Thunberg and XR fill me with a feeling of despair. To think that all those weirdo neurotics examined and sometimes cured by Dr Freud a hundred years ago, who we thought had disappeared in our new enlightened age—the obsessives, the hysterics, the anxious neurotics, those suffering from phobias, or from delusions of godlike omnipotence or of helplessness in the face of fate—to think they are suddenly back and gluing themselves to the tops and undersides of public transport in central London… or drifting aimlessly across the ocean like the hattifatteners in the imagination of Tove Jansson, Greta’s brighter elder sister…
Of course, most people nowadays think that Freud’s theories are dépassé. Most sensible Guardian-reading types would reject the idea that the obsessional anxiety they feel in the face of climate change is due to anything in their unconscious. It is a commonplace of modern thought that Freud’s work was based entirely on the analysis of bourgeois Viennese, who were often Jewish, if not actually Jews (see Jonathan Miller circa1962 for an analysis of the difference) or more likely Jewesses. (And isn’t it odd that the current fashionable dismissal of Freudian psychoanalytical theories is possibly the last intellectual redoubt where such a purely sexist, racist analysis is considered permissible?) But let’s get down to business.
Let’s take, for instance, what Freud says about anxiety neurosis in his New Introductory Lectures (Penguin edition p118):
..we have recently been examining the way in which anxiety is generated in certain phobias which we class as anxiety hysteria, and have chosen cases in which we were dealing with the typical repression of wishful impulses arising from the Oedipus Complex. We should have expected to find that it was a libidinal cathexis of the boy’s mother as object which, as a result of repression, had been changed into anxiety… But we have not made any mention at all so far of what the real danger is that the child is afraid of as a result of being in love with his mother. The danger is the punishment of being castrated, of losing his genital organ.
What a load of old-fashioned nonsense.
Extinction Rebellion is not just pink octopuses, men poncing about in long red dresses, teenagers expressing their pre-pubertal anguish, or gaga pensioners embracing the tarmac as part of their programme of geriatric occupational therapy. A lot of the XR rebels are university types with profound things to say. Take for example Doctor Stuart Capstick, research fellow in the school of psychology at the university of Cardiff and lead author of Capstick & Pidgeon 2014: “What is Climate Change Scepticism? Examination of the Concept using a Mixed Methods Study of the UK Public.”
I work on the Low-Carbon Lifestyles and Behavioural Spillover (CASPI) project as a Research Fellow. This project aims to understand how environmentally-friendly lifestyles are understood and develop within different cultures. My main focus within CASPI is to design and analyse cross-national surveys carried out in various countries, including China, India, Brazil and South Africa. I also work on The Climate Communication Project with a diverse group of practitioners, all of whom are interested in developing effective approaches to climate change communication.
He explains his adherence to the philosophy of Extinction Rebellion here.
Let’s examine Dr Capstick’s statement of belief in the imminent destruction of the human race on the XR site, as if he were on the psychoanalyst’s couch. Stuart is not at all of the psychoanalytical school, let it be said. Indeed, it is thanks to the profound advances of academic psychology of the kind practiced by Dr Capstick that it’s possible to read articles nowadays on the meaning of dreams in serious newspapers which make no mention of Freud or the unconscious.
You may argue that this is no more shocking than the fact that you can get a GCSE in general science without studying quantum mechanics. Fair enough. Except that 99.99% of fifteen-year-olds will never need to know about quantum mechanics, while all of them will grow up to be adults and have dreams. It would be nice if academia could give them an inkling of why. This might – who knows? – help them to understand what it means to be a human being. But that’s not part of the programme of modern educational theory, or of Dr Capstick’s career plan.
Instead of pointing out the absurdity of Dr Capstick’s fears which lead him to bond with the out-with-the-fairies nutters of Extinction Rebellion, we will attempt to imitate the objectivity of a proper psychoanalyst by interspersing Stuart’s statements on the XR website with the comments of our imaginary Virtual Psychoanalyst, (VP) who will try to point out a possible path of enlightenment to his/her patient Stuart Capstick (SC), without putting pressure on the patient in any way.
(I must confess that VP is far more interventionist than any psychoanalyst I’ve ever encountered, which may account for his/her efficacity. Or not. All Stuart’s statements come verbatim from his article at Extinction Rebellion. The responses marked […] are imaginary, and have been censored in order to protect his privacy.)
SC: I am a psychologist who researches people’s understanding and responses to climate change, and I have done so for over ten years… But despite all this – maybe because of it – those last ten years have felt like joining an effort to put out a house fire with a water pistol…
VP: Really? A water pistol is certainly a very ineffective weapon. What ideas, what period of your life, do you associate with a water pistol?
VP: And the fire you aim to extinguish with this ineffective weapon is not just any fire, but a house fire. Who, in particular, might have been endangered by a fire in your house, at the time when your only weapon was a water pistol?
SC: There are times that I lie awake at night, with a sense of blind panic rising in me, and I feel terrified and trapped by climate change.
VP: “Trapped,” as in: unable to get out. What idea do you associate with that? Was there a time, a time even before you were conscious of possessing a water pistol, when you felt trapped and unable to get out?
SC: Terrified for my kids – who are 3 and 6 years old, and whose innocent understanding of the world so far doesn’t extend to what we’re doing to it…
VP: So your feeling of being trapped leads directly to thoughts of your children It is certain that at the age of 3 and 6 their innocent understanding of the world “does not extend” to an awful lot of things that adults are doing. No doubt at their age your own “innocent understanding” must have caused you to pose many questions about what adults do? And in particular, what did they do which resulted in your own existence?
VP: That must be a great consolation, to know that most people share your anxieties.
SC: But most of us also float along in a dream-world, knowing but not knowing, aware but unmoved…
VP: So you feel it might all be a dream? That one day you may wake up, and discover – what?
SC: We don’t know yet whether XR will peter out miserably…
VP: “Peter out” – that’s an interesting expression. Doesn’t the word “peter” have another, sexual sense? Isn’t it a slang term for the male genital organ? So to “peter out” would indeed be a sign of miserable failure, of a very personal kind…
SC: …or morph into an effective resistance movement…
VP: Well, “morphing into something effective” is indeed an advance on “petering out.” But “morphing” implies becoming something completely different, doesn’t it? And “resistance” is essentially passive, isn’t it? Not what is normally conveyed by the idea of an “effective movement.” Not even as effective as confronting a house fire with a water pistol. So is the preferable alternative to “petering out” to become something completely different, something passive?
SC: With hundreds of others, I blocked the road by Parliament on 30th October..
VP: Here we pass from your fantasies to action, from a sense that your “water pistol” might not be up to the task of preventing the catastrophic destruction of your home, (your place of security) to a real event – blocking the road – which happened on a precise date. What “event” might that represent? What “precise date” does everyone remember as a moment to be celebrated, if not one’s own birthday?
The fact that you performed this act “With hundreds of others” is obviously comforting, since it asserts that your action was something that happens to everyone, and was therefore absolutely normal. “Blocking the road” implies impeding the entry of someone else. But who? And entry to where? Into the place where you felt “terrified and trapped”?
VP: “A first, symbolic gesture.” That is a powerful image, particularly because of the idea that it’s a “first.” As is “to kick start.” This expression is usually used with respect to motor vehicles, of course, but doesn’t it suggest something more fundamental – the slap given to the newborn baby by the midwife? And isn’t the baby’s first “symbolic gesture” to take in a large gulp of air, that mixture of gases which we all depend upon for life itself?
SC: There was nothing pleasant about breaking the law that day…
VP: Certainly. There is nothing pleasant about birth, for mother or for child, except the anticipation of what it means for the future. And no doubt the same is true for the rebirth that you experienced being dragged from your passive position by the patriarchal forces of reality from the anxiogenic trap in which you found yourself, your position blocking the passage of the Other. But who trapped you in that prenatal prison, if not you yourself, with your ineffectual water pistol?
Why not lay down your ineffectual arms, and accept who you are, a lecturer at a respectable university with a decent future ahead of you? Why not come to terms with the reality of birth and death which confronts us all, and cease to project the anguish which is naturally attached to these fundamental facts of life on to the undeserving Mother Earth? Why not relax and live a little?
I could go on. There are hundreds of similar confessions of potential climate mental patients out there.
As the great S. Beckett put it: I can’t go on. I’ll go on.