Mourning and Modernity: Essays in the Psychoanalysis of Contemporary Society (Book Review)

Author:  Balbus, Isaac
Publisher: Other Press
Reviewed By: Bruce Reis, Vol. XXVI, 4 (Fall 2006), pp. 54-55

I imagine if I were to meet Isaac Balbus, the author of this collection of essays, at a dinner party we would talk all evening—not because we would have much in agreement—but because there would be so much we disagree over, that it could not possibly be anything other than a deeply engaging conversation. Such was my experience too of Mourning and Modernity, Balbus’s very readable, and far-ranging compilation of essays on topics that include: the need for male and female co-parenting of children; the need for racial reparations to be made to the African American community by white Americans; and the need to mourn the ideals of “the Movement” of the Sixties. While Balbus covers a great deal of ground in his investigations, the lenses through which he views a varied landscape are generally consistent ones. Attempting to marry psychoanalysis with critical social theory, Balbus’s commitment is to the struggle against domination. He relies on neo-Kleinian theory to chart cultural defenses, particularly infantile omnipotence, idealization, and manic denial, employed against mourning a variety of social wrongs. The ever-present context of Balbus’s investigations is his commitment to 1960s idealism.

The first chapter contains Balbus’s hypothesis that children who are co–parented (meaning children also raised by their fathers) will become adults who lack the “misogynist unconscious fantasies of exclusively mother-raised children (p.11).” Relying on a developmental scheme put forward by Dorothy Dinnerstein, and seeking to augment that scheme to counter the prevalence of misogynistic domination, Balbus writes: “When men come to participate with women as equal partners in the process of gratifying and frustrating the vital needs of their infants and young children, fathers will join mothers as the object of both their love and their hate (p. 8).” With the frustration of early infantile experience shared by both man and woman, and the child’s subsequent inability to turn to the father as an over-idealized object in defense against maternal conflict, mothers would no longer be the exclusive target of infantile rage. Mixing his own project with quotations from Dinnerstein, Balbus hypothesizes:

“[W]omen would “stop serving as scapegoats… for human resentment of the human condition.” With fathers no longer available as an “apparently blameless category of person” to whom children can turn to evade their intense ambivalence, “split-off feelings of love and anger…would have to be integrated within each individual person.” Thus co-parenting would open the door to Klein’s “depressive position” and enable “our infantilism [to] be more easily outgrown.” Having truly grown up, men would no longer need to dominate women and women would no longer need to be dominated by men.”(p. 8).

In his next chapter, Balbus proceeds from Dinnerstein’s assumptions that the mother is the child’s first representative of the world and that the child’s relationship with the mother will serve as the template for the adult’s symbolization of nature. Going back to expand the argument of his previous book Marxism and Domination, in which he hypothesized that “objectification (and the domination of nature that it entails) is a culturally and historically specific form of male domination (p. 25),” Balbus defends himself here against a number of critics of his position, and concludes that changes in childrearing practices from the late medieval to the early modern period that served to increase the father’s power within the home resulted in a form of domination of nature that is gendered in its expression. Thus production in Marxian terms is patriarchal

“because it entails a commitment to the domination of nature that is an historically and culturally specific form of the domination of men over women. If the domination of nature was, in turn, the consequence of a gender struggle that replaced maternal with paternal control over the mode of child reading, then we can add that “production” is patriarchal because it was the conceptual child of the father-dominated family” (p. 41, italics in original).

In chapters 3 through 6, Balbus takes up and takes on some of my favorite philosophers. He claims that the concept of core gender identity survives its deconstruction by Judith Butler. He rather unfairly, in my opinion, critiques Kelly Oliver’s “complete misreading of the chapter on ‘Lordship and Bondage’ in [Hegel’s] Phenomenology of Mind (p. 55),” and fails to find in Walter Benjamin an adequate theory of political mourning which would “inform our project of saving the Sixties (p. 79).” Chapters 7 and 8 were to my mind the most problematic of the book. In chapter 7, titled “Mourning the Movement,” Balbus reflects on a generation’s nostalgia for “the Sixties,” and the “political depression” that has set in for a group who continue to long for “a golden age that has been lost to a permanently pallid present (p. 80).” The grief of a generation having gone unexpressed, Balbus advocates for a mourning of the movement, it’s unfulfilled hope as well the darker side of its intolerance and cruelty. Making this reparation, Balbus hopes, will reenergize the Movement’s former idealists to “doing now what we were unable to do then (p. 88).” In the next chapter, Balbus argues that reparations made to African Americans by white Americans would be “in the emotional interest of whites.” It would require, he writes, for whites to confront and acknowledge the harm that they have done, or even have fantasized doing to blacks. And, he expects that this confrontation will be so laced with unconscious anxiety and guilt that it will be easier for whites to deny responsibility for the suffering of blacks. Balbus writes of the projection of idealized and devalued qualities onto blacks by whites. Expanding on Kovel’s psychoanalytic theorizing, Balbus goes so far as to suggest:

“Idealization of black skin also has an anal explanation. Infants initially delight in the smell and taste of their bodies as well as their bodily products. Defecation in particular is an eminently pleasurable experience. And its product, we have seen, is the proud young child’s first gift to the mother. Thus shit is initially experienced as good. But the joyful relationship to our excrement is soon sacrificed to the demands of continence and the shame of failing to achieve it. However, this relationship, like all repressed relationships, is not entirely lost but rather resurfaces, I am proposing, in the form of the love of the dark skin that unconsciously reminds us of the lost pleasures of ‘letting go.’ Thus it is possible that blacks represent for whites the forbidden loss of control that they crave… the association between dark skin and a liberating letting-go is also strengthened, it seems to me, by the connection between whites getting a tan and whites being on vacation. Is it entirely accidental that whites are most inclined to darken their skin when they are relaxing their quotidian commitment to control” (p. 103-104)?

In the subsequent chapter Balbus critiques cyberspace, which he feels promotes a time–space compression that promotes the proliferation and intensification of fantasies of infantile omnipotence by the user; these fantasies, he believes, fuel modernity. In the final chapter the author attempts to engineer a reparation for the environmental harm caused during modernity by again applying Kleinian thinking: e.g., “Thus the nature we love is also the nature we hate.”

A clear drawback of this volume is that it does not interface with the relational literature at all. That’s a pity because so many of the themes that Balbus takes up are also taken up by members of his generation who have struggled with the same issues and at times have utilized the same theoretical vantage points. He could have engaged Altman and Peltz on the subject of the manic society. He could have engaged Harris and Mitchell on approaches to “nature.” He could have engaged Benjamin on the main subject of his book: the problem of domination. He could have engaged Dimen and Goldner on the topic of feminist-psychoanalytic approaches.

The death of a movement, of a way of thinking and being, is generally a good thing, though it does not seem that way at the time. Unlike the loss of a person, the death of a movement opens the way for new thinking on old problems. While I applaud Balbus’s wish to come to terms with the successes and the failures of his movement, I don’t much relish his enthusiasm for its resurrection. Does that mean that I am ungrateful for the real gains made as a result of the conscience of Balbus’s generation? It does not. Most of my male friends already have what he calls a co–parenting arrangement, but I don’t know that this will solve the societal problem of domination of women by men; I for one find Butler’s deconstruction of a core gender identity quite compelling. I rather enjoy the speed afforded by cyberspace (but I don’t think my enjoyment of it has to do with infantile omnipotence per se). And I think of the idea of racial reparations as a rather complicated and frankly poorly conceived idea. That doesn’t mean that I am denying the real harm that whites have done and continue to do to blacks in this society; I just don’t think that a cash payout is the best way to come to terms with that harm. And lastly, it just seems so dated to struggle against the patriarchy. As a result of societal changes occasioned by the women’s movement, we’ve seen women take power, and power corrupt women as it has men; sadly we’ve learned that one need not be an old boy to create an old boy’s network. Let’s face it, power corrupts, whatever your gender.

Balbus is a member of a generation that changed the world. That generation’s nostalgia for their Movement is understandable, but that time has passed. We now enjoy the speed and convenience of the Internet, and think very differently about gender than they did in the Sixties. That mothers and fathers now raise their children together has been as much or more the result of substantial changes in economics as it has been the result of idealism around gender equality. Not all of the societal ills that the Sixties generation combated have been righted, but we are faced with new challenges now, and with the problem of approaching these challenges in ways that escape the shadow of a generation’s best intentions.

Bruce Reis

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