Articles

Irini Tsanira1

 

1Child psychiatrist-Psychoanalyst
 
 

Summary

At first there is an attempt to define crisis as well as its encounter with the individual. It is also attempted to connect crisis with the social evolution that preceded it and the development of cultural demands and conflicts.

Western society’s crisis can be conceived on the basis of the collapse of the old value system and the prevalence of new tendencies such as extreme consumerism, avoidance of thinking, the denial of perishing, difference, lack. As a result we have loneliness, uncertainty, insecurity, lack of satisfaction, confusion of poles and identity.

Key Words: crisis, subject’s crisis, narcissistic society, mourning inability, omnipotence, consumerism, role confusion, thought inability.

 

By the term “crisis” a breakdown is declared: an individual or social breakdown, a rupture in some existing equilibrium, individual or social.

On the social level we usually refer to a political, institutional or group crisis, while on the level of the individual we shall define crisis as the subject’s experience when his usual defensive mechanisms are unable to deal with internal or external stimuli.

We often talk about developmental, maturating crises that occur during the subject’s effort for socialization, during his/her effort to find his/her place in relation to others, as in puberty; we also talk about crises connected with situations where losses or intense biological or social changes affecting the individual cause deregulation and produce a painful oscillation between forces that push the psyche towards disorder and chaos and others that try to hold back or even restore the equilibrium.

A crisis involves, by definition, something unknown; something new that the individual is called upon to deal with and is frightening. Whether we refer to a socio-economic crisis or a psycho-somatic one, we will find ourselves facing routes characterized by overt or latent difficulties and possible cracks in consistency: borders abolished, benchmarks altered, control systems deactivated, mechanisms and practices that fail.

A “crisis” concerns the therapist inasmuch as it causes psychic and also social rearrangements to the individual due to the uncontrollable inflow of stimuli, but mainly because of their implications.

Scholars claim that today’s crisis had been already formed -in its main elements- since the late 1950s. As early as 1959-60, Kastoriadis describes society’s entry into a phase of apathy, with individuals retreating into small personal circles, and of a de-politicalization which was not coincidental.1 There was a gradual decline of progressive ideologies, a triumph of consumerism and a crisis in the notions consisting the “phantasiako” of modern society (notions of progress-revolution), all of which essentially attested to a ‘crisis of meaning’.

 

Dysphoria in contemporary civilization

According to Freud, the purpose of life is to attain happiness, and this happens either through seeking pleasure or avoiding distress. But as Freud himself says: “the intention that man should be happy is not included in the scheme of Creation …we are so constituted that we can only intensely enjoy contrasts, Our possibilities of happiness are thus limited from the start by our very constitution. It is much less difficult to be unhappy.2

It is not strange that people under the stress of these pain-promoting possibilities reduce their demand for happiness, and the pleasure principle is transformed into the principle of reality: we consider ourselves happy when we just avoid distress.

Whose fault is this?

According to Freud it is civilization’s, because it fails to protect humans from distress. Yet in the same book, “Civilization and its Discontents”, he writes: The evolution of culture […] must present to us the struggle between Eros and death, between the instincts of life and the instincts of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species. This struggle is what all life essentially consists of and so the evolution of civilization may be simply described as the struggle of the human species for existence.

So, if civilization must be considered as the vital struggle for humans and therefore for their happiness, why is today’s man haunted by melancholy; by a feeling of emptiness and loneliness; by insecurity?

Civilization —according to Freud— comprises the whole of accomplishments and institutions through which our life diverges from the instinctual (animal-like) life of our ancestors.

These accomplishments and institutions serve two causes: man’s protection from nature and the regulation of human relations, Freud having already refused since 1927, in “The future of an illusion”, to discriminate between spiritual from technological civilization.

Nowadays we generally define culture as all of a civilization’s intellectual aspects associated with human creativity, and civilization as all the achievements of human societies (against nature and barbarism).

Could the currently prevalent confusion and distress in contemporary society be nothing but a different way of expressing what Freud described as discontent in 1930?

But as Castoriadis writes in The rise of insignificance, society is not the aggregate of perishable and replaceable individuals who live in a certain place, speak a certain language and keep certain customs. On the contrary, individuals belong to this society because they take part in (creating) its meanings, norms, values, myths, images, traditions and because they want all these to belong in this society and perpetuate it. Individuals, as they are edified and structured by a certain society’s institutions, are its genuine carriers.

 Western contemporary society’s crisis in relation to this aspect can be understood through the breakdown of society’s self-image. Contemporary human beings act as if they merely put up with society and do not attempt to reform it, as if it did not concern them. But how can this be? Every society creates its own particular world, supporting its own special meanings which build the general images of the world it constructs. It is these meanings and images, particular to each society, that will lead to the creation of a collective entity into which individuals will find themselves and where individuality will meet collectivity and be co-created by it. Therefore, every individual is called upon —within his/her social surrounding— to create his/her own meaning of the world, his/her own meaning of life and death.

According to Freud, the origin of society is found in two fundamental prohibitions relating to oedipal wishes: incest and patricide; and the beginning of social bonding rests upon the feeling of guilt that is transmitted among generations.3

These aspects shed light on the psychic processes and the identification procedures that support the inclusion of human beings to society.

Even though the ‘social’ is not so easily reduced to ‘psychic’, it seems that the psyche, through the meeting with the ‘mother’, meets ab initio the‘social’ and human reality as it is shaped and interpreted in itself.

Psyche, ‘arriving’ at a temporally specific social context, will meet the prevailing ethics and politics of its lifetime. It will encounter —and be moulded by— the dominant values and principles. The helpless human baby will communicate and elicit answers from its environment through the mother-who will present the world and will connect the baby with thousands of years of social evolution. Society, through its dominant culture-civilization, will offer the Ego possibilities of imaging and creating its own individual world, at the same time remaining a given reality; a reality that necessarily determines it. There is a multiplicity of speculations about contemporary society. We are talking about the “rupture” of the society of individuals (Elias 1973), where the individual closes up as a consequence of the fact that the bonds of belonging retreat, whether they be love, friendship, family or social bonds. We talk about “alienation” (Arendt 1951), which is loneliness, depression, desolation, loss of ground, space, time and loss of relationships. We often refer to a state of uncertainty, and clinicians speak of a clinical expression of uncertainty and new pathologies.

Uncertainty refers to loss of one or more aspects of security (e.g. employment), which leads to insecurity, psychic pain, rupture of social bonds.

Could it be that a new kind of human being prevails who is less of a citizen and more of a consumer, a human being without ‘gravity’, as the French psychoanalyst Melman (2002) claims? Or is what we experience now connected with the abolition of every kind of hierarchy and the decline of the authority of the father, according to psychoanalyst Lebrun (Lebrun 2001)?4 In other words, is what is missing the presence and legitimacy of the one whose main role is to represent the Law and restrain desire (father, teacher, authority figure)? An issue arises here that seems to be ignored in contemporary speculation: the close affinity between a social establishment and the anthropological type (or spectrum of types) necessary for its functioning. Most of the known types, e.g. devoted judge, teacher and so on, are inherited from earlier times. Today, it is obvious that citizens are left disoriented, and this is because of the prevailing erosion, of the decay and impairment of social imaginary meanings. Is the meaning of the words citizen, man-woman, parent really clear to people today? One could appreciate the great number of questions that emerge and the complexity that characterizes all these paths of thought and the efforts to understand what is going on in the Western world these last decades. But let us try to see the various facets by which this “crisis” expresses itself in our inner and our everyday life.

 

The crisis of the subject

What ultimately seems to prevail, as an organizing direction is that of the avoidance of psychic pain and psychic labor. Avoidance of the psychic cost induced from the abandonment of omnipotence, the mourning of losses, the processing of traumas and the acceptance of the transience of our life, our decline and mortality.

What prevails now is violence and aggressiveness, the triumphant denial of limits and restrictions, the intense search for pleasure, dependencies, the excessive presence of images, the instrumentalization of knowledge, the denial of reality, decay and death, and the dominance of youth.

 The culture of consumerism has prevailed and led to shallow relations, while thinkink is devalued. Vague and obscured roles, depreciation of values and principles, mass choices, uniformity of behavior. Individuality and distinctiveness are suspect, they are experienced as threatening and are depreciated. What prevails is a system of immediate action aimed at instant gratification, avoiding any kind of psychic processing. Dazzling outfits and striking looks often attempt to hide psychological emptiness, to cover up an undifferentiated Ego and all kinds of deficiency or discordance. Absolute freedom is pursued and the effort is to break down barriers and restrains, abolish the differentiation between generations and genders and reject all kinds of deficiencies. The acquisition of material goods was adopted as part of the quest for fulfillment together with the belief that everything is allowed and accepted.“I reach out and grab” — the little child’s omnipotence as well as greediness. The principle of desire prevails over the principle of reality, and the search for pleasure dominates, trying to rid itself of all anxiety, guilt and sorrow and essentially undermining the secondary thought process. In our clinical practice we come across an increasing number of people who express themselves through action, behavior and somatization. Individuals with narcissistic disorders, focused on emotional investment in the self and fraught with feelings of boredom, dysthymia, emptiness, loss of meaning. Or, on the contrary, frenzied activity, an emotionally shallow everyday life, deficient relationships and human communication.

When ‘psychalization’ declines—that is, the ability of the psychic organ to link instinctual stimuli to representation networks— the creative existence of the subject declines as well. On the contrary, it seems that the tendency for ‘de-psychalization” prevails, often as a anti-traumatic strategy for the sake of survival; a defense at all costs against distress and painful feelings. What is essentially attempted is the falsification of reality.

In 1938, in his article about “The Splitting of the Ego”, Freud speaks of “arift in the ego which […] increases as times goes on”. This rift acts against the perception of reality. Are there any rifts in the ego of contemporary individuals that impede their capacity to recognize and handle fundamental issues connected with existence and human destiny? What kind of subjectivity could one form these days, when what is asked of the individual is not to find the road that leads to the construction of the subject because everything pushes one towards homogeneity? And how can one avoid the solution of adopting a false self, when what is insistently suggested is participation in a world of uniform choices? And when the cost of a differentiated choice is a potential exclusion from mainstream action and banishment into a world of minorities?

Italian linguist Raffaele Simone, in his work Il mostro mite [the suave monster] refers to the eroding effect of a diffuse system of authorities that prevails and has substituted the former forms of power that were more rough but also more obvious.

It is claimed that the prevailing politics inundates us with consumer goods which encourage the tendency for immediate gratification and promote the pursuit of limitless pleasure. A consequence of all this is that every lack-absence is considered pathological. This nurtures and amplifies the tendency for implicit and direct access to possessing and enjoyment (dependence on the internet, on technology), i.e. the immediate access to and possession of the object.

To sum up, we live in a reality where the influx of stimuli seems to favor and promote tendencies that distort narcissistic flows into psyche, jeopardizing the internal order and organization of identifications. The internalizations of the Superego suffer, so that desire is not regulated by internal organizers. The castration threat and fantasy no longer act organizationally, so that one could resign oneself to being in a position of ‘lacking’ or non-participation (gender difference - generation difference). Exiting the oedipal complex is a milestone. Humans cannot be whatever they want, cannot have and do whatever they want. If these conditions are not in place and a perverse solution is chosen, the world becomes an undifferentiated mass and what prevails in relation to reality is the position “…I know, but I act as if I didn’t know”.

I will not go any further into the issues that arise from such statements. But it seems we can say that the social bonding that characterizes contemporary society is, to a great extent, of a narcissistic and perverse type.

Contemporary humans seem to be floating in the unknown, refusing to take a look inside him and accept their constituent elements, their contradictions, the co-existence of love and destructiveness; a destructiveness that led into two world wars during the 20th century and into massacres and genocides of incredible violence. We know that the psyche has multiple ways of functioning and a capacity for connecting and disconnecting. Chaos is something we carry inside, together with our difficulty or failure to recognize the limits of our acts. We also know that there is no escape from death, that man is perishable and mortal. Therefore, of the limits to every activity as well as the acceptance of the ephemeral inform our whole existence.

The contemporary human’s difficulty in accepting all this has led him/her into borderline situations. What remains to be seen is whether our consumer society will mutate into a society of frugality or scarcity and whether man, realizing his predicament, will be able to define —individually and collectively— a different future instead of moving towards the loss of his individuality, which is the path on which he is already walking.

 

 


Footnotes

 1 Kastoriadis K. “The rise of insignificance” p. 119

 2 Freud S. “ Civilization and its discontents”… Suffering comes from three quarters: from our own body, […]; from the outer world […]; and finally from our relations with other men.

 3 Freud S. “Totem and taboo”.”.in the beginning there was action.

 4 Lebrun J-P. “A crisis of humanizing process”

 

References

Arendt H.  The origins of Totalitarianism, Athens. Evrialos (1988)

Dimitriadis J. The concept of “new psychic economy” of S. Mehlman Athens Ek ton ysteron 24, 2012-2013

Elias N. The evolution of civilization, Athens Nefeli (1997)

Kastoriadis K. World in fragments, Athens, Ypsilon (1992)

Kastoriadis K. The rising tide of insignificancy, Athens, Ypsilon (2000)

Lebrun J.-P. A crisis of humanizing process, Athens, Ek ton ysteron 24, 2012-2013

Freud S. (1930). Civilization and its discontents, Athens, Epikouros (1994)

Freud S. (1927). The future of an illusion, Athens, Epikouros (1994)

Freud S.(1912). Totem and taboo, Athens, Epikouros (1978)

Freud S. (1938). Splitting of the ego in the process of defense S.E. 23

Simone R. The monster mild, Athens, Polis 2011.