Robert Pfaller: What to do when progress seems to melt away emancipation?

The current “postsecular” experience of blossoming religious fundamentalisms as well as of cultural fanatisms – such as veganism and “health religion” – challenges the modernist understanding of capitalism as a power that “melts” everything solid into thin air: apparently not everything is getting melted, and not forever – obviously some things can be recast again, or even newly cast. And on the other hand, precisely what used to be the melting forces, economic rationality, secularism and enlightenment, do not anymore seem to be indispensable weapons of capitalist development, but now appear to get melted themselves, due to its progress. This leads to the intriguing question: what is here melting what, and which of them is on the side of the egalitarian, emancipatory forces?

These paradoxes can only be explained by a closer analysis of the dynamics and overdeterminations in the history of religions. If we follow Jan Assmann’s distinction between “primary” and “secondary” religions, as well as Octave Mannoni’s psychoanalytic distinction between “belief” and “faith”, and if we develop a precise understanding of Max Weber’s notion of the “disenchantment of the world”, we become able to draw better lines of demarcation. First, the enemy of superstitious belief is not reason, but religious faith. Disenchantment is therefore, as Weber emphasizes, executed not by enlightenment but by religion’s hostility against magic. Secondly, religious fanatism occurs when the master-signifiers of belief, faith and secular reason get suspended. Religious fundamentalism and secular “health religious” fanatism therefore have to be understood as ideological twins; as opposite sides of the same coin. This suspension can be explained by a specific internal dialectic that occurs when faith, confronted with the beliefs of others, turns itself into paranoic consciousness. Thirdly, this paranoic consciousness, the obsession with the other’s presumed enjoyment, is the indispensable ideological form of neoliberal capitalism. It keeps people narrow-minded, anxious, hostile against good life and envious against others – ready to accept childish, authoritarian prohibitions and, at the same time, to ignore the massive redistributions of wealth. From here, we can draw a first political conclusion: the ideological struggle of today’s emancipatory forces is neither a struggle for, nor against religion. Rather, it has to follow George Bataille’s hints concerning the “sacred of everyday life” as the stake of class struggle. The aim of emancipatory ideological struggle must therefore be to re-establish those master signifiers that allow individuals to behave in a sovereign way – or, in the words of Bertolt Brecht, “to fear bad life more than death

Robert Pfaller is professor of cultural theory at the University of Art and Industrial Design in Linz, Austria. Founding member of the Viennese psychoanalytic research group “stuzzicadenti”.
The Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions without Owners (Verso, 2014)
Umazano Sveto in Cisti Um. (Ljubljana: Analecta, 2009)
Wofuer es sich zu leben lohnt. Elemente materialistischer Philosophie (Fischer, 2011)
2007 “The Missing Link” award for connecting psychoanalysis with other scientific disciplines, by Psychoanalytisches Seminar Zurich (PSZ).
2015 “Best Book Award” by the American Board and Academy of Psychoanalysis (ABAPsa).

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