Understanding Human Antagonism: A Psychoanalytical Perspective – III

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Understanding of the concept of enemy presents us with numerous paradoxes. An enemy at one and the same time partakes of so many opposites: internal and external reality, preoedipal and oedipal, other stranger and known-familiar, a part of us and yet not. These seeming contradictions and paradoxes lead to the understanding that Ashoka suggests, namely that “enemy” is a boundary concept, or a transitional entity, which occupies an exceedingly important intrapsychic position and social role where so many human attributes and come together, where so many polar dimensions and entities actually meet. To understand what an enemy is, is to understand what is essentially human. Here’s the third and final part of an in-depth research on enemy and enmity exclusively for Different Truths.

Is it possible to find ways of talking and communicating with an enemy? I should like to finish with an attempt, almost certainly frustratingly partial and insufficient, to draw some tentative conclusions from what has been surveyed so far. After analysing the wish of nations to obtain their interests and passions, in his “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” Freud (1915) poses the following dilemma: “It is, to be sure, a mystery why the collective inpiduals should in fact despise, hate and detest one another — every nation against every other—and even in times of peace. I cannot tell why that is so. It is just as though when it becomes a question of a number of people, not to say millions, all inpidual moral acquisitions are obliterated, and only the most primitive, the oldest, the crudest mental attitudes are left”. Freud finishes on a sober note, with an appeal for greater honesty and openness in relationships among people, and mainly with the authorities, which he expects will lead toward a turning point. I believe that this hope is no longer so simplistically held and shared by all of us. It has been the bitter lesson of this century to come to distrust authority and to come to know its irrational and dangerous sides. Indeed, even the psychoanalytic establishment has not escaped criticism for its monolithic stance and what is perceived as the authoritarian nature of its inner political structure.

Freud feels that it is the inpidual who can be approached and understood, while it is the group, and particularly the large group, that makes human behaviour so primitive and irrational. Some advances have taken place in our understanding since Freud’s lines were written at the time of the First World War. I suggest that enmity is indeed an inherent part of the inpidual human psyche; but enmity is also on the boundary between internal and external reality. It takes on its familiar meaning and shape as a social phenomenon when we meet and work with it at the group, system, and organisational levels. These levels, therefore, can no longer be ignored by psychoanalytic thinking. This brings us back briefly to the dynamics of the large group. From all we know about these processes, even under the relatively controlled conditions of a working conference and with the participation of consultants, there can be only one conclusion: Large-group processes, with their fluctuations, regressions, and fragmentations, are highly lawful and regular. This is so even when the participants have had the benefit of previous experience and impressive educational and cultural achievements.

Therefore, if our aim is rational, enlightened political activity, large- group settings and events must be avoided and prevented as much as possible.

Revolutionary Upheavals

It has been recently demonstrated again that large masses of people can be instrumental in changing the political order. But it is equally true that such mass movements and revolutionary upheavals may go in many directions; they do not always lead to freedom and democracy. There were large crowds and mobs involved in so many revolutions—in France, Russia, Nazi Germany, China, and more recently in Eastern Europe. The phenomenon of mass uprising is intertwined with popular visions of democracy; it provides, however, no assurances of the eventual outcome nor any protection against the danger of being manipulated by sinister powers to their own ends.

Wherever possible, and especially where negotiations take place, small groups should be preferred to large groups. This may well be true also for gatherings that are not manifestly (yet are implicitly) political, such as symposia and conventions. Negotiations between enemy parties to a conflict need not only the small-group format, however. They also require the clarity and firmness of boundaries that guard against premature exposure, which threatens to throw the process back into the large group.

The small-group format in itself is, however, no guarantee for dialogue. Indeed, the need for dialogue is often glibly and unthinkingly advanced. Our own professional and personal biases (I am speaking as a psychoanalyst) are intertwined here in ways that may produce complications or even fallacies. We are trained in dialogue, and our deep in and commitment to discourse and discussion may sometimes border on a magical in the power of words. We tend to forget the tremendous importance of the psychoanalytic setting, with its combination of strict boundaries and openendedness, in enabling, shaping, and contributing to the creation of dialogue, and then only after expending much time and tremendous efforts. Having witnessed attempts at dialogue with “labelled enemies” in professional group settings, I have been amazed at the degree and speed with which such sessions can become confrontational and coercive. Dialogue is based on the ability to recognise and respect the other’s essential and rightful difference; this is diametrically opposed to regarding him or her as an enemy. We may be able to extend ourselves and even accord dialogic consideration to an opponent or an .

It is much more difficult to do this with a declared enemy, whose very designation as such immediately places him or her beyond the dialogic pale. These dialogic considerations are related to the differentiation made above between preoedipal and oedipal enemies. The distinction between these two enemies was seen to be a function of the developmental levels at which they are encountered, whether the encounter is primary and takes place in childhood, or a later, adult-life derivative. These differences account for an enemy with whom we can and do have discourse, as against one with whom we cannot and do not. A closer look into this differentiation reveals, however, that the different levels at which we experience our oedipal enemy are not confined to the mere verbality of the exchange, but extends to the wider implications and connotations of words and symbols.

Symbol formation is often approached from the vantage point of either the intrapsychic, emotional, and cognitive development that enables it, or the extra-inpidual, cultural framework that contains and transmits these symbols as cultural artifacts and into which the inpidual is induced. The area in which cultural symbols are created and used is, however, better conceived as a “third” area, which is, in Winnicott’s (1971) sense, the area of shared experience that gives rise to play and creativity. This third area, which is indeed where culture comes into being, is the transitional space that envelops the mother-child dyad just as it is being created by them.

Situated between the inner world and the external one, between subjective objects and

realities and objective ones, it provides an experiential bridge that allows both sides to become alive, to be experienced as psychologically real and viable. This is also, however, the juncture where the oedipal constellation comes together with the notion of transitional space: both are founded on experience, recognition, and encounter with a “third” entity. Oedipal development requires, above all else, the capacity for recognition of a third, another whose existence is on the boundary of the earlier established dyadic oneness and mutuality.

Recognition of Other-stranger

Recognition of the other-stranger can be the source of anxiety and apprehension, in which the stranger is the enemy. If, however, the other, or the “third,” is experienced as being created and coming to life on this boundary, occupying a space and sharing a frame that partakes of the communality of the dyad, he will be related to positively, as an object of curiosity and exploration.

How does this come about? It seems that the dyadically created transitional space is able to accommodate a “third,” which is experienced as an intrinsic part of it, when he or she shares and participates in the framework that enables the transitional space in the first place — a frame of creative illusion and shared symbols. The accommodation of the “third” is, therefore, greatly assisted and transacted by symbols of various kinds.

Symbols, by their very nature, are experienced as such a “third”—a semiotic frame that is neither entirely of the self, nor of the mother-environment, but that exists both separately and yet together with the united and merged self-object dyad. Thus symbols—words and language, sounds and gestures, bodily expressions and cultural artifacts—are all part of the wider framework we call culture, of a “third world,” encompassing self and other and lending experience its special form, content, and means for further developmental transmutation. It is in this sense that we can have discourse with an oedipal enemy: We share with him not merely a language, but the comforting and enabling experience of the shared frame created out of common language and cultural symbols. Although to the observer this may appear to be a discourse between two sides, in actuality it takes place between two, who are aware of their common “third leg”— the wider framework they share and adhere to, and even invest with authority. We may thus claim that oedipal experience has its roots in much earlier developmental periods, in which the “third,” or other, though not yet a real partner, nevertheless exists as a potential presence on the boundary of shared experience, where such potential transitional phenomena are created.

Preoedipal development, in this sense, refers to an absence of or disability in having this creative experience, and being doomed to a mere “two-person” existence, and therefore to splitting and projection, and to having enemies with whom one cannot share anything, let alone have a discourse. The actual importance of the third in preventing movement toward splitting may be observed in small groups, where the presence of a consultant who takes up the role of such a third contributes significantly to the management of projections that lead to breakdown of discourse.

Political Negotiations

The centrality of the role of the third in political negotiations between enemy parties—transforming preoedipal, nontalking enemies into oedipal enemies capable of discourse—is vividly illustrated by the part played by the United States in the peace talks between Israel and its Arab neighbours, which reaches far beyond that of an arbiter or  courier. It is striking that in all of the White House peace , beginning with the Camp David Accords and down to the latest declarations of peace with the PLO and Jordan, the pictorial image is always a triadic one, in which the presence of the president of the United States provides the significant third side of the triangle that enables the Israeli and Arab leaders to shake hands. It is unrealistic to make prescriptions for advancing societies from one developmental level to another. Such complex movement takes place and is measurable only over protracted historical time units.

One wonders, however, whether in the shrinking universal village of our times changes may be induced that might contribute to the creation of common, cross-cultural semiotic and symbolic frames of reference, which could in turn foster a sense of shared actual frames of reference. The development of common languages, symbolic systems, and cultural heritage can contribute much to the alleviation of unresolved enmities.

Modern technology and communication media have already gone a long way toward creating certain collective cultural vistas. Perhaps more could be done. However, this is in no way a utopian dream of messianic peace and millennium. It is merely a step, of limited potential, toward turning preoedipal into oedipal enemies. If it is true, as Volkan says, that “our current  of human nature tells us that enemies are here to stay”, then perhaps the best we can hope for is to change the enemy from his preoedipal position of total badness and evil to the oedipal level of rivalry and competitiveness coupled with love and affection, and thus from the enemy to whom we do not talk to the enemy with whom we can and do talk.

The current peace talks between Israel and the Arabs provide an example of how actual contact contributes to the reduction of strangeness and projections. Yet contact will probably produce new and unforeseen difficulties and in itself is no guarantee of the disappearance of enmity and the triumph of reason and peace. Many other factors interact with and activate the psychological ones.

Siblings who become enemies over piding an inheritance are not strangers, but the loss suddenly revives old anxieties of shortage, lack of supplies, and fantasies that there may not be enough for all. We must be open to the entire range of realistic possibilities, including the emergence of new and insurmountable difficulties, as relationships with yesterday’s enemies develop and deepen.

It seems that the understanding of the concept of enemy presents us with numerous paradoxes. An enemy at one and the same time partakes of so many opposites: internal and external reality, preoedipal and oedipal, other stranger and known-familiar, a part of us and yet not. These seeming contradictions and paradoxes lead to the understanding I suggested here, namely that “enemy” is a boundary concept, or a transitional entity, which occupies an exceedingly important intrapsychic position and social role where so many human attributes and dilemmas come together, where so many polar dimensions and entities actually meet. To understand what an enemy is, is to understand what is essentially human.

Relatedness to the Enemy

In closing, let me address once again the issue of distance and lack of it in our relatedness to the enemy. As Volkan (1986) has noted, the enemy tends to be our neighbour, who is closer and more similar to us than we to admit, leading to narcissistic highlighting of minor differences in the service of differentiating ourselves from him. His closeness and similarity make the neighbour, however, a suitable target for externalisation and projection of the “bad” parts of ourselves in the first place.

Our ability to have discourse with an enemy is, therefore, related to the degree to which he can be defined clearly and is not too closely intertwined with our own self-definition. Distance, boundaries, and separateness make the task of discourse more manageable, though not necessarily more creative. Splitting, projective identification, identification with the aggressor, and similar regression-enhancing conditions make differentiation and inpiduation of ourselves and the enemy more difficult, rendering talking and discourse impossible. Perceiving the enemy as the preoedipal “other” leads to his dehumanisation and demonisation.

A more advanced, oedipal view of the enemy’s “otherness,” however, enhances the discourse. At the triangular-oedipal level of development, acceptance of the enemy’s “otherness” is a concession to his humanness, to his being a part and a member of the same widely shared entity—the “third” presence of human cultural existence. Such communality, however, also paradoxically allows for the differentiation and inpiduation of persons and groups; it alone can ensure creative conflict resolution instead of and destruction. Under suitable psychological and developmental conditions, “otherness” can provide a basis for novel and creative contact and intercourse replacing relatedness through fantasy alone, which can foster the wish to destroy and assimilate the enemy.

Truly creative discourse with the enemy can come only with our willingness to immerse ourselves in the “potential space” we both share, in which parts of the enemy and parts of ourselves are fused and intermingled. We may then be able to perceive, however briefly and fleetingly, the shared elements of our common . One of the most creative acts we may ever be capable of is experiencing our enemy as a part of ourselves, while also recognising his existence in his own right, as separate and distinct from us.

©Ashoka Jahnvi Prasad

Pix from Net.

Other parts of this story:

Understanding Human Antagonism: A Psychoanalytical Perspective – I


Understanding Human Antagonism: A Psychoanalytical Perspective – II

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Prof. 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 world'.
Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad