Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The ocean swell and the wave

leave a comment »

“A group impresses the individual as being an unlimited power and an insurmountable peril,” Sigmund Freud writes in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, which was published in 1921. After this apparently paradoxical statement, he continues:

For the moment [the subgroup] replaces the whole of human society, which is the wielder of authority, whose punishments the individual fears, and for whose sake he has submitted to so many inhibitions. It is clearly perilous for him to put himself in opposition to it, and it will be safer to follow the example of those around him and perhaps even “hunt with the pack.” In obedience to the new authority he may put his former “conscience” out of action, and so surrender to the attraction of the increased pleasure that is certainly obtained from the removal of inhibitions. On the whole, therefore, it is not so remarkable that we should see an individual in a group doing or approving things which he would have avoided in the normal conditions of life.

As Peter Gay reminds us in his valuable book Freud for Historians, this was hardly a novel insight: “Freud was by no means the first to note that collective bodies—a mob in action, an army in battle, a nation at war—yield to impulses that their members would normally control, probably disclaim, when they are not enjoying the embracing presence of likeminded believers around them.” And he goes on to note that these speculations became the particular object of study, “for highly visible political reasons,” starting around the middle of the nineteenth century.

It seems safe to say that we’re entering a period in which such questions will soon be pondered again at length, and for equally visible reasons. But it’s worth considering what Freud in particular says about the subject, precisely because his perspective has been so unfashionable for so long. As Gay observes in a book that first came out more than thirty years ago: “The last traces of Freud’s notions about the ‘racial’ mind or inherited collective psychological dispositions have been weeded out by his successors as redundant, almost embarrassing reminders of nineteenth-century scientific superstitions about a ‘group’ soul.” But just as with almost everything else that Freud wrote, his most dated speculations are studded with moments of blinding insight. For instance, he draws an important distinction between two kinds of groups:

A number of very different structures have probably been merged under the term “group” and may require to be distinguished…[Some are] groups of a short-lived character, which some passing interest has hastily agglomerated out of various sorts of individuals. The characteristics of revolutionary groups, and especially those of the great French Revolution, have unmistakably influenced [such] descriptions. The opposite opinions owe their origin to the consideration of those stable groups or associations in which mankind pass their lives, and which are embodied in the institutions of society. Groups of the first kind stand in the same sort of relation to those of the second as a high but choppy sea to a ground swell.

Disruptive social movements, in other words, ride on the back of more established organizations—the church, the military, the marketplace—that already exist, and which in most cases will continue long after the most tumultuous waves have vanished. And few of the violent, destructive, even libidinal forces that can disrupt a society could take shape if such support structures weren’t there to facilitate the process.

And Freud’s great insight is that while these institutions may look rational and orderly on the outside, they also provide a framework that allows for irrational behavior, as soon as enough individuals are willing to surrender most of the qualities that prevent him from joining the herd. Freud writes: “An individual in a group is subjected through its influence to what is often a profound alteration in his mental activity. His liability to affect becomes extraordinarily intensified, while his intellectual ability is markedly reduced, both processes being evidently in the direction of an approximation to the other individuals in the group; and this result can only be reached by the removal of those inhibitions upon his instincts which are peculiar to each individual, and by his resigning those expressions of his inclinations which are especially his own.” The italics are mine. A group becomes most effective when its members transform themselves into approximations of one another, defined by a shared set of rules, which means giving up all the inhibitions and inclinations that we’ve built up to set ourselves apart. This can be exhilarating in the moment, but the aftermath is often devastating, as Gay notes:

Hunting with the pack provides the kind of pleasure that such surrender of inhibitions usually gives; it generates a feeling of safety and skirts the danger of placing oneself into opposition to the powerful. Freud saw this abandonment of adult controls and perspectives as a luxuriant saturnalia of regression. But, for all its seductive pleasures, such an affect-laden moral holiday is rarely destined to be permanent. After prolonged reverses or in moments of panic, the libidinal ties holding the crowd together can weaken and the group may then splinter and disintegrate.

In the meantime, Gay writes, we can postpone this moment of disintegration using “two sets of unconscious identifications” that provide us with the energy that we’ve given up as individuals: “The members of the group identify with one another and, collectively, with the leader.”

This certainly sounds familiar today, at a time when the waves on the surface have grown so violent that it can be hard to make out anything deeper. (One of the first signs is the emergence of indefensible moral positions among those who would police the morality or patriotism of others, who can become shockingly willing to abandon their fundamental values for the sake of winning the fight of the moment. They see only the storm, not the sea. And another sign is the sudden, inexplicable capitulation of men and women who have defined themselves in the past as mavericks.) And perhaps the most useful insight that we can take from Freud is the close connection between anxiety and policy, each of which feeds off the energy of the other. “The pursuit of rational self-interest has its non-rational components,” Gay dryly notes, illustrating his point with the three-franchise electoral system that was enacted in Prussia in the nineteenth century, which allocated political representation based on the amount of taxes paid. It resulted in what one historian describes as “an outright plutocratic system” that concentrated power in the upper classes, but as Gay notes, it wasn’t just a matter of cold calculation:

This bit of electoral chicanery elevated into a constitutional principle was, at the same time, an astute defensive device. Sensitive to possible threats from self-confident middle-class citizens and the slowly awakening political awareness of the urban working classes, sensitive to intimations of democracy abroad and of revolution at home, the authors of the three-class electoral law helped to exorcise the anxieties of rich and influential Prussians. It will not do to simply dismiss this political stratagem as a cynical, wholly conscious defense of cherished privileges. A way of life, of traditional, once secure domestic and social pleasure, seemed at stake.

And at a time when the surface wave threatens to destroy everything in its path, Gay ends with a warning to historians that applies equally well to the rest of us: “To neglect the policy by concentrating on the anxiety is to reduce history, unduly, to a mere psychodrama; to neglect the anxiety by concentrating on the policy—which is far more likely to happen to historians—is to flatten, unduly, one’s perception of the past.” Or the present.

Written by nevalalee

October 1, 2018 at 9:19 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: