By Murray M. Schwartz
Murray Schwartz teaches Shakespeare, Holocaust Literature, and Literature and Psychoanalysis at Emerson College in Boston.

He is a member of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society & Institute, which recently has established COMPASSThe Center for Multidisciplinary Studies. COMPASS promotes collaboration across disciplines, & the application of psychoanalytic concepts in the Arts & Humanities. Dr. Schwartz is coordinator of this program, and may be reached at 413 253-3848 or murray.schwartz@gmail.com.

His book The Dance Claimed Me (Yale, 2012) is available from Amazon.

For information on how to order, PLEASE CLICK HERE.

Please read his review essay of Century of Genocide (Eric Weitz) here.

Library of Social Science focuses our attention on scholarship demonstrating how individuality can be exploited or destroyed by the claims of groups to sovereignty. The group can be a family, a gang, a religion, a nation or a party in control of the state. The individual is defined by MEMBERSHIP in an instrumental relation to a larger body. This can be a source of social identity for both individual and group or, conversely, a condition for the erasure of the individual.

Assimilating the individual to the group body is central to totalitarian ideologies. In The Elimination (2012) Rithy Panh writes of the Cambodia genocide that “Everything was subordinated to the Angkar, the mysterious, all-powerful ‘Organization”. In that world “one is not an individual. I have no freedom. All I have is a duty, namely to dissolve myself in the Organization.”

In his review essay of Walter Skya’s Japan’s Holy War (2009), Richard Koenigsberg cites Japanese social theorist, Hozumi Yatsuka (1860-1912): “The ideal person is one who desires assimilation into the ‘higher organic totality’ of society. The purpose of ethics and morality is to direct the individual toward kodoshin: submergence of the self into the social totality.”

Another example is Helga Schneider’s mother, who had embraced Nazism and had become a prison guard in Auschwitz: “She had transferred sovereignty over her feelings to the Fuhrer, and she continued to defend the fact.”

Writing of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps in The Human Condition (1958), Hannah Arendt summarizes the totalitarian erasure of the individual:

Total domination, which strives to organize the infinite plurality and differentiation of human beings as if all humanity were just one individual, is possible only if each and every person can be reduced to a never-changing identity of reaction, so that each of these bundles of reactions can be exchanged at random for any other.

Furthermore, as Freud demonstrated in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), groups can be sustained by idealizations of leaders (or the group itself) that unite individuals. However, the human desire for organic identification with a larger entity is intricately bound up with the propensity for rivalry and reciprocal violence. Rivalry implies both violent separation (as in “riving,” or tearing apart) and boundary creation (as in “rivers” that link separate domains).

For both the individual and the group, self definition implies an “other” or “others.” Threats to identity maintenance, which vary in their character and intensity, can seem to require attack on the “other” that is both mirror and opposite of the self. Violence follows the collapse of the tension or interplay between self and other.

The autonomy of the other becomes intolerable, and the agony of the self or group seeks relief by the absolute control or destruction of its antagonist in “redemptive” violence. To protect the self or body politic from intrusion requires identification with the aggressor, whether real or imaginary, in a zero-sum conflict. Me or him, them or us. Any difference, however minor, can be seized on to justify the projective process.

This process is the subject of William Carlos Williams’ short story, “The Use of Force” (1938), in which a doctor violently penetrates the mouth of a young girl as her parents watch helplessly in order to “save” her from diphtheria and reclaim his superior status as her rescuer. But the same process is enacted whenever the “other” comes to embody a threat to fragile self-esteem.

We observe this process in Achilles’ demand that Agamemnon submit to him after robbing him of his “trophy” woman in the Iliad; in Hitler’s “stab in the back” theory of Germany’s defeat in WWI; or in Henry Kissinger’s notion that Iraq needed to be humiliated because America had been humiliated on 9/11.

In totalitarian ideologies, the public space of politics as dialogue and deliberation is eliminated. Arendt observed that totalitarian regimes seek not a new politics, but the end of politics—in total control of social and cultural expression. The symbolic order is defined from above and power (what Arendt calls “power over”) takes the form of threatened violence (terror) and enacted violence (slavery, imprisonment, torture, death).

Individual differences of meaning and expression cannot survive in public and are repressed or go underground. As Richard Koenigsberg points out, in seeking the merger of self and society, totalitarian regimes use the apparatus of the state to enforce systematic violence against “degenerate” or “reactionary” otherness.

At the cultural level, this means dominion over the symbolic world of the other (burning of books, destruction of religious places, religious ad personal objects, etc.). At the individual level, this means absolute sovereignty over the body, exemplified in torture (Jean Amery).

In the twentieth century these threats to the maintenance of individual identity were brought to near perfection in literal understandings of the body politic and fantasies reducing human relatedness to pure instrumentality. In every case, the cultural space in which political life is negotiated was corroded in the search for “final solutions.”