Todd McGowan, Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016; 304 pages. ISBN: 978-0231178723.

Reviewed by Anthony Ballas, University of Colorado at Denver.

Can capitalism be psychoanalyzed? This is the inaugural question of Todd McGowan’s study of the status of desire under capitalism through Lacanian psychoanalysis. This is ultimately the kind of gesture we have come to expect from McGowan, whose many other works are framed along similar parameters; the bulk of titles McGowan has brought us over the years, Spike Lee (2011), The Impossible David Lynch (2007), The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan (2007), and Psychoanalytic Film Theory and ‘The Rules of the Game’ (2015) to name a few, demonstrate McGowan’s unapologetic allegiance to Lacan. Capitalism and Desire is no different; however, the book does depart in one crucial way from his other texts, taking aim at capitalism with only minor recourse to the cinematic. 

There should be no shame in recycling the psychoanalytic model to the extent that McGowan has. On the contrary, it proves the versatility of the project of psychoanalysis, and the fidelity that McGowan maintains toward its precepts prove trenchant and viable in the realm of Ideologiekritik. Vicky Lebeau writes that psychoanalysis offers the “promise of a means to psychoanalyse culture” (Psychoanalysis and Cinema, 6). However, the target of McGowan’s book pries deeper than cultural critique, digging into the groundwork of capitalism which is itself indifferent to “which culture germinated it and nourishes it.” (20) In this title, McGowan dives deeper than in other works, isolating the structure of desire, its failure and repetition, through which the subject of capitalism reproduces satisfaction with reference, of course, to those little inventions of psychoanalysis which persist, necessarily, to bug us: objet a, Todestrieb, das Ding, and the like. 

For Freud, to perform analysis on an economic structure would be a specious endeavor–  psychoanalysis being, for him, a dialogic exchange between individual psyches, whereas Massenpsychologie was a practice unto itself, with only tangential or occasional crossover with its cousin the so-called “talking cure.” For McGowan, following the theorists of the latter day Freudo-Lacanian variety, every structure opens up a space outside of itself, which leaves it vulnerable to critique, and, consequently, to psychoanalyze capitalism is inherently to critique it. Though McGowan is quick to acknowledge the way in which psychoanalysis once functioned as an “ideological handmaiden of capitalism” (2)—one thinks of the immense failure of the prison reform movement in America as prime exemplar of this phase of “dual power” between psychoanalysis and the state—he nonetheless insists that the Lacanian model offers crucial insight, taking aim at the psychic appeal of capitalism through the Lacanian topology of desire. 

McGowan’s introduction to Capitalism and Desire details the critical history of the reception of Freud’s discovery of the unconscious in the 20th century, laying bare the overdetermined reliance on the “repressive hypothesis” for this tradition, from Frankfurt to Foucault and beyond, opting instead for a late-career Freud whose attention was turned toward repetition as the true object prohibiting the development of the subject. In the book’s opening chapter, therefore, McGowan takes aim at the usual suspects, Foucault’s discursive regime of the body and Derrida’s messianic futurity of justice to come. It seems that the development of psychoanalytic theory is still dependent upon its defensive position against the bundle of de facto interlocutors whom have grated up against it: Jung, Adler, and today, the persistence of historicism and deconstruction through the so called ‘poststructuralist’ turn — a term that McGowan insists is meaningless. 

McGowan believes Lacan offers a viable alternative to the above trajectories of psychoanalytic theory, developing the intersections and overlapping tendencies of Lacan’s sujet de désir and the subject of capitalism in the Chapter One. For McGowan, although “the fit between […] Freud and Marx is not a comfortable one,” it is, nonetheless, crucial for the development of a critique of the longevity of capitalism, the subject of which succumbs to a certain “production of sublimity, which gives [capitalism] the power to satisfy.” (18) This power to satisfy, the ability for capitalism to appeal psychically, is the object of examination throughout this first chapter. But, for McGowan, it is not capitalism’s success at satisfying that ultimately catches its subjects but rather its perpetual failure to satisfy, built into the commodity form, that sustains desire. Therefore, true to the Lacanian topology, it is the negative spaces of lack, failure, and rupture, as the conditions of possibility for the emergence of satisfaction, that capitalism mirrors. Strewn amongst its exchange values, its principles of equality, its fetishes and the like are the overlooked, though no less determinant, negative objects stinched into the ontology of the desiring subject. 

Chapter Two is a reworking of an essay which appeared in the collection Architecture Post Mortem: The Diastolic Architecture of Decline, Dystopia and Death in 2013. McGowan has since made several alterations to the essay, most notably he has excised all talk of Antigone. In the 2013 version, McGowan uses Antigone to draw the often overlooked connection between the structure of the drive and the public; for psychoanalysis the drive represents the public manifestation of the subject turned toward a real site of social antagonism. As McGowan puts it, “if psychoanalysis emerges out of the suffering that integration into the social order causes, it also reveals how the subject’s satisfaction depends on the public world that appears to thwart that satisfaction.” (62) This formula mirrors Žižek’s repeated usage of the Wagnerian adage from Parsifal, “Die Wunde schließt der Speer nur, der sie schlug” (i.e., the spear that strikes also heals). Thus Antigone’s unapologetic public act of defiance against Creon illustrates a real obstacle hindering the social and the public manifestation of the drive as Antigone’s radical, ethico-political act. In short, the subjective trauma of the social wound is a necessary, unavoidable feature of intersubjective space. In her place, McGowan will insert a reference to Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (1959), using Antoine Dionel’s (Jean-Pierre Léaud) act at the end of the film (his arrival at the ocean and decision to turn back toward the public world he has just fled) to send home the message that “[w]hen we recognize the necessity of the public trauma, we accede to our status as citoyens’.” (69) 

Chapter Three is an account of the psychoanalytic concept of the gaze [le regard], to which Lacan dedicated a section of Seminar XI. Against the image of neutrality, the typical model of passive spectatorship in Anglo-American film theory, McGowan theorizes the gaze in the both the “economic and visual fields” (79), commenting on how obfuscation and distance are the typical routes the subject takes toward the traumatic inertia of the gaze in both Hollywood and capitalism: “[t]he crisis acts on the capitalist system as the film does on the visual field: it facilitates an encounter with the distortion that constitutes the system but remains repressed within it.” (84) This chapter resonates with what Marx regarded as the crisis theory of capitalism, which leads to some of McGowan’s most prescient economic observations, detailing certain factors in the crisis of American capitalism, from the Depression and the New Deal to the elimination of the gold standard and the crisis of 2008. McGowan formulates, in a clever Lacanian aphorism, “capitalism’s nonexistence,” which is to say, just as il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel, so too capitalism is not a natural entity predestined to ameliorate the problem of scarcity. In fact, the converse is true, since it is only through overproduction, the creation of surplus, and the “production of an excess of commodities,” that capitalism enters into crisis. (85)

The remaining chapters offer an eclectic array of subject matter within the capitalist horizon: the secularization of sacrifice; the consecration of a new, and “even more tyrannical” (114) image of God; a rumination on Hegel’s bad and true infinities; the condition of love and romance in capitalism through the commodity form; scarcity and abundance via critiques of Keynes, Ricardo, Smith and Friedman; and an exploration of the fetishism of the market through the Kantian sublime. 

One always marvels at the way the left is able to praise the innovations of capitalism, perhaps the most famous being Marx’s quasi-vindication of the Bourgeois revolution in the Communist Manifesto. In a similar gesture, McGowan attributes the “great achievement” of capitalism to its “transformation of the sublime from transcendence to immanence.” (238) For McGowan, the failed promise embodied in the commodity form reveals the nature of the sublime itself, insofar as “it exists in our failures, not in our successes.” (237) What the capitalist sublime reveals is that the subject will necessarily fail to be satisfied by accumulation (either of commodities or of capital), and that through this failure, our access to the sublime itself is revealed as an immanent feature of everyday life, not a transcendent, “spiritual” escape therefrom. This failure, for McGowan, is the subject’s greatest accomplishment, as it reveals how we already have what the commodity promises, namely the capacity to fail, and, perhaps if we’re lucky, even fail better.

 McGowan concludes with a plea for a hermeneutic approach to accumulation, championing “the act of interpretation require[d to see] what is hidden,” in order to “wrench satisfaction from the hold of accumulation by exposing the deception involved” therein. (240-41) As he states early in the book, although “[n]o revolution can transform dissatisfaction into satisfaction […] the revolutionary act is simply the recognition that capitalism already produces the satisfaction that it promises.” (13) This satisfaction, embodied in the failure to get what we want, allows us instead to realize how it is that we enjoy as such. 

This would be an excellent resource for those interested in the application of psychoanalytic theory to ideology critique, as well as its place in contemporary critical theory. Although there has been, in some circles, a dismissal of Lacan and psychoanalysis more generally, McGowan’s impressive application of the seemingly intractable Lacanian subject to the conditions of late capitalism enables those who might otherwise be disinterested in psychoanalysis to see its unique and important contribution. Moreover, given that when we deal with problems of capitalism, we do so neither in isolation, nor in a vacuum; the universal problematic of global capitalism can perhaps only be confronted by the theory, namely psychoanalysis, which has vigorously maintained throughout its history a non-utopian conception of the subject, one entangled in the twisted, contorted field of perception; an embodied subject, one implicated at all times in the world and, thus, in the economic matrix in which it finds itself caught. If there is any hope for a theory of desire today, it must contend with the topological and algebraic structure of the subject mapped out by Lacan. McGowan, in his acute awareness of this, remains one of the finest examples in American theory of those who continue the Freudo-Lacanian legacy, filling the lacuna in American scholarship on psychoanalysis and, now, critical scholarship on capitalism as well. 


Additional Works Cited

Lebeau, Vicky. (2006) Psychoanalysis and Cinema: the Play of Shadows. (New York: Wallflower Press).