ranslated by Dimitra Michalopoulou
The article is based on a presentation given October 11, 2012, to a conference at the Psychiatric Hospital of Attica
Some events are located in plots that already consist of sequences of scenes: in other words there is a process with a beginning and an outcome. It may be supposed that an organization which allows many diverse and complex units of meaning (stories) to constantly change, is strong enough, and resistant to a total breakdown. However, there are events whose links of meaning have been ruptured. Let us suppose that such an organization is not flexible enough, it is “totalitarian”, it is based on suppression, internal and external, personal and interpersonal, and therefore it is at risk of falling to pieces and being annihilated by a new trauma. Such an organization may produce one dimensional events, lacking depth and complexity. In this ‘anti-process’,events cannot be put into a story. These are the traumas that have not been mourned, that are encysted and entrenched with splittings and are buried, like industrial waste, in the psyche, where they resist becoming public or being dramatized and presented before others in the form of successive scenes. The totalitarian forms of psychic functioning exist potentially in every one of us. We annul the existence of the “foreign”. We invalidate its meaning and stop seeking for its connections. We simply quit the desire to get to know the new. In fascism we abolish “complexity”, we simplify things by making them tangible and concrete through summary processes of violence. The violence of fascism is attractive because trauma is attractive. Admiration characterizes fascism. It is based on the idealization of relationships that have not been mourned.
Key words: repetition processes, attractor states, transference, totalitarian (fashist), states of mind
A psychotic girl held both her hands over her ears, like a shield, day and night. Her parents said that the girl had been frightened by the sound of fireworks. When, at the Day Center, a teacher brought in some cakes, she looked very much as if she would love some, but she couldn’t take her hands away from her ears to hold out her hand and take what she wanted. She had to be fed, “otherwise she would starve to death”.
Imprisoned within herself, she cut off the roads leading to the outside world and to her body. She severed the bonds of enquiry, of curiosity, the love of the new, the quest for knowledge. She did not make use of her wish to develop. If she were to reach out to the world, to take a step forward, to put herself in the world, in time, in relationships, and in real life, she would find herself defenseless and confronted by her terror of invasion. And yet if she didn’t reach out she would die of starvation.
The teachers who took care of her found themselves in a paradoxical transference (Anzieu, 1986). If they insisted on approaching her they would invade her boundaries in a traumatic way, threatening her with annihilation. However, if they did not insist they would be showing indifference, they would be leaving her to die. Whatever they did was wrong.
In this way she brought in, out of the wings and onto the stage of relationships, the immobilization, the death, of others, the double bind. She repeated, in the present, the impossible situation in which her parents had placed her as a small child, the double bind of messages that expressed an unconscious wish for her death. In this situation the teachers at the day center had to give in to reality. Otherwise, she would not understand what they said to her.
There would be no problem if there was no reality. Reality is by definition traumatic. It often becomes unbearable. If there is a thing that needs explaining, it is the wonder of what it is that puts us in the world to live. We assume that initially the infant is in a narcissistic union with its mother and that it gradually emerges out of this fusion. The infant places himself in the world with his gestures; His mother receives them, gives meaning to them, and thus adds to them the value of communication. Without this beginning of the other’s response the infant will actually die, because it is biologically immature. Out of the biological state of helplessness the infant derives the ability to communicate, to elicit meaning from his environment with specific action-responses. The body with its needs places us in the world and into ethics (Freud, 1895). In this sense it is natural to view every human being as a “political animal” and to look upon the Polis (city) as a natural phenomenon (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics).
Out of pre-psychic elements which are somatic in their nature (sensations, movements, perceptions, proto-emotions) the psychic elements, (representations, feelings, fantasies) come to be created. The first gesture of a baby that is combined with a meaning given by his mother is the baby’s first public statement. As Elytis remarked, a baby at his mother’s breast could mean a future constitution.
Parents and teachers may kill a child’s creativity when they choose to ignore the fact that this is innate, and stems from the child’s body. They respond to their own ideas about how things should be. They do not allow the child’s creativity to reach out to the world, they “correct” it with “restrictive measures” or “reinforce” it with “enriching supplements”.
In the ordinary course of events parents see in their child what is there to be seen, they don’t split it off, they don’t act as if they are not there, as if what they perceive does not exist. They recognize and respond to what exists. The child, then, having received their responses, turns inwards to himself and thus structures a sense of self. He sees himself in their eyes. Initially, the parent is his double, another self. Gradually, the other self becomes other than the self.
The relationships between elements of experience are rendered capable by meaning. The elements become represented, metaphorized, exchanged and public. When they create a meaning they find a position in the human world. We place our self in the world when we place a meaning in a plot. We become the subjects of this meaning. Human beings are by nature and by their situation creatures of what are dynamic systems of self-organization and transformation. The function of a system is homeostasis. The restoration of balance is a defense against the threat of repetition of trauma (defined as the breakdown of a system). The processes of transformation and development are shields against a system’s vulnerability. Reality is transformed through creative fantasy (Winnicott, 1988).
Without the mediation of meaning, reality traumatizes us. You may wake up one morning having transformed yourself into a repulsive insect, or you may wake up shutting your ears with both of your hands, or you may find yourself with herpes on your lips, or with mouth ulcers, or with revenge fantasies, or with hysterical deafness. Then again, you may wake up with a dream to narrate and with joy that the day has changed and the dawn celebrates the passing of time. By using these psychical forms we try to bind the traumatic experiences of each day with meaning, to elaborate them. What emerges out of the psychic forms is our constant effort to figure out reality. Out of the ruptures of the psychic web fragments emerge of untold traumatic experiences; because you may wake up one morning and in reality have lost your job, or your freedom, or the safety of your life.
The Greeks contrasted the void of chaos with “logos”, the law of relationships, inherent in nature (Kastoriadis, 1982-83). A human being builds his world of representations on the traumatic experiences of reality. In the foundations of psychical structures and institutions we will find the unelaborated experiences of history. Traumatic losses become more real when represented in our conscious. When they have been bound with meaning we experience them with painful clarity.
The physicist Lee Smolin (2000) views the universe as something consisting of processes. The world has a story to narrate. A story consists of a sequence of events. Information is not being transmitted by the events, but by the story itself, by the sequencing of the events that create the story. Thus, the story (the sequence of events) gives birth to truth (meaning). When you look around you it is not a space that you see, but a process, the recent part of a story. Space consists of units of change, events that are created out of relationships in constant change. We conceive of the world as a creation that is subject to constant recreation, the result of a combination of active processes. This is a unique world, open to many stories that inevitably remain incomplete.
Can we take this model as a metaphor to think about a social, or more generally a living organism? Yes, up to a point. Through intuitive perception, through play, through action, and through narrating the relationships that connect events with each other, we bring to reality a public space. Some events are located in plots that already consist of sequences of scenes: in other words there is a process with a beginning and an outcome. It may be supposed that an organization which allows many diverse and complex units of meaning (stories) to constantly change, is strong enough, and resistant to a total breakdown.
However, there are events whose links of meaning have been ruptured. Let us suppose that such an organization is not flexible enough, it is “totalitarian”, it is based on suppression, internal and external, personal and interpersonal, and therefore it is at risk of falling to pieces and being annihilated by a new trauma. Such an organization may produce one dimensional events, lacking depth and complexity. In this ‘anti-process’,events cannot be put into a story. These are the traumas that have not been mourned, that are encysted and entrenched with splittings and are buried, like industrial waste, in the psyche, where they resist becoming public or being dramatized and presented before others in the form of successive scenes.
The concept of a public sphere is a fundamental human attainment. It is a notional environment where private knowledge is put to the test. We take responsibility for this knowledge jointly with everyone else who listens to us and interprets us. In a public place we present ourselves through our speech and our actions and expose ourselves to others, aiming to be understood.
Through a constant circular relationship between the intrapsychic and the intersubjective, an oscillation between an “a posteriori” and a present time, and an alternation between a regressive and an anticipating attention, human beings create emotional experiences out of pre-psychic elements. From emotional experiences they create webs of repetitions in increasingly complex dynamic systems of self organization and transformation. These reticular formations of repetition function as attractor states, as permanent programs that organize our experiences. In the case of individuals these attractors contribute to the formation of character traits. In the case of communities they contribute to the formation of the habits of culture. Repetitions are presentations of past experiences brought to current relationships. Through repetitions we form the past, and by giving meaning to the past we create our subjective history.
From revived repetitions, meanings are extracted. A posteriori, we are able to narrate-interpret our repetitions via fantasies. We become subjects of those fantasies that interpret our repetitions. We repeat our experiences within our memory when we elaborate them in the psychical sphere. When experiences cannot be worked through psychically, we repeat them in actings out and somatic manifestations.
Our sense of self is intertwined with the quality of repetitions and their fantasy narratives. The repetitions rooted in early and traumatic experiences become interlaced with the origins of the psyche. Therefore, they are experienced as mandatory, vital and compulsory. They constitute the last source of the sense of self, the sense of our originality. Character traits and cultural habits house the demon of repetition (the “ethos” of man according to Heraclitus), in other words the perpetual return of experiences that have not been worked through.
We repeat fragments of the psychic landscape within a transference relationship with others around us who can relate to our personal history. Therefore, everything that is said or is happening matters. There, split off elements seek for an author who will give them the chance to be localized and, thus, to become part of a plot. They appear, looking for a place in the drama.
We revive the primitive nature of our unelaborated elements via transient regressions, art, singing, dancing and therapy. This happens to everyone and it is a necessary process in the service of creative living. In order to transform reality creatively we use material that is derived from the primitive roots that we left behind by growing up and differentiating ourselves from the primary object. These roots are found in autoerotic activities, fantasies, dreams, transitional phenomena, words. All our psychic activities have their roots in the body and in our culture.
We may however revive blind repetitions in order to get in touch with the certainty and the vividness of the primitive self. We get in touch with our primitive elements through incomprehensible acts of violence and fascism. Otherwise, we lose the sense of self that is interwoven with these elements. We languish without them.
The mechanisms of repetition act like a ‘demon’ in the wings, shifting the scenes of a conscious life and a public space. What is it that keeps the wings apart from the stage? On the psychic stage there are the functions of thought, repression, judgment, the integrated superego. On the public stage there are the institutions. When the machinery that operates from the wings appears on the stage, it becomes quite impossible to make any sense of oneself and others. (McDougal, 1985).
The raw debris of pre psychic elements of the self and the object that come from various eras of trauma are buried deep into the soul. They concern unspoken psychotic elements that are accumulated in hyper-condensed, often monstrous, fantasy forms. They cannot be expressed consciously or publicly. They can, however, be transferred to other systems of non verbal communication (acting out, physical manifestations). They can find a stage, in order to be put forward, to be formulated, in order to acquire meaning and be experienced for the first time by the subject as belonging to him.
In order for the child to develop, someone has to invest in his development. The parent who raises the child should have a love for new experiences, should be able to invest in the unknown that is expected to be fulfilled. The parent invests in the pleasure of waiting and does not violate the child. The parent connects positive experiences with painful ones and establishes the concept of time, and the delay of satisfaction which is the necessary condition for the child to develop his thought. Otherwise, the parent does not allow the child to emerge from its primary fusion by following its impulse towards the world of objects, she/he feeds it, destroys its development, corrupts it. In extreme cases the child learn to “put his finger in the honey of his psyche, that is, he exploits the elements of primitive psychic life, which he extracts with drugs and other methods in order to support his movement towards autonomy, a movement which he cannot support with his psychic work.
Bion (1962, p.10-11, 1965, p. 38), observes the infant that approaches his mother in order to take in her milk. The materiality of the milk is transformed by the developing infant into a psychic satisfaction (love, care and meaning). His gesture towards his mother is prevented when he is afraid of his own aggressiveness or the aggressiveness of another. If the fear is too intense then the infant may inhibit his wish to be fed. However, later on he feels hungry again and is forced to suckle to avoid the dread of dying. At that point a deep splitting occurs between material and psychic satisfaction. This leads to a greedy quest of the lost object as well as to a dependence on material goods, an inability to experience love for oneself and others, a complete dependence on an inanimate object that is experienced as being able to provide a means of survival, but not real life.
Psychic development is dependent on truth (meaning) just as a living organism is dependent on food. When reality is not defined by thought, the result is that the psyche, without meaning, is starved. The infant’s dependence on inanimate milk for its survival is the first corrupting act for a human being. Corruption, by definition, means the downgrading – degradation – of a good thing to something inferior.
Information is nowadays the lifeless material of consumerism, and commodity fetishism. Information that is bare, without meaning, is ejected in order to destroy. Its main characteristic is omnipotence: it “decides” what is real beyond any reality and thought. The power of information can be shared if we jointly attach meaning to it. It is its omnipotence as a material element (lacking meaning) that cannot be shared. You either accept a lie or you are annihilated.
Time is needed in order to reflect on information, to interpret it to ourselves and to others. A first sense of ethics was created when the infant made a gesture towards his mother in order for her to attach to it meaning and communication value. Ethics meant an ability to wait, in other words the mother had other things to do with others (father) before considering the infants’ wish.
From the capacity to wait and think a whole system of values is created. Nowadays, we cannot afford the time, so we buy time and expect others to wait on our behalf (Sandel, 2012). Totalitarianism and corruption go together, they bypass waiting and thinking time, and relieve tension through violent discharge.
Bollas (1992) noted that a fascist mental state exists potentially within each one of us. This state is based on getting rid of the complexity of symbolic processes. The totalitarian forms of psychic functioning annul the existence of a representation. The “foreign” must not exist. We invalidate its meaning and stop seeking for its connections. We simply quit the desire to get to know the new.
In fascism we abolish “complexity”, we simplify things by making them tangible and concrete through summary processes of violence. The violence of fascism is attractive because trauma is attractive. Admiration characterizes fascism. It is based on the idealization of relationships that have not been mourned. You have no right to talk or search. Undermining the life conditions for basic human rights and destroying meaning are used in order to be ‘cured’ of life itself.
At a Day Center a general feeling of uneasiness prevailed. A sequence of behaviors had a tangible, manifest and obvious result: nothing was happening. Something was slowly dying. There were no symbolic strategic thoughts, nor any common perspectives to be found. And, while everything was apparent, nobody was experiencing it as real. Things were not concerning anyone. What obsessed everyone was a hidden threat, a “ghost” working insidiously so that all other interlocutors-colleagues seemed to vanish – they were no longer reliably present. It annihilated those links of meaning that bind us with the world and place us inside relationships, reality and time.
It resembled a totalitarian regime where you wake up one morning to find out that your neighbor has suddenly disappeared. Someone has kidnapped him in the night and no one knows where he was taken to, how long he will be kept there and whether he will ever come back. The result of this unforeseen event is a feeling of intimidation. You can’t predict anything. You do not know what the next day will bring to you. Thus, your rights in reality are restricted. Your capacity to believe reality is damaged due to a lack of reliable rules. There is no other self, no one to talk to, no colleague with whom you could do something together, and then reach out to others, to open up a multiplicity of meanings, to make time move on. So as not to disappear you accept being lied to, you accept information with no meaning.
Every so often, transitory alliances would form a majority with the power to impose decisions, without taking the minority views into account. What had held good before no longer counted for anything. There was no sense of legality, of original authenticity. Institutions gave way, and the wings poured forth onto the stage. With a wild joy, people resorted to primitive mechanisms (“an eye for an eye”), leading to “events”.
These events were not parts of a story. They were established facts. There was no sense of the passing of time. The ending was not ‘in suspense’. Like Medea they were committing a melancholy murder. Killing anything new that might happen. They were killing the process. Anxiety about death means that we are present at our own death. This occurs when the basic bodily mechanisms of repetition (in persons, families and communities) do not acquire the mediating properties, (in psychic time and space), of fantasies that narrate and interpret them, and instead they come to reality raw and unelaborated. Then threat prevails: links will vanish and the person beside you will not remember who you are.
At the Day Center people destroyed the meaning that made relationships real. If they represented meaning, they would make it real, it would actually be about them, and its pain would be intolerable. In order to avoid the pain, they didn’t understand, and they made themselves incomprehensible. They had no faith in reality. They weren’t looking for information in order to understand, but to satiate a “hunger”. They were addicted to news, to hypnotic messages. The result was a saturation of signs with no benefit to understanding. They were asking their community to give them ready made “food”, much as a beekeeper, wanting to increase his production, corrupts his bees by feeding them with sugar.
We talk at scientific and administrative meetings in order to shape our way of thinking. But we shouldn’t forget that the voice may also be used to eject unelaborated elements which may destroy the meaning that connects us to others. Then we are using the public sphere not as a place of work, but rather as a rubbish dump for personal experiences. We circumvent the boundaries. We evacuate tensions. We feed one another lies, and exchange information with no meaning. We kill curiosity.
A public space is created when we use it in a particular way. It is the place where we meet a stranger full of curiosity to get to know him. We wait for him to approach us with a gesture. If his true self is buried in a desert of depression, we become more proactive. We lend him our voice.
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Bollas, C. (1992). The fascist state of mind. In: Being a Character. London: Routledge.
Kastoriadis, C., From Homer to Heraclitus, Seminars 1982-1983, editing E. Escobar, M. Gonticas, P. Vernay, In Greek. Translated by X. Giataganas, 2007, Athens: Kritiki Publications.
McDougall, J. (1985): Theaters of the mind. New York: Basic Books.
Sandel, M. (2012). What Money Can’t Buy. The Moral Limits of markets. London: Allen Lane, an inprint of Penguin Books.
Smolin L. (2000). Three Roads to Quantum Gravity. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
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