CSPS PhD Course | Psychoanalysis and the Political Ecology of Global Transformations | March 20 – April 8 2020

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This course interrogates the paradoxical difficulty in current times of thinking on, and engaging in, processes of radical transformation when we most need it. As Fredric Jameson puts it, it is easier to imagine the end of the world resulting from an ecological crisis than a change in the capitalist mode of production. This inability to bring about even the slightest changes in the functioning of neoliberal capitalism manifests itself either in a melancholic resignation to the end of the world and the end of humanity (i.e. the popularity of the posthuman in current social science discourse), or in an incessant search for alternatives that in fact disavow our impotence of changing anything. We engage in all kinds of (academic) projects, embrace empty signifiers such as sustainability and make far reaching demands to states that have forfeited any kind of economic sovereignty (i.e. climate change marches), secretly knowing that it will not make a true difference. Never before has Hanna Arendt’s motto ‘stop and think’ been so timely. Rather than engaging in activities aimed to assuage guilt feelings for our complicity with the order of things – what Slavoj Žižek calls inter-passivity- , we need to address our inability to tackle the Real of our times, i.e. the persistence of capitalism as a crisis ridden system that is leading to the destruction of our planet and our common humanity (i.e. the common of knowledge, nature and our biogenetic common). 

The paradox of our inability to imagine an alternative to capitalism is even greater if we consider the swelling worldwide of a multitude of insurgencies that expose the inability of governments and political elites to deal with popular demands. All too often these are treated by the media and academic literature as irrational and reactive outbursts against globalization (e.g. the Yellow Vest movement), deploying the term populism as an empty signifier, without inquiring into the root causes of these collective expressions of dissatisfaction. The inability to engage with the Real of our times is exemplified in the views, advocated by political governance approaches, that politics is about laying out the choices required for all kinds of technological transitions towards an environmentally friendly, sustainable and inclusive economy, while failing to subject the economy to the sovereign decision-making power of the people.. This is what several authors (i.e. Brown 2015, 2019) have denominated as post-democratization: the naturalization of the market as the preferred template for the organization of social relations. Contrary to such post-democratic, post-political stances, theorists inflected by Lacanian thinking maintain that popular insurgencies (e.g. the Occupy, Indignado movements, climate change marches, the extinction Rebellion, etc.) can best be seen as symptomatic reactions to the current impoverishment of democracy, as much as the instrumentalization of popular discontent by right-wing movements through xenophobic and nationalist discourses. 

Typically, the empty signifier of populism is mustered to disqualify these insurgencies as invested in passions and affects that contaminate a rational political process, thus foreclosing any question regarding the democratization of the economy as a true political act. We analyze these insurgencies as popular reactions to the evacuation of the political as a space of debate on the possibility of bringing about transformations in the mode of production. Rather than seeing politics as a deliberative approach underscored by governmental inducements to make society work  – as encapsulated in the motto ‘politics is the art of the possible’ – we argue that the only realistic thing to do is to demand the impossible. Hence, the focus on cuts, divisions, gaps and antagonisms that stand for the inconsistencies of the actual, its incompleteness, in short, the non-all character of the social. It is this frailty of the social link that animates the surge of all sorts of passionate attachments to ideas and events. 

In this course we draw on psychoanalysis to inquire into such passionate attachments as the elementary particles of the political unconscious; the knowledge we don’t know we have as manifested in ‘irrational’ desires and forms of enjoyment, and the fantasies that prop up these affects; in short the libidinal economy. For that purpose we draw upon the critique of ideology as developed by the Slovenian left Lacanian school. Pivotal in this school has been the notion of enjoyment as a political factor as put to work by Slavoj Žižek through analyses of popular culture and current political events. 

The key insight we aim to bring across in this course is that the resurgence of the political, not as an analysis of ‘what is’ (the actual), but as a prefiguring of what ‘could be’ – (the answer of the Real)  -, necessitates a detailed account of the role of fantasy in putting affects such as desire and its obverse, the death drive, to work for political purposes. In short, the role of enjoyment as the obscene underside of the public text of an ideological edifice, that underwrites the functioning of a political system as well as providing elements for its contestation. Hence, our argument that the critique of ideology is now more important than ever to understand the multifarious ways in which politics is invested by all kinds of affects, affirmative and destructive, as is the case when desires for social transformation are banalized by discourses of inclusive development, or sustainable and circular economies, thus rendering invisible the obscene enjoyments that underlie the workings of capitalism: the death drive as standing for its indifference to planetary devastation, driven by the search for profits. 

The course starts with an overview of psychoanalytical concepts and their relevance for ideology critique. The following three weeks we discuss the use of Lacanian psychoanalysis – what we denominate the Lacanian turn – in the fields of development, the ecology and urban politics: 

  • The Lacanian turn in development aims at a critique that goes beyond political economy/ecology and poststructuralist approaches by analyzing development as a desiring machine that both generates and banalizes the desire for development. The latter is propelled by the enjoyment involved in the expulsion of whole populations for the sake of mega-projects (big dams, ports), and the retrofitting of modernization into ‘alternative and participatory development’ through Corporate Social Responsibility programs 
  • The Lacanian turn in political ecology sets out to bring the political into the environment, rather than rendering policies and politics more sensitive to environmental concerns. It deals with the enjoyment of climate change denial, and the greenwashing of the environment through discourses of sustainability, and ecological transitions (in Lacanese the discourse of the University)
  • The Lacanian turn in the analysis of urban political movements argues that the proliferation of urban insurgencies calls for a re-centering of the urban political, the urban as a site of political encounter, interruption, and experimentation. This as we will see involves a theoretical perspective away from a focus on institutionalized politics towards a vantage point that considers other forms of contestation.

Learning outcomes

After successful completion participants are expected to be able to:

– Have a good understanding of Lacanian theory and its application to ideology critique

– Analyze current insurgencies as potential sources for emancipatory political mobilization

– Apply psychoanalytical Lacanian theory to the analysis of global transformations in the fields of development, ecology and urban insurgencies 

– Capacity to incorporate insights from Lacanian theory in empirical research 


Week 1: 13 – 17 April (Monday and Wednesday afternoon 14:00 – 17:00)


Week 2: 20 –  24 April (Thursday and Friday afternoon 14:-17:00)

The lacanian turn in development theory 

Week 3: 11 –  15 May (Monday and Wednesday: 14:00 – 17:00)

The lacanian turn in political ecology 

Week 4: 18 – 22 May (Tuesday and Thursday: 14: – 17:00)

The Lacanian turn in urban studies 


a research paper will be written at the end of the course 

Target group and min/max number of participants

Students in development studies, conflict studies, refugee studies, political economy, environmental

management, tourism, and anthropology; given the presence of prominent specialists on the topic the course

might be interesting for students from other universities (when converted into a graduate program course)

minimum 10 students.

Assumed prior knowledge

MSc level sociology/anthropology/political science courses