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Chapter XXIV: The Psychological Interpretation of Culture and History

Discourse Explains Everything—and Therefore Nothing
Richard A. Koenigsberg
Nazism was a social movement defined by a consistent ideology. Beneath this ideology was a coherent fantasy that was projected into the ideology.

Hitler was the “ringleader”—the individual most deeply plugged into the Nazi fantasy—who conveyed the ideology to the German people. Through his passionate speaking—and the use of pregnant images and metaphors—Hitler persuaded others to embrace the fantasy that so deeply moved him.

Nazi ideology was an extreme form of nationalism, combined with an extreme version of anti-Semitism. The fact that nationalism and anti-Semitism already existed as cultural templates simply means that these ideologies represented available structures of thought within German society.

However, an ideology must be activated before it can do its work. It needs to be infused with psychic energy. An explanation of Nazism, therefore, revolves around why certain ideas were so passionately embraced by many Germans.

An ideology harnesses energy contained within a fantasy, thus allowing this fantasy to be shared by other members of society. An ideology is the container for a shared fantasy. The meaning of an ideology, its raison d'être, lies in its capacity to provide the modus operandi for the expression of a fantasy. This is why an ideology exists, and why it persists: it allows human beings to express something emanating from deep within.

An ideology permits psychic content to attach to a societally defined structure of thought. An ideology becomes powerful to the extent that it allows for the expression and articulation of certain elements of the psyche.

Hannah Arendt, writing about Nazi Germany, said that “anti-Semitism explains everything—and therefore nothing.” Explanation requires unpacking the meaning of anti-Semitism for the German people. What desires and fantasies were expressed through this ideology? Why did this ideology become powerful?

One may posit “discourse” as an explanation, but the real question is: Why does a particular discourse exist? Why do certain narratives replicate? Why are some ideas—among all the ideas presented within a given society—“selected out.” We need to provide an explanation—account for—the power, or persistence of specific ideologies.

How do new ideas or institutions arise in a given culture? In the Fifties, there were no “hippies” in American society. As if out of nowhere in the Sixties, a hippie movement emerged. Hippies represented a novel way of thinking, dressing, acting, etc. How and why did this ideology come into being? There was no “hippie discourse,” and then suddenly there was.

I recall sociology texts written in the early Seventies that sought to account for the use of marijuana among young people, and perhaps even the “pot party.” They “explained” these phenomena by positing the existence of a “hippie subculture.” How infuriating!

This form of explanation goes under the name “tautology.” Once a discourse exists, then one might say that the minds of human beings are shaped—“pushed and pulled”—by a societal discourse. But where do these discourses come from? Why have certain discourses become powerful, and not others? Why do certain narratives persist—replicate?

I theorize that an ideology is believed, embraced, and perpetuated—achieves power and status as an element of culture—to the extent that it resonates with a fantasy, or serves to posit a solution to certain deep-rooted conflicts or human dilemmas. An ideology allows significant psychological issues to be projected into a cultural form.

For any given ideology, therefore, we seek to know its meaning for human beings within that society. What is the ideology conveying? What desires are being expressed through the medium of the ideology? What is the psychic function of this ideology? Why does it resonate? One can pose these questions in relationship to Hitler’s ideology, or for any ideology.

What was Hitler saying that so excited the German people? What were they “heiling” about? What desire and fantasies were expressed—sought fulfillment—through the vehicle of Nazi ideology?

Culture is created by—exists for—human beings. It is not separate from who we are. It is not as if certain discourses mysteriously descent upon us, as if from another planet. We are that.