warehouse warehouse

Notes on Paranoia

by Pierre Schwarzer

Note: This text is the script of a lecture performance that took place at warehouse.

At 8 in the evening on April 10, 1931, Marguerite Pantaine, aged thirty-eight, took a kitchen knife out of her purse and tried to kill the actress Huguette Duflos when she arrived at the Theatre Saint Georges.

The intended victim was due to play the lead in a play called “Tout va bien” (Everything’s fine). The play, an undistinguished middle-class comedy about a sentimental lady, her poor but carefree lover, and a rich but boring financier was designed to show that in the France of the 1930s, despite economic crisis and the rise of the far right, all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Huguette Duflos, confronted by her attacker at the stage door, coolly grabbed the blade of the knife and deflected the blow, severing a couple of tendons in her right little finger in the process. Marguerite was overpowered and taken to the police station. From there she was sent to the Special Infirmary and then to the women’s prison at Saint-Lazare, where she fell into a delusional state that lasted nearly three weeks. On June 3, 1931, she was confined in the Sainte-Anne asylum on the recommendation of a doctor who diagnosed “systematic persecution mania based on interpretation delusion, with megalomaniac tendencies and a substratum of erotomania”. There, in the asylum of Sainte-Anne, she encountered a young psychiatrist, whose first patient she was to become, called Jacques Lacan. [read on]


He was a rather clownlike creature, effervescent in his baroque style, who had just started listening to Pink Freud, or rather engaging with the writings of old Ziggy. In his doctoral thesis on Paranoid Psychosis, Marguerite Pantaine was to become “the case of Aimée”, upon which the first theorizings were to be thrown. Like Lacan, Marguerite aspired to fame and intellectual success, was an avid devourer of literature and yet also tracked by her delusions, writing to the Queen of England for protection, attacking actresses she held to be responsible, someone for which the extravagances of madness had existed for years disguised as ordinary family love.

Marguerite, refusing psychoanalysis, yet spending long sessions in speech therapy before being able to leave the asylum with medication, managed to live a quiet life with occasional fits of delusion every so often, requiring medical attention. As Aimée in Lacan’s thesis, she became a convolution of various theoretic convergences of Freud, Spinoza and Heidegger who were to render Lacan famous among the surrealists as the first attempt to combine materialism with an anti-biologist Freudianism in a dynamic topology of the mind. Salvador Dalí, upon reading his thesis, received him with a provocative band-aid on his nose that Lacan never bothered to comment on, as he writes in a letter to André Breton. However, the thesis was never printed in large scale – in fact Lacan refused to do so.

About twenty years later, the young doctor Didier Anzieu entered his psychoanalytic training under Lacan. In the last year of his training, it came to be that Lacan’s doctoral thesis was republished under the influence of Dalí and Breton who managed to persuade the publisher to go against Lacan’s will. [read on]

Lacan under the influence of Pink Freud and some surrealists

Didier Anzieu, aspiring to read the early writings of his then-master, discovered there the story of his mother who abandoned him with his father in early childhood, fearing the combination of the protective paranoia (that comes with motherhood) with her own delusions. Both Anzieu and Lacan did not know of this uncanny proximity, this unbearable parallel. It came to a clash and Anzieu dropped his analyst training only to become, several years later, Lacan’s most competent critic.

There are stories whose very proximity to fiction ache out an uncanny feeling of connectedness. This is what we want to talk to you about tonight, linkages, interconnections, strange people observing us… We want to talk about discrete units being paranoid, network nervousness, Marxism vectored towards infinity. We want to talk about paranoia and its meaning of everything and nothing being connected. Before integrating the topic of Paranoia more closely into our curatorial practice, we want to outline a draft of a theory of Paranoia as conceptual background.

So what is paranoia? It could be that which creeps in, which lurks in the distance, the hidden in plain sight, the fear of everything being connected. Or, inverted, the idea of everything being somehow disconnected. So we say.

The topic brings with it heavy associative weaponry – imagined spectacles of derangement, mathematicians with a feeling they are being followed by the secret service (John Nash), cold-war-imageries of Ulrich Mühe with his Stasi-Headphones or the situation room in Dr Strangelove, abbreviations that feel like those behind them have something to hide. [read on]

It is an easy thing to conjure basic fear spawning from within the supposed safety of the everyday and its cosy routine. Paranoia relies on this polarity of the visible and invisible, makes a claim on the invisible controlling all that is visible, precisely because one cannot see it. (There is an insecurity at the heart of the circularity of the everyday upon which paranoia relies.) The invisible force supposedly tracking or controlling or merely recording everything is not part of the daily routine, it comes from outside, so we say. Our willingness to let ourselves be scared, to engage in playful paranoias in our culture, the ease with which our thoughts float towards that which supposedly restrains us, is the little escapade allowing for a return to the everyday. A little bit of fright against a desire for flight, easy exits – all leading back to Rome. Paranoia is not something alien from without, it is the alien within as reaction to a supposed without, deeply woven into our knowledge.

Paranoia takes two extreme forms: a cosmic assumption of all-connectedness or its contrary, nothing is connected, nothing matters (and that matters a lot to nihilists). Yet, it is most often merely a tension in between those poles, something generic, the accompanist of knowledge. From early on, we gain knowledge from another, we are basked in the words spoken to us until they speak through us, often before we come to understand them. Connections are formed unwillingly, slidings of meaning unfolding as white noise inside ourselves. And when we decipher that which is already woven through us, we are startled, for the other is not in our control, may hurt us, even unbeknownst to both the other and ourselves. Acquiring knowledge passes through the unpredictability of an other to which we are first subjected to (in both senses of the term), as soon as we engage in exchanging signs. This fundamental insecurity towards that which provides us with knowledge is internalized – and we become weary of both knowing and not knowing. Knowledge and its absence become threats (– because it might turn us into something else and despite not knowing exactly what we are, we would rather stick to the known unknown than the full-fledged unknown.) [read on]

Everything is connected and melts into one...

There is a desire not to know fueled by the acquisition of knowledge itself, a wish for the erasure of that which we might not want to know about. Who is this other? We don’t really know, yet we imagine him as someone who could be more free, someone who desires something we can’t fathom, and, at the very least, someone who through his interpellations, demands we speak, thereby imposing the reality of language onto the fuzziness inside us. Knowledge and paranoia oscillate and sometimes fuse. The excess of certainty generated by paranoia is but a reaction against the uncertainty remaining in that which we know for sure.

In striving for knowledge we identify with this supposed desire of the other and yet, at the same time, we’d rather he disappear. Therein lies the violence: we become ourselves through the other, it is s/he who subjects us – but remains alien. To know or not to know is the question that ties us to the realm of knowledge. The paranoia at the heart of knowledge is the fear of the other’s knowledge and her/his desire that eludes us, might hurt us. Just as well, it is the horror that accompanies certain realizations – the dread of knowing something we would rather not, a truth that renders us incapable to return to a previous, perhaps better-off self. In the process of becoming knowledgeable, we are confronted with the alienation with regard to the other, that at the same time, we ourselves are. This ambivalence, this lack within our imagined ego, that which cannot be spoken, this muteness amidst the discourse that brings us into being, is at the core of the relationship between knowledge and paranoia, infused with aggression as a defense-mechanism, a negation towards all that is known as first apprehension.

Paranoia, thus a reaction to the anxiety of desire as a demand from without, is not a delusion, but rather a base-mechanism that conceals our own lack, covers it in aggression and excess against another supposed to know. In paranoid fantasy, it is most often a generalized other, an opaque government-structure, somebody behind the CCTV cameras, but in the end, they are all but place-holders – the seat is empty, the fantasized other generic. The variability of paranoid fantasies of persecution attests to this, the simplest fantasized other is often that which society designates as holding power, but it could be whomever instilled this otherness within us instead. Through the inflation of the other’s power, the ego gains power itself, in the aggression that gains legitimacy through fantasy. [read on]

He will find you...
Can't you see it?

Paranoia accompanies all that is related to certainty – be it an archive collecting materials it wants to preserve despite the certainty of decay and uncertainty of the future – or politics. Politics, as attempts to establish, if not certainty, at least probability, temporary security with relation to the future, has a certain paranoia running through it.

Oftentimes, theoretical attempts at political intervention, critique or other partaking in discourse, have difficulty accounting for this paranoia – ranging from outright refusals of acknowledging its existence to a cultural pessimism riddled with a lust to call out decay and gloomy days ahead. What would a politics of paranoia look like? Can there even be a politics of paranoia or is this itself paranoid?
In times in which Silicon Valley solutionism has taken to “solve” death in its one-sided reduction of suffering to the fate of elite entrepreneurs striving to make the world “a better place” instead of thinking about the structures that cause a suffering taking place throughout the lives of others, elsewhere – it seems apt to think about the place of paranoia in our politics. [read on]

Casual drawings made by warehouse-curators
yet another casual drawing looking an awful lot like an fMRI-Scan of a schizophrenic brain

In integrating paranoia into our curatorial practice lies an attempt at putting paranoia in the foreground, in order to strip it of its power in the background. One could speak of a “traversing of the phantasm”, which the other elicits in us, a kind of working-through, but mostly an experimental frame in which one can probe ways to acknowledge paranoia in our society without giving it a force it ought not, for any emancipatory politics, take.

This is but a formal frame, distinct from political action, but perhaps it can produce a friction that, if it cannot instil action, at least might make one think and hold up the question.

At the end, any kind of politics of paranoia should attempt to arrive at a different notion of the other. Instead of the phantasm, exoticism and oddly ambivalent fascination we project onto the stranger in front and inside ourselves, one should consider this other for what it is: a mere place, a place in which we have constituted ourselves and where we can only support ourselves as best we can, without giving up on our desire, inscribing it effectively, without letting it be colonised through our own colonising of the other, into our practice.

Diagrams render everything super-clear.