EXTRACT – Graham Harman in The Neurotic Turn

This is an extract from The Neurotic Turn, a new anthology of writing around neuroses edited by Charles Johns, which is out now. In it, Graham Harman considers the relationship between Deleuze, Freud, and Object-Oriented Ontology.

Freud’s Wolf-Man in an Object-Oriented Light

Graham Harman

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari are often very hard on Sigmund Freud, who would rank as one of the greatest prose writers of the twentieth century even if every scrap of his psychoanalysis turned out to be false. An exemplary case is the second chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, a dozen or so pages of writing entitled “One or Several Wolves?” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). As their title suggests, the famously irreverent duo of French philosophers is concerned primarily with Freud’s case study of the “Wolf-Man”, later revealed to be a wealthy aristocrat named Sergei Konstantinovitch Pankejeff. This young Russian underwent psychoanalysis with Freud and then his followers for many years, though the chief period of analysis covered in Freud’s case study runs from 1910-1914. Deleuze and Guattari are certainly not alone in criticizing Freud’s interpretation of the case; his critics include other psychoanalysts as well as Pankejeff himself. In what follows I am concerned only with Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of Freud’s study, rather than with the broader accusations that Freud misdiagnosed his patient or abused his power with psychological bullying. Yet we will have to include something that Deleuze and Guattari strangely leave unmentioned: the fact that Pankajeff came to Freud because he was suffering from debilitating psychological problems.

Such is Freud’s continuing status in our culture, despite widespread dismissals of his work as unscientific, anti-woman and anti-gay, that his conclusions regarding Pankejeff are known even by many who have not actually read the study in question. As a young child Pankejeff once dreamed of “six or seven” white wolves sitting in a tree staring at him. Terrified by the dream, he woke up screaming. So vivid was the dream imagery that he refused at first to believe it was not reality, and it took his nurse a long time to calm him down so that he could fall asleep again. This experience gave rise to a lifelong neurosis on Pankejeff’s part. Freud interprets the dream in accordance with his usual methods, and concludes — via numerous steps — that it reflects Pankejeff’s horror at accidentally seeing his parents copulate in rear-entry fashion. Later, Freud also considers the possibility that Pankejeff may have seen a case of animal copulation instead. In any event, the supposed copulation scene is merely the centrepiece of a longer interpretation by Freud that involves several other important factors: the prematurely naughty activities of Pankejeff’s sister (who would later commit suicide), a folk tale told by his grandfather, and Pankejeff’s relations with a number of household servants. This interpretation has been mocked by a number of authors, and was rejected as false by Pankejeff himself. It does not follow that we need to participate in such mockery and rejection. Rather than reconstruct the whole of Freud’s interpretation of the case, I will proceed as follows. First, I will summarize the chief objections to Freud’s interpretation made by Deleuze and Guattari. Second, I will cover an important essay by Freud that explains the groundwork for distinguishing between the unconscious and conscious mind and in the process gives a clear theory of repression, neurosis and psychosis. Third and finally, I will reflect briefly on the connections between Freudian psychoanalysis and object-oriented ontology (OOO), a position I have done a great deal to develop in the past two decades. One section is devoted to each topic.

Deleuze and Guattari contra Freud

Deleuze and Guattari consistently take Freud’s “Oedipus” theory of neurosis to be a strategic enemy, given their professed admiration of schizophrenia and their radical ontology of multiplicities, becoming, assemblages, and lines of flight, which they regard as vividly embodied in schizophrenic experience. This ontology has enjoyed especially widespread influence since the mid-1990s, by which time Deleuze (d. 1995) and Guattari (d. 1992) were both freshly deceased. Though “One or Several Wolves?” contains a number of positive philosophical claims, these take the form of a chapter-length polemic against Freud. From this unforgiving critique I have chosen a number of passages of unusual interest, and have been able with only slight arbitrariness to group them into four basic classes:

  1. Freud is too quick to pass beyond the immediacy of any phenomenon and turn it into something else. Here Deleuze and Guattari join in the frequent “common sense” astonishment at Freud’s interpretations often found among those not directly familiar with his work. How can a dream of wolves in a tree mean that the Wolf-Man was traumatized by seeing his parents having sex? It sounds so implausible.


  1. Freud always turns multiplicities into unities. This is connected with a more explicitly philosophical point, which is Deleuze and Guattari’s suspicion of the philosophical tradition for its tendency to reduce the many to the one, even as they claim to be beyond any such classical opposition between the one and the many.


  1. Freud makes an incorrect distinction between neurosis and psychosis, thereby belittling psychotics and failing to recognize that what he treats as psychosis is actually a more primary mode of experience, even among those who would be described as “normal,” “neurotic,” or “hysterical” rather than psychotic.


  1. Freud completely misses a number of important ideas developed in the work of Deleuze and Guattari themselves: becoming, intensity, multiplicity, deterritorialization, social machines, and the body without organs. Let’s look at some of the relevant passages under each of these headings.


The basic principle of psychoanalysis is that wishes are often censored or repressed as incompatible with respectable civilized life. This leads accordingly to such phenomena as dreams, parapraxes (such as slips of the tongue or losing various objects), neurosis, hysteria, and the sublimation found in such cultural phenomena as religion and myth. The goal of the analyst is to uncover the deeper meaning hidden behind the surface or latent content of the individual and collective psyches, which is why psychoanalysis was referred to by Jung’s mentor Bleuler as “depth-psychology”. As a rule, Deleuze and Guattari object to the speed with which Freud replaces surface-meanings with hidden ones. For instance: “That day, the Wolf-Man rose from the couch particularly tired […] He knew that Freud knew nothing about wolves, or anuses for that matter. The only thing Freud understood was what a dog is, and a dog’s tail” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 26). The reference here is to Freud’s claim that castration anxiety played a key role in the Wolf-Man’s mental illness, with the tails of the wolves in the dream serving as phallic symbols, as barricades against castration. Another example: “in the Wolf-Man’s case the story about wolves is followed by one about wasps and butterflies, we go from wolves to wasps” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 31). Here Deleuze and Guattari are incredulous that Freud would lump together such different entities as wolves, wasps, and butterflies as symptoms of the same underlying problem. Freud links the Wolf-Man’s terror at the dream of the wolves and the later flapping of a butterfly with his mention during analysis of an Espe, an incorrect version of the German Wespe (wasp). There is also the noteworthy fact that Espe sounds very similar to the German pronunciation of S.P., the initials of his real name: Sergei Pankajeff. Another example: “Freud sees [everything] only as Oedipal substitutes, regressions, and derivatives. Freud sees nothing and understands nothing. He has no idea what a libidinal assemblage is, with all the machineries it brings into play, all the multiple loves” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 37). Here again, Deleuze and Guattari object to the fact that Freud transforms all the various interests of the Wolf-Man into a fairly repetitive expression of a complex family romance: Pankejeff’s unconscious erotic interest at various times in his mother, father, sister, and beloved nurse. Let’s give a final example:

Talk as he might about wolves, howl as he might like a wolf, Freud does not even listen; he glances at his dog and answers, ‘It’s Daddy’ […] The Wolf-Man keeps howling: Six wolves! Seven wolves! Freud says, How’s that? Goats, you say? How interesting. Take away the goats and all you have left is a wolf, so it’s your father… (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 38)

Deleuze and Guattari reject the manner in which Freud weaves a fairy tale about goats into his interpretation of the dream, while ignoring the Wolf-Man’s own literal words about wolves.

Second, we have Deleuze and Guattari’s related concern about how Freud unjustifiably turns the many into one as he pleases. Here is one example:

No sooner does Freud discover the greatest art of the unconscious, [the] art of molecular multiplicities, than we find him tirelessly at work bringing back molar unities, reverting to his familiar themes of the father, the penis, the vagina, Castration with a Capital C […] (On the verge of discovering a rhizome, Freud always returns to mere roots.) (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 27)

The art of molecular multiplicities refers to the capacity of psychotics for the multiplication of symbols beyond anything known to the neurotic, who can easily take a sock as a substitute for a vagina, but unlike the psychotic cannot treat the many pores in the skin as a field of many vaginas. Deleuze and Guattari also speak in this connection of the surrealist painter and sometimes Freud-admirer Salvador Dali, who

may go on at length about THE rhinoceros horn; he has not for all of that left neurosis behind. But when he starts comparing goosebumps to a field of rhinoceros horns, we get the feeling that the atmosphere has changed and we are now in the presence of madness […] the little bumps ‘become’ horns, and the horns, little penises. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 27)

As for the rhizome, this is Deleuze and Guattari’s way of referring to horizontal connections between multiple things in the manner of mushrooms rather than the root/trunk structure of trees, the favoured metaphor of all the various theories of foundation and origin that they despise. They also reject Freud’s treatment of language:

names are taken in their extensive usage [by Freud], in other words, function as common nouns ensuring the unification of an aggregate they subsume. The proper name can be nothing more than an extreme case of the common noun, containing its already domesticated multiplicity within itself… (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 27)

Against such “domestication”, Deleuze and Guattari insist that the proper name is an intensity added to whatever multiplicity it covers, rather than a unifying term that embraces them. There are other cases where they think Freud is too quick to unify things: “During the first episode [of the Wolf-Man], which Freud declares neurotic, he recounted a dream he had about six or seven wolves in a tree, and drew five. Who is ignorant of the fact that wolves travel in packs? Only Freud. Every child knows it” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 28). Here Deleuze and Guattari seem to take the position that multiplicity is simply multiplicity, with the exact number of wolves being of no importance, whereas Freud insists that every detail in a dream must be accounted for, especially when some of these details contain contradictions. And finally:

The wolves will have to be purged of their multiplicity. This operation is accomplished by associating the dream with the tale, ‘The Wolf and the Seven Kid-Goats’ (only six of which get eaten). We witness Freud’s reductive glee; we literally see multiplicity leave the wolves to take the shape of goats that have absolutely nothing to do with the [Wolf-Man’s dream] story […] Who is Freud trying to fool? (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 28)

This passage is especially striking for its lack of fairness. The fair-minded reader will find no “glee” in Freud’s account of this point, which is recounted in all possible sobriety and slowness; this word is simply a typical polemical device of imputing disreputable emotions to one’s opponent. As for the story of the goats, it is by no means true that it has “nothing to do” with the Wolf-Man, since he is familiar with this story and mentions it at a key point in his analysis.

We have now covered the first two classes of critiques of Freud in “One or Several Wolves?”, which share the common point that Deleuze and Guattari object to Freud failing to take images at their face value, subjecting them to analysis in terms of displacement and condensation: the bread and butter of psychoanalytic interpretation. Despite this, the authors also claim to avoid any traditional opposition between the one and the many:

There is no question […] of establishing a dualist opposition between the two types of multiplicities, molecular machines and molar machines, that would be no better than the dualism between the One and the multiple. There are only multiplicities of multiplicities forming a single assemblage, operating in the same assemblage: packs in masses and masses in packs. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 34)


And what is the positive difference between a pack and a mass? “The leader of the pack or the band plays move by move, must wager everything every hand, whereas the group or mass leader consolidates or capitalizes on past gains” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 33).

The third category of complaints is related to Deleuze and Guattari’s objection to Freud’s account of the difference between neurosis and psychosis. Much of this comes from Guattari’s career-long work with psychotics, who he appreciates on their own terms and does not wish to see personally or intellectually deprecated:

Freud says that hysterics or obsessives are people capable of making a global comparison between a sock and a vagina, a scar and a castration, etc. […] Yet it would never occur to a neurotic to grasp the skin as a multiplicity of pores, little spots, little scars or black holes, or to grasp the sock erotically as a multiplicity of stitches. The psychotic can […] Comparing a sock to a vagina is OK, it’s done all the time, but you’d have to be insane to compare a pure aggregate of stitches to a field of vaginas: that’s what Freud says. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 19)

The implication seems to be that there is a superior imagination, liberation, and even ontological correctness in seeing the world in a manner that Freud regards as psychotic. A further tribute to schizophrenia soon appears:

Freud tried to approach crowd phenomena from the point of view of the unconscious, but he did not see clearly, he did not see that the unconscious itself was fundamentally a crowd. He was myopic and hard of hearing; he mistook crowds for a single person. Schizos, on the other hand, have sharp eyes and ears. They don’t mistake the buzz and shove of the crowd for daddy’s voice. (Deleue and Guattari 1987: 29-30)

Though it is not strictly true that Freud is unaware of multiple currents at work in the unconscious, Deleuze and Guattari’s real claim is that Freud subjects this unconscious to a small number of oedipalizing forces, thereby domesticating their pure multiplicity. Their contempt for such procedures is clear: “People say, After all, schizophrenics have a mother and a father, don’t they? Sorry, no, none as such. They only have a desert with tribes inhabiting it, a full body clinging with multiplicities” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 30).

The fourth category of criticisms of Freud contains those which serve as launching pads into Deleuze and Guattari’s own philosophy, about which I will have less to say in this essay. But it is worth including a sample of them for the light they shed on why the two French thinkers react so badly to the supposed deficiencies of Freud. One reason that Deleuze and Guattari want to preserve the immediacy of the wolves against Freud’s symbolic transformations is their interest in becoming: “Freud obviously knows nothing about the fascination exerted by wolves and the meaning of their silent call, the call to become-wolf” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 28). It is obviously a different becoming if we feel called to become wasp or to become butterfly, and hence it is easy to see why Deleuze and Guattari want to preserve the specificity of each of these creatures against Freud’s attempt to put them all under the same yoke. They continue on a related theme:

This brings us to [another] factor, the nature of these multiplicities and their elements. RHIZOME. One of the essential characteristsics of the dream of multiplicity is that each element ceaselessly varies and alters its distance in relation to the others. On the Wolf-Man’s nose, the elements, determined as pores of little skin, little scars in the pores, little ruts in the scar tissue, ceaselessly dance, grow, and diminish. These variable distances are not extensive qualities divisible by each other; rather, each is indivisible or “relatively indivisible,” in other words, they are not divisible below or above a certain threshold, they cannot increase or decrease without their elements changing in nature. A swarm of bees: here they come as a rumble of soccer players in striped jerseys, or a band of Tuareg. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 30-31)

Presumably the Wolf-Man’s gray zone of indifference between five and seven wolves is taken by Deleuze and Guattari to have the same intensity at all points, with the wolves not changing in nature, and this is why the exact number is said not to matter as much as Freud thinks. A multiplicity is a multiplicity. Along with the networking rhizome, we have that other classic Deleuzo-Guattarian concept, the body without organs:

something plays the role of the full body — the body without organs […] In the Wolf-Man’s dream it is the denuded tree upon which the wolves are perched […] A body without organs is not an empty body stripped of organs, but a body upon which that which serves as organs (wolves, wolf eyes, wolf jaws?) is distributed according to crowd phenomena, in Brownian motion, in the form of molecular multiplicities. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 30)

The body without organs is a term for the resistance of multiplicities to being over-organized, “all the more alive and teeming once it has blown apart the organism and its organization” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 30). What arises amidst such a body without falling back into it can be called its intensity, for “the Wolf is the pack […] the multiplicity instantaneously apprehended as such insofar as it approaches or moves away from zero, each distance being nondecomposable. Zero is the body without organs of the Wolf-Man” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 31). This brings us to yet another classic term of these two authors, deterritorialization. In their own words:

Lines of flight or of deterritorialization, becoming-wolf, becoming-inhuman, deterritorialized intensities: that is what multiplicity is. To become wolf or to become hole is to deterritorialize oneself following distinct but entangled lines. A hole is more negative than a wolf. Castration, lack, substitution: a tale told by an overconscious idiot who has no understanding of multiplicities as formations of the unconscious. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 32)

The critique of the “idiot” Freud becomes more concrete when Deleuze and Guattari criticize his inability to handle the social aspects of the Wolf-Man’s dreams, as in his

second dream during his so-called psychotic episode […] Even [the psychoanalyst] Brunswick can’t go wrong […] this time the wolves are Bolsheviks, the revolutionary mass that had emptied the dresser and confiscated the Wolf-Man’s fortune. The wolves, in a metastable state, have gone over to a large-scale social machine. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 35)

Yet psychoanalysis supposedly misses all of this, since for Freud “it all leads back to daddy” though the Wolf-Man’s father was “one of the leaders of the liberal party in Russia”, entangling the supposedly oedipal father in a wider net of social machinery. Exasperated, Deleuze and Guattari conclude sarcastically that after reading Freud, “you’d think that the investments and counterinvestments of the libido had nothing to do with mass disturbances, pack movements, collective signs, and particles of desire” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 35). Having been steeped in so many accusations against Freud, we might forget how powerful an experience it is to read him. In the next section I will make a defence of Freud’s procedures, and in the last and final section will ask how OOO might relate to Freud’s claims.


The Freudian Side of the Story

My first direct encounter with Freud’s writings came in an undergraduate seminar on The Interpretation of Dreams (2015), which must have taken place during my senior year in 1989-90. A few days after I had done the assigned reading, an intelligent classmate named Jason happened to enter my place of part-time employment, and asked what I had thought of it. When I responded positively, he reacted with assertive dismay: “What?! I thought you were a Heideggerian! What does it mean to say that a dream is a wish-fulfillment?” In those days, I was not much of a talker or arguer, and was unsure what to say in response. This scene has occasionally returned to my mind over the ensuing quarter-century, and I am still not entirely sure what Jason meant by his critique. But his reference to Heidegger shows that his criticism of Freud would not have been that of Deleuze and Guattari, who were to some extent fringe figures in the America of 1990, and who Jason had surely not yet read even if he had heard of them. The French authors are bothered primarily by Freud’s appeal to a depth behind any surface-appearance, or beyond “immanence” as Deleuze and Guattari would say. While the man-on-the-street’s vulgar critique says that “Freud reduces everything to sex”, Deleuze and Guattari clearly have no problem with sex per se, as witnessed by their celebrations of desire and their frequently brazen discussions of genitalia. Instead, they are bothered by Freud’s appeal to the Oedipus Complex as the concealed hidden meaning behind everything that should be treated as immanent: “Oedipus, nothing but Oedipus, because it hears nothing and listens to nobody. It flattens everything, masses and packs, molecular and molar machines” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 34).

If Heidegger were to criticize Freud, it certainly would not have anything to do with the depth part of depth-psychology. Heidegger is one of the most prominent philosophers of concealment in the history of the West, and while doubts have often been sown about whether Heideggerian concealment has anything to do with the psychoanalytic sort, we will see that Freud makes an explicit comparison between his own concept of the unconscious and Kant’s notion of the unattainable thing-in-itself. Heidegger’s objection to Freud would lie along a different path. Heidegger is concerned primarily with one relation, and only one: the relation between the always concealed Being and the multitude of visible beings that we encounter either as present-at-hand in consciousness or in the readiness-to-hand of reliable equipment taken for granted until it fails. Any discussion of the transformations between one individual being and another could not be of much interest to Heidegger, who would dismiss such considerations as “ontic” (pertaining to accessible individual beings) rather than “ontological” (pertaining to Being itself). But although Freud will compare the unconscious to the Kantian in-itself, much of his work consists in discovering the displacements and condensations at work in dreams as in everyday life. You may harbour a strong desire for your best friend’s wife Jennifer, but to admit this to oneself, even to dream about it at night, would be unacceptable to the inner censor who helps by transforming it into some other image. Perhaps you dream of sex with another woman named Jennifer for whom you feel no desire at all. Maybe you dream instead of being given flowers by Queen Guinevere from Arthurian legend, whose name is quite close to Jennifer’s. Maybe Jennifer attacks you with a sword in your dream, giving you a good alibi against guilt. Perhaps the dream is of seeing a woman’s wedding ring on a table in your friend’s house, as you place a rigid finger through the centre of it as your friend assures you that it’s a good fit, thereby assuaging your repressed torment. (Though this one might be interpreted, instead, as the homosexual wish to marry one’s friend and enjoy Jennifer’s own passive pleasures.) Or maybe your wish is so forbidden, so laden with regret, that your dream consists of watching through a window as some unknown aggressive man with a sword attacks Jennifer’s sister or friend. This is displacement. Condensation occurs when many things become one. Perhaps you fear your upcoming doctoral defence, and in your dream the thesis committee members take the form of a single incoherently speaking worm crushed beneath your foot. Perhaps you even scream after killing it, as an alibi for your guilt at slaying three professors for your own convenience.

None of this would happen in your dreams if not for the conflict between our often licentious or murderous unconscious impulses and our ego’s conscious need to see ourselves as reliable social beings who would never betray friends or colleagues in such a manner. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1990a), Freud explains how similar things can happen with slips of the tongue, and in Totem and Taboo (1990b) he traces religious ceremonies such as the Eucharist, and myths such as the triumph of Zeus in Greek mythology, to a shared primeval guilt among brothers for slaying the father and eating his body. Most important of all is the myth of Oedipus, the centre of Freud’s work, in which Oedipus kills his father on the road and then marries his mother, without knowing they were his father or mother. Rather than seeing this as just another horrible event on a par with those found in any other tragedy, Freud makes a claim that establishes him as one of the great anti-formalist literary critics. Namely, he insists that the special power of Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex is rooted in a shared incestuous desire confronted by children, who all wish to kill the parent of the same sex and thus have the opposite-sex parent for themselves. Civilization requires, of course, that we swiftly overcome such wishes. And though nearly all humans manage to avoid this childish amalgam of parricide and incest, the cost of forbidding ourselves such instinctual pleasures requires some combination of sublimating our desires and forming neurotic or hysterical symptoms. It is these symptoms that psychoanalysis aims to identify and, God willing, treat. Whether or not Freud succeeds in his various diagnoses and treatments has always been a controversial topic, but this does not require that we dismiss the erotic displacements of civilization and neurosis as inherently far-fetched.

As already mentioned, the most striking omission from Deleuze and Guattari’s account is their failure to mention the Wolf-Man’s obvious psychological problems. For example, he is unable to defecate for long periods of time, and can do so at last only by means of an enema. We learn that his love life is characterized by sudden but short-lasting obsessions, usually with servant girls. Deleuze and Guattari try to portray Freud as a bourgeois snob by referring in scare quotes to “people of inferior station” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 19), missing the obvious fact that for a Russian aristocrat of the pre-WWI era, any romance with a servant girl would surely be a social deadend. Perhaps even worse is this bit from the French authors:

A dentist told the Wolf-Man that he ‘would soon lose all his teeth because of the violence of his bite’ — and that his gums were pocked with pustules and little holes. Jaw as high intensity, teeth as low intensity, and pustular gums as approach to zero. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 31-32)

However original or inspiring it may be to view one’s jaws, teeth, and gums in terms of “intensities”, this sounds like a bona fide dental emergency, and Deleuze and Guattari are not up to the task of even recognizing it, let alone helping with it. It is one thing to draw philosophical conclusions from a study of schizophrenics, but quite another to argue for turning Western medicine into a celebration-without-cure of rhizomes, lines of flight, and the body without organs. Nowhere in their objections to Freud do Deleuze and Guattari acknowledge that little Sergei woke up screaming in terror from his dream of the wolves, that he changed afterward from a docile boy into a furious troublemaker, that his sister was later able to horrify him at will with an illustration of a wolf standing erect, that he chased a large butterfly but screamed in terror after seeing it land and flap its wings, that he began to soil his bedding regularly, or even that he voluntarily sought out Freud’s treatment. Only with this complete bracketing of the medical aspect of Pankajeff’s case does it become plausible to view the wolves, wasps, and butterflies simply as poetic calls to become-wolf, become-wasp, become-butterfly.

The dream of the wolves causes obvious problems for young Sergei, and on this basis it seems fair to investigate its meaning. Even if the appearance of wolves rather than foxes or tigers came from some special and innocent passion of Sergei for wolves instead of other animals, Freud would be justified in asking Sergei why it was wolves and attempting, through free-association, to learn what topics in his unconscious are the mental neighbours to these wolves. And Freud would be even more justified in wondering why the wolves in this particular dream inspired such significant terror, more or less ruining Pankajeff’s childhood. Nor does it seem right to object to Freud’s wondering about the vagueness of “six or seven” wolves, coupled with the fact that Pankajeff’s drawing of the dream only shows five of them. Finally, on what basis can we condemn Freud for investigating other appearances of wolves in his childhood, especially in the printed stories and oral folk tales that were available to the child? Psychoanalysis holds that there are no irrelevant details in memories or dreams, and while this is as open to question as any other hypothesis, it does not seem ridiculous a priori. There is also the force of Freud’s own intellect, so immediately evident to anyone who gives him an unprejudiced reading. The writings of this “idiot” who “understands nothing” carry sincerity and conviction in a way not always true of Deleuze and Guattari’s otherwise amusing strings of jokes and swear words.

The two French authors seem especially miffed (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 27) by Freud’s essay “The Unconscious” (1957), where the report of the pores on the Wolf-Man’s nose appears. Here Freud gives an ambitious account of the relation between the unconscious, the preconscious and the conscious mind. It should be noted that the unconscious is a psychological concept rather than a philosophical one. Much of the evidence for it comes from clinical experience, and is thus beyond the realm of strictly philosophical critique. No philosopher could or would have deduced the existence of the unconscious in its Freudian form, any more than they could or would have deduced the finite speed of light or the gravitational curvature of space-time theorized by Einstein. Nonetheless, Freud makes an important philosophical link for us at the end of the first section of his essay:

Just as Kant warned us not to overlook the fact that our perceptions are subjectively conditioned and must not be regarded as identical with what is perceived though unknowable, so psycho-analysis warns us not to equate perceptions by means of consciousness with the unconscious mental processes which are their object. Like the physical, the psychical is not necessarily in reality what it appears to us to be. We shall be glad to learn, however, that the correction of internal perception will turn out not to offer such great difficulties as the correction of external perception — that internal objects are less unknowable than the external world. (Freud 1957: 171)

Like Freud, object-oriented ontology (OOO) basically accepts Kant’s notion of a thing-in-itself. The point is controversial, since German Idealism emerged from Kant largely by reinterpreting the thing outside thought as something immanent to the movement of thought itself, and for this reason many critics of OOO (and of Freud) try to paint this as a form of “naïve realism”. In similar manner, the emergence of Jacques Lacan from Freud owes much to his reinterpretation of the unconscious as something as an immanent gap at the centre of consciousness itself. This striking similarity has enabled Slavoj Žižek to produce his unique synthesis of German Idealism and Lacan. The price Žižek pays for this synthesis is a vociferous anti-realism, neatly concealed behind the alibi of a “materialism” that has nothing of the material at all. This also allows him to draw on the critical resources of traditional Enlightenment-Left materialism despite offering up as exaggerated a theory of the worldless subject as anyone since Berkeley, while also encouraging him to dismiss the present-day realists of OOO as naïve pre-Hegelian dupes (Žižek 2016).

But perhaps it is important to recall briefly where OOO agrees and disagrees with Kant, since it is often falsely presented as a purely anti-Kantian movement. Like Kant (and Freud), OOO agrees with the notion that perceptions must not be regarded as identical with what is real and unknowable. Our main difference from Kant is found in the OOO principle that this lag between the perceived and the real is not some special property of human beings, but arises from the difference between reality and relation, as found in animals, plants and even inanimate matter. This is not (or not yet) an argument in favour of panpsychism, but merely the observation that even in the causal relation between fire and cotton, the fire and cotton make contact with only a limited array of one another’s features. It is simply not the case that physical contact is total, as if only mental contact with reality were limited. While this is the core argument of OOO, it is of no relevance to psychoanalysis, which deals specifically with the psyche rather than reality as a whole. At most, psychoanalysis could debate how the unconscious might function in animals; extending its sphere of inquiry to plants and stones lies far beyond the realm of present-day clinical plausibility, though I have entertained the possibility in print (Harman 2002: 208).

One further remark is needed. In the passage just cited, Freud assures us that “internal objects are less unknowable than the external world”. Now, almost every philosopher short of Berkeley is willing to admit that things and our presentations of things are not identical. When I stare at the flames in a furnace, the flames themselves are dangerously hot, though the flames I see are mere images and do not harm my skin in the least. The question is how to account for this difference. Partisans of absolute knowledge in recent philosophy (ranging from Husserl to Meillassoux) hold that there is no thing-in-itself, since with a bit of effort we can actually come to know the essential or primary qualities of things. What this amounts to is the claim that we can extract those qualities of the thing and bring them into the mind without alteration, while simply leaving their substrate outside the mind. Form is extracted from “dead matter”, as Meillassoux (2012) puts it. But in this way, the completely empty notion of “matter” serves as a mere crutch to prop up the evident difference between fire and the perception of a fire. And more than this, it is assumed that a form can move from one place to another while remaining the same form, so that there is only a material but no formal difference between the two kinds of fire. I have criticized this idea elsewhere. For the moment, it can simply be said that this violates Bruno Latour’s useful principle that “there is no transport without transformation” (Latour 2005: 130), which entails that there must also be a formal difference between the two kinds of fire (Harman 2013a). This might seem to place OOO in disagreement with Freud’s notion that the unconscious is “more knowable” than Kantian things-in-themselves, since knowledge as the direct extraction of forms out of matter is thereby rendered impossible. But Freud is well aware that the unconscious is not directly convertible into knowledge any more than the fish-in-themselves or stars-in-themselves that Kant places forever beyond our reach.

Freud justifies the distinction between conscious and unconscious largely through the observation that “the data of consciousness have a very large number of gaps in them; both in healthy and in sick people psychical acts often occur which can be explained only by presupposing other acts, of which, nevertheless, consciousness affords no evidence” (Freud 1957: 166). Even if we were to reject the whole of his The Interpretation of Dreams, there is strong prima facie evidence for unconscious thoughts in the case of parapraxes such as calling someone by the wrong name or declaring a meeting closed when one was supposed to declare it in session. At any rate, there is nothing in Deleuze and Guattari that would cause us to question this. But Freud immediately faces the ambiguity that not everything that is unconscious is unconscious in the same way. Some thoughts are not currently conscious but are capable of becoming so, while others cannot be made conscious in quite the same way. That is to say, some are “merely latent, temporarily unconscious” while others “such as repressed ones […] if they were to become conscious would be bound to stand out in the crudest contrast to the rest of the conscious processes” (Freud 1957: 172). In order to emphasize that only the latter kind are unconscious in the full-blown psychoanalytic sense, Freud introduces the terminology of “Ucs.” and “Cs.” when speaking of the “systematic” difference between these two realms. This is opposed to the “descriptive” difference that merely announces whether or not something merely happens to be in our mind at the present moment. What is the border control that prevents the Ucs. from bleeding into the Cs.? We have already mentioned it: “a psychical act goes through two phases as regards its state, between which is interposed a kind of testing (censorship)” (Freud 1957: 173). But that which passes the test of the censor might still become latent or pre-conscious (“Pcs.”) rather than conscious. For this reason, there is not yet any topographical difference between Pcs. and Cs., both of which remain united for now in their joint opposition to the Ucs. Whereas the first two have cleared censorship, the last has not. Freud hints coyly that if there turns out to be an additional stage of censorship between Pcs. and Cs., only then can we distinguish between these two topographically as well. I say “coyly” because Freud will in fact discover this additional censor less than twenty pages later.

An additional question now arises, which Freud admits “may appear abstruse” but is nonetheless crucial: What is the relation between the unconscious and conscious forms of one and the same idea? Is it the same content but with two different roles depending on whether it is conscious or not: i.e. a functional separation between the two? Or is the content recorded twice, in two different locations: i.e. a topographical separation between them? Freud inclines initially toward the second view. This is due to his frequent clinical experience that if he suggests an idea to one of his patients that seems to be hidden in his unconscious, “our telling him makes at first no change in his mental condition […] [A]ll that we shall achieve at first will be a fresh rejection of the repressed idea” (Freud 1957: 175). Freud’s allegiance to the so-called “talking cure” does not mean that he thinks that making an idea conscious is enough to dispel its harmful unconscious effects. For “there is no lifting of the repression until the conscious idea, after the resistances have been overcome, has entered into connection with the unconscious memory-trace” (Freud 1957: 175-6). This strongly suggests that it is not just a question of the “same” content in two different places: “To have heard something and to have experienced something are in their psychological nature two quite different things, even though the content of both is the same…” (Freud 1957: 176). Freud hints that he will perhaps find a new, alternative approach, as indeed he does later in the same essay.

A new question now arises. If ideas can exist either in the Ucs. or the Cs., is the same true of instincts and emotions/affects? It is clear to Freud that instincts must always remain in the Ucs., and can pass into Cs. only in the form of ideas. But he holds that the opposite is true of emotions and affects, which are always discharges rather than cathexes (investments of libidinal energy in some object). Since it is of the nature of a discharge to unleash itself in the world rather than to hide in withdrawn concealment, emotions and affects must always belong to the sphere of Pcs./Cs., never to the Ucs. Nevertheless, the suppression of emotion is obviously the immediate aim of repression, and it is hard to see how this can happen if the Ucs. is the sole locus of the repressed. Freud’s solution to this problem is to say that repression occurs at the point where the unconscious idea meets its conscious counterpart. In cases of normal psychological life, the instincts enter unproblematically into conscious emotion. But at least two different kinds of things can go wrong. The former occurs when “the development of affect […] proceed[s] directly from the system Ucs.; in that case the affect always has the character of anxiety, for which all ‘repressed’ affects are exchanged” (Freud 1957: 179). The latter comes about when “the instinctual impulse has to wait until it has found a substitutive idea in the system Cs. The development of affect can then proceed from this conscious substitute, and the nature of that substitute determines the qualitative character of the affect” (Freud 1957: 179). A good example of this is found in the animal phobias of children, quite often directed at animals never or rarely encountered in everyday life. Here it could be that the fear of the father is transformed into a hysterical fear of wolves or butterflies, among other things. Both of these cases can be called “anxiety hysteria”, as opposed to the “conversion hysteria” in which repression is found not in a substitute object, but in some mysterious bodily symptom.

Repression occurs at the point of censorship, which withdraws cathexis from the censored idea. Freud now asks in which system this occurs. Since the repressed idea by definition still exists in the Ucs., the withdrawal of cathexis must occur somewhere else. The libido may withdraw from a cathexis that is actually already conscious, but this occurs most often in the pre-conscious sphere. But given that the cathexis remains at work in the Ucs., why does it not repeatedly try to rise back into the Pcs./Cs., yielding a permanent state of anxiety? Freud declares here that he has no choice but to introduce the notion of an anticathexis, “by means of which the system Pcs. protects itself from the pressure upon it of the unconscious idea” (Freud 1957: 181). In cases of primal repression (Urverdrängung) this has always already happened and the ideas never reach the Pcs. at all, so that no “withdrawal” is necessary. But in cases of “repression proper” (Nachverdrängung), such as the repression of unwelcome ideas, there must also be a withdrawal of the cathexis that did reach the Pcs. Freud briefly summarizes how this works in the various cases of anxiety, phobias, conversion hysteria and obsessional neurosis, noting that conversion hysteria with its bodily symptoms is the most “successful” form of repression, given its relative absence of anti-cathexis in comparison with the others. This fits nicely with Freud’s observation elsewhere that whereas (conversion) hysterics entirely repress all knowledge of the cause of their symptoms, obsessive neurotics are often quite aware of this cause and simply repress their emotional reaction to it.

Freud now highlights the censorship role of the Pcs. Taken in itself, the Ucs. “consists [solely] of wishful impulses”, “of instinctual representatives which seek to discharge their cathexis” (Freud 1957: 186). If some of these impulses are contradictory, they merely seek a compromise. They are capable of displacement or condensation, as we see in dreams and neuroses, in which the “processes of the higher, Pcs., system are set back to an earlier stage by being lowered (by regression)” (Freud 1957: 187). They are not affected at all by time. Perhaps most importantly, they contain no reality principle at all, which is entirely the work of the Pcs. The Ucs. contains even the most absurd impulses, absolutely forbidden by or impracticable in normal social existence. Censorship and reality testing are entirely foreign to the Ucs., and are carried out only by the Pcs., as are all muscular motions other than sheer reflexes. Yet we should not imagine that the Ucs. is simply a primitive vestige, “with the Pcs. casting everything that seems disturbing to it into the abyss of the Ucs” (Freud 1957: 190). For in fact the Ucs. “is accessible to the impressions of life […] constantly influences the Pcs., and is even, for its part, subjected to influences from the Pcs” (Freud 1957: 190). Among other things, if the Ucs. were completely cut off from conscious life then psychoanalytic treatment would be impossible, and Freud’s own experience shows that “though a laborious task, [it] is not impossible” (Freud 1957: 194). Freud also notes that a good part of the Pcs. consists of unconscious “derivatives” that are fully present in the Pcs. but not in the Cs. Thus, “now it becomes probable that there is [an additional] censorship between the Pcs. and the Cs” (Freud 1957: 191). Thus, every transition from a lower state to a higher one involves a fresh censorship, though not in reverse: the Pcs. and Ucs. can directly absorb what Cs. learns through perception. One piece of evidence is that many ego-impulses “remain alien to consciousness” but still belong to the Pcs. rather than to the Ucs. Freud summarizes his three-tiered structure wonderfully:

The Ucs. is turned back on the frontier of the Pcs., by the censorship, but derivatives of the Ucs. can circumvent this censorship, achieve a high degree of organization and reach a certain intensity of cathexis in the Pcs. When, however, this intensity is exceeded and they try to force themselves into consciousness, they are recognized as derivatives of the Ucs. and are repressed afresh at the new frontier of censorship, between the Pcs. and the Cs. Thus the first of these censorships is exercised against the Ucs. itself, and the second against its Pcs. derivatives. (Freud 1957: 193)

This already becomes clear through the psychoanalyst’s ability to have the patient free-associate without any repression, simply saying whatever comes into his or her mind, however vile or irrelevant it may seem. In this way, the patient overcomes the second censorship between Pcs. and Cs., so that “by overthrowing this censorship, we open up the way to abrogating the repression accomplished by the earlier one” (Freud 1957: 193-4). Freud speculates further that consciousness of an idea requires not just a cathexis and certainly not an anti-cathexis, but a hypercathexis. In any case, we see now that the Pcs. plays a crucial mediator’s role between the Ucs. and the Cs., with the Ucs. unable to pass directly into Cs., though perhaps the reverse does happen directly. When too strong a separation occurs between them, when their indirect communication is dammed up or cut off, we have an unfortunate situation: “A complete divergence of their trends, a total severance of the two systems, is what above all characterizes a condition of illness” (Freud 1957: 194).

We now come to the final section of Freud’s essay, the most objectionable part for Deleuze and Guattari, since it is here that Freud offers his own purportedly inadequate theory of schizophrenia. Freud refers to the psychoses as “narcissistic psychoneuroses”, given his view that whereas the neuroses continue to cathect their objects in the Ucs. as well as substitute objects in the Pcs./Cs., in psychosis the object-relation seems to disappear. In schizophrenia (or “dementia praecox”, in Bleuler’s terminology), “the object-cathexes are given up and a primitive objectless condition of narcissism is re-established” (Freud 1957: 196-7). Freud sees this clinically in the inability of the schizophrenic to engage in transference of libido onto the analyst, without which psychoanalytic cure is impossible; he also cites the schizophrenic’s repudiation of the outside world, the hints of a hypercathexis of his or her own ego, leading to an ultimate state of complete apathy. He also notes that “all observers have been struck by the fact that in schizophrenia a great deal is expressed as being conscious which in the transference neuroses can only be shown to be present in the Ucs. by psycho-analysis” (Freud 1957: 198; emph. added). Freud seeks the key to interpretation in the strange speech pattern exhibited by schizophrenics, “which become ‘stilted’ and ‘precious.’ The construction of [the schizophrenic’s] sentences undergoes a peculiar disorganization, making them so incomprehensible to us that his remarks seem nonsensical” (Freud 1957: 198). He summarizes an interesting case from his trusted Viennese colleague Victor Tausk. A girl is brought in after quarreling with her lover. She complains that “her eyes were not right, they were twisted”, which she blames on her boyfriend, though there is obviously nothing wrong with her eyes. While standing in church one day “she felt a jerk; she had to change her position, as though somebody was putting her into a position, as though she was being put in a certain position”. The obvious difference for Freud between schizophrenics and hysterics is that in the latter case there are actual bodily symptoms rather than just words about them:

[A] hysterical woman would, in the first example, have in fact convulsively twisted her eyes, and, in the second, have given actual jerks, instead of having the impulse to do or the sensation of doing so: and in neither example would she have any accompanying conscious thoughts, nor would she have been able to express any such thoughts afterwards. (Freud 1957: 198-9)

These two factors lead Freud to conclude that schizophrenics have the same relation to words that the rest of us have to objects. The work of condensation and displacement that occurs in the dreams of neurotics — and everyone else for that matter, given that dreams themselves have the structure of neurotic symptoms — takes place in psychotics with words, sometimes to the point that “a single word […] takes over the representation of a whole train of thought” (Freud 1957: 199).

This brings Freud to the unpleasant case of the Wolf-Man’s face, on which he had squeezed out many blackheads. Under analysis Freud determines that this squeezing is a substitute for masturbation, and that the castration anxiety often associated with penis-related activity in boys (a maid had once threatened to cut it off after he urinated on the floor in her presence) is ratified by the remaining holes in his face after the blackheads have been squeezed. Whereas a hysteric is able to treat almost any hollow object as a vaginal substitute in his or her symptoms, no hysteric (Freud claims) would treat such a multiplicity of tiny holes as a field of vaginas: the vagina of fantasy life is normally just one, and we would also expect that hollow objects would need to reach a feasible minimum size before the relation with a vagina would be suggested. We recall Deleuze and Guattari’s sarcastic words about this passage of Freud: “Comparing a sock to a vagina is OK, it’s done all the time, but you’d have to be insane to compare a pure aggregate of stitches to a field of vaginas: that’s what Freud says” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 19). Freud’s case might seem to come down to a question of greater and lesser resemblance, though he actually reaches a somewhat different conclusion:

As far as the thing goes, there is only a very slight similarity between squeezing out a blackhead and an emission from the penis, and still less similarity between the innumerable shallow pores of the skin and the vagina; but in the former case there is, in both instances, a ‘spurting out,’ while in the latter the cynical saying ‘a hole is a hole’ is true verbally. What has dictated the substitution [in the latter case?] is not the resemblance between the things denoted but the sameness of the word used to express them. Where the two — word and thing — do not coincide, the formation of substitutes in schizophrenia deviates from that in the transference neuroses. (Freud: 200-1)

The bracketed phrase above that I inserted in the form of a question points to a grammatical ambiguity in this passage, in which the final two sentences do not flow naturally from what precedes them. We understand Freud’s view that whereas the neurotic deals with objects, the psychotic deals with words. But whereas the earlier part of the passage suggests only a difference of degree between “squeezing a blackhead = ejaculation” and “pores in the face = field of vaginas”, since the first is called “a very slight similarity” and the second “still less similarity”, the conclusion of the passage makes it sound as if there is a crucial difference in kind between the two cases.

Here it is necessary to bring up a crucial point in the theory of metaphor, which I have dealt with extensively elsewhere (Harman 2016: 101-4). It is obvious that metaphors cannot work unless they avoid the extremes of comparing objects that have nothing in common and those that have too much in common. “Memphis is like the Pacific Ocean” has no immediate metaphorical effect at all, though perhaps some great poet could provide the context for this to take place. “Memphis is like Louisville” fails for the opposite reason, since the similarity is too literal, or at least is claimed as such by the speaker. Though a skeptic might quickly point to the vast cultural differences between the two cities, the comparison does have some things going for it: both are mid-South river cities with roughly 600,000 inhabitants. For a metaphor to work, it needs to hit a vague bullseye somewhere between these two extremes. Luckily, my graduate school roommate Paul Schafer is a Memphis native, and once shared a good metaphorical description of his home city: “Nashville is the capital of Tennessee, but Memphis is the capital of Mississippi”. In order to understand this, one only needs to know a bit of American geography and a bit about the varying flavour of the two cities. Both are located literally in the state of Tennessee, and Nashville is the actual state capital. Hence the first part of the sentence “Nashville is the capital of Tennessee” expresses a literal truth containing no metaphorical effect whatsoever, unless retroactively after the second part is heard. The real metaphorical work occurs in the second part of the sentence, “Memphis is the capital of Mississippi”. This statement is an obvious falsehood, as is known even to ten-year-olds in America, and the impossibility of accepting it at face value forces the mind along a different path: Memphis is the most relevant urban centre for at least the northern half of Mississippi, and Memphis also has more of a Mississippian Deep South atmosphere than does relatively clean-cut Nashville. Though Jacques Derrida makes a concerted effort to downplay the literal/metaphorical distinction (Derrida 1982), the OOO theory of metaphor (Harman 2005: 101-24) sees the basis for an absolute distinction between them, even if two people may disagree about which is which in particular cases. Whereas a literal statement compares two things (correctly or incorrectly) in terms of their purportedly similar properties, and a fanciful statement — Memphis/Pacific Ocean — does this in immediately unconvincing fashion, a metaphorical statement works by transferring the characteristics of one object to another. In this case, Memphis acquires Mississippi traits through the metaphor. This leads to a further observation on Freud’s distinction between neurosis and psychosis. The “very slight similarity” between squeezing a blackhead and masturbating to the point of ejaculation seems no more “slight” than that which occurs in any metaphor. It is true that the first case of slight similarity has a repulsive ugliness that will — one hopes — bar it forever from the realm of aesthetics (“Squeezing a blackhead is like…”). Beyond this, however, the main difference between symptom and metaphor is as follows. In the blackhead/penis case one object is unconsciously substituted for another, so that the blackhead is conscious and the role of the penis is repressed. In metaphor, by contrast, Memphis is not repressed: it is foregrounded as a vague object orbited by the properties of Mississippi and of a capital city, though in reality neither of these is accurate. But we might imagine a reversal of the two cases, in which a disgusting poem calling the penis “that blackhead of the loins” or the blackhead “that penis of the cheeks” is conjoined with the Nashville-abhorring delusion that Memphis is the real capital of Tennessee, with the existence of Nashville thereby repressed — at least temporarily — into the unconscious. Note that however wild this delusion sounds, it would still be a neurosis rather than a psychosis in Freudian terms, since we would still be dealing with objects rather than words. On that note, we move directly to the final pages of his essay.

The strangeness of schizophrenia, Freud concludes, comes from “the predominance of what has to to do with words over what has to do with things”. Though the observation remains in force that the schizophrenic abandons cathexes of the object, the cathexes of words are retained all the more. This has direct implications for two issues already raised earlier. The first has to do with the exact nature of the relation between the Ucs. and the Pcs./Cs.:

We now seem to know all at once what the difference is between a conscious and an unconscious presentation. The two are not, as we supposed, different registrations of the same content in different psychical localities, nor yet different functional states of cathexis in the same locality; but the conscious presentation comprises the presentation of the thing plus the presentation of the word belonging to it, while the unconscious presentation is the presentation of the thing alone. (Freud 1957: 201)

Two pages later Freud clarifies that the association of thing and word actually belongs to the pre-conscious rather than the conscious realm, since “being linked with word-presentations is not yet the same thing as becoming conscious, but only makes it possible to become so”. The second issue clarified by Freud’s distinction between object and word is the nature of neurotic repression. For as he puts it: “Now, too, we are in a position to state precisely that what repression denies to the rejected presentation is translation into words, or a psychical act which is not hypercathected, but remains thereafeter in the Ucs. in a state of repression” (Freud 1957: 202). We must remember, however, that Freud told us earlier that putting something into explict words does not free it from repression, since to state something explicitly is not yet to make a connection between the conscious and unconscious realms. But this raises the question of what repression is in the case of psychosis rather than neurosis. We saw that for the neurotic, repression happens at the gateway between Ucs. and Pcs. For the psychotic, no such thing can happen, assuming Freud is right that psychosis is the negation of both unconscious and conscious object-cathexes in favour of a narcissistic withdrawal into the mind. This withdrawal is actually more than a simple flight away from the world, since it simultaneously takes the form of a hypercathexis of words. Freud concludes the essay with a fascinating question and an equally fascinating result. Given the detachment between objects and words in schizophrenia, it seems strange that the words should be the element that is retained, given that we usually see the reverse: for it is usually Pcs. material that is repressed, even as everything still remains at play in the Ucs. Freud’s imaginative solution to this puzzle is as follows: “It turns out that the cathexis of the word-presentation is not part of the act of repression, but represents the first of the attempts at recovery or cure which so conspicuously dominate the clinical picture of schizophrenia” (Freud 1957: 202-3). In an attempt to regain the lost object, the schizophrenic “may well […] set off on a path that leads to the object via the verbal part of it”. This leads him to remark that “when we think in abstractions… the expression and content of our philosophizing then begins to acquire an unwelcome resemblance to the mode of operation of schizophrenics” (Freud 1957: 204).

As a philosopher, I am of course in no position to mediate a clinical debate between Freud and Guattari as to what schizophrenia really is. But in both cases certain philosophical notions are brought into play, and here the philosopher is fully justified in offering affirmations and objections. Moreover, we have now seen Freud’s careful attempt to describe the interrelation of the Ucs., Pcs., and Cs. and how this interrelation generates various illnesses. For this reason we are inoculated against any of the more frivolous objections to Freud into which Deleuze and Guattari too often lapse. “It’s all Daddy!” is a fun comic parody of Freud, but it must be wondered how many of Deleuze and Guattari’s fans take it merely as a parody. There is nothing counterintuitive about Freud’s procedure here, even if he is as vulnerable to being proven wrong as anyone else. The father and mother are awesomely powerful, perhaps godlike figures in the eyes of the infant. Sexuality can be confusing enough for adults, and all the more so for small children making their first researches in this area. Many boys can probably still remember their first discovery that their sister or girl cousin or mother did not have penis, or can remember their archaic theories that babies are born from the mother’s bottom. Thus castration anxiety is at least a plausible hypothesis, as is the notion of the bottom serving as the locus of gifts in the form of feces, babies and (following conversion) money. The Oedipus hypothesis also has some innate plausibility, given the quite believable theory that the infant desires the death of the same-sex parent and marriage with the one of the opposite sex. Yes, Freud can be made to look ridiculous if we portray him as jumping directly from wolves in a tree to parents having sex. But any multi-step process can be made to look equally ridiculous if we cut out the middle terms. To borrow an example from Bruno Latour, what if we poured Saudi crude oil directly into the gas tank of a vehicle, without the middle stages of refinement? (See Latour’s wonderful “industrial” model of truth: Latour 1999: 137.) Or what if we removed the power cord between the lamp and the wall socket? In that case, we would be just as clown-like as those who choose to mock Freud by jumping instantly from the staring wolves to the copulating parents. What must be judged is simply the quality of translations between each step, and here Freud can fail like anyone else, without his psychoanalysis becoming a mere laughing-stock.


Some Thoughts on OOO and Psychonalysis

I have mentioned that Freud’s work is psychology, not ontology. He only tries to clarify the workings of the human mind, barely speaking even about animals, and with little to teach us about the structure of inanimate objects. Nonetheless, there are obvious points of contact with OOO. Perhaps the most obvious is found in Freud’s analogy between his own procedure and that of Kant when introducing the thing-in-itself. With OOO, as with Freud, the better part of reality lies beneath the accessible surface, as everyone knows in the proverbial case of the iceberg. However, this happens for completely different reasons in the two cases. For OOO, the withdrawal of objects occurs due to the inherent difference between reality and relation. A tree is not identical with its effects, since the tree can have different effects at different times, and even if it could have all of its possible effects simultaneously, this grand total of effects would still not be a tree. For Freud, however, the concealment of the unconscious happens for a specific reason that may well be limited to human beings alone: the existence of two layers of censors. Though the fire does not make contact with all aspects of the cotton, but only with those on which the fire is capable of acting, this is not because the fire has some inner censor that represses aspects of the cotton that are too terrifying for it to admit. The uniqueness of human beings has often been linked to our possession of language, a claim that seems less plausible with every new study of animal communication. A more plausible claim about what makes humans special comes from F.W.J. Schelling, who thinks it is history, of which there are few if any traces in the animal kingdom. But Freud’s theory suggests that repression, which he calls the very cornerstone of psychoanalysis, may be what makes us unique. Without censorship, no humanity. If this is the case, then it challenges the notion of Deleuze and Guattari that psychosis is a more fundamental layer of experience than neurosis and hysteria. Psychosis would instead be lost in an anti-unconscious incapable of grasping the metaphorical beneath the literal.

We turn now to a different point. The followers of Deleuze and Guattari might claim (though I have never heard them do so) that they are better potential allies for OOO than is Freud. Though they would willingly concede that Freud provides tools for discussing concealment that cuts against the grain of Deleuzo-Guattarian “immanence”, Freud is nonetheless too reductive to be a reliable ally for OOO. After all, OOO insists on the irreducible character of objects, which cannot be explained away by reducing objects to their sources or parts (undermining), their effects (overmining), or both procedures simultaneously (duomining) (Harman 2013b). But this would not be quite to the point. OOO’s claim is only that a horse is more than horse parts and less than horse-actions, horse-effects, or horse-events. By no means do we claim that the translation between these realms is impossible; indeed, such translation is the very heart of the matter. Objects are not just isolated from their possible upward and downward reductions, but are in fact entangled in such reductions. But we need to keep in mind that each translation is by the same token a distortion or caricature. Thus there is no problem in thinking that a sock might be the translation of a vagina or the Christian Eucharist the translation of primeval cannibal guilt. We simply cannot assume that such translations exhaust the meaning of any of these symbols. But on this point, paradoxically, we come into partial agreement with Deleuze and Guattari, who are also right that a wolf, a wasp and a butterfly are not the same, and that these differing entities might well receive different libidinal energies rather than all being mere recursions to a traumatic primal scene of infancy.

Finally, there is some convergence on the question of metaphor. Earlier I doubted that repression can have a truly metaphorical character, since for OOO the metaphor requires the vague presence of the object that disappears (e.g. Memphis) even as it is forced to bear properties normally foreign to it (e.g. capital-qualities, Mississippi-qualities), whereas the hysteric — at least — completely represses the vagina when he or she develops a phobia of socks. Yet we must admit that there is a metaphorical flavour to Freud’s “dream-work”, which we all know is sometimes capable of something like high art. After all, if the dream did not hint vaguely at that which is repressed behind its manifest content, no connection between the Pcs. and Ucs. would be possible. Not only would psychoanalysis become impossible with such a total cutting-off of the Ucs., but the dream could never work as a wish-fulfillment as Freud requires. The image of wolves in a dream would be nothing but a wish to become-wolf, and would thus never give rise to anxiety in the very moment of fulfilling the wish of the Ucs. Elsewhere I have suggested that this indirect access to the repressed lies at the root even of the mere causal relations between objects such as cotton and fire. But this would take us beyond Freud, who confines himself to the underworld that is ruled by a censor.


Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. B. Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Derrida, Jacques. (1982). “White Mythology”, in Margins of Philosophy, trans. A. Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Freud, Sigmund. (1955). “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis”, in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XVII (1917-19): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, trans. under the General Editorship of J. Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press.

______. (1957). “The Unconscious”, in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XIV (1914-16): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, trans. under the General Editorship of J. Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press.

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Harman, Graham. (2002). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. Chicago: Open Court.

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______. (2013a). “Object-Oriented Philosophy vs. Radical Empiricism”, in Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism. Winchester, UK: Zero Books. pp. 40-59.

______. (2013b). “Undermining, Overmining, and Duomining: A Critique,” in ADD Metaphysics, ed. Jenna Sutela. Aalto, Finland: Aalto University Design Research Laboratory. pp. 40-51.

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Femme Fatales, ‘Female Psychopaths’ and Narrative ‘Science’: Part Two —Tristam Vivian Adams

This is part two of ‘Femme Fatales, “Female Psychopaths” and Narrative “Science”‘ by Tristam Vivian Adams, author of The Psychopath Factory. Find part one here.

Film and Television’s methods for hinting or alluding to the non-conforming private life, to the ‘deviant’ inner world, reveal an intrinsic sexism. There is, generally, a gross inequality in terms of deviance from the conformist norm. A character doing something appalling usually conveys a male psychopath’s ‘bad side’: Hannibal’s cannibalism or Underwood’s canicide, for example. But female psychopaths’ tells are less extreme.

A trope of depicting female psychopathy is to show a woman doing something considered traditionally ‘male’; like being sexually independent and going to a bar to pick up a partner. The Last Seduction (1994, Dahl) is a great example of this. Bridget Gregory, a telemarketing manager (played by Linda Fiorentino), leaves her husband Clay (played by Bill Pullman). Bridget takes a large sum of cash that Clay made that day by selling pharmaceutical cocaine to drug dealers. She essentially dupes her husband, promising him sex before taking off with the cash whilst he is in the shower. Previously Clay, when returning with the money, physically abuses his wife. Bridget’s opportunistic thieving and fleeing is bold but understandable. After some driving her car runs out of fuel and she finds herself in Beston, near Buffalo. Bridget Gregory is by no-means a fulltime charming psychopath. She deceives and cheats, but only does so with charm and social niceties – only conforms to expectations of being a vulnerable and demure young woman – when it will immediately advantage her.

When she walks into a local bar in Beston, filled mostly by local blue-collar worker type males, she asks for her Manhattan without chit-chat, social prelude or manners: ‘Gimme a Manhattan’ she says flatly. The barman, Ray, ignores her. ‘I know you hear me, pal.’ She presses. The barman then begins checking if anyone wants a drink, feigning obliviousness to Bridget. ‘Jesus Christ. Who’s a girl gotta suck around here to get a drink?’ despairs Bridget before asking again, ‘Gimme a Manhattan!’ At this point Mike, taking his chance to save this out of town damsel in need of a Manhattan, steps in.

Ray, a Manhattan for the lady please.

Sure, Mike.

What – that’s the game? I gotta say please?

Er, yes, it helps.

You’re not from around here?

Fuck off.

Of course, after this brief encounter, Mike follows Bridget back to a booth hankering for attention like a once fed stray. At first Bridget is dismissive, but even when she changes her mind her too-direct frankness feels sociopathic. She doesn’t play the role of the to-be-wooed nice-little-lady, instead she takes the advantage. ‘Could you leave? Please.’ She asks…

Well I haven’t finished charming you yet.

You haven’t started.

Give me a chance.

Go find yourself a nice little cow-girl, make nice little cow-babies and leave me alone.

I’m er, I’m hung like a horse. Think about it.

Let’s see.

Excuse me?

Mister Ed, let’s see.

Bridget checks Mike is as equine-good as his word, and that he has his own place, and that it is clean and has indoor plumbing. Mike, a little taken aback, confirms all of these. Bridget then finishes her drink and tells him to meet her outside.

But let’s switch the gender roles round, suppose a young out of town male went into a local bar. Suppose he ordered a drink and picked up a partner for the night. Would this scene tell the viewer there is something deeply manipulative, conning, narcissistic or ‘cold’ about the character? If a male walked into a bar and picked up a partner for some casual sex he would just be another ‘red-blooded’ male – but not necessarily a psychopath, to be that the man would have to do something much worse (like killing a dog or cannibalism, to recall the previous examples). It seems that the tells directors opt for to tell viewers a character is psychopathic are murderous and criminal for men, but merely a case of over independence or confident sexuality for women. For male psychopaths the sociopathic tell scene is always undeniably bad. Yet for female psychopaths the sociopathic tell scene is subtle – it is often merely a case of not conforming to traditional expectations of female characters: or, to put it another way, being a bit too ‘male’, being too equal to the heteronormative male equivalent.

Saga Noren, a vaguely autistic sociopath type (like a Replicant in dire need of a social protocol systems update), is another example. In The Bridge (2011, Rosenfeldt) the private-life scenes that tell the viewer Saga is different are, again, based around picking up partners for casual sex in bars. The scenes play out in much the same way as Bridget’s in The Last Seduction. Saga is all too frank and single-minded – to the point of being blunt and rude at times. Saga is not interested in finding a nice man to marry; she wants ‘just sex’ as she orders, more than once. Her attitude intimidates and baffles the nameless male characters from the bars. This is a 2011 series from a liberal European country. Why is a women’s freedom to independently pursue casual sex presupposed as being outré, significantly outré enough reveal the character as socially ‘deviant’ to the viewer? What sort of archaic gender role assumptions are being presupposed in this choice of ‘tell’ scene?

There is an additional facet of intrinsic sexism at play in depictions of female psychopathic characters. There is the resurgence of the femme-fatale in ‘men’s-rights films’. Not only are independent women demonised as being manipulative or psychopathic – by being ‘too male’ (i.e. equal), but in a cruel double bind their very femininity (adherence to a feminine ideal) is pitched as being manipulative. When women are being too independent they are demonised for not being placid good-girls, yet when they play up to the good-girl role it is taken as being manipulative, conniving and disingenuous.

To Die For (1995, Van Sant), Knock Knock (2015, Roth) and Gone Girl (2014, Fincher) all tow this double-double standard for women. In To Die For, Suzanne Stone-Maretto, played by Nicole Kidman, is too career driven in a man’s world. She is too ruthless, too goal oriented and single minded and not ready to fulfil the traditional role expected of her: ‘housewife’. However, Suzanne also plays on the heteronormative assumptions of her gender role. She flirts and utilizes the construct of her femininity (much like Bridget in The Last Seduction at times) – but, and this is what is supposedly wrong, for her own personal gain.

In Knock Knock, two young women appear at the door of a family man, Evan Webber (‘played’ by Keanu Reeves). They ask to use his phone, they are cold and wet, then over the course of the evening, after escalating favours reminiscent of Haneke’s Funny Games, begin flirting, then sleeping with, then torturing and blackmailing Evan. The average viewer might suppose that Evan has been duped, he has fallen for the womens’ feminine wiles. But at each turn in the first hour of the film Evan has choices, he doesn’t need to entertain them with his DJing skills. He doesn’t need to engage in lengthy conversations that lead to flirting and banter – but he does. This leads up to consensual sex, before Evan’s regret, before his being held hostage, before blackmail. The viewer’s sympathy is supposed to be with Evan, the poor old affluent and physically stronger man who has been unlucky enough to fall for these temptresses.

The opening line of Gone Girl is a husband’s sadistic fantasy of dispelling the mysteries of what lurks behind his wife’s, Amy’s, pretty face:

When I think of my wife…

…I always think of her head.

I picture cracking her lovely skull…

Unspooling her brains…

Trying to get answers.

The primal questions of any marriage.

“What are you thinking?”

“How are you feeling?”

This is, albeit violent, the ponderance of an epistemological blind spot. How to know for sure if others feel and think like oneself – the anxiety about empathy in others, of other’s capacity for iso-experiential connection – the sharing of the same feeling. Gone Girl tells the story of Amy Elliot Dunne, played by Rosamund Pike, and how she, after staging her own disappearance, leaves her unfaithful husband framed for her suspected murder. Whilst on the run, she stays with an ex-boyfriend, Desi, whom she frames as her rapist and captor – but not before murdering him. When Amy utilizes the heteronormative assumptions others hold for her it is manipulative and conniving – in a domestic correlate of our CCTV’d and selfie’d online existence she uses the surveillance of Desi’s luxury home to her advantage: knowing where the cameras are she performs the aftermath of a rape. Bridget, in The Last Seduction, also leads others to believe she was at risk of being raped. Her husband’s (black) private detective catches up with her and forces her to drive them back to her place where the money is. After noticing that the vehicle is driver-side airbag only, Bridget pesters the man into confirming the old myth about penis size. At this point she accelerates and steers the car into a lamppost. The detective is thrown through the windscreen. Later, in hospital, Bridget leverages small-town racism to her advantage:

There’s only one more question I need to ask. I don’t mean to pry…the man with you appeared to be not entirely in his pants at the time of impact. Can you tell me what happened just before you went off the road?

Well, like I told you before he tried to get me to contact my husband and… I refused of course. Well he became… you know, ‘motherfucker’ this, ‘motherfucker’ that…

Like in the movies?

Exactly. Next thing I knew… I only remember bits and pieces of it but he… the jist of it was that he was going to…impale me with his…big…

The prevalence of supposed female psychopaths making false accusations or framing male characters is notable. But the mode of framing or accusation is always an ultra-reflexive return to the damsel in distress role. The opposite of the woman’s, all too equal, too independent, ‘sociopathic’ and ‘deviant’ tell scenes. This is the cruel double bind for women protagonists in films that have a whiff of men’s rights propaganda about them. When acting the girl they are manipulative, conniving types, temptresses – yet when refusing to conform to a gender stereotype they are framed as sociopathic deviants.

When Amy or Bridget refuse to kowtow to dated expectations of gender it is within sociopathic tell scenes – directorially presupposed as divulging there is something sinister about their character, something amiss. Yet, on the other hand, when they do adhere to heteronormative expectations of subservience and neediness, it is manipulative, conning – psychopathic. Amy and Bridget are psychopathic by virtue of both hamming it up, playing on patriarchal gender expectations, and by virtue of refusing to conform to such asymmetrical expectations and value sets.

The term psychopath is frequently employed in commentary about these three films, to refer to and describe these, at once, too independent and manipulatively feminine characters. The limbo of too feminine to too equal is the double bind. The former temptress facet of the narratives is one informed by a history of femme-fatales in film and television. However, the too equal facet, the case of being psychopathic solely by doing/behaving in a way that is traditionally reserved for men has correlates in how the sciences, particularly criminal psychology, attempt to define female psychopathy through physical traits. Many studies effectively seek to equate female maleness with psychopathy and/or criminality.

An above average testosterone level in women is frequently posited via correlation and comparison with psychopathic, sociopathic and criminal behaviour proclivities. Here we meet the political reductions and warped logics of ‘science’ that seeks to find physical traits in an individual for ‘their’ social failures (criminality). Of course, this assumption between testosterone (or the physical traits associated with the hormone) is not right on a number of levels. Testosterone has, at a stretch, only a semi-firm relation to aggression and confrontation in males, however, much of this data is mostly gleaned from an atypical – read incarcerated – set of subjects (as is the case with most clinical data regarding psychopathy).

However, for women, there is even less cause for such a connection. Even in incarcerated females little connection between testosterone and aggression is found – yet increased testosterone in females with an anti-social personality disorder is pervasive myth. A similar lack of causation holds true for many other hormones and neurochemicals. Nonetheless, studies and cultural commentary exist that seek to equate the physical traits of testosterone with masculine characteristics before retrofitting the fiction into a correlation of say, below average hip-waist ratios, laryngeal prominence, clitoris size and chin/jaw profile with psychopathic character traits in women. Cultural conservatism and politicization of science thrive in the penumbra between etiology and fictioneering (Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference is a case in point – the thesis being that there is a genetic essentialism behind the differences in gendered adult brains: ‘from page 1: The female brain is “predominantly hard-wired for empathy” and the male brain “hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”’[1] – let’s not let the wealth of research into gender qua social construct or epigenetics or neural-plasticity get in the way of a popular science hit.) Less creative than mythopoeisthesizing, this is the crude jerry-rigging of traditional constructs into biases of causal scope. The tale wagging the dog.

Testosterone is not the sole cause of maleness in terms of behaviour. Acting masculine is not solely due to chemicals or genes but a kaleidoscope of developmental, social, personal and political experiences and histories. This is not to say that gender is a personality, but that the characteristics (with varying degrees of validity) of physical and behavioural gender are as subject to historic environments as any empirically based proclivity (be it chemical or genetic) within individual. Plasticity and epigenetics are of more relevance here than the out-dated yet stubbornly continuing click-bait simplicity of simple correlations and the reductive determinism of ‘hard-wiring’. The politicized and essentialist mode of much criminal psychology that seeks to equate female criminal psychopathy with subjects being too male or not quite feminine enough are examples of how the ASPD variant of psychopathy is a gendered concept with ultra-conservative social undertones.

The diagnostic criteria for psychopathy are deeply political and conservative. Cleckley and Hare (the two major checklists for the personality disorder) both list sexual behaviours and proclivities as characteristics. ‘Promiscuous sexual behaviour’ is one of Hare’s criteria, as is ‘Parasitic lifestyle’ and ‘Many short-term marital relationships’. Cleckley lists ‘Sex-life impersonal, trivial and poorly integrated.’ Cleckley’s conservative bias out to be regarded with more tolerance than Hare’s – the former’s ground-breaking work on psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity, was published in 1941 whereas Hare’s Without Conscience, in 1993. Each list paradoxical criteria; psychopathy is a subset of anti-social personality disorder, yet so many of the criteria seem pro-social. Hare’s and Cleckley’s flip-flopping from anti-social to seemingly social personality facets is the same mode of oscillation we see in the television shows and films mentioned previously. The dynamic of shifting from seemingly charming, intelligent, empathetic and social character to deviance and anti-social behaviour is the privilege of a narrative structure.

Cleckley’s The Mask of Sanity spends a great deal of time analysing works of fiction (e.g. characters in the works of Dostoevsky, Dickens, Faulkner…). Hare’s Without Conscience utilizes many examples from True Crime literature and newspaper reports. Perhaps, then, it is unsurprising that the established psychopathic checklists read like impossible fictional narratives (where we see a character behave both perfectly socially and grossly anti-socially) rather than objective arrays of consistent observations. It is this fictionalized mode of character definition that allows cultural bias into the concept of female psychopathy. Just as the catch-22 of psychiatric evaluation renders those who say they are not mad to be regarded as mad, the same double bind operates for women in the examples cited – even when the characters are seen as a the ideal heteronormative cis-gendered feminine they are just as suspect as the sociopathic antithesis. (Precisely this issue is found in the damned either way injustic Amanda Knox, explicated in the eponymous 2016 Netflix film. Mongibello via Perugia; Knox’s lack of upset was cited as evidencing her guilt, yet when she was upset this was regarded as histrionics, conning, performance and manipulation).

The intrinsic sexism of screen portrayals of female psychopathy share much in common with clinical approaches of criminal psychology and other ‘sciences’. The reinforcing of gender inequality and the demonization of at once femininity and non-feminine equality are prevalent in each (conformity is just as suspect as deviance). However, perhaps the more troubling parallel is the utilization of narrative strategies for telling a story about the differences between the sexes that serves to impose asymmetrical values and inequality for women. Akin to how the problematically masculine threads of Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres don’t let explicit sexism get in the way of the good story, neither does these character portraits of psychopathy both on screen and in textbook. Sadly, the non-fiction popular science shelves contain as much creative story telling for the purpose of reinforcing gender constructs as the DVD library.

[1] See: http://www.dana.org/Cerebrum/2003/Extreme_Problems_with_Essential_Differences/

Femme Fatales, ‘Female Psychopaths’ and Narrative ‘Science’: Part One —Tristam Vivian Adams

This is part one of two of ‘Femme Fatales, “Female Psychopaths” and Narrative “Science”‘ by Tristam Vivian Adams, author of The Psychopath Factory. Adams discussed the topic of this essay in a recent episode of Very Loose Women on Resonance FM. Read part two here.

In The Psychopath Factory I make a distinction between psychopaths and sociopaths. Ordinarily, in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and in culture more generally, the two terms are interchangeable. But sociopathy is distinctly distinguishable from psychopathy. Sociopaths fail at behaving socially; they might do or say the wrong thing, they might be awkward or just plainly dangerous and anti-social. Sociopathy requires an audience. The dominant consistency of sociopathy is that it is observable, it is about interaction – we know when someone does or says something they shouldn’t. In a sense young children are adorably cute mini sociopaths; they don’t always know what is acceptable and what isn’t – they might say something a little rude or embarrassing for parents. I would class Alan Partridge, David Brent, Larry David (the character in Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Mr. Bean as comedic examples of harmless sociopathy – they are also quite childlike, their cringey blunders stem from their social myopia and self-absorption. Nonetheless, sociopathy is conspicuous.

Psychopathy is different. It cannot be detected through behaviour; it isn’t obvious. Psychopathy is more about the inner world – being cold hearted or lacking empathy. If sociopathy is about the external social realm psychopathy is more about the inner psychological realm. More precisely, psychopathy is about how a hidden psychology is not reflected in behaviour. Take Patrick Bateman, Frank Underwood or Hannibal Lecter – they seem nice at first, charming even, but of course beneath their superficial manners lurks a truer personality: anempathic with dangerous impulses or uncaring narcissism.

It is this anxiety about the disjunct between behaviour and character that is fascinating for us. People say ‘take care’ or ‘have a nice day’ after we buy coffee from them – but how does one know for sure that they mean it? Most of the time we might expect that they do not mean it, it is just what people say – normalized psychopathy. Psychopathy is about the disjunct between external presentation, behaviour, and inner intents that we cannot fathom.

Of course, we are quite like sociopaths and psychopaths on some level. In terms of the former, we have all made a faux-pas at some point and accidentally offended someone – if not that then perhaps we failed at the minutiae of social code: manners and the ‘correct’ ways to dine (elbows off the table, don’t slouch Miss Ward…) But we are psychopathic at times too – our behaviour doesn’t always reflect our wants; we curb, temper and conceal ourselves sometimes. Haven’t we all lied a little for the sake of politeness? Further still, we may even have lied plainly and brazenly during a job interview: ‘genuinely I, myself, am personally passionate about admin’ or suchlike is now a mandatory performance – its disingenuous nature more acceptable than the truth: ‘I don’t care about admin. I just need the money.’

The at once fascinating and unnervingly relatable facet of psychopathy is this disjunct between a person and their behaviour. This, of course, leads to an anxiety about the empathy of others – sure, they seem nice, they seem genuine: but how can one tell for sure? We do not have Voight-Kampf machines in this boring dystopia of ours, instead we have Facebook, Twitter and Tinder.

Dating sites seem to evidence an insatiable appetite for ‘banter’. But banter is anything but honest or genuine… isn’t it more a mode of evasive social sparring: a jolly and smirking façade? In a similar vein, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that ingeniously monetise both relationships and loneliness, we project a life of holidays, achievements and Disneyesque Apple-pie positivity. We sycophantically like, love and praise yet omit our woe, bitterness, jealousy or vexation whilst, IRL meet/meat space we erect a wall of sarcastic (so-caustic) banter. This is normalized disingenuousness; to call it the lowest form of wit is too generous. Online selfhood qua self-promotion is indefatigably optimistic and ‘fun’. We gaze affectless, icy-eyed and apathetically type ‘lol’. ‘Lol’ is commonly accepted to mean audible laughter yet doesn’t this de-abbreviated acronym of laugh-out-loud also refer to silent supine apathy? The de-abbreviated acronym of ‘lol’ was originally intended to signal energy and fun, yet now it is employed in a sense closer to the older homograph of lol – signalling a lack of energy, a passivity, a lateral indifference with shades of languor, lethargy and torpor. One can pivot around the term ‘lol’. One can strafe to regard the antithesis of its accepted online textual staging, the z creeps in orphaned from its multiplied guise as comic shorthand for snoozing (Zzzzzz), in a term that cites, re-cites and makes legible the opposite of laugh-out-loud lol/lolz: narco-lolzzzzzz (can’t we, then, now, Jacques?).

Our online self is an unblinkingly positive projection, a resolute departure from our ‘true selves’. A contemporary register of this is the online dating profile that claims to adore everything: the calculated personality match trawler net pitch of ‘loves laughing, going out and staying in’. In life, it is difficult to know people for sure, because people increasingly present an edited (a shopped) version of themselves. When we type lol is it a testament to the inadvertent convulsion of hilarity or the passive placeholder of sleepy isolation and interactive avoidance? When people urge us to ‘take care now’ is it a caring personal sentiment or a void-scripted platitude or is it a vaguely authoritative reference to the stipulations of health and safety regulations (‘caution HOT beverage’)? What do others really mean and feel?

TV, Film and literature are different. We get to see multiple aspects of a character’s personality. We can read of, even in first person fiction, the inner world on one page whilst learning of the social interactions of a character on the next page that are at odds with their ‘true’ character. Film and television is particularly quick at flipping from depicting inner self to social self. Time is of the essence for the digitally twitching and attentively fickle box-set viewer. One must watch a character trick, con, and lie and know that they are doing so; if the film or show does not allow the viewer to be privy to the character’s true intent then how do they know the scene they watch is one of deceit, conning or manipulation? Film and television must show the viewer that despite a character acting one way, they do not mean it – they are lying, it is a ruse.

This is the satisfying difference between the fictional psychopaths and the polite people we speak to every day. TV and film always provide a clue that someone isn’t what they seem. The viewer is shown the disjunct between behaviour and intent. The psychopath’s disjunct is manifested in film and TV’s penchant for mirror scenes, masks and various other methods that show a character is one of façades and pre-meditated self-projection. The mirror scene trope or the mask metaphor tells the viewer in the opening scenes of a film that whilst a character appears normal they, as well as being hyper-reflexive, are hiding something. They might be charming, polite and perfectly social… but really…

The mirror scene trope in serves this purpose well. Patrick Bateman’s mirror scene in American Psycho (2000, Harron) tells the viewer that the man is all show, that what he does and says is all an act, a façade, a mask. The same trick is employed in Malice (1993, Becker). Tracy Safian, played by Nicole Kidman, stares into the mirror mimicking emotions – she is practicing her façade, rehearsing the ‘right’ ways to react, preparing her performance for when it is needed within a social context. Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) also deploys the same trick of reflectively divulging character.

Another strategy employed to convey a character’s janus faced double life is the fourth wall break. Francis “Frank” Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey in HBO’s House of Cards (2013), breaks the fourth wall to tell the viewer he’s only pretending to be nice so he can get his way; as does Stuntman Mike in Tarantino’s Deathproof (2007, Tarantino). Note the smirking irony of Underwood’s preferred name ‘Frank’; he is anything but. Stuntman Mike is similar – his job is to con the viewer: he’s a stuntman, like magicians and actors his trade is deception. In comedy a more recent example can be found in Fleabag (2016). The eponymous protagonist, wrote and played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, quick-fires asides to the viewer relentlessly. Fleabag is schizo-narrative, an Adderalled up oscillation of the fourth wall. The break of the forth wall is a satisfyingly plain way to show that even though a character is doing or saying one thing they mean to do another. They might seem social… but really…

Peep Show (2003-2015) depicts deceit and social performance in a different, more multi-faceted manner. The show is essentially multiple first-person perspectives replete with inner monologues. A character strolls about, forcing smiles and convivial greetings one second, but in the next moment we hear their inner thoughts – often derogatory – about the acquaintance currently being charmed or ingratiated to.

But the simplest example of this showing a character one way whilst also depicting them to be opposite is in Silence of the Lambs (1991, Demme). Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, is perfectly polite – but we are primed before hand, peripheral characters explain just how bad he is. As FBI Agent Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, is walked through the labyrinth of the prison holding Lector she is informed of the abhorrent nature of his crimes by Dr Chilton (Anthony Heald). The spiel is as much for Clarice’s benefit as it is for the viewer. Moments later Clarice stands before Lecter. He is softly spoken, polite and eloquent. He stands in stark contrast to both the incarcerated ‘degenerates’ in the neighbouring cells and the history of his crimes recounted moments previously.

Certain interactive antisocial behaviours in film and TV also tell the viewer a protagonist isn’t entirely what they seem to be. The opening scene of House of Cards shows ‘Frank’ Underwood killing a wounded dog with his bare hands. Right from the start, we see that despite his stately magnanimity and deep southern crooned charm Underwood is a cold man. In itself the act is sociopathic, Underwood shouldn’t kill a domestic animal quite so readily and with such ease. However, only the viewer is privy to this act – the other characters remain unaware of such behaviour. This strategy is a step away from the mirror scene, fourth wall break or diegetic priming. We see a character act in different ways in different contexts. The two-scene trick evokes their mercurial personality.

Often the two-scene trick involves the protagonist being antisocial, or nonconformist, with someone who is not involved in the main narrative thread. Most commonly this involves an out-of-hours sociopathy. By day the characters are polite conformists, but at night they indulge in whatever wants they have, be they nonconformist, misanthropic, antisocial or dangerous. These are the TV equivalents of the boring office suit whom by day talks the pseudo-Deleuzian late capitalist jargon of business speak – all abstractions and metaphors – but whose nights are antitheses whiled away feverishly fretting a Burzum din or writing atrocious modernist poetry or similar avocation.

TV and film must depict both sides of someone’s double life: the viewer must be shown how a character might seem fine at work, but after hours, when a conning charm is not necessary, they might do something unusual or ‘bad’. This is the troubling parallel between Stella Gibbons and Paul Spector in BBC’s excellent The Fall (2013-2016). Both lead, for most of the first season, double-lives. Spector is a counsellor and family man by day but a rapist and torture-murderer by night. Stella is a shrewdly demure and sensitive detective, knowing to bite her lip when dealing with institutional and personal sexism by day, yet at night she is portrayed as being sexually independent, and, in notable juxtaposition to the heteronormative machismo of the police force, bisexual. The mode commonly employed in TV and film to convey a psychopath often involves some slight slips into sociopathy, of doing something ‘wrong’, to allude or hint that their truer personality, the person behind the niceties and charm, is anti-social, non-conformist, heartless or anempathic.

But, again, is this not how we behave on a ‘daily basis’? In an office one might feign or cultivate an interest in something that, had one not had to ingratiate oneself to the many others treading water in the open-plan jungle of pointless work, wouldn’t interest one otherwise. The reflexive double lifer, the Ripleyesque pretender (‘I just love Jazz!’), is essentially a fantastic and exaggerated version of our working selves – the self that performs passionate enthusiasm for customers and clients by day but lives a private life by night, whinging about managers or colleagues, indulging in niche interests, fringe pursuits and underground cultures.

Continued in part two here.

“We live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do”—Tristam Vivian Adams on Westworld

Sci-fi has a pedigree of exploring contemporary issues through the engaging gauze of societies and contexts far removed from painful familiarity. Inequality is explicated through different life forms, nuclear anxiety masquerades as fears of interstellar warfare, loneliness through the guise of artificial intelligence or the pseudo-modernist anonymity of slipping through dense and chaotic metropolises…in each case, sci-fi often trumps its stuffy literary or languorous cinematic ‘betters’; it speaks to us in a clear voice and cuts closer to the bone. A good example of this is the downright Dostoevskian Battlestar Galactica (2004). Battlestar Galactica mirrored post-9/11 paranoia on a multitude of levels. Cylons explored the anxieties and devastating potentials of terrorist ‘sleeper-cells’ – perhaps most obviously the prospect, and fall-out, of suicide bombings. The erosion of civil liberties was the knee-jerk Band-Aid on earth and the Battlestar Galactica fleet. The series was even replete with sham trials (Baltar’s Karamzovian trial) and a prisoner-torture controversy. Resource management, paranoia and the warring of theisms also provided the background to empathetic depictions of beings, whatever they may be. Other than that, the show was just spaceships and aliens.

Westworld fits right into such a lineage. Do not mistake Westworld to be about consciousness, AI agency or sentience. Others can reference Metzinger, Dennet and the Churchlands. Westworld is about every major city in the west. Slightly smiling with avuncular nostalgia and ominous magnanimity, a la Hopkins…let me explain.

Westworld is a luxury theme park, of a ‘wild-west’ theme. It stretches out for miles, so much so that guests can trek for days searching for something or someone inside the park. Hosts populate the park. The hosts are synthetic androids initially indistinguishable from guests. The hosts are like the simpler Replicants in Blade Runner (1982), except Asimov’s first law seems to be correctly installed: they cannot hurt the guests. The hosts are given narratives. They wake up each day, and depending on their finely honed behavioral parameters, engage with the guests or one another in order to serve a grand narrative. Despite the prospect of orchestrating such meticulously complex, rather Dostoevskian in scope, narratives the park invariably relies on simple pleasures. As one can imagine in the park populated by idealized cowboys, farm-girls, whores and militia – the appeal for much of the guests is base. Sex with things and/or conflicts with things are generally what the park caters for. Sex and violence, wild fucks and shoot-outs, are, regardless of the park’s creators’ and directors’ ambitions, its bread and butter.

Of course, as is bound to happen with androids on screen, some guests lose themselves in the illusion, they begin to feel feelings for the hosts. Others, however, do not succumb – they never lose themselves in Westworld, they always remember it is only a game. The Man in Black, played by Ed Harris, falls into the latter category. Logan, played by Ben Barnes, is very similar. These men say only what needs to be said to progress the narrative, like affect-blunted gamers pursuing a game sequence, they shoot, rescue and run with apathy and cynicism. Most intriguing is their interactions with the hosts. They know the hosts are not ‘real people’ so they often talk at them as objects ‘you were programmed well’ they might say. It is this type of dialogue that, initially, reveals who is guest and who is host. The antithesis of these types is undoubtedly William, played by Jimmi Simpson. William cares about the hosts, he doesn’t ask questions they cannot answer; he goes along with the narrative, the shallow ranch clichés and yesteryear syntax of Dolores (played by Evan Rachel Wood).

The Man in Black’s and Logan’s disposition, their remove from any emotional interaction, recalls a particular scene in The Remains of the Day (1993). Mr. Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall, is serving drinks to Lord Darlington and his three guests. They begin discussing if ‘the man in the street’ should have a say in political matters, such as war. Lord Darlington, halts Mr. Stevens from exiting after he has topped up the glasses of his betters. He informs him that Mr. Spencer has a question for him.

“Do you suppose the debt situation regarding America factors significantly in the present low levels of trade? Or is this a red herring and the abandonment of the gold standard is the cause of the problem?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I am unable to be of assistance in this matter.
“Oh, dear. What a pity. Perhaps you’d help us on another matter. Do you think Europe’s currency problem would be alleviated by an arms agreement between the French and the Bolsheviks?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m unable to be of assistance in this matter.”
“Very well, that’ll be all.”
“One moment, Darlington, I have another question to put to our good man here.
My good fellow do you share our opinion that M. Daladier’s recent speech on North Africa was simply a ruse to scupper the nationalist fringe of his own domestic party?”
“I’m sorry, sir. I am unable to help in any of these matters.”
“You see, our good man here is “unable to assist us in these matters.” Yet we still go along with the notion that this nation’s decisions be left to our good man here and a few millions like him. You may as well ask the Mothers’ Union to organize a war campaign.”
“Thank you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You certainly proved your point.”
“- Q.E.D., I think.”

Mr. Spencer takes a malicious delight in exercising his superiority over Mr. Stevens. He knows, before he asks his questions, that Mr. Stevens will not offer any opinion or enter into the dialogue. Of course, this performs his point – that the common man should not have a say in lofty matters best left to those of sound stock. Mr. Spencer is a not unlike a bullish tourist that teases the guards at Edinburgh castle, he knows full well no reply other than duty and courtesy will ever come and relishes the asymmetry of agency. The Man in Black and Logan enjoy the same sneering privilege and disdain for the hosts in Westworld. They ask questions for the answers they need, and when they get tired or bored the simple hosts are dispatched.

Westworld is a luxury resort, the bar inside the headquarters offers the guests respite from playing; they lounge poolside, glittering drinks in hand, before returning to the vicarious thrills of the park. The guests have access to different routes into the park; they may use an underground network that the hosts are not aware of. Like a first class tube system meets Ballardian poor doors.

Westworld is about class. It explores, within the defamiliarized scope of sci-fi, the dynamic between the super rich and others. The super rich can travel the globe swiftly in comfort; they flit in and out of major cities, invisible people circle, mutely providing tertiary service various. The super rich, if they do not like whichever park they land in, can leave, try another time zone, climate and narrative. The prole inhabitants, however, may not leave – they are stuck, stuck in their narrative of debt, strife and strive. The hosts of Westworld live in loops, tightly controlled narratives, with miniscule opportunity of change. The android assigned to the role of whore, bandit or soldier has infinite fates of claustrophobic similarity, any divergence from plan being academic in the grand scheme of things. The whore may whore in various ways, the soldier may fight and die in various ways – but nonetheless, the whore will whore and the soldier will fight and will die. “We live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next.” That’ll be all Stevens…

Like the hosts, we all have our loops. We even have quaint ticks and programming characteristics. We swipe touchscreens and avidly check emails. We parrot empty phrases, “lol” we say blankly. We pepper our dialogue with “like” or acquire croaking vocal frys from American reality TV. We do such things, with varying verisimilitudes, in our daily loops – on a “daily basis”. Whilst we do so the super rich come in to town. They might rape or kill. They might do all sorts of things. No matter. Because, as Logan is fond of reminding William: “what happens in the park, stays in the park.” Cheated on your partner? No problem, a super-injunction can fix that. Perhaps one cheated millions out of money whilst working in high finance? A mere trifle, the hosts will clear the mess up.

In Westworld the hosts soon see through the loops they are trapped in. Maeve, played by Thandie Newton, after trauma upon trauma is compounded, begins to see through the charade – she wakes up. The same is true for Dolores, it is the trauma, the memory that should’ve been erased from surface level script, that returns as the epiphany which sparks their escape. We can only hope our traumas and memories soon resurface and endow us with the fangs to break from our repressing loops of exploitation.

From honest sociopathy to charming psychopathy

One in five CEO’s have high levels of psychopathic traits!  It is a common headline. Bankers have no empathy, are greedy narcissists or egomaniacs. But such vilification misses some important, perhaps uncomfortable, subtleties and similarities. Considering that the laissez-faire finance industry is essentially a state-funded gambling racket where initiated gamblers can play to win with the money of others, such demonisation is understandable. But, how different are we to these Savile Row-suited silhouettes? We can take some general outlines of so-called corporate psychopathy in turn.

Narcissism first. Greed, egomania, attention seeking, vanity and a grandiose sense of self-worth seem apt descriptors for such Gordon Gekko types. But today we live in a world of normalised narcissism. Taking an unsolicited selfie to share with hundred or thousands of strangers is now a perfectly accepted public activity. Yet, in the late 90s and early 00s (before the dawn of ‘smartphones’) if I was to walk into a local pub and take photographs of myself I’d have garnered some strange looks – in that context I’d look, well, a little crazy, unhinged. I’d have appeared as narcissistic to the point of delusional. Today, however, such practice is normal, we don’t bat an eyelid. The same can be said for other aspects of social media. We don’t hesitate to share our organic, locally-sourced, dairy and gluten free lunch with hundreds of followers, or tweet that our train is late, or that it is raining where we are. Does the world need to see my avocado on toast? Of course! Just Do It. Because I’m Worth It. How self-centred, how utterly narcissistic, it is to share every opinion piece we look at (or even read) with the hundreds of follows we have? The term, narcissism of questionable validity today – because distinguishing narcissism from normalcy is like slicing fog. We are way past what Tom Wolfe called ‘The Me Decade’.

Vanity is now accepted too. The rise of the metrosexual (whilst doing nothing for gender equality) opened out the worst forms of conscious and conspicuous vanity to heteronormative male culture. Creatine, moisturizer and fake-tan have partially usurped cigarettes ’n’ alcohol. Façade and appearance is sought instead of experience. This is symptomatic of the shift in the nature of working. In the industrial era, bodies were owned and put to work, whilst the mind went largely unused. Today however, we are stationary, in the open-plan-purgatory of contemporary decline-Britain. Our attentions and social exchanges are colonised by the requirements of work. We have little say over our cognitive and social-life, but we can take ownership of bodies. ‘The Man’ exploits our creativity, cognition and social-networking, but ‘pecs’ and ‘delts’ are within our vestige of control. Patrick Bateman’s (1980s) obsession with his physique, his vanity, is not abnormal by today’s selfie-snapping and protein-chugging standards.

Machiavellianism is similarly normalized too. The brutal honesty and ruthlessly rude, unsocial culture of macho corporate Darwinism has gone. Consider how Gordon Gekko (Wall Street, 1987) or Guy Ackerman (Swimming With Sharks, 1994) would fare in the contemporary work place. They wouldn’t ‘get on’ – because social exchange, empathy and bonds are now the mode of power and control. A ‘boss’ no longer cracks the whip by sheer expression of authority, but by being friendly, social and convivial. Managers, it seems, are now everyone’s best friends: ‘Hi mate. New shirt? Good weekend?’ More recent explorations of workplace meanies reflect this shift. The ‘villains’ depicted are the opposite of Gekko and Ackerman. Christine Stanford and Isabelle James in De Palma’s Passion (2012) are nice, polite and charming – at least on the surface. House of Cards riffs upon a similar dichotomy of façade and intent; Francis Underwood schmoozes and cajoles his way to power, his understanding or empathy with other characters is always a con. The disjunct between Underwood’s social self and his deeper, malicious and selfish, intent is impressed by his constant breaks of the fourth wall: ‘I know I’m being nice to him but…’ But, such Janus-faced disingenuousness is more normal than we might like to admit. We often, out of politeness, tell people we are fine really we are quite the opposite. During job interviews we spout barefaced lies about being ‘passionate and enthusiastic’ about, say, customer service or retail experience or admin. Perhaps part of such social-con artists appeal in contemporary culture is that they appeal to what we have to do daily. Francis Underwood and Christine Stanford are dramatically exaggerated characters, yet on some level we might identify with their conning and faked sociality – everyone fakes enthusiasm or interest at some point. That’s life, part of being a social person: ‘say sorry like you mean it’ we teach our children. One curiously relevant example from film recently is Ex Machina (2015), the film is saturated with questions of façade and what is truly genuine, what is real. Ava (the smart one) even asks: ‘Is Nathan your friend?’ But Nathan is the real con artist, the one with the convincingly casual façade. Like Mark Zuckerberg (everyone’s friend) Nathan is an unfathomably rich and powerful CEO, yet he is presented as a casual and social fellow. Wearing a T-shirt and jeans, a few beers on the couch are his preferred method of dominance: ‘I want to have beer and a conversation with you’ he presses on Caleb. He even explicitly rejects any position of authority, he calls Caleb buddy all the time: ‘You see, there’s my guy, there’s my buddy’. Of course, similar to social-networks, the whole social and friendly set-up is a ruse for exploitation.

Being like Nathan, Christine or Francis Underwood is hard though. And there are risks. We can get lost in our narcissism, vanity and mimicry of enthusiasm and empathy. To be narcissistic, Machiavellian and vain requires reflexivity. Yet, we can become paralyzed by reflexivity, confused and uncertain. It is one of the binds of late-capitalist living and post-modernity: we, our self, may become lost and discombobulated. Two recent novels explore this symptom of the uber-reflexive self. Ben Lerner’s Leaving Atocha Station (2011) is a first person (mostly) narration by Adam, an American poet in Madrid. Adam’s self conscious reflexivity is giddying, vertiginous. He succumbs to the Drost effect, the rabbit hole of self-reflection. Adam constantly views or considers himself from the third-person; the effect is soporific, sinking, and endless – like a literary Shepard Tone. Shifts from first to third person, much like the ‘mental breakdown’ section in Ellis’ American Psycho, Adam, like Bateman, is a casualty of self reflexivity:

But if there were no sun and the proportioning was off, if there were either too many people around or if the park was empty, an abyss opened up inside me as I smoked. Now, the afternoon was boundless in a terrifying way; it would never be tonight or the next day in room 58; silver and green drained from the landscape. I couldn’t bring myself to open the book. It was worse than having a sinking feeling; I was a sinking feeling, an unplayable adagio for strings; internal distances expanded and collapsed when I breathed. It was like failing to have awoken from at the right point in a nightmare; now you had to live in it, make yourself at home. He, if I can put it that way, had felt this as a child when they sent him to camp; his heart seemed at once to race and stop. Then his breath caught, flattened, shattered; as though a window had broken at thirty thousand feet, there was a sudden vacuum. Some of the gray was sucked inside him, and he was at a loss; he became a symptom of himself.

(Lerner, Leaving The Atocha Station, 2011, pp.16-17)

Another example is more literal, Adam’s self is splintered into the self that watches himself and the self he considers as if from afar.

In the distance airliners made their way to Barajas, lights flashing slowly on the wing, the contrails vaguely pink until it was completely dark. I imagined the passengers could see me, imagined I was a passenger that could see me looking up at myself looking down. (…)

I would roll one or two spliffs and put them in a pack of cigarettes, drink a glass of water, brush my teeth, walk down the stairs and out of the apartment into the plaza. I felt as I crossed the plaza that I was observing myself from the roof of my apartment; from there I could see that I was walking too fast and I’d stop, light a spliff or cigarette, then resume walking at a less frantic pace toward Puerta del Sol, the literal center of the city, which I could reach in a few minutes. From Sol I would pause and decide where to pretend I needed to be.

(Lerner, Leaving The Atocha Station, 2011, pp.21-22)

Tao Lin’s Taipei evokes the protagonist’s vertiginous reflexivity in a way that alludes to a much more technologized way of living life. Taipei is written in the third person mode, unlike Lerner’s. The protagonist of Taipei, Paul, often imagines himself as a red dot moving on a map like GPS tracked parcel, views life as a series of windows that may be collapsed, regards waking as accessing a PDF file and remembering as accessing a memory stick. Notably, Lin’s prose remains painfully yoked to our technologically imposed reflexivity and isolation (we have all considered our ‘online self/persona’).

In a taxi to a party, forty minutes later, Paul imagined another him walking toward the library and, for a few seconds, visualizing the position and movement of the two red dots through a silhouetted, aerial view of Manhattan, felt as imaginary, as mysterious and transitory and unfindable, as the other dot. He visualized the vibrating, squiggling, looping, arcing line representing the three-dimensional movement, plotted in a cubic grid, of the dot of himself, accounting for the different speed and direction of each vessel of which he was a passenger- taxi, Earth, solar system, Milky Way, etc.
(Lin, Taipei, 2013, pp.24-25)


Most mornings, with decreasing frequency, probably only because the process was becoming unconscious, he wouldn’t exactly know anything until three to twenty seconds of passive remembering, as if by unzipping a file-newroom.zip-into a PDF, showing his recent history and narrative context, which he’d delete after viewing, thinking that before he slept again he would have memorized this period of his life, but would keep newroom.zip, apparently not trusting himself.

(Lin, Taipei, 2013, p.35)

There were times when his memory, like an external hard drive that had been taken away from him and hidden inside an unwieldy series of cardboard boxes, or placed at the end of a long and dark and messy corridor, required much more effort than he felt motivated to exert simply to locate, after which, he knew, more effort would be required to gain access.
(Lin, Taipei, 2013, p.75)


Paul realized he’d said “America” not “Canada” and, in his state of near immunity from shame and/or anxiety, acknowledged a theoretical embarrassment, which someone not on MDMA, in his situation, might experience.
(Lin, Taipei, 2013, p.120)

Paul is constantly beside himself with self-consciousness, ensnared in a vicious doubt and reflexive stasis. Crucially though there is the use of the smile — or, to be more precise, the seemingly earnest grin — in Lin’s work. In Taipei there are over fifty references to grins and/or grinning. The grin is significant because a grin is often taken as being somehow disingenuous, when we force a smile we grin. The grin, has an implicit dishonestly, it is for appearance, a calculated expression, not a ‘natural’ expression like uncontrolled laughter. ‘Seemingly’ and ‘earnestly’ also populate Lin’s prose to impress the same sentiment of façade and the fragility of genuine interactions.

Many forms of work today are colonised by social interaction and empathy, but it is a shallow, exploited and, I argue, psychopathic mode of interaction. Friendly managers grin, seemingly earnest, as workers apathetically parrot various faux-social sentiments of consumerism like ‘take care now’ or ‘have a nice day’. Psychopathy is not the reserve of the ultra-rich or ‘greedy’ bankers but a facet of contemporary subjectivity. Charming, social psychopathy is more a symptom of our time, than it is characteristic of the criminal, amoral or villainous.

The camouflage of conspicuity — Tristam Vivian Adams on psychopathy and sociopathy


Psychopathy and sociopathy

In my forthcoming book, The Psychopath Factory: How Capitalism Organizes Empathy (forthcoming from Repeater), I make a distinction between psychopathy and sociopathy. The two terms are commonly used in an interchangeable way, as if they are one and the same, but in my view there is an important difference. I argue that sociopathy ought to refer to behaviour whereas psychopathy ought to refer to internal psychology. More precisely, sociopathy ought to refer to behaviour that fails to meet our expectations and psychopathy to a psychology that does not align with how we expect others to feel and think.

Let’s consider sociopathy first and look at how and why persons fall foul of social expectations or do not conform to social code. People may fall foul of social code for any number of reasons. The reasons could be linked to malice, kindness or ignorance. David Brent from The Office, for example, is reflexively impoverished—he just isn’t aware of his faux pas; he cannot see himself from the view of the other. Brent thinks he is a charming and smooth operator when he is quite the opposite—a cringingly awkward sociopath. Alan Partridge is similar; he thinks he’s cool but often fails to behave in the socially expected manner. It’s not that Alan Partridge has bad intentions, he is not spiteful – but he doesn’t always know when to curb his honesty. At a funeral, in the episode ‘Towering Alan’ he asks “Would it be terribly rude to stop listening to you and go and speak to someone else?” Moments later, after a further faux pas, he finds himself speaking to the deceased’s widow. She asks him if “something is the matter?” and Alan Partridge, the all-too-honest sociopath, plainly explains “I want to be talking to him over there”, pointing and grinning. Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm is sociopathic too. David often causes offence, yet he never means to—more often than not he causes offence or finds himself in an awkward social bind because of his overactive altruism.

Of course Brent, Partridge and David are innocent sociopaths: they don’t really do anybody much harm. Brent and Partridge might be a little self-centred and insensitive at times, yet they are not mean. But how do we know? Why do we suppose that someone behaving in an anti-social way or failing to conform to social expectations should be mean or ‘evil’? Is it right to make assumptions for internal psychology based on external behaviour that falls foul of social expectations? A person might bump into you on the street and not apologise. This is unsocial, and the bumper is sociopathic in this instance. But we should not guess their internal drives from this episode. They could be clumsy, ill, poor-sighted. They may not know our language. Of course, they might be out to do us harm or steal from us—but really, we just don’t know. We know their behaviour is, in local terms, sociopathic but we cannot know with certainty what their internal psychological drive is and we shouldn’t begin making paranoid or judgmental assumptions.

Social behaviour has a tenuous relationship to internal psychology. Many times we behave in a manner that doesn’t quite reflect our internal self. Who hasn’t sat through a boring presentation wishing to get up and leave but remained fused in place because it’d be rude to leave? The disjunct between behaviour and psychology is, in many ways, the root of socialization, politeness and manners. Children are honest sociopaths, they ask ‘rude’ questions like ‘why is he fat?’, until they are socialized—until they learn to lie, curb their impulses and behave in the expected ways. ‘Say sorry like you mean it’ we tell them. This is the other side of the disjunct between behaviour and psychology—being perfectly social whilst secretly yearning to be otherwise. Behaviour being at odds with psychology is where psychopathy comes in. Those we suspect of having a psychology at odds with how we feel they ought to feel (given their behaviour) are psychopaths. We could quip that the process of socialization is a case of impulsive sociopaths learning to be controlled and polite psychopaths.

If we suspect someone lacks empathy, or is being nice, behaving just right, for secretly manipulative or controlling purposes we might call them a psychopath. On some level we know that many people are nice and very social for ulterior motives (salesmen, for example). We readily accept the disjunct between behaviour and psychology. Indeed, the notion of a charming and polite psychopath is very much the form of psychopath that is a contemporary fascination. Part of the enduring appeal of Hannibal Lecter is surely the juxtaposition between his socially adroit conduct, his manners and sensitivity on one hand, and our knowledge of his violent and depraved wants, on the other. Patrick Bateman, too, is fascinating because of his normal appearance: his inconspicuousness, his conformity to social codes. If we met him at a cocktail party, he’d be anonymous, unremarkable and forgettable. In cinema the go-to trope of showing the viewer how psychology is at odds with appearance and behaviour is undoubtedly the ‘mirror-scene’. In such a scene we see the gaze of a character checking their own appearance, making sure they look normal, just right. We see such a device in Sexy Beast, Malice, American Psycho, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cruising and Taxi Driver, to name a few.

Psychopathy is not necessarily always good behaviour masking a psychology that is lacking in empathy or good intentions. It may well be that a person with bad intentions behaves true to their wants – in which case we would view them as a sociopath. Nonetheless, this similarity between the honest psychopath and a sociopath does not vitiate the distinction drawn here. The distinction is based on what we are taking to be at odds with what we expect. If we are considering behaviour, we can say to what degree a person is sociopathic, whereas if we are considering psychology we may speculate to what degree we consider them to be psychopathic. In each instance behaviour has no necessary bearing on psychology and, of course, vice versa. There is a socio-axis, behaviour based and observable, and there is a psycho-axis based on our speculations of another’s psychology. Thus, we can draw up some modes of the disjunct or correlation between behaviour and psychology: well-meaning sociopaths, ill-meaning sociopaths, super-social psychopaths and, lastly, anti-social psychopaths (anti-social psychopaths may be quite similar to ill-meaning sociopaths).

Super-social psychopathy is perhaps the category we can best relate to. Don’t we all put on an act that is at odds with how we really feel inside? We have probably told people we are ‘fine, thanks’ when, actually, we might have been far from it. We may have embellished a little too much during an interview and said we are ‘passionate and enthusiastic’ about whatever mundane cognitive work pays a wage. Perhaps we are, at times, like a polite and charming super-social psychopath—yet behaving more like a sociopath might reflect our true selves more accurately.

The mask of conspicuity: psychopaths masquerading as sociopaths

Throughout the writing of The Psychopath Factory, a certain real-life character haunted me—Jimmy Savile. Savile never quite fitted into my scheme of categorization. On one hand, he knew how to behave socially and could manipulate others. But on the other hand, he was not exactly a conformist. Nor was he an extrovert either. He seemed paradoxical, chimerical: at once reclusive and secretive whilst also showing off and craving attention, power and control. One of the insights of Dan Davies’ marvellous In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile is how brazenly open Savile was about his proclivities and impulses. “Jimmy Savile offered a rare glimpse into his mind-set as he dragged his ageing body around the 26.2-mile course. ‘At times I feel like strangling every other competitor in the race,’ he confessed. ‘I mean really, truly murdering them.” This is one of many iterations of his strategy of revealing his deeply anti-social mind-set in a light and open fashion. Another is his notorious declaration of hating children. ‘‘’I hate kids…I’m very good with them because I hate them,’ he continued. ‘They know I’m not some yucky adult. I like to confuse them because they don’t know where they are then. Then they start to fall in love with you. Nobody confuses kids like I do; they try to understand them and reason with them. I think all kids should be eaten at birth.’’’ Savile seemed to state truths so horrid that they would be taken as outlandish jest or banter. He would lie about many things—he was a pathological liar by many accounts—but he would always pepper his lies with the most unthinkable truths. Davies recalls how the last time he met with Savile, at a restaurant, a waiter asked him if everything was OK after Savile had barked ‘c*nt’, causing a commotion. The waiter then asked if there was anything else he needed and Savile said, plainly, “two 16 year old girls from Ukraine”.

Savile was also flash. The garish tracksuits, the statement Rolls Royce, the blonde hair, large cigar (he’d smoke bigger cigars in public), the bling—the diamond studded Rolex, the ‘jangle-jangle’—were all part of a campaign of cultivated conspicuity. “’It’s part of the charismatic package’ he offered”. This is psychopathy masquerading as sociopathy. It is the knowing performance of sociopathy, the camouflage of conspicuity—the distraction tactic of appearing not to conform. It is not sociopathic in the sense of a violent and misbehaving criminal. Nor is it sociopathic in the sense of Brent and Partridge who fail at trying to conform to social code. Savile wasn’t a sociopath but a psychopath who performed a certain form of sociopathy. He maintained an appearance of sociopathy, knowing its potential to obfuscate and cloak his true self: “I don’t have to do anything, I just have to be. I’m like a piece of soap in the bath; you can see it but when you try to get hold of it it’s gone’’.

Of course, we all perform a little, we might brag about not conforming to the speed limit for example. We might not like to think of ourselves as a total conformist, we like to be a little different, special or unique. But there is a performance of sociopathy that many high-profile people maintain to at once distract from and advance themselves. There are many low-level performances of sociopathy.

Boris Johnson, the lovable Teflon rogue, allegedly spends an hour on his hair each morning. His shambolic and rumpled appearance has, it seems, a certain appeal—he plays on the ingratiating potential of self-depreciation: the charm of fluster. (We may have done something similar, we may have put a little bit too much effort into appearing like we don’t care, spent some time composing a text or tweet with just the right amount of nonchalance.) Boris Johnson is not a sociopath, he’s not quite Toad of Toad Hall; he’s not reckless but merely appears to be so, and this has proved advantageous. (It could be argued that Trump is the US equivalent. His ex-butler said of him in a documentary; “He loves mirrors…he morphs into whatever you want him to be”). Unlike many other politicians, ‘Boris’ seems to get no bad publicity. Even his outright failures and gaffs seem to serve only to ingratiate him more. Bungling, buffoon, blundering often prefix Boris – even genuine mistakes that ought to finish the career of mortal politicians are laughed off. Primed by his dishevelled and casual abandon we excuse Boris. ‘That’s Boris!’ We chuckle and tut.

Jeremy Clarkson is another skilful performer of sociopathy. He has built a career on pre-meditated faux pas and calculated offence. Although in many ways he is unlike Savile (contrary to the suggestions of some who, in terms of Clarkson’s ‘Savilesque’ power and influence, made the comparison after David Cameron came to Clarkson’s defence—supposedly echoing Thatcher’s praise of Savile— after his suspension from Top Gear for physically assaulting a producer in an altercation glossed jollily as a ‘fracas’ or ‘scuffle’ in most mainstream media) there is a striking similarity in terms of performing sociopathy. What’s more, there is also a notable similarity in his motivation for performing sociopathy—to prevent his true self being revealed. He has been quite frank about this in a recent interview published in The Times:

“The whole thing is an act, of course,” he says at one point. What? “My job, my TV persona. ‘Jeremy Clarkson.’ It’s a mask. We all wear masks. It’s not the real me.” Is he suggesting that the man who’s made £30 million from “being himself” is a con? “Yup.” Then who is the real you? “I’m not telling you,” he laughs.

His insistence on masks is repeated later on in the interview when he says ‘“We are who we were born and, bar some very early nurturing, that is set for the rest of our lives. Everything else is a mask.”’ This brag of insincerity is an uncomfortably similar sentiment to Savile’s soap metaphor. Clarkson performs sociopathy but at once negates any confusion that it is anything but a performance or a mask of who he really is. The old Top Gear excuse, as Stewart Lee has observed, is the ‘it’s only a joke’ caveat to any offensive remark—at once swerving responsibility whilst seeking to invalidate any offense caused. Clarkson’s ‘slope’ remark is a case in point. “while trying to build a bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand…Clarkson commented, when he saw someone walk across it, ‘“That is a proud moment … but there’s a slope on it.’” So too is his use of the ‘n-word’ when saying the Eeny Meeny Miney Moe rhyme (in other versions he plumped for ‘catch a teacher by his toe’).

However, there is a power and control dynamic at work here—like the bantering demi-bully who, when seeing he has pushed too far, instantly reneges any serious intent. Like a sociopathic child, constantly testing the boundaries of authority, there is a certain power-play. For the Times piece, Clarkson snapped his fingers and the interviewer flew to Barbados. In the next paragraph the interviewer describes how:

he has a hangover. He’s spent much of the day sitting on the bottom of the swimming pool with an oxygen tank, refusing to be coaxed up by a desperate scuba instructor, on the grounds that he wanted to drown out the world. “It was so nice and peaceful down there. Why would I want to come out?”

Clarkson’s lucrative brand of childlike petulance is impressed at other moments too. His status as an enfant terrible man-child is indelicately declared later in the interview with an outright lie. He tells the interviewer he has no pubes and that he only knew he went through puberty when his voice broke, but later confesses that he made this up. There is also a reference to his love of AA Milne, but his comment is so clichéd and vapid that this must be read as another insincere performance of his cheeky, childlike sociopath (“every character you’ll meet in life is a character from Winnie-the-Pooh: May is Wol [how Owl spells his name], Hammond is Piglet, I am Tigger”).

Clarkson’s offensive remarks are not ill-judged but exquisitely well judged flouts. Despite being laughed off or excused as harmless banter, as something not to be taken seriously, they are serious. These are not accidents but pre-meditated acts of insolence. Even when Clarkson falls foul of what is acceptable – even ‘as a joke’ – it is, rather implausibly, chalked up as a coincidence and he casually draws attention to his friendship with the Prime Minister:

While filming a Christmas special in 2014, they had to be evacuated from Argentina after his Porsche’s number plates (H982 FKL) were said to be a deliberately provocative reference to the Falklands conflict. (Clarkson denies this: “It was just an impossibility for us to have chosen that number plate on purpose. I drive thousands of cars a year; I never look at the registration.”)

The situation was so tense for the remaining crew—attempting to reach Chile cross-country—that Clarkson feared they’d be killed. “I rang [David] Cameron, who was out in Afghanistan. ‘Get someone over from the Falklands. You’ve got to help us out here, otherwise you’re going to have 40 dead English people.’ There were 40 stuck in that convoy. It was one of the most unpleasant nights of my life.”

There is also an aspect of Clarkson’s performed sociopathy that is much more like the self-depreciating buffoonery of Boris rather than the Savilesque kaleidoscope of lies and truth. Nonetheless, it is still obfuscatory. He plays up to and exaggerates his awkward appearance. Awkwardness, as I argue, is a low-level form of sociopathy. More than once on Top Gear he remarked, either via sarcasm or plain self-depreciation, about his ungainly physique. Again, some time is given to highlighting his clownish and clumsy physiognomy in the interview:

Clarkson is tall and misshapen with wire-wool hair and tobacco-stained teeth. With the possible exception of Wembley Fraggle, he looks like no one else. He likes to say he was made in God’s factory on a Friday evening, when all they had left was two good feet “and a pair of good buttocks. Look at these rubbish hands, this paunch, this hair.” Someone like Andrea Corr, he adds, was made on a Monday morning.

He claims to be utterly ham-fisted. “My first memory is peeling a hard-boiled egg. I was only about 18 months apparently, and it’s still the most practical thing I’ve ever done.

“As Hammond always says, I look like an orangutan when I’m presented with simple tasks, like opening a bottle of wine.

Clumsiness alone is not sociopathic—someone has to witness the awkward behaviour. Attention must be drawn to it; the performance must be seen. And this is precisely what Clarkson, like Boris, achieves. He makes sure he is seen as awkward, he works hard at being conspicuous.

These performances of sociopathy, the conspicuous flouting of social code that serves to mask the true self are the examples par excellence of virtuosic psychopathic performance. They show such sensitivity to social expectations and such ultra-reflexive self-awareness. They also show the nous and cunning to know that behaving normally isn’t always the best disguise, or advantageous. The performance of sociopathy is the psychopath’s double-bluff. Rather than conform to anonymity like Ripley and Bateman, they flout social expectations and hide in plain sight. Rather than being a super-social psychopath, these impostors masquerade as sociopaths.