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Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis
McAfee, Noelle
Columbia University Press / Softcover / 2019-06-01 / 023119269X
Psychoanalysis and Philosophy
reg price: $41.95 our price: $ 37.76 (may be subject to change)
280 pages
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What is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the globe today? In Fear of Breakdown, Noëlle McAfee uses psychoanalytic theory to explore the subterranean anxieties behind current crises and the ways in which democratic practices can help work through seemingly intractable political conflicts. Working at the intersection of psyche and society, McAfee draws on psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott’s concept of the fear of breakdown to show how hypernationalism stems from unconscious anxieties over the origins of personal and social identities, giving rise to temptations to reify exclusionary phantasies of national origins.

Fear of Breakdown contends that politics needs something that only psychoanalysis has been able to offer: an understanding of how to work through anxieties, ambiguity, fragility, and loss in order to create a more democratic politics. Coupling robust psychoanalytic theory with concrete democratic practice, Fear of Breakdown shows how a politics of working through can help counter a politics of splitting, paranoia, and demonization. McAfee argues for a new approach to deliberative democratic theory, not the usual philosopher-sanctioned process of reason-giving but an affective process of making difficult choices, encountering others, and mourning what cannot be had.


In exploring the fear of breakdown that underlies human existence, Noëlle McAfee creates a genuine intellectual breakthrough—her book is a stunningly original exploration of the political significance of mourning. This is one of the most thrilling books I have read in years.
Mari Ruti, author of Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings: The Emotional Costs of Everyday Life

Fear of Breakdown is a tour de force that provides us with a new framework that resolves some of the tensions between psychoanalysis and politics through an interpretation of D. W. Winnicott’s notion of breakdown. McAfee offers us nothing less than a rethinking of key terms of politics—citizenship, deliberation, false consciousness, and nationalism, to name a few. A must-read for anyone concerned with the crisis of democracy.
Drucilla Cornell, coauthor of The Spirit of Revolution: Beyond the Dead Ends of Man

Hercules had twelve labors but, if Noëlle McAfee is right, democratic citizens have only six tasks to undertake for the Herculean task of reclaiming democracy. Guided by Winnicott’s penetrating insight that the fear of breakdown is a fear of what has already happened, McAfee develops a vision of politics as a deliberative practice of political working through, open to 'radical questioning and learning anew.' A joy to read.
Bonnie Honig, author of Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair

Where Freud’s rather dark account of human nature tended to hypostatize the antisocial aspects of the psyche, subsequent psychoanalytic theorists on the left have tended to err in the opposite direction, painting an overly socialized picture of the human animal. McAfee avoids both errors and develops a progressive view of politics that does not simplify the complexities of the human nature. Her analysis of Winnicott’s notion of the ‘fear of breakdown’ is especially useful for conceptualizing the current political landscape.
Joel Whitebook, author of Freud: An Intellectual Biography

Table of Contents:

By Way of a Preface
1. Defining Politics
2. Psychoanalysis and Political Theory
3. Politics and the Fear of Breakdown
4. Practicing Democracy
5. Democratic Imaginaries
6. Becoming Citizens
7. Definitions of the Situation
8. Deliberating Otherwise
9. Political Works of Mourning
10. Public Will and Action
11. Radical Imaginaries
12. Nationalism and the Fear of Breakdown
Conclusion: Working Through the Breakdown

About the Author:

Noëlle McAfee is a professor of philosophy and the director of the Psychoanalytic Studies Program at Emory University. Her books include Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship (2000), Julia Kristeva (2003), and Democracy and the Political Unconscious (Columbia, 2008).

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