How to Escape the Dictatorship of Covid-19?
by Luce Irigaray
Writing on psychoanalysis at the moment seems to me to return to another epoch of history that a mere virus has called into question. How and in what mode could psychoanalytical theory and psychoanalytical practice explain and remedy what happens to us because of this virus? Is it not the virus which questions psychoanalysis itself and not the contrary? Does not this virus compel us to define and resort to another way of thinking and living? Is this not its manner of defying us: either you become a new human being or you comply with my dictatorship, a dictatorship more radical and efficacious than any human law thought up until now. Indeed, what represents the ‘law of the father’ (Lacan) in comparison with Covid-19? Has not this law to resort today to the power of the virus to still be effective, notably at a political level? And how can the analysis of the unconscious, as it has been defined by Freud, rescue us from the proof of reality we are faced with? Must we not liberate ourselves from it as soon as possible to discover other resources of life – and even another meaning of life itself? Could finding a vaccine settle or erase the hardship of our powerlessness faced with that which can, here and now, paralyze our breathing and so cause our death? Does not ignoring and forgetting this trial lead us to death in a slower but equally unavoidable way? Does Covid-19 represent a mere hiccup that sciences and technique will succeed in taking away from our journey? Or, instead, is it an advent of radical importance, a sort of foreshadowing of a ‘last Judgment’ which concerns us regarding life and death?
The problem of immunity
If the virus caught us off our guard and left us so powerless in the face of it, it is probably because our immunity is failing more and more. If the living beings that we are were not endowed with a natural immunity, humanity would not have been able to survive until now. However, more and more, artificial conditions of our existence make our immune defense system gradually fade away. There is no doubt that scientists endeavour to compensate for the lessening of our natural immunity with an artificial immunity. To believe that a vaccine can solve the current health crisis is to agree with a possible substitution of one immunity for another.
However, could a vaccine repair the damage that the atmospheric pollution causes to our lungs? Could this vaccine cure the various illnesses which make some people more vulnerable to the virus? Will being vaccinated against Covid-19 immunize us against other viruses? Will we then recover from asthma and deficiencies of bronchial tubes and lungs due to ambient nuisances? And will all the defensive strategies which try to lend assistance to our lack of immunity increase or weaken our natural immune defense system? Would not breathing better in a healthy atmosphere be the most suitable way to face the virus and try to resist contamination? Can affective solitude be of some help to avoid contamination or does it make us still more vulnerable?
If psychoanalysis worries little about problems of immunity, it at least attracts our attention to the existence and the importance of psychosomatic diseases. Our physical immunity cannot completely be distinguished from our psychical health, even from our psychical immunity. Is our psychè in good or poor health today? Does not the current crisis add to many other problems which mobilize and paralyze our psychical energy? And what is and will be the impact of ‘barrier gestures’ on our psychical health? Will they not increase our fragility, depriving us of the sensitive and energizing support that the affective and emotional relationships with the other(s), and above all shared with the other(s), can bring to us?
Can psychoanalysis compensate for this loss, this lack, or only make obvious the necessity of such support and the somatic effect of its repression and of our inability to henceforth share it? No doubt, psychoanalysis teaches us how to cope on our own without the immediate assistance of a reciprocal fondness and touch, but in a specific and limited framework, and in order to reveal their importance. What help can it bring to us concerning the complete isolation that is imposed on us because of the virus?
Breathing by oneself
If psychoanalysis, as with most parts of culture and educational patterns, have taught us to subject ourselves to the cultural and social order, are we not confronted today with the necessity of learning how to become autonomous? And the first gesture capable of providing us with autonomy or giving it back to us is breathing by ourselves. Does not coming into the world mean breathing by oneself? And yet this initial condition of our being born seems to be ignored or neglected by our social and cultural concerns. It is not taken into account by our educational programmes either. And our religious tradition entrusts this gesture to God himself as our creator – his breath being presupposed to be that which gives life to our physical matter. Nevertheless, this tradition claims that human beings have been unable to make the life created by God blossom because they aimed at becoming God instead of accomplishing their humanity. Thus life needed to be redeemed by a natural begetting through a conception within a woman. Being sent back to this more human being born meant that breath must henceforth be assumed by humans themselves, first by the mother for the fetus and, next, by each in an autonomous way.
However, who really cares about this reality? Are we not considered to be living without that in turn prompting any questions concerning the origin of our life and the manner of taking care of it? If the political, cultural and religious people in charge worry more or less adequately about our need to eat, who among them takes into consideration our preliminary need to breathe? Could the virus call their attention to this necessity? Or will the fabrication of vaccines, respirators and ventilators appear to be the solution for solving the paralysis of our breathing? Should not a concern for the salubrity of the air be our first concern? It is true that it is then a question of respecting life and not of fabricating it. Now the latter seems to motivate men more than the former. Apparently, they have not yet understood what their mistake or their misdeed consisted in.
Psychoanalysis itself seems to favour curing diseases by helping the patients to become integrated into or adapting themselves to already existing realities and norms rather than by sending them back to take care of their own life and to ensure the cultivation of it in an autonomous and responsible manner. Is this not a prerequisite to the various configurations and stages that the affective development of energy will assume? Does not even the psychoanalyst consider us to be a sort of mechanism which works more or less well instead of a living being which can develop from environmental and relational conditions, with a certain degree of freedom and creativity, in faithfulness to our natural belonging?
Need for a culture of touch
Another element which is lacking in our educational and cultural patterns is touch as a relational means essential for life. Touch seems to be the first sense which establishes a communication with the other. It already exists in the intra-uterine life and it is crucial for the passage from it to an autonomous existence. Touch brings to the newborn the living warmth which can substitute for the ambience of the mother’s womb. It helps the newborn assume the autonomy of a living being. It provides it with the experience of passing from skin to mucous tissues, from mucous tissues to skin. Touch also intervenes in the infant’s quest to feed itself, in particular when it comes to taking the breast, and it accompanies this feeding (cf. Spitz, No and Yes) – the newborn fingers, grasps and caresses the body of the one who feeds it. In reality, life cannot develop without touch, as Aristotle maintains in his De Anima.
And yet our culture will repress touch instead of cultivating it. In fact, the prohibition on the bodily relation with the mother, the so-called prohibition of incest, means a prohibition on touch. The law of the father amounts to a taboo regarding touch more than sexuality strictly speaking. But its impact on sexual intercourse will make a tactile communion between lovers impossible. Then sexual intercourse becomes an energy, and even emotional, release, ending in a ‘little death’, according to Freud – in an insurmountable failure, as Michel Henry explicitly acknowledges (in his book Incarnation and many others implicitly) – for which only procreation is alleged to compensate.
Such masculine discourses first and foremost describe what takes place for man. To not sink into a complete disenchantment, not to say despair, man resorts to a phallic narcissism, deprived of that for which he most longs: the amorous union. Male sex and giving birth are glorified as sexual prestiges substituting on the part of man and woman for a communion between them. The act, probably the most accomplished and fulfilling for humanity, the one which is able to unify and make each human being blossom while opening it to the other and to the world, has thus become impossible and even forbidden. Blossoming into a human continues hanging on God to the detriment of humanity’s ability to become divine.
Lovers have no alternative but to become parents to save something of life. Obviously this is not despicable but more often than not takes place instead of achieving our own human destiny. Sexual, more generally sexuate, desire is used for the perpetuation of species without fulfilling what a sexuate belonging, a gender belonging, can provide, notably through a cultivation of a mutual touching, in which the tactile approach of caress unfolds until ending in the most intimate communion between two different living beings. In it, a sexual ‘fate’ (Freud) can find an ontological meaning without being allotted to a more ontical task, not to say a redemption. And sexual desire, the aspiration to transcend oneself through communing with the other as other, is transformed into procreation and child rearing.
Energy awakened by sexual attraction is then no longer available for man and woman to fulfill themselves. The additional life that this energy provides, born of a mutual touching and being touched, including by desire itself, is not really valued and cultivated. Psychoanalysis itself does not much care about this energy supplement beyond the diseases which can arise from it. And yet, is it not such energy that could today help us awaken to another existence, to a new life thanks to the discovery of relational potentialities still little known, and even unrecognized? This requires a culture of desire and touch to be developed without subjecting them to some law, education or norm which represses or ignores them.
Developing as lovers before becoming parents
Favouring parenthood over amorous relationships can lead to a repression of desire and touch even though the latter could be the possible cause of a life taking over our somatic growth and existence. Parenthood represents, at least partly, another hindrance to our human development – as Hegel affirms. Instead of us considering the awakening of desire to be a new stage in our human becoming through the blossoming of a both fleshly and spiritual relationship with the other qualitatively and not quantitatively, horizontally and not vertically, different from us, we devote this potential to procreation and care for children.
Hence, touch becomes a legacy and not a sharing of humanity. We pass on what we have received of life, of affect, of touch from our parents, in particular from our mother, to our children without questioning and embodying all its potentialities. That which we passively received becomes actively given, but the discovery and the experience of the indissociable activity and passivity that touch, but also desire and love, entail, remains ignored, theoretically and in practice. Touching becomes seizing, not to say capturing, for man and mere passivity for woman, and not a means to become adults thanks to the comprehensive being moved that a mutual touch provokes – active and passive for both. Touch is not recognized and lived as a psychical passage from body to soul and mind through approaching the other as other. It is not viewed either as what can unify each one and unite with one another as humans capable of transcending a mere natural belonging thanks to a mutual respect and a contribution of the body to the spiritual development.
Owing to the lack of such a unification and union, the body is viewed as a means of production instead of being a place and an agent of communication and communion between us. Moreover, according to our tradition, reproduction is shared out between a somatic contribution, which would correspond with the feminine fate, and a germinal cell supply from man, although they are both purveyors of germinal cells. This separates them from one another, prevents their union from happening, and the contribution of woman to be recognized at the level of germ cells. Thus the creative potential is assigned to the man and the passive and submissive wait for fertilization to the woman.
By becoming a parental legacy rather than an amorous sharing, touch also takes part in a quantitative, authoritarian and even repressive economy, which thwarts its role of mediation. It becomes an instrument in learning of educational patterns, without any possible contest because no reciprocity is allowed. The affects promoted by the parents, in particular by the father, are the only ones authorized and more often than not they are limited to submission to more or less abstract cultural models, which mobilize sensitivity to the detriment of its bodily origin.
Alas! Culture is too often based on such patterns – for example, the love of tradition, the love of native country and its customs, the love of genealogy etc. The worth of the affects is neither really acknowledged nor cultivated as an essential issue of our human becoming. Therefore, they often stop and are paralyzed in childish and even infantile sensations and emotions towards parents or other sorts of hierarchical relationships with cultural, religious or socio-political authorities. Is it not that which gives rise to the unconscious after a submission of the self to a quite authoritative structuring by socio-cultural patterns which care little about the blossoming of our sensitivity, our sexuality, our natural and bodily belonging and their function in the accomplishment of a human being.
To reconsider what could mean unconscious
Resulting from the banning or impossibility of living the first relational affects, the unconscious is generally understood as or reduced to the survival of repressed, forgotten but efficient visions, feelings or actions to which symptoms bear witness. The psychoanalysts are in search of the traces of these past traumas, which remain hidden from the patients. They try to make them appear to their consciousness in order to remove their mere repression so that reality should be acknowledged and assumed as such.
Obviously, all that is not ineffective. However, the result consists in accepting that which has not been feasible more than making possible what is to be accomplished and blossom. Does this sort of interpretation really release energy which is repressed and help it to be fulfilled (carried out) in a more adequate way? Could it not, on the contrary, freeze energy in representations instead of releasing it so that the patients should become aware of it and capable of using it, in particular to fulfill their present desire?
Could the perpetuation of the human species – to which more or less explicitly loving energy ought to be devoted according to Freud – justify the submission of desire to genealogical and parental affects? What of energy awoken by desire remains available for achieving our own becoming after it froze in representations, it became invested in begetting and parenthood and submitted to sociocultural patterns? And yet, do we not need it, more than ever, to succeed not only in surviving but also in pursuing our personal development and human evolution? Indeed, our life cannot come to a standstill; it grows somehow or other or is going downhill until death.
What we have thus to reclaim, concerning that which the unconscious in a way retains, is an energy potential to be released and converted into energy to grow. Contrary to the aim of most psychoanalytical discourses and practices, what seems to be opportune is to give back to the patients a free energy. However, this energy cannot be artificial, abstract or mechanical; it must correspond to a sensitive, originally bodily, energy able to perceive how it can contribute towards a growth and an evolution of a natural belonging. As such, this energy has more to do with quality than with quantity except with regard to the minimum amount indispensable for growing.
There is thus no longer a question of merely releasing energy from past traumas in order to bind it by sociocultural models presumed to be suitable but which are without feeling and extraneous to living beings. Rather, the matter is of allowing the patient – and all of us – to find again a natural energy which can sense what we need, in particular at a relational level, in order that it should become actualized in a manner which contributes towards our development, notably through passing from a natural belonging to a psychical and spiritual becoming which is our own. The unconscious must be considered to be an energy potential still unaccomplished more than a lack of compliance with or an inadequate adaptation to sociocultural patterns which must be reformed or restructured according to norms in force.
How could these norms help us to efficiently fight against the virus which threatens us with death today? Are they not that which has led us to become sorts of dead living beings? Do they not deprive us of living a life of our own because this is paralyzed by/in sociocultural patterns which cut it off from its living sap? Does not the threat of death that Covid-19 represents enjoin us to free ourselves from the death that our tradition brought to us in order to recover our natural dynamic strength?
Modifying our conception of sexuality
If psychoanalysis focuses on sexuality it, paradoxically, does not suggest a path or an outline concerning what could be a totally fulfilled sexuality. It speaks of a necessary ‘energy release’ through the orgasm in order to return to homeostasis – which seems to be above all a concern of man – and of the blossoming of the woman who succeeds in behaving towards her marriage partner as towards a son. Besides the fact that such a remark looks really surprising from a theoretician who emphasizes the prohibition of incest, it shows that he favours genealogical ties to the detriment of the fulfillment of sexual desire. Furthermore, as a sort of doctor, Freud confines himself to considering psychical and somatic pathologies that sexual desire can provoke without proposing explicitly a model of fulfillment of this desire. And he does not dwell much on the importance of sexuate difference as a way to structure and limit sexual attraction in a real and fecund manner, which allows it to remain alive instead of being transformed into fantasies or imaginary and narcissistic satisfactions.
Most of the theoreticians and practitioners of psychoanalysis have not yet paid sufficient attention to the fact that the respect for sexuate difference can act as the respect for a law inscribed in nature itself, which contributes to curbing our instincts and drives – including those of the father. The potential of this difference for transforming merely vital impetuses into human behaviours seems to remain unknown to them. They seem also to ignore that it is in such a place and at such a level that sublimation must first take place, before any social or cultural investment which substitutes for it. It is not with a view to making material or spiritual objects that we must convert the immediacy of the impulses born of sexual, and more generally sexuate, desire, but in order to accomplish, even to create, ourselves one and the other and one another. If to be conceived, to be begotten, has to remain the primary cause of our existence, we must contribute to making it human, which asks for our own participation in the perpetuation of our being born, a participation which has to do with a sort of creation.
Sexuate difference plays a crucial part in this process and it ought to represent the first issue of our creative longings. Thus, energy awoken by sexual attraction must not be wasted on a solitary returning to homeostasis. This additional supply of life, which we bring to one another, must be of use for accomplishing our generation by one another in a perpetuation and achievement of the union of which we were born.This does not mean favouring genealogy again but resorting to our dynamic potential, including the chromosomal one, to assume our begetting in a responsible and creative way. Such a gesture frees us from a subordination to genealogy and all the facticity which goes with it – family status; place where we were born; belonging to only one tradition; and so on – and entrusts to us the responsibility for our life here and now as the most important issue of our existence and our sharing in it.
This taking charge of our most radical autonomy at once protects and enlivens us and unites us with one another. Indeed, the impact of sexuation is neither limited to an isolated individual nor to sexuality strictly speaking. It structures the whole sociocultural world as a key element of our individuation – as even the philosopher Gilbert Simondon recognizes (cf. L’individuation psychique et collective). Of course, it is not always lived at the same level and is actualized in a more or less fleshly, affective, physical or cultural manner. However, it is effective at any level. Ignoring, misjudging or repressing its impact in all our behaviours – notably by transforming us into neutered individuals – deprives us of a great part of our personal and collective dynamism and of resources that we require for becoming and evolving as humans, and of which we are particularly in need today, individually and in our relationships with each other.
If we cultivate our sexual, and first sexuate, energy in order to carry out social or cultural works without first sublimating it with an affective, and even fleshly, sharing with the other naturally different from ourselves in mind, we fail to provide this energy with a density and quality which allow the link between our body and our spirit as well as the one between us to happen. And yet most of us do not yet take into consideration the task of appropriation that an energy and a carnal sharing requires. It is a complex undertaking which calls for the creativity of each but represents a potential still to be examined and cultivated, notably to face the hardship that the current health crisis imposes on us. It is also a means of returning to our natural belonging and its possible sharing with all other living beings with the mutual respect that a lasting life necessitates. In this way, the hardship with which we are confronted could also contribute to heightening our ecological conscientiousness and to the salvation of our planet and all the living species which inhabit it.
By way of conclusion
These few remarks, which undoubtedly, deserve to be enlarged and argued for in more detail, have no other aim than to give back some hope and initiative to those who are suffering from the dictatorship of Covid-19 and the powerless passivity to which they are condemned because of it. They endeavour to suggest that there are still potentialities that we can explore and develop to clear the way for the possibility not only for our survival but for a more fulfilled life still unknown to us.They also aim at bringing back to each an active and creative, and not only a merely reactive and defensive, responsibility for the happening of a future life, that we have still to investigate, invent and make blossom, in us and between us.
These remarks also intend to be a sort of questioning addressed to psychoanalysts, calling on them to care about the cultivation of life and its sharing more than about the integration into a sociocultural world henceforth to be built again, notably with a better perception of the value and resource that sexuate difference represents for the existence of each of us and the evolution, even the mutation, of humanity.
Many thanks to Mahon O’Brien for his rereading of my English version of this text.
This text was originally published in the European Journal of Psychoanalysis.
Luce Irigaray is director of research in Philosophy at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (C.N.R.S.), Paris. A doctor in philosophy – thesis: Speculum, The place of women in the history of philosophy (Un. Vincennes, 1974) – Luce Irigaray is also trained in linguistics (with a thesis on The language of the demented persons (Un. Nanterre 1968) and in philology and literature [with a thesis on Paul Valéry (Un. of Louvain, 1955)]. She is also trained in psychoanalysis and in yoga. Now acknowledged as an influential thinker of our epoch, her work mainly focuses on the elaboration of a culture of two subjects, masculine and feminine – particularly through the constitution of a cultural feminine subjectivity and the way of making possible an intersubjectivity respectful of difference(s) – something she develops in a range of literary forms, from the philosophical to the scientific, the political and the poetic.
She is the author of more than thirty books translated in various languages. Her most recent publications include In the Beginning, She Was (2013), To Be Born (2017) and Sharing the Fire (2019). Since 2003, Luce Irigaray holds an annual one-week seminar for researchers doing their PhD on her work and she edited books gathering some of their first publications – cf. Luce Irigaray: Teaching (2008, co-edited with Mary Green), Building a New World (2015, co-edited with Michael Marder), Towards a New Human Being (2019, co-edited with Mahon O’Brien and Christos Hadjioannou).
(Palgrave Mcmillan, 2019)
Luce Irigaray, Mahon O’Brien, Christos Hadjioannou eds.
With my own introduction and epilogue, Towards a New Human Being gathers original essays by early career researchers and established academic figures in response to To Be Born, my most recent book. The contributors approach key issues of this book from their own scientific fields and perspectives – through calls for a different way of bringing up and educating children, the constitution of a new environmental and sociocultural milieu or the criticism of past metaphysics and the introduction of new themes into the philosophical horizon. However, all the essays which compose the volume correspond to proposals for the advent of a new human being – so answering the subtitle of To Be Born: Genesis of a New Human Being. To Be Born thus acts as a background from which each author had the opportunity to develop and think in their own way. As such Towards a New Human Being is part of a longer-term undertaking in which I engaged together and in dialogue with more or less confirmed thinkers with a view to giving birth to a new human being and building a new world.
The contributors will be happy to know that 1104 chapters of the book have been sold in 2019 – which situates the book among the 25% of the top sales. And as the year, for us, began in March and for all finished in October, perhaps the rank is still better. Hopefully we will be ranked among the firsts in 2020!
In this book, Luce Irigaray – philosopher, linguist, psychologist and psychoanalyst – proposes nothing less than a new conception of being as well as a means to ensure its individual and relational development from birth.
Unveiling the mystery of our origin is probably what most motivates our quests and plans. Now such a disclosure proves to be impossible. Indeed we were born of a union between two, and we are forever deprived of an origin of our own. Hence our ceaseless search for roots: in our genealogy, in the place where we were born, in our culture, religion or language. But a human being cannot develop starting from roots as a tree does, it must take on responsibility for its own being and existence without continuity with its origin and background.
How can we succeed in doing that? First by cultivating our breathing, which is not only the means thanks to which we come into the world, but which also allows us to transcend mere survival towards a spiritual becoming. Taking on our sexuate belonging is the second element which makes us able to assume our natural existence. Indeed this determination at once brings us energy and provides us with a structure which contributes to our individuation and our relations with other living beings and the world. Our sexuation can also compensate for our absence of roots by compelling us to unite with the other sex so that we freely approach the copulative conjunction from which we were born; that is, the mystery of our origin. This does not occur through a mere sexual instinct or drive, but requires us to cultivate desire and love with respect for our mutual difference(s). In this way we become able to give rise to a new human being, not only at a natural but also at an ontological level.
Building a New World. Luce Irigaray: Teaching II. Edited by Luce Irigaray, Michael Marder. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015.
In this book young researchers endeavour to build a new world. They neither confine themselves to criticism, resentment and disenchantment nor submit to traditional conceptions of truth, past moral imperatives and suprasensitive ideals alone. Here, young researchers invent another way of thinking, believing, making art, or being political players. They inaugurate an epoch when the cultivation of nature as an environment encompassing natural belonging allows for a world-wide coexistence respectful of differences between sexes, generations, cultures and traditions. The seminar that Luce Irigaray has been holding for 12 years for researchers doing their PhDs on her thought is the place where they gathered and began constructing a culture based on the growing and sharing of life, but also on desire and love in mutual respect. Their contributions are accompanied by three texts of Luce Irigaray and an Afterword by Michael Marder, underlining some conditions for a cultivation of nature.