Fall 2021

PSP 789-001 - Logics of "The People"

Noëlle McAfee

Mondays 2:30-5:30pm

This graduate seminar will bring psychoanalytic theory to bear on contemporary political theories that are grappling with the current and often troubling phenomenon known as populism. At the heart of the debates is a question of whether the formation of a unified people is an achievement or a problem. To the extent that populism is an outgrowth of—or perhaps parasitic on—democracy where “we the people” are to rule ourselves, the problem of what “the people” means and how it is constructed (and what it abjects) is central to all democratic theory and practice. It’s a problem that shows up in debates about identity, about coalitional work, and about efforts that try to bypass governmental institutions and those that try to harness them. In other words, the problem is unavoidable.

This seminar will draw on psychoanalysis to understand the deep anxieties that give rise to populisms’ we/they and friend/enemy distinctions. Where the discursive approach developed by Ernesto Laclau largely champions these distinctions and the left-wing populisms of Latin America that model them, many contemporary critical theorists are alarmed by their authoritarian tendencies. Laclau himself drew on Lacan to develop his concept of populist reason and he saw the need for a leader who could embody the will of the people; but he thought that so long as “the people” was constructed broadly and inclusively and represented by someone who spoke for them (or it), the result could be democratic. But this intuition has not been borne out. Other psychoanalytic approaches, beginning with Freud’s essay on group psychology and continuing through Kleinian and Lacanian theory, warn against investing so much in the ideal leader/ego ideal.

Course requirements: seminar attendance and participation; occasional presentations; final seminar paper.

Required Texts

Carlos de la Torre, ed., Routledge Handbook of Global Populism. Routledge, 2019.

Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason. London: Verso, 2007.

Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, 2017.

Jan-Werner Müller. What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Jacques Rancière. Hatred of Democracy. Verso, 2006.

Nadia Urbinati. Me The People: How Populism Transforms Democracy. Harvard, 2019.

Readings by Sigmund Freud, Wilfred Bion, Fred Alford, Vamik Volkan, Chantal Mouffe, Andrew Arato, Jean Cohen, and others will be available electronically.