"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 16, 2017

Psychoanalyzing the World's Conflicts (II)

As I began by noting, the history of psychoanalysis has been one not just of great clinical insights but also of wider cultural applications as well. That is clearly evident in the later Freud and in many of his successors, as Eli Zaretsky, inter alia, has demonstrated.

One contemporary American scholar who has applied analytic theory to socioeconomic and political issues in a number of books is David Levine, retired from the University of Colorado where he taught economics and political economy. He has also trained at the Colorado Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, and has applied such insights in a variety of books on economic, political, and social topics, including his most recent, Psychoanalysis, Society, and the Inner World: Embedded Meaning in Politics and Social Conflict (Routledge, 2017), 144pp. (Levine is also co-author of a book forthcoming next year that looks fascinating in light of contemporary conflicts on university campuses.)

This is a slender, subtle, and suggestive book that raises a number of psychoanalytic ideas, primarily drawn from the well-known analyst D.W. Winnicott and the larger British and object relations schools, and then seeks to apply them to contemporary sociopolitical problems, including "fake news." The justification for doing so comes relatively late in the book when Levine argues that "psychoanalytic ideas and methods become important to the extent that it becomes important to understand the special suffering that people inflict on themselves and their special attachment to it" (93). Commendably, however, Levine recognizes the limitations of this approach, knowing that merely gaining insight into why someone does something is not, in itself, usually going to be a significant force for broader social change.

The merit of this book is that Levine writes with a light touch, and commendably refuses to turn psychoanalysis into an ideological club with which to attack problems, or to force all issues to fit a pre-existing frame. At the same time, though, his arguments are sometimes attenuated by an unhelpful degree of abstraction, though some of this is remedied in the last few chapters of the book in particular, the usefulness of which quickly becomes very obvious in an age of rising nationalism, "fake news," Donald Trump, and constant protest and outrage at perceived slights to people grouped together via "identity politics."

Levine begins from the insight that "training in and development of psychoanalytic habits of mind...offers a measure of protection against the impulse to externalize responsibility for what originates inside and enhances sensitivity to the presence of that impulse in others" (10). In other words part of the value of psychoanalytic training (as Fred Busch has also argued) is that it offers not just a 'what,' that is, access to the 'contents' of something called the 'unconscious mind,' but that it offers insights into the 'how' of the mind, how it works.

Too often our minds work by concealing certain operative assumptions that may in fact be imprisoning us without our realizing it, forcing us to continue thinking and acting in ways based on unexamined habit. Levine thus rightly argues that what we may well need to give up is a certain history, a certain view of our history that doesn't merely narrate the past, but do so in a way that prevents new options from being brought to the fore in the present: "psychic change only has meaning, then, where our history is not also our destiny" (16). Adding to this, a little later on he notes that the only kind of change that will last and prove to be valuable is "change that moves us from a closed to an open system" (30). Both Eastern Christians viewing our history, and many Muslims theirs (and both viewing the Crusades), will surely find this an important challenge to undertake.

Levine's second chapter unpacks some of the central insights of the object relations school including the mind's rather "primitive" inclination to see everything as having a cause for which someone can be held responsible: "nothing is an accident; nothing simply happens" (20). He also draws on the widely discussed experience we all have, which was given a name by Christopher Bollas: the "unthought known" as developed by him in such works as The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known (Columbia UP, 1989), recently re-released in a 30th-anniversary edition.

From Winnicott in particular Levine draws the important insight that many people find their identities in groups--whether political parties, churches, nationalist or racist movements, or many other such clubs--but that in doing so they sacrifice part of, and sometimes all of, their true self for a false one. They may well be doing so precisely to avoid contact with parts of their true self that are disturbed and disturbing. The group identity is clean, idealized, and often totalized, whereas their own personal identity may be rough, disorderly, and fragmentary. These latter aspects result in what Levine calls "ambivalence about the self," a good deal of which may be founded on early childhood experiences of guilt and shame.

Levine's eighth ("Hate in Groups and the Struggle for Individual Identity") and tenth ("Truth in Politics") chapters are perhaps the most pertinent in 2017. The insights driving both are derived in part from Freud's insights into the connection between "Mourning and Melancholia," noting that an unwillingness or inability to complete the former is almost always bound up with outbreaks of the latter, which are in turn often bound up with anger, lashing out, and blaming others. (In my estimation, as I've argued elsewhere, this is very much what we see in ISIS propaganda--anger based on incomplete mourning of a lost empire.) The capacity to mourn adequately carries with it the promise of being able to renew one's separate identity afterwards instead of becoming fused with and stuck on the dead or lost object. There is, as I just suggested, much wisdom here in thinking of those who have not mourned for past losses, whether in the Crusades or elsewhere.

The tenth chapter notes that a key problem with much current political rhetoric is that it makes sweeping and unsubstantiated claims alleging that "survival is at stake" (cf. in this regard Rod Dreher) and does so via expansive and abstract "apocalyptic rhetoric." Such tactics project onto others "an extreme form of the bad object that must be controlled or destroyed rather than treated as a partner in the reasoning process" (130). The chapter very briefly mentions a few examples in connection with the 2016 elections in these United States, but overall it is far too short and under-developed, missing a very considerable opportunity here.

Levine's book could, in fact, have been strengthened, in my view, by greater engagement with the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, especially his two books Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, discussed here, and Unforbidden Pleasures: Rethinking Authority, Power, and Vitality, which I discussed at some length here.

Overall, the merit of Levine's newest work, Psychoanalysis, Society, and the Inner World: Embedded Meaning in Politics and Social Conflict comes in raising issues and suggesting useful lines of analytic theory for further exploration without heavy-handedly bludgeoning his point, and readers, to death. That is no small thing. It does, after all, take greater self-discipline to write a short book of useful questions than a very long book of useless answers.


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