Permissivity and the New Disciplinary Society: A Comparison — John F. Foppiani

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Dostoyevsky’s famous assertion is that “without god, everything is permitted.” A Žižekian would invert this claim, and instead state that “without god, nothing is permitted.” In “Lacan plays with Bobok”, Žižek quotes Lacan:

If God doesn’t exist, the father says, then everything is permitted. Quite evidently, a naïve notion, for we analysts know full well that if God doesn’t exist, then nothing at all is permitted any longer. Neurotics prove that to us every day. [1].

Today’s paradox is that uncovering the guise of free choice can actually reveal a more oppressive authoritarian structure. This claim can be applied to a variety of issues in cultural studies. I use Žižek’s well known anecdote about the classic authoritarian father vs the permissive postmodernist father. The short version of the story is that the child wants to play with his friends, but has to visit his grandmother instead. The old fashioned authoritarian father says that he does not care about his feelings, and that it is his obligation to visit his grandmother whether he likes it or not. The postmodernist father takes a different approach:

{Much} more tricky would have been the message of a “postmodern” non-authoritarian father: “You know how much your grandmother loves you! But, nonetheless, I do not want to force you to visit her – go there only if you really want to!” Every child who is not stupid (and as a rule they are definitely not stupid) will immediately recognize the trap of this permissive attitude: beneath the appearance of a free choice there is an even more oppressive demand than the one formulated by the traditional authoritarian father, namely an implicit injunction not only to visit the grandmother, but to do it voluntarily, out of the child’s own free will. Such a false free choice is the obscene superego injunction. [2].

Simply put, Žižek points out that “instead of bringing freedom, the fall of the oppressive authority thus gives rise to new and more severe prohibitions” With the case of the child, the postmodernist father deflects the question back to the child, who has to take on the burden of having to morally decide what is right; even though the father knows that there is one right answer. This creates a crisis of authority.

In Byung Chul-Han’s book The Burnout Society we see that our positivist societal injunction to always achieve corresponds with depression and poor mental health. This implies another sort of paradox. Han introduces the idea of the power of the socially unconscious and the drive for maximizing production: “The positivity of can is much more efficient than the negativity of should. Therefore the social unconscious switches from the should to can. The achievement subject is faster and more productive than the obedience subject. However, the can does not revoke the should. The obedience subject remains disciplined.” [3].

Han’s argument mirrors the idea of a contemporary notion of authoritarianism under the guise of free choice; this time in the context of an achievement society. Just because we depart from the disciplinary society of generations past does not negate the presence of discipline itself; it just makes it more concealed and unconscious. According to Alain Ehrenberg, ”Depression spreads when the commandments and prohibitions of disciplinary society lead to self-responsibility and initiative” [4]. Interestingly enough, self-responsibility and initiative are ideas that are expressly endorsed by the neoliberalist ideology of today.

In our Covid society, tiredness is becoming all too prevalent. Students lose motivation, office workers suffer from Zoom burnout. The ego becomes overheated after being perpetually told to ‘reinvent’ itself. Han’s idea of a depression endemic to our achievement society could be summed up as a sort of “auto-exploitation; a paradoxical freedom that abruptly switches into violence because of the compulsive structures within it” [5]. The new authoritarianism of the 21st century will not come from a brutal overbearing style. Rather it will come from being unconsciously maneuvered and manipulated by big tech (an industry that manipulates us voluntarily based on permissions). It’s a more subtle, yet no less effective regime of control and surveillance by government and big tech in conjunction with one another.

We do not have a clear cut solution to this predicament. Covid-19 and its link towards a rise in mental health malaises points to the ineffectiveness of the endless injunctions to enjoy and achieve. Coping with our societal demands cannot come via hedonism and in some cases, nihilism, (recall the idea it is easier to imagine the end of the world than a slight change to capitalism, an idea endorsed by the conservatives of today). It is here that we have a case against the hegemony of neoliberalism. Instead of descending into hedonism, the foundation of a new economic and political world order (spurred on by the long lasting effects of the Covid-19 pandemic) may become inevitable.

John F. Foppiani is a student at Stony Brook University, Department of Hispanic Languages and Literatures. He can be reached by email at jackfopp44 (at) gmail.com

Notes:

[1] Jacques Lacan, The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, New York: Norton 1988, p. 128. Retrieved from https://www.lacan.com/essays/?p=184#_ftn3.

[2] “God is Dead, But He Doesn’t Know It: Lacan Plays with Bobok” by Slavoj Žižek. 04.04.2009 Retrieved from https://www.lacan.com/essays/?p=184#_ftn3

[3] Byung-Chul Han. The Burnout Society. Stanford University Press, 2015, p. 9.

[4] Ibid, p. 10

[5] Ibid.

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