Toxic Positivity in the Context of Lacanian Psychoanalysis

Updated: Sep 12

Interview with Colin Wright, Associate Professor in Critical Theory, Faculty of Arts, University of Nottingham



NL: First of all, could you please define “toxic positivity” and speak about your

upcoming book with the very interesting title Toxic Positivity: A Lacanian

Critique of Happiness and Wellbeing. Why have you been interested in

researching this concept (toxic positivity) in particular, and why in the context

of Lacanian psychoanalysis? 


CW: Well, I should be honest from the outset and say that I stole ‘toxic positivity’! I took it

from the queer theorist Jack Halberstam, who uses the term in his book The Queer Art

of Failure. The main argument there is that ‘success’, and all the positivity that is meant

to come with it, is in fact often violently normative and limiting. Dominant ideas of

‘success’ inherently exclude more marginal ‘queer’ forms of subjectivity and practice.

One of the toxic effects of this kind of positivity then is that it prohibits the bad feelings –

anxiety, sadness, anger etc. – which, in such a sunny and upbeat society, are bound to

accompany the alternative lifestyles and forms of desire often deemed ‘failures’ by wider

society. Halberstam is interested in recovering the transformative potential of these

negative affects (Sarah Ahmed has made a related argument about the politics of the

‘feminist killjoy’), and I share that interest.


My own project is to extend this idea of ‘toxic positivity’ into the fields of happiness and

wellbeing, and the innumerable injunctions we are subjected to nowadays to ‘always

look on the bright side’. I would argue that this new superegoic happiness is toxic in at

least three ways.


Firstly, it is toxic for the whole philosophical and Enlightenment project of critique, since

critique implies the negative. Marx took from Hegel, for example, the idea of the ‘labour

of the negative’ as the motor of dialectical change: conflict or contradiction is what stops

things becoming stagnant. And yet today, the negative is pathologized as a “cognitive

bias” that one should simply get rid of through Mindfulness, CBT, or Neuro Linguistic

Programming. This is toxic for the political function of critique as well, because sources

of unhappiness are presented not as a matter of social injustice out there in an unequal

world, but as an internal matter of individual responsibility for one’s own attainment of

satisfaction and wellbeing. This really nullifies some of the more revolutionary

deployments of the idea of happiness and its absence, for example in the French and

even American Revolutions, which turned the demand for happiness into a rallying cry

for social not just individual transformation (though the American Revolution quickly

shifted from a civic notion of happiness to one giving primacy to the private pursuit of

property and wealth).


Secondly, I would argue that this positivity is toxic in the very real sense of being bad for

our health. The relentless emphasis on measuring and enhancing our wellbeing is

making many of us ill! As a psychoanalyst, I definitely encounter people who are made

to feel worse by their inability to achieve or maintain this ideal of happiness and

wellbeing. It’s difficult to understand one’s own suffering when the broader consumer

culture promises endless modes of intense pleasure and fulfilment, or when social media

presents carefully curated images of everyone else’s apparently perfect lives. The

complication is that we all know people perform an idealised life on Facebook which

probably bears no relation to their lived reality, and yet, affectively, we behave as if this

knowledge makes no difference to us: we feel as if everyone but us is able to enjoy life

in a direct and uncomplicated way.


Thirdly, I am interested in linking toxicity to toxicology and thus to ecology, since the

happiness of consumer capitalism is clearly leading to unsustainable environmental

damage. Here, my inspiration is Félix Guattari’s short but rich text, The Three Ecologies,

in which he argues for a much more integrated way of looking at the overlaps between

the mental, the social, and the environmental planes. In my book, I am trying to work my

way towards some kind of antidote to the toxicity of toxic positivity, and this surely has to

involve a different conception of a more-than-human ecological happiness which

encompasses the wellbeing of the planet in its very finitude and fragility?

As to why Lacanian psychoanalysis, there is a very simplistic answer to that, which is

that I am a practicing Lacanian analyst and see most things through this lens! But

beyond this personal point, whilst some critiques of happiness studies and positive

psychology have now appeared (see people like Mike Davies, Sam Binkley, Ashley

Frawley etc.), it is striking that psychoanalysis of any stripe is almost completely absent

from or even dismissed by them. I think this is because psychoanalysis is conflated

much too quickly with psychotherapy and even psychology, whereas it is almost

diametrically opposed to them. This is a real omission because psychoanalysis already

has quite a sophisticated theory of happiness and its opposite, for example in Freud’s

Civilization and its Discontents. But also because the clinical practice of psychoanalysis

necessarily works carefully with these same tensions between socially provided images

of fulfilment (though advertising and film and television for example) and the very

different, indeed singular, fantasies and desires of particular subjects. Analysts can’t

ignore ideals of happiness but we also can’t sign up to them.


I would argue that this positivity is toxic in the very real sense of being bad for our health. The relentless emphasis on measuring and enhancing our wellbeing is making many of us ill! As a psychoanalyst, I definitely encounter people who are made to feel worse by their inability to achieve or maintain this ideal of happiness and wellbeing. It’s difficult to understand one’s own suffering when the broader consumer culture promises endless modes of intense pleasure and fulfilment, or when social media presents carefully curated images of everyone else’s apparently perfect lives.

Lacan, moreover, saw these problems with happiness becoming a master signifier very

early, in the late 1950s and 1960s. In his seventh seminar on The Ethics of

Psychoanalysis, for example, he called happiness a “bourgeois ideology” and advised

that analysts should have nothing whatsoever to do with it. He was also very dubious

about the emphasis in other forms of psychotherapy on the category of affect, as if

‘feelings’, especially supposedly pleasant ones, could provide a clinical compass for

analytical work. I find this a very useful corrective today when affective investments in

modes of intimacy have been turned into what Eva Illouz has called “emotional

capitalism”. Lacanian psychoanalysis focuses more on (sometimes uncomfortable, often

inconvenient) subjective truths than on apparently ‘good’ or pleasant feelings. Despite

appearances, the latter often alienate us yet further within the normative demands of the

Other. As analysts then we definitely do not turn suffering into a virtue (as in aspects of

Christianity) or into a melancholic mode of aesthetic sensibility (as in aspects of

Romanticism): we are still in the business of alleviating suffering rather than celebrating

it or pretending it is heroic! But equally, as analysts we cannot orient an analysis around

the promise of happiness or support our patients in their ‘constitutional right’ to pursue it.

For structural reasons, analysis is ultimately subversive of these norms around

happiness and wellbeing.


NL: On an everyday level, I think everyone encounters forms of toxic positivity.

Everyone, at least once, has been at a party, felt sad or melancholic and been

identified as a “foreign organism” by this whole system of the fun-loving crowd,

and then been flooded with passive-aggressive demands to “cheer up”, to

“enjoy”, to “stop being grumpy” - which is to say negative or unhappy. Or maybe

they have come across a confusing job application stating something like “we are

looking for happy people”; or found they could not talk to friends or family

members about deeply harrowing experiences or thoughts without hearing how

the “glass is always half full,” when in reality, for them, the “glass” felt completely

empty. In short, I think most people can relate to the fact that negativity is not

easily or “healthily” tolerated within a capitalistic culture. 


I was not surprised to learn, then, that the Self-Improvement Industry is estimated

to grow to $13.2 billion by 2022. In his recently published book McMindfulness,

Ronald Purser explains “how mindfulness became the new capitalist spirituality”

and the product of the “narcissistic individualism of the wellness industry”. He

argues that “mindfulness is so market-friendly because it appeals to this highly

individualistic, entrepreneurial ethos. It’s all about ‘me’ and self-improvement. It’s

thriving in a culture of narcissism. The focus is firmly on delivering a more happy

self. This is a real kind of social myopia: it squarely places the responsibility for

being ‘happy’ within the individual themselves, rather than taking into account all

the systemic, structural aspects of society that are causing the cultural malaise

that has so many people flocking to the wellness industry for answers.” I came

across an article reviewing Pursers’ book with the title “Why Corporations Want

You to Shut Up and Meditate,” which, in my opinion, perfectly captures the

problem with the self-improvement industry. 


So, could you please speak about this constant pressure and encouragement to

focus solely on our own selves? To look for the answers, problems, causes, and

solutions only within - and never without?  And also, the constant pressure to

enjoy?


CW: I would completely agree with Purser that the kind of ‘self’ encouraged by the self-

help industry is not just any old version of selfhood, but specifically the one imposed by

neoliberalism. In contrast to more traditional or collectivist cultures, the neoliberal self is

seen as a kind of isolated economic unit, something that must constantly be invested in

with the hope of future returns that will add value. Everything is calculated to make a

profit, and indeed we see frequent references to notions such as psychological or

emotional ‘capital’. In his lectures on biopolitics, Foucault captured this nicely with the

idea of the ‘entrepreneur of the self’ which involves subjecting all values, behaviours and

decisions to the economic rationality of cost-benefit analyses, even in the realms of love

and intimacy (witness the proliferation not just of ‘pre-nups’ but of ‘pre-pre-nups’). But

unlike the Homo Economicus of classical liberalism who was ascribed the power of

rational decision, the neoliberal subject is essentially completely empty and malleable,

making it absolutely identical with this endless task of its own adaptive self-fashioning.

Hence the constant pressure you mention to focus on ourselves, to literally work on

ourselves and to be the result of our self-work. On the one hand, this is presented as the

essence of autonomy and freedom (‘be all you can be’, as the slogan goes), but on the

other, it implies that you would be nothing without this relentless work. As well as

emptying the self, the injunction to maximise happiness and wellbeing – to count and

accumulate them - is simultaneously extremely individualising and responsibilising. It is

all down to you. If you fail, it can only be your own fault. You must be lazy or lack ‘grit’.

And as you suggest, reifying this version of selfhood has the effect of completely erasing

the structural aspects of broader social systems that play an enormous role in forming

the self in the first place, even if individualism encourages us to deny our indebtedness

to the social Other that preceded us. From a psychoanalytic point of view, narcissism

can be defined by the idea that the self does not need, let alone proceed from, the

Other. Such is the illusion characteristic of the ego. But the flipside of this is serious

isolation for the individual and a dissolution of the social bond into something like

Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘liquid modernity’. There is a by no means accidental homology

between the emergence of this extreme responsibilisation of the narcissistic ego, and

the neoliberal project of dismantling the welfare state - a somewhat paternal Other that

was once willing to be in some way socially responsible.


Neoliberalism sees to it that the Other’s place is taken by the market, and this starts to

answer your other question about where the constant pressure to enjoy comes from.

Lacan, as you probably know, has a particular word for enjoyment which is often left

untranslated because it doesn’t have a precise English equivalent. That word is

jouissance, and it is helpful because it combines enjoyment with a kind of uncomfortable

intensity or too-muchness, so that jouissance is somewhere between pleasure and pain,

or the peculiar pain pleasure can lead us towards. If we keep that in mind, then the fact

that the market enjoins us to enjoy constantly, relentlessly, and always more rather than

less, can be appreciated as both pleasurable and painful, painful because pleasurable.

Jacques-Alain Miller has been particularly clear about this: where once, in Freud’s day,

the superego was largely prohibitive and repression was the dominant psychic

mechanism, today the superego takes the form of this injunction to enjoy without cease

and without limit. It follows that subjects are exposed to the drive, including its deathly

aspect, without much protection from desire or fantasy. These two things work in tandem

then: not only must you constantly work on yourself, but you must enjoy it; equally, this

enjoyment is what entangles us in repetitive practices we also suffer from.

It is as if the 20 th century complaint was ‘I can’t’, whereas in the 21 st it has become ‘I can’t

not’!


NL: As already mentioned, we could observe manifestations of toxic positivity

literally everywhere around us but when this notion also leaks into the sciences, it

becomes not just upsetting or toxic, but in my opinion, unspeakably harmful and

damaging.


For me personally, a most shocking manifestation of science poisoned by

ideology, was when I heard a very respected psychiatrist giving a lecture, where

she mentioned that “today, the opinion of many psychiatrists became similar to

the religious view, that ungratefulness causes depression, i.e. unhappiness.” She

claimed that even when it comes to the material world, “it does not matter if you

possess a lot or a little, it does not matter if you are grateful for the piece of bread

and roof over your head or if you own all luxuries in the world, the bottom line is:

if you can be grateful for what you have, you will be happy. Or at least you will not

be unhappy and depressed.” And the most striking part was that she presented

this statement as a pure fact, not as a theory.


How can it be that this toxic notion that the self is fully responsible for being

mentally healthy or happy, and that the environment is only a small or

unimportant factor, has become so deeply integrated and rooted not only into our

culture, media, everyday life, politics, and so on, but also into the mental health

systems - into the very way patients are assessed, diagnosed, and informed about

their problems?


CW: Yes, it is regrettably common to hear the sentiment expressed by this psychiatrist,

and in all sorts of other fields claiming scientific legitimacy such as psychology and even

neuroscience. Her position sounds quite like that of the Stoics, especially someone like

Epictetus who stressed a kind of steely inner virtue that cannot be touched by external

misfortunes. On the other hand, I think this resemblance with eudaimonic philosophies in

Ancient Greece is quite superficial and should be challenged, which is why your

question about how we got to the point that this psychiatrist’s position can be presented

simply as a fact, is a really good one.


There is a very long history behind this which I can’t outline here (though the first chapter

of my book tries to), but a couple of more recent salient factors can be mentioned.

Firstly, I think the discourse of ‘health’ itself has been re-calibrated over the past half-

century or so in the direction of neoliberal productivity and performance, pushing it well

beyond any notion of the mere absence of ailments. This can be seen in the World

Health Organisation’s definition of health in 1948 to include a state of wellbeing over and

above merely being free from illness: for the WHO at that point, health was “a state of

complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease

or infirmity”. Moreover, by 1984, at a time of increasing ascendance for neoliberal ideas,

the WHO then shifted their definition of health, making it nothing less than “a resource

for living”, a resource determining “the extent to which an individual or group is able to

realize aspirations and satisfy needs”. You can see in the relation between these two

definitions a trajectory that moves health more and more towards the psychological and

physiological conditions for being, above all, a consumer. Coming to meet this from the

other direction, as it were, it is increasingly common to hear talk of the ‘health’ of the

economy, as if it too were a body.


The politics behind the pseudo-Stoic idea that one should be grateful for whatever one has, no matter how little or how precarious, is obviously a useful way of skirting over the increasingly massive inequalities in society and the ways in which they are magnified by things like class, gender and race. This is what I was getting at with the idea that toxic positivity is toxic for the politics of unhappiness, since this psychiatrist is effectively robbing us of the right to such a negative affect which may not be ‘pathological’ at all, but completely justified by our circumstances.

This is why I have chosen to focus on the concept of wellbeing as well as happiness in

my book: the former has been one of the ways in which the biopolitical aspects of the

latter have extended their reach into more and more aspects of life. A linking concept

between the two would be an idea like Martin Seligman’s ‘flourishing’, which actually

tries to move beyond the acknowledged subjectivism of happiness in order to

encompass more ‘objective’ sociological criteria such as health precisely, but also

longevity. This move to social metrics which can be aggregated on a national level is

very attractive to governments concerned with whole populations. Secondly then, I

would also connect the psychiatrist’s comment you mention to the rise of Happiness

Studies and positive psychology which really emphasise their empirical, scientific

credentials and have done an impressive job of turning this neoliberal vision of

happiness into a widely accepted ‘fact’, so much so that it now influences a broad

spectrum of policies. This ‘fact’ now moves seamlessly between distinct types of

discourse, ranging from self-help and life-coaching to education, managerialism, and

governance as supposedly benevolent ‘nudging’.


But the politics behind the pseudo-Stoic idea that one should be grateful for whatever

one has, no matter how little or how precarious, is obviously a useful way of skirting over

the increasingly massive inequalities in society and the ways in which they are magnified

by things like class, gender and race. This is what I was getting at with the idea that toxic

positivity is toxic for the politics of unhappiness, since this psychiatrist is effectively

robbing us of the right to such a negative affect which may not be ‘pathological’ at all,

but completely justified by our circumstances.


NL: Of course, this psychiatrist’s approach is a very extreme case, but even if we

discuss the standard scenario, if you mention to a psychiatrist that you're, say, a

refugee, feel alienated, have a housing problem, a poor-quality job, are broke, feel

constantly discriminated against, are in debt and/or poor and so on, they will

"keep it in mind", but still within the context of a particular diagnosis - not as the

main or direct cause. In short, when it comes to diagnosis, most often the

message to the patient is: the main reason for your diagnosis is a chemical

imbalance in your brain and everything else (poverty, unhealthy environment,

abuse in childhood, etc.) was just a trigger or contributing factor. 


The chemical imbalance story is known to help diminish stigma and ease the

patient’s shame but If someone's suffering and mental deterioration is the direct

result of their unhealthy environment and their socioeconomic situation, yet they

are still told the problem is basically in their head—not in the sense that it's made

up or is their fault directly of course, but in the sense that the problem is still in

them—this obviously does not ease the shame, but instead creates even more

confusion. And most importantly, keeps us - as patients and also as a society -

once again focusing only on our own selves, seeking problems only within,

looking only inwards.


How problematic is it, in your opinion, when ideology influences science and

scientist to such an extent? And what are the other ways ideology and toxic

positivity leaks into the sciences?


CW: In his seventeenth seminar, entitled The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Lacan

made it clear that in his opinion science was increasingly becoming entangled with

capitalism, and that this was causing a mutation in our relation to knowledge. This is

what he referred to as the ‘discourse of the University’. Knowledge in such a discourse is

uncoupled from experts as such, and starts to have what he would call ‘real’ rather than

symbolic effects, increasingly via the manufacturing of little gadgets and gizmos that

become drive-objects for consumption via the market. This is almost worse than

ideology influencing science, if we understand ideology as a relatively coherent set of

ideas and values connected to some kind of consistent worldview. Thinking of ideology

in that way relates it to meaning and meaning can always be challenged by other

meanings. Liberal democracy, in a way, depends on that notion. Yet the ‘real’ rather

than symbolic knowledge typical of the university discourse has direct effects outside of

meaning as such. Science becomes toxic in my sense when its positivism is mortgaged

to positivity, to new techniques and objects that have measurable effects which turn a

profit at the level of actual or psychological capital, but which leave what we understand

as the subject in psychoanalysis far behind.


We could approach the issue of psychiatric diagnoses you mention from this point of

view. The by now well-developed critiques of ‘Big Pharma’ show that psychiatric

categories, of the kind we find proliferating in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used

by psychiatrists the world over, have been pulled in the direction of particular pills that

have particular psychoactive effects. That is to say, ‘depression’ – once understood

through the much richer category of ‘melancholia’ - becomes whatever responds to pills

marketed as ‘anti-depressants’. In this way, the science of psychiatry is tethered to the

multibillion-dollar market in drugs. So one of the reasons some psychiatrists pay little

attention to the more personal, existential circumstances of their patients (though some

good psychiatrists still try to), is that their very role has been re-organised around

prescribing these pills and then policing the patient’s adherence to their ‘meds’. We can

even feel sorry for psychiatrists in the sense that their expertise has been impoverished

to this extremely quick and simplistic exchange which just fits their patient into a

category so that a corresponding pill can be prescribed.


In his seventeenth seminar, entitled The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Lacan made it clear that in his opinion science was increasingly becoming entangled with capitalism, and that this was causing a mutation in our relation to knowledge. This is what he referred to as the ‘discourse of the University’. Knowledge in such a discourse is uncoupled from experts as such, and starts to have what he would call ‘real’ rather than symbolic effects, increasingly via the manufacturing of little gadgets and gizmos that become drive-objects for consumption via the market.

As you point out, the notion of a “chemical imbalance” in the brain was a crucial piece of

the jigsaw in moving mainstream psychiatry in this direction, and I would also point out

that this explicitly involved a move away from the inheritance, within psychiatry, from

psychoanalysis. The third iteration of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual published in

1980 was the one which introduced this idea of chemical imbalance, expanded the

number of diagnostic categories considerably, and then aligned them with the growing

market in anxiolytics and anti-depressants. But crucially it did so by deliberately purging

residually Freudian nosological categories. This is not a coincidence. As analysts, we do

not inhabit this medical or psychiatric discourse (even if some psychoanalysts are also

psychiatrists, and even if there is no incompatibility between doing an analysis and

taking some of these drugs), and we really do listen to all the personal and indeed

singular circumstances of the people who come to see us. What the analysand can say

about their life and circumstances is the very material we work with. You mention

shame, and that’s one of those complicated affects we could attend to closely by not

assuming it is straightforwardly negative (though without assuming it is inherently

‘positive’ ether). After all, if the idea of “chemical imbalance” relieves some people of the

stigma of mental illness, it is in exchange for a radical passivity in the face of their

diagnosis, and in many cases for lifelong dependence on prescription medication.

Shame is close to desire but also responsibility and one of the questions you are raising

is where to locate the latter. In a sense, the “chemical imbalance” framework says “this is

just the way it is”. There is not much to do but accept that this is how you are hard-wired,

and stick to your pills. It’s not a discourse that produces any questions about

responsibility. If the poor, racially harassed immigrant you describe feels shame at his

condition, a parallax shift could allow us to be ashamed of the social and political system

that contributes to his suffering, a system we are also part of. That would at least raise

the question of responsibility, but crucially without answering it simplistically by reducing

him to a mere ‘victim’ of the system either, since this would erase his responsibility (and

his agency). His shame might also be a point of entry into the question of his own desire,

clearly frustrated by his circumstances. In this nuanced sense, shame might be an affect

to work with rather than get rid of.


Of course, there have been radical and critical strands within psychiatry which have

been able to engage with these more social and political questions about responsibility,

though they have been pushed well out of the mainstream. I am partly thinking of Frantz

Fanon here, who was a psychiatrist as well as an anti-colonial revolutionary. Already in

the thesis that allowed him to practice as a psychiatrist in France, he was arguing for the

‘sociogenesis’ of several mental disorders and he would of course take this argument to

Algeria, where he saw first-hand how a violent colonial system actively made people ill.

He actually quit his job running a psychiatric ward because he felt it was futile to help

‘crazy’ people recover enough to be returned to a society which was itself completely

mad. As a revolutionary, he wanted to “treat” society instead, and yet he did not cease to

practice as a psychiatrist and remained interested in this complex knot between

individual symptoms and social systems.


NL: Slavoj Zizek, when asked whether or not happiness seems to be important to

him, answered: “Happiness was never important. The problem is that we don't

know what we really want. What makes us happy is not to get what we want but to

dream about it. Happiness is for opportunists. So I think that the only life of deep

satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself. If you

want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy;

happiness is a category of slaves.” Maybe, this concrete view can seem too

radical for many people, but at the same time, in a world where happiness and

success are set as an ultimate, final, most important goal, words like this could

also sound refreshing and freeing, as are Zizek’s words about being allowed not

to enjoy. 


What do you think about this dichotomy of happy versus meaningful,

purposeful life? 


CW: Zizek seems to be channelling Nietzsche here, who also worked with this

opposition between two kinds of happiness: on the one hand, the lazy and docile

contentedness of what he called ‘the Last Man’ (most of us, arguably, today), and on the

other hand, a kind of affirmative joy which comes from triumphing over great struggles.

Zizek is really emphasising the first kind when he says “happiness is a category of

slaves” and links it to stupidity. It is also easy to agree with his Lacanian point, that what

makes us ‘happy’ in this first sense is being able to dream about what we do not have,

rather than actually getting it. Isn’t advertising predicated on precisely this mismatch?

I definitely agree, then, that it is refreshing to hear someone expressing such an

antipathy for everyday notions of happiness in the current climate, perhaps shocking

some us out of our complacency. Zizek has this palpable enjoyment in going against the

grain of the consensus, which I do think we need now more than ever. On the other

hand, going against the grain requires the grain (just as iconoclasm remains tied to the

icon), and I’m not so keen on the resulting value-judgment which privileges struggle as

inherently meaningful over and above a disdained herd-mentality. In fact, I don’t think

the former is immune to commodification by the very discourse of happiness being

disparaged here. To stick with an example from Nietzsche, one of his phrases from

Twilight of the Idols which everyone knows even if they don’t know where from –

paraphrased as ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ – has become a slogan for

the strand of Happiness Studies that stresses ‘resilience’ and ‘grit’, and even ‘post-

traumatic growth’ rather than PTSD.


This is one of the most befuddling things about happiness today: while it seems to

recommend blissed-out mindful disengagement, it also exudes a breathless tone of

permanent revolution - of the self, not society - which glorifies its own version of eternal

struggle. The ‘meaning’ attached to this version of “struggle with oneself” is wholly

normative and indeed ideological. Neoliberalism has effectively deconstructed this

opposition between happiness and existential meaning, turning the latter in a hard-won

‘authenticity’ in the face, precisely, of the banality of ordinary life, but really it is just

banality by the backdoor.


In a way, the Lacanian way out of this questionable binary is to suspend such general

value-judgements about meaningful versus non-meaningful modes of existence, which

are rooted in a rather Romantic philosophical anthropology. The other Lacanian exit

involves leaving meaning itself behind, as a sort of alienating trap laid by the social

Other. In the end, the jouissance, which analysis distils from the blahblah of free

association, doesn’t mean anything per se. Because one’s relation to jouissance is

always ultimately radically singular, which is to say non-communicable with others, it is

completely outside of meaning.


NL: Could you please speak about “The Lacanian Alternative”? 


CW: Lacan has a completely different understanding of the subject compared to the neoliberal self, and I find it both much more realistic and actually much more hopeful.

First of all, Lacan’s is a divided and ultimately a castrated subject simply by virtue of the fact

that it speaks, that it gets its sense of Being not from things-in-themselves but from

language; this is immediately very different from the neoliberal ideology of limitless potential

and the right to unbounded enjoyment through consumption. The neoliberal self comes

down to a stubborn disbelief in castration, or at least a delusion that it can always be side-

stepped with the help of new gadgets and technological advances etc. This is one of the

reasons why we seem to be in such a mess regarding environmental devastation: we seem

incapable of accepting that the planet’s resources are finite and that brand new green

technologies might not in fact allow us to continue consuming at the same rate whilst

somehow retaining biodiversity and so on. Secondly then, it follows from the structurally

castrated nature of the speaking being that this simplistic idea of happiness, as some kind of

lasting state of fulfilment, can only be an illusion, an empty promise which capitalism

specialises in holding out to us, yet breaks at every turn. Thirdly, especially in his later

teachings Lacan really emphasises the singularity of the subject as a unique invention in the

face of this issue of language and its effects on the body. He says somewhere that

jouissance is dissident, and this is because the know-how that the subject invents for dealing

with it really doesn’t have a place on the market. Unlike the DSM discourse we mentioned

earlier, which reduces all ‘disorders’ to an opportunity to monetise mental health seen as a

global market, Lacan effectively insists on the symptom – or sinthome as it becomes in his

twenty third seminar – as political in the sense of finding no pre-existing place in dominant

discourses. My clinical experience echoes this: listening to the details of someone’s

symptomatic suffering is always like inventing a new language, one that only the analysand

and, if he or she is lucky, the analyst speak.


What makes us ‘happy’ is being able to dream about what we do not have, rather than actually getting it. Isn’t advertising predicated on precisely this mismatch?

For many people, psychoanalysis has always seemed to strike a pessimistic or dark note. In

one of his earliest recognisably psychoanalytic publications, Studies in Hysteria co-written

with Josef Breuer, Freud famously limited his clinical ambitions to “transforming hysterical

misery into common unhappiness”. This might sound bleak, but I find his frank acceptance

that life does in fact include periods in which happiness diminishes and withdraws, a useful

antidote to the superegoic demand for happiness that I have called toxic. In some ways,

Freud’s later comments on happiness in Civilization and its Discontents, bring up the

etymological root of the word happiness in the Old Norse ‘happ’. As indicated by its

appearance in words like ‘happening’, ‘happenstance’ and ‘haphazard’ and so on, ‘happ’

brings happiness closer to luck or fortune, and thus contingency. But contingency is

precisely what the neoliberal self, so invested in mastery, control, and accumulation, finds so

difficult to accept. That is just one of the many reasons I believe we desperately need the Lacanian alternative in this era of Happiness Tzars and Wellbeing Indexes.

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