that everything is under control. “Our president knows where he is leading the country,” as Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said. In fact, all social institutions have an inherent tendency to inertia, a tendency to reproduce their own functioning—which also implies the possibility of including whatever they repress into a dialectical process. But today the logic of Russian propaganda and censorship follows the mechanism of foreclosure rather than repression, as psychoanalyst Mikhail Strakhov has argued.1

Foreclosure, the Lacanian translation of the Freudian term Verwerfung, is usually described as a psychotic mechanism, in contrast to neurotic repression, Verdrängung. Whereas in repression some signifier that refers to enjoyment (jouissance, in Lacan’s vocabulary) is withdrawn into the unconscious, having already been included in the symbolic order, in foreclosure the signifier that could contribute to the treatment of jouissance is discarded without this inclusion. The effect of this failure to include key signifiers in the symbolic is the return of jouissance in the real.

To explain this opposition between repression and foreclosure in the context of propaganda and censorship, it’s important to introduce the notion of the continuity of the chain of discourse or chain of signifiers. The logic of repression and the return of the repressed is always connected with establishing some chain of signifiers (all the examples of repression that Lacan takes from Freud are about reconstructing this chain, which is corrupted by repression). In the case of foreclosure there is no such chain that could be reconstructed. What is generated instead is the radical fragmentation of discourse. Antonin Artaud described the beginning of his psychotic episodes by saying he had the feeling that all his phrases were unfinished, that there was a hole at the end of each phrase that could not be closed. Putinist propaganda simply declares the continuity of discourse (such as “traditional values”), but doesn’t actually produce it. This propaganda, working together with censorship, doesn’t really offer a consistent ideology to explain what is happening or to produce a chain of interpretations. What is produced, rather, are holes in language and a fragmentation of reality. This is the result of attacking certain key signifiers, such as “war,” and expelling them from legal circulation, without even explaining why.

In Russia currently we see several elements of a state of emergency, including a mobilization of the military and severe censorship, but none of them are declared as such. Officially there is no war, no censorship and no dictatorship. This distance between de facto and de jure also corresponds with foreclosure. (One can refer again to the case of Artaud, who declared the radical disconnection between words and things.) Propaganda and censorship here make an effort not simply to repress, but to exclude the very possibility that something that points to the reality of war might enter the discursive system. The Lacanian logic of foreclosure is “what is not recognized in the symbolic returns in the real.” I believe that the “return in the real” of this unrecognized war is quite dangerous in the current situation—think, for example, of the nuclear danger.

If I were to diagnose it, the totally paranoid rhetoric of the Russian authorities borders on transitivism in the psychiatric sense of the term, where all the intentions and vices that these authorities attribute to the evil western Other can be read as an impossible confession about themselves. I leave aside the question of foreclosure when it comes to the Russian president, for whom the main reference point seems to be an imaginary ideal of masculinity, and the only mistake that he himself can admit is that he trusted certain people too much.

The poles of inertia/rupture, sense/outside-of-sense, conformism/solitude, pleasure principle and its beyond resonate today in my practice. The continuation of a seemingly peaceful existence “by inertia” for some people is marked by a touch of prearranged impotence, passivity in relation to the real of war. This impotence can have a soothing, drowsy, anesthetic character. “Nothing can be done about it.” “We do not know the whole truth.” Psychoanalysis, along with other social practices, can potentially intervene in this drowsiness. Instead of the impotence that rules out any dialectic between the opposing poles, psychoanalysis allows a person to put them into play with each other—through the work of a sometimes long, even exhausting examination of what you are capable of as a subject—which can lead, of course, to the patient touching the limits of sense.

But in order to do this, you need to be touched by the war as a divided subject, as the bearer of a symptom, that is, as a living being marked by the encounter with the signifier, experiencing its morbid consequences on the level of a relationship with jouissance. Russian propaganda, like all propaganda, produces clichés that collaborate with the ego’s tendency to create an illusion of wholeness and consistency. As psychoanalyst Inga Metreveli has argued in a text on propaganda,2 only the division of the subject can subvert the ego’s tendency to create this illusion. Once divided, the subject can treat the intrusion of the real of war as something to be questioned, deciphered, and related to the repressed, perhaps as something that demands an invention. But this search is driven precisely by the fact that there is something that opposes it—the irritating existence of something that can never be definitively dealt with. It is the activation of the inertia symptom that I have observed in these times of war—in myself first of all—that allowed me to be more attentive to it in my patients. By “activation,” I do not mean so much an aggravation of one’s suffering as the attempt to say something about the symptom and one’s ways of dealing with it—and to learn something from this saying. This activation of the symptom parallels the activation, in some artists, of the path of art as a response to what war suddenly brings to the surface. Freud emphasized that art and the symptom, as responses to the real outside-of-sense, share the same structural locus.

Propaganda aims to create a swarm of clichés in order to avoid coming up against what is outside-of-sense. Unlike what might happen in the course of psychoanalysis, propaganda seals off knowledge, excluding it from the movement of dialectics, freezing it into ready-made formulas. The phrase “Our president knows where he is leading the country” is indicative in this respect. Knowledge is proclaimed here, but in no way revealed or unfolded. That’s why contradiction between clichés doesn’t exist for propaganda: a contradiction can only arise when knowledge is explicitly unfolded. Today’s clichés blindly coexist. For example: there is no war—but the war was started in 2014 by Ukraine and we will now finish it; Ukraine is Russia—but it’s an Anti-Russia; Ukrainians are Russians deep in their souls—but they are Banderovians3; Zelensky is just a silly clown and marionette of the US—but he is a calculating murderer and manipulator; we are against neo-Nazism and nationalism—but we support our special Russian identity; etc.

To be in analysis is to experience your own swarm of clichés, your own system of ready-made meanings that come naturally to your tongue and take you by the hand, working as your personal propaganda. Here too, the law of contradiction does not hold—as Lacan says in his Seminar XX, “The unconscious is the fact that being, by speaking, enjoys, and … wants to know nothing more about it … know nothing about it at all.”4 It can be said that everyone is the victim and carrier of their own private propaganda, and this is a revelation that can become unheimlich. “The unconscious is politics.” This is a moment to remember that work in psychoanalysis, being directed toward what is outside-of-sense in the symptom, is directed, in a sense, against the unconscious.

This article contains some elements of a text read in July 2022 at the New Lacanian School congress in Lausanne. This text would not have been possible without the exchange of ideas with my colleagues and friends, my analyst and analysands.

Notes
1

See (in French), or (in Russian).

2

See (in French), or (in Russian).

3

Followers of Stepan Bandera .

4

Jacques Lacan, On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX, Encore 1972–1973, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Bruce Fink (Norton, 1998), 104–5.

Category
Psychology & Psychoanalysis, War & Conflict
Subject
Russia, Ukraine, Contemporary Clinic

Gleb Napreenko is a Lacanian psychoanalyst, and a member of the New Lacanian School and World Association of Psychoanalysis. He also works as an art critic and theorist; together with Aleksandra Novozhenova he is the author of The Episodes of Modernism (2018, in Russian). He lives in Moscow.

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