Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Thinking Extreme Social Violence: The Model of the Literary Plague

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Thinking Extreme Social Violence: The Model of the Literary Plague

Article excerpt

The author uses literary plagues as a model for thinking psychoanalytically about the basic anxieties activated among perpetrators of sanctioned massacres. The model of the plague allows abstracting an underlying primitive psychological organization characterized by syncretism and a powerful anxiety of de-differentiation and confusion, leading characteristically to imitative behavior within the in-group as well as to the disavowal of the out-group members similarities to oneself, i.e. the disavowal of the other's humanity. Recognizing the historical and social foundations of discrimination and genocide, the author analyzes the interaction between group and individual processes that allow ordinary people to join daily acts of immoral violence. She dramatizes the model of the plague through a psychoanalytic reading of three literary plagues: Thebes' plague according to Sophocles, Camus's chronicle of the plague in Oran, and Saramago's meditation on the plague of white blindness.

Keywords: social violence, plague, undifferentiation, mimicry, scapegoating, disavowal

How can we think psychoanalytically about phenomena of extreme social violence? By extreme social violence, I mean the spreading of violent acts defined by Kelman as 'sanctioned massacres', i.e. the 'systematic mass violence carried out by military or paramilitary personnel while engaged in officially sanctioned campaigns, and directed at defenseless and unresisting civilians, including old men, women and children (Kelman, 1973 p. 29). The Shoah was pointed out by Kelman as the most extreme manifestation of this phenomenon. The main characteristic of these massacres is the absence of conditions that would provide moral justification for violence: the victims do not constitute a threat nor are they engaged in hostile actions. According to Bauman (1989), the origin of the extreme forms of cruelty and the moral blindness implied in sanctioned massacres is social, implying that, under specific social conditions, almost everyone could become a perpetrator; Steiner (in Bauman, 1989, p. 167) terms the dormant, but sometimes awakened capacity for cruelty in everyone 'sleeper'. According to this perspective, the basic condition for the awakening of the 'sleeper' is the unrestrained power given to some people over others. While research on the historical and social processes that lead to irruptions of extreme social violence pertains to experts in these realms, this paper's main assumption is that a psychoanalytic perspective might shed light on the primitive anxieties that interact with a given collective context and time in history when sanctioned massacres occur.

Following Bion's (1961, 1970) methodic use of myths and models as guides to the inquiry of complex intrapsychic and interpersonal phenomena, as well as his concept of the basic assumptions of groups, I propose the plague as a plausible psychoanalytic model of thinking about the individual anxieties and group processes that characterize periods of socially sanctioned massacres. I argue here that the model of the plague provides a helpful metaphor of the interaction between collective phenomena and primitive levels of mental organization that include unconscious anxieties of de-integration and lead to massive disavowal, and dehumanization.

After presenting a conceptualization of the anxieties assumed to be activated during periods of sanctioned massacres, I analyze the model of the plague and then illustrate it within the rhetoric and ideology of the spokesmen of the Third Reich. Finally, I dramatize the implications of the myth of the plague through a reading of three plagues pertaining to different places and periods within Western culture.

Psychoanalysis and extreme forms of social violence

Freud notes at least two main aspects of the phenomena of expansion of social violence. In Civilization and its discontents, Freud analyzes the issue of aggression as omnipresent and destructive at the level of the society as a whole; moreover he considered that 'the fateful question for the human species' (1930, p. …

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