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On the Current Experience of Terror

He who is laughing has not yet heard the terrible news.

Bertolt Brecht

Robert Jensen has written an important piece on confronting our fears in the process of building a movement. I wish to build on his view and endorse his claim that it is a profound error to avoid looking starkly into the face of what he rightly calls, “free-floating terror.”

The experiences of anxiety, terror, guilt and rage are not rationally chosen and cannot be eliminated by rational fiat. Denial, as Mr. Jensen notes, may permit one to “hold back,” but it cannot build trust and political community because in refusing the experience of one’s self and the other, it eliminates what is most compelling in one’s immediate experience. And, since the people whose needs we are attempting to recognize and gratify are likely to be experiencing the same terror we are attempting to deny, the strategy amounts to making ourselves into strong subjects aiding weak “objects.” This approach comes to elevating ourselves above the vulnerabilities of ordinary life, a position that gives us a sense of superiority but loses connection with those humans, much like ourselves, who lack the luxury of our “empowerment.”

Yeats wrote in a brilliant poem, “Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop,” that

nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.

Nor can our strength come by denying the fissures we have endured, the wounds and scars of our human existence. Mr. Jensen notes how difficult it is to pin down the object of our terror, the forces that will be unleashed. He comes closer when he notes that this fear he feels is not

just the unchecked power of the United States but that Bush and his advisers seem to think they understand their own power and can control it…..The Bush administration wants us to be afraid, but remain quiet about it.

Of course unspoken, unacknowledged fear is debilitating. It harbors the sense of one’s own unique inadequacy, one’s failure to be heroic, one’s degradation. And so, as Mr. Jensen notes, it is a vital first step to agree to one’s vulnerability. But it is also crucial that one understand the grounds of one’s feeling of terror and this is where traditional therapy tends to a fatal mystification. For its general tendency is to personalize and privatize our emotional experiences, be they fear of annihilation, or of the destruction of others, or of loss of purpose or of a bewilderment that resides in the core of our being. None of these experiences, however, occur beyond the social and political realms we are attempting to transform. Consider the American ideals of equality, justice, benevolence, fraternity and freedom. It is not merely that they are difficult to achieve and that the actual structure of power in our country negates them. It is that in moments such as the one we presently confront, they seem, as they temporarily are, divorced from all power to govern and direct social events.

So, we are left in a universe devoid of all moral direction. The simplest verities, such that we should not kill thousands and hundreds of thousands of people for the sake of an expansion of wealth in the hands of those who have no moral claim to its possession or any human awareness of its significance – this simple truth is not only suspended, but demolished. In such a world how can we live? If this is the ultimate contour of the universe, how can we move with any sense that our motion is more than random, violent and inhuman? Despite the moral platitudes of the proto-fascists in power, their action is an embodiment of Hobbsian violence, the war of each against all. It is not merely that we are afraid of being destroyed by the other; in such a world we no longer recognize the sense of that humanity by which we identify ourselves. In short, we experience our own dissolution. Rampant immorality, swimming in a sea of pervasive dishonesty and self-serving mendacity, is a recipe for terror. When it is experienced as inexorable, it has become nightmare.

But even this does not take us far enough. The experience of helplessness in the face of overwhelming, brutal, arbitrary, insensitive power is not a new experience. We have known it before; it is the common ground of childhood, when parents are completely beyond our influence and act, more or less often depending on one’s fortune, in ways that terrify, abuse, overwhelm and immobilize us. As children we lack the power to defend ourselves, speak for ourselves, define ourselves. The adult world has always the power to crush us, and this is a sense we carry with us into the “adult” world, however little we are called upon to confront it in ordinary circumstances. But, of course, these circumstances are not ordinary.

One more caution. These traumas of early childhood which continue to reside in our core and continue to wreak their silent havoc are not inherent in human existence, a universal characteristic that must be borne. They too derive in large measure from the social world in which we find ourselves, they are the personal embodiments of the malignancies of power which we ingest with the relationships that “sustain” and define us. In traditional therapy the world begins with the individual who then “projects” his or her experience upon external conditions. In the view I am putting forward the individual begins in a world that is simultaneously his or her social world as suffered in an individual form. When we experience terror, dissolution, arbitrary power and blatant irrationality in the world, it is not our projection. These conditions are real, objective, actual facts as real as any facticity. And when we respond to them we are not confronting the objects of our projection, but the parallel structures of our earlier, politically ingested, social existence.

In other words, this world of international, immoral horror reverberates to the personal, irrational horror we ingested with childhood. We do not abhor arbitrary power simply because we experienced it, hated it, and divested ourselves of it by relocating it beyond us. Rather, we know when we come in contact with this power that we have met it before, and we understand it because we were made to assimilate it, and we know its contour and its power. But of course we knew it first when we were tiny and helpless; now we know it in the supportive presence of others like ourselves, who, if our movement is sound, will treat us with the respect and fellowship that makes our accumulating strength more and more possible, and the terrors of childhood, less immediate and threatening. That is, in a growing democratic movement, one gains the opportunity to be “reparented,” and begins to move beyond the helplessness of infancy toward a more humane presence in the world. Grief and rage will still abide, but they are less likely to vanquish and immobilize us

Dr. RICHARD LICHTMAN is a philosopher who specializes in the relationship between the social and psychological dimensions of human life. His approach is broadly interdisciplinary: he has taught in departments of philosophy (University of California, Berkeley), humanities (San Francisco State University), sociology (University of California, Santa Cruz) and psychology (The Wright Institute, California School of Professional Psychology, etc.) and is currently a faculty member of the Council on Educational Development (CED) program at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books also indicate the range of his interests: Essays in Critical Social Theory covers a broad range of topics in economic, social, and political theory, while The Production of Desire is a detailed analysis of the works of Marx and Freud.

He can be reached at The Wright Institute, 2728 Durant Avenue, Berkeley, CA. 94704 or via email at: rlichtman@counterpunch.org.

 

 

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