Arguments from experience
The ideas of psychoanalysis and its founder, Sigmund Freud, have long been assimilated into both popular culture and academic discourse. This assimilation has been so comprehensive that in the Anglophone world—though not necessarily elsewhere—these ideas have been relegated to the status of historical relics, discredited museum pieces that have been replaced by a ‘scientific’ psychology. All the same, a number of scandalous notions have resisted this assimilation, becoming either regarded within ‘scientific’ psychology as self-evidently suspect, or gentrified by Freud’s followers themselves, with their perturbing content nullified. These notions include: the hypothesis of infantile sexuality; the death drive as radical impulse to inertia; the repetition of trauma and the satisfaction (but not pleasure) produced by symptoms; and the invention of an unconscious that is not merely the iceberg to consciousness’s tip but disruptive and divisive, and that ensures the ego is not the master of its own house.
Developing these points further, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan claimed that the ego—also known as the self, that part of myself with which I identify—is a necessary but ultimately defensive construct, an amalgam of imaginary elements and identifications. Recall Magritte’s picture of a pipe, under which is written, in French, the words ‘This is not a pipe’. In the same vein, my ego is the image that I hold of myself, constructed from what is mirrored to me; but, like Magritte’s pipe, no matter how profoundly I identify with this image, it is not me. Consequently, I have no privileged access to a ‘truthful’ viewpoint of my own self, though neither does anyone else. ‘Reality’ is always perceived through one’s own fantasmatic lens, and can be distinguished from the ‘real’, which consists of those largely unrepresentable elements of trauma and anxiety herniating through the cracks of the lens. The most that one can do in the service of ‘reality-testing’ is to learn something of the constitution of one’s own particular fantasmatic lens, in order to account for it in one’s ‘reality’. I may very well perceive, with great feeling, that the coherence of my experience constitutes its truth, but this experience is nonetheless always in question, as, in Lacan’s terms, ‘reality is precarious’ and ‘as guides to the real, feelings are deceptive’. Moreover, one does not have to move through the world primarily operating from one’s ego and its defences. The ego is not the same as the subject, just as, by analogy, a class in itself is not the same as a class for itself. Moreover, both psychoanalysts and the Dalai Lama are in agreement that the maintenance of one’s ego tends in the direction of aggression.
With the above in mind, the currently very popular notion of ‘lived experience’ begins to look problematic as a basis for general claims, and one is left with the troubling, though fairly obvious, notion that people are not necessarily reliable narrators of their own lives. This is not only a psychoanalytic claim; various strands of thought from within philosophy also support it. René Descartes, among others, demonstrated that the senses were prone to error. A straight stick placed in water might appear bent, for instance. Immanuel Kant argued that while one can take one’s own consciousness as an object for reflection, this object, like every other object in the phenomenal field (that is, what I can perceive), belongs to the realm of mere ‘appearance’ and is not the thing in itself, while its appearance is itself conditioned by a series of perceptual and cognitive rules. In a range of other paradigms as well, ‘lived experience’ is said to be structured by causes outside of its immediate grasp, from the cracked-looking-glass colonial phenomenology of Frantz Fanon to Michel Foucault’s notion of ‘subjectification’. Even Gilles Deleuze, who criticised much of the psychoanalysis of his era, was led to retort to a critic that ‘arguments from one’s own privileged experience are bad and reactionary arguments’.
In a different vein, there is a long tradition within Marxian thought of examining the question, critical in leftist politics, of why people do not always act according to what is apparently in their best political interests. This tradition found voice in the ‘false consciousness’ of Georg Lukács and the ideological critiques of the Frankfurt School. On this topic, Marxist theories of ideology find a point of convergence with psychoanalytic theories of fantasy, the imaginary, and the ego. In effect, Marxism and psychoanalysis are not addressing two different phenomena here, but rather two aspects of the same phenomenon. Thus Australians can claim, as they did in one University of Melbourne study, that they value ‘truthfulness’ and high ethical conduct above all else in politicians while at the same time voting repeatedly for representatives with a demonstrable record of incorrigible graft and dishonesty. Likewise, at an individual level, it is entirely possible for somebody to explain that they value ‘meaningful’ hobbies and social engagement (speaking from a position of what is known in psychoanalysis as the ideal ego) while at the same time spending hours of their free time, for instance, consuming sweets and watching pornography. By the same token, liberal political theorists and economists can assert, in the realm of industrial relations, for example, that their policies are perfectly consistent with (formal) equality while systematically ignoring the radically unequal outcomes they produce. The ‘values’ to which people ostensibly and publicly subscribe are principally imaginary: there is always another set of values to be found (though not necessarily articulated) at the level of what individuals actually and materially do with their time, energy, money and bodies. What is true of the individual person is no less true of the corporation, or government. Any examination of ‘lived experience’ in the absence of the material conditions of that experience is likely to remain stuck in the closed loop of fantasy.
If you believe in self-mastery, or that your motives are transparent to yourself, then the discussion above may appear rather counter-intuitive. Such assumptions as self-mastery and self-transparency constitute a sizeable portion of what passes for ‘common sense’ under capitalism today, including the discourses of mental health and ‘wellness’. Nonetheless, without wishing to suggest that all accounts of lived experience ought to be rejected, the category of ‘lived experience’ has changed over the years. At one time—for instance, in the work of Edmund Husserl—‘lived experience’ referred to a ‘universal essence’ of phenomenal experience, as if everyone perceived the world similarly, and not to some particular phenomenal object or subject. Today, the notion is used to make appeals on the basis of particularist identity markers. The problem with this approach is that any such appeal could be countered by some other particularist identity predicate containing a contrary perspective. We are left with the problem of whose ‘lived experience’ to privilege and prioritise, a problem that is not contained within the experience itself—a question to which I will return. Notwithstanding how ‘lived experience’ as used today is a philosophical dead end, and a thinly veiled ideology in political terms, it remains to be seen how this term has persisted in contemporary political discourse.
The turn to lived experience
I mentioned Husserl and his attempt to locate ‘universal essences’ from within the perspective of a transcendental approach to phenomenology, in which he sought to identify generalisable structures rather than enumerate particular experiences. His student, Martin Heidegger, in Being and Time, turned at one time to a phenomenology of Being, for which he used the term Dasein (situated, existent being, literally ‘Being-there’). Without wishing to suggest that Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism is the origin of ‘lived experience’ in contemporary ideology, it is nonetheless suggestive that Sartre, in his Being and Nothingness, shifted his focus from Dasein to the irreducibility of the individual consciousness, in principle unified except in instances of ‘bad faith’. At this point in Sartre’s work, individual consciousness is irreducible to every other consciousness thrown into an absurd universe bereft of meaning. While Sartre criticised Heidegger’s Dasein for being a fleshless, sexless abstraction, Heidegger had by contrast given a place of ontological priority to the Other (in his notion of Mitsein, or ‘Being-with’). The shift from ‘being’ to ‘consciousness’ does not accord the Other this same primacy. The subject of Sartre’s existentialism is solitary, with the Other thrown in as an afterthought, and correspondingly, it is radically apolitical. In contrast to Heidegger’s Being, of which the Other, and therefore language, are constituent elements, what is in question with respect to an atomised consciousness is not a testimony exactly, and still less a praxis. In defence of Sartre, he does not wish to luxuriate in the splendours of any given consciousness, and he too, at points, seeks to generalise beyond the merely personal. Nonetheless, any philosophy of consciousness is at risk of reproducing its own methodical individualism as a general theory. The mediation of such a consciousness with other people’s consciousnesses via dialogue would already be a limit to its irreducibility, since this latter would be obliged to submit to the language of the Other for such dialogue to be made possible. In the Sartrean stream, one is left with a ‘lived experience’ that is ubiquitous, particularist, tending towards atomisation, and resistant to language and especially to formalisation. Sartre eventually abandoned his existentialism in the face of political crises, leading him to a re-evaluation of Marxism, and to a lesser extent psychoanalysis. He came to regard the ‘rationalism’ of Being and Nothingness as leading ultimately to the ‘irrationalism’ of a ‘lived experience’ that was ‘always simultaneously present to itself and absent from itself’.
These limitations have not stopped the progress of ‘lived experience’ as a category. While correlation is not causation, one might note the widespread commodification of experience itself. The Harvard Business Review could, as early as 1998, herald the forthcoming ‘creative destruction’ of the ‘experience economy’—that is, an economy organised around extracting exchange value from subjective events. The authors noted that this was of particular importance in an economic environment in which the surplus value to be extracted from goods and services was diminishing. One might also note the fate of Christianity, especially within the Catholic world, in which impersonal, ritualistic religiosity has declined in favour of charismatic, evangelical, experiential versions of Christianity, usually coupled with significant political reaction. In a sense, this is the Right’s very successful recuperation of the postwar counterculture movements that valorised experiences that were once transgressive or subversive but which now can be consumed with the imprimatur of institutional authority. Woodstock is now the megachurch; the hippy of old is now a Pentecostal. Many religions reserved a place for mystical or ecstatic experience, but the systematisation of these experiences—parishioners speaking in tongues on a weekly basis, for instance—fits aptly with the experience economy.
Several specific case studies illustrate the deadlocks inherent in the experience economy. For some years now, men have been able to experience a simulation of the pains of childbirth. This ‘simulation’ is achieved by the men in question having electric shocks administered to their abdomens. Apart from the inherent ridiculousness of this as a proposition—there’s no reason to imagine that a few minutes worth of shocks in any way resembles childbirth, except at a very remote level of abstraction—the primacy given to the ‘experience’ itself reflects a discursive failure. Or, to put it differently, men need not receive electric shocks, but only listen, even minimally, to those who have given birth, in order to grasp that it hurts, that it’s difficult. ‘Experience’ at the level of consciousness is precisely what resists simulation, and for every presumed gain at the level of imaginary empathy achieved by such a simulation there is an equivalent loss at the level of discourse. Incidentally, the limits of politics and ethics founded on empathy are evident here. If empathy—my imaginary construction of the Other’s experience—is the basis of political and ethical praxis, then difference—that which exceeds assimilation into my ‘understanding’—will a priori be excluded, and the resultant ‘praxis’ risks being reduced to personal narcissism. Note, for instance, the Australians and Europeans welcoming Ukrainian refugees while opposition to the resettlement of refugees from Syria or Afghanistan was practically bipartisan policy.
Another example concerns the evaluation of the lived experiences of Australia’s anti-vaccination, anti-mandate, anti-lockdown movement, and its documented ties with far-right political formations. Researcher Simon Copland has published a number of articles discussing these groups based on his studies of their social media output. Copland makes some important points, including the (indisputable) observation by anti-vaxxers that governments are often dishonest, authoritarian and uncaring of their citizens, and that concerns about the effects of COVID mitigation measures by such movements are not well-met by mere condescension. So far, so good. But Copland takes the self-reports of anti-vaxxers at face value (that is, from the position of their ‘ideal ego’, as mentioned earlier). He reports that they crave ‘public intimacy’ and that their convoys and protests express a yearning for ‘community’, and for a ‘space in which individuals could be heard about their ideas and feelings of being shunned by society’. Thus, the anti-vaccination movement, in this idealised iteration, turns out to consist of individuals suffering from social disconnection, anomie and despair. The rise of specifically fascist opposition to COVID mitigation policies risks being attributed here to a lack of cuddles and connection.
What is missing in this account is any explanation as to why, if the problem is societal-level atomisation, only some individuals hold conspiratorial views about vaccines—almost always with unshakeable certainty—or why these individuals find themselves ‘shunned’ when plenty of individuals with relatively marginal views (one might think of Australian socialists, for instance) are not necessarily. Considering that the many individuals with pre-existing health conditions have been obliged to undertake strict isolation during the pandemic, beyond even formal restrictions, why has this group not similarly embraced paranoid fantasy and far-right politics? Copland’s tale of hard-done-by workers (more likely, in fact, like ‘Howard’s battlers’ of old, to be petit-bourgeois self-employed individuals) ignores the tendency in these individuals towards paranoia, which is coupled with elaborate revenge fantasies (often about Nuremberg-style trials that will see large numbers of public officials executed), and which is equally directed horizontally, at erstwhile comrades who provoke suspicion. Copland’s account does not consider that anti-vax ideology might be a mere prop to sustain various satisfactions (enjoyment of transgressing the law and social norms, for instance, or of sheer sadism) or provide a post hoc rationalisation for what in many cases would have been a pre-existing exclusion from social bonds. Slavoy Žižek warned many years ago, and many times, of the futility of these types of accounts:
What happens…is strictly homologous to the response of neo-Nazi skinhead who, when really pressed for the reasons for his violence, suddenly starts to talk like social workers, sociologists and social psychologists, quoting diminished social mobility, rising insecurity, the disintegration of paternal authority, the lack of maternal love in his early childhood—the unity of practice and its inherent ideological legitimization disintegrates into raw violence and its impotent, inefficient interpretation.
In other words, the apparently good conscience of the fascist at the level of ‘lived experience’ is not itself proof that his self-justifications should be taken uncritically.
Another example can be found in the fiasco that surrounded the publication of The Hand That Signed the Paper in the 1990s. The novel, which won a prestigious literary award, was ostensibly authored by one Helen Demidenko, who, while wearing traditional Ukrainian folk outfits in Brisbane, claimed that the text was inspired by the testimonies of her Ukrainian relatives. The text itself veers towards frank anti-Semitism, with its sympathetic portrayals of Holocaust collaborators and attribution of famine to ‘Jewish Bolsheviks’. Once her backstory was exposed as false, the novel’s author attempted to claim that it was a literary hoax, a story that was somewhat successful in terms of diverting significant subsequent debate to the topic of ‘authenticity’. What is interesting here is that the dubious content of the novel was, in so far as it had a justification, grounded in an appeal to a (fabricated) lived experience. The debate regarding authenticity misses the point that whatever the book’s anti-Semitism, it would have been no less racist even if its author really had been a Ukrainian nursed from infancy on tales of the wickedness of leftist Jews. By analogy, it is as if an experience of mistreatment by a woman would thereafter not only explain but justify a man’s enduring misogyny, or that the experience of working with a kind, benevolent employer would, of itself, repudiate the fundamental claims of Marx. These specific master’s tools—atomised particularism, identity predicates—cannot be reappropriated to the ends of collective solidarity. It goes without saying that ‘Helen Demidenko’ subsequently became a right-wing libertarian political staffer.
None of this is to say, of course, that one should counter the descent into narcissistic self-reflection by embracing its dialectical corollary, scientism. This is the pseudo-solution encountered in psychology and many other social ‘science’ disciplines in which discussion of political commitments and philosophical assumptions is rejected, and in its place a statistically constructed data set is used to provide a faux-universalist account of psychological and sociological phenomena. In this category one can find the randomly controlled trials of mental health outcome studies and the glib, liberal-technocratic imperative to simply shut up and ‘follow the science’ on issues from the pandemic to climate change, as if science itself was some ideologically ‘neutral’ undertaking, or government policy could pass unmediated from the research lab to the public sphere without passing through the defiles of politics.
Mental health and lived experience
One particularly troubling deployment of ‘lived experience’ is in the field of mental health. I have previously argued that mental health ‘reform’ in Australia is largely driven by a self-interested cabal of lobbyists with the ear of government. They seek to remake Australia’s admittedly decrepit mental-health system in their own image, which is that of treating ‘clients’ in narrowly technocratic terms and with as much economic efficiency as possible. In practice, this involves a reliance on crudely reductive therapies (usually pharmaceuticals and conformist, didactic short-term ‘therapies’) and, increasingly, apps, websites and algorithms. The evidence base for these supposedly evidence-based approaches is generally either extremely limited or equivocal, so some of the justificatory heavy lifting for the ‘reforms’ is performed with reference to ‘lived experience’.
One could take a research and clinical program at the University of Sydney as a case in point. Leading ‘reformer’ Ian Hickie, among others, heads a program aimed at delivering an ‘innovative online ecosystem of care to support young people with their mental health with better data and more efficiency’. This program is entitled Project Synergy and is linked to a broader ambition to promote something its propounders call ‘mental wealth’ (as dystopian as it sounds, apparently none of this is satirical). More broadly, the program is aimed at ‘data collection’ via ‘digital health’, which makes the ‘client’ less the patient and more the government, whose investment would presumably be in footing the bill for it. To the extent that such a program is defensible, its defence rests principally on the supposedly ‘overwhelming support’ for ‘digital solutions’ to mental suffering from those with lived experience of it.
Likewise, another lobby/research group, the Black Dog Institute, promotes a highly phamarceutically oriented model of mental-health ‘care’. A wide range of problematic psychiatric and psychological concepts and procedures, from of ‘personality disorder’ to trans-cranial magnetic stimulation to ‘resilience’, are imported wholesale and without the slightest critical consideration. Again, all of this is sanctified by a ‘lived experience framework’, in which the ‘engagement’ of individuals who have interacted with the mental-health system manages to coincide with the simplistic, coercive, and standardised approaches of the Institute. This is despite the significance of a widespread anti-psychiatric movement in Australia and abroad, and significant, and well-documented criticism of such approaches in multiple writings and public inquiries. Nonetheless, if even a single ‘client’ agrees with a lobbyist’s research paradigm, the latter is, by definition, supported by ‘lived experience’, a concept to be added to the series of lies, damned lies, and statistics. Lived experiences can be curated selectively and tailored to one’s arguments and funding applications. The fundamental logic here is that of co-option, and lived experience is one of the most easily co-opted things there is. Behind all appeals to lived experience, and silent in such discourses, is the question of precisely whose lived experience is to be given primacy as the basis for political practice.
In a recent edition of Arena Quarterly, Mark Furlong criticised the growing use of mental health apps as neoliberal ‘technologies of the self’. The groups that I have cited above are fairly explicitly neoliberal in their orientation to mental health treatment. Notwithstanding this, it is true, as Furlong points out, that in some very specific cases—he mentions ‘the young person exploring their sexual diversity; the neuroscience-atypical person seeking non-corporeal contact’—the mediation of apps, for instance, might be beneficial or at least benign. The arguments for such apps from lived experience are therefore not entirely fraudulent. However, the general trend of such arguments tends to work against a less individualistic, more relational logic, replacing spatial proximity and all its possibilities—for good or ill—with automated repetition. Note also that first-person testimonies of mental suffering, whether from the field of autism (such as those of Donna Williams), trauma and psychosis (as in the memoir by Annie Rogers), or other forms of mental anguish very often not only make reference to support for this or that paradigm but also document a broader context and history. Usually, this context takes in the history of the individual’s concerns, as well as those of families and entire communities, and of their struggles. These testimonies are not the glib ‘lived experience’ soundbites that are used to prop up shoddy policy, but are detailed accounts of suffering from which fellow sufferers, and those working within mental health, can learn, even if their lessons are not necessarily able to be generalised. In contrast, any concerns about the ‘lived experience’ of a patient in the mental health apparatus that omits all reference to imminent climate catastrophe, systematic abuse by Centrelink and its auxiliaries, and the crisis in affordable housing, among other things, ought to be regarded as suspect both politically and methodologically. And in addition to all of these ‘social’ (though in many ways, personally interiorised) crises, there is always an added subjective dimension—irreducible to any of them, lest one starts sounding like Žižek’s neo-Nazi.
As opposed to the violence of generalising an ‘understanding’ of phenomena based on one’s experience, one should instead both acknowledge and embrace the limits of such experience. From the work of Emmanuel Levinas we understand that openness to the Other must preclude the assimilatory violence of over-hasty understanding of what is Other in the Other; from Lacan, that imaginary understanding is systemic misunderstanding. Arguments from experience recapitulate the atomised logic of neoliberal capitalism, and reduce each ‘experience’—that of the torturer and tortured, or of the profiteer and the exploited—to bland, existential equivalence. Solidarity does not require dispensing with one’s subjectivity—this is largely impossible, in any case—but with refusing the seductive ideology of personal subjectivity, with its attendant narcissism and consumerism. Love is a very precise analogy here: true love of the Other, beyond the latter merely corresponding to my fantasies and narcissistic recuperation of lack, is not something that waxes and wanes each moment according to the vicissitudes of my feelings, my lived experience. This is not to say that it is without feeling, but rather that it is a verb instead of a noun—a structural position with respect to the Other, and not just an ‘experience’. And while it is true that the practice of psychoanalysis attempts to approach treatment as a non-standardised exercise in singularity, this is not in order to adorn each individual with the trinkets of a unique subjectivity, but as a strictly practical concern with a strictly practical end—namely, that knowing how to deal with one’s symptoms requires a singular approach.
The relegation of lived experience to a secondary status may be difficult, but it offers the best prospect of approaching the Other with the aim of producing a social bond, and without the latter, leftist political argument is irrelevant. Once out of the cage of one’s own irreducibility, even if only provisionally, there is a chance—not guaranteed—of producing a use value for the Other, and thus of escaping the endless repetition of exchange value in the ‘experience economy’, the closed circuit of self-reflection, or the paranoia of shunned reactionaries.
 Jaques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.
 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, New York: Grove Press, 1967.
 Michel Foucault, Power. The Essential Works of Michael Foucault, 1954–1984, Penguin, 2020.
 Gilles Deleuze, ‘Letter to a Harsh Critic’, in Negotiations, New York: 1972–1990, New York: Colombia University Press, 1995.
 Georg Lukács, ‘Class Consciousness’, 1920, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/lukacs3.htm, accessed 27 April 2022.
 ‘Australian Voters Reveal the Most Important Qualities for Political Leaders’, https://www.unimelb.edu.au/newsroom/news/2020/march/australian-voters-reveal-the-most-important-qualities-for-political-leaders, accessed 27 April 2022.
 Brian E. Neubauer, Catherine T. Wiktop and Lara Varpio, ‘How Phenomonology Can Help Us Learn from the Experiences of Others’, Perspectives on Medical Education 8(2), 2019.
 Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘The Purposes of Writing’, in Between Existentialism and Marxism, London: Verso, 1974, p. 42.
 B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore, ‘Welcome to the Experience Economy’, Harvard Business Review, July-August 1998, accessed 27 April 2022.
 Barbara Ellen, ‘Aargh! No, Men, You Really Can’t Feel Our Pain’, The Guardian, 23 November 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/23/chinese-men-simulate-childbirth-totally-unlike-real-thing, accessed 27 April 2022.
 Simon Copland, ‘How the Smug Politics of COVID-19 Empowers the Far Right’, The Guardian, 6 October 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/10/covid-politics-far-right/620302/, accessed 27 April 2022; Simon Copland, ‘Belittling the Canberra Convoy Protesters Will Just Push Ostracised People further into Their Bunkers’, The Guardian, 16 February 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/feb/16/belittling-the-canberra-convoy-protesters-will-just-push-ostracised-people-further-into-their-bunkers, accessed 27 April 2022.
 Slavoj Žižek, ‘Self Deceptions. On Being Tolerant and Smug’, Die Gazette, Israel, 27 August, 2001.
 David Ferraro, ‘Theses on Mental Health Reform in Australia’, https://melbournelacanian.wordpress.com/2016/07/07/theses-on-mental-health-reform-in-australia/, 2016, accessed 27 April 2022.
 H. M. La Monica et al., ‘Informing the Future of Integrated Digital and Clinical Mental Health Care: Synthesis of the Outcomes From Project Synergy’, JMIR Mental Health 9(3), March2022.
 Black Dog Institute, ‘Lived Experience’, n.d., https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/about/who-we-are/lived-experience/, accessed 27 April 2022.
 Mark Furlong, ‘Loving Machines: Mental Health by Algorithms is Reshaping Care and Sociality’, Arena Quarterly 9,2022.
 Donna Williams, Nobody, Nowhere: The Remarkable Autobiography of an Autistic Girl, London: Jessica Kingsley, 1992.
 Annie G. Rogers, A Shining Affliction, Penguin, 1995.
 Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969.
 Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book II. The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, New York: W. W. Norton, 1991, p. 87.