Noëlle McAfee, "Fear of Breakdown: Psychoanalysis and Politics" (Columbia UP, 2019)


In his classic essay on the fear of breakdown, Donald Winnicott famously conveys to a patient that the disaster powerfully feared has, in fact, already happened. Taking her cue from Winnicott, Noëlle McAfee’s Fear of Breakdown: Psychoanalysis and Politics (Columbia University Press, 2019), explores the implications of breakdown fears for the practice of democracy. Democracy, as you may dimly recall, demands the capacity to bear difference, tolerate loss, and to speak into the unknown. Meanwhile we have come to live in a world where, if my clinical practice and personal life are any indication, people often prefer writing to speaking. Patients who want to make a schedule change--never a neutral event in psychoanalysis—write me. I say, addressing the resistance, “This is a talking cure. Get your money’s worth. Speak!” Among intimates, bad news is something I too often read about. I surmise that in speaking desire or conveying pain, a fantasized recipient is sought, an ideal listener, who, like a blow up doll lover can be invoked, controlled and then deflated at will. Circling back to difference and loss, ideas that do not mirror our already existing thoughts find themselves batted out of the park to an elsewhere not worth enunciating. Cultivating a protective bubble—such a heartbreak right? It seems there is something about democracy that frightens the shit out of us. Deploying the work of Winnicott, Klein, Green and Kristeva, Mcafee reminds us of our original loss—what she calls “plenum”. That loss, to the degree it is recognized, initiates our undoing. Mother’s other—be it her lover, her piano lessons, a visit to the dentist for a cavity—tears a hole in our emotional shield. In her wake, we cling to seemingly strong leaders, a father, or failing that potent ideologies reeking of misogyny, all the while hoping for compensation for an unfathomable loss. Embedded within democracy lies the demand that we see other than ourselves. This demand challenges the thin-skinned among us. And all of us are thin-skinned from time to time. How to manage? Mcafee adds her voice to the popular chorus of those practicing applied psychoanalysis and suggests we embrace mourning. It is an inarguable position yet also nice work if you can get it! Of course, with the original disaster elided, like sleepwalkers in our night fog, we will helplessly seek it out; worse, we will make it manifest, with a vengeance. What is not remembered gets repeated. Trapped in America, as I am, one wonders about democracy. What might lure us to revisit the sight of the disaster, “the thing itself’,” to quote Adrienne Rich, “and not the myth?”

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Tracy Morgan

Tracy D. Morgan: Psychoanalyst, LCSW-R, M.Phil., Editor, New Books in Psychoanalysis.

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