The Psyche and the World
How should we think about the relationship between politics and psychic life, political structure and private pathologies?
Some feminist and affect scholars argued in the last few decades that less-than-conscious feelings such as rage, joy, anxiety and mourning, might be politically salient. The urgency to study the politics of these feelings may have increased over the last few years of emotionalized politics. Nonetheless, many political theorists remain apprehensive about the consequences of politicizing inner life, often citing the need to protect ‘the private’ from the intrusive (at best) or totalitarian (at worst) intrusions of the political world. Others are worried about the pettiness and irrationality of the psyche and the threat these pose to politics.
Despite (or because) of this discomfort, the question of the relationship between the psyche and the world haunts the history of political thought, at least since Plato argued in Republic that the psyche is a diminutive polity, and that pathologies in citizens’ souls bring about degeneration in the state. Plato simply posits this analogy rather than defending it. This seminar asks, however: Is the analogy defensible? Plato hoped that the magnified scale of the city will help elucidate the soul. We, however, might turn Plato on his head and ask: might private symptoms tell us something about the political world in which they emerge? That is Frantz Fanon’s argument. Mental illness, he writes inThe Wretched of the Earth, is a “direct sequel of colonial oppression.”
We will start with Frantz Fanon (Wretched of the Earth;Black Skin, White Masks) and Plato (Republic), both see the polis as refracted in the psyche, and then turn to Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan) and Hannah Arendt (The Human Condition; Rahel Varnhagen)on the relationship between the city and its troubled souls. We will also read contemporary work in Political Theory by Judith Butler, Glenn Coulthard, Diego Rossello, Sharon Sliwinski and others.
Some of the questions that we might explore are: What are the dangers and promises of politicizing inner life? Of applying medicalized and/or therapeutic tropes to scholarship in political theory? Does the turn to the psyche mean lowering the expectations of worldly politics? Diminishing its scale? What’s the difference between acting politically and the neurotic behavior that Freud called ‘acting-out’? What might acting-(out) in concert with others look like? Or in other words—can mental symptoms form political resistance? Last, what is the relationship between land and mental health, dispossession and mental illness?