The Phantom of the Ego is the first comparative study that shows how the modernist account of the unconscious anticipates contemporary discoveries about the importance of mimesis in the formation of subjectivity. Rather than beginning with Sigmund Freud as the father of modernism, Nidesh Lawtoo starts with Friedrich Nietzsche’s antimetaphysical diagnostic of the ego, his realization that mimetic reflexes—from sympathy to hypnosis, to contagion, to crowd behavior—move the soul, and his insistence that psychology informs philosophical reflection. Through a transdisciplinary, comparative reading of landmark modernist authors like Nietzsche, Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, and Georges Bataille, Lawtoo shows that, before being a timely empirical discovery, the “mimetic unconscious” emerged from an untimely current in literary and philosophical modernism. This book traces the psychological, ethical, political, and cultural implications of the realization that the modern ego is born out of the spirit of imitation; it is thus, strictly speaking, not an ego, but what Nietzsche calls, “a phantom of the ego.” The Phantom of the Ego opens up a Nietzschean back door to the unconscious that has mimesis rather than dreams as its via regia, and argues that the modernist account of the “mimetic unconscious” makes our understanding of the psyche new.
Nidesh Lawtoo is Visiting Scholar in the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University with a research fellowship granted by the Swiss National Science Foundation.
“Nidesh Lawtoo delivers a brilliant, solid, and lucid essay on the contradictions and aporias of the mimetic impulse. The work primes a wide-ranging critique of modernity and its still-fighting shadows, overhauling our Platonic home base with the shrewd alliance of Nietzsche and Lacoue-Labarthe.”
—Avital Ronell, University Professor of the Humanities, New York University, Jacques Derrida Professor of Media and Philosophy, European Graduate School, author of Loser Sons: Politics and Authority
“In this extraordinary book, Nidesh Lawtoo uncovers—or rather channels—a mimetic, pre-Freudian unconscious that traverses the modernist subject and some of its founding texts. A hermeneutic feat as well as an impeccable work of scholarship, The Phantom of the Ego completely changes the way we look at modernism and ‘ourselves.’”
—Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, author of Making Minds and Madness, Professor of Comparative Literature, University of Washington
“This brilliant and learned book presents a striking new explanation for bad ideological mystifications, as well as for good community solidarity. Nidesh Lawtoo argues that each of us is possessed by a “phantom of the ego.” Powerful and original readings of work by Nietzsche, Conrad, Lawrence, and Bataille, along with a host of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theorists of crowd psychology, hypnotism, contagion, and the like, are used to develop this subtle concept of intersubjectivity. Plato’s theory of mimetic pathos stands at the historical origin of Lawtoo’s formulations. René Girard’s concept of mimetic desire is the modern matrix by way of which the four main authors are reread.”
—J. Hillis Miller, Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus, University of California at Irvine