Three Ways of Going Crazy

—Renewing Ourselves to Death



Tony Thwaites




I work in the humanities. I teach literature, literary criticism, and literary and cultural theory. I teach undergraduate students in large (and ever larger) classes, I supervise postgraduates. I research and write in those areas, or, as teaching-and-research academics all say now—and it’s hard to remember when (if ever) we didn’t say it—I try to research and write in those areas. And in all of those components of academic work, there’s the incessant demand for constant renewal, for doing things differently. 


Renewal is part of the research dynamic, to begin with: it’s not really research unless it turns up something new. It’s also, already and in an accelerating way, a dynamic of teaching. Part of this has to do with the ways that tertiary education over the last three decades has worked in a marketplace where universities compete for students. Part of it follows on from the effects of new educational technologies. Universities invest a lot of money in these technologies, and want them to be used, with the result that sometimes you can feel yourself being wagged by the techno tail. On top of this is the vague institutional fear that because our students are native speakers of new technologies, we have to offer them what we, or rather the managers of educational technologies, imagine they want. That imagining is invested with all sorts of fantasies, starting with what are by now quite old and very familiar fantasies about generation gaps (about ten years ago, the example a former university librarian used to show that we had a new and unprecedented generation of students in higher learning was that they thought nothing of programming VCRs). It’s now sharpened by competition: if we don’t give them the new tech, they’ll go down the road to the place that does. And then a third part of it, on top of competition and technology, is the sheer and increasing scarcity of funding. We now have to make sweeping changes to what we teach and how we teach not just so that we’ve got the edge on the people down the road or because the digital experience offers superior possibilities for learning, but just because we have so few people and resources we can’t afford not to do this to try to cut overheads. When funds dry up, you cut the number of courses you teach, and within the courses you keep, you offer less contact time, less assessment.


So, my question. What is renewal when it’s built into the job description, into business-as-usual? When there’s an incessant and even desperate busyness involved in business-as-usual, which often feels like running hard to stay in the same place, and which only too rarely gives the opportunity of the time and space to do something other than this business of endless renewal? What would it be to dislocate or somehow break that cycle of renewal, to renew renewal, to do something new with renewal? This is not a polemic against renewal, though I do thoroughly deplore so much of the crap under which we work. It’s an attempt to look at that knot at the heart of renewal, at least in the way in which renewal is an imperative for us: the double bind whose very demands work against each other to foreclose the possibility of achieving them, so that no matter how much renewing you do, renewal is still always to come, just beyond the next cresting wave. Is there a renewal that would not be subject to this logic of renewal? Or perhaps, a better way of putting it would be, are there some sort of faults or faultlines in renewal that open up possibilities other than endless tail-chasing?


What I want to do here is no more than open some of the dimensions of the question, by phrasing it as a question of address. Whatever else institutions do, they address those who participate in them, address them as something and indeed as if they already are that something. This is not a matter of being offered a position to try on, with the implication that if you don’t like it you just exercise your free choice, say ‘No thanks’, and walk away (see Thwaites, ‘Bound’). You see the problem immediately when you think of that address as addressing you in the first place precisely as a free individual, one who makes up their own mind, thank you very much—as indeed, famously, do all the big superego imperatives of late-capitalist liberal democracies. There is no simple refusal, for the simple reason that refusal itself is an affirmation and renewal of the free individual you’ve just been addressed as.


So, renewal is an imperative we live under in our professional lives, and for all sorts of non-congruent, conflictual and even out-and-out contradictory reasons, coming from a whole series of relatively separate but interlocked and mutually interfering real considerations. Renewal in the business I’m in might be fuelled by the needs of research, by competition among tertiary education service providers, and by simple lack of funding—but these don’t all pull in the same directions or in the same way. It may be simply impossible to renew in all the ways they all, separately, require: not simply because there just aren’t enough hours in the day, but worse: because even if there were you couldn’t, as they’re all mutually contradictory. That the address is divided is no comfort whatsoever. It doesn’t allow you the meagre satisfaction of claiming the intellectual high ground: ‘You are contradicting yourself. Go away and do better.’ Quite the contrary, the address, the demand, the imperative, just keeps coming, not even renewed because it never even went away. All the contradiction means is that the demand is impossible to meet, which is precisely why it never goes away, why it’s perpetually renewed without ever needing to be renewed.


I want to suggest that there are three possible ways, for a start, of reacting to that divided and incessant demand for renewal. They may not be the only ways, but it’s hard to see other ways, and that’s the dilemma. One by one, then:


  1. First of all, there’s a sort of acquiescent cynicism: to engage with this imperative for renewal, and perhaps even do it well, but without any necessary belief in what one is doing. Belief is possible, but is entirely unnecessary. It may be a byproduct—remember Althusser’s admiration for Pascal’s argument: don’t worry whether you believe or not, just do what a believer does, and after a while you’ll find you believe (Althusser, ‘Ideology’, 127)—but it’s certainly not a motive force. The person who deeply, sincerely believes in the efficacy of what they do is just a special case or subset of the cynical operative. The true believer is for all intents and purposes a cynic, whether they know it or not, because the outcome’s just the same. We could say that the believer is a cynic in denial (‘I know I don’t believe, but nevertheless I behave as though I do...’) except that that knowing-one-doesn’t-believe is entirely superfluous as a subjective stance; it’s a knowing that’s done entirely outside of oneself, in the objective effects of one’s actions.


    So, acquiescent cynicism. Acquiescent because it agrees to these demands for renewal and implements them, even implements them well. Perhaps this is on the grounds of what gets called realism: there’s no choice, whether it’s because of economic scarcity, the need for career advancement, responsibility to one’s students, and so on. It’s an acquiescence that implies a keeping-busy, of course, but also a being-seen-to-be-busy. Renewal is a demand, after all. Before anything else, demand demands response, and a response that makes itself known as response. This may not be a simple matter, as the demand never has a single source, and is never single and undivided. One responds not just to a managerial demand, but at the same time, and in that response, also to one’s colleagues and one’s responsibilities to them, to the demands of professional responsibility, and so on. Managerial demands are themselves already complex responses to a range of prior demands (upper management, budgetary constraints, the wider economy, politics in all its forms). How does one make the fact that one is responding clear when the full extent of what one is responding to is never saturable, calculable? The task of response is in itself necessarily incomplete, potentially endless. One stops responding not because the task is done, but because fresh and equally incessant demands come up in the meantime. It doesn’t end. One responds in the knowledge of that. What one hopes for is not an end to the demands, an end to the endless renewal, but the small islands between them: having made a response to one demand, there’s at least a lull before the new demand that this response will trigger begins to break. This lull is nothing more than the delay that’s built in to demand-and-response, and it’s a lull only within the rhythm of that particular series of demands and responses; meanwhile, the others do keep coming, with their quite independent rhythms. Hence the cynicism, not as a subjective feeling the operative need share, but as an objective property of these multiple demand-and-responses: one cannot but operate in the knowledge that the last response will never be enough to call a halt to it, and neither will the current one or the next. At most, it’s a knowingly ineffectual ritual whose sole purpose is to ward off demand, and which itself multiplies everywhere without end.


    An endless series of rituals that ward off rather than circumvent, where the very carrying out of one step of the ritual breeds another. Psychoanalysis has a name for this: it’s the position of the obsessive (see the ‘Rat Man’ case history in Freud, ‘Notes’).


    Here, I need to be absolutely clear. This is not a name for a type of person, a ‘personality type’. I am not calling people who are caught up in paperwork obsessives. Whether or not you are an obsessive in the sense of being burdened with it as some sort of character trait is entirely irrelevant and beside the point—and that, as we’ll see, has a twist to it. As I’m using it, the obsessive is a position of address that happens in a certain sort of discourse about renewal. Whatever one is ‘in oneself’ (if that really has any meaning at all), the sorts of discourses of renewal I am talking about address you as already in this obsessive position. It’s a property of discourse in its social and cultural dimensions, and no more a matter of some personal interiority than the cynicism I’ve just spoken about. If there’s an anxiety of failure built into this, it’s institutional rather than personal.


  2. Which brings us to the next way of reacting to that demand for renewal. One can take on the demand and return it with the visible signs of that freight of anxiety: the distress, the pain that it causes. This is the strategy of making the cost of that incessant demand visible to the apparent source of the demand, and of demanding in return, through that display of the toll it exacts, that something be done about it. This encompasses all sorts of reactions with very different ranges and political effectivities: from personal collapse to union action, from the demand for administrative reform to Bartlebyesque withdrawal.


    Again, there is a psychoanalytic name for this: it’s the position of the hysteric (Freud, ‘Fragment’). The hysteric’s cry is, ‘After all I’ve done for you, look what you put me through, you bastard. You have to take pity on me.’ Again, this is not a matter of personality types, but of available ways of reacting to demands. The danger of the hysteric is that it also goes along with a sort of subterranean collusion. Just as the obsessive is the attempt to deflect demand by being its true and faithful servant, the hysteric is the attempt that remains true in its failure and turns that failure back into both an accusation of the demand’s faithlessness and an index of its own probity and faithfulness. The response fails not despite but because of its remaining true to the demand. The obsessive is in this respect something like the obverse of the hysteric. Where the obsessive tries to defuse the demand by a meticulous being-true to it, the hysteric tries to strengthen the bond of demander and respondant, and to turn demand into need.


  3. And finally, one can accede to demand in a different way from either of these: not by warding off demand in an excessive responsiveness, or by attempting to turn demand into an admission of need, but by identifying directly with the demand itself. This is to see the demand as nothing more than a purely rational, instrumental means: to speak as demand itself, in the very response to demand. As with the obsessive, it’s to claim to be a ‘realist’, but now with a short-circuit. With the obsessive, there is no perceived choice other than a submission to the demand. Here, it’s a matter of being the very demand, as if the economy, ‘human nature’, God, science, common sense, pure logic itself, were speaking directly through one without intermediary. Of all the three, it is the one that presents itself least as a personal disposition, as part of its effectivity is that it declares that personal space of subjectivity, decision, even ethics, void, to be filled directly by nothing but the demand. Just like the other two positions, it carries its own payoff along with it. It’s not just that in doing what I do I am the hammer of God, or even that I am oblivious to the anxieties and manoeuvres of the obsessive and the hysteric: it’s that doing this carries its own quotient of what Žižek calls an obscene enjoyment (For They Know Not, 30, 232, 235; Metastases, 54ff; see also Lacan, ‘Kant’). Psychoanalysis has a name for this too. It’s the position of the sadist, or, in terms of those endearing paleologisms psychoanalysis inherits from nineteenth-century psychopathology, the pervert.


So, three positions, three available structures of address. As I said, these are not descriptions of character traits, they’re ways in which we’re always already addressed by those incessant and institutional demands for renewal we work under. It’s not to say that people who work in such institutions are obsessives, hysterics or perverts. On the contrary, the point I want to make is that they’re not—or rather, that whether they are or not, and whatever may or may not be happening in the privacy of their own personalities, is beside the point. These are ways of behaving within institutional structures. Institutions hold these out as structural ways of reacting to demand: structural in that institutions provide the quite real, concrete wherewithal that demands response in these ways. In tertiary education, the position of the obsessive tends to be the one that is readily available to the teaching-and-research academic, with that of the hysteric as a constant second option for the early-career to mid-range academic. The obsessive describes middle-management, at school level and perhaps rising into faculty level as well. The role of the pervert is most readily available at higher management levels (and again, I’m not saying that our VCs are sadists, though we probably all go through that temptation), but it filters down too. These functions of address serve also as functions of mobility within the structure, aiding or standing in the way of various forms of professional advancement. They are not determining, in the sense that if you play a certain role in the university you will necessarily be an obsessive. They provide a repertoire of ways in which to respond to demand, and some of those ways are more available in certain institutional roles than in others. Sometimes you just have to switch from one to the other several times in the course of a day, even in the course of the same task. But there are surprisingly few of them, and part of the problem is that it is extremely difficult to think of responses that do not fall under one or the other of them.


The last twist, the one I mentioned earlier. Psychoanalytically, it is not possible to be two or all three of these at the same time. A hysteric can’t be an obsessive, and so on. Yet often the only way through an institutional task, let alone a career, is by that incessant swapping, that improvisation on what’s available. In themselves, the positions of the hysteric and the obsessive are divided from the outside: they are unhappy responses to impossible situations, responses that tie the knot up even further. That impossibility is doubled by the impossible need to be both, to oscillate between the one and the other, and that too is part of the problem. To take up the role of the pervert, the sadist, is to step out of those structural neuroses, but into something darker again.


The question that remains, then, is what other positions it might be possible to take up in response to that incessant demand for renewal: how one renews renewal. What, to carry on the psychoanalytic metaphor, might something like the analyst’s position be, if that’s to be anything more than a fable? What would it be in terms of real possibilities in these institutions in which we work?




Althusser, Louis. ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)’, trans. Ben Brewster, in Mapping Ideology, ed. Slavoj Žižek. London and New York: Verso, 1994, pp. 100–40.


Freud, Sigmund. ‘Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria’ [the ‘Dora’ case history], The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey, vol 7. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74. pp. 1-122.


Freud, Sigmund. ‘Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey, vol 10. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74. pp. 151-249.


Lacan, Jacques. ‘Kant with Sade’, trans. Bruce Fink, in Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2006. pp. 645-68.


Thwaites, Tony. ‘Bound to Hear: Exergue and Interpellation’, Ctrl-Z: New Media Philosophy 1 (2102): n.p.


Žižek, Slavoj. For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. London and New York: Verso, 1991.


Žižek, Slavoj. The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality. London and New York: Verso, 1989.




Ctrl-Z: New Media Philosophy

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