Becker, Foucault, Lacan

07/05/2014 § Leave a comment

Gary Becker passed on this week, so I did a mini-lecture in class yesterday on his contributions to economics (I managed to use Peaches Geldof as an example of a rational addict). I thought it was important to think about Becker because of the way he pushed economics in new areas. He used marginal analysis and specialisation — standard ideas — in new ways. It shows both the usefulness of a few simple economic ideas and the way late 20th century social sciences developed.

Crooked Timber has had a couple of good posts, one about Becker and Foucault  and one linking to a good post on Becker’s contributions and shortcomings. Reading ‘Becker on Ewald on Foucault on Becker’, I wondered how Lacan would react to it. Foucault, apparently, was taken with the way that Becker thought about people making decisions. Foucault showed how law created crimes and doctors created diseases, by the way they deployed power. But Becker had people making decisions within each of the categories created. So, within the family, clearly a site of power relations, men and women were making strategic decision to maximise utility subject to constraints, balance marginal costs with marginal benefits. So, there was agency.

But I’m not convince that either Foucault or Becker had it right. First, if we take Foucauldian analysis seriously, then the power is creating the categories and determining individuals’ positions in the structure. How is it that individuals still have some residual liberty to make their own decisions? That would mean either that the power relations are not fully defined, or that there is some slippage between expectations and actual behaviour.

Becker, similarly, promoted universal explanations. The article I know best is ‘De gustibus non est disputandum‘, and don’t agree with it that tastes and preferences do not vary significantly across people. In fact, my research (and others) in food choices show that people do have different preferences and those preferences do affect spending. This issue is similar to Thomas Piketty’s endnote in Capital in the 21st century, that Becker didn’t let data get in the way of theorising.

Which brings me to Lacan. Lacan provides a motive force for difference and decisions — this is the analysis that Copjec offers in Read my desire. The Foucauldian analysis fails because of the impossibility of ‘saying it all’: the law cannot fully establish all the required categories. The act of creating categories creates its own excess; the act of neoliberal analysis creates its own outside-the-analysis. Becker fails because of the impossibility of fully determining preferences and because of the idiosyncratic nature of desire and its impacts on behaviours. Becker seemed to move too quickly from the idea that people pursue that which they think will make them happy, to the idea that we know (he knew) what makes people happy.

Dear editor: Love, me

29/08/2013 § Leave a comment

I finally finished a submission to a Lacanian academic journal. Lacan was swimming around in my head, analysing everything. It occurred to me that a journal submission is a little love letter — Dear editor: Love, me.

First, of course, we start with Lacan’s dictum that all demands are a demand for love. And what is a submitted paper but a demand? It imposes an obligation on unseen, unknown others. An editor must vet the submission and send it to referees, who must then read it and consider it and render opinions on it. I in my act of submitting have demanded that they respond. Perhaps I stoop to conquer?

A submission is a demand to be read. More than that, it is a demand to be understood, or — in Schroeder’s formulation — a demand to be recognised as a subject. I am asking these august personages to include me in their circle, to say to the world that I am good enough to be in their midst.

Then, inevitably, comes the reply from the Other. Have I behaved well enough? Have I submitted to the desire of the Editor/Other well enough that he/she/it will recognise me? Four outcomes are possible:

  • Rejected — My love will be unrequited. I will need to turn my attentions to a new journal, a new Editor — perhaps that affair will end better.
  • Revise and resubmit — I am making progress with the Editor/Other. The possibility of recognition remains open. All I need to do is learn to submit. I must re-enact my submission, only better.
  • Conditional acceptance — I am recognised! The Gaze of the Editor falls on me and sees me. I must change, of course — the Gaze sees me not for who I think I am, but for what the Editor wants me to be.
  • Accepted — Oh rare joy! To be accepted without condition! I have never known such love.

For the moment, though, I wait in agony, my love letter lying in the Other’s in-tray.

Wound up by dissatisfaction

19/06/2013 § 3 Comments

American author David Guterson gave a high school graduation address that stirred up emotions, at the time and later on line. Why? Apart from some of the actual content — about which more in a moment — Guterson broke the cardinal rule of graduation addresses. You are supposed to tell the kids that they are bright, shiny things off on a great adventure, special people with special destinies (our Board Chair insists on reciting Oh! The Places You’ll Go to our graduands). Guterson told them they were the same as everyone else, that their existential struggle was the stuff of human thought and literature since forever.

Two ideas from the speech are challenging for economics.

The first challenge is about the individual versus the collective:

Stop thinking about yourself every second of every day, which only produces boredom, dissatisfaction, fear, dread, anxiety, and hopelessness. Put yourself away and begin to find freedom.

Guterson points to the Enlightenment and its emphasis on the individual, and says that this emphasis has been misplaced. Instead, selflessness is the key to happiness.

This is a challenge to economics, which relies on methodological individualism. The behaviours and decisions of individuals form the basis for microeconomics; it is how economists make sense of the world.

There is an easy enough way to link the two ideas, of course. If individuals decide that their preference is to be selfless, then their individual decisions will reflect selflessness, and we can have other-regarding methodological individualism. But if individual preferences get tied up with others’ preferences, it becomes a lot harder to describe and analyse where the system is going.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, it becomes harder to talk about an individual-focused economics if people decide that we should think about ourselves as selfless. Despite the issues and mistakes with economics, it does help explain the social world. If economists are ruled out of the discussion because we have the wrong Enlightenment-derived individualistic focus, then we cease to be relevant. Like I said, it’s a challenge.

Issue number two: anxiety.

While each of us is relentlessly busy chasing after his or her personal hopes and dreams, our very sophisticated modern economy is busily exploiting the psychological and emotional vulnerabilities elicited by this state of affairs. It is an economy that motors along on your dissatisfaction, that steams ahead only if it can convince you that something is missing in your life.

I have an image of a wind-up economy powered by the rubber band of dissatisfaction. We wind ourselves up with anxiety, which then plays out in our actions and purchases. It’s a good question, and one that economists answer by assumption: what is all this running around for? Answer/assumption: because we do it, we must like to do it, so it produces satisfaction.

But, of course, that’s not really our personal experience, is it? Guterson said it one way: you are supposed to be unhappy in ways that service the economy. I think it was Joan Robinson who said it a different way: price is an index of desire, not satisfaction. We want something, so we are willing to pay for it, but that price doesn’t necessarily represent the satisfaction or happiness that the consumption produces. A third way is Freudian: Jacques Lacan developed a theory that the satisfaction of desire is, in fact, impossible; desire structures people’s thinking and emotions, their being.

Of course, this is incredibly dangerous territory. If prices don’t index satisfaction and consumption doesn’t produce happiness, then absolutely any intervention by well-meaning people is justified as ‘producing true happiness’. By turning our back on individualism — on the belief that people know what’s best for them — we are potentially turning toward the worst collective abuses.

Guterson’s speech is challenging. Read as a plea for greater self-awareness, it provides some nice advice for young adults not to get too wrapped up in the world, not too different from Ecclesiastes 1:2. Read another way, though, I’m a bit worried where he would take us.

Update: If you needed any proof that unhappiness/dissatisfaction/anxiety is fodder for marketing, look no further than the recent fashion spread from Vice: suicide as artful backdrop for clothes.

Strangling research in its crib [revised]

20/05/2013 § 4 Comments

The Dominion Post runs a science column by Bob Brockie, who briefly introduces readers to new findings or key ideas from the world of science. It’s a nice addition to the newspaper, better than the scandale du jour that passes for journalism, even if he has the annoying habit of speaking ex cathedra.

Monday, though, he got up my nose [no link — sorry — doesn’t actually want you to find anything easily]. He was discussing the new DSM-5, which has courted controversy by redefining psychological pathologies. We are all — well, half of us — apparently in need of treatment by the very people who decide whether we need treatment.

In his brief history of the DSM, Brockie said that psychology moved away from Freud to science. The meaning of this is clear: there is real, true knowledge that is produced through science, and then there’s all that other stuff that people believe without it actually being true, and that’s where Freud (and by extension, Lacan) belongs.

There are two enormous problems with this. The first is that this statement is glaring proof of the social production of scientific knowledge. I’d venture to guess that Brockie has not actually studied Freud, and has little knowledge of the split between Freudian psychotherapy and Anglo-American psychology. What he knows is likely to be what he’s been told, the stories he’s heard along the way. Science proceeds not only ‘funeral by funeral’ but clique by clique, lunch table by lunch table. Waving the ‘Freud’s not science’ flag isn’t so much a statement of fact but a not-so-secret handshake that marks him as one of gang.

And what a gang it is. They are in charge of funding, and funding allows science research. That’s the second problem with Brockie’s statement. They’ll say they want investigator-led research; they’ll say they want to give researchers the ability to follow their curiosity and investigate all manner of topics, regardless of where they might lead. The truth is, they are perfectly happy to strangle research in the crib if they don’t like it.

I know this, because they have strangled mine, repeatedly, while intoning ancient rites of scientific concern. They have just done the same to novel research proposed by a friend and colleague. We can show the theoretical basis for the work, we can demonstrate the linkages to international peer-reviewed literature, we can link the primary research to the hypothesis — we can do all the things these quartermasters of science demand. And then, they say that it isn’t ‘science’ because the science hasn’t been done because it hasn’t been funded.

It doesn’t help that we are talking about inter-disciplinary research – research that falls somewhere in between the disciplinary silos. Call it economic psychology, or psychological economics, or decision sciences if you like, but it is just the latest area of research in which we develop theories of human behaviour and test them. I’ve tried to explain it here (pdf), Andrew Dickson tried a different angle here, and yet another perspective is here. And still we get things like this 2012 article saying ‘Surprisingly little scholarly work has linked food and Lacan’.

Maybe that has something to do with funding decisions rather than lack of curious researchers. You want to say that Freud is not science? Give me a few a million dollars over several years to do the research. If I fail, you can have your talking point.

The scientists controlling the money are like Abraham, driven by Yahweh to demonstrate their obedience by sacrificing the young Isaac. But Yahweh is I Am Who Am, certain in His existence. Science can also be a jealous and uncertain Master, a Cronus who must devour his young to protect his reign. When he guides Abraham’s hand, he doesn’t stay the knife.

Zizek on OWS

01/11/2011 § Leave a comment

Slavoj Žižek had a piece in the UK Guardian on the Occupy Wall Street, um, happening. He argues:

What one should resist at this stage is precisely such a quick translation of the energy of the protest into a set of concrete pragmatic demands. Yes, the protests did create a vacuum – a vacuum in the field of hegemonic ideology, and time is needed to fill this vacuum in a proper way, as it is a pregnant vacuum, an opening for the truly new.

Žižek is working from his Lacanian perspective, and arrives at an interesting result. Lacanian theory is linguistic: each signifier refers to other signifiers, and meaning is a function of the relationship between signifiers. Meaning is fundamentally relational, as opposed to absolute. To figure out what OWS means, you figure out where it ‘fits’ in the system. Once you can place it — a bit to the side of this, underneath that, contained as part of something else — then you know what it is. Then you can relate to it.

This system is linguistic as well as social, psychological as well as political. If one cannot place OWS in a linguistic system, then one cannot manipulate it in a political system, either. That is why Žižek says:

This silence, this rejection of dialogue … is our “terror”, ominous and threatening as it should be.

But let’s take it a step further. Lacan said that all demands are demands for love. I tend to like Jeanne Schroeder’s take on it: we want to be acknowledged as subjects by other subjects. In effect, Žižek is saying that OWS must forgo making its demands for love or recognition. It must terrorise itself with an unanchored symbolic system, on the way to instituting a new regime of signifiers.

Now that would be truly revolutionary.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Lacan at Groping towards Bethlehem.