The Psychological Roots of Ecological Crises

Laudato Si

There is a psychological relation to the ecological crisis that we are facing globally as a human family. The ecological disaster that is hanging as a sword of Damocles on our heart is threatening to destroy all forms of life from our common home. Although, there are direct physical causes to the ecocide that is staring in our eyes, there are also constitutive psychological origins to our problems. In this study, we shall try to understand the psychological roots of our deteriorating ecological condition. Besides scientific and technological responses, we shall require profound psychological responses to save our common home, the planet earth. We will have to change the way we behave and make meaning of our life. Some scientists have already raised the alarm and warned us that we are heading to an irreversible ecological collapse. The carrying capacity of the earth is draining by the day and we are like the proverbial mad men who were shipped in the ships of the fools in search of their reason in Europe.[efn_quote]Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization : A History of Insanity in an Age of Reason, Richard Howard. Trans. (New York: Routledge, 2005).[/efn_note] I do not want to sound like a prophet of doom, but would wish to enkindle hope and optimism that several among us have already worked out, particularly, Pope Francis who gave us a revolutionary and path breaking encyclical Laudato Si.1 While we have anxiety about an impending ecocide, a psychological detour into our issues may assist us to discern how the problem that we are facing is one of human making and has a foundational human solution. To bring a secure future to humanity, non-human life and our common home , we will have to try and understand the psychological roots of human behaviour that has brought us to the present state and then, in its light seek a course correction. I propose to draw our attention to the psychological underpinnings of our present crises and having identified the psychological roots, we shall then strive to seek solutions and remedial options in the light of poor psychological analysis.

Tracing the Psychological Roots of Ecological Crises

Right at the outset , it appears that the psychological roots that we need to trace in the psychology of overconsumption. We are over using the common resources of our planet heart. Hence, psychology of overconsumption seems to be the real issue that afflicts us all. We need to discern the drivers of over consumption. These drivers of overconsumption are not merely rational. They are founded in the non-rational dimensions of the human being. Hence, we will have to understand these driving forces with the help of understanding of will. Our will is not merely a blind faculty that moves to whatever is identified as good for us by intellect. It is productive and immanent in us. This has brought about a turn to the non/human in the work of thinkers like Deleuze and Gauttari.2 They celebrate becoming animals. Animals are converting the animate and inanimate world into an apparatus of self propagation and survival, while humans have largely converted the world into an apparatus of self destruction. This has challenged the location of humans over the human world.

Lacan

The Ego Project of the Self

The human irrupts into an economy of being that disrupts and ruptures everything on the face of the earth. Humans seem to have converted their entire existence into an ego project. We seem to be holding to what Emanuel Levinas calls ‘mineness’3 too tightly which devours our life into an ecology. Ecology is digestive; it eliminates and assimilates every otherness into the self. Perhaps, Lacan’s notion of the eccentric self might offer us a profound insight into the ego project of the self. Lacan’s rejection of substantive self is a jolt to the self-serving narcissistic self. Lacan teaches that the self is profoundly marked by a relation of lack.4 Hence, for him, self is necessary a lacking self. It is this lack that produces a chain of desire that can never be fulfilled. Thus, from Lacanian point of view desire cannot be fulfilled and hence the self always remains dissatisfied. Desire is intertwined with death drive. In fact, the primordial lacking self recovers its lack by desiring to be stable through the identification with the imaginary. It overcomes its sense of fragmentation by identifying itself with its mirror image as a pre-verbal child between the age of 6 to 18 months. The fragmented self is identified with the body of the other.5 Hence, this mastery over the fragmented body is achieved by exercise of some control over the body of the other. The starting point of the subject is in the gap between what the subject is and what the subject is forced to be by another. Indeed, it has to do with the desire of the (m)other. It is the field of the (m)other that the infant comes to acquire a unified image of oneself which has an ever present possibility of falling apart. Thus, in some way the child comes to be itself in response to the (m)others demand. The child’s desire is triggered and mirrored by the desire of the (m)other. The unified sense of the body emerges as the surface on which the (m)other writes.6 This means the reflection has no content. The content is injected, imprinted or projected by the desire of the primary caregivers. The hysterical body is unified but is born of a process signifier of the other. Later the self aligns with the symbolic order and becomes a speaking subject. There is a jouissance/enjoyment in this complex process of identification. Though Lacan says that we tell a lie to ourselves and become the subject, we enjoy our deception.7 This is the enjoyment of the death drive. That is why the ego project is an enjoyment of the death drive. Self being dislocated is continuously seeking itself in the image mirror/ symbolic order. This fundamental sense of being a lacking self is at the root of the phenomena of overconsumption that we are facing today. The drivers of the consumerist culture both reinforce and feed the lacking self and prey upon it enslaving it to the chains of overconsumption.

Enjoyment of the Death Drive

Interpreting Freud radically, Lacan holds that death drive is the ultimate basis of the subject’s relation to the world. The decentered and eccentric self feels alienated behind the mask of symbolic order. It is in this alienation that desire is hooked to death drive. Lacan further presents castration as a threat of confiscation of the object of desire. This triggers the aggression of recovery dynamism. This means aggression is an emergent property and not an innate drive/ instinct. Lancan further clarifies that aggression is triggered by an imaginary conflict between the ego and the ideal ego. This means aggression is linked with the narcissism of the self. The desire is awakened in the narcissistic ego for the object of the other’s desire (mimetic desire). This means aggression is the response of self preservation that develops from a triad of the other people, ego and object of desire. In fact it is a result of the conflict between the self, the perceived self and the other. Thus, the satisfaction of human desire is possible only when mediated by the desire of its other. It is in the field of the other that desire is both created and satisfied. Within this scheme of things, we can understand the death drive and its link to jouissance. The desire to object to the other takes the Fort/da route. It leads to the destruction of the other in the mode of absence and presence. Lacan says that the child engages in the system of concrete discourse of those around it by reproducing its ‘Fort! and Da !’ in the terms that it receives from them. It is in this fort/da route that the desire of the other comes to dominate it and becomes its affliction. That is why Lacan says , ‘Man’s desire is the desire of the Other’. Hence, desire is located in the coordinates of the other and expressed in language. It is within language that the self is identified (in terms of the ideal Imago) as well as the Other which ties into the theme of appearance / disappearance (Fort/da). That is why Lacan teaches that desire is the Archimedean point, where by the self finds it’s coordinates in the symbolic order and experiences of jouissance. Thus Lacan places the becoming of the self as misrecognition in the realm of death drive.8 It is from the possibility of death that substitution (Fort/da) begins. Hence,  we can see how a maniacal overconsumption that never seems to satisfy us is grounded in the death drive. It only traps us into a chain of substitutes that fail to satisfy us.

Deepening the Analysis of the Psychological Roots Ecological Crises

Today, we are living in a society of enjoyment. Everyone seems to demand maximum enjoyment. Lacan teaches that enjoyment is the founding signifier of social order in societies. Social order arises out of enjoyment. Even when religions promise an afterlife of unrestrained enjoyment, humans learn to enjoy the sacrifice of enjoyment enjoined by religions. Thus, the sacrifice of enjoyment itself produces enjoyment. That is why Lacan rephrases Dostoyevsky ‘s statement which says ‘ Without God everything is permitted’ to ‘ Without God nothing is permitted’.9 This means without God or some law, one cannot have renunciation and derive any enjoyment. It is paradoxical that one must renounce one’s enjoyment, but this enjoyment is something that does not exist prior to its enjoyment. Here we shall study how a prohibition of enjoyment produces us as desiring subjects under a regime of society of prohibition.

Desire of the objet petit a

The renunciation of enjoyment is like giving up of a part of oneself. But this part of oneself did not exist until it was given up. Being lacking selves, we imagine / fantasize an object that exists in the gap left by its sacrifice. This is what Lacan christens as objet petit a . The object petit a constitutes us as desiring subjects. It provides the lure that energizes the desire and directs it in its circuits.10 Thus, objet petit a causes the subject to emerge as a desiring subject, the subject of desire . Desire is what ones gets in this commerce of exchange of one’s sacrifice of enjoyment. But desire is a poor substitute for enjoyment. Enjoyment satiates the subject but when a subject desires he/ she lacks the object a and is perpetually held up by a chain of dissatisfaction. Desire seems to carve a path that has no exit and leaves the subject who is trapped in an insatiable longing for something more. This means that the only end of desire is more desire. Desire is sustained dissatisfaction and is dynamically productive. Somehow we remain dissatisfied desiring subjects. Desire as we have seen builds on the absence of the object of desire (object petit a) rather than its presence.11 It is strange but true, the longer the desired object stays away, the stronger becomes the grip of desire on the desiring subjects. When the object of desire becomes familiar our desire wanes away losing its desirability. In fact, the shared sacrifice of enjoyment besides producing as desiring subjects become the foundation of our inter-subjective life. We seem to be held by a glue of enjoyment of our collective loss: if no one can enjoy we become willing partners in loss rather than rivals in enjoyment. This is with the range of experience of the subject as a lacking subject and looking at the Other for what they are missing. It is on this bond of lack that social relations are sustained in our society. This means our society builds its cohesion on the feeling of lack that produces and drives our desire. We can enjoy our desire totally. Hence, we remain trapped in a chain of wanting more and more. Over consuming society is a society that is running on the wills of desire at the end of which is always more desire. The non-satiability of desire can push us in a maniac craze of over consumption.

Symbolic Recognition and Enjoyment

Recognition is always the act of the other self. It is always the other that does the recognizing. Hegel teaches us that in the Master/ Slave dialectics, it is the Master who seeks freedom from this dependence on the other by enslaving the slave and setting up his dominant position. But the Master soon discovers that exactly the opposite is true.12 In a very real way the Slave authorizes the Master’s mastery. Recognition is a symbolic exchange of power. Some scholars indicate that symbol is a regime of death. It brings death / alienation as it brings presence in absence. It allows us to experience death without actually dying. It offers us a being-towards-death. It introduces absence itself as presence. It assists us to hold a public Persona that holds something private in reserve, hidden beneath the symbol. But it makes coexistence possible. We relate to the other through the mediation of symbols. Lacan says the arrival of the symbol submits the self to the regime of the Big Other. The Big Other is not any specific other . It is a generic term for Other that represents the interests of the social order as a whole. The Big Other is the source of recognition. We wish recognition and approval in society so that we fall in line with the social order in our society. Hence, the Law plays an important role in the dynamics of recognition. The law of the social order commands us to sacrifice our enjoyment and one gains recognition to the extent one obeys the law. Thus we trade enjoyment for recognition. On the basis of banning enjoyment the symbolic order constitutes itself. With it the importance of the objects decreases and symbols increase. What we do with the symbol of the object becomes far more important than what we do with the object itself . Lacan says that what we do with the symbol elephant ends up deciding what we do with the real elephant.13 The symbolic order institutes the symbol as an indicator of value. Hence, symbolic recognition becomes a substitute for enjoyment. Strictly speaking one comes to enjoy one’ s recognition through a symbolic exchange. Hence enjoyment becomes exchange of symbols. This can explain why some brands, goods and services reach a symbolic realm and are sought to acquire recognition in our society within our reigning symbolic order. The drive for recognition fires our society of overconsumption.

Widening the Analysis of the Psychological Roots Ecological Crises

Our analysis so far has taken roots of over consumption in societies commanded by prohibition. We have seen how prohibition becomes the foundation of desire, setting us on an endless road of seeking fulfilment that never can be achieved. Here we open our analysis to societies commanded by enjoyment and examine how they determine our desire for overconsumption. Scholars like Zizek have pointed out that with the advent of global capitalism our societies are gradually organizing under the imperative of enjoyment.14 Pathological narcissism has become the mode of being-in-the-world. The superego, the internal representative of the law, is now giving the command to enjoy. We have entered the new regime of Id that clamours for unlimited enjoyment. The credit economy has exponentially accelerated to live by the command of enjoyment because it allows one to live beyond one’s means. It has put enjoyment ahead of its cost.

Elusive Enjoyment

Even within societies under the command of enjoyment, real enjoyment still remains elusive. The imperative to enjoy simply produces a desire/ obligation to enjoy. It does not produce enjoyment. Under the sense of being under obligation to enjoy , enjoyment becomes much more difficult. Zizek says that when freedom to enjoy becomes reversed as obligation to enjoy, enjoyment is effectively blocked.15 When a subject is enjoined to experience enjoyment to the fullest, it itself creates psychic barriers to enjoy it. Just like telling oneself to sleep right away is no way going to induce sleep, telling one to enjoy is the surest way to render it next to impossible. Enjoyment remains out of reach in its fullest sense. Facing endless possibilities of enjoyment, the person under the command to enjoy can never fully enjoy. There always remain other ways of enjoying it. This leads the person to hop from commodity to commodity, from internet site to internet site , from channel to channel seeking ever fuller enjoyment. Each new experience seems to promise the elusive enjoyment that would fulfil the imperative enjoy. It is on the command to enjoy that the over consuming society of today is built. The mere proliferation of enjoyment is the hallmark of over consuming society. Thus, instead of creating unrestrained enjoyment the command to enjoy only feeds in the desire to look for more enjoyment. This is why we societies under the command to enjoy also produce conservatives and fanatically oriented fundamentalists. Thus, where we seem to look for the absence of the law of father, there is an increased presence. Zizek calls the new father that has emerged in societies commanded by enjoyment as the ‘ anal Father of enjoyment’ . He is called anal father because he obsessively attends to every details of our life, policing into every private enclave where we might hide our enjoyment. The anality of this new father is in the control of everything.16 The anal father multiplies his presence through the cultural police who monitor and promote conservatism and fanaticism.

Facing the Other’s Enjoyment

In societies commanded by enjoyment one has to face Others enjoyment in its most unbearable dimension. Wherever one goes he/she cannot escape Others enjoyment. The enjoyment of the Other constitutes one as a desiring subject who is perpetually looking for his/her enjoyment that cannot be actualized in its fullness. Thus, the desire becomes intensely mimetic. The person under the power of mimetic desire is not just pulled to imitate the enjoyment of the Other, but is drawn to mimic the manner / the way of the enjoyment of the Other. This mimesis can only happen through the imaginary. It is the image of the enjoyment of the Other that triggers our desire to enjoy like the Other. We can only mimic the enjoyment of the Other at the imaginary level. The imaginary is based on the relation of duality. The imaginary allows the self to directly relate to the image of the Other without the mediation of the third party (symbol/ the big Other). Lacan calls the imaginary sphere as the closed world of the two. It does not have the presence of the lack that the symbolic order introduces. Hence, the imaginary provides the image of enjoyment that symbolic order cannot provide.17 The imaginary hides the experience of castration, the sacrifice of enjoyment that is required by those under the regime of the symbolic order. The imaginary keeps the subjects satisfied not with the reality of their desire but with its image. Enjoyment in the imaginary becomes the enjoyment of the fantasy or the imagined. The imaginary enjoyment renders the subject as docile subjects and leads them to conform to the dictates of the symbolic order. Besides, the imaginary satisfaction increases the productivity of the subject who remains immersed in the imaginary without feeling the need of transcending it. An over consuming society feeds on the imaginary. Faced with the enjoying Other (advertisement, other images), we do not wish to be left out. The enjoyment of others produces a desire to mimic his enjoyment. Here, the subject does not have to give up his/her desire but can pursue his /her desire and enjoy the enjoyment of his/her experience. To enjoy like the enjoying Other one has to mimic the Other. This is achieved by the imaginary.

Seeking Authentic Responses to the Ecological Crises

The culture of overconsumption has accelerated the ecological crisis. Our study of it calls for a psychological response. The culture of overconsumption manipulates our desire and drives us like maniacs in search of enjoyment that is trapped in more enjoyment. We have seen how both the society of prohibition and society commanded by enjoyment only reproduce insatiable desiring subjects. It appears both these societies stay within the patriarchal matrix and are unable to bring about authentic responses to the culture of overconsumption. Hence, we may have to look elsewhere. Here, let us try to understand the becoming animals of Deleuze and Gauttari and the matrixial approach of Brachua Entingger. Maybe we might hit upon some creative ways of responding to the crisis facing us from border spaces/margins. Here, we can trace non-rational approaches that vibrate with a resonative hermeneutics (associative/dissociative hermeneutics) drawn by sustained aesthetical pulls.

Becoming Animal

Deleuze and Gauttari have given a clarion call to humanity to become an animal. It is a call to a radical deanthropomohization. They invite us to examine how animals territorialize their space and learn how we can enter into our ecological world. Doing this, they both promote an anti-humanistic line of thought which favours the process of desubjectification, depersonalization and differentiation that have the capacity to become animals. They say that this becoming has nothing to do with imitation of animals. They teach that nothing is held fixed in pre-given identities. Everything gives way to assemblages, alliances, passages and becomings. Becoming a bird for instance, does not take in an oniric, phantasmagoric world. They occur in concrete and material states of affair that express impersonal forces to transform sensible forces that otherwise remain insensible. Thus, becoming is not resembling. It aims at tracing the zone of proximity . This means to become does not mean to attain a form( identity, imitation, Mimesis) but to find a zone of proximity, indiscernibility of differentiation where one can no longer be distinguished from an animal . Becoming is being in place of. This metamorphosis implies no integral change in Identity that could render impossible to recognize the one experiencing it. Thus, becoming implies a series of assemblages between deterritorializing forces that are circulating at the edge of human and non-human, in order to make them indiscernible.18 The Becoming do not obey no-predefined rule. They happen like an event. Thus, coming into the proximity zone of animals might be an important way to resist the culture of overconsumption. Taking the space of animals makes us immanent and fully involved with the environment and we leave without any attempt of mastery or possession. Animals territorialize to satisfy basic needs so becoming animals orients us to need satisfaction and has no connection with maniacal desire lured by the mass consuming culture.

Living in the Matrixial Border Space

The theory of the matrix of Brachua Ettinger is another important means of building a response to the mass consumer culture that plagues humanity all over the globe. Ettinger gives a primary meaning to matrix as womb/uterus and presents it as a symbol for a relationship to alterity or difference. Thus, matrix as womb/uterus becomes a space/site that welcomes and nurtures, the otherness and even unknown-ness of the other. Just like a mother who does not digest/ absorb the infant as an organ within her, so too matrix offers us a way to relate to otherness without destroying the otherness of the other. Hence, she presents the mother-infant encounter as the originary matrixial encounter. Within this encounter we can trace a creation and preservation of space which she calls matrixial borderspace. Thus, in many ways the matrix replaces the Phallus, the master signifier that creates and sustains us as desiring subjects. The matrix creates and sustains us as caring and nurturing subjects . This new ethics of care is exactly what we need to counter the ecological ethics that sustains the culture of over consumption. The matrixial relation is not just one that glorifies and maintains the otherness of the other in isolation. Ettinger’s concept of metamorphosis manifests that that infant does not just remain a foreign body in the womb of the mother. There is a mutual transformation in the co-presence of each other that brings about a co-emergence. The infant becomes the child in the co-presence of the mother and the Mother becomes a mother in the co-presence of the child. This co-emergence happens in the matrixial borderspace where the borderlines cross each other, collapsing the phallic logic of the subject/object dichotomy without dissolving the one into the other. This process of marking a line without dissolving the one into another and without traumatic penetration of the one into the other but allowing an permeation/ osmosis is called metamorphosis by Entingger.19 This ethic of osmotic relation of care rather than domination could be an effective way of carving a response to the culture of overconsumption that afflicts our plant today.

Conclusion

The culture of overconsumption can be overcome with a new alliance with life (Zoe). Life as Bios is steadily commoditised and even transformed on the wings of technologies like biotechnologies, genetic engineering, nanotechnologies, cognitive science, information technologies etc., and is rapidly moving towards a post-human future. Thus, resistance to this overconsumption that rides the death drive which invites us to belong to the future by completely transforming our embodied existence is urgent. Thus, this overconsumption does just threaten the earth, our common home but also our individual as well our collective humanity. That is why an analysis of Psychological roots of our impending ecocide is urgent as well as salubrious. What we need is embodied, embedded, life in symbiosis with life and conditions that makes it possible in our common home, the planet earth. I propose to avoid biocentrism because it is still tainted by anthropocentrism and it reduces all life (bios) into raw material to be exploited by the market forces. Perhaps, we need a new ethic of zoe, that is not contaminated by anthropocentrism but remains in solidarity with all life forms and ecologies. This ethic is an ethics of care that carries every life form like the mother carrying the infant in her womb and thus becomes an antidote to the disposable culture central to over consuming societies. We have tried to propose Deluezian and Gauttari’s proposal of ‘becoming an animal’ and ‘matrixial ethics’ of care of Ettinger as viable alternatives for this present crisis facing us. We may still need other ways to respond to the crisis that we are facing.

Sources

  1. Pope Francis, Laudato Si: On Common Care of the Earth (Trivandrum: Carmel International Publishing House, 2015).
  2. John Roffe and Hannah Stark, Eds., Deleuze and the Non/Human (Hampshire: Plagrave Macmillan, 2015
  3. Francois Raffoul, The Origin of Responsibility (Indiana university PressL Indianapolis, 2010), p 173.
  4. Freud also marks the distance between the ideal ego and ego ideal. This broken / fragmented self becomes the lacking self in Lacan.
  5. Link accessed on 20/9/2016
  6. Link accessed on 20/9/2016
  7. See Darian Leader and Judy Groves, Introducing Lacan (Cambridge: Icon, 2000).
  8. For more on death drive see Richard Boothy, Death and Desire: the Psychoanalytic theory in Lacan’s Return to Freud (New York : Routledge, 20014).
  9. See Todd McGowan, The End of Dissatisfaction ? Jacques Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment (Albany: State University of New York, Press, 2004), p. 16.
  10. Jean-Michel Rebate, Cambridge Companion to Lacan ( Cambridge :Cambridge University Press ,2003) p. 244
  11. See Todd McGowan, The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), p. 6.
  12. See Todd McGowan, The End of Dissatisfaction ? p. 26.
  13. See Ibid, p. 24.
  14. See Ibid, p. 34.
  15. See Ibid, p. 38.
  16. See Ibid, p. 46.
  17. See Ibid, p. 72.
  18. See Rosi Baraidotti, Transpositions: on Nomadic Ethics ( Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006), pp. 96-138.
  19. Link accessed 20/9/2016. Pp. 18-25.

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