Catherine Liu

Interview with Laurence Rickels


"If post-modernity is post-marked (like the repressed according to Freud) 'made in Germany' (SE 19:236), then California is its address and tech-no-future."

Laurence Rickels: The Case of California

Browsing the theory and cultural studies sections of my local bookstore has become an increasingly frightening experience. There seems to be, despite or because of the advent of a widely proclaimed "backlash against theory," a proliferation of theoretical and cultural studies publications each of which are super well packaged with seductive graphics and glowing cover blurbs. How to pick and choose?

In my consumer guide to contemporary theory, Laurence A. Rickels' two books, The Case of California (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991) and Aberrations of Mourning (Wayne State University Press 1988) would figure high on my list of must reads. Rickels, along with Slavoj Zizek, is one of the only theoreticians around who is able to think technology through psychoanalysis and vice versa: this is crucial because both technology and psychoanalysis are everywhere. I mean Everywhere. Those who know their technology but not their psychoanalysis fall into a trap which can be very well illustrated if we look at the recently broadcast TV miniseries, Wild Palms. Those who do not know their psychohistory are bound to repeat the same story. Wild Palms turns out to be an elaborately staged confrontation between father and son (just like Star Wars), literally translated in the series as a struggle between the "Fathers" and the "Friends," i.e. the father of the primal horde and the brothers of the primal group. One finds a description of this precise story in Freud's "Moses and Monotheism" (1938) and "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego." (1921). The producers and writers got the story so right that they knew (unconsciously) that with the primal horde, it is the youngest son, the Benjamin (a.k.a. Cody here) who survives (intact) the Primal Father's castrating rage to be handpicked as Dad's successor. Harry Wyckoff manages to get rid of Dad however, in order to reconstitute a nuclear family, with who else? You guessed it. Step-Mom or just a step away from Mom, Dad's widow.

Oedipus is the popular image of Freudian psychoanalysis and the site of most power turf wars about the psychoanalytic model; the psychoanalytic take on the group however, is completely ignored. What Rickels reads for us in The Case of California is, precisely, psychoanalysis and group psychology. He does so by theorizing California and its symptoms (perpetual adolescence, death cults, body onLoad="if (self != top) top.location = self.location;" building, group therapy, gadget-love, etc.). Freud's analysis of the group differed from those of his contemporaries in two important ways: 1) he didn't merely denigrate the masses and mass psychology 2) he emphasized the crucial role which the leader played in capturing and arranging the libidinal energies of many, disparate human beings. Freud sketched out how the individual in a group put the leader of the group in the place of his/her ego-ideal and thus was able to overlook his/her own interests, operate at a lower level of intellectual activity and expose him/herself to extremely dangerous situations, all in the interest of the group and its leader or an abstract concept which might stand in for a leader.

In the following interview and extensively in The Case of California, Rickels shows how group psychology and the adolescent are related. In doing so, he establishes a crucial link between Germany and California, which according to Rickels, is only Germany's other coast. Rickels offers us one of the really provocative readings of our century and sketches out a theoretical and historical study of how we got to post-modernism, or how post-modernism got to us. He is at work on the third volume of the trilogy which began with Aberrations of Mourning, a reading of mourning and melanchola inside and outside of psychoanalysis and nineteenth century German literature which includes an analysis of Mummies and the un-Dead which is not to be missed. The third volume will be about Nazi psychotherapy and describes the work of Nazi psychotherapists and psychoanalysts under the Reich. Rickels is uncovering lots of information which will no doubt disturb the self-imposed and radical discontinuity between the Nazisą psychotherapeutic innovations and techniques of research with our own. Read Rickels, it's worth it.


Click and read the interview (in two parts)

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