Understanding Human Antagonism: A Psychoanalytical Perspective – II

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Assimilation of the enemy at a more advanced level takes place through identification with the aggressor. In this defensive mode, fear of the menacing figure is handled through its internalisation and identification with it at the expense of the self. The child identifying with the aggressor experiences himself as possessing the latter’s power and might. He can now act, and indeed he does, as he experiences this aggressor. This mechanism is widespread and evermore dangerous. In the second part, Ashoka dwells on the ‘other-stranger’, the unfamiliar and unknown enemy and how, in psychoanalytical term, we end up creating an enemy. Here’s the second part of an in-depth research on enemy and enmity, in three parts, exclusively for Different Truths.

The governing fantasy is to reduce the intolerable tension by bringing about “peace”— that wished-for state in which the ongoing and difficult frustration will finally stop — through one sub-group gaining control over the entire group. The actual struggles produced by this elusive fantasy-wish can lead to extremely destructive behaviour, ranging from the stark violence of the lynch mob to the fragmentation and disappearance of clear thinking and adaptive reality testing in academic large-group settings. Behind the multiple splits and fights against a shifting variety of enemies is, however, the unconscious wish for final and total submersion in the whole, for a state in which the inpidual will cease to be a because of his or her separate existence and identity. To hold on to one’s identity and inpiduality in the large group may, therefore, be tantamount to an act of war and should not be undertaken without sufficient strength to back it up, for the counterattack will not fail to come. The group feels threatened by inpiduality and inpiduation, which hinders its quest for peace through homogeneity. It will mobilise its destructiveness in order to diffuse this dangerous and offensive inpiduality and submerge it in the totality of the large group. Threats to identity in the large group (Turquet, 1975) thus come from two sides: one source is the wish to submerge oneself in the totality of the group, leading to the acquiescent, willing undermining and erosion of one’s personal identity; the other source is the actual aggressive threat of the large group against its internal enemy—one’s claim to adhere to and develop one’s personal identity within it.

Enmity within the large group is thus a tremendously fluctuating, treacherous, and diffuse entity. An enemy identified one moment may be totally disregarded the next. Under these conditions, it is impossible to carry on meaningful discourse with either friend or foe. It is this constant internal shifting and fluidity that makes the large group so dangerous. Its internal instability allows it to be tilted suddenly and irrationally in the direction in which an enemy is identified. The discovery of an external enemy brings about a momentary stabilisation of the group, and hence an alleviation of its tremendous inner tensions. This makes the large group extremely vulnerable to being manipulated into seeking and destroying real or imaginary enemies. Once again, the enemy takes shape on the group’s boundary, be it a physical, geographical, or ideological boundary. In this boundary region of the large group we find many different sorts of enemies: barbarian invaders, religious heretics, false messiahs, and political reformers bent on changing the group.

As leadership is always a boundary function, the group’s own leaders are also on the boundary and may easily and momentarily be turned into its enemies. is full of accounts that substantiate this thesis; recent events in Eastern Europe offer a number of pertinent examples.

There seem to be several stock alternatives or preferred answers to this question. The one most idealized in our age is that of talking to an enemy. A caricatured version of this appeared in the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, where the catch phrase of the Bad Guy was, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” This drawled-out declaration preceded the institution of some form of maddening cruelty. Freud’s preferred discloses his powerful rationalistic bias.

Rationalistic Conflict Resolution

While war is regarded as stemming from instinctual drives, discourse with the enemy originates in the rational and reality-bound part of man, in the service of adaptation and survival (Freud, 1915b). Freud’s leanings toward rationalistic conflict resolution were deeply embedded in the cultural and ideological tradition in which he grew up (Gay, 1988) and which he continued to represent almost in spite of himself. A straight line leads from this rationalistic bias to the pessimism he expressed on many occasions.

Other schools of psychoanalysis, particularly the Kleinian, offer the solution of splitting off the bad and threatening aspects of oneself and projecting them into the object. This allows for maintaining simultaneous distance from and relatedness to the object by means of projective identification, in which the object is both preserved and controlled (Segal, 1964). Splitting off the threatening, anxiety-producing parts of oneself alleviates the anxiety that threatens the ego with disintegration. Similarly, projecting valued parts of the self into an idealized good object serves as a defense against impending loss and separation. Projecting these split-off parts into the external object and identifying it with them mean that they now control and possess the object. In this way the object is experienced as under the control of parts of the self that are now “encapsulated” in it (Bion, 1962). The object is thus related to in a manner that preserves and controls it, as a source of either idealised or threatening parts of the self, depending on the nature of what was projected into it. This defensive process actually implies efforts to relate to the object through its infiltration, conquest, splitting, and dissolution, with the eventual result being its absorption and assimilation into the self. These are not efforts at speaking or having a dialogue with the enemy, but of controlling and dominating him by penetrating and intruding into him (projective identification), or by mastering him through his becoming a part of the self (introjective identification) (Bion, 1962). This is also tantamount to cannibalising the enemy and, at a higher level, absorbing him through intermarriage and cultural assimilation.

Assimilation of the enemy at a more advanced level takes place through identification with the aggressor. In this defensive mode, fear of the menacing figure is handled through its internalisation and identification with it at the expense of the self. The child identifying with the aggressor experiences himself as possessing the latter’s power and might. He can now act, and indeed he does, as he experiences this aggressor. He adopts patterns of thought, values, and behaviour that characterise his object of identification, not himself. This mechanism is widespread (in connection with surviving the Holocaust, as well as Chinese and Japanese treatment of prisoners of war) and evermore dangerous. While positive identification out of love and appreciation is rewarded by the enrichment of the self, identification with the aggressor out of fear exacts a heavy price in terms of the alienation and shrinking of the self and setting up a false self-organisation (Thompson, 1940; Winnicott, 1960). In extreme cases this mechanism may lead to a degree of impoverishment of the self that reaches borderline and even psychotic proportions. Identification with the aggressor points to the dangers of appeasement, of dealing with the enemy in an acquiescent, non-confrontational, non-combative way. As morally distasteful and potentially dangerous as it may be to respond forcefully to aggression, there is also danger in not back, in yielding and assimilating one’s own identity with that of the enemy. Such a course may clearly lead to one’s disappearance as a viable psychological and/or physical entity. This eventuality must therefore always be weighed against the quest for preserving peace at any cost.

Unfamiliar and Unknown Enemy

So far we have discussed the enemy, who is familiar and so close as to be part of the self. The enemy is, however, also the “other” who is unfamiliar and unknown. It is in this sense that he (the enemy may, of course, be male or female) appears at the specific developmental stage of around eight months of age, and his very appearance—always experienced as surprising and unexpected—arouses existential fright and anxiety. This “other-stranger” who provokes this stranger-anxiety is frightening because of his very otherness. He appears at the exact moment when fusion with the mother becomes an almost conscious source of pleasure and security, stemming from the experience of blissful merger. The stranger threatens to undercut and interrupt that merger. This usually provokes in the infant an immediate focusing of attention, reorganisation, mobilisation of forces, and readiness to face danger — in brief, an arousal and anxiety response. The extent to which the arousal gives rise to curiosity and exploration — as against anxiety, apprehension, and projection— is probably co-determined by a number of factors. It may well be related to the mother-child dyadic capacity for establishing and tolerating transitional space and .

This capacity, in turn, may have to do with the extent to which dyadic interaction is characterised by a “goodness of fit,” in which both parties are capable of affective attunement (Stern, 1985) and synchronisation of their experiential modalities (Erlich and Blatt, 1985). The extent to which the strangers appearance arouses anxiety is especially related to the degree of dyadically experienced security about Being-relatedness (Erlich, 1990), i.e., the experience of merger and union. Where this is shaky, the infant is more prone to mobilise into a Doing-mode, in which preparatory anxiety responses are augmented. The anxiety response to the stranger is universal.

Enlarging on this, we may say that the stranger is the prototype of the internal psychic enemy that becomes a social reality. His threat is the very archaic threat to destroy our peace, to snatch us out of the calmness that comes through Being — the merger with another in the experience of simply being alive. Historically and currently, there is always great readiness to project onto the stranger this role of the enemy, the “destroyer of the peace.” But who is this stranger?

The stranger I am talking about is not a distant and unknown entity. He lives close by, almost within society, yet is not fully a part of it. He occupies a “boundary position,” like the leader in the group and the analyst in the psychoanalytic situation. Taking up the boundary position makes all of them natural targets for the projection of hatred and enmity. We see here the confluence of the enemy as a boundary creature and the other-stranger as both a stimulator and an object of enmity. Such fence-straddling otherness, close and familiar and yet also different and strange, was depicted by Volkan (1986) as “the best reservoir for our bad externalised parts. . . [so that they] would be located in things and people who resemble us or are at least familiar to us—such as neighbours”. At the same time, however, since “we do not wish to acknowledge on a conscious level that the enemy is like us,” there sets in “the narcissism of minor difference” —a ritualistic focus on and enlargement of minor signs and distinctions in order to help differentiate between oneself and the “enemy-other.” This dual role of the other-stranger also plays an important part in the course of , where stranger-anxiety gradually turns into recognition of the other’s separate and independent existence. This recognition is an important basis for the and maintenance of mature object relations (Sandler, 1977). It has, however, an additional facet. The anxiety in the face of the stranger-enemy is a primary, almost reflexive reminder of the limitations and liabilities of the self. In this sense it provides a necessary condition for realistic self-definition. Paradoxically, then, the anxiety stirred up in relation to the stranger-enemy provides a catalyst for the process of self-definition. To paraphrase, if there were no enemy, we would have had to invent him.

©Ashoka Jahnvi Prasad

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Also see other parts of this Cover Story:

Understanding Human Antagonism: A Psychoanalytical Perspective – III


Understanding Human Antagonism: A Psychoanalytical Perspective – I

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the 'most educationally qualified in the '.
Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad