Thus Spake the Soul: It’s Time To Re-libidinize the Left

“In the industrial world, to the extent that unquestioning obedience to authority is the norm in a society is the extent that it utilizes psychiatry’s psychopathologizing of the disobedient. The psychological common denominator of a population willing to be so ruled is, I believe, a fear and hatred of anything which creates conflict and tension—be it diversity, democracy, or defiance. This fear and hatred results in receptivity to rationales for eradication of these sources of tension.” – Bruce E. Levine, Right-Wing Psychiatry, Love-Me Liberals and the Anti-Authoritarian Left

By 1980, the more right U.S. society accepted the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-3 proclamation that defiance in children and teenagers was a mental illness that is called oppositional defiant disorder”(ODD) … While ODD kids can produce significant tension in families and schools, many of these young people are the exactly the kind of kids who mature into anti-authoritarian adults who have the courage to challenge and resist illegitimate authority. Ibid

I admit this title is weird. But nonetheles,s it is deliberate because my intention is to speak on behalf of and to the imaginative soul that exists in every one including in secular progressive liberals who discount its real existence. Normally inspired/comforted by beauty and nature, and capable of depth of feeling from whence comes its power to heal, the creative soul is not liberal in the way Phil Ochs famously described: “ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally.” Imagined as a woman in western mythic tradition, the soul is each person’s onboard, fail-proof bullshit-detector, un des miserables, outcast, discontent, “working class,” organically non-conformist. She is each person’s finest hope for finding her/his singular way to challenge the societal order that is, as psychotherapist Bruce Levine points out, making us sick. The soul is the fountain of ODD, the dandelion root of impudence, misbehavior and mischief. She is the key to individuality which is more than simply “non-conformity” as in blue hair and tattoos; because a working relationship with the soul is foundational for revolution, I wish to agitate Her multitude into a John Brown-type revolt against neoliberal enslavement.

We must ally with her now or abandon hope; but first we must lose fear of/antipathy to libido. By this I mean not something like rebellious hippies shedding their inhibitions, but a more radical, intentional “shedding” of kindness on the organic libidinal, instinctual energy so closely entwined with creativity. Collectively (through the powerful and enduring influence of our Puritan roots) we have learned to mistrust and disdain this energy and to pathologize it. Freed from that ambivalence, libidinal energy may, in health, strengthen us to work for our dreams, especially the grand, impossible, but libido-friendly dream of a world kinder to human beings and hence to all beings.

Since the liberal world doesn’t appear to “get it,” i.e., that individuality is a function of disobedience to illegitimate authority (Wall Street), we see less and less either of non-conforming individuality or of genuine spirited disobedience; they are becoming rare as film cameras and landline phones. In a place like Utica, one has to make quite a ruckus, quite a spectacle of oneself, stick one’s neck out pretty far indeed if one is to find the other “dissenters” in the vicinity. The mood has changed drastically since Orin and I began our Cafe back in 2002, when our act of defiance in opening our quirky little coffeeshop business actually found much positive response and several imitators locally. It is not we who have changed in the 17 years since; we still make as few concessions as possible to conventional “business wisdom” that stresses marketing strategies, free wifi and rows of flat screen TV’s, taking credit cards and following such dictums as “in business there’s no red or blue just green (i.e, the color of money).” Now, as we struggle to keep on our feet, we are quite sure that the defiance many found attractive during our first 10 years of existence, in the ever-grimmer reality of America today, is likely creating conflict and tension in people, who, now more than ever, seek safety in conformity.

(An impudent aside: The enjoyment of coffee, as well as of wine, of delicious food that includes meat, of smoking, is libidinal. Is it possible that the careful management of coffee intake, like obsessive dieting, fasting, or fitness and nutrition addictions are evidence of the fear of the instinctual “animal” nature that likes what it likes? As such, might not failure to challenge this fear fatally undercut the strength needed for defiance and thus ensure conformity?)

How else, except by allying with the anti-authoritarian soul, may individuals escape the near-irresistible pull toward conformity that now permeates a “public” which practically does not exist anymore at the face-to-face discussion level, except inside institutions that themselves foster conformity? I’m thinking here of the liberal church where I spoke recently on the topic of “Community Arts Activism as Revolutionary.” My premise was that, in our shared multi-threatened present, the simple, indigenous human values of home, family, community, neighborhood, so close and vital to our instinctual and intuitive nature, are going undefended under pressure from capitalism to abandon these traditional bases for humanity. Even though our humanity is under siege, our so-called collective liberal political aim continues to be, however woefully inadequate compared to the enormity of the challenges we face, “reforming” our institutions rather than struggling towards something nobler and energizing, even impossible, such as MLK’s “Revolution of Values.” I spoke that morning, in this light, about the Cafe business and non-profit arts center my husband and I began as defiant responses to increasing pressure to conform and obey, based in our unapologetic love for coffee and beautiful things.

To help the congregation see how the impulse to conform works in us, how it produces a near-irresistible urge to belittle or scapegoat individuality, I told the story of the attempt by some friends to nominate Orin and myself for an honorary degree from the local college where they are faculty. The committee process dragged on for months, I learned afterward from the woman who had made the nomination, and ended with a rejection (paraphrased): “So two old hippies start a coffeeshop, so what?” The congregation laughed, as I had hoped they would – creating a valuable instant of community. Together for those few seconds of laughter, we recognized how the bourgeois mind in all of us demeans ordinary people who are somewhat nakedly “performing humanity” in our midst.

The congregation listened attentively, but only a few came up to talk with me afterwards. (One actually spoke to what I was talking about; he was one of the musicians hired for the service). Their libidos, their mischief-making, rambunctious, disobedient natures had not been awakened. Perhaps they’d tasted their cup of radicalism and their limit is one per week. Although I had barely mentioned Trump in my talk, a woman asked me “if we do not risk losing Republican church members” by offending them in attacking Trump. This question, to me, was likely the tip of an iceberg of conformity that has become normalized below the surface in liberal circles in America.

The mass conformity and compliance with illegitimate authority that is so distressingly pervasive has its historical cause: i.e., lifetimes lived in awareness, if not direct experience, of the cruelty, violence, calculatedness, totalitarian nature, terrible unfairness, and intolerance for individuality passed on unconsciously in families and more intentionally in schools, that are normalized in the capitalist order. Levine points out, defiance is hated and feared because it creates conflict and tension in the conforming one. Importantly, people thus unbearably tensed, rather than examine themselves, are open “to rationales forthe eradication of these (outer) sources of tension.” In psychiatry, this means a very sophisticated form of projection – making a mental illness diagnosis out of early signs of “anti-authoritarian” behavior. In social intercourse as well, , the eradication of tension, even at the cost of creativity, originality, individuality, and freedom, has become the powerful unspoken goal.

Anyone who read Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz must recall that harrowing occurrence when the inmate accused of taking part in the blowing up of a crematorium was publicly hung as a warning to all the other inmates, and the shame this heroism and defiance produced in the inmates who were simply concentrated on surviving in Hell. Who would not feel relief when the rebel was taken out of the picture? It may be impossible for people living under neoliberalism to see any similarity in our circumstances and the one Levi described. But think of it: for acts of defiance against capitalist hegemonic “pragmatic good sense,” one is threatened not with execution, but with the deafening silence of the majority, scurrying hither and thither, faces glued to screens, keeping at their task of survival. Right now I am having to suppose, for no one will tell me, that in some way Orin and I, inasmuch as we act disloyally, pose such a predicament to our friends here.

I am not sure the reader can understand what it takes for me to write these words. For me to name what I experience socially as the conformity of others, rather than as my own “misfitting” takes fervent, even obsessive, faith in a standard of health located exclusively in myself, of all places! Inasmuch as the words I write and the ideas I express bring a sense of peace and unity to my soul, I grant them the authority of being true. I trust that they speak to the soul in others, even if what I say is mistrusted by their souls’ keepers, even if the words create in them tension and fear. As I said earlier, because the soul is universal, and quintessentially non-conformist, it’s our hope for restoring a human-friendly world. As the source of the libidinal urge, the call to bliss, the longing of desire, the organic opposition to the rule of conformity in each person, She calls each person to create the beautiful and the true. Though most people “bargain” with the call, and ultimately reject it in favor of the pragmatic demand to conform to the system already in place, it is in fact the call that in other, pre-modern, worlds was considered as coming, quite astonishingly, “from God to me,” and not negotiable unless one were to accept oneself as a sinner. In our time, this call from an interior authority, to be at one with its (Her) reality (i.e, with the archetype that is both a unity and a riotous, “polytheistic” multitude) is the call also to defiance of and disobedience to the illegitimate system.

Art-making and the call to live imaginatively by means of art are revolutionary inasmuch as they take the side of the soul against the intolerance of the surrounding materialist, rationalist, classist totality. I believe that this disturbing potential art has is intuitively understood, and the real reason, below that of financial security, why more than one liberal parent has confided to me they were uneasy with their child’s desire to become an artist, or actively discouraged it. But simply being an artist as one choice off the menu of bourgeois career choices does not suffice; in effect, it (ab)uses the imaginative soul’s figurative, ecstatic powers to serve the established (capitalist) system. Artists who accept the art world as a special order of geniuses, likewise serve the illegitimate authority of a competitive hierarchy over the legitimate interior, individualist and egalitarian one. They can hardly be blamed – for who, in our time, can locate authority – as to how one will live one’s life and what one’s art will serve – in oneself? The revolution will not happen unless autonomy is granted to one’s soul-as-other such that (Her) only recourse for expression is no longer pathology – making one sick, addicted, obsessive-compulsive, depressed, suicidal, bipolar, sociopathic, obedient, etc. – but partnership, an expansion of one’s sense of self to include the limitless spiritual freedom of imaginal reality.

The problem for moderns is that the erasure of metaphysical reality and its replacement by science did not erase the longing for the intensified experience of aliveness that religious or mythic imagination – which speak to instinctual, intuitive nature – brings. People living without this possibility for rapture to which each person has access, will be incapable of refusing the pseudo-sublimity granted by means of the gadgetry and wizardry produced by technological innovation, the electronic media-induced participation in the glamor of celebrity and of the rich and famous, the political spectacle (It’s Mueller Time!), all of which reward conformity.

I preach art-as-disobedience not because I kid myself anyone is listening – or can listen – who is caught in the iron net of banality and conformity. I do it for myself, to keep my mind working and thinking independently. I do it so I can keep energized, even minimally, as one half of a team of “ two old hippies” who work overtime at tasks that have little-to-no financial reward, and who still feel it is important to refuse compliance.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: