Hallucination, Destruction & the Political. Interview with François Bafoil

Bafoil book covers

François Bafoil is the author of The Politics of Destruction. Three Contemporary Configurations of Hallucination. USSR, Polish PiS Party, Islamic State, published with the Sciences Po series in International Relations and Political Economy/Pivot series at Palgrave Macmillan. In his book, Bafoil questions the notion of hallucination, generally examined through the lenses of psychoanalysis, with regard to political phenomena. He considers three case studies, through which he opens a dialogue between the social sciences and psychoanalysis. Interview with the author.

What makes the question of “hallucination” a political issue?

Hallucination is not political per se, but it becomes a category of political science as soon as one seeks to understand how political realities—or collective experiences—can be formed through images and psychic representations, the content of which is experienced as something (missing) whose trace is imposed on social groups through great violence. What this absence refers to, in each case, is the painful experience of a historical loss: the loss of power of a class that had been declared a driving force of history, for Communists; the loss of power of a community for reasons of internal treason and external conspiracy, for the Islamic State; and the loss of national sovereignty because of coalitions of actors united against the independent state, in the case of the PiS party of Poland.

So how would you define hallucination?

Hallucinations are psychic representations of a trace, the content of which has been forgotten or repressed, which are recomposed on the basis of an intimate experience—desire. Hallucinations are also related to waking dreams, from which they borrow several mechanisms of operation. Hallucinations and dreams differ, however, on one crucial point: the greater amount of attachment that individuals express toward the former, whatever the cost. Even when the subject is awake, he or she deems the hallucinated image to be true, and nothing can sway them from this intimate conviction. The question, then, is to try to understand why what is represented through hallucination takes the place of reality. In other words, why does hallucination last over time rather than disappear like a dream?

Some have been quick to label this obsession a mental disorder—psychiatrists insist on the importance of the memory trace that can convince the subject without any external objective reality grounding the representation. These specialists focus on the effects of disconnection that hallucination entails, of a rupture between objects and how they are perceived, and highlight the phenomena of lack, angst, anguish, and personality disorders. From there, the field of mental alienation is drawn, and the subject’s madness is built upon their conviction of the legitimacy of the representation. They then become sure that those who do not share their conviction are wrong. As Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol—considered by many to be the father of French psychiatry—wrote, “The purported sensations are in fact images, ideas produced by memory, associated through imagination and personified through habit. Man gives body to the product of his understanding. He dreams awake [...]. Dreams, as hallucinations, always reproduce sensations and ideas that are ancient”.1

Novelists have repeatedly played with this register by making hallucinations the result of a mechanism of impressions that obey only their own internal logic and that induce the conviction that they alone are real. As a result, an impression of fantasy and angst emerges, and if one feels themself to be deceived then why shouldn’t they consider that only the object of their belief is true? The French novelist Guy de Maupassant expressed this brilliantly in several of his novels: The Horla (1887) of course and even Afloat (1876). Hippolyte Taine made this claim even before the novelist: that outside reality is an illusion, a “real hallucination”, since it is only the symmetry of an image formed by the spirit that results from the conversion of sensations to perception, to idea, and finally to worldview. Later, the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde considered the mechanisms of association—which are disseminated through imitation by each move and thought of others—to be the very substance of social connections. This transmission of behaviours and thoughts can only contribute to creating imagined groups that (like the mass readers of a newspaper) believe what is presented to them is true, even if the origin of the reported facts is slowly forgotten or was never known. Such a mechanism transforms society into a group of somnambulists. The sociologist thus concluded that “the social state, like the hypnotic state, is just a form of dreaming, a dream of order and a dream in action. To have only ideas suggested by others and believe them to be spontaneous: such is the illusion of somnambulists as well as of social man”.2 This is the image of society as well as the image of a hallucination.

With this cultural background, how can hallucination provide us with a key to understanding the political field? How do you see it as a heuristic concept?

I think that a Freudian digression is useful to help grasp how examining the subconscious can allow us to apprehend “totalitarian psychology” and how institutions are placed in the service of the enterprise of destruction/construction that is at the foundation of “super-reality”. Because the question, here, is to understand the relationship between the self and political institutions.

The first dimension is the pleasure that hallucination provides, when, on the contrary, everyday experience is lived as displeasure. Hallucination brings satisfaction, it does good. This, according to Freud, is why someone who is bereaved cares about their mourning, in other words cares about what the image of mourning is supposed to represent but which is lost and whose lack is the source of immeasurable pain. In Mourning and Melancholia (1917) Freud highlights the equivalence of the hallucination of the deceased and the emotional attachment of the person in mourning who can survive the loss by hallucinating the lost object. It is easy to identify a similar relationship between the hallucination and actions of those who have experienced a trauma and who, considering that reality does not correspond to their wishes or fulfil their expectations of it, compensate for their frustration by choosing the side of terrorism. Dostoyevsky, Freud, Weber, and Arendt have analysed the psychologies of such people who are sick of their ego,3 painfully suffering from their downgrading and opting for radical violence in politics.

Alfred Stieglitz Geogria O'Keeffe Hands & Timble CCO Public DomainHallucinatory psychosis thus defines the movement by which an individual gives in to his or her desire in the emptiness of his or her psyche, a psyche traversed by loss.4 In this emptiness is a delusional production that rejects any test of reality and that defines a hallucination in its own right, carried by the unshakeable conviction in the reality of what is represented, and consequently the conviction, also unshakeable, of the profound error of those who do not share it. This conviction is the second element that contributes to answering the question of the duration of hallucination. On this point, the concept of the masses can be understood in the wake of Freud’s 1921 work5 as the collective moment of the hallucination when the masses adopt the same substitute figure of the leader in place of their own superego and by this means reactivate old repressed impulses and indulge in the most frenzied exactions.

The feeling of omnipotence conferred by the daydream (hallucination) is thus founded. To understand this, we must return to the psychic processes that the dream reveals and that testify to the effectiveness of the unconscious. These processes function, as Freud showed inThe Interpretation of Dreams,6 through a set of negations of the usual links in relation to space and time, but also through the inversion of places and positions of objects as well as individuals, the negation of the links of coordination. The material available to the dreamer is thus recomposed by bringing its components together or distancing them from each other, finally giving rise to their condensation or detachment, and this occurs under the effect of a dynamic force, desire. Freud refers to this as sexual energy, which he elsewhere calls libido. This moment of the destruction of temporal and spatial references linked to individual and collective memory is common to the empirical cases I have chosen to analyse in my book. It is the first condition for the construction of a “super-reality” that imposes itself on individuals until it covers the field of individual and collective experience.

In his 1905 work on dreams,7 Freud states that dreams’ most important character lies in the “dramatisation” that is added to the dynamics of displacement, cancellation, and condensation. While condensation is the figure of the dream that aggregates, accumulates, and transforms the different latent thoughts of the dream, dramatisation creates the “setting”. It provides the “atmosphere”. It puts the dream “in context”. It is a fundamental dimension of the staging of the super-reality, traces of which can be found in the various collective stagings and narratives that are supposed to embody the revolutionary gesture, the power of heroes, the hypertrophied figure of the leader.

The hypothesis of the unconscious thus suggests that the psyche is a field of forces traversed by dynamics that redirect different flows of sensations, affects, representations, or volitions, which, under the effect of repression, are allowed or forbidden access to consciousness. If accepted, these representations lead to action. If repressed, they hold it back. In this respect, the unconscious can be interpreted as the dynamic psychic structure that assigns a place to the different objects of the dream by authorising them to be, or by sanctioning them, to deliver them to non-being, provisional or definitive.

I understand that there is much to say on this subject! Is there a way to summarise, however?

Of course! If I summarise, I retain from this approach the following three elements that characterise hallucination for a reflection on what I call “totalitarian psychology”.

Firstly, the pleasure that hallucination brings to the person who produces it. This stems from the intimate conviction of the hallucination’s reality and the feeling of power linked to the capacity of representation to reformulate sensitive data by violently annulling the dimensions of space and time, both individual and collective. The result is a “super-reality” (some say “neo-reality”) that is based on the systematic destruction of previous references, beliefs, and value judgements on the one hand, and, on the other, on the construction of figures of the leader, the hero, the enemy, etc., all of which are divided according to the Freudian motions of love and hate.

Secondly, the conviction in the reality of the hallucination. This is made stronger because it is shared by a certain number of individuals, who can be identified as the group surrounding the leader, the community of believers. It makes it possible to distinguish the “friends”, to whom all kinds of bonuses and goods are attributed, from the “enemies”, who are discriminated against, deprived, and excluded from public policies. In this way, it reveals the dynamics of the intertwined impulses of love and hate, which are fundamental because they structure the social field.

Finally, as a counterpart to this omnipotence of belief and representations as well as shared interests, the last part of the answer can be read in connection with the massiveness of the hallucinatory experience. In order to impose itself on everyone, the reality thus created must be carried by a massive regime of violence that imposes the only possible vision on all citizens, in defiance of previous meanings and social affiliations: a violence that runs through all the institutions whose rules are responsible for implementing the hallucination through various public policies. It is the violence of the gulag and the labour camps, if not of death camps.

Max Weber by Francois Bafoil CERI Some approaches in political science or sociology seek to understand various social constructions by focusing on representations, on the interests of the actors involved, and, finally, on the institutions in which they evolve. In this respect, the relevance of relying on psychoanalytical categories is twofold: it allows us to articulate the relationship between the ego and institutions (or the link between the individual and his or her social environment) by centring the analysis on the psychological complexion in order to find the tensions and conflicts within the institutions, which in turn help to constrain the ego. In this sense, the institutions carry the traces of psychological conflicts and contribute, to a certain extent that remains to be defined, to resolving or blocking them. Moreover, this is due to the fact that these three dynamics (ideal, individual, and institutional) are carried by desire, and more specifically a desire to revive something that has been repressed in history whose re-actualisation gives rise to an unusual outburst of violence that contributes to forging the “super-reality”.

Here we return to the Freudian ambition to always think of the self as inscribed in the social and cultural reality that frames it, in other words ontogenesis in connection with phylogenesis. Freud framed this connection of the self with culture with the thought of murder: that of Oedipus for the self; that of the Father of the primal horde for the group. What totalitarian thought introduces in a radically new way is the enactment of the very act that these two myths keep at a distance, that is to say, the outbreak of barbarism and mass murder. The function of myth is to make the prohibition (of killing, incest, etc.) sensitive and thus to make collective action possible. It is this distance between thought and action that totalitarian thought abolishes by lifting the prohibitions, thus opening the door to barbarism.

Is it this approach that makes it possible to compare the three entities of the USSR, the PiS party in Poland, and the Islamic State? And why have you chosen these three case studies?

I will first answer the second question, that of my choice of case studies: it derives in the first place from my scholarly background, which led me to live for several years in Poland and then in East Germany (the GDR) beginning in the early 1980s to study Communist regimes and organisations, and then after 1989, post-Communist developments. This experience fed into my teaching at Sciences Po in Grenoble, Dijon, and Paris. This interest in totalitarian and authoritarian regimes was then fuelled by the comparison I made in the 2000s with the regimes of Southeast Asia that remained Communist (Laos and Vietnam) and authoritarian (Cambodia). This is the reason why I chose the USSR and Poland, but I must immediately add that in reality there is another reason: my reflections on their relationship to Western Reason (the Enlightenment, to make a long story short, or “common sense”, which refers to a space of socially shared norms), of which these totalitarian regimes have often been thought of as an unexpected extension.

The Islamic State differs radically from these, as much by the promise of a future situated in the past of history (and even before it) as by its rejection of science, and more generally of any intramundane progress perceived in the light of collective fault and its necessary redemption by a bloodbath. In other words, by choosing these three regimes (Communist, post-Communist, and Islamic), my project was to understand whether there is a continuum between these different totalitarian experiences (USSR and IS). What is the relationship of otherness maintained with Western Reason? Where is the rupture? How can the PiS party, whose authoritarianism borrows a number of features from the process of the hallucinatory construction of a “super-reality”, relate to it, despite the fact that it is part of a political space (Europe) where there is the rule of law? I have tried to understand how these different types of super-reality differ from each other, and then the question remains: to what extent is the comparison possible?

And so let’s come back to the first question: How do you compare the three cases?

I follow two paths: a practical perspective and a theoretical perspective.
The practical perspective focuses in each case on the three levels of analysis mentioned above:

● First, the field of representations. It allows us to understand the hallucination in its dimension of shared belief, which forms a community through the link that unites all the individuals together, and all together to the leader. Each time, the belief takes on the appearance of a prophecy in the future form of an entity that has been mistreated, if not sacrificed, in past history and that political action promises to purify: a class that drives history (the USSR); the divided nation (Poland); the community of believers in a lost territory (the Umma and the Shâm).

● The dynamics of the construction of the figures of authority. The analysis focuses on national narratives, collective mobilisations, and public policies that have been implemented.

● Finally, the forms of violence employed, and on this point there is no doubt that the PiS party shares nothing of the behaviour of the other two regimes. Nevertheless, it exerts continuous violence in its concern to rewrite history, to reinterpret a number of accepted collective facts, and to question several institutions (particularly those of justice and information), all in the name of discriminatory values, whether related to race, religion, nation, or gender.

As for the theoretical perspective, I conceive it by evaluating these different political regimes from a double cross-lighting: that of the categories of domination such as Weber formulated them, which can be found at least for the first two points in each of the examined regimes (tradition, charisma, and the legal-rational order) and that of the Freudian categories of the unconscious when the latter is grasped through the prism of the ego and the superego and the id. All these categories analogically allow us to understand the order of tradition as the place of the horde dominated by the cruel father and that of charisma as the place of transgression and bottomless anguish, in relation to which the order of rational legality introduces a rupture in favour of the rule of law, of which these different regimes are all, to a greater or lesser extent, resolute adversaries, without being able to escape, however, from the phenomenon of bureaucratisation.

Freud Weber

This book and the research group on Social science and psychoanalysis have announced the opening of a new space or programme of reflection and research on the relationship between the social sciences and psychoanalysis. Can you tell us more about this?

The dimensions of lack and desire, of repression and hatred, of rage and repetition are those that my colleague Paul Zawadzki (University Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne) and I have identified for the research group. With this group, one of our ambitions is to resume the thread of contacts/connections between psychoanalysis and the social sciences that was very dense in the years 1950-1980, but that has disintegrated for many reasons that we are trying to understand. The other objective is to reveal the great heuristic capacity of the categories of psychoanalysis to apprehend questions at the heart of today's reflections: terrorism and exacerbated forms of political domination; social traumas and mass violence; evil, anti-Semitism, colonialism. Another interest of this collective reflection lies, as we write in our text, in taking into account this recurrent difficulty in the social sciences of thinking about the articulation of the historical and the psychic, and more broadly perhaps about subjectivity, without which our understanding of phenomena is exposed to the risk of descriptive reductionism. In short, our aim is not only to resume the interrupted thread of cross-disciplinary interrogations, but also to clearly affirm the very great heuristic value of psychoanalysis in the social sciences, and for very varied uses.

Interview by Corinne Deloy and Miriam Périer.

Image 1:  Georgia O’Keeffe—Hands and Thimble, by Alfred Stieglitz, 1919. CCO Public Domain.
Image 2: Cover of the book, Max Weber. Réalisme, Rêverie et Désir de puissance, by François Bafoil, Hermann, Paris, 2018.
Image 3: Sigmund Freud and Max Weber. Public Domain

  • 1. Our translation. See Jean Etienne Dominique Esquirol, 1838, Des maladies mentales considérées sous le rapport hygiénique et médico-légal, Paris Baillères, T. 1, p. 192; cité in Jean-Louis Cabanès, Le négatif, p. 181. « Les prétendues sensations des aliénés sont des images, des idées produites par la mémoire, associées par l’imagination et personnifiées par l’habitude. L’homme donne corps au produit de son entendement. Il rêve tout éveillé (…). Les rêves comme les hallucinations reproduisent toujours des sensations, des idées anciennes ».
  • 2. Gabriel Tardes, 1890, Les lois de l’imitation, 2ème édition 1895, Réédition Edition Kimé, 1993), pp. 99, 100.
  • 3. They are sick of the conflict between their ego and their super ego—Freudian definition of the neurosis: the conflict of the ego with itself.
  • 4. Sigmund Freud, 1915, Metapsychological Supplement to the Theory of Dreams in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XIV (1941-1916), London: Hogarth Press.
  • 5. Freud, Sigmund. ([1955]1995), Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XVIII (1920-1922), London: Hogarth Press.
  • 6. Sigmund Freud, 1900, The Interpretation of dreams in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. V (1900-1901), London: Hogarth Press.
  • 7. Sigmund Freud, 1905, On Dreams in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. V (1900-1901).
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