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Chapter XXVI: The Psychological Interpretation of Culture and History

Culture as the Fulfillment of Human Desire
Richard A. Koenigsberg
The Wright Brothers
Thomas Edison
Hitler believed in his own ideology. His hysteria and passionate rhetoric reflected the depth of his attachment to his own ideas. Hitler was able to persuade millions of other people to become passionate about the ideas that moved him. He convinced many Germans that their nation was under attack, whipping the people into a fury, prevailing upon them to rise up to undertake a "life or death struggle" to save the nation.

People devalue the power of Hitler's ideas, claiming they are devoid of intellectual content, irrational, inconsistent, etc. People underestimate the impact of Hitler's ideology because they are under the spell of the fantasy of "rationality." Ideas do not have to be true to be believed. It is simply necessary that they evoke an emotional response within the minds of the people to whom they are conveyed.

Politicians articulate their own emotions and fantasies through the vehicle of the ideas that they put forth upon the public stage. If a politician is to become successful, the ideas he conveys must resonate with the populace. The leader's words must evoke emotions and fantasies within his audience that are not unlike the emotions and fantasies that his words evoke within himself. What was it Hitler said that so excited the German people? What emotions and fantasies were conveyed by the words he spoke? How was it possible for Hitler to galvanize so many people to perform such radical acts?

Metaphors and images within the rhetoric of political leaders contain, evoke and bring forth latent fantasies into reality. An ideology constitutes a modus operandi, allowing unconscious fantasies to be activated and externalized into the world. Ideologies "capture" or harness energy contained with latent desires or fantasies, making this energy available for concerted, societal action.

The rise of Nazism is an example of the "social construction of reality." Upon what foundation, however, was Nazism constructed? Hitler's Nazi ideology revolved around the fantasy of Germany as a living organism containing virulent Jewish microorganisms. Genocide was undertaken as a form of immunology: a struggle to kill off pathogenic cells in order to save the organism.

However, what does it mean to say that Germany is a "body containing Jewish bacteria?" This metaphor is manifest content containing a latent meaning. Analysis of recurring images within a leader's rhetoric allows one to uncover the unconscious fantasies that are the source of the ideology. To seek to discover the meaning of an ideology is to seek to know why it exists. Ideologies, I theorize, perform psychic functions.

Social theory rarely addresses the question of the reasons why certain ideologies exist; why they are embraced and persist. Scholars write about "dominant discourses." But the question is why do particular discourses become dominant? To answer the question of why particular ideas are embraced and perpetuated, I suggest a psychological approach: What does this ideology do for the people who embrace it? What role does this ideology play in the psychic life of its adherents?

Culture is not a domain separate from human beings. Ideologies exist to the extent that people produce, espouse and perpetuate them. Ideologies are created by human beings for human beings. Ideologies perform psychic work, functioning to allow people to encounter, work through and attempt to master fundamental desires, fantasies, conflicts and existential dilemmas.

To comprehend the rise of Hitler one must uncover the sources of the appeal of Nazism. Why did millions of Germans become hysterical when Hitler spoke? Why were men like Goebbels and Himmler mesmerized by Hitler's words? Hitler's ideas touched a deep chord. His ideology drew forth and crystallized latent desires and fantasies, allowing them to manifest as social reality.

Ideologies may be viewed as societally defined ideational structures that exist in order to permit latent dimensions of the psyche to become manifest in the external world. Ideologies perform psychic functions, allowing fundamental desires, fantasies, anxieties and conflicts to be projected into reality. Once an ideology gains currency, then people act "in the name of" the ideology. Thought and action seem to be generated by a belief system existing outside the self.

Recent social theory focuses on the idea that the source of mind, thought, motivation and action lies in ideological structures external to the self. Indeed, the mind—according to some current theories—is nothing more or less than the "discourses that push and pull us." The self, from this perspective, comes into being—derives its shape and form—as it encounters and internalizes the ideological structures of society.

However, the question remains: Who has created societal discourses and why do they exist? Why have particular ideas been "selected out" (from among the multitude of ideas that people put forth) to become elements of culture? Why are specific beliefs embraced and perpetuated, and not others? Why do certain ideologies evoke such passion? To answer these questions, it is necessary to articulate the meaning of culturally constituted ideas: to delineate the psychic work that these ideas perform for the people who embrace them.

Contemporary theory seems to suggest that what is "out there" constitutes an independent, autonomous domain, separate from individuals. However, even if one acknowledges that we are "subjects" of language and discourse, the question remains: Who creates language and discourse? For that matter, how are we to explain the nature and shape of the entire panoply of ideas, material objects and social arrangements that we call culture? What inhibits us from posing the question: Why do specific ideologies and societal discourses exist?

When people examine cultural forms such as musical symphonies, light-bulbs and air-conditioners, it is not difficult to acknowledge that human beings are the source; to say that these inventions represent a response to our desires and fantasies; that they exist to the extent that they fulfill human needs. We do not hesitate to conclude that symphonies, light-bulbs and air-conditioners exist and are perpetuated as elements of culture because they provide physical and psychological gratification.

It is more difficult for people to say that cultural inventions such as war and genocide exist because they provide psychological gratification. We shy away from the idea that ideologies of war and genocide represent the fulfillment of human desires and fantasies. We prefer to imagine that war and genocide come from a place outside the self; that phenomena like these are generated by "cultural and historical forces," somehow independent of human agency.

I theorize that war and genocide—like symphonies, light-bulbs and air-conditioners—exist because they represent the fulfillment of psychological needs. Why do ideologies of war and genocide exist? Why have they been perpetuated as elements of culture? Because—like symphonies, light-bulbs and air-conditioners—they are responsive to and serve to articulate human needs, desires, anxieties and fantasies.

Hitler's ideology constituted a modus operandi for himself and the German people, bringing forth latent fantasies and desires onto the stage of social reality. Hitler created "history" to the extent that he harnessed these latent desires and fantasies by focusing them through the lens of his ideology. His rhetoric—the metaphors and images contained within his speeches—functioned to evoke the shared fantasies of the German people.

Contemporary theory tends to disconnect the outer world of language, discourse and ideology from the inner world of need, desire, anxiety and fantasy. A psychological approach to the interpretation of ideology seeks to enable us to retrieve our projections. One begins with the assumption that we are the source.

By virtue of the externalization of our desires, anxieties and fantasies, human beings create a certain kind of world. Society’s ideologies reflect our struggles to come to terms with fundamental psychological issues and existential dilemmas. From this perspective, the ideologies, social arrangements and material objects that constitute culture may be understood as various kinds of solutions.