14 April 2004

Teresa Brennan: A Brief Retrospective
by Samuel Day Fassbinder

Anti-capitalist critique lends credence to pessimism in this era. Local anticapitalisms (the Zapatista movement, Brazil's landless worker movement, et al.) seem powerless to halt the triumphant march of capital. Parties calling themselves "Communist" and "Socialist" are elected to national governments, to no avail -- for the policies they enact conform to the neoliberal consensus enforced by global financial elites. Wages slide toward the minimum required for subsistence; environments deteriorate with overharvesting and pollution.

The triumphant march of capital appears to bring with it a traumatic deterioration of environmental quality. Species disappear, the atmosphere becomes more CO2 laden and hotter, the ozone layer shrinks, the oceans and rainforests are stripped. Theorists such as Paul Burkett (Marx and Nature) suggests that capitalism, besides being environmentally destructive, will persist indefinitely. When reading Burkett, one shudders to think what the world will look like when the profit motive is through with it.

The failure of social movements to halt the destructive march of capital should be seen as a theoretical failure. Anti-capitalists need to identify the root origin of capital's success in order to avoid an ineffectual tangle with the epiphenomena of capital's domination. One of the most adventurous attempts to identify such root origins can be read in the writings of the late Teresa Brennan.

Brennan, who died in early 2003, wrote about two main theoretical concepts: the "foundational fantasy," and the tendency of capitalism to speed up the production process. Her writing extended to five books, the most important of which were History After Lacan (1993), Exhausting Modernity (2000), and Globalization And Its Terrors (2003). The focus of all three books is an attempt to link the development of capitalism to psychoanalytic concepts largely borrowed from the work of Melanie Klein and her followers. Brennan's writing is bold and full of insights, though very much in the tradition of humanities-department critical theory. Much of Brennan's writing would not appear out of place in journals such as Critical Inquiry or Telos, though she brings to such writing a spirit of revolutionary inquiry that would be more lively than that of many of the career-builders who routinely publish in such places.

Her most prominent concept, the concept of the "foundational fantasy." is psychoanalytic. The "foundational fantasy" is derived from the theories of Melanie Klein, and refers to the infant's rage at being dependent upon the mother. Brennan tried to politicize the "foundational fantasy," and connect it to a theory that was explicitly anticapitalist. In Exhausting Modernity, her most ambitious work, she ties the "foundational fantasy" to the fantasies of instant gratification through which commodity culture "appeals to a desire for domination and control" (21). Histories such as Carolyn Merchant's The Death of Nature and William Leiss's The Domination of Nature tell a narrative of the increasing prominence of philosophies promoting the "domination of nature"; Brennan would link the "domination of nature" itself to the psychosis of the "foundational fantasy."

Now, Melanie Klein, in her extension of Freud's psychoanalysis, imagines a state of human being that is filled with all kinds of neurotic fantasies. The most important of these, for Brennan's analysis, is what Klein called "splitting": the psyche of the infant divides itself into "good" and "bad" parts, and the "bad" part is projected upon the other. Brennan wishes to use Klein's theory, then, to create a psychology of object-relations that can explain the appeal of capitalism, and especially its tendencies ot immediate gratification.

The psychology of the infant, explained Klein, begins with the separation from the mother and the newborn infant's desire for the mother's breast. Neurosis begins in the infant's hallucination of the absent breast. The hallucination of the breast, imagines Brennan, becomes a form of envy. And envy, the creative force revisioned through envidia ("to look askance at," the Latin etymology offered in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary), desires to possess, dominate, and control the other as capital desires to possess, dominate, and control labor. So capital as well as consumerism are implicated in the promotion of the "foundational fantasy." Brennan's creative twist upon the critique of capitalism is to offer an object-relations psychology of capital and of consumerism.

It is reasonable to expect object-relations psychology to have something to say about capitalism. After all, one of the primary concepts of the Marxist lexicon of capitalist critique is that of commodity fetishism, which denotes a dynamic in which unhealthy object-relations, fetishizing exchange-value, replace healthy object-relations where use-value is important. The global-capitalist promotion of "free trade," then, can be seen as facilitating the fetishism of exchange-value as it spreads to every part of the world where commerce can be conducted. Recent critiques of capitalism, most prominently Joel Kovel's (2002) The Enemy of Nature, have emphasized a return to use-value against the spread of commodity fetishism as essential to the provision of a genuine alternative to capitalism.

Now, the "foundational fantasy" is connected to a desire for omnipotence in Brennan's account (2000:29). This is a reversal of the actual state of affairs for the infant; the infant imagines him/herself in control, and "that the mother is a dependent infant" (26). Since, for fully-grown adults, the "foundational fantasy" is satisfied by commodities, the desire for omnipotence can be satisfied through the purchase of such commodities with money. Certain passages from Marx's early (1844) essay "The Power of Money In Bourgeois Society" evoke the same psychodynamic described by Brennan. The hallucination of the absent, the reversal of position, the possession and control, and the desire for omnipotence are all there:

I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid: but money is honored, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am stupid, but money is the real mind of all things and how then shall its possessor be stupid? Besides, he can buy talented people for himself, and is he who has power over the talented not more talented than the talented? Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary? (Marx 167)

In chapter 2 of Exhausting Modernity, Teresa Brennan uses the object-relations psychology of the "foundational fantasy" to critique the instant gratification of consumerism -- but much more than that is of course at stake, for all that can be bought with money caters to the "foundational fantasy." As Brennan says in her reading of Marx, "Marx's value-theory is an account of how the world is more and more a world of objects." (89). The connection between the object-relations psychology of the "foundational fantasy" and the object-relations of capital is contained in the domination of nature.

Capitalism, for Brennan, stands as the primary development of what she (following Lacan) called the "ego's era," the period of history stretching from the 17th century to the present, when the "foundational fantasy" was in control of human history. The idea that the "ego's era" started in the 17th century is something Brennan takes from Lacan, who cites the publication of Pascal's Pensees in 1760 -- but, really, any point in the history of capitalist expansion would have been a meaningful place for Brennan to consider a history in which the "foundational fantasy' played a part.

The other creative thread of Teresa Brennan's anticapitalism is in her use of the concept of time (and of the speed-up of the capitalist process) to explain the peculiar destructiveness of capitalism itself. Through a lengthy exegesis of Marx's Capital, Brennan describes why capitalism must operate at faster and faster speeds, exploiting labor and nature (and here Brennan treats labor as a subcategory of nature) past the point at which these two entities can reproduce their conditions of existence:

While this speeding-up diminishes overall surplus-value in the long term, it obviously works compellingly in the short term. (2000: 118)

The dilemma described here has been in the literature for quite some time, under the category of James O'Connor's "Second Contradiction of Capitalism." Capital, the engine of business profit, is said to be so hungry to devour the natural world and the world of working people that it mutilates those worlds, undercutting the substrate of its own growth-activity. The difference in Brennan's treatment of capital's self-undercutting is her notion of the role time plays in its instigation.

Brennan's solution to capital's destructiveness is to use the power of democratic government to forcibly slow down the production processes to sustainable levels. For her, the rhythms of business must conform to the rhythms of labor and of nature, not vice versa. She argues for resistance to capital's speed-up. "Reversing the accelerated pace of production with its overconsumption of energies means moving back toward a local and nonspecialized economy. This was precisely what Gandhi advocated." (2003: 152). In Globalization And Its Terrors, she recommends that human existence be lived according to a "prime directive": "we shall not use up nature and humankind at a rate faster than they can replenish themselves and be replenished" (2003: 164). In the promotion of her anticapitalist argument, Brennan is concerned to discuss the shortcomings of the capitalist system in the most developed nations; the subtitle to Globalization And Its Terrors is "Daily Life in the West." We are asked to reflect upon the overall trends of increasing work-time, stress, financial indebtedness, and financial security for the residents of the richer nations. And in suggesting an anticapitalist solution, Brennan is quick to promote the possibilities of religious community, in an attempt to appeal to "honest conservatives" (2003:x). The point is well-taken that anticapitalist theory needs to be field-tested in populations of working people. The urgency of the current situation (and the pessimism it inspires) should raise a red flag to the readers of theory, that theory cannot be a mere pastime for academic readers. Strengthening the connections between theory and practice is therefore of vital importance.

It must here be admitted that Brennan's discussion of how to get from capitalism to post-capitalism, as outlined both in Globalization And Its Terrors and Exhausting Modernity, is filled with wishful thinking. But despite her renunciation of "socialism," (all the while referring to socialist publications as sites for the outlining of an alternative), Brennan is interested in a radical replacement of capitalism. And Brennan offers the possibility of revolution should reformist paths not prove viable. That reveals a certain open-mindedness to her argument, as her "prime directive" appears to place the impetus for social change in the hands of those capitalist powers who are indeed using up nature and humankind. Indeed, nature and humankind will themselves need to be empowered to demand that "we will not be used up," in order to stop the destructive momentum of the "ego's era."

Works Cited

Brennan, Teresa. History After Lacan. New York: Routledge, 1993.
---. Exhausting Modernity: Grounds for a New Economy. New York: Routledge, 2000.

---. Globalization And Its Terrors. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Marx, Karl. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Ed. Dirk Struik. Trans. Martin Milligan. New York: International, 1967.