Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"I've seen things.... you humans wouldn't believe." (from Blade Runner)

Super-Panopticons & the Surveillant Assemblage

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (But who will watch the watchmen?)[i]

- Juvenal

Each time humanity explores new territory, encounters change, or makes a significant step forward in terms of technology, the questions fearfully and immediately arise: What will be the power structure? How will control be assured? Can instinctual impulses be contained? This would suggest a fear that powerful instinctual impulses will run amok in new and unfamiliar terrain – a frightening prospect that threatens a “return” to our primeval past. And now consider the notion that we are on the verge of “globalization,” with all of the limitless potential and uncertainty that this entails. Who will be at the top of the power hierarchy? Will China or India surpass the global dominance of the U.S?[i] What will this mean for the future?

Subsequent to 9/11, fear of terrorist attacks have swept the globe, leading to an emphasis on improved “intelligence” efforts. Such intelligence comes from a multitude of rhyzomatic networks of surveillance assisted by orbital panopticons (satellite surveillance) on high alert. Our drive for surveillance has most certainly followed us out into space, where we fear that unlimited consumption and satisfaction of needs will lead to a new brand of “cosmic narcissism.”[ii] By use of surveillance satellites, we have replaced God in the Heavens with an “eye in the sky.”[iii] For those requiring an angry, vengeful deity, they may be comforted by the presence of weapons poised at the ready in “Star Wars” satellite defense systems. In the future, the U.S. may suspend tungsten rods (hailed as “rods from God”) from satellites that can be dropped with pinpoint accuracy to destroy underground nuclear facilities.[iv] Thus, the pattern of sending forth various forms of super ego-like monitoring invariably usher in each new stage of human advancement. From Bentham’s Panopticon to today’s nanotechnology and planetary panopticons, we must carefully “supervise” each new step with a vigilant gaze.

As technology has advanced, it is becoming apparent that the observation will not be centralized as with Bentham’s panopticon, but will be decentralized and spread out diffusely through a variety of technologies. For example, nano-technology may provide various invisible tags embedded into clothing, radio frequency identity chips (RFIDs) and other means of surrounding ourselves with ambient intelligence.[i] This “nano-panopticism” would stretch the web of societal surveillance to new and undreamt of lengths. At some point, one must consider the bewildering implications of the convergence of all the various forms of surveillance technology, which may have the effect of producing a “surveillant assemblage” with the potential to reassemble information flow into virtual “data doubles” of the individual.[ii] Such data doubles can be effectively scrutinized and targeted for select purposes. One has only to purchase a book on Amazon.com to experience this reality. A return to the website will offer a list of recommended books, based on past purchases, which becomes ever more refined as more purchases are made. Thus, a “general tide of surveillance washes over us all,” and has the effect of “transforming” humans into “pure information” which is easier to manage.[iii]

Will it ultimately be the technology of surveillance that is responsible for societal morality as opposed to religion? Will “divine command theory” give way to soul training via surveillance? Consider a case (Kyllo v. U.S.) in which remote sensing techniques allowed law enforcement to detect cannabis growing in a defendant’s home.[iv] Already, the FBI and other forms of law enforcement tap into and commingle various independent, and often commercial databases. The Patriot Act has further enhanced law enforcement authority to procure private, commercial data. Advancing surveillance technology has led to a “disappearance of disappearance,” in which it is increasingly impossible to maintain anonymity and escape monitoring.[v] Financial institutions now monitor and report “suspicious transactions.” Indeed, this data source was the very undoing of former NY Governor Eliot Spitzer, whose own bank was required to report his “suspicious financial activity” to the IRS.[vi] At least it would seem that with this new brand of surveillance-enforced morality, leaders and others at the top of the hierarchy are not exempt – as long as they too are being watched.

In forensic psychiatry, I have been introduced to the power of surveillance technology in its many forms. There is a forensic principle which states, “Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him…”[vii] In effect, the criminal cannot commit a crime without either leaving a piece of himself, or taking a piece of the crime scene with him. As surveillance technology advances, this “exchange principle” only gains in its momentum. Criminal suspects are frequently caught by simply following the trail of their credit purchases. I now receive reams of archived text messages, forever retrievable, sent by a criminal defendant around the time of the alleged offense. Surveillance cameras posted in stores and city streets capture the exact date, time and movements of a suspect. Insurance companies regularly hire private detectives to surreptitiously video plaintiffs alleging disabilities.

Of course not every advancement in surveillance technology will seem immediately problematic, and many will appear quite helpful. Planetary panopticons powered by supercomputers will be able to provide more accurate and timely warnings about natural disasters or global warming.[viii] We will be able to monitor our home planet in a more “protective” and altruistic manner. Yet there will certainly be concern that the evolving surveillance technology may be used in unanticipated ways that present serious privacy issues. Indeed, the very notion and boundaries of privacy will, of necessity, evolve. We have already born witness to this with the Internet, as well as patient confidentiality in medicine. Such advances may have the effect of limiting one’s “moral autonomy,” and compromising one’s freedom to present her own self-selected “moral identity.”[ix] Thus, privacy concerns may shift from constraining information flow, to the design and use of continuous surveillance technology.

[i] Juvenal: Satire VI. Loeb Classical Library edition translated by G.G. Ramsay. At: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/juvenal-satvi.html (accessed: 5/13/08).
[i] Buruma I: After America: Is the West being overtaken by the rest? The New Yorker. April 21, 2008, pps. 126-130.
[ii] Dickens P, Ormrod J: Outer Space and Internal Nature: Towards a Sociology of the Universe. Sociology, 2007; 41(4): 609-626.
[iii] Weiner T: Pentagon Envisioning a Costly Internet for War. New York Times, November 13, 2004.
[iv] Shainin J: Rods From God. New York Times, December 10, 2006.

[i] Van Den Hoven J, Vermaas P: Nano-Technology and Privacy: On Continuous Surveillance Outside the Panopticon. J Medicine and Phil, 2007; 32: 283-297.
[ii] Haggerty K, Ericson R: The surveillant assemblage. Br Journ Sociology, 2000; 51(4): 605-622.
[iii] Haggerty K, Ericson R: The surveillant assemblage. Br Journ Sociology, 2000; 51(4): 605-622.
[iv] Kyllo v. U. S., 533 US 27 (2001)
[v] Haggerty K, Ericson R: The surveillant assemblage. Br Journ Sociology, 2000; 51(4): 605-622.
[vi] Ross B: It wasn’t the sex: Suspicous $$ transfers led to Spitzer. ABC News. March 10, 2008. At: http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/story?id=4424507&page=1 Accessed: 5/17/2008
[vii] Locard’s Exchange Principle. Professor Edmond Locard
[viii] Butler D: The Planetary Panopticon. Nature, 2007; 450(6): 778-780.
[ix] Van Den Hoven J, Vermaas P: Nano-Technology and Privacy: On Continuous Surveillance Outside the Panopticon. J Medicine and Phil, 2007; 32: 283-297.

Gaze Symbology

It is, in fact, the eye which allows for the greatest extension of man’s conscious awareness. With it, he could contemplate the various constellations, and more recently, the physical nature of the universe. Reaching back some 5, 000 years, the symbology of the eye can be found in the Egyptian myth of the Horus-Osiris cycle, where the “eye of Horus” was a ubiquitous talisman of great significance. This myth of death and “rebirth” helped sustain the rule of the Pharaohs for some 3, 000 years, and is believed to have inspired the construction of the great pyramids.

Therefore, we will not be surprised that this myth can be described as a metaphor for the ancient struggle to master death, transcend separation, and master the dangerous aspects of human nature.[i] It has been noted that the word for the eye of Horus – Wedjat – is considered feminine, and eye contact has also been linked to the theme of separation – individuation and object constancy.[ii] (See figure 3) Thus, eye contact can be understood as instrumental for bonding with others. This may help explain an additional meaning (besides castration) of the Oedipus self-enucleation myth – Oedipus’ desire to renounce his capacity for bonding. The psychiatric literature reflects that ocular self-injury is fortunately rare, and often associated with command auditory hallucinations, severe psychosis, religious and sexually-related delusions.[iii], [iv] In addition to the hypothesis about symbolic castration, the eye may also represent a condensation of the entire self.[v] In this sense, self-enucleation may be considered a form of suicide by proxy.

[i] Whitehead C: The Horus-Osiris Cycle: A Psychoanalytic Investigation. Int Rev Psycho-anal, 1986; 13: 77-87.
[ii] Mahler M: The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant. New York: Basic Books, 1975.
[iii] Brown R, Al-Bachari M, Kambhampati K: Self-inflicted eye injuries. Br J Opthal, 1991; 75: 496-498.
[iv] Field H, Waldfogel S: Severe Ocular Self-Injury. Gen Hosp Psychiatry, 1995; 17: 224-227.
[v] Menninger K: Man Against Himself. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1938.

The Necessity of Gaze: Development, Comfort, Orientation

"Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children."

- William Makepeace Thackeray

“As one whom his mother comforts, so I (God) will comfort you”

- Isaiah 66:13

Recent neuroscience and psychological research focusing on the maternal-infant dyad has revealed important developmental changes, most of which occur during the infant’s first two years of life. These changes are critical to the infant’s healthy development and future mental health, and rely heavily on the mother’s attentive gaze. Research in this area has painted a picture of human infants as innate contingency detectors that rely on the mother to help order and process their environment.[i], [ii] The subtleties of maternal-infant interactions, many of which rely on eye contact, are believed to modulate critical functions such as the infant’s neuroendocrine responses, social orientation, and management of dysphoric affect.[iii], [iv], [v]

Infants as young as 3 and ½ months are able to recognize different emotional expressions, and show a distinct preference for the face and gaze of their own mother.[vi] It could be said that we come into the world with a predetermined gaze “hunger” which we require to orient and prepare ourselves for life on the planet. Though research in the area is still in the early stages, it is interesting to contrast developmental differences between sighted and congenitally blind children. These early studies have suggested that there may be a difference in terms of the congenitally blind children’s attribution of symbolic meanings during play therapy.[vii] In terms of social-relatedness, autistic-like social deficits have been described in congenitally blind children.[viii]

When the vital importance of the gaze and its functioning organ, the eye, are properly recognized, it is of little wonder that we find it given a prominent place mythology and symbology. Metaphors for the divine invariably use descriptions of “gazing upward.” Vertical gaze positions are invoked when people access divinity-related cognitions, and the opposite is true for Devil-like images.[ix] Thus, looking “up” connotes with power, while looking “down” suggests powerlessness.[x] Looking back over the millennia, the eye and ocular surface has frequently been used to symbolize Gods, emission of influence, and reception of knowledge.[xi] The “all seeing” eye of God may be likened to the scrutinizing super ego which transcends mortality.

[i] Fonagy P, Gergely G, Target M: The parent-infant dyad and the construction of the subjective self. J Child Psychol Psychiatry, 2007; 48(3-4):288-328
[ii] Joseph R: Environmental influences on neural plasticity, the limbic system, emotional development and attachment: a review. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev, 1999; 29(3):189-208.
[iii] Swain J, Lorberbaum J, Kose S, Strathearn L: Brain basis of early parent-infant interactions: psychology, physiology, and in vivo functional neuroimaging studies. J Child Psychol Psychiatry, 2007; 48(3-4):262-87
[iv]Feldman R: Parent-infant synchrony and the construction of shared timing; physiological precursors, developmental outcomes, and risk conditions. J Child Psychol Psychiatry, 2007; 48(3-4):329-54
[v] Feldman R, Eidelman A: Maternal postpartum behavior and the emergence of infant-mother and infant-father synchrony in preterm and full-term infants: the role of neonatal vagal tone. Dev Psychobiol, 2007; 49(3):290-302.
[vi] Kahana-Kalman R, Walker-Andrews A: The role of person familiarity in young infants' perception of emotional expressions. Child Dev, 2001; 72(2):352-69
[vii] Bishop M, Hobson R, Lee A: Symbolic play in congenitally blind children. Dev Psychopathol, 2005;17(2):447-65.
[viii] Hobson R, Bishop M: The pathogenesis of autism: insights from congenital blindness. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 2003; 358(1430):335-44
[ix] Meier B, Hauser D, Robinson M, Friesen C, Schjeldahl K: What’s “Up” With God? Vertical Space as a Representation of the Divine. J Pers and Social Psychol, 2007; 93(5): 699-710.
[x] Schubert T: Your highness: Vertical positions as perceptual symbols of power. J Pers and Social Psychol, 2005; 89: 1-21.
[xi] Murube J: The Ocular Surface and Its Symbolism. The Ocular Surface, 2007; 5(1): 6-12

Monday, January 26, 2009

Justice as Compromise Formation

“Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice.”

-H.L. Mencken (1880-1956)

“Nobody wants justice.”

-Alan Dershowitz

Justice refers to the proper or fair ordering of things and persons within a society. Another meaning involves conformity to truth, fact, or reason. In describing justice Socrates used an allegory about a ship:

"The unjust city is like a ship, crewed by a powerful but drunken captain, a group of untrustworthy advisors, and a navigator who is the only one who knows how to get the ship to port. The only way the ship will reach its destination – ie., the good or the just – is if the navigator takes charge."

In the statue of Lady Justice – we notice “evil” - in the archetypal form of a snake - is being held to the "letter of the law" (a legal book of societal laws). Justice is "blind" to all but the proper balance. This is the criminal justice view.

As with any great metaphor, there are alternate views. Another view – for those psychologically inclined – is to see the snake as humanity’s unrestrained instinctual impulses, its natural passions. This raw, animalistic desire is restrained against and by man’s rules and regulations. In other words, his morality, or super-ego - the term Freud used to describe man's internalized conscience. Justice, here, is overseeing this operation - but note carefully that she has given up some freedom in doing so.

She no longer has a true free range of movement – she has made a compromise, which is essentially what life in free society requires. In fact, her compromise formation has left her in a potentially dangerous situation. Should she ever become weary or distracted, and let up on her foot, the backlash will be quite unpleasant. She is, in a sense, a prisoner to humanity’s passions, just as so many criminal offenders are prisoners of their own passions and egoic dysfunction.

In the criminal justice system, as in psychiatry/psychology, it is extremely difficult to confront strong egoic dysfunction and remain objective. The "evil" (ie., selfish) deeds of man’s false sense of self scream out for a dramatic reaction, and our own egos are eager and hungry to comply.

The inescapable and recurring formula of the compromise formation was beautifully illustrated by Nietzsche ("But the knot of causes in which I am entangled recurs, and will create me again"), and was later expanded upon by Freud in his writings about the "repetition compulsion."

Wo Es War: Control & Surveillance as Foundation

“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”[i]

- Jean Jacques Rousseau

That absolute or “total” freedom is incompatible with sustained life is difficult to refute. Rather, this fantasy harkens back to a form of infantile omnipotence and narcissism only viable for a very brief, early period in human life. The study of childhood development has long held that “the child is born feeling omnipotent and only gradually and reluctantly…turns to and accepts reality” sometime by the first 18 months of life.[ii] Thus, life turns toward a process of compromise, and the exertion of whatever control is feasible. The energy of the id, or instinctual impulse, must be harnessed, monitored and controlled by the super ego. Concomitant with the introjection of parental limits, the super ego retains other model features such as the parent’s “severity, [and their] inclination to supervise and punish (p. 167).”[iii] This internalized model then serves as a template for “the endeavors of the ego,” becoming a source of man’s ethics and morality.

These “structures” of the mind are seldom distinguishable until situations of conflict arise.[iv] While man’s ego is greatly concerned with organization and consistency, the id will have little concern with the environment or logical cause and effect. Therefore, the ego must “bring the influence of the external world to bear upon the id.... For the ego, perception plays the part which in the id falls to the drives p. 25).”[v] Thus, the ego has reason to “keep an eye on” the id’s drive for gratification, which has little regard for the limitations or consequences of external reality.[vi] Efforts to strike some acceptable balance require a “compromise.”

It has been noted that this pattern of internal mental surveillance is “the result of a long and painful development over the course of millennia, a development that must be transmitted anew to each new member of society.”[vii] Wherever man’s quests have taken him, he has required efforts to “oversee” his impulses – or, as Freud famously put it: “Wo Es war soll Ich warden” (Where the id was, the ego shall be).

Freud believed that civilization mirrored the individual in terms of super-ego development. Powerful leaders and iconic tales of heroism left an “impression” behind that molded and reinforced the ethical systems of an epoch.[viii] From a cultural perspective, one may think of “ethics” as a command of the extant super-ego of a civilization. Yet similar to the impossible demands of the individual super-ego, cultural ethics has always pressed for “something which has so far not been achieved by means of any other cultural activities (p.90).”[ix]

Ethical systems, like an individual’s super-ego, make unrealistic demands that will have no truck with either reality’s demands or the id’s unrelenting instinctual drives. The impasse, essentially life against instinctual, self-preservation and aggression, led Freud to consider it “the fateful question for the human species,” – the successful outcome depending entirely upon cultural development (p.92).[x] But what kind of cultural development may be required? An ethic of internal virtue for virtue’s sake, or one built upon the scaffolding of a "prosthetic" super-ego? Of course, here I am speaking of society's increasing use of surveillance. The prospect of man's "soul training" via surveillance will be the topic of my next esssay.

[i] Rousseau J: The Social Contract. 1762, Translated by G. D. H. Cole, public domain. At: http://www.constitution.org/jjr/socon.txt Accessed on: 5/12/2008
[ii] Novick J, Novick K: Some Comments on Masochism and the Delusion of Omnipotence from a Developmental Perspective. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 1991; 39:307-331
[iii] Freud S: The Economic Problem of Masochism. In: The Collected Works of Sigmund Freud.
[iv] Freud A: The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence. New York: International Universities Press, 1966.
[v]Freud S: The ego and the id (1923). Standard Edition, 19:1-60. London: Hogarth Press, 1961.
[vi] Brenner C: The Mind as Conflict and Compromise Formation. At: http://users.rcn.com/brill/egoid.html#freud3 (accessed: 3/29/2008)
[vii] Brenner C: The Mind as Conflict and Compromise Formation. At: http://users.rcn.com/brill/egoid.html#freud3 (accessed: 3/29/2008)
[viii] Freud S: Civilization and its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1961.
[ix] Freud S: Civilization and its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1961.
[x] Freud S: Civilization and its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1961.


[i] Nietzsche F. Thus Spake Zarathustra. In: Kaufman, W ed. The Portable Nietzche. New York, NY: Viking Penguin Books, 1982, p. 333.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Overdosing on Reality

"Life - Death - Time"
The Human Condition

1. Life is suffering.
2. We create our own tragedies
3. It is really selfishness that is at the heart of what we label “evil”
4. Many life problems are due to an inability to take responsibility. Can all this ultimately be boiled down to impatience? (Kafka)
5. "We are descended from an endlessly long chain of generations of murderers, whose love of murder was in their blood as it is perhaps also in ours." (Freud)
6. "We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to other men. The suffering which comes from this last source is perhaps more painful than any other." (Freud from Civilization and Its Discontents, chapter 2, 1930)
7. What we don’t know about ourselves, we do – to the other. (Walter Davis)
8. No one knows the true “meaning” of life or the “purpose” of the universe. Anyone who claims to is lying, mistaken or deluded.
9. Our own self-awareness dooms and condemns us.
10. Every single one of us is flawed to the core.
11. In the evolution of human consciousness, death is the root fear - the lowest common denominator driving human pretensions to happiness and causing most all suffering.
12. This fear of death is actually the ego’s fear of annihilation, and desire to transcend the boundaries of reality. (Ernest Becker)
13. The ego’s fear of annihilation leads to immortality projects that promise to sustain it. The ego does this by creating the illusion that there is a “self” that can sustain itself, become “permanent,” and control reality.
14. Most objects, goals, pursuits in life are ultimately a “fetish.” In other words, a distraction from reality.
15. Each individual must find for him or herself their own "sweet spot" - the perfect balance of undistorted awareness of reality, and (mature) defense mechanisms that allow the individual to function in a healthy way and derive an acceptable level of enjoyment from life.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Forensic Look at Resilience

It is, alas, chiefly the evil emotions that are able to leave their photographs on surrounding scenes and objects. And whoever heard of a place haunted by a noble deed, or of beautiful and lovely ghosts revisiting the glimpses of the moon?

- Algernon H. Blackwood

Barn’s burnt down –
I can see the moon.

- Masahide (c. 1688 Samurai)[i]

In forensic psychiatry, one is heavily exposed to the more traumatic and tragic aspects of the human condition. Very often, the deed has been done and there is no turning back. The tragic has unfolded, and one is left only to perform a retrospective analysis of how it could have happened. On rare occasion, one might have a chance to witness a fellow human being demonstrate amazing resilience, and thereby achieve a triumph of human spirit. In this sense, a triumph of the human spirit is less about external outcomes than it is about an internal experience. In terms of mental health, resilience is the capacity to cope with stress, trauma and tragedy. In other words, to be resilient is to bend rather than break – and to be made somehow stronger and more flexible by the process. This sentiment was put most clearly over 2, 500 years ago by Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching: “The hard and inflexible are friends of death. The soft and yielding are friends of life.”[i]

Because of psychiatry’s necessary focus on the psychopathology and symptoms of trauma, it has been only recently that phenomena such as resilience have been studied. In the past, resilience was largely thought to occur only rarely, yet more recent research suggests that it is actually a common reaction among (healthy) adults exposed to serious trauma. Such resilience has been associated with an enduring capacity for positive emotion and generative experiences. Interestingly, there does not appear to be a single “resilient type” person. Instead, there are likely multiple and unexpected ways for survivors to be resilient.[ii] Indeed, resilient coping appears to be multifaceted, relying on many variables such as personality, affect regulation, coping, ego defenses, and various other protective factors.[iii]

As a result of large-scale tragedies over the last decade, the field of traumatology has grown rapidly. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and depression were frequently observed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.[iv] Yet, the research on resilience following the 9-11 attacks remains relatively sparse. Available research does suggest that resilience may be more prevalent than previously believed. In a study examining the prevalence of resilience (defined as having either no PTSD symptoms or one symptom) among 2,752 New York area residents during the six months following the 9-11 terrorist attack, resilience was observed in over half (65.1%) of subjects.[v]

How do resilient people adapt and/or change their worldview to cope? The early research seems to suggest that after a major trauma, people's belief systems are impacted and may be modified. For example, they may experience changes to their view of the world “as they knew it,” their views on human nature, spirituality, and their own identity. Certainly, a grief and recovery process is a necessity, but many will still need to assimilate or accommodate new values.[vi] In essence, it appears as though the resilient survivor copes, in part, by developing new values and beliefs in order to achieve an emotional equipoise. Resilient persons may also find a way to turn the trauma into a “psychic reorganizer,” whereby the trauma becomes the stimulus and opportunity for positive change.

This November 18th will be the 30-year anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy which occurred deep in the jungle of Guyana on November 18, 1978. After California Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown on a fact-finding mission, a volatile situation that had been building finally exploded. Ryan, three journalists and over 900 Jonestown residents were dead at the end of the day.[vii] The Jonestown (JT) tragedy has become woven into the fabric of our culture, and many misunderstandings and inaccuracies have become part of the tapestry. Perhaps the most visible parts of the tapestry are the cultural icons of “drinking the Kool Aid,” and the frightening charisma of Jim Jones. In reality, JT was not a mass suicide, but is more accurately described as a mass murder, followed by the suicides of Jim Jones and a few of his inner circle administrators. The JT mass murder-suicide was the result of a complex constellation of historical, cultural, and psychological factors that continue to haunt and perplex.

Another myth about JT was that everyone there was a “brain washed” cult member who had no will of his or her own. In reality, there were “a variety of reasons why people had joined the Peoples Temple. For some, it was a political statement; Jones offered the promise of a socialist society free of materialism and racism at a time when such a society was particularly attractive. For others, the Temple offered religion, structure, and discipline – a way to escape the violence of the ghetto and the dead end of alcohol and drugs.”[viii] Tim Carter joined the Peoples Temple in 1973. After surviving combat as a marine in the Vietnam War, he returned to America in search of greater meaning. He was driven by an internal need to become a part of something positive and greater than himself: “We shared a passionate idealism to make the world a better place…. We were a reflection of the economic and political and cultural realities and dynamics of the Civil Rights and Vietnam War generation”(p. 155).[ix]

In 2007, Mr. Carter graciously spent time with me to help me get a better understanding of the JT tragedy. He provided a true insider’s view, rich with contextual detail and heartbreaking tragedy. He gave a gripping and enlightening talk on a panel we did together at the 38th annual meeting of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.[x] After meeting Mr. Carter, it became apparent to me that he was a supreme example of resilience and triumph of human spirit. I asked him to help me and other readers better understand how he was able to “bounce back” from a lifetime of trauma that would seem to have crushed most of us. His answers to my questions will be part of a forthcoming article on the subject.

[i] Stryk L: Zen Poetry: Let the Spring Breeze Enter. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1995.
[i] Lao Tzu: The Tao Te Ching. Translated by Brian Walker. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
[ii] Bonanno G: Resilience in the Face of Potential Trauma. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2005; 14(3): 135 - 138
[iii] Agaibi C, Wilson J: Trauma, PTSD and Resilience. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 2005; 6(3): 195-216.
[iv] Galea, S., Ahern, J., Resnick, H., Kilpatrick, D., Bucuvalas, M., Gold, J., et al. (2002). Psychological sequelae of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City. New England Journal of Medicine, 346, 982–987.[
[v] Bonanno G, Galea S, Bucciarelli A, Vlahov D: Psychological Resilience After Disaster: New York City in the Aftermath of the September 11th Terrorist Attack. Psychological Science, 2006; 17(3): 181-186
[vi] Jordan K: What We Learned From 9/11: A Terrorism Grief and Recovery Process Model. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, 2005; 5(4):340-355.
[vii] Stephenson D: Dear People: Remembering Jonestown. Heyday Books: Berkley, Calif., 2005.
[viii] Krause C: Foreward. In: Layton, D: Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple. New York: Anchor Books, 1998.
[ix] Carter T: The Big Grey. In: Dear People: Remembering Jonestown (D. Stephenson, ed.). Heyday Books: Berkley, Calif., 2005.
[x] Knoll J, Carter T, Leonard C, Crowder J: Mass Murder & Mind Control: Understanding the Jonestown Tragedy. 38th annual meeting of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law; Miami, Florida, October 20, 2007.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Jonestown 30th Anniversary

While on the subject of the tragic - we recently passed the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown Tragedy in Guyana this past 11/18/08.

For those intrested, here are two in-depth explorations of the largest ever mass murder-suicide in recent times:

The Jonestown Tragedy: What Have We Learned in 30 Years? The Jonestown Report; November 2008, volume 10.

The Jonestown Tragedy as Familicide – Suicide. The Jonestown Report; November 2008, volume 10.
At: http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/AboutJonestown/JonestownReport/Volume10/Knoll2.htm

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Tragic Reasoning as Ego Annihilator

“The task is to bring to light what we must ever love and honor....”

- Nietzsche

Suffering, trauma and tragedy have been respected in virtually every culture for their ability to act as a gateway to rebirth in terms of the human psyche. The tragic does this primarily by allowing reality direct confrontation with the ego. The burning light of reality proceeds to evaporate large portions of the ego’s protective shell. Less ego and fewer defenses mean more reality can be perceived. Circumstances of the human condition are more clearly revealed, in all their tragic beauty. This then, is a primary goal of tragic reasoning – to allow the diminishment of the ego and its repair mechanisms. By becoming less, one becomes more – an expansion that makes room for Being to come forward.[i] One can never become entirely free of ego or the need for defenses, but often, awareness alone is enough to achieve diminishment. Initially, this diminishment may result in disillusionment, yet there also comes a loss of restrictive character armor, and a conscious choice to abide in the face of terror.

The existential hero who is able to sustain tragic reasoning gains a clearer perspective: “Instead of hiding within the illusions of character, he sees his impotence and vulnerability. …”[ii] Paradoxically, tragic reasoning brings home an important lesson. Fleeing something inevitably brings it about. Trauma makes action imperative, and so reveals its terms. In stripping away everything else, trauma delivers the subject over to a drama, the initial terms of which can be schematized as follows:

1. To be a subject is to be at issue in a conflict that is defined by a single contradiction: the area of one’s greatest concern is also the area of one’s greatest paralysis;
2. There is a destructive force in us to which we are wedded. That tie is deep and powerful. The traumatic event brings to fruition one’s inability to break it;
3. We aren’t what we know about ourselves – we’re what we do in the face of that knowledge. This is the difficult truth that now defines one’s relationship to oneself.

Tragic joy is the experience that comes to those who might sustain the integrity of this process. They know the truth: there is no exit from the tragic, only a progressively deeper entry into it. Rage has been replaced by compassion. Compassion, in contrast to pity, is that emotion that relates to others in terms of the necessity of the tragic journey, and the attempt to help them sustain it. We now know that to reverse their private hell, every suffering subject must go through the same journey. Compassion is relating to all others in terms of creating that possibility. Qua perception, it means seeing all the ways others are suffering and try to hide or flee that suffering. Qua action, it means offering them overtures to the tragic by relating to the wound in the other rather than to all things the other has become and done in order to flee it. Thus, compassion is that way of relating to others that preserves the tragic logic of change. Our own suffering opens us to the suffering in others as what must be sustained. The logic of suffering is the only logic of change capable of reversing the traumatic wounds that form the origin of the psyche.
“Hence also the torments of life become tuneful tragedy, solemn and soft with music, and garnished with rich dark pictures. But higher still than the activities of art, the intellect in its purity, and the moral sense in its purity, are not distinguished from each other, and both ravish us into a region whereinto these passionate clouds of sorrow cannot rise.”[i]

[i] http://www.emersoncentral.com/tragic.htm

[i] Tolle E: A New Earth. New York, NY: Plume, 2005.


“In the destructive element immerse.”

- Joseph Conrad (Lord Jim)
Perhaps one of the worst things about the traumatic experience is the passivity. In comparison, all other passivities seem mild. Tragic self-overcoming begins when, in the deepest passivity, one experiences the upsurge of something that is in radical opposition to that passivity. To delve into the trauma in search of the bitterest truths about human nature and ourselves – that is the only way to transform passivity into activity, because it is the only response that accords one’s disorder the contempt it deserves. Though the choice to immerse oneself in the process of tragic reasoning is the turning point, there is nothing heroic or grandiose about its assumption. This act is only equal to the terror that attends it. The possibility and terms of change are here experienced for the first time as an existential process that involves far more than thought and deliberation. Change is the process of engaging conflicts that have a deeper hold in one’s psyche than anything else. Hamlet can think all day, yet until his thought crashes against the concrete circumstances of his inner paralysis, nothing can happen. Agon is that destiny of the human being which is only engaged when the effort at reversal confronts that within oneself that absolutely resists that effort. This is the battle that must be engaged.

Memory can only take one so far, and ultimately, one must engage the conflicts it recovers. The only way to do so is by immersing oneself in the traumatic space. Minimizing or resolving the situation is the thing most to be feared, since thereby the destructive force is given the power to extinguish anything within that opposes it. What we are is a result of what we do in those situations that are pregnant with the conflicts that define us. This process would have us stand before the prospect of living without the thing the super-ego gives us in return for our obedience: certitude, direction, and the comfort of those guarantees that protect us from the burdens that a free subject must take upon itself. The call of the tragic is the call to suffering. Suffering is the deepest voice within us summoning us to our innermost possibility: to live out the full complexity of our relationship to ourselves by engaging the agons that define and maximize it.

The Traumatic Event: What Is It, That Thing You Most Fear?

“In order to save your life you must lose it.”

- Matthew, 16:25
When faced with a genuinely feared emotional event, we may do anything we can to avoid it. Beyond the simple root desire to avoid pain lies another challenge that encourages us to flee: the tragic event often possesses the power to destroy the value we place on ourselves and, specifically, the qualities by which we have defined our character. We define ourselves in terms of our service to values, which thereby become properties of our moral character. Our perception of our worth and identity as persons come to depend on remaining true to the conception we form of ourselves in relation to those values that we refuse to compromise. More important than one’s life is the thing that gives one’s life meaning. But often, in the face of a profoundly tragic event, the defenses we have relied upon collapse under the infinitely dense mass of reality. Reality and its undistorted meanings are more fully available to the subject. Until now, ego identity has been a flight from knowing. The truth now assaults us in the middle of the street, and we are left without shelter – all doors and windows rudely shut in our face. The ego, now undefended, is threatened with annihilation. The trauma entails the threat of self-dissolution.

This is the threat at the core of trauma that makes it so terrifying – and why traumatized subjects may clutch at any lie as long as it eases the pain. A tragic agent is one who refuses that option, and maintains the will to assault herself with reality and the truth about herself. In the midst of trauma, the need for deliverance is often overwhelming, and may be experienced as the pull of a system of guarantees. This pull is never greater than when one has come face to face with a trauma that has threatened to dissolve those guarantees. Spinoza’s fundamental insight into emotion is the starting point which takes one to the heart of what we are as subjects: emotional beings forced by that fact to seek the emotions that will release us from the burden and suffering of other emotions. This, in brief, is the source of the terrible things we do to one another and to ourselves. Trauma reveals that fact in a way that puts emotion on trial. We replace one emotion after another, seeking the one that will resolve the problems of the psyche in a way that puts an end to anxiety.

Change, one discovers, is an emotional struggle that requires the overcoming of emotional conditions that have a far deeper hold over us than we had imagined. Freud believed that in any psychological conflict, the strongest emotion would always win. Such observations give quietus to the idea that our emotional life is the harmonious application of an armory of independent emotions to discrete situations. Such is the case only when tension is relatively minor. Get in an area of genuine conflict, and one soon learns that the oppositions between different ways of feeling and the relative strength of different emotions vis-à-vis one another are the defining characteristics of our emotional life. Everything then proceeds, as in Hamlet, to the clash of mighty opposites. Such is the call of the tragic in each of us. To know the actual truth of one’s emotional constitution depends on taking those actions that will engage one’s core conflicts. But the knowledge that one’s situation is irreversible, and that what the traumatized subject initially experiences as the end of the line is actually the turning point.

Tragic Reasoning

There are questions we could not get past if we were not set free from them by our very nature.


Can you know anything other than deception? If ever the deception is annihilated, you must not look in that direction or you will turn into a pillar of salt.

- The Blue Octavo Notebooks by Franz Kafka
The term tragic is used here in its most general existential sense – the tragedy that is the unvarnished human condition. This is a condition of painful self-awareness, should we allow ourselves to view it without guarantees or defenses. For example, in the evolution of human consciousness, death has been and continues to be, the root fear - the lowest common denominator driving human pretensions to happiness and the cause of much suffering.[i] The fear of death is actually the ego’s fear of annihilation, which lead directly to various “immortality projects” that promise to sustain it. In an attempt to transcend the boundaries of reality, the ego creates the illusion that there is a “self” that can sustain itself, and become permanent. In this sense, the human condition may be likened to the role of the tragic hero who sees and understands his unavoidable fate. The hero’s suffering is precisely what gives meaning to a life of inescapable physical and spiritual wounds.[ii]

But this journey through the shadow of the valley, unprotected, is demanding and agonizing in a way that is literally unfathomable. And so it would seem, a complete absence of protection is simply unreasonable. This entails a challenge: how to find one’s balance. How might we understand and accept the tragic without excessively buffering ourselves, thereby creating too much distance from either reality or that which makes us human? The defenses used by the ego are plentiful, but often, our relationship to tragic experience resembles that which Heidegger saw as our relationship to “being” – that is, forgetting. With respect to being we have, according to Heidegger, lost sight of the ontological difference between “being” and beings.[iii] With respect to the tragic, we have suffered what may be an even greater loss: a loss of contact with that within ourselves which opens us to this realm of experience. Often, it seems that we are only willing to give the tragic an audience when a number of guarantees are in place. Foremost among them are the two ideas cribbed from Aristotle that constitute for most people the essence of the tragic: 1) the tragic is the result of a flaw in a particular agent or events, and 2) we accept the painful feelings that tragedy asks us to endure only when we are assured that everything will be comfortably resolved in the end. In this sense, tragedy involves no basic challenge to our identity or our beliefs.

We set down canons of thought and rules of “meaningful” discourse to exclude something else that if acknowledged would have a shattering impact on our understanding of everything. For thought would then revolve on a recognition of its resistance to what may turn out to be the very structure of experience itself. Philosophy sometimes tries to contain the tragic within some other structure. Aristotle remains the clearest and most eloquent example of this; his Poetics is a monument to the effort to impose a non-tragic metaphysics, ethics, and psychology upon the tragic in order to domesticate what would otherwise prove too disruptive.[iv] This line of thought has persisted right through thinkers as different as Hegel and Lacan. The comprehension of experience is determined by the mediation of concepts and categories that are only possible through the repression of a more primary access, one that recovers and sustains the act of existence of the existential subject. Tragic experience enables us to comprehend existence as a structure unlike all others, one that shatters and exceeds the conceptual order, offering us “the knowledge most worth having,” and bringing us face to face with ourselves.

Fear of thinking deeply about the tragic derives from the popular belief that suffering is meaningless and should be avoided entirely. Nothing but pessimism, bitterness, and despair can come of it. If the truth of life is tragic, our duty is to suppress that truth. But what if the opposite is the case? What if the tragic offers us the possibility of the deepest self-reference? To be able to more fully understand what it means to be a subject requires a willingness to engage in the difficult process of tragic reasoning. Tragic reasoning is “the ability to preserve those facts we are reluctant to confront because of the pain they involve and connect them with other facts that escape detection because they would extend and magnify that pain.”[v] Tragic reasoning exposes the fraud of all ideologies and guarantees. It challenges all our ways of knowing and of being. The importance of the tragic is that it gives life one of the very few meanings we can discern when we step outside of our own imposed system of guarantees. The tragic is our point of unity: “the situation that all subjects face insofar as they are subjects.”[vi]

[ii] Campbell J: The Power of Myth.
[v] Davis W: An Evening With JonBenet Ramsey. Lincoln, NE: Authors Choice Press, 2003.
[vi] Davis W: Death’s Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche Since 9-11. Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2006.

The Edge Effect arises from the juxtaposition of contrasting environments. The term is most often used in conjunction with the boundary between natural habitats, but here, it is extrapolated to the "environment" of the human psyche and culture.

When an edge is created to any natural system, and the area outside the boundary is an unnatural system, the natural system is seriously affected for some distance in from the edge.

This may affect the system close to the edge by encouraging rampant growth of opportunistic species, thoughts and concepts at the edge.