Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Can Psychoanalysis Contribute to the Understanding of Fundamentalism? an Introduction to a Vast Question

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Can Psychoanalysis Contribute to the Understanding of Fundamentalism? an Introduction to a Vast Question

Article excerpt

During the past 20 years, public opinion in the Western world has been regularly shaken by barbaric terrorist attacks for which fundamentalist groups claim responsibility. A large body of psychoanalytical panels, conferences, papers, and books has attempted to respond to the questions they give rise to (Beier 2006; Bollas 2015; Cancelmo et al. 2003; Coates et al. 2003; Davar 2002; Davids 2009; Davis 2006; De Masi 2010; Frosh 2009; Gourgouris 2010; Jones 2006; Knafo 2004; Lifton 1997; Piven 2006; Stein 2003, 2006; Sonnenberg 2005; Twemlow 2005; Varvin and Volkan 2003; Wurmser 2004; Young 2001). This large body of literature has been produced mainly in the USA following September 11. After the recent terrorist attacks in Europe, concern over this issue is rapidly growing in all the fields involved, including psychoanalysis. Therefore, reflecting on what psychoanalysis can contribute, and what it cannot contribute, might be particularly urgent.

The focus of this paper will be not so much terrorism but fundamentalism in its various manifestations, including what we could call the psychopathology of everyday fundamentalism. Therefore, terrorism will be only discussed in so far as it relies on, and reveals, a fundamentalist outlook. The following points will be discussed: can psychoanalysis contribute to the understanding of the mental functioning underlying fundamentalism? And, if so, in which ways and under which conditions? Is fundamentalism a ubiquitous phenomenon and, in this case, where can we locate it: in politics, in our clinical work, inside the psychoanalytic institution itself? This last question presupposes the legitimacy of using the same word to refer to events belonging to different fields of social, clinical, and associative life-an issue that will also be addressed. Finally, when trying to approach such complex and highly emotional issues, is there a risk of going astray? Are there any pitfalls we should beware of?

I will differentiate three vertices: the first concerns what psychoanalysis can contribute to the understanding of fundamentalism in a traditional sense, that is, mostly religious and political. This first level pertains to what has been called applied psychoanalysis-and which presently we would prefer to replace with interdisciplinarity.1 The second level is of a more clinical nature and suggests the defensive value of engaging in a fundamentalist group. We can expect that reflecting on these two aspects might contribute to prevention. The third level suggests that a somewhat fundamentalist outlook might permeate some of our institutional interactions and questions the manifestations of fundamentalist attitudes or beliefs inside psychoanalysis itself. We can hope that what we learn about this last level might help towards a healthier development of our discipline and our institutional life.

The various meanings of the term "fundamentalism"

The term "fundamentalism" was born in the USA in the early twentieth century. Initially it was applied to some Protestant groups which advocated a return to the original Christian founding beliefs through a literal reading of the Bible. Soon, the phenomenon was further identified in the three Abrahamic religions (Jewish, Christian-both Protestant and Catholic-and Muslim). In contrast, Hinduism and Buddhism were seen as more open-minded: differences in religious beliefs were traditionally interpreted by both of them more in terms of alternative perspectives or diverse levels of understanding than in terms of truth and error. Nevertheless, in the late twentieth century some Hindu and Buddhist groups also adopted fundamentalist positions.

The term "religious fundamentalism" is conventionally applied to any movement advocating strict adherence to certain tenets held to be fundamental (i.e. non-negotiable or not open to question). Some characteristics are typical, even if it is not necessary for the whole of them to be always present: a strict division between the members-supposed possessors of the only truth-and the often demonized outsiders; a literal reading of some parts of a sacred text, deemed infallible (some parts but, it should be noted, not all. …

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