Critical Theory in the Favelas

By Stijn De Cauwer

I first read about the work of the Observatório de Favelas in the great book Radical Cities by Justin McGuirk (Verso, 2014). This organization in the vast and sprawling favela Complexo da Maré in Rio De Janeiro was founded by the social geographer Jailson de Souza e Silva. Besides being a place for research about life in the favelas, the organization also houses the Escola Popular de Comunicação Crítica (ESPOCC). It has always been the dream of Jailson to start an alternative university in the favelas, in which educational programs would be combined with critical reflection about life there. Out of a personal interest in alternative education projects and curious to see how “critical theory” is put to use in a specific context, I decided to visit this place during my current stay in Rio.


Various recent developments, however, have made visiting Complexo da Maré—a series of connected favelas that blended together over time—not so inviting. Maré is not one of those favelas that the city of Rio has attempted to turn into some kind of a tourist attraction. Recently, the violence in Maré has flared up once again. Two rivalling drug gangs fight to control the favela, with its inhabitants in the crossfire, and, making matters worse, the army has attempted to control the favela, which has added to the violence. During carnival, the fighting became so widespread that the highways near Maré, including the highway to the airport, were closed. It was precisely the violence of the army, causing casualties wherever they operate, that Marielle Franco denounced. Marielle was born in Complexo da Maré and made it to the Rio city council, where she continued her struggle for the people in the favelas. Last week, she was shot in downtown Rio. Her assassination strongly affected and shocked the people of Brazil. At the university where she was supposed to speak this week, a protest event was held. Murals with the slogan “Marielle presente” can be seen all over city. Even David Byrne dedicated the last song of his show in Rio to her. If I was not accompanied by a local friend who is familiar with the area, I would probably not have taken a bus to Maré.

Several photos of Marielle are hanging on the wall as we enter the Observatório. We are guided by Piê, who explains that the past week was very hectic for them with the murder of Marielle and the many protests that were organized in the wake of her death. Piê is a former student of the Escola Popular de Comunicação Crítica. Because of the fact that university education is relatively expensive in Brazil and the Temer government has implemented heavy cutbacks in academic funding and grants, university education is mostly out of reach for the inhabitants of Maré. The Observatório offers free courses that are part of two programs: one program teaching the students audiovisual skills and photography for the purposes of citizens’ journalism and another program in digital culture. The one-year programs lead to a degree that is acknowledged by the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. Some of the students have been able to adopt their skills in various cultural projects throughout the city. Because the classes take place in the Observatório, the students are also involved in the debates and research going on there concerning the conditions of the favelas, as well as the activism against the continuous violence experienced by the inhabitants and the so called “pacification” of the favelas. After several years of successfully running the program, Piê also acknowledges that recent political and economic developments have affected the funding of the organization, making it difficult to continue the educational programs at this time.

The day before this visit, I presented a paper at a large academic conference in Rio De Janeiro, partly organized by the Academia Brasileira De Filosofia. Probably as an overreaction to safety concerns in Rio, the conference was held inside the old military academy near the beach of Leme. The general absurdity and stuffy pompousness of this kind of academic conference, with posh receptions in the presence of the consuls of various countries and a dress code, was made all the more bizarre by the location. Entering the conference was only possible after showing one’s badge at an army checkpoint. Our PowerPoint presentations were even installed by uniformed soldiers. The usual dreary presentations were disrupted by the occasional blaring of an army trumpet. The contrast with the idealistic attempts of the people of the Observatório to offer academic education and critical theory to the inhabitants of Rio could not be bigger.

For more information: (in Portugese)

The​ ​Neurotic​ ​Turn: Inter-Disciplinary Correspondences on Neurosis.

Neurotic turn

Recently Charlie Johns edited an extremely interesting book that works through the argument that neurosis is the dominant condition of our society today. An array of thinkers, as Graham Harman, Benjamin Noys, Patricia Reed, Dany Nobus, John Russon, Charles Johns and Katerina Kolozova, have addressed the following question: How can the concept of ‘Neurosis’ help us understand the new digitized world in which we live and our place in it?


An ​interview​ ​with Charlie Johns and​ ​Anna​ ​Zhurba​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Moscow Museum​ ​of​ ​Modern​ ​Art​ ​(MMOMA).

A.Z.: What​ ​is​ ​the​ ​relationship​ ​between​ ​technological​ ​progress​ ​and​ ​neurosis?

C.J.: The​ ​phrase​ ​‘technological​ ​progress’​ ​is​ ​already​ ​a​ ​dubious​ ​one;​ ​is​ ​progress​ ​determined culturally​ ​qua​ ​differences,​ ​and​ ​what​ ​are​ ​the​ ​criteria​ ​for​ ​progress​ ​to​ ​be​ ​achieved​ ​(standard​ ​of living​ ​etc.)?​ ​If​ ​we​ ​made​ ​an​ ​analogy​ ​between​ ​progress​ ​and​ ​proliferation​ ​we​ ​could,​ ​however, suggest​ ​that​ ​neurosis​ ​is​ ​progress.​ ​Why?​ ​Neurosis​ ​is​ ​essentially​ ​the​ ​hyper-sensitivity towards​ ​-​ ​and​ ​determination​ ​of​ ​-​ ​concepts.​ ​Whether​ ​we​ ​describe​ ​concepts​ ​as​ ​a​ ​type​ ​of clothing​ ​draped​ ​over​ ​the​ ​‘unknown’​ ​world,​ ​or​ ​whether​ ​we​ ​describe​ ​concepts​ ​as​ ​autopoietic agencies​ ​in​ ​their​ ​own​ ​right,​ ​it​ ​still​ ​amounts​ ​to​ ​the​ ​same​ ​thing​ ​on​ ​a​ ​phenomenological​ ​level; we​ ​interact,​ ​assign​ ​and​ ​orient​ ​our​ ​lives​ ​via​ ​concepts​ ​(or​ ​-​ ​if​ ​you​ ​will​ ​-​ ​conceptual​ ​sign systems/semiotics).​ ​Second​ ​nature​ ​is​ ​superimposed​ ​onto​ ​a​ ​putative​ ​first​ ​nature​ ​and​ ​it​ ​is inevitable​ ​that​ ​further​ ​concepts​ ​will​ ​be​ ​produced​ ​and​ ​ensue.​ ​In​ ​this​ ​sense​ ​we​ ​are​ ​living​ ​in​ ​a highly​ ​proliferated​ ​conceptual​ ​world,​ ​where​ ​many​ ​concepts​ ​do​ ​not​ ​even​ ​refer​ ​to​ ​an​ ​object, representation,​ ​or​ ​what​ ​some​ ​philosophers​ ​have​ ​called​ ​‘the​ ​real’.​ ​Neurosis​ ​is​ ​the exaggeration​ ​of​ ​such​ ​a​ ​viewpoint​ ​(which​ ​can​ ​be​ ​found​ ​in​ ​various​ ​thinkers​ ​such​ ​as​ ​Hegel, Deleuze​ ​and​ ​especially​ ​Baudrillard).

It​ ​would​ ​actually​ ​be​ ​more​ ​cogent​ ​to​ ​think​ ​of​ ​concepts​ as a type of technology,​ ​after​ ​all,​ ​every form​ ​of​ ​naming​ ​and​ ​crafting​ ​is​ ​also​ ​a​ ​conceptual​ ​form​ ​(it​ ​is​ ​a​ ​conceptual​ ​signature​ ​onto putative​ ​external/material​ ​reality).​ ​The​ ​world​ ​of​ ​objects​ ​and​ ​their​ ​uses​ ​is​ ​also​ ​a​ ​world​ ​of conceptual​ ​functions​ ​(remember​ ​that​ ​we​ ​put​ ​those​ ​uses​ ​there​ ​in​ ​the​ ​first​ ​place),​ ​a​ ​conceptual cartography​ ​which​ ​helps​ ​us​ ​navigate​ ​as​ ​humans.​ ​Following​ ​Heidegger,​ ​and​ ​later Wittgenstein,​ ​we​ ​become​ ​aware​ ​that​ ​we​ ​are​ ​always​ ​already​ ​within​ ​this​ ​conceptual technology;​ ​taking​ ​up​ ​speech​ ​and​ ​language​ ​for​ ​instance,​ ​using​ ​pre-existing​ ​equipment​ ​to enable​ ​mastery​ ​over​ ​ourselves​ ​and​ ​our​ ​world.​ ​What​ ​comes​ ​to​ ​the​ ​fore​ ​in​ ​my​ ​concept​ ​of neurosis​ ​is​ ​that​ ​such​ ​‘embeddedness’​ ​in​ ​the​ ​world​ ​could​ ​also​ ​be​ ​limiting​ ​and​ ​ignorant; Wittgenstein​ ​famously​ ​stated​ ​that​ ​“when​ ​I​ ​obey​ ​a​ ​rule,​ ​I​ ​do​ ​not​ ​choose,​ ​I​ ​obey​ ​the​ ​rule blindly”​ ​(Wittgenstein,​ ​Philosophical​ ​Investigations).​ ​Neurosis​ ​is​ ​the​ ​pessimistic​ ​counterpart to​ ​the​ ​Hegelian​ ​notion​ ​that​ ​a​ ​culture​ ​can​ ​be​ ​swept​ ​along​ ​by​ ​a​ ​certain​ ​conceptual​ ​paradigm, or​ ​the​ ​Humean​ ​notion​ ​that​ ​we​ ​gain​ ​knowledge​ ​through​ ​experience​ ​qualified​ ​through​ ​custom and​ ​habit​ ​(i.e​ ​compulsive​ ​repetition).

Regardless​ ​of​ ​the​ ​philosophical​ ​assertion​ ​that​ ​concept​ ​and​ ​craft​ ​cannot​ ​be​ ​reduced​ ​to​ ​either one​ ​domain,​ ​we​ ​can​ ​say​ ​in​ ​an​ ​everyday​ ​sense​ ​that​ ​technology​ ​(as​ ​we​ ​know​ ​it)​ ​aids​ ​this neurosis​ ​because​ ​it​ ​constantly​ ​generates​ ​and​ ​re-inserts​ ​concepts/symbols​ ​back​ ​into​ ​the​ ​lived social​ ​experiential​ ​domain,​ ​creating​ ​a​ ​high​ ​intensity​ ​of​ ​concepts​ ​and​ ​a​ ​type​ ​of​ ​redoubling​ ​of the​ ​concept​ ​onto​ ​the​ ​human​ ​(think​ ​advertisements)​ ​that​ ​are​ ​akin​ ​to​ ​traumatising​ ​the​ ​subject (technologies​ ​modes​ ​of​ ​distraction,​ ​seduction​ ​and​ ​capture).

Neurosis​ ​is​ ​a​ ​philosophy​ ​‘beyond​ ​good​ ​and​ ​evil’​ ​in​ ​the​ ​sense​ ​that​ ​it​ ​is​ ​interested​ ​in​ ​the intensity,​ ​exaggeration,​ ​proliferation​ ​and​ ​dissemination​ ​of​ ​concepts​ ​without​ ​recourse​ ​to judging​ ​them​ ​as​ ​‘good’​ ​or​ ​‘bad’​ ​(this​ ​is​ ​not​ ​to​ ​say​ ​that​ ​semantics​ ​is​ ​absent​ ​in​ ​the​ ​concept).

Neurosis​ ​does​ ​not​ ​necessarily​ ​mean​ ​‘bad’,​ ​it​ ​is​ ​used​ ​partly​ ​to​ ​bring​ ​to​ ​light​ ​how​ ​we​ ​are affected by​ ​concepts,​ ​as​ ​Marcuse​ ​and​ ​Fromm​ ​knew,​ ​‘bad’​ ​and​ ​‘good’​ ​are​ ​only​ ​relative​ ​to​ ​the ideologies​ ​of​ ​a​ ​society.​ ​Using​ ​the​ ​Freudian​ ​dynamic​ ​of​ ​the​ ​pleasure​ ​principle​ ​may​ ​be​ ​an interesting​ ​exercise​ ​however.​ ​Neurosis​ ​is​ ​against​ ​any​ ​humanist​ ​notion​ ​of​ ​a​ ​‘way​ ​out’​ ​of​ ​the impasse​ ​of​ ​determinism,​ ​it​ ​in-fact​ ​believes​ ​that​ ​constructs​ ​such​ ​as​ ​‘genius’​ ​and​ ​‘freedom’ should​ ​be​ ​reconceptualised​ ​as​ ​compulsive​ ​repetitious​ ​acts​ ​of​ ​concept​ ​production​ ​as opposed​ ​to​ ​any​ ​moral,​ ​supernatural​ ​or​ ​metaphysical​ ​definition.

I​ ​am​ ​giving​ ​you​ ​a​ ​philosophical​ ​answer​ ​to​ ​your​ ​question,​ ​however,​ ​one​ ​can​ ​easily​ ​see​ ​a relatively​ ​straightforward​ ​link​ ​between​ ​technological​ ​‘progress’​ ​and​ ​neurosis,​ ​such​ ​a​ ​link being​ historical. That​ ​link​ ​would​ ​be​ ​the​ ​instantiation​ ​of​ ​the​ ​concept​ ​of​ ​neurosis​ ​by​ ​William Cullen​ ​in​ ​the​ ​mid-eighteenth​ ​century​ ​and​ ​the​ ​Industrial​ ​Revolution​ ​arising​ ​at​ ​the​ ​same​ ​time. Both​ ​events​ ​are​ ​in​ ​many​ ​ways​ ​interchangeable;​ ​the​ ​neurotic​ ​desire​ ​for​ ​totalization​ ​and positivism​ ​found​ ​in​ ​the​ ​spirit​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Industrial​ ​Revolution,​ ​and​ ​the​ ​sudden​ ​affair​ ​of​ ​the​ ​human sensorium​ ​with​ ​the​ ​exotic​ ​and​ ​intense​ ​rates​ ​of​ ​speed,​ ​power,​ ​seduction,​ ​and​ ​claustrophobia of​ ​technology​ ​that​ ​made​ ​us​ ​in​ ​turn​ ​slow,​ ​weak,​ ​naive​ ​and​ ​powerless,​ ​such​ ​effects condensing​ ​as​ ​forms​ ​of​ ​neuroses​ ​(foreign​ ​thoughts​ ​and​ ​general​ ​anxiety).

In​ ​many​ ​ways​ ​the​ ​Industrial​ ​Revolution​ ​has​ ​simply​ ​proliferated​ ​in​ ​our​ ​present​ ​epoch​ ​(one​ ​can call​ ​it​ ​Advanced​ ​Capitalism​ ​or​ ​Late​ ​Capitalism​ ​or​ ​Globalization​ ​etc).​ ​When​ ​Psychoanalysis came​ ​onto​ ​the​ ​scene​ ​with​ ​Freud​ ​and​ ​Jung,​ ​a​ ​similar​ ​event​ ​had​ ​happened,​ ​a​ ​kind​ ​of​ ​impasse where​ ​the​ ​individual​ ​was​ ​reasserted​ ​within​ ​the​ ​domain​ ​of​ ​technological​ ​determinism.​ ​It​ ​was in​ ​a​ ​sense​ ​necessary​ ​that​ ​repressed​ ​powers​ ​of​ ​sexuality,​ ​violence​ ​and​ ​taboo​ ​were​ ​to​ ​be disclosed​ ​by​ ​psychoanalysis,​ ​as​ ​such​ ​powers​ ​were​ ​in​ ​contradistinction​ ​to​ ​technology​ ​(i.e technology​ ​was​ ​not​ ​thought​ ​of​ ​as​ ​sexual​ ​or​ ​rebellious,​ ​these​ ​were​ ​traits​ ​affirmed​ ​by​ ​man​ ​in human​ ​nature).​ ​The​ ​relation​ ​of​ ​psychology​ ​and​ ​technology​ ​that​ ​I​ ​am​ ​personally​ ​interested​ ​in is​ ​not​ ​a​ ​contra-distinctive​ ​one​ ​however​ ​(a​ ​relation​ ​made​ ​by​ ​differences)​ ​but​ ​rather​ ​one​ ​of interconnectedness;​ ​the​ ​technological​ ​presentation​ ​of​ ​the​ ​subconscious​ ​into​ ​the​ ​realm​ ​of photography,​ ​film​ ​and​ ​animation,​ ​and​ ​vice​ ​versa,​ ​the​ ​arrival​ ​of​ ​such​ ​visual​ ​technology​ ​into the​ ​human​ ​mind,​ ​man’s​ ​thoughts​ ​and​ ​his​ ​dreams.​ ​For​ ​me​ ​Walter​ ​Benjamin​ ​becomes​ ​a​ ​great guide​ ​for​ ​this​ ​phenomenon.​ ​Using​ ​his​ ​theory​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Optical​ ​Unconscious​ ​we​ ​simultaneously become​ ​aware​ ​of​ ​the​ ​‘repressed’​ ​phenomena​ ​in​ ​visual​ ​culture​ ​(​ ​disclosing​ ​the​ ​twenty​ ​four frames​ ​that​ ​make​ ​up​ ​a​ ​filmic​ ​second,​ ​the​ ​zoom​ ​of​ ​the​ ​camera​ ​lense​ ​penetrating​ ​into​ ​a​ ​new world​ ​of​ ​images​ ​etc)​ ​and​ ​also​ ​the​ ​power​ ​of​ ​the​ ​image​ ​itself.​ ​All​ ​one​ ​needs​ ​is​ ​a​ ​representation and​ ​that​ ​is​ ​enough​ ​to​ ​get​ ​the​ ​neurosis​ ​started.​ ​The​ ​representation​ ​in-fact​ ​takes​ ​on​ ​a​ ​new meaning​ ​distinct​ ​from​ ​the​ ​object​ ​or​ ​referent​ ​and​ ​harnesses​ ​its​ ​own​ ​phenomenological powers​ ​(look​ ​at​ ​the​ ​subliminal​ ​power​ ​of​ ​the​ ​image,​ ​it’s​ ​ability​ ​to​ ​become​ ​recognized​ ​in collective​ ​consciousness​ ​such​ ​as​ ​certain​ ​brands​ ​and​ ​icons).​ ​This​ ​is​ ​partly​ ​why​ ​Jean Baudrillard​ ​characterised​ ​the​ ​image​ ​as​ ​“fundamentally​ ​immoral”​ ​(Baudrillard​ ​Live,​ ​Selected Interviews,​ ​Gane,​ ​Routledge,​ ​1993). As​ ​I​ ​have​ ​stated​ ​in​ ​my​ ​introduction​ ​to​ The Neurotic Turn (Repeater​ ​Books,​ ​2017),​ ​this relation​ ​between​ ​contemporary​ ​human​ ​consciousness​ ​(neurosis)​ ​and​ ​technology​ ​can​ ​be sentimentalised​ ​in​ ​different​ ​ways.​ ​There​ ​is​ ​a​ ​kind​ ​of​ Frankenstein effect whereby​ ​the technology​ ​that​ ​was​ ​implemented​ ​and​ ​integrated​ ​by​ ​society​ ​for​ ​utilitarian​ ​purposes​ ​has reached​ ​the​ ​point​ ​where​ ​it​ ​has​ ​transgressed​ ​such​ ​moral​ ​and​ ​economic​ ​goals​ ​and​ ​is​ ​now​ ​the source​ ​of​ ​our​ ​ills​ ​(we​ ​watch​ ​technology​ ​turn​ ​its​ ​head​ ​away​ ​in​ ​neglect​ ​of​ ​us,​ ​like​ ​how​ ​Dr Frankenstein​ ​does​ ​with​ ​his​ ​monster).​ ​Or,​ ​we​ ​can​ ​be​ ​less​ ​romantic​ ​and​ ​argue​ ​that​ ​there should​ ​be​ ​no​ ​lament​ ​of​ The Real,​ ​or​ ​of​ ​the​ ​‘peasant’​ ​life,​ ​and​ ​instead​ ​insist​ ​that​ ​conceptual formation​ ​would​ ​have​ ​become​ ​highly​ ​simulated​ ​in​ ​its​ ​own​ ​right​ ​anyway,​ ​or​ ​that​ ​a​ ​legitimate contemporary​ ​ontology​ ​would​ ​have​ ​to​ ​do​ ​away​ ​with​ The Real ​(in​ ​any​ ​objective​ ​sense)​ ​and understand​ ​processes​ ​of​ ​neurosis,​ ​extrapolation​ ​and​ ​simulation​ ​as​ ​part​ ​of​ ​nature​ ​‘in-itself’.

A.Z.: Do​ ​you​ ​see​ ​any​ ​productive/​ ​positive​ ​outcome​ ​in​ ​liberating​ ​neurosis​ ​from​ ​its​ ​repressed status?

C.J.: Yes​ ​I​ ​do​ ​very​ ​much.​ ​Similar​ ​to​ ​the​ ​Enlightenment​ ​spirit,​ ​I​ ​believe​ ​we​ ​as​ ​humans​ ​can​ ​be​ ​a​ ​bit more​ ​sensitive,​ ​aware​ ​and​ ​cautious​ ​of​ ​the​ ​prejudice​ ​and​ ​bias​ ​we​ ​act​ ​out​ ​on​ ​a​ ​minute​ ​to minute​ ​basis.​ ​By​ ​learning​ ​to​ ​heuristically​ ​separate​ ​ourselves​ ​from​ ​the​ ​concepts​ ​we​ ​inhabit and​ ​produce,​ ​we​ ​can​ ​take​ ​an​ ​analytical​ ​approach​ ​which​ ​is​ ​both​ ​enlightened,​ ​post-human​ ​and traditionally​ ​psychological;​ ​1)​ ​we​ ​can​ ​analyse​ ​the​ ​criteria​ ​or​ ​strength​ ​of​ ​the​ ​concepts​ ​at​ ​our disposal​ ​and​ ​can​ ​question​ ​which​ ​concepts​ ​may​ ​be​ ​beneficial​ ​and​ ​non-beneficial​ ​to​ ​our objectives​ ​and​ ​our​ ​behaviour.​ ​2)​ ​we​ ​can​ ​move​ ​beyond​ ​the​ ​embodied,​ ​impassioned​ ​view​ ​of concept​ ​formation​ ​as​ ​inextricably​ ​linked​ ​to​ ​human​ ​subjectivity​ ​and​ ​our​ ​drives​ ​(seen​ ​in​ ​Hume and​ ​areas​ ​of​ ​Nietzsche).​ ​3)​ ​we​ ​can​ ​ask​ why a​ ​person​ ​is​ ​articulating​ ​certain​ ​concepts​ ​in certain​ ​ways​ ​in​ ​order​ ​to​ ​define​ ​the​ ​problem​ ​in​ ​concept​ ​production,​ ​transmission​ ​and reception,​ ​as​ ​opposed​ ​to​ ​defining​ ​the​ ​problem​ ​in​ ​an​ individual​(this​ ​notion​ ​is​ ​sympathetic​ ​to various​ ​‘criminals’​ ​outlawed​ ​and​ ​the​ ​sidelining​ ​of​ ​the​ ​mentally​ ​ill​ ​in​ ​society).​ ​The​ ​concepts​ ​at our​ ​disposal​ ​are​ ​precisely​ ​that;​ ​ours,​ ​and​ ​we​ ​must​ ​learn​ ​where​ ​they​ ​come​ ​from​ ​and​ ​under what​ ​circumstance​ ​they​ ​can​ ​prove​ ​to​ ​have​ ​purchase.​ ​Although​ ​this​ ​may​ ​sound​ ​inhuman​ ​and rationalistic,​ ​the​ ​alternative​ ​would​ ​be​ ​technological​ ​nihilism​ ​or​ ​solipsistic​ ​Nietzscheanism, you​ ​choose.​ ​In​ ​many​ ​ways​ ​I​ ​am​ ​still​ ​following​ ​that​ ​tradition​ ​of​ ​psychology​ ​and​ ​socio-cultural criticism​ ​found​ ​in​ ​Marcuse​ ​and​ ​Fromm;​ ​we​ ​need​ ​to​ ​liberate/​ ​disclose​ ​what​ ​is​ ​left​ ​repressed by​ ​ourselves​ ​and​ ​our​ ​institutions,​ ​in​ ​order​ ​to​ ​guarantee​ ​a​ ​less​ ​one-dimensional​ ​man​ ​and culture.​ ​Saying​ ​this,​ ​however,​ ​I​ ​do​ ​not​ ​believe​ ​that​ ​neurosis​ ​truly​ ​can​ ​be​ ​liberated; psychoanalysis​ ​does​ ​not​ ​assume​ ​a​ ​perfect​ ​end​ ​state​ ​(in​ ​fact​ ​it​ ​denies​ ​the​ ​very​ ​possibility​ ​and is​ ​thoroughly​ ​pessimistic​ ​in​ ​this​ ​respect).​ ​Psychoanalysis,​ ​I​ ​believe,​ ​is​ ​more​ ​about​ ​process and​ ​transformation.​ ​All​ ​we​ ​can​ ​hope​ ​to​ ​do​ ​is​ ​transform​ ​ourselves​ ​in​ ​relation​ ​to​ ​the​ ​world​ ​we are​ ​implicated​ ​in.​ ​The​ ​worst​ ​situation​ ​would​ ​be​ ​a​ ​stalemate.​ ​That​ ​for​ ​me​ ​is​ ​the​ ​true​ ​meaning of​ ​nihilism.

A.Z.: How​ ​do​ ​public/collective​ ​and​ ​private/subjective​ ​realms​ ​relate​ ​to​ ​each​ ​other​ ​in​ ​your reading​ ​of​ ​the​ ​idea​ ​of​ ​the​ ​neurotic?

C.J.: There​ ​is​ ​no​ ​distinction​ ​in​ ​my​ ​view.​ ​As​ ​I​ ​have​ ​stated​ ​above,​ ​the​ ​intersubjectivity​ ​of​ ​man​ ​and technology​ ​has​ ​always​ ​been​ ​there,​ ​in​ ​concepts,​ ​in​ ​language,​ ​in​ ​craft,​ ​in​ ​techne,​ ​in​ ​society etc.​ ​The​ ​main​ ​difference​ ​now​ ​is​ ​how​ ​we​ ​view​ ​this​ ​intersubjectivity;​ ​at​ ​first​ ​we​ ​acknowledged the​ ​union​ ​but​ ​believed​ ​that​ ​it​ ​was​ ​primarily​ ​for​ ​man’s​ ​benefit.​ ​We​ ​used​ ​philosophical​ ​notions such​ ​as​ ​freedom,​ ​final​ ​cause,​ ​virtue​ ​and​ ​teleology​ ​to​ ​qualify​ ​the​ ​position​ ​that​ ​it​ ​was​ ​the​ ​realm of​ ​man​ ​who​ ​had​ ​goals​ ​and​ ​purpose,​ ​technology​ ​being​ ​simply​ ​a​ ​means​ ​to​ ​an​ ​end.​ ​With​ ​the advent​ ​of​ ​various​ ​doctrines​ ​such​ ​as​ ​Marxism​ ​this​ ​sentiment​ ​had​ ​changed​ ​and​ ​there​ ​is​ ​a much​ ​more​ ​negative​ ​(albeit​ ​only​ ​at​ ​first)​ ​view​ ​of​ ​technology​ ​as​ ​deterministic​ ​and all-pervasive.​ ​The​ ​reason​ ​I​ ​bring​ ​this​ ​up​ ​is​ ​because​ ​I​ ​think​ ​technology​ ​allows​ ​us​ ​to​ ​think about​ ​the​ ​private/public​ ​dichotomy​ ​with​ ​more​ ​clarity.​ ​Language​ ​is​ ​always​ ​already​ ​a technology​ ​where​ ​one​ ​is​ ​implicated​ ​within​ ​but​ ​never​ ​fully​ ​owns.​ ​Perception,​ ​likewise,​ ​is always​ ​produced​ ​socially,​ ​and​ ​such​ ​an​ ​‘order​ ​of​ ​things’​ ​is​ ​not​ ​found​ ​explicitly​ ​within​ ​one’s own​ ​perception.​ ​The​ ​argument​ ​for​ ​this​ ​interconnectedness​ ​has​ ​been​ ​described​ ​since​ ​the dawn​ ​of​ ​Western​ ​philosophy​ ​(but​ ​much​ ​development​ ​has​ ​been​ ​made​ ​in​ ​the​ ​Continental tradition​ ​of​ ​philosophy).​ ​I​ ​am​ ​probably​ ​the​ ​most​ ​pessimistic​ ​philosopher​ ​of​ ​this​ ​‘deterministic’ interconnected​ ​tradition​ ​(following​ ​Baudrillard​ ​in​ ​many​ ​respects).​ ​Neurosis​ ​attempts​ ​to characterise​ ​the​ ​contamination​ ​(Derrida)​ ​and​ ​bricolage​ ​(Levi​ ​Strauss)​ ​of​ ​meaning​ ​within contemporary​ ​consciousness​ ​and​ ​hence​ ​the​ ​conflation​ ​of​ ​the​ ​two​ ​poles​ ​private​ ​and​ ​public. Someone​ ​is​ ​always​ ​plugged​ ​into​ ​someone​ ​else,​ ​speaking​ ​as,​ ​for​ ​or​ ​through​ ​someone​ ​else (this​ ​is​ ​the​ ​entire​ ​goal​ ​of​ ​capitalism;​ ​retail​ ​service,​ ​customer​ ​service,​ ​etc.).​ ​On​ ​the​ ​other​ ​side, the​ ​‘private’​ ​domain​ ​has​ ​never​ ​been​ ​exteriorised​ ​more​ ​than​ ​in​ ​the​ ​21st​ ​century;​ ​with​ ​the advent​ ​of​ ​facebook,​ ​instagram,​ ​twitter​ ​etc​ ​personal​ ​life​ ​is​ ​public​ ​life​ ​and​ ​all​ ​positive​ ​meaning between​ ​the​ ​chafing​ ​of​ ​the​ ​two​ ​has​ ​disappeared.​ ​What​ ​I​ ​am​ ​more​ ​interested​ ​in​ ​nowadays​ ​is not​ ​the​ ​private/public​ ​dichotomy​ ​but​ ​the​ ​secret/non-secret​ ​dichotomy.​ ​The​ ​true​ ​secret, always​ ​there​ ​in​ ​psychoanalysis,​ ​always​ ​there​ ​in​ ​the​ ​mad​ ​and​ ​the​ ​criminally​ ​insane,​ ​the concept​ ​that​ ​one​ ​man​ ​may​ ​be​ ​hiding,​ ​is​ ​keeping,​ ​like​ ​a​ ​form​ ​of​ ​property​ ​etc.​ ​I​ ​do​ ​not​ ​wish​ ​to know​ ​these​ ​secrets,​ ​and​ ​perhaps​ ​this​ ​is​ ​the​ ​last​ ​fruitful​ ​life​ ​of​ ​the​ ​romantic​ ​concept​ ​of authenticity​ ​or​ ​identity​ ​within​ ​human​ ​civilization.

A.Z.: What​ ​are​ ​the​ ​main​ ​historical​ ​shifts​ ​in​ ​the​ ​popular​ ​perception​ ​of​ ​the​ ​neurotic?

C.J.: I​ ​would​ ​not​ ​claim​ ​to​ ​be​ ​an​ ​expert​ ​at​ ​answering​ ​this​ ​question,​ ​but​ ​I​ ​believe​ ​the​ ​shift​ ​is enormous​ ​in​ ​many​ ​ways.​ ​If​ ​we​ ​even​ ​attempt​ ​to​ ​anchor​ ​it​ ​to​ ​its​ ​psychological​ ​home​ ​we​ ​will find​ ​it​ ​challenging.​ ​Neurosis​ ​is​ ​disclosed​ ​in​ ​1769​ ​by​ ​Dr.​ ​William​ ​Cullen.​ ​Not​ ​to​ ​take​ ​it​ ​away from​ ​Dr​. ​Cullen​ ​but​ ​we​ ​can​ ​gauge​ ​philosophically​ ​why​ ​this​ ​had​ ​to​ ​be​ ​the​ ​case;​ ​psychology had​ ​‘developed’​ ​to​ ​a​ ​point​ ​in​ ​the​ ​eighteenth​ ​century​ ​where​ ​‘symptoms’​ ​were​ ​assumed​ ​to come​ ​from​ ​exclusively​ ​material,​ ​biological​ ​and​ ​organic​ ​processes.​ ​Many​ ​mental​ ​disturbances (such​ ​as​ ​neurosis​ ​and​ ​psychosis)​ ​could​ ​not​ ​be​ ​discerned​ ​by​ ​this​ ​method​ ​(physiologically​ ​or causally).​ ​At​ ​the​ ​time,​ ​scientific​ ​legitimacy​ ​depended​ ​on​ ​its​ ​allegiance​ ​to​ ​the​ ​material​ ​world hypothesis​ ​(against​ ​superstition​ ​etc).​ ​However,​ ​in​ ​the​ ​mid​ ​1700’s​ ​the​ ​enlightenment​ ​ideal​ ​of the​ ​individual​ ​was​ ​taking​ ​place​ ​(one​ ​can​ ​see​ ​Immanuel​ ​Kant’s​ ​debt​ ​to​ ​the​ ​father​ ​of​ ​Early Modern​ ​Philosophy​ ​Rene​ ​Descartes)​ ​and​ ​this​ ​was​ ​against​ ​the​ ​scientific​ ​realism​ ​supporting certain​ ​psychological​ ​discourses​ ​at​ ​the​ ​time.​ ​Hence​ ​‘neurosis’​ ​was​ ​adopted​ ​by​ ​this​ ​new mind-set​ ​and​ ​disclosed​ ​as​ ​both​ ​mental​ ​and​ ​subjective​ ​(it​ ​was​ ​later​ ​adopted​ ​in​ ​the​ ​same non-scientific​ ​way​ ​by​ ​Romanticism​ ​and​ ​given​ ​a​ ​kind​ ​of​ ​‘tension’/​ ​cathexis​ ​(the​ ​moving elements,​ ​the​ ​relation​ ​between​ ​man​ ​and​ ​nature)​ ​as​ ​well​ ​as​ ​a​ ​solitary​ ​denotation).​ ​Before then,​ ​in​ ​the​ ​writings​ ​of​ ​Christian​ ​Wolffe,​ ​and​ ​even​ ​in​ ​the​ ​pre-Socratics,​ ​neurosis​ ​was characterised​ ​as​ ​either​ ​‘mind’​ ​or​ ​‘soul’​ ​(soul​ ​pertaining​ ​to​ ​the​ ​whole​ ​world,​ ​the​ ​‘world-soul’). Although​ ​I​ ​find​ ​these​ ​earlier​ ​characterisations​ ​illuminating,​ ​I​ ​find​ ​that​ ​Cullen​ ​picked​ ​up​ ​upon the​ discomforting ​quality​ ​of​ ​the​ ​psyche,​ ​and​ ​this​ ​is​ ​of​ ​main​ ​interest​ ​to​ ​me.​ ​So​ ​already​ ​there you​ ​have​ ​a​ ​large​ ​shift​ ​of​ ​the​ ​term​ ​psyche;​ ​from​ ​soul,​ ​spirit,​ ​nature,​ ​to​ ​simply​ ​‘the​ ​mental’,​ ​and later,​ ​with​ ​Cullen,​ ​the​ ​term​ ​neurosis​ ​is​ ​a​ ​kind​ ​of​ ​instantiation;​ ​the​ ​moment​ ​when​ ​mind​ ​and spirit​ ​is​ ​reflected​ ​in​ ​an​ ​eighteenth​ ​century​ ​mind​ ​now​ ​bridled​ ​with​ ​ideas​ ​and​ ​passing​ ​into​ ​a new​ ​phase​ ​of​ ​alienation.​ ​In​ ​many​ ​ways​ ​I​ ​see​ ​Cullen’s​ ​instantiation​ ​of​ ​neurosis​ ​as​ ​the condensation​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Gothic​ ​quality​ ​of​ ​mind;​ ​the​ ​ghosts​ ​in​ ​the​ ​machine,​ ​the​ ​nightmare​ ​images of​ ​irrationality​ ​(think​ ​of​ ​Goya’s​ The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters).

In​ ​popular​ ​culture,​ ​however,​ ​neurosis​ ​seems​ ​to​ ​have​ ​been​ ​embraced​ ​(Patricia​ ​Friedrich​ ​talks about​ ​those​ ​characters​ ​we​ ​love,​ ​such​ ​as​ ​those​ ​played​ ​by​ ​Woody​ ​Allen​ ​and​ ​the​ ​character​ ​of Patrick​ ​Bateman​ ​in​ ​American​ ​Psycho​ ​etc.,​ ​in​ ​the​ ​ ​ ​book​ The Neurotic Turn, Repeater​ ​Books).​ ​In​ ​literature​ ​too​ ​we​ ​have​ ​a​ ​line​ ​of​ ​thinkers​ ​from​ ​Dostoevsky,​ ​Bataille​ ​and Barthes,​ ​and​ ​later​ ​we​ ​could​ ​say​ ​that​ ​almost​ ​everyone​ ​in​ ​the​ ​21st​ ​century​ ​has​ ​an​ ​element​ ​of what​ ​Freud​ ​had​ ​called​ ​‘narcissistic​ ​personality​ ​disorder.​ ​’​ ​As​ ​I​ ​said,​ ​I​ ​am​ ​not​ ​an​ ​expert​ ​in​ ​the social​ ​representation​ ​of​ ​the​ ​neurotic,​ ​but​ ​it​ ​is​ ​obvious​ ​-​ ​at​ ​least​ ​on​ ​a​ ​surface​ ​level​ ​-​ ​that​ ​the neurotic​ ​has​ ​been​ ​one​ ​of​ ​the​ ​most​ ​accepted​ ​‘outsider’​ ​figures​ ​in​ ​the​ ​twentieth​ ​and twenty-first​ ​century.​ ​Research​ ​has​ ​to​ ​be​ ​done​ ​into​ ​exactly​ ​why​ ​this​ ​is.​ ​I​ ​believe​ ​that​ ​it​ ​is because​ ​the​ ​traditional​ ​psychological​ ​neurotic​ ​was​ ​diagnosed​ ​with​ ​what​ ​we​ ​are​ ​all​ ​beginning to​ ​realise​ ​we​ ​have​ ​too,​ ​and​ ​was​ ​always​ ​there​ ​in​ ​some​ ​repressed​ ​form;​ ​a​ ​renewed​ ​sensitivity to​ ​the​ ​onslaught​ ​of​ ​concepts,​ ​an​ ​awareness​ ​of​ ​the​ ​compulsive​ ​repetition​ ​inherent​ ​in​ ​any​ ​act of​ ​making​ ​meaningful,​ ​the​ ​daunting​ ​anxiety​ ​of​ ​feeling​ ​the​ ​value​ ​of​ ​personal​ ​identity​ ​wither away​ ​in​ ​the​ ​face​ ​of​ ​neutral,​ ​indifferent​ ​postmodernism.

A.Z.: What​ ​is​ ​your​ ​description​ ​of​ ​neurosis​ ​and​ ​is​ ​it​ ​a​ ​‘first​ ​world​ ​problem’?

C.J.: A​ ​neurosis​ ​is​ ​any​ ​trajectory​ ​of​ ​thought​ ​that​ ​you​ ​abide​ ​by​ ​(whether​ ​willingly​ ​or​ ​unwillingly).​ ​It names​ ​the​ ​process​ ​of​ ​experiencing​ ​consciousness​ ​without​ ​knowing​ ​where​ ​it​ ​comes​ ​from​ ​and where​ ​it​ ​is​ ​leading​ ​you.​ ​You​ ​are​ ​in​ ​a​ ​sense​ ​‘in​ ​the​ ​middle’​ ​of​ ​consciousness,​ ​hence,​ ​you​ ​are the​ ​patient,​ ​or​ ​the​ ​victim.​ ​In​ ​this​ ​sense​ ​neurosis​ ​could​ ​not​ ​be​ ​considered​ ​as​ ​only​ ​a​ ​first​ ​world problem.​ ​Every​ ​human​ ​participates​ ​in​ ​this​ ​role​ ​of​ ​consciousness,​ ​just​ ​as​ ​everyone participates​ ​in​ Geist ​in​ ​Hegel.​ ​However,​ ​yes,​ ​neurosis​ ​has​ ​always​ ​been​ ​an​ ​exaggerated​ ​form of​ ​thought-processing,​ ​the​ ​traditional​ ​neurotic​ ​(of​ ​the​ ​diagnosed​ ​kind)​ ​gives​ ​us​ ​a​ ​clue​ ​as​ ​to the​ ​future​ ​state​ ​of​ ​cognition,​ ​he/she​ ​is​ ​simply​ ​the​ ​first​ ​that​ ​recognises​ ​it.​ ​Most​ ​of​ ​our​ ​thoughts do​ ​not​ ​have​ ​direct​ ​reference​ ​to​ ​‘physical​ ​reality’.​ ​I​ ​begin​ ​to​ ​think​ ​about​ ​something​ ​that​ ​I​ ​am perhaps​ ​meant​ ​to​ ​do,​ ​told​ ​by​ ​someone​ ​else.​ ​I​ ​begin​ ​to​ ​think​ ​about​ ​how​ ​someone​ ​else​ ​might think​ ​about​ ​me.​ ​I​ ​begin​ ​to​ ​realise​ ​that​ ​the​ ​objective​ ​of​ ​my​ ​thoughts​ ​are​ ​simply​ ​to​ ​attain symbolic/imaginary​ ​goals​ ​such​ ​as​ ​sexual,​ ​monetary​ ​and​ ​social​ ​status.​ ​I​ ​begin​ ​to​ ​understand that​ ​the​ ​desire​ ​intrinsic​ ​to​ ​my​ ​thought​ ​processes​ ​have​ ​nothing​ ​to​ ​do​ ​with​ ​maintaining​ ​social stability,​ ​they​ ​do​ ​not​ ​uphold​ ​any​ ​moral​ ​sense​ ​or​ ​moral​ ​value​ ​etc.​ ​The​ ​proliferation​ ​and sensitivity​ ​of​ ​thought​ ​in​ ​neurosis​ ​is​ ​relative​ ​to​ ​the​ ​dissolution​ ​and​ ​homogenising​ ​of​ ​traditional meaning​ ​(the​ ​subsequent​ ​relentless​ ​production​ ​of​ ​commodity​ ​fetishism​ ​everywhere​ ​in​ ​life).​ ​In this​ ​respect​ ​you​ ​could​ ​say​ ​that​ ​‘neurosis’​ ​is​ ​an​ ​anthropological​ ​description​ ​of​ ​thought​ ​in​ ​the ‘first-world’​ ​…​ ​but​ ​neurosis​ ​does​ ​not​ ​go​ ​away​ ​if​ ​you​ ​find​ ​concrete​ ​uses​ ​for​ ​it​ ​in​ ​nature;​ ​the eskimo​ ​is​ ​just​ ​as​ ​neurotic​ ​when​ ​he​ ​attributes​ ​eleven​ ​different​ ​meanings​ ​to​ ​the​ ​phenomenon snow.

The​ ​Neurotic​ ​Turn​ ​book​ ​is​ ​now​ ​available​ ​through​ ​Repeater​ ​Books.

“Thrown Across The Room”: Heather O’Neil’s ‘The Lonely Hearts Hotel’

By Laura Smith


“You can pick up a book but a book can throw you across the room.”

—Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects, p.122


the-lonely-hearts-hotel-by-heather-o-neillThe Lonely Hearts Hotel is the most recent novel by Canadian author, Heather O’Neil. It is the story of Pierrot and Rose; orphans, who both, in differing circumstances, nearly die at birth but miraculously survive against the odds. O’Neil’s novel begins against the backdrop of Pierrot’s and Rose’s childhoods, spent together at a Montreal orphanage in the early part of the twentieth-century. Both the nuns and the other children at the orphanage recognize that Pierrot and Rose are special; through music, dance, and play they manage to cultivate pockets of joy out of their dismal realities. While the nuns do their best to stifle Pierrot’s and Rose’s flourishing (as well as their connection), the other children delight in the magic that is brought into their otherwise fragile and violent existences. From here, the novel follows the two protagonists as life takes them in differing yet equally dark directions. Despite their separation, both hold onto their childhood promise to one another of a shared future. Nineteen-thirties Montreal becomes the stage for make-believe, unlikely friendships, poverty, theft, theater-troops, addiction, sex, and mafia-life. Written with unparalleled imagery in the form of metaphor and simile, O’Neil’s prose come alive in the imagination like an illustrated fable stretching out before the reader, spontaneously coming into being as each page is turned. When a nun is described as reminding Pierrot of “a glass of milk” and “clean sheets blowing in the wind at the exact moment when the water evaporated from them and they became dry and light and easy again,” the reader is not tripped up by this strange mix of subject/object but instead sees the sunlight on those sheets, the rolling hills in the distance, and almost smells the fresh country air.[1]

The Washington Post called The Lonely Hearts Hotel “virtually cinematic.” Indeed, it unfolds in the reader’s mind as if on stage, in the darkened theater, and in vivid color. This book is a fairy tale and, more specifically, a fairy tale for adults. The book is, among many things, an examination of how trauma persists and yet, how it can be overcome, transformed into another energy rather than denied. Themes of vulnerability, pain, guilt, shame, love—and most profoundly—what it might mean to be free, linger well after the reader closes the book. The novel addresses sex from the rapture of lovers, to the indifference of prostitution and pornography, to the horrors of assault and abuse. O’Neil creatively plays with the inversion of gender roles and with notions of female desire.[2] The Lonely Hearts Hotel succeeds in the difficult task of intertwining the most destined of love stories, a true romance, with a fierce and unrelenting feminism. Rose “felt the grandeur of being responsible for oneself. She was independent, and her actions had enormous consequences.”[3] The lean Pierrot, on the other hand, a Heathcliff-like lover without all the possession and brooding, is the sort of young man whose fist “would probably [punch] like a pillow.”[4] It turns out to be the clowns and gangsters of the story who, sharing a similarly acute perceptivity, best understand—perhaps better even than the protagonists themselves—the lovers’ connection.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a tale of survival and of the degrees of resilience. O’Neil unravels how, for better or worse, our interior worlds bring our exterior worlds into being. There is a Benjaminian-like understanding that it is precisely the very ruins of everyday life which point, paradoxically, to a larger “truth content.” This book is a magical vortex that draws the reader in (and will likely liquidate any plans you foolishly had foreseen for your day). The power of O’Neil’s work resides in the fact that, when the reader resurfaces from this other world, their own reality feels slightly different; it collides vertiginously with the fresh experience of this other imaginary space. With The Lonely Hearts Hotel, O’Neil proves that to conjure enchantment can be empowering rather than solely romantic. This novel, and in particular, its ending, is likely not only to stay with its readers but to shift and continue to reveal itself in different ways, across time, in its readers’ consciousnesses. This reader will take author Kelly Link’s advice now and go “read all the rest” of O’Neil’s work.


External Links:

Writer’s Trust of Canada podcast: Author Heather O’Neil on The Lonely Hearts Hotel:


CBC Ideas with Paul Kennedy (O’Neil on Wisdom in Nonsense)


[1] Heather O’Neil, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.14.

[2] For more on this, visit the Writer’s Trust of Canada link and hear O’Neil explain these themes.

[3] Heather O’Neil, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.369.

[4] Ibid., p.323.