Fall 2014

Fail, Feel, Fall: An Interview with Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster

Lack and love

Sina Najafi, Simon Critchley, and Jamieson Webster

As we were preparing this issue, Cabinet’s editor-in-chief Sina Najafi contacted philosopher and longtime contributor Simon Critchley for advice on who among contemporary thinkers might be suitable for an interview on the topic of love. Somewhat to his surprise, Critchley’s suggestion was to interview him and his wife Jamieson Webster—psychoanalyst and co-author with Critchley of works including Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine—about love in light of the recent breakup of their marriage. Webster, also a contributor to the magazine, agreed, and so one evening in November, Najafi sat down with them at the house they formerly shared for a conversation—by turns deeply theoretical and deeply personal—about eros, and its failures, in relation to philosophy and psychoanalysis.

Cabinet: How did considerations of love within the intellectual traditions that you studied inform your work, and your life in general? Simon, so much of philosophy seems to be about love.

Simon Critchley: Not really. In Plato’s Symposium, you have different accounts of love and you end up with the love that’s taught by Diotima to Socrates, and a speech where Alcibiades declares his love to Socrates, but it only had an intellectual impact on me. I didn’t know what love was; it wasn’t a question for me. I was too consumed with anxiety to think about love. Sex was interesting, and so was anxiety. But love was something that waited until my forties to find a voice, and that was largely through meeting Jamieson and the things we read together. What meeting Jamieson made me consider was whether you can love and desire in the same place. Love without sexual desire becomes a kind of empty sentimentalism, and desire without love becomes a mechanics of the orgasm.

Jamieson, did you think about love much in your own formation, intellectual and otherwise?

Jamieson Webster: All the time. At a certain point I realized that everything I was studying at school was secretly, for me at least, about love, and I became more interested in my studies. And obviously there were a lot of images, songs, and so on about love. I think there’s a kind of hysterical interrogation of love in my life, but then I run into people—patients, academics, writers, artists—and that’s what their interrogation of the world is also about. My interest in love is why I decided to study psychoanalysis. Strangely, Freud—even though he obviously puts transference-love at the center of the cure, and incestuous love and the problems of desire and drive are everywhere in his work—doesn’t really talk about love enough. This led me on a long chase through psychoanalysis and to the discourse around the abjection of love, in particular female abjection, in the work of people like Julia Kristeva or Jessica Benjamin, who wrote The Bonds of Love. I don’t think that I’m as interested as I used to be in abject forms of love.

SC: I remember teaching Freud’s essay “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes,” which finishes with a discussion of ambivalence in relationship to the drives—the drive is that which has some biological source but which exerts pressure which is psychological, and which takes aim at an object we desire but works ambivalently. And he ends up with a discussion of the ambivalence between hate and love, and then famously says that hate is older than love. Why? Because the psyche’s defensive structure, the ego-instincts, are stronger than their contrary. This really struck me; basic selfishness is older and more primary than the contrary movement toward love.

JW: The ego-instincts are primary, the mirror stage is first, so you bind yourself to yourself first. The psyche has this structure where it needs to create a stabilizing nucleus, but that nucleus is self-love, with everything from the outside disturbing its equilibrium. So how are you supposed to love the thing that’s in fact creating disequilibrium in your sense of self-love and self-satisfaction? For Freud, love is a very difficult achievement, almost as difficult as sublimation, and these are probably two of the things he talks about least.

The great reader of “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes” is Jacques Lacan in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, and he has a brilliant analysis of the way Freud talks about the drive. He says that it has to turn around the object and if it can make a full return, it carves out a hole and then it gets to start over again, and its achievement is the creation of this space of lack in which desire can be born. But for Lacan, it’s very hard for us to traverse that entire circuit. We become inhibited, enraged, frustrated, and give up. The example he uses in terms of voyeurism and scopophilia is that if you think about it grammatically, you can put yourself in the position of the subject who is looking, or you can put yourself in the position of the object who is looked at, but he likes that middle voice, where you make yourself seen through another. And he thinks about the arc around the object as something like that—you pass through the other in order to turn back around and position yourself in a new place in order to be seen by the other. It’s a synthesis of active and passive. There’s not just a hole carved out in this trajectory, but a space for desire. And that is the definition he gives of love: “Giving something you don’t have to another who does not want it.” It’s an exchange between two people of a hole, or of a nothing—you have to figure out how to give that to one another.

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