Talking about Gaza in Psychoanalysis
Politics is usually absent from explicit discourse in psychoanalysis. I say explicit, because obviously we all live in socio-political contexts that signify and structure our roles in any setting. There is a long history to the retreat of politics and political thought from the psychoanalytic clinic. But suffice it to say that, especially since psychoanalysis became a Central European refugee in the post WWII anti-socialist US, everyone has been careful. The allusion of scientism and the ideology of neutrality have been a good defense.
But days like these complicate the picture. Being a New York based Jewish-Israeli therapist with a sizable cohort of Jewish-Israeli patients, nowadays there is no avoiding discussing current events. My patients’ family and friends are living in varying degrees of alert and panic from flying rockets. Rockets that for the most part do not hit but are intercepted and loudly exploded above their heads. Soldiers that might be one’s brother or cousin or nephew are killed and wounded. There is new vehemence to the public discussion in Israel which everyone follows, and obvious manipulation by the government. And there is constant exposure to the carnage inflicted by Israel on Gaza. Destroyed neigbourhoods and lives and immense suffering are on everyone’s mind and conscience. No one can keep away. People are relentlessly engaged and deeply troubled. They feel scared and angry and guilty and ashamed. At the same time they are often isolated in environments that are either ignorant of the events or avoidant. They want to talk about what’s going on, to figure out how they feel and where they stand. Some of them have an urge to go there. Some feel Israel is slipping away as a place of attachment and belonging. They are anxious to imagine solutions. Most of all, they want to not be alone when all of this is happening. And they need me to be present in many ways, including as s trusted compatriot with an opinion. I do have my very strong feelings and opinions. But what is the place of it all in our analytic work?
I refuse to treat such concerns as only grist for the mill of a purely psychological interaction. To consider talking about war, our war, a matter for psychological exploration should be a part of what we do. But it would be oblivious and unethical to end there. When people speak about the reality and politics of a war in which they are intimately implicated, they are not only enacting personal dramas, although they invariably do. They are also wondering, sometimes desperately, how one aught to live in this world as one of many, as a social, ethical being with collective identities. Life is singular and social. Subjectivity is made in intimacy and in public. When we talk about the war we talk about personal experiences, about identifications with victims and perpetrators, about the conflicts of power and fear and empathy and shame that are already part of one’s being as a subject. For my Israeli patients there are always also formative memories. Fathers absent for months while enlisted in conflicts, like those of 67 and 73, the fear and worry and excitement of a child exposed to such circumstances, and often one’s own army service with its dilemmas, and excess and danger. Deep and sometimes dissociated traumatic conundrums come to life again.
But when we talk about the war, we are also talking about belonging and alienation, about conforming and resisting, about our place in a collective that has its own history and conflicts, and anxieties and madness. There is not a single Israeli I know who does not feel implicated and accountable for what’s going on in Israel and Gaza these days, in both the personal and political sense. There is a set of collective identifications, and a complicated feeling of collective responsibility, and an urgent need to make sense and explain. There is, in other words, sharp awareness that one is a political being, that the very meaning and feeling one has of himself, that one’s very existence, take place in a social-political universe. And this universe is undergoing a violent upheaval. We should be able to address this register of human experience in our work.
But if psychoanalysis has had some good 100 years developing ways to think about the traditionally “psychological,” we have nearly nothing with which to address the experience and ethics of life in the sometimes routine, sometimes exploding social-political register. How to explore, what to share, when, if ever, to take a stand? In other words, what is the knowledge or insight one aims for, and what is the ethics one stands for as a psychoanalyst?
It has been my conclusion that if I want to address the questions of the political in psychoanalysis, I need to move beyond psychoanalysis. To engage critical theories that attempt an account for the link between subjectivity and the social. To apply social thinking to my effort to understand the conscious and unconscious dilemmas that impel and oppress what appears, what perhaps masks, as purely subjective. Psychoanalysis’ most basic premise is that people are helped by making the unconscious conscious, recognizing and dispelling certain kinds of apparent givens, creating new potentials for signification and agency. And so, in this context, my concern for knowledge is a concern vis-a-vis what might be construed, implicitly or explicitly, as the socially unconscious. Or looked at from another angle, ideology. In the context of war, of our war, the historical and current work of ideology is so brutally apparent, that it is actually not difficult to see and talk about. Every singular perception, every singular experience, is built around a massively ingrained and perpetuated collective narrative. What “they” want, what “we” want, what “they” are doing to “us,” what “we” don’t want to but must do to “them.” The government pronounces, the media bombards, family and friends rehearse; competing traumatic histories and pleas for historical justice.
There are variance and nuances, but when it comes to people’s sense of “we,” there is an inherent need of and therefore surrender to collectively, politically and ideologically generated narratives. In some ways, vis-a-vis the collective and its circumstances, it is as if people remain eternal children, in need of parental guidance in a confusing and dangerous world. For this reason, despite the apparent ease of recognizing collective ideology and manipulation, it has been my experience that questioning collective identifications is often harder, more troubling, than doing so in the context of one’s relations with one’s family. I have written elsewhere that collective identity seems sometimes as fundamental and as complicated as gender or sexual identity. It is no accident that the violence of the public discourse in Israel these days ties together loyalty and sexuality, that women protesting the militant mainstream are threatened with rape, that men who lean too far to the left are called treasonous homos, that on a radical right-wing Facebook page a woman offered rewarding soldiers on leave with sex (she apologized it could be only up to 10 a day). To challenge a patient to become critical of the collective narratives around which his identity is organized, and which on days like these amplify and harden into a shield, is akin to asking him to become politically queer. It is doubly difficult since the cost is deeply felt and the gain is unclear. The rationale for trying in such direction is also unclear. After all, it is not my role to unsettle what makes my patients feel secure.
But the people I see, none of them actually feels secure. The war is exploding the discontents of our civilized living. There is a great deal of confusion. Identifications that are usually stable or shifting in slow motion are rattled, become uncertain, emotionally urgent. There is attachment to old truths, but also a need and a will to question. There is a paradoxical reach for both the rehearsed and the new. And so we talk about “us” and “them,” about the collective narratives that infuse and constrain our existence, about the fear and confusion and anger and shame, and it helps. It helps to open up and make sense of what seems unavoidably tragic in the present. It helps, I believe, in the long run, in giving us all a sense of greater freedom and greater responsibility vis-a-vis life’s hard choices. In times like this the fact that the personal is political is painfully evident. The psychoanalysis we do these days involves talking about the rockets and the tunnels, about the finances of Hamas and the tactics of the Israeli army, about the cynical positions of the US and the EU and the Arab world. We talk about the destruction, so much destruction, and so many dead and wounded people. We talk about collective fear and collective trauma, and collective loss and collective ambition. There is immense helplessness in the face of overwhelming historical forces and criminal politics and miserable, lost people everywhere. You and I, us and them. Who and what do we feel for? Who and what do we reject? There is immense helplessness, but also resolution, chaos but also meaning. We are looking for a place from which to build our own sense of self, while still trapped facing history’s pile of debris as it keeps growing skyward. We appreciate the loss and the hope that arise when we disentangle from the oppressive truths that surround us. And we do it together, perhaps making up a new kind of together, with meaning in both the subjective and the political registers. This seems to me the right thing to do these days.