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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Second Letter to a Young American Friend in the Occupy Movement

Every Movement Creates its Own Psychology, Every Revolution Remakes Reality

From: Vincenzo Di Nicola@___
To: Christopher C___@___
Subject: Second Letter to a Young American Friend in the Occupy Movement
Date: Wed, 1 Feb 2012 23:05:29 -0500

Dear Chris,

Hope you got some rest and are ready for some reading!

To respond to your request for “a reading list for getting familiar with the field of group dynamics,” I looked over my bookshelves and want to offer you three things:

(1) A highly personal, even idiosyncratic, list of recommended reading, annotated with comments about the contexts and impacts of these works

(2) Some background about two key thinkers to put this list in perspective—
Sigmund Freud and Antonio Gramsci

(3) Why the best thing to do (except for scholarly purposes, occasional inspiration and theory) may be to forget what is in these texts.

(1) Recommended Reading

Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1922 in German)
Besides his speculative anthropology which has been thoroughly discredited, this is the least successful or convincing of Freud’s books. He simply revisits the prejudices of his time about groups (Le Bon, McDougall, Trotter) and offers no new insights. All the successful works on groups do not use Freud as their starting point. Freuds starting point is the individual. I am of the opinion that we should start with the group and go to the individual rather than extrapolate from the individual to imagine the group. In Freud’s approach the individual is always compromised by the demands of civilization, as he called it (we call it culture today). Adorno revisited this essay in 1951, arguing that Freud “clearly foresaw the rise and nature of fascist mass movements in purely psychological categories.” I call these “talking dog interpretations”—everybody thinks their dog talks but no one else can understand the animal. Freud not only did not foresee fascism but had to be dragged kicking and screaming from Vienna in 1938 to save his life, ransomed for one million pounds sterling by Marie Bonaparte—truly a king’s ransom at the time. So much for Freud’s insight into groups.

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power (1960 in German)

Nobelist Canetti wrote only one novel, translated as Auto-da-Fé (from the German Die Blendung—“The Blinding”) about a solitary scholar who turns on his own work and sets fire to his library. Canetti returns to this theme in his magnum opus, Masse und Macht/Crowds and Power, of crowds and the burning of books. Literary reviewers held this book as the summa of social psychology in the 20th century but this theme is better dealt with in Badiou’s The Century and no conclusions can be drawn about crowds from totalitarian societies.

I put this book in the group of texts that have a negative view of groups, of crowds, and of relationships. In chapter 4 of my book, Letters to a Young Therapist (Atropos, 2011), I examine the psychological and psychotherapeutic literature for what I see as predominantly negative views of relationship and also offer more positive ones. Against the socialist notion of solidarity, the individual is imagined as a monad, an atomized self, a singularity, not a multiplicity (as Badiou does).

Books from 20th century Europe about crowds, movements, “social forces” were written in the light of the struggle for “the new man” which started in Mussolini’s Italy and caught fire in movements as diverse as Marinetti’s Futurism to the Soviet Union’s new vision of psychology to Nazi Germany. I read any text about group psychology in its social and political context. The generation that taught me was as much informed by Richard Crossman’s edited anthology, The God That Failed, and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon criticizing communism’s failure and excesses as by Benjamin, Marcuse, Arendt or Adorno warning about the excesses of capitalism.

I’ve always thought that Crowds and Power was an unfinished book; meandering, shapeless, almost atheoretical. When I read Benjamin’s Arcades Project, I connected the two works with Fernando Pessoa’s interminable project, The Book of Disquiet. All three books are by lonely men, toiling away in solitude, obsessively moving around, tasting everything new but with a kind of reactive nostalgia. Benjamin was himself a kind of intellectual flâneur, sniffing here and there, turning up brilliant insights in odd corners of the city of the mind, before moving on to another site. All three works lack what Lacan called le point de capiton—something that anchors or gives structure—“grounds” in the philosophical sense—the inner logic of the work. Wolfgang Kohler would have called this organizing principle a Gestalt.

Alain Badiou, Second Manifesto for Philosophy (2009 in French)
Simply a lucid and compelling outline of the implications of Truth and Event for the subject faithful to them. His typology of “subjectizable bodies”—the faithful subject, the reactive subject and the obscure subject—may be interesting to examine in terms of how people respond to the challenges of Occupy, within and without. You may want to read this beside his most accessible book, The Century, where he offers a philosophical overview of the main conflict of the 20th century, the struggle for “the new man.”

Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community (1990 in Italian)
This lovely book written by Agamben, whom Badiou calls the “Franciscan of ontology,” was a response to a crucial moment in the European imagination after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the creation of a new European community. A response to Jean-Luc Nancy’s La Communauté désouevrée (The Inoperative Community) and Maurice Blanchot’s La Communauté inavouable (The Unavowable Community) which are about belonging, Agamben’s book takes a U-turn and disavows the notions of belonging, identity and representation. Agamben offers the notion of whatever singularity which has no identity and “severs any obligation to belonging” (Carlo Salzani in The Agamben Dictionary, 2011). If the Occupy movement is going to elaborate a notion of community, this book is essential reading to help us re-imagine community with an alternative to the polarity “universal-particular” by proposing the “example.”
Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933 in German)
This is another example of the paranoid view of crowds and masses as given to reactionary politics. Reich argues that, “Fascism is only the organized political expression of the structure of the average man’s character. It is the basic emotional civilization and its mechanistic-mystical conception of life.” Badiou casts this—the reactive subjectas only one of three types of subjects, the others being the faithful subject and the obscure subject. Reich’s approach reaches its apotheosis in American political science with Richard Hofstadter’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964). I don’t say they lack insight or incisiveness, I do say that it is one school of thought about mass movements. If we accept it, we will always be suspicious of movements from Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street.

Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973 in English)
Best read as part of a trio I am recommending: Canetti’s Crowds and Power and Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism, yet Fromm’s book is by far the most cogent of the three. If my own notions of the traumatic remainder which perpetuate trauma and foreclose the Event have an inspiration, it was clearly in this book which I read as a young man in my Fromm-Marcuse-Adorno phase of trying to marry Marxism with psychoanalysis. To repeat, you must be really aware of the context and what Fromm was responding to at the time.  

Jacob Moreno, The Essential Moreno: Writings on Psychodrama, Group Method, and Spontaneity (2008 in English)
I have colleagues who run children’s groups using Moreno’s psychodrama which is as rich and supple an instrument for working groups as I’ve seen. This is in marked contrast to the outcome-oriented approaches where one must produce “results” like production quotas at a factory.

René Girard, The Scapegoat (1982 in French)
This is a seminal text to understand Girard’s mimetic theory, perhaps the most lucid and compelling contemporary theory of violence, touching on the relationship between the scapegoat mechanism in history and the structure of myth. His connection to Derrida, notably through the essay “Plato’s Pharmacy,” is critical and made explicit in the introduction to The Girard Reader (2000). Any mass movement needs to understand the possibilities for violence, let alone violence as a chosen strategy. This book will help your movement focus on the question of violence and our unwitting repetition of myths to create scapegoats. As Freud asks in the quotation below, what will we do when we run out of scapegoats?

Mara Selvini Palazzoli and associates: Paradox and Counterparadox, The Magician Without Magic, The Hidden Games of Orgnanizations (1975, 1976, 1981 in Italian)
In a series of  radical interventions, this Italian psychiatrist and her colleagues in Milan turned from psychoanalysis to family systems theory to write a series of brilliant explorations in relational psychology. Her motto was, “Family therapy is the starting point for the exploration of ever wider social units.” She and her colleagues established the most radical and effective model of family therapy in Paradox and Counterparadox, followed by two books on working with larger systems, from schools to industry. How they saw through institutional games and crafted ways around them is documented with lucidity and panache. The third title is badly translated from the Italian—Sul fronte dell’organizzazione: strategie e tattiche, “At the Front of Organizations: Strategies and Tactics”—which sounds more appropriately like a guerilla manual for psychological warfare. Together, these works are modern iterations of The Art of War for human relations!

Otto Kernberg, Love Relations: Normality and Pathology (1995 in English)
The dean of American Freudian psychoanalysts offers his view of the aggression that is at the heart of all relationships. At once informed and disturbing yet touchingly compassionate. This is the man who coined the term “malignant narcissism” which describes destructive leaders like Saddam Hussein. Kernberg is a bit like Kant in psychoanalysis—you can try to refute him, but you can’t avoid him!

Finally, there is an entire range of utopian and dystopian texts that are hard to get out of your imagination once they enter it. For someone of my generation, coming into political awareness during the 1960s, it is difficult to put these images out of my mind when we talk about groups, society and change:

·      some you know well: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four
·      some deserve to be more well-read: Eugene Zamyatin’s We (plagiarized by Huxley and Vonnegut); others less: Ayn Rand’s Anthem is a glimpse into a really mediocre mind (she is the darling of US libertarians and the Tea Party)
·      some are not well-known but can be paired with more famous works: H.D. Thoreau’s Walden and B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two
·      Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis as well as their predecessor, Thomas More’s Utopia, are still worth reading to prepare you for the possibilities of what happens when we are trying to imagine new communities
·      Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is fascinating not only for being a fictional  incarnation of Canetti’s book burnings, but for how society is organized without book knowledge and how rebel readers build a new society, which touches on themes about technology and memory as old as Socrates and Giulio Camillo’s “theatre of memory”
·      Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (“nowhere” more or less backwards) is along with Zamyatin’s We among the most intellectually lucid of dystopias. The Erewhonians reversed illness and crime: it was a crime to be ill and criminals were treated with compassion for their unfortunate and totally contingent condition.

(2) On narcissism and being one’s own doctor

I would like to share extended quotes from two authoritative thinkers:

·      Sigmund Freud on the conflicts between the individual’s instinct for aggression as he called it (we hardly have better words for it, in spite of Steven Pinker’s recent cheerful history of violence) and civilization as he called it (we would say culture); and

·      Antonio Gramsci on the similar theme of how the individual is forced into a hypocritical conformity to the demands of society (Marx called it false consciousness, a theme take up by Sartre in his theoretical existential psychoanalysis and clinically by psychiatrist R.D. Laing).

Freud on “the narcissism of minor differences”

This is one of Freud’s political comments from Civilization and Its Discontents (1930 in German) of which much has been made, from descriptions of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia to the hilarious scenes in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” (1979) where factional fighting among the Judean resistance groups becomes more fractious and passionate than the struggles against the occupying Romans:

The communists believe they have found the path to deliverance from our evils. According to them, man is wholly good and as well-disposed to his neighbor; but the institution of private property has corrupted his nature. The ownership of private wealth gives the individual power, and waited the temptation to ill-treat his neighbor; while the man who is excluded from possession is bound to rebel in hostility against his oppressor.  If private property were abolished, all wealth held in common, and everyone allowed to share in the enjoyment of it, ill-will and hostility would disappear among men.  Since everyone's needs would be satisfied, no one would have any reason to regard another as his enemy; all would willingly undertake the work that was necessary.  I have no concern with any economic criticisms of the communist system; I cannot inquire into whether the abolition of private property is expedient or advantageous.  But I am able to recognize that the psychological premises on which the systems based are an untenable illusion.  In abolishing private property we deprive the human love of aggression of one of its instruments, certainly a strong one, though certainly not the strongest; but we have in no way altered the differences in power and influence which are misused by aggressiveness, nor have we altered anything in its nature. Aggressiveness was not created by property.  It reigned almost before property had given up its primal, anal form; it forms the basis of every relation of affection and love among people (with the single exception, perhaps, of the mother’s relation to her male child).  If we do away with personal rights over material wealth, there still remains prerogative in the field of sexual relationships, which is bound to become the source of the strongest dislike in the most violent hostility among men who in other respects are on an equal footing.  If we were to remove this factor, too, by allowing complete freedom of sexual life and thus abolishing the family, the germ-cell of civilization, we cannot, it is true, easily foresee what new paths the development of civilization could take; but one thing we can expect, and that is that this indestructible feature of human nature will follow at there.

It is clearly not easy for man to give up the satisfaction of this inclination to aggression.  They do not feel comfortable without it.  The advantage which a comparatively small cultural group offers of allowing this instinct an outlet in the form of hostility against intruders is not to be despised. It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.  I once discussed the phenomenon that is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other -- like the Spaniards and Portuguese, for instance, the North Germans and South Germans, the English and Scotch, and so on.  I gave this phenomenon the name of “the narcissism of minor differences”, a name which does not do much to explain it.  We can now see that it is a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier. In this respect the Jewish people, scattered everywhere, have rendered most useful services to the civilizations of the countries that have been their hosts; but unfortunately all the massacres of the Jews in the Middle Ages did not suffice to make that period more peaceful and secure for their Christian fellows. When once the Apostle Paul had posited universal love between men as the foundation of his Christian community, extreme intolerance, part of Christendom towards those who remained outside it became the inevitable consequence.  To the Romans, who had not founded their communal life as a State upon love, religious intolerance was something foreign, although with them religion was a concern of the State and the State was permeated by religion.  Neither was it an unaccountable chance that the dream of a Germanic world-dominion called for anti-Semitism as its complement; and it is intelligible that the attempts to establish a new, communist civilization in Russia should find its psychological support in the persecution of the bourgeois. One only wonders, with concern, what the Soviets will do after they have wiped out their bourgeois. (Italics added)

Gramsci on “the insulted and injured” and being “one’s own doctor”

Antonio Gramsci, one of the leading political theorists of the 20th century, was imprisoned by Mussolini. These are from his Lettere del Carcere/Letters from Prison (1965 in Italian, 1973 in English)1 to his sister-in-law, Tatiana, about his wife Julia living in Moscow and suffering from bouts of psychological illness.

“To be sure,” Gramsci admitted in a letter dated February 15, 1932, “my knowledge  of psychoanalysis is neither vast nor precise … but of the little I have studied I think there are at least a few points on which I can give a definite opinion … The most important point seems to be this: that a psychoanalytic cure can be helpful only to those elements in society which romantic literature used to call the ‘insulted and injured’ … those individuals who are caught up between the iron contrasts of modern life … people in short who fail to overcome warring contrasts of this nature and are incapable of arriving at a new moral serenityamd tranquillity; i.e., an equilibrium between the impulse of the will and the ends which the individual can reach. The situation becomes dramatic at certain definite moments in history and in certain environments: when the environment is superheated to extreme tension, and gigantic collective forces are unleashed which press hard on single individuals… Such situations become disastrous for exceptionally refined and sensitive temperaments … I believe therefore that a person of culture, an active element in society (as Giulia certainly is), is and must be his own best psychoanalyst.”1

In a later letter dated March 7, 1932, Gramsci expanded his views of the “dialectic of the human psyche” in James Joll’s (1977) descriptive phrase, acknowledging that psychological crises not only affect the insulted and injured but that they arise when the demands made by society with “an individual’s actual tendencies, which are founded on the sedimentation of old habits and old ways of thinking” (italics added).1 If this tension cannot be resolved – for instance by a sceptical and hypocritical conformity with the demands of society –

“the question can only be resolved in a catastrophic manner, because it gives rise  to morbid outbreaks of repressed passion, which the necessary social ‘hypocrasy’ … has merely numbed and driven deeper into its subconscious.”1

Joll (1977) sees in this a limited acceptance of Freud’s repression and the unconscious combined with Gramsci’s Hegelian view of an “ideal society” where the laws of the state and the dictates of the individual conscience or will coincide. This is precisely what Freud holds to be improbable – hence the discontents of civilization – and, Freud has the honesty to add, at least in the civilization we have come to know. Nonetheless, Gramsci maintains that

“one can arrive at a certain serenity even in the clash of the most absurd contradictions and under the pressure of the most implacable necessity. But one can only reach it if one succeeds in thinking ‘historically’, dialectically, and identifying one own task with intellectual dispassionateness … In this sense … one can and therefore one must be ‘one’s own doctor’.”1

Gramsci sees the possibilities of being one’s own doctor as related to a clear understanding of one’s surroundings, including an understanding of the historical situation and the possibilities of action. For Gramsci as for Marx, theory must be yoked to praxis, just as praxis makes the true philosopher. They are organically related, creating what Gramsci called “organic intellectuals.”

What Gramsci calls “the sedimentation of old habits and old ways of thinking” I call in more Freudian/Lacanian terms, the traumatic remainder. Freud argues for the necessity of aggression in our civilization or culture, which is only partly tamed at the price of creating outsiders upon whom that aggression is discharged, whether it be neighbours who are minimally different or scapegoats creating by differences in beliefs, such as Jews. René Girard elaborated this at great length in his analysis of the scapegoat with his mimetic theory. While Gramsci holds for an ideal of the individual adapting to the society, he understood that this required great presence of mind and great clarity of purpose in the face of “collective forces which press hard” on the individual.

1 Citations from: James Joll. Gramsci. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1977.

(3) Every movement creates its own psychology, every revolution remakes reality

A revolution cannot take anything for granted. How to deliver the milk and eggs, how to write the constitution for a revolutionary government, how to understand and respond to suffering, how to deal with questions of order and justice.

Just as you wouldn’t want the old guard to repeat tired old answers to these questions from the economy to justice in a new guise, you wouldn’t want a revolution to start with the same old assumptions about “human nature” as both the nativists in psychology and humanists argue, but rather address the problems of living together in fresh ways that speaks to our current hopes and dilemmas. Every movement creates its own psychology. Especially in the social or human sciences—everything involving our understanding of being and existence, from language acquisition and education to the social sources of suffering—will be rethought and revitalized anew. Every revolution remakes reality. The faithful subject is marked by porosity, an openness and an enthusiasm for what is new and liberating.

Let me suggest an interesting question for Occupy:

If tomorrow you were to be given the task to teach a child about the movement, about your personal transformation, about your hopes and wishes for yourself and for her life, what would you share with her? And how would you do it?

How would you balance sharing your frustrations and what brought you to resist with transmitting your hopes and expectations for today and the day after? Not some mystical time and place—“the coming community” in Giorgio Agamben’s vision—but the community we are building hic et nunc as our ancestors said. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” says the Gospel of Matthew. We’ve had enough of social ills (or however we construe “evil” today), let’s make social good, starting now, and put trauma behind us.

So, if you do consult the books on this list, be sure to maintain a critical stance as to the social, political, ethical context in which they were conceived and expressed. Foucault calls them “discursive formations.” Being aware of that creates what Zizek calls the “parallax view” and makes us more exquisitely aware of context. These texts were put together to solve the predicaments in their worlds. What are ours?

With social hope and growing solidarity,


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