Jean-Pierre Lebrun, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, former president of the International Freudian Association, is the author of several essays, including Un monde sans limite (Érès-poche, 1997),
La perversion ordinaire (Champs collection, Flammarion), Les couleurs de l’inceste (Denoël, 2013).
Bernard Legros met and interviewed him in Brussels in November 2018.
B. L.: For some time now, psychoanalysis has been attacked from all sides, the blows have come from behaviorist psychology, the media, the intellectual world. What is the explanation for this?
J.-P. L. : There are several reasons for this mistrust, even for this rejection. Among the most decisive, there is first of all that what psychoanalysis maintains does not correspond to the zeitgeist, that it is even antagonistic to it. Thus, speech has a status that is not reduced to communication, as is often the case today. Then, there is also a reason that is less talked about, which is that psychoanalysts, in their glory years, were very often arrogant and, therefore, there is a revenge to be taken. But beyond these reasons, it is also legitimate to wonder if, after all, psychoanalysis will be able to confront the present time and to endure; this is a real question!
On the subject of psycho-social evolution, the therapist Jean-Paul Gaillard refers to these young people, representing a majority, who no longer function cognitively and mentally like their elders, as « mutants ». Have you heard of it?
Yes, the « mutants » are precisely those who adhere to today’s imperatives. Charles Melman spoke of the » new psychic economy » to designate the fact of wanting to reach enjoyment rather than to support a desire. It is indeed a displacement of the axis of the psychic organization which today makes almost new normality. However, it is not without suffering. The aforementioned mutation has been at work for, let’s say, forty years; it goes hand in hand with the rise to the zenith of the consumer object, but it is only very recently that we can observe it in its effectiveness. We have in fact reached the third generation of subjects for whom what can be called the « law of the father » no longer appeals and for whom the autonomous individual is now prevalent. Basically, two worlds coexist today which, like tectonic plates, collide and clash. That of people still formatted on the old world, pyramidal, socially organized on the model of religion with, to ensure its transmission, this lever of the « law of the father », which was in charge of making each one admit the features of what required the human condition. And that of the new generations for whom the new world is organized around horizontality, aiming at equality, whether of sexes or of status, and in which developing as an autonomous individual is prevalent. It is not only a generational conflict, because these are really two worlds that too often clash without working to identify the new path that is nevertheless at work and that is reconfiguring us. Because in the face of this mutation with considerable impacts, the question cannot consist in continuing as before — this would be a deleterious naivety — but it would be another naivety to believe that what the mutants support is without specific difficulties. This is where psychoanalysis could help to shed light on what is going on: in the end, both discourses have their share of truth: the change that is taking place is colossal and unprecedented — just think that we can now have children without going through a sexual relationship, never seen before! — and at the same time the human condition remains what it is: subjects forced to live their lives by speaking, who subjectivize what happens to them through language.
Is the patriarchy model still as prevalent in 2019?
No, but we must keep in mind that our Western societies are not the only ones in the world, not to say that they are in the minority. You don’t have to go very far to see the patriarchy, familially or/and politically, still at work. Take, for example, Turkey on our doorstep. In this respect, we must not forget that only a part of Europe and North America are the advanced point of the anthropological and societal mutation that is taking place and that, even in these societies, the old model still remains in a significant number of families. But elsewhere in the world, it is certainly patriarchy that still prevails.
How is it that in the West, liberal feminists continue to claim that » everything remains to be done « , 50 years after May 68, a time when the condition of women has clearly improved?
I believe that it is much easier to perpetuate a posture of contestation that has and will always have its legitimacy against patriarchy rather than to ask ourselves if it only covers what we no longer want, namely its abuses, its inequalities, the silencing of women, etc. It should rather be a question of recognizing that this patriarchy, at a time when we did not have the resources of science, organized the world in a way that, certainly and rightly, no longer satisfies us. In my book Les couleurs de l’inceste (The colors of incest ) I have shown that, from the Greek tragedy, the function of the prevalence granted to the father was not only to enslave the woman, but also to give the prevalence to the regime of the word. At a time when only the word could organize the world, women took upon themselves the biological reproduction and men the transmission of culture. We are no longer in that era and that is our opportunity for progress: it is quite legitimate to want to take things further today, but it is equally important to ask ourselves how we are going to transmit the human today. To put it too quickly, the « law of the father » conveyed from the outset a legitimization of the exception and thus opened to abuses which were not lacking, but it also had the responsibility of channelling the child’s impulsiveness so that he could be capable of subjectivizing through words, in a word, the responsibility of humanizing him. Today, it is as if this double polarity is denied, simply because to recognize it could be equivalent to not rejecting with the necessary vigor the model of patriarchy, and therefore the asymmetry and domination that it implies. We prefer then to simplify the reading and to continue to reject in a block all that covered the patriarchal domination. However, this will not make our task any easier. Because, even if some have abused it, patriarchal and male domination was not only at the service of males, it was at the service of humanity. This, let us remember, does not justify that it continues today.
We are right to disagree with this way of doing things and it is a way forward. But this model went beyond the father’s claim to order the world, it introduced the child to the use of the symbolic dimension. This « law of the father » was the lever that our ancestors had to transmit the condition of speaking beings. As I was saying, once this « father’s law » was deemed obsolete, we did not really want to know that this delegitimized the parents in their task of inscribing their children in this condition of speaking beings. And today we are dealing with the consequences of this delegitimization. Parents no longer know what it means to be parents, especially in the case of the father’s function. For the delegitimization of which I speak obviously operated especially on the intervention of the father. Moreover, we are and remain in denial of this difficulty, so much so that it would be considered as an attempt to restore the patriarchal order. This is followed, for example, by what is now called parental burn-out , which concerns more and more parents. Society then began to fight back by putting in place parenting supports. But we forget that since the world was created, being a parent was a matter of course: it was from the family environment that children had to integrate their future profession as humans. All this anthropological organization that has worked for centuries is now being broken down, and this leads to dead ends, because we no longer have the lever that, in the past, allowed us to transmit what humanization requires. It is not a question here of only regretting the thing, it is necessary for us simply to note it, and serenely, without either immediately prohibiting us to think it, under the pretext that this would be equivalent to wanting to restore the patriarchy. Faced with this fact, we have to ask ourselves how we are going to transmit the human condition, because we are and will remain beings of language. This is what defines our species.
What do you think of this motto of » putting ﬁn to all dominations « ?
This is just one more avatar of our misunderstanding. Just because patriarchal or male domination is ended does not mean that domination as such will disappear. Who could argue that we can remove domination? This one shows itself everywhere, in the couple, in the school, in the work, in the social classes… The domination exists because the individuals are inevitably all different and, moreover, in different places. For example, while I am talking, you are silent. Domination — or at least the prevalence of one over the other — is thus already inscribed in the structure of the speaking being. But precisely, by letting us believe that it is possible to abolish all domination, we maintain a pious wish and, by supposing that it cannot be, we deprive ourselves of building the weapons to fight it. By demanding anti-racism, we prepare racism as never before, since we make people believe that there could be no more racism, whereas it is ineradicable and present in everyone and it is only through the slow work of culture that we can distance ourselves from it.
Are we not also in danger of falling from one domination to another, from that of patriarchy to that of technoscience?
You are entirely right because what we don’t want to know is that by referring to technoscience, we are becoming less and less able to sustain a place of our own, and we will rely more and more on what is called, for example, procedures. It will be the end of someone we meet, of an interlocutor to talk to, we will have to content ourselves with fighting against procedures, algorithms, numerical evaluations, statistics… all more anonymous than the others. In short, the system presented as acephalous. And this is not a lesser domination; it could rather prove to be worse since we will no longer have access to the one or the ones who will have produced it…
Let’s go back to language. In post-modernity, the word turns to empty and comes to replace the facts, leading to the delusions of the « post-truth ». Is psychoanalysis, which has always defended the subject’s capacity for language, being overtaken on its own ground? How to restore the truth and give right to reality? Would the discourse of science be a remedy?
We are faced with the same problem as the one I just mentioned. Yesterday, the truth had to be and remain intangible because it was the only one to say what was. Thus, for example, the child was the child of the mother, this was undoubtedly known at the time of the birth, but who was the father then? The one, of course, that the word of the mother designated, but also and especially the one that the society legitimized. In this case, the husband of the mother. However, we knew that this was often not the truth. But it was necessary to wait for the advances of science to be able to relativize this truth and to give consistency to the reality of the facts which was truer than that said by the law. It is therefore clear that it can be a progress to be able to relativize the Truth of yesterday written with a capital letter. And that this is only possible with the advances of science which today are able to identify the genitor and eventually to contest a paternity. But it is one thing to take into account this new reality and to support the uncertainty that the relativization of Truth introduces, another to remove, in the name of post-truth, any value to truth, under the pretext that it should bend to subjective readings. In this sense, the discourse of science is certainly not a remedy. I would say that it certainly helps to put into perspective a word that has often been passed off as true without being questioned. But in doing so, it does not make the hole disappear — a real — which is always supported by an enunciation. What is required of a word that sustains itself is to always have to assume this « hole », and therefore negativity, the real, the absence of certainty, the impossible. But today, it is as if the societal discourse wanted to make the presence of this hole disappear and thus the link between truth and reality. But, as Orwell saw very well with what he called » common decency « , its disappearance can only make the common world uninhabitable. For how can we make a common world if truth and reality are not essential ingredients? We are struck today by the fact that all opinions are equal. So much so that in the prevailing air, it sometimes becomes difficult for an authorized person to support what he or she thinks because of the risk of opprobrium. Today, it is your word against mine, mine against yours! There is a degradation of the status of the word at work. This one must however continue to engage subjectivity and at the same time accept to confront those who contest it.
Among my teenage students, there is frequent confusion between facts and opinions…
This is the consequence of this unbounded relativization. The truth of the fact should now give way to the truth of the singular feeling. Any opposition can only become a narcissistic wound and this can only get worse every day, as the reality of the fact is more and more blurred. We should be aware that this can only lead to further violence. It is a consequence of our desire to be all on the same footing, equal, in a purely horizontal world, the result of our implicit belief in a system that can entirely do without the place of exception, in other words, a minimum of verticality. This means that each person not only has the right to a chapter, as we used to say, but is a chapter in his or her own right, in the face of others who are also chapters. Paradoxically, we have all become exceptions! But how can we still make a common world? We are again faced with two possibilities; either we recognize that it is a question of relativizing the Truth, or we think that all truths, even subjective ones, are now equal. The thing becomes even more complicated if every time I recall the unimpeachable reality of the facts, this is understood as a desire to resurrect the Truth of yesterday.
How can we explain this apparently paradoxical fact: the objectification of social life, under the rule of the economy and technoscience, generates in return an unbridled subjectivism, to the point that we can speak of a tyranny of private lives and subjectivities that is imposed on the public sphere. Isn’t this subjectivism the sign of a de-subjectification?
You can indeed say it like that. The economy and technoscience, which objectify social life, ratify the process of dereliction of speech. Faced with scientifically and economically proven facts, there would be no need to speak, to commit oneself to one’s word; communicating would be enough. This is clearly seen in current politics, which no longer really supports the field of what is called politics when it puts itself under the rule of economics. The generation of those who have rightly undermined the « law of the father » does not really want to take into account that it has thus contributed to authorize this model of priority to the economic by getting rid of everything that, from near or far, designated the place of exception. In other words, by believing that yesterday’s vertical whole had to be opposed by a horizontal whole and by not perceiving that what was happening was rather the passage from a vertical « pastout » to a horizontal « pastout ».
The more norms and rules are imposed on us, the more subjectivism is exacerbated…
You are certainly right; it becomes a way of thinking to be able to get away from what is implicitly imposed. My feeling then becomes my apparent compass, but the problem is that it no longer indicates north. By north I mean the fact of living in the collective and referring to it, in other words, keeping a bit of verticality present.
Feeling totally dominated by a technostructure, the individual compensates by an unbridled subjectivity…
Yes, but it is then an impoverished subjectivity, limited to the sensitivity, out of elaboration and out of link to the collective. It is only individualistic, valuing the immediate feeling; it is then no longer in dialogue with the others to manage to be heard. When, in addition, you know that it can be legitimized by the law, you understand that it can only incite resentment, hatred and therefore sooner or later, if nothing stops it, civil war.
This subjectivism is the sign of a de-subjectification, finally…
Yes, because the subject no longer refers to a community and loses the dimension of true subjectivity which is always linked to the collective. Basically, » It’s my right to think like that » always goes hand in hand with » I don’t really think « . We are now in the republic of false selfs. If it is enough to claim the right to wear red ties, what an impoverishment of subjectivity! The old model initially introduced constraints, but once the child had accepted them, he or she had the right to disagree by virtue of his or her singularity; this nevertheless required work in order to make a contribution to the universal. Today, we want to remove the constraints because we must first recognize the potential singularity of the child. It doesn’t help him find his way, let alone make it better. The subject comes from the start with the right to have a singularity which does not then have to be built on an opposition. He no longer has an interlocutor against whom to build and support his singularity. This is what makes the Korean philosopher Byung Chul Han say that we are in a society of positivity, and no longer of negativity, and that this changes the game. The implicit nature of the change means that the social is no longer positioned before the individual; unlike in the past, it is no longer a cause, but an effect. But if the subject prevails today, how do we « live together »? It is not for nothing that this expression is heard everywhere today. But we are always constituted first by others, if only in our use of language.
We often talk about the feeling of shame that the contemporary individual would feel in front of the empire of technology, bureaucracy and post-colonial reality, among others. Even if this is not wrong, I argue on the contrary that the neoliberal subject is arrogant, proud of himself and his life choices, is complacent towards his own actions…
I’m afraid you’re right.
Hasn’t the individualism of the Enlightenment mutated today into hyper-individualism? If so, what difference do you make between the two?
The question of individualism is linked to this shift. In the past, the model was transmitted almost without any possibility to modify it. It was heteronomy, the omnipotence of the collective; it was attacked from the 16th century onwards; it was only in the 1970s that it was definitively swept away. Today, the individual prevails. A spontaneous individualism has even set in, and no one can escape it. But once you are an individualist, you open the way to all the excesses of the individual, such as transhumanism, which promises to cure all the suffering of humanity. In other words,hubris has been democratized.
The global threats should open our eyes and make us think about our thirst for individual freedom…
Of course, but since everyone gives credit to their personal desires, we are not off to a good start!
A sense of effort and the subtraction of enjoyment, are these not two conditions of a new social pact?
You can say it like that, but recognize that these two things are not on the agenda! About the subtraction of jouissance, it is the characteristic of the human being to be founded on a limit not so much prohibiting as constituting, as Camus had advanced about a saying of his father: » A man, that is prevented! « This is a formulation that says what the human implies and not only the patriarchal! But the problem with the mutant is that he may not have that on his agenda anymore. How can we put this requirement back on the agenda? This would be the real progress. The interest in the sense of effort would follow. Giving importance to the horizontal is in itself a project that could be more respectful of singularity, but not at the cost of abrading verticality. Something is beyond us all and remains forever unattainable, what I call an immanent transcendence.
The liberal ideology seems to have definitively conquered the minds. How could it be reduced other than through an individual therapeutic approach?
In principle, it should be the task of the politician to initiate this. But to do so, it must have authority. Fighting climate change on an individual level is generous but insufficient. One could argue that the very idea of the individual is a lie. There is only one subject marked by the social from which he comes, from which he has constituted his singularity at best, by individuation, what I call aut®onomy. This is what must take place in the childhood of a subject. This learning, if we can say so, works by time window. There is an age to learn to read, between 5 and 8 years old. After that, it gets immensely more complicated.
This notion of time window is currently denied, especially in the case of late parenthood which is decided in the name of love, a kind of magic word which would ensure that everything will be fine…
Love, you have to know what you’re aiming for! This remains a determining value, but on the condition that it is not only maternal, unconditional love that is designated. But isn’t that what we are promoting today? In the film Beautiful Boy by Felix Van Groeningen, a father loves his son unconditionally and tries to help him constantly and by all means to get out of his addiction. But the more the father redoubles his attention, the more the son sinks into his problem. It is when he recognizes his powerlessness and tells him that everyone, at some point, is responsible for his own existence, that things begin to improve for the son, albeit at the risk of his death. The specificity of what the « law of the father » brought was to presentify the absence; this is therefore closely linked to language. To speak is to make present what is absent. Today, only presence counts and we constantly see people hoping to obtain by an extra presence what can only be obtained by absence. This is the whole current model of accompaniment, which is important, but the moment of letting go is just as important!
Does the left/right divide still make sense to you?
It is shaken, in any case. Left and right have opted for the defense of liberalism, the first dealing with the cultural side and the second with the economic side, to go quickly and to refer to the works of Jean-Claude Michéa. This upheaval is linked to the change I just mentioned, I think. The left-wing sensibility still exists, the one that wants to take into consideration the least favored people. But individualism has changed that. On the right, it means » my money, my business « , on the left, » my uniqueness, my identity « . I don’t recognize myself in this duality. Is there an alternative, another way of doing things? I don’t have the answer…
Interview by Bernard Legros, November 2018