"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Psychoanalyzing the World's Conflicts (I)

I have for several years now been engaged in a project of returning to psychoanalytic thought for several purposes, including especially the light it can shed on problems of historical memory in Orthodox-Catholic conflicts, in the Crusades, and in contemporary ISIS propaganda about the latter. As many other scholars in the humanities have found over the last several decades, psychoanalytic thought admits of wider application than what goes on in the individual consulting room. Freud himself, of course, had no problem moving from analyzing patients to analyzing cultures and religious traditions, though I have long maintained that the late Freud, of Civilization and its Discontents, and even more of Moses and Monotheism or The Future of an Illusion, is neither so interesting nor so helpful as as the earlier more clinical Freud.

Later analysts have helpfully applied analytic categories and theory to social conflicts and problems. Thus I have drawn attention to the important work of such as Charles Strozier and Vamik Volkan (discussed a little bit here), and spent rather a lot of time focusing on the fascinating and wonderfully provocative work of Adam Phillips. All these, and others who should be mentioned such as Jeffrey Prager and Donald Spence (both discussed here), have shown the usefulness of Freudian and later analytic categories. They are not unaware, however, of some of the methodological issues that arise in attempting such work, and I am also keenly aware of them. People have in fact been aware of them for decades, as one sees in such works as Psychoanalysis and History from 1963, or, more recently, Edwin Wallace's Historiography and Causation in Psychoanalysis or the edited collection, Dark Traces of the Past: Psychoanalysis and Historical Thinking, eds. Jurgen Straub and Jorn Rusen (Berghahn, 2011).

And now Routledge Press, which carries a larger list of books devoted to psychoanalysis than any other publisher (apart, of course, from Karnac), has kindly sent me a new short study by David P. Levine, a Yale-trained economist recently retired from the University of Colorado:Psychoanalysis, Society, and the Inner World: Embedded Meaning in Politics and Social Conflict (Routledge, 2017), Levine also has analytic training and has put it to use in other books.

About this book the publisher tells us:

Psychoanalysis, Society, and the Inner World explores ideas from psychoanalysis that can be valuable in understanding social processes and institutions and in particular, how psychoanalytic ideas and methods can help us understand the nature and roots of social and political conflict in the contemporary world.
Among the ideas explored in this book, of special importance are the ideas of a core self (Heinz Kohut and Donald Winnicott) and of an internal object world (Melanie Klein, Ronald Fairbairn). David Levine shows how these ideas, and others related to them, offer a framework for understanding how social processes and institutions establish themselves as part of the individual’s inner world, and how imperatives of the inner world influence the shape of those processes and institutions. In exploring the contribution psychoanalytic ideas can make to the study of society, emphasis is placed on post-Freudian trends that emphasize the role of the internalization of relationships as an essential part of the process of shaping the inner world.
The book’s main theme is that the roots of social conflict will be found in ambivalence about the value of the self. The individual is driven to ambivalence by factors that exist simultaneously as part of the inner world and the world outside. Social institutions may foster ambivalence about the self or they may not. Importantly, this book distinguishes between institutions on the basis of whether they do or do not foster ambivalence about the self, shedding light on the nature and sources of social conflict. Institutions that foster ambivalence also foster conflict at a societal level that mirrors and is mirrored by conflict over the standing of the self in the inner world. Levine makes extensive use of case material to illuminate and develop his core ideas.
Psychoanalysis, Society, and the Inner World will appeal to psychoanalysts and to social scientists interested in psychoanalytic ideas and methods, as well as students studying across these fields who are keen to explore social and political issues.
When I'm done reading it, I shall post some further thoughts.

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