Psychoanalysing Sustainability and Other Development Fantasies

Chaired by Dr Tara van Dijk (University of Oxford;

This session invites papers that address one or more of the following questions:

  1. How is sustainability a filler for the structural impossibilities of sustainable capitalist development?
  2. How does the notion of sustainability structure our desire and what enjoyments do we get from this?
  3. Why do we invest in social-symbolic structures, like sustainable development, when they fail to deliver what they promise?
  4. Why are we vulnerable to them, how do they interpellate us, and what compels us to break or alter these bonds?

Following the Lacanian Left, we propose that notions like ‘sustainability’ grip us by administering enjoyment through structuring our desire. The libidinal is as (or perhaps) more important than the conceptual or the material for understanding why we tend to hold onto that which objectively seems to suppress, exploit or fail us. Slavoj Žižek theorises that ideology justifies the basic workings of any social-symbolic structure by glossing over the arbitrariness of its form, genesis and the impossibility of it achieving its explicit purposes with some filler (a scape-goat or future state). He often uses the example of Nazi anti-Semitism to get this point across:

Anti-Semitism is an ideology which contains a filler in place of a structural impossibility, while simultaneously disavowing this impossibility…The (anti-Semitic figure of the) “Jew” is not the positive cause of social imbalance and antagonisms: social antagonism comes first, and the “Jew” merely gives body to this obstacle (Sublime Objects of Ideology, 74-75).

This session focuses on how ‘sustainability functions as a cover (object cause of desire) for the structural impossibility of sustainable capitalism development. Further, we are interested in to what degree we must transverse this fantasy in order to build a more just world.