Thursday, April 12, 2007

The “Repression” Part of “Desiring One’s Own Repression”

In order to speak responsibly of “desiring one’s own repression,” it is necessary to speak responsibly and accurately of repression. But even this apparently more limited task I find to be difficult – I am uncomfortable with the concept of repression… Entangled as it is in a dense network of epistemological and ethical snarls, I doubt I use the term correctly… Does anyone? I worry that we use the concept of repression, ( and yes, we do use the concept of repression—we use it very, very frequently – the word is extremely popular – it may even be that the concept of repression is definitive of modernity-- certainly it is one of modernity’s most privileged concepts, ) because it helps us avoid confronting these very snarls. It’s still possible, I think, that in investigating the epistemological and ethical snarls accompanying “repression”, we could discover that we’re better off without it…. Maybe this is the conclusion of Foucault – I’m not sure.

On the one hand, repression is considered a normal, natural, and even necessary process. It is a part of the process by which the infant makes sense of the world, distinguishes self from other, learns to distinguish pleasant and good from bad and harmful, and copes with these distinctions. In these senses, it would be entirely appropriate and unproblematical that there would be a “desiring of one’s own repression,” because in these senses, repression is what helps a normal individual to survive and thrive in the world. It bothers me, though, that when we speak of “repression” we are almost never thinking of it in this way – we are thinking of it as something harmful and abnormal. When Reich formulated the phrase of “desiring one’s own repression,” he was only thinking of repression in the sense of something bad, harmful.

Somehow the normal, primary repression is thought under certain circumstances to become abnormal, pathological … exaggerated beyond what is necessary for coping with the world and developing in it. Here, everything hinges on being able to know when normal becomes abnormal… Everything hinges on THEORIZING this difference, that is.

I think it is important to emphasize that at the level of the THEORY of repression we cannot mix the actions of repression with other things we know about the brain and the nervous system – we are excluding from consideration things we know ( or think we know,) about brain anatomy, physiology, chemistry, pathology, and ‘cognitive’ science. When we are working within the theory of repression, we are attributing abnormality to the functioning of repression. This seems obsolete, doesn’t it?

Even accepting that we can or could know when normal repression had exceeded some boundary to become abnormal repression, would we ever think that this had happened because one desired for it to happen? Would one choose that one’s repression become excessive to the point of harm? How?

Part of what’s odd about thinking of “desiring one’s own repression” as a formulation for explaining fascism, the fascist character structure, and other related phenomena, is that there seems to be a conflation of conscious and unconscious processes going on. It only makes sense, I think, to say that one is “desiring one’s own repression” if one is conscious of one’s own desire, but if so, can we still speak of this in terms of repression, which, in its pathological form is not at all part of a patient’s conscious awareness, and which must be brought to a patient’s conscious awareness as the key part of the psychotherapy?

Concepts related to repression and “the desiring of repression,” such as the “secondary drives,” bug the heck out of me. The drive is considered secondary because it is socially conditioned. But if it is socially conditioned, why is it appropriate to call it a drive? (The use of the concept of “drive” indicates, I think, a force of nature…In other words, that which is not socially conditioned.)

These mixings and at the same time radical separations which are needed to actuate the concept of repression can’t be right… They are misleading, at the very least.


Blogger Orla Schantz said...

Dear Yusef,

Thank you so much for another inspiring post. Yes, I do understand your problem with coming to term with this "repression" part.

Wilhelm Reich may have coined the phrase (I didn't know that, but it figures. His whole generation with Laing, Norman O. Brown, etc celebrated "suppression" as their favorite capitalistic bodily enemy. Just as the whole Adorno crowd and their "philosophy of suspicion" game, so the Reich crowd were fixated on masochism and coercion.

But "desiring one's suppression" has, I think, a much more ancient and eloquent origin.

Here's St. Augustine in his Confessions (A.D. 398) BOOK II, CHAPTER II

2. But what was it that delighted me save to love and to be loved? Still I
did not keep the moderate way of the love of mind to mind--the bright path
of friendship. Instead, the mists of passion steamed up out of the puddly
concupiscence of the flesh, and the hot imagination of puberty, and they so
obscured and overcast my heart that I was unable to distinguish pure
affection from unholy desire. Both boiled confusedly within me, and dragged
my unstable youth down over the cliffs of unchaste desires and plunged me
into a gulf of infamy. Thy anger had come upon me, and I knew it not. I had
been deafened by the clanking of the chains of my mortality, the punishment
for my soul’s pride, and I wandered farther from thee, and thou didst permit
me to do so. I was tossed to and fro, and wasted, and poured out, and I
boiled over in my fornications--and yet thou didst hold thy peace, O my
tardy Joy! Thou didst still hold thy peace, and I wandered still farther
from thee into more and yet more barren fields of sorrow, in proud dejection
and restless lassitude.

3. If only there had been someone to regulate my disorder and turn to my
profit the fleeting beauties of the things around me, and to fix a bound to
their sweetness, so that the tides of my youth might have spent themselves
upon the shore of marriage! Then they might have been tranquilized and
satisfied with having children, as thy law prescribes, O Lord--O thou who
dost form the offspring of our death and art able also with a tender hand to
blunt the thorns which were excluded from thy paradise! [41] For thy
omnipotence is not far from us even when we are far from thee. Now, on the
other hand, I might have given more vigilant heed to the voice from the
clouds: “Nevertheless, such shall have trouble in the flesh, but I spare
you,” [42] and, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” [43] and, “He
that is unmarried cares for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may
please the Lord; but he that is married cares for the things that are of the
world, how he may please his wife.” [44] I should have listened more
attentively to these words, and, thus having been “made a eunuch for the
Kingdom of Heaven’s sake,” [45] I would have with greater happiness expected
thy embraces.

4. But, fool that I was, I foamed in my wickedness as the sea and, forsaking
thee, followed the rushing of my own tide, and burst out of all thy bounds.
But I did not escape thy scourges. For what mortal can do so? Thou wast
always by me, mercifully angry and flavoring all my unlawful pleasures with
bitter discontent, in order that I might seek pleasures free from
discontent. But where could I find such pleasure save in thee, O Lord--save
in thee, who dost teach us by sorrow, who woundest us to heal us, and dost
kill us that we may not die apart from thee. Where was I, and how far was I
exiled from the delights of thy house, in that sixteenth year of the age of
my flesh, when the madness of lust held full sway in me--that madness which
grants indulgence to human shamelessness, even though it is forbidden by thy
laws--and I gave myself entirely to it? Meanwhile, my family took no care to
save me from ruin by marriage, for their sole care was that I should learn
how to make a powerful speech and become a persuasive orator.


5. Now, in that year my studies were interrupted. I had come back from
Madaura, a neighboring city [46] where I had gone to study grammar and
rhetoric; and the money for a further term at Carthage was being got
together for me. This project was more a matter of my father’s ambition than
of his means, for he was only a poor citizen of Tagaste.

To whom am I narrating all this? Not to thee, O my God, but to my own kind
in thy presence--to that small part of the human race who may chance to come
upon these writings. And to what end? That I and all who read them may
understand what depths there are from which we are to cry unto thee. [47]
For what is more surely heard in thy ear than a confessing heart and a
faithful life?

5:36 PM  

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