Towards a psychology of war

Women may participate in war, but in our social imaginary, war is still man’s business. The few women who fight have not undone the dominant symbolic association of passive receptivity with femininity or of masculinity with domination.

Stan Goff
23 November 2014
Female PKK soldier near the Turkish border. Demotix/Eddie Gerald. All rights reserved.

Female PKK soldier near the Turkish border. Demotix/Eddie Gerald. All rights reserved.Psychology as an academic discipline in the modern research university tends toward ‘intrapsychic’ formulations, that is, study of the subject as if he or she were isolated in a laboratory.  Sigmund Freud himself was a Hobbesian, committed to the belief that society was a war of all against all.  His aim was to discover how this self-serving, feral beast could be tamed and incorporated into a more pacific body politic.

In the Hobbesian and Freudian scheme, a Leviathan was necessary: the sovereign state, which secured peace against human predispositions.  Human nature was, like nature itself, a dangerous and chaotic force, calling for domestication and ‘civilization’.  Freud interiorized this drama for individuals as a set of competing psychic phantoms: instinctual drive, ego, and superego.  The instinctual drive was ‘the wolf’, the animal appetites.  The ego was the I­-ness, the enclosed sense of self that appeared after Descartes, which bargained between the instinctual drives and the superego.  The superego was the conscience, that interiorized cop, the ‘forum internum’ that the church had invented for its members in the thirteenth century to make them self­-policing citizens of the ‘societas perfecta’.

“Men are not gentle, friendly creatures,” wrote Freud, “wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but…a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment...Homo homini lupus.”

Jessica Benjamin criticizes Freud’s model of psychic life as fundamentally asocial, between a subject and objects.  Her approach is between subjects and subjects.  Benjamin’s ‘intersubjective’ approach assumes that each person inevitably develops within social relations.  Benjamin is concerned with the problem of domination, and she identifies gender as the key terrain, especially during childhood development, for the exploration of domination.

The term ‘aggression’ is commonly used in intrapsychic psychology, as an internal drive.  ‘Domination’ assumes a relation.  Benjamin believes that gender is almost always associated with the ways in which domination emerges in our culture.  This is especially true about war.

Warfare is gendered. There is no doubt that women have committed violent acts.  Nor is there any doubt that women can participate and have participated in armed combat, but this is a vulgar argument against the gendered-ness of war.

Sex and power

Gender is a system that, among other things, divides power between men and women.  ‘Masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are symbolically attached to sexual dimorphism, but not identical with it.  Various cultures give rise to variable conceptions of masculinity and femininity, so it is possible to use the plural: masculinities and femininities.  Yet, while masculinities and femininities have multiplied over time and space, one transhistorical phenomenon has always been gendered ‘masculine’, and that is war.

Women may participate in war, but in our social imaginary, war is still man’s business. Women may fight, but fighting is still considered a ‘masculine’ virtue.  The few women who fight have not undone the dominant symbolic association of passive receptivity with femininity or of masculinity with domination.

We all know what is meant when someone says, “I'm going to make you my bitch.”  This language associates submission with women and ‘masculine’ sex with hostility, an association that serves as an artesian spring of misogyny.

“The point of departure,” writes Benjamin in The Bonds of Love, “is…that woman functions as man’s primary other, his opposite – playing nature to his reason, immanence to his transcendence, primordial oneness to his individuated separateness, and object to his subject…gender polarity underlies such familiar dualisms as autonomy and dependency, and thus establishes the coordinates for the position of master and slave.”

Recognition and submission

Human beings need ‘recognition’: in Benjamin this is akin to validation or love. We need other people to be recognized by them as well as to grant recognition.  Recognition is mutual.  Both of us need to do it at once.  For you to recognize me, I need to acknowledge you as a subject like myself, and vice versa, for mutuality to happen.  Research with mothers and infants shows that this mutuality begins very early.  The child is not merely an appetite aimed at a breast.  Child and mother recognize one another.  They take pleasure in one another’s presence.  In mutuality, psychic boundaries are permeable.

Mutuality is simultaneously vulnerability and self­-assertion in tension with one another.  When that tension is broken by the polarization of self­-assertion, mutuality gives itself over to a power struggle.  “[T]he inability to sustain paradox,” says Benjamin, “convert[s] the exchange of recognition into domination and submission.”  Referring to Hegel, Benjamin summarizes this paradox as “the simultaneous need for the independence and dependence of the self­-conscious.”  In Hegel, this is a struggle to the death that leads to a master-slave relation, because in Hegel, as in Freud and Hobbes, mutuality is foreclosed by a view of the person as pure self-assertion.  (In all three, this person is male.)

Part of the ‘tension’ in Benjamin’s thesis is the fact that the other person is held in my mind in a way that never completely accords with the other person’s own experience of existence. In a sense, the other person must continually be ‘destroyed’ in my mind then observed to have survived that destruction in order for me to reassure myself of her existence, an existence that makes recognition possible.  Her independence is necessary for her to recognize me, subject to subject.  Yet I know that she is independent by challenging her independence through my own self­-assertion.

When this dynamic involves a ready state of forgiving invitation, power is negotiable. When one has to prevail and one submit, the domination-­submission dynamic replaces mutuality.  The submissive desires revenge. The dominator loses recognition, because his objectification of the other out of a desire for omnipotence has erased the subjectivity necessary for mutual recognition.

If one asserts her will, however, ‘destroying’ the other in her mind, and the other survives without becoming combative, without pitting the two persons against one another, then rapprochement is possible. Serial experiences of rapprochement lead to ‘attunement’, and the earliest experiences of attunement, usually between mother and child, are bound to the development and experience of the erotic – a psychosomatic sense of deep attachment, not simply sexual feeling, and an experience of oneness – a permeability of boundaries.

Masculinity is indoctrinated – especially in its martial forms – as a highly policed psychic boundary, one which – like a military perimeter – is fortified against all vulnerability.

Masculinity constructed as domination eroticizes violence.  The tragic paradox is that women in a society where masculinity is constructed as domination are indoctrinated to find dominance in men sexually attractive, which makes Benjamin’s study of the domination-submission dynamic, as opposed to simply domination, so important.  Yet men, too, are imbricated into this polarized structure.  In war, where domination masculinity is given its freest reign, there is an extreme submission to authority, a fear and adoration of dominant figures. This might be anything from an admired infantry squad leader to the Fuhrer.

Origin myths

In Freud, the origins of domination are understood as an imaginary oedipal conflict. The son overthrows the father, but the son’s fear of the lawlessness of his own son compels him to replicate the repressions of the father. This was the basis, according to Freud (and of Hegel and Hobbes, without specific references to Oedipus), of civilization. Freud rightly introduced the idea that early precognitive experience influences the rest of our lives, but his specific account of that experience was European, bourgeois, and male.

“Analyzing the oedipal model in Freud’s original formulations and in the work of later psychoanalysts,” Benjamin explains, “we find the common thread: the idea of the father as protector, or even savior, from a mother who would pull us back into the ‘limitless narcissism’ of infancy.”  Freud was an enabler of domination-masculinity.  His intraspychic approach could not penetrate the cultural origin of masculinity wherein boys, who are indoctrinated into the idea that dependency is a threat to their selfhood as a male, will turn against all women as a deleterious influence. They will close the border.

“Why is the border closed between the genders?” asks Benjamin. “Feminist theory concludes that the derogation of the female side of the polarity leads to a hardening of the opposition between male and female individuality as they are now constructed.”  The search for recognition is transformed into a struggle for omnipotence, understood as a flight from dependency, not by the intrapsychic drama, but by the cultural constructions of masculinity.  Because boys generally form their first and deepest attachment to their mothers, this is a painful process of separation which can contribute to deep confusion, as well as resentment towards and irrational desire for revenge against women. You make me dependent! You threaten my boundaries with feminine vulnerability!

A society dedicated to war will promote a form of masculinity that celebrates violence.  But as Benjamin shows, the predisposition for the domination that violence accomplishes originates as “the derogation of the female side of the polarity leads to a hardening of the opposition between male and female.”

“Power,” says Nancy Hartsock, “irreducibly involves questions of eros.” The association between eros, hostility, and domination, learned during a man’s earliest formative years, is not incidental to domination in the other spheres of life.  It is vital for the reproduction of conquest­-masculinity; and the normalization of conquest­-masculinity is vital for a society organized by war.

“To the extent that either sexual relations or other relations are structured by a dynamic of domination/submission,” says Benjamin, “the others as well will operate along these dimensions, and in consequence, the community as a whole will be structured by domination.”

Benjamin unmasks the gendered “genesis of the psychic structure in which one person plays subject and the other must serve as object.” The invulnerable male is a fighting male. And in militaristic societies, the ultimate proof of masculinity is against enemies in war.

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