I pursue an active research program in my area of specialization: psychoanalytic political theory. My approach to psychoanalytic theory may be fairly described as “ideology-critique,” which is to say that I am most interested in identifying the collective beliefs, assumptions, and fantasies that shape our social and political landscapes, and subjecting them to what I hope to be illuminating (and typically immanent) critique.
With only a few exceptions, such as my collaborative and empirical studies of the psycho-social concomitants of social withdrawal and peer rejection in young people, virtually all of my work to date falls within the category of psychoanalytic political theory. Even my work in the area of critical pedagogy has been deeply informed by insights gleaned from political theory and psychoanalytic criticism.
My early work, dedicated to the idea of “absurdity” and to the thought of Albert Camus, is best understood as a critique of several interrelated ideological assumptions of postmodern political theory. As I strive to show in books such as Rethinking the Politics of Absurdity: Albert Camus, Postmodernity, and the Survival of Innocence (Routledge, 2014) and Albert Camus and the Political Philosophy of the Absurd (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013) and in papers such as “The Meaning of Absurd Protest: The Book of Job, Albert Camus, and C. Fred Alford’s After the Holocaust” (published in the Journal of Psycho-Social Studies, 2011) and “Sisyphean (Out)rage and the Refusal to Mourn” (published in The Originality and Complexity of Albert Camus’ Writing, E. Vanborre, ed., 2012), the “absurd” revolt in the early- and mid-twentieth century is inseparable from the poststructuralist and postmodern “turns” with which political theorists are often more intimately familiar.
The ideology of absurdism entails Albert Camus’ belief that the person “who has understood reality… becomes a conformist,” and suggests instead (although not always explicitly) that human subjects ought to become and remain mystified, de-centered, and, to some extent, damaged beyond repair, if we are to avoid the dangers of the monadic, sovereign subject putatively enshrined in the Enlightenment and now maligned in virtually all critiques of modernity. In the aforementioned works and others, I have argued that it is helpful to study absurdism not merely for its own sake but because it is representative of a far more widespread psycho-political posture that is akin to melancholia, where we become beholden to fantasies about victimization and oppression that are supposed to yield innocence (in psychoanalytic language: identification with “the good object”) but, instead, leave us with a doctrine of anti-subjectivity that is both psychologically and politically unhealthy.
Ideologies of Experience: Trauma, Failure, Deprivation, and the Abandonment of the Self (Routledge, 2016) — along with an experimental book entitled Escargotesque, or, What is Experience? (Punctum Books, 2015) — takes as its subject the very idea of “experience” and the moral, and political, and psychological values that have been attached to it in the modern and postmodern eras. In these works, I argue that — for a variety of reasons, including a vacuum of cultural authority coincidental with the Reformation and Renaissance — “experience” has come to be regarded as an unassailable determinant of truth and reality. I strive to show that this equation of experience with truth represents a flight from reason and an occlusion of the thinking self, who is imagined to be in greatest contact with reality when his or her identity is most deeply immersed in experiences of loss, suffering, deprivation, and trauma. Thus, the book takes up an argument against several prevailing trends in contemporary social theory, from John Dewey in the field of educational reform to Georges Bataille, Emmanuel Levinas, and Judith Butler in psychologically-inflected theories that valorize trauma, loss, and shared grief because these experiences are (mistakenly) imagined to infuse the truth about human interdependency into political bodies.
My recent book entitled, A Dangerous Place to Be: Identity, Conflict, and Trauma in Higher Education (with David P. Levine, Routledge, 2018) also takes up a form of ideology-critique by examining a number of widely publicized conflictual events and dramatic encounters that have taken place on university campuses in recent years, particularly those concerned with identity. We focus on the psychology and politics of trauma “triggers,” “safe spaces,” protests aimed at silencing others (such as the “No Platform” movement), high-profile firings and expulsions, and the role of the university as a socio-political institution charged with performing its function while contending with conflicts between individual needs and group-identity-demands.
We identify an ideology of identity, if you will, that misunderstands the role and function of adult identity, which might be summarized (for the sake of brevity) as the capacity to relate across difference without losing contact with the self. But contemporary identity politics tend to obscure this function of identity and, with it, the crucial roles of the family, childhood experience, and the process undertaken in forming an individual identity, focusing, instead, on external threats to largely rigid group identities, such as the very real threats associated with racist, sexist, or otherwise hateful acts or expressions. To understand the meaning of these threats, conflicts over how to contend with them, and the way that debates about them have tended to take on extreme and unfortunate qualities, we inspect and critique the ideology that informs them and suggest that the dynamics of identity-imposition, group behavior, and fantasies about oppression and victimization are needed parts of the conversation.
Between the publication of these two books, I edited (with Amy Buzby) a collaborative volume dedicated to applying the work of one of the most influential psychoanalysts of the “middle school” of British object-relations theory to contemporary political thought. The book, entitled D.W. Winnicott and Political Theory: Recentering the Subject (Palgrave, 2017) features essays composed by a number of prominent theorists, such as Bonnie Honig, C. Fred Alford, and David P. Levine, and has held appeal for those wishing to discover more profound connections between post-Freudian psychoanalysis and contemporary political theory.
A more recent work is a lengthy scholarly monograph, co-authored with David P. Levine, entitled, The Destroyed World, The Guilty Self, and the Search for Home, and forthcoming from Phoenix Publishing House (formerly Karnac Books) (Expected, 2019). In this book, we explore political and cultural trends organized around the conviction that the world we live in is a dangerous place to be, that it is dominated by hate and destruction, and that, in it, our primary task is to survive by carrying on a life-long struggle against hostile forces. Our concern is not with the reality of existential threats, but with the conviction that those threats exist, a conviction that, while validated at times by real events, transcends reality-based sources of existential anxiety while fueling and shaping our experience of them.
The conviction that hostile forces threaten our survival is embedded in fantasy, specifically in fantasies of the destroyed world. In academic discourses arising from a variety of disciplines, in literary fiction, in film and television, and in other arenas of popular culture, one readily encounters vivid expressions of destroyed-world fantasy: depictions of extinction-level events and world-ending scenarios, preoccupation with atrocities, traumas, and holocausts, and insistences on (if not celebrations of) degraded selves who, for one reason or another, are wounded, broken, and hardly able to thrive.
Destroyed-world fantasies define a complex psychic project: the assignment of responsibility – guilt – for the destruction of the world and the use of this assignment of responsibility to alleviate the suffering caused by the loss of a place in which it is possible to live, in other words, the loss of safe space. In fantasy, this loss of safety often appears as the loss of a home and the resulting exile into a desolate wilderness. We treat the search for safe space as a central concern for individuals and groups, emphasizing that this search, while it is most frequently depicted as a search occurring in the world outside, is, in fact, a search to find, or an effort to create, safety and benignity — and, therefore, the possibility of being — in the inner world.
We use psychoanalytic methods and ideas — including but not limited to those of Freud, Klein, Fairbairn, Winnicott, Kohut, and Balint — to interpret the hidden meanings of fantasy. The analysis of shared fantasy reveals the essential character of our shared psychic life, which, in turn, shapes political institutions and practices, often in ways that are destructive in a real-world sense.
Specific issues explored in the book range from the fascination with destroyed-world (or apocalyptic) fantasy to the development of guilt, the guilty self, and shame. We devote considerable time not only to elucidating the psychoanalytic interpretations that are the bulk of our study, but to applying our interpretations to subjects of social and political importance, such as: the call for widespread participation in civic life; the urge to destroy and re-make, rather than repair, political institutions and policies, such as the Affordable Care Act; the creation of (internal and external ‘gangs’); controversies of silence and ‘speaking out’ against injustice; problems of witnessing and bystander guilt; the survival of traumatic or destructive events; the implications of broken homes and broken families; and the fantasies of the immigrant.
We conclude by demonstrating that the processes and relationships embedded in this fantasy represent interruptions of the process of internalizing the good object and attacks on the self’s capacity to contain and integrate experience, to think, to exist in a real sense, and to relate to others as real and separate beings. These capacities are, of course, the very capacities required to live and to thrive in civil society.
One of my most recent published books is a textbook/guidebook on critical thinking, which, perhaps requires a bit of explanation. As part of Medaille College’s Core Curriculum, I have taught over fifty sections of our introductory course in Critical Thought over the past twelve years, and, coupled with my Fulbright experience of training faculty in critical thinking, I have learned a great deal both about the meaning of critical thinking, as a concept, and the effectiveness of various methods and materials of teaching courses in critical thinking. My approach to critical thinking is to see it as a sub-field of psychoanalytic political theory; that is, to understand the real questions of critical thinking not merely as questions involving how to avoiding logical fallacies, but as far more complex questions involving the relationship between thoughts, emotions, impulses, and coercive forces and pressures arising both from within and without the individual. This book (2019), is entitled Critical Thinking and the Subject of Inquiry: Capacities, Resilience, and Power – A Guide for Teachers, Learners, and Trainers, not only because critical thinking must be taken more serious as a subject that deserves study and has been studied throughout the history of the Western canon, but also because thinking critically has a great deal to do with both the capacities and the risks we associate with becoming a mature political subject.
I currently edit (with David McIvor) Routledge’s new book series, Psychoanalytic Political Theory. My vision for the series has been to provide scholars of within political science, as well as related disciplines, with a publishing space for their work at the intersection of psychoanalysis and political and social thought. The series launched in 2018 and we currently have several exciting titles under contract or in press.
Similarly, I am serving as Guest Editor of an upcoming special issue of the Journal of Psycho-Social Studies (on the American tradition of psychoanalytic political thought) as well as an upcoming special issue of Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society (on Anxiety, Social Defense, and Contemporary Politics), and enjoy working as an Associate Editor, International Advisory Board Member, and Editorial Board Member on a variety of journals related to this growing field.
My Curriculum Vitae contains further details of my publications, academic conference papers, invited presentations, and related projects.