Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Politics after the Death of the Father: Democracy in Freud and Derrida

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Politics after the Death of the Father: Democracy in Freud and Derrida

Article excerpt

Freud's consideration of political authority begins with his hypothesis that civilization originates at the price of the murder of the primal father. At the conclusion of Totem and Taboo, he locates the beginnings of religion, civil law, and the desire for transgression, as well as an alteration in the nature of language and the human relationship to the animal, in the mourning for and identification with an untrammelled paternal authority. His other works on political problems vacillate between an awareness of the essentially ambivalent nature of the site of sovereignty and its tendency to mask aggression and violence, on the one hand, and a more conservative insistence on the necessity of such a monarch in order to prevent chaos, on the other. Fearing that the absence of a leader to occupy the place of paternal authority would allow havoc, Freud drew his understanding of mass behaviour in large part from the counter-revolutionary and proto-fascist work of Gustav Le Bon. This renders the politics of psychoanalysis suspect by its association with authoritarianism. Nonetheless, while the Freud of Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego approves of Le Bon's insistence on obedience to a transcendent authority, the Freud of "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" articulates a suspicion that the sovereign state does more harm than good, only masking its self-interested aggression in a hypocritical appeal to common necessity.

This ambivalence--the love and fear engendered by authority--follows from the moment of the father's death at the hands of his sons, and his subsequent idealization by theology and its political secularization. This murder finds its modern repetition in the execution of Louis XVI on 21 January 1793, which famously marks a new era in the attempt to replace a divine executive with a more democratic popular will. Derrida attends to this moment in a very late text, "Psychoanalysis Searches the State of Its Soul," which locates a deconstructive account of democracy as impelled by this death, and in particular its relevance to Freudian considerations of the problem of violence and the place of authority. Readings of previous theories of the king's execution by figures such as Kant and Klossowski, who see the execution of the king as enacting the death of God, outline a greater context for the relationship between human rights, law, and sovereignty. In addition, contemporary deconstructive accounts of its significance by Thomas Keenan and Geoffrey Bennington reveal the irreducible significance of the putting to death of the sovereign for any post-foundationalist consideration of the political. All political decisions from a democratic perspective avoid recourse to a unitary sovereign, and for this reason assume discord as primary. Democratic actions take place in excess of and outside the guarantee of the father who Freud posited as fundamental; deconstruction reveals democracy as continually complicit in the sovereign's murder.

In Totem and Taboo, Freud concludes that human society must have originated in a primal horde, ruled over by a despotic father (XIII: 125). This fearsome patriarch expels his sons in order to retain possession of all the daughters. Each of the brothers nurses feelings of revenge and desire for the women who have been taken from him, until each realizes that in cooperation they can accomplish what none could do alone: they kill and devour their father (141). Freud argues that in this moment, democratic seizure and redistribution of power, social organization, moral restrictions, and religion became necessary. The singular despot is replaced by a self-governing society, in which each member desires to take the place now vacated by the dead super-father, and exogamy is instituted. Each of the brothers would like to possess all of the women, so they are compelled to renounce the women of their own group (144). The brothers are tormented by conflicting desires; while their elimination of the father-despot has liberated them, they find themselves enthralled by his ghost. …

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