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  • Psychoanalysis and the Question of Violence:From Masochism to Shame
  • Michael Uebel (bio)

The problem of how psychoanalysis addresses itself to the trauma of violence is arguably one of the most crucial questions facing the discipline at this historical moment. This essay will contend that the critical task of historicizing our ideas about violence holds a key to future theory and therapy. Offering a sustained historical emphasis, this essay reveals the extent to which the ideas that we—as citizens and therapists—hold about suffering and violence inflect the culture in which we live, and vice versa. By tracing the historical genealogies of two focal concepts—masochism and shame—and by examining how they play out culturally, psychoanalysis puts itself in an optimal position to rethink the relation of these culturally significant concepts to the problem of cruelty and violence. An approach to violence is here framed within an approach to masochism, precisely because, as we will see, the latter supplanted the former within a historical and cultural context of American shame in the postwar period, a shame tied to the mediated experience of the Holocaust. The historical account presented here builds to a discussion of the remedies, at once psychotherapeutic and social, required for healing in the aftermath of violence and violation.1

This essay begins the project of examining the production of moral and social consciousness in the American postwar period with special attention to the two decades following the Second World War, a period in which the threshold of shame declined enough to allow the formation of two predominant modes of its expression and analysis, both of which share an interest in reading culture's stake in internalizing and libidinalizing shame. These modes, coming from complementary, if competing, angles are (1) analytic theory—especially combat psychiatry from the Second World War—as it developed to [End Page 473] explain and to treat the effects of violence and trauma and (2) the popular imagery of Nazi perversity and sadomasochism that, beginning in the 1960s and directed at a male audience, attempted to work through the shame of the concentration camps.

Wartime Psychoanalysis and the Problem of Violence

To begin then with a curious fact or observation: a survey of the major American, British, and German journals of psychoanalysis and psychology reveals that in the period from 1940-1960 the articles published on the subject of masochism outnumbered those on the subject of sadism by about eight to one. What might explain the preponderance of critical attention to masochism is one of our present concerns, and one that reveals precisely why within the history of psychoanalysis—particularly the American brand as it was inflected by the war effort—the opposition between theoretical abstraction and the reality of human cruelty has seemingly worked to elide the latter.

We should preliminarily remind ourselves that both more theoretically conservative analysts such as Theodor Reik (1941) and Otto Fenichel (1935)—whose conservatism, notably, was theoretical rather than political—and "wild" analysts such as Wilhelm Reich (1932/1945a) avoided in their analyses of masochism the idea of an urge or compulsion to destroy as conceived in and traceable to Freud's (1920) metapsychological notion of the death drive. Indeed, for these important theorists, precisely their attention to what Fenichel (1945) dubbed "the riddle of masochism" (p. 58) led them to reject Freud's theory of the death drive. They saw two principal dangers inherent in death-instinct theory. First was the potential misuse of the theory by analysts who, encountering a case of masochism or self-punishment, would be inclined to fall back on the death-instinct theory and stop analyzing, now believing that they faced an intractable biological fact. Second, such a theory had the further potential to discourage the analyst from looking at the relationship between the individual and the external world, insofar as biologizing the neuroses obscured social factors. [End Page 474]

What emerged in place of theories of cruelty or sadism was a sustained and vital discourse on masochism, one that developed in direct response to real conditions of violence as experienced and conceptualized in the two world wars. Discussions of masochism as they came to prominence during wartime suggest...


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pp. 473-505
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