Psychoanalytic Pure War: Interactions with the Post-Apocalyptic Unconscious

The Education and Training Committee of the American Psychological Association's section "Psychoanalysts for Social Responsibility" has developed a syllabus for a proposed course on "Culture and Psychoanalysis." One of the readings assigned to week 12, "Cultural Crises: Columbine and Sept. 11," is Mark B. Borg's "Psychoanalytic Pure War."

In preparation for offering the syllabus of "Culture and Psychoanalysis" to professionals and institutions who might be interested in teaching the course, the Committee asked section board members to participate in evaluating the readings in the syllabus. The resulting online discussion of "Psychoanalytic Pure War" is appended following the article.

The course is currently being offered at Harvard.


[ARTICLE] Psychoanalytic Pure War: Interactions with the Post-Apocalyptic Unconscious Mark B. Borg, Jr. PhD

[COMMENTARY] American Psychological Association online discussion Board members, "Psychoanalysts for Social Responsibility"


Psychoanalytic Pure War: Interactions with the Post-Apocalyptic Unconscious

Mark B. Borg, Jr. PhD
William Alanson White Institute

Borg, Jr., M. B. (2003). Psychoanalytic Pure War:
Interactions with the Post-Apocalyptic Unconscious.
Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society, 8 (1): 57-67.

PAUL VIRILIO AND SYLVERE LOTRINGER'S CONCEPT of pure war refers to the potential of a culture to destroy itself completely (12).[1] We as psychoanalysts can — and increasingly must — explore the impact of this concept on our practice, and on the growing number of patients who live with the inability to repress or dissociate their experience and awareness of the pure war condition. The realization of a patient's worst fears in actual catastrophic events has always been a profound enough psychotherapeutic challenge. These days, however, catastrophic events not only threaten friends, family, and neighbors; they also become the stuff of endless repetitions and dramatizations on radio, television, and Internet.[2] Such continual reminders of death and destruction affect us all. What is the role of the analyst treating patients who live with an ever-threatening sense of the pure war lying just below the surface of our cultural veneer?

At the end of the First World War, the first "total war," Walter Benjamin observed that "nothing [after the war] remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body"(84). Julia Kristeva makes a similar note about our contemporary situation, "The recourse to atomic weapons seems to prove that horror...can rage absolutely" (232). And, as if he too were acknowledging this same fragility and uncontainability, the French politician Georges Clemenceau commented in the context of World War I that "war is too serious to be confined to the military" (qtd. in Virilio and Lotringer 15).

Virilio and Lotringer gave the name pure war to the psychological condition that results when people know that they live in a world where the possibility for absolute destruction (e.g., nuclear holocaust) exists. As Virilio and Lotringer see it, it is not the technological capacity for destruction (that is, for example, the existence of nuclear armaments) that imposes the dread characteristic of a pure war psychology but the belief systems that this capacity sets up. Psychological survival requires that a way be found (at least unconsciously) to escape inevitable destruction — it requires a way out — but this enforces an irresolvable paradox, because the definition of pure war culture is that there is no escape. Once people believe in the external possibility — at least those people whose defenses cannot handle the weight of the dread that pure war imposes — pure war becomes an internal condition, a perpetual state of preparation for absolute destruction and for personal, social, and cultural death.

The tragedy at the World Trade Center in New York City has given us a bitter but important opportunity to study the effects of the pure war condition on individuals. It allows us to look at how this all-encompassing state appears in psychoanalytic treatment and to observe its influence through the analysis of transference / countertransference dynamics. The pure war condition has been brought grimly to consciousness. In this paper, I will explore how it manifests itself in society, in character, and most specifically in the psychoanalytic treatment of one patient whose dynamics highlight significant aspects of the pure war state.

How does treatment happen when, at some level, we perceive ourselves as already dead? Whatever our individual differences, our visions of the psychoanalytic endeavor arise out of the social defense of the culture within which we live and work (I have referred to this as "community character," cf. Borg 350). And whatever our individual differences, in a pure war situation the primary task is simply to sustain the dream of psychic survival. The case of Joyce, who saw the first explosion at the World Trade Center as she rode down Fifth Avenue in a bus after her session with me, exemplifies this task.

The Pure Warrior

The philosophy (or practice) of "pure warriors," that is, of people who are preoccupied with the pure war condition of their society, is based on the perpetual failure within them of the dissociation and repression that allow others to function in a situation that is otherwise completely overwhelming. Joyce was one of those who lived on the border of life and death; she could not escape awareness of that dread dichotomy from which most of us are at great pains to dissociate. She manifested the state of perpetual preparation that is the hallmark of pure war culture and of the insufficiently defended pure warrior, and also a constant awareness of the nearness of death in all its various forms. She understood quite well, for instance, that when people are institutionalized (as she had been on numerous occasions), "society is defining them as socially dead, [and that at that point] the essential task to be carried out is to help inmates to make their transition from social death to physical death" (Miller and Gwynne 74). Against this backdrop, Joyce sought psychoanalysis as a "new world," the place where she would break free from the deathly institutionalized aspects of her self, and begin her life anew. Her search for a "new world" included the possibility of a world that was not a pure war world — a prelapsarian Eden.

Virilio and Lotringer state that "war exists in its preparation" (53). And Sun Tsu, who wrote over 2400 years ago and yet is often considered the originator of modern warfare, said in The Art of War, "Preparation everywhere means lack everywhere" (44). This means that when the members of a culture must be on guard on all fronts, the resources of that culture are necessarily scattered and taxed. The more defenses are induced and enacted, the more psychologically impoverished a culture (or a person) will be. In war-torn nations, resources like food, clothing, and materials for shelter may be scarce in the general population because they are shunted off to the military. Similarly, the hoarding of psychological resources and the constant alert status of the defense system are outcomes of existence in a pure war culture. We can see this scattering and scarcity of resources occurring already in the United States as billions of dollars are shunted from social services to war efforts and homeland security.

In pure war cultures — that is, in cultures that enact a perpetual preparation for war — the notion of peace is itself a defensive fantasy, although to survive psychically we distract ourselves from such frightening stimuli as widespread terrorist activities and other events that demonstrate our pure war status. Pure war obliterates the distinction between soldier and citizen. We have all been drafted. According to Virilio and Lotringer, "All of us are already civilian soldiers, without knowing it...War happens everywhere, but we no longer have the means of recognizing it" (42).

Some of us do, though, and Joyce was one of those. And even the rest of us occasionally catch a glimpse of the pure war condition in the dark light of such acute traumatic events as aircraft hijackings, race riots, "ethnic cleansings," the World Trade Center Disaster, and suicide bombings. As precise psychoanalytic interpretations illuminate well-entrenched personal psychological defenses, so acute traumas and disasters may highlight the massive insecurities that lie beneath the surface of an otherwise well-protected cultural exterior.

Origins of the Psychoanalytic Study of Pure War

A precursor to the notion of pure war can be seen in a comment made by Freud in the aftermath of the First World War:

The primitive fear of death is still strong within us and always ready to come to the surface on any provocation. Most likely, our fear still implies the old belief that the dead man becomes the enemy of his survivor and seeks to carry him off to share his new life with him (242).

That is, through the constant preparation for war demanded by the pure war condition and the preparatory enactments that such preparation entails, we "share" our lives with the dead.

Winnicott's description of fear of breakdown is a related vision, addressing fear of a previous, rather than a future, event (103). In his view, haunting of the living by the dead relates to past, current, and ongoing conditions of internalized pure war, rather than to actual or certain future events:

It must be asked here: why does the patient go on being worried by this that belongs to the past? The answer must be that the original experience of primitive agony cannot get into the past tense unless the ego can first gather it into its own present and into omnipotent control now (105).

In pure war, omnipotence is shattered. Winnicott speaks to a timelessness in the unconscious, and indeed pure war represents the ultimate end point of the ego's once seemingly infinite timeline. As in Winnicott's notion of fear of breakdown, we cannot ward off pure war without anticipating it, and we cannot anticipate it without its being already there, forming our horizon.

In a similar vein, Sullivan delineated the interpersonal security operations that people call upon to inattend to or dissociate from the internal conditions (that is, anxiety) inherent in unbearable states of preparation (Interpersonal Theory 110). Both selective inattention and dissociation are security operations that circumvent awareness of anxiety. Without them, as psychoanalysts know, the recollected dreaded primitive experiences appear to be returning in approaching future events. This entrapping feedback loop, which is the plight of the anxious individual, can be seen on a larger scale in the pure war culture. All we need for the pure war condition to exist is the belief in apocalyptic possibility — and our global culture and its technology of communication bolster this belief day by day, indeed minute by minute.

From their individual viewpoints, therefore, Freud, Winnicott, and Sullivan each described facets of the pure war condition. They outlined the processes by which it may be translated into patterns of interaction with the environment (individuals, institutions, etc.), and they examined the repetition/enactment of these processes in the transference. A person's attitude toward his or her environment (of which one representation is the analyst) is inevitably made up of transferential appraisals, which are formed initially and maintained afterward in cultural as well as familial contexts. Of course, to the degree that pure war is an internal condition, reaction to it may be observed in all forms of psychological defense: sublimation, dissociation, repression, splitting, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and so on. Each one of these processes address the underlying terror of the pure war perception by communicating the message, "See? Everything's really OK after all."

Patients like Joyce end up in our offices when such reassurance becomes impossible. The specters with whom we share our (internal) lives perpetually threaten to reciprocate, the harbingers of pure war. As we share our lives with them, they share their deaths with us, pulling away the covers under which we keep our own internalized and dissociated personal visions of total annihilation.

Some of us manage to catch glimpses of the pure war reality and hold onto them long enough to report them before the familiar processes of defense kick in. G. Brock Chisholm, was a psychiatrist who looked the reality of pure war in the eye after the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, when he organized a conference titled "The Tensions That Cause Wars":

As mundane distance shriveled into insignificance in the eddies of radioactive matter which swept space around the earth, so also did the swathings of immaterial fictions and habitual evasions with which everyone had been methodically enwrapped. The peoples of the world, wherever language reaches, caught a glimpse of Reality, felt with whatever terror a moment of insight into alike the miniscule and the magnificent Human Being (85).

Sullivan responded to this commentary by asking sardonically, "Do we want nearly everyone to die in order that the human race may begin all over? It is seemly that we, momentarily honorable among the builders of the future, shall further by irresponsibility a schizophrenic dream of death and rebirth" ("Remobilization" 244). Like Joyce, Sullivan was traversing the life/death tightrope — dreaming of "new beginnings" — in the context of Chisholm's grisly glimpse of "Reality." But notwithstanding his characteristic sarcasm, even Sullivan in his focus on rebirth may have been denying the pure war reality that Chisholm let himself see.

Pure War and Character

I understand character as the repetitive interpersonal behaviors or interactive patterns that typify a person's sense of self. These adaptive/defensive interactive patterns form a personality structure stable enough to pursue security and the satisfaction of needs even in the face of anxiety (e.g., A. Cooper 721; Sullivan Interpersonal Theory esp. 42-43, 267-268). They may require reinforcement, however, when access to security and satisfaction is fundamentally threatened. Given relationships (between parent and child, for example), or specific communities (as in prejudices, taboos, laws, sanctioned rules of conduct, or cultural norms) may pose such threats. Our contemporary global community is constantly demonstrating for us threats against societies and peoples, documenting the unrelenting environment of threat in which we live. The devastation of life in Israel by the recent suicide bombings there have given us a rare glimpse of what we could expect in an ongoing "war on terror," however defensively we might call such a war "Enduring Freedom."

The ways that the pure war mode manifests itself in societies can be understood through the concept of community character: like an individual, communities or cultures (especially in the context of chronic trauma) can develop characteristic ways of interacting that work to maintain security and decrease awareness of overwhelming levels of anxiety within the culture (Borg 347).[3] These repetitive ways of interacting often manifest in rules, regulations, taboos, and stereotypes. This implies that character formation based on adjustment to a pathological society can produce psychopathology by two related mechanisms. Ours is a society in which some people suffer from an inability to adapt while others suffer from the compromises they have made in the service of adaptation. Examples of the former are easily found in psychiatric hospitals; the symptomatic compromise of the latter are visible, for instance, in the degeneration of corporate ethics, a growing tolerance of cruelty, and the tendency to target and scapegoat criminals without accounting for the criminogenic environments that sustain crime as a reaction to intolerable living conditions. The ultimate pathological compromise is the acceptance of these and similar behaviors as the norm. Perhaps this provides a context for a statement made by French cultural theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: that in such a society "a schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model [for living] than a neurotic lying on the analyst's couch" (Anti-Oedipus 2).

Schizophrenia is a process that breaks with what Deleuze and Guattari call molar formations (Anti-Oedipus 128): modes of thought that have been captured by the rules and regulations sanctioned by consensus in a population — the familial, community, and societal standards and expectations, the "Thou Shalts" and "Thou Shalt Nots" of a culture. Once a person has experienced a break, he or she becomes in Deleuze and Guattari's terms molecular (213) or deterritorrialized,[4] and is then an outlier to those standards (in their terms, a "nomad" [Thousand Plateaus 54-55]). Or, in the terms of their translator and student, Brian Massumi, "a [molar] structure is defined by what escapes it — [supermolecularized individuals, schizophrenics, for example]" (Massumi 57).

Accordingly, Massumi says: "Schizophrenia is a breakaway into the unstable equilibrium of continuing self-invention" (92) (as opposed to invention by society and its prescriptions). For the schizophrenic ("out for a walk") model to work, this supermolecular approach to living has to exist outside the power dynamics of the pure war system (the system that maintains the capacity of some to inflict annihilation on others). This is exactly why such a painful state such as schizophrenia can at times appear to be a seductive alternative to the constraints of conventional socialization. It can seem as if it is the only alternative to a break (-down) of this or some other kind is conformity and subscription to the pure war character. Michel Foucault in his introduction to Anti-Oedipus describes this conformity as "the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us" (xiii).

A looming question remains, particularly for analysts doing clinical work, regarding how to use these concepts in helping their patients deal with the problems that bring them into treatment. Deleuze and Guattari suggest that societies and their members may be characterized on a continuum that stretches between the absolute limit-points of fascism-paranoia and anarchy-schizophrenia. At the fascist-paranoid pole are the indoctrinating, colonizing maneuvers that lead to social control and conformity, while the anarchy-schizophrenia pole stretches the limits of life's possibilities and perceives the world as an infinitely open system (Thousand Plateaus 10-11). In their view, schizophrenia is not a metaphor. They view schizophrenics as lone nomads whose thinking processes are capable of challenging a fascist system. While this can be a seductive perspective, it is also highly romanticized, and few clinicians who are intimately familiar with the tortures of schizophrenia could literally advocate for becoming a schizophrenic, especially in a fascist society. I am, therefore, presenting an unresolved tension between the view of schizophrenia as clinical entity (and a metaphor) and the sort of experiment in thinking and being seen in Deleuze and Guattari's work.

In this vein, Lynne Layton (esp. Ch. 1 and 5) has presented a helpful critique of the ways in which many postmodern theorists (including Deleuze and Guattari 3) celebrate and romanticize processes such as identity fluidity and fragmentation while disavowing the possible traumatic underpinnings (often related to physical and/or sexual abuse), relational etiologies, and repercussions of such processes. The looming question becomes: do analysts inevitably push their patients into social conformity in their, sometimes desperate, efforts to "cure"? Or, as Layton wonders (personal communication), can analysts strive for something else, like helping patients find less destructive ways to resist conformity, and thereby avoid the pathologies of both rebellion against (psychosis and paranoia) and adaptation to (dysthymia, i.e., resignation) the pure war world? I continue to work with the notion that this is possible, while realizing that, perhaps, these (looming) questions are never finally answerable.

Analysis in Pure War

Joyce is a thirty-nine-year-old Jewish New Yorker who "snuck" her way into my office, as she put it. When she contacted the psychoanalytic clinic where I work, she represented herself as a psychiatrist seeking a referral for an analyst who accepted Medicare. Some months into her treatment, she explained to me that she had an "infamous history," including many therapists and psychiatric hospitalizations, and she felt certain that no one who knew about it would give her an "adequate" referral. She had long been labeled schizoaffective, and she had recently endured an extremely painful separation from her previous therapist of two years. She told me that she needed psychological treatment as a condition of her remaining housed at her community residence. Joyce claimed numerous physical (diabetes, epilepsy, cardiac dysrhythmias) as well as emotional (depression, loneliness, rage) problems, but she said that she was more interested in making use of the capacities that she still had than in focusing endlessly on those that she lacked.

In her initial evaluation, Joyce described her life in institutions. She felt that she had to fight to make any kind of decisions about her daily life (when to go to bed, who would be her roommate, etc.). This made her very angry, but at the same time, she was almost totally dependent upon the very institutions (Medicare, her community residence, etc.) that she felt were taking away her freedom, especially the frequent and involuntary admissions to the local psychiatric hospitals that they imposed upon her. The anti-psychiatrist David Cooper has said that "those admitted into a psychiatric hospital are admitted not so much because they are sick, as because they are protesting in a more or less adequate way against the social order" (48-49).

This was how Joyce felt. She lived with intensely conflicted feelings of defiant dependency about the system within which she felt, and was, constrained. As these feelings were enacted in her analysis, we began to recognize a system based on a "warehousing ideology" — that is, a system for "storing" those that do not fit into the "molar formation." This system served solely "to prolong physical life" (Miller and Gwynne 71) — at least that was the only benefit that accrued to Joyce. She perceived correctly that reimbursement procedures (SSDI, Medicare, Medicaid) made her admissions profitable to her keepers, and that the result was a self-serving institutional system that was apathetic (if not actively hostile) to her actual needs. Joyce was also acutely aware that upon entry into an institution she entered the realm of the socially rejected. Miller and Gwynne have addressed this experience:

By crossing the boundary into the institution they [those institutionalized] have demonstrated that they lack any role that is socially valued in the outside world ... They are defined as social dropouts, parasitical upon the wider society ... The harsh reality, therefore, is that by the very fact of committing them to institutions, society is in effect defining them as socially dead (73-74).

Thus, schizophrenia may be, in part, the lot of veterans of the hard-won battle of acknowledging, dissociating from, accepting, and rebelling against the pure war condition.

Psychological defense generally does a fairly decent job of maintaining a separation between our current state of being alive and our future state of being dead; this separation allows us to function. However, when an analyst steps outside of this consensually valid dissociation to interact with a patient who has done the same, the awareness of pure war erupts into the consciousness of both. The analytic engagement coalesces around the reality that we are likely to remain in a state of pure war for the duration of our lives, and so we are challenged to grapple with our own anxieties about deterioration, annihilation, and death.

Organizational theorists posit that social systems can provide useful (also not so useful) defenses against anxiety (Jaques 478; Menzies 95). Most people belong to many social systems, but some (who are condemned to existence within institutions, like Joyce) belong to few. In cases like hers, the analytic relationship becomes the representative of these missing social systems. For Joyce, the issue of maintaining a relationship with any system upon which she feels dependent was complicated, as the social systems in her life, far from reinforcing her defenses, have clearly served to exacerbate her anxiety. We therefore had to resist the temptation to make me, the analyst, a "leader" who erodes the ego functioning of his patient by identifying himself with an ill-functioning system (like a psychiatric hospital), already perceived by her as incapable of containing her terrifying experience. When we managed to do so, we were able to work toward sustaining awareness of the extremely uncomfortable reality that results when institutional structures cannot deal with extremely anxiety-provoking (i.e., pure war) existence.

Attack and Confinement

Pure war dynamics played out in many subtle ways between Joyce and me through the first year of her four-times-weekly psychoanalytic treatment. But they came into the treatment relationship full force after the September 11 terrorist attack on New York City, where I am in practice. Although Joyce had been psychiatrically hospitalized numerous times before she became my patient, it was not until the day of the World Trade Center attack that she was hospitalized during her analysis with me. On September 11, Joyce had attended an early morning analytic session and then caught a bus to go to an appointment with the social security administration. Going downtown on Fifth Avenue, she saw from the bus window the explosion as the first plane hit the World Trade Center. She told me that she watched quietly while others on the bus screamed out in horror. But when she got to her appointment she too began screaming, and was promptly transported to a nearby psychiatric hospital.

Joyce had begun her analysis a year earlier with the statement that "I feel as if I have been dumped into the mental health system as a schizophrenic, and that there is no return." She had an inability to repress that left her with the flotsam and jetsam of thoughts and affects that result when there are massive failures of defensive functioning; if she thought it or felt it, odds were she was acting on it. A major question in the first year was whether analysis would be able to contain the affect and content that flooded her, and this question became more pressing after September 11.

Joyce called my answering service from the hospital in a terrified fantasy that I had been killed at the World Trade Center. Even after I told her that I was unharmed, she continued calling my voice mail dozens of time each day for several days, maintaining the fantasy that I was endangering myself through volunteer work, which, she imagined, was taking place amidst the debris. Joyce's consistent problems around boundaries were another manifestation of her projective tendencies. For instance, she would leave innumerable "emergency" messages on my voice-mail, often claiming that her sole intention was to "save our relationship." The combination of her flooding paranoid processes and her poor boundary maintenance gave her a terrible potential for pure war perception — that is, for the awareness of the flimsy lines that separate fantasy from reality, inside from outside, murderer from murdered, and, most especially, present from future. The future, in this case, was infected by her awareness (profoundly realized on September 11) that absolute destruction is possible.

It seemed to me sometimes that Joyce existed to challenge (if not to sustain an ongoing hostile attack upon) the social order, as it had been imparted to and imposed upon her. She challenged this order in her sessions in many ways, attacking the professional whom she'd "hired" to treat her, for example, with a facile combination of criticism, profanity, and flatulence. We talked about the fact that it often seemed as if she had challenged the social order so long and so hard that she had "forgotten the rules," and so was infinitely perplexed when the system fought back. She was obsessed by sexual, aggressive, and rebellious impulses that covered the entire span of psychosexual development.

Joyce consistently made clear after September 11 her acute awareness of the struggle that she felt within herself "between life and death." In some ways this struggle was literally true; she did have severe physical problems. Joyce had diabetes; her mother had died of this disease and had lost both of her legs to it in an amputation shortly before she died, a falling apart that resonated deeply in Joyce. But there was a symbolic struggle as well. Both of her parents had been well known and respected physicians, and Joyce felt that her mother in particular quite literally had a power over life and death, over coherence and chaos, that could be shared or withdrawn at will. Joyce's mother had died when Joyce was seventeen, and the world fell apart for Joyce. Her father died a month later, having lost his own power source, and Joyce's siblings (one of whom is her twin) then turned upon her, "attacking and destroying" her (by sending her to her first psychiatric hospital) after that. They also ensured that Joyce would never have access to her inheritance.

Joyce's vision of her mother's power, and the acuteness and catastrophic results of her loss, led Joyce to extremely complicated relationships with power/authority figures. The police and fire fighters, for example, were heroes for their bravery on September 11 and represented to her potential sources of "salvation." But they were also the people who constantly "fucked" her (by getting her hospitalized) through their inhospitable responses to the 911 calls she makes perpetually when she feels anxious. When her needs for salvation are not met, Joyce feels abused and powerless. She had come to believe that people with status use their power to abuse her, and that she possessed neither the tools nor the status to prevent the abuse. To her way of thinking, she received abuse from the very medical and social systems that sustained her; she would call for help, and these "emergency" calls would often result in the next hospitalization. This is all the more poignant in view of her feeling that in their deaths her parents had been failed by the medical system that they had served.

Realistically Joyce did not have anyone to protect her, and she consistently tried to put me into the treacherous (i.e., idealized) transferential position of protector. To protect requires authority, however, and as Shea and Wilson note, "Every act of authority is, in fact, an invasion of the psychic and physical territory of another" (793). She envied everyone who had the foundation that she felt she lacked (and actually did), and her envy was so intense that her life had become a process of tearing other people apart. She did this in her mind (especially with regard to my other patients, whom she refers to as schvartzas and faggots), and often in reality as well; she had a track record of reporting her physicians to state boards and developing complicated litigation scenarios that she sent to prospective lawyers, and once to the White House. It was our exploration of these attack patterns that revealed the first glimmerings of her pure war condition.

As we began to outline Joyce's preoccupation with destroying and being destroyed, she made it clear that her capacity to focus was being derailed by a growing obsessive awareness of her vagina. Joyce told me that she had engaged in compulsive masturbation since her teens. But it was only after the World Trade Center disaster that she began to reveal her fascination with her vagina, her masturbatory practices, and her associated fantasies. Upon her return from the hospital a week after September 11, she began to discuss the details of her "hours and hours" of daily masturbation. Joyce had never had any sexual contact because she was terrified of being penetrated by a violent and uncontrollable penis or being infected by diseased vaginas. Her fantasies frequently included packs of men wielding knife-penises coming to rape her. She also believed that the vaginas of other women carried diseases that would infect and destroy her. However, her fantasies about women also conjured up more nurturing scenarios that were made safe, in part, by their focus on non-contact parallel masturbation rather than direct physical contact. She began her discussion of the masturbation and her related fantasy life by presenting a dream:

I was masturbating on the driveway of my family home and became embarrassed when I noticed that there was water flowing underneath my feet from the garage. As I noticed this, you went riding by on a bicycle waving and smiling though not, apparently, noticing that I was beating off. But still, in the dream I knew that you knew what was going on.

When she described the emotions related to her dream, Joyce said that she felt ashamed, as somehow it had become clear in our interaction that I knew now, "for sure," that she was "actually psychotic." Up to that point she had pretended not to know that I knew about her difficulties; if that were the case, we would not have to discuss them. Upon exploration, it seemed that the dream was revealing Joyce's feelings about the processes of her own body, both her extreme fascination with them and her sense of alienation from them, as from the "wetness" of her vagina, the water flowing from the garage. She revealed that her shame (in the dream) was not that I had "caught [her] beating off," but that I was in a position to witness how it was that she "actually worked."

Joyce said that the only reason that she was now willing to address this issue was because she had recently experienced an irritating intruder into her fantasy life — her analyst. Each time she tried to engage in one of her fantasies she would sense a foreign presence and then would notice that I was sitting somewhere just on the periphery of her fantasy in my chair, silently taking notes.

As we talked, we developed an understanding of Joyce existing as a shell. Within the shell were contained body parts, all of which had essential, though separate and fragmented, relationships with the outside world (that is, with me). She also saw herself as relating to others primarily if she could perceive them as fragmented also, similar to herself. Her fantasy of me being killed at the World Trade Center focused on the perception that I had been torn to pieces, "caught in the rubble." Why she had created this particular fantasy scenario became a key question for us upon her return from her one-week hospitalization.

On the one hand, she was clearly not aware of the degree of rage that informed her fear that I was dead ("in the rubble"). Projection of rage of this sort is, of course, at the core of the paranoid process. This rage was motivated by her intolerable feelings of growing dependence on me. After all, the last time she allowed herself to become dependent on a clinician (her previous therapist) she ended up being abandoned, finding herself in the rubble. By putting me in the rubble, she had transformed me into fragmented body parts, too. So, on the other hand, killing me, tearing me apart in the rubble was also a constructive psychic act, one that allowed a perceived commonality from which to begin relating her experiences of living in such a shattered, dissected condition. On numerous occasions I asked Joyce why she needed to break me apart and she was able over time to share her feelings of envy (that, in her fantasy, I give more to my other patients, of my being in a committed partnership, of my being an accomplished professional), fear of abandonment, and, she said, "because I love you."

Tearing me apart let her accept an increased level of intimacy between us — another dissected, fragmented person could be safely negotiated, she felt, whereas a whole person could not, would not tolerate her. The extent to which this dissection process was projected into others in her world became increasingly accessible in treatment. Her obsession with her vagina, and the sense of fragmentation that this sustained, had been an unintended entry point into her experience of and defense against the pure war condition in her (our) world.

Fall Apart

Joyce revealed that she had long since stopped believing in herself as an organized entity. Deleuze and Guattari have said that "we live in a world of partial objects, bricks that have been shattered to pieces" (Anti-Oedipus 42). They describe the psyche (and society) as a system of flows and interruptions — they call them break/flows — analogous to a circuit board that allows or disallows the flow of electricity. Desire (or libido) is an example of a simple but pertinent break/flow pattern: its expression is a flow, its (social) prohibition a break. Prohibition may be challenged by the flow of desire (even if unconscious and enacted) in ways that either thwart or reinforce the initial prohibition, and so on. Prohibitions, in fact, can foster a retrospective perspective on desire: "That's what I'm not allowed to have? That must mean it's what I want(ed)."[5]

Joyce seemed in her experience of the pure war condition to have been effectively "shattered to pieces." As she obsessively described her masturbatory practices, I began to perceive her as a system of break/flows: call it countertransference. In this fantasy (which she confirmed by her own description), the break/flow process begins with the flow, the desire underlying her masturbation that is represented by her wetness, the flow of water in the dream. It is broken by painful images of unrequited love and wished-for, prohibited lovers (including most specifically her previous therapist). These images then transform again and flow into erotic social images of these lovers (hybrid versions made up of body images appropriated from pornographic materials with various familiar people's heads attached). The new flow is broken again by prohibition (i.e., her shame about using porn), until her frantic work at re-arousal erases the prohibitions and allows the flow of desire once more.

Joyce could allow no identifiable "I" in her experience, no self that could be targeted in the (current, past, and future) attacks whose perpetual anticipation is her life. To be a series of disconnected processes and body parts, to transcend the integrity of fixed selfhood allowed her to feel, at some level, that there was no "I" to destroy and therefore she was "safe" — "See? Everything's OK after all."

Of course, any form of attachment to a whole subject/object was profoundly threatening to the experienced incoherence that was so necessary to her sense of security. To counteract her increasing, and often erotically-charged, attachment to me she had to continue to break herself apart. As her sense of attachment in treatment increased after September 11, her need to break her analyst apart increased as well. The fact that she broke me apart in her fantasy of me in the rubble actually and ironically increased the felt intimacy of the analytic relationship, intensified her attachment, and brought a distant but sometimes more consistent sense of "I" into her awareness.

Chronic Disaster and Certain Fate

Falling apart is the "certain fate" of the pure war world, and the punk band Mission of Burma asks a telling question: "Can I count on you if I fall apart?...That's how I escaped my certain fate"[emphasis mine]. Their question was Joyce's question, and their solution was hers also. Her mother's body had fallen apart, initiating a sequence that (in her mind) destroyed her father, her family, and ultimately herself. Falling apart was a family pattern, and she reenacted it in most all of her endeavors, including the transference. It appeared in her experience to be a social pattern, too, and in fact her psychological process of falling apart was both a defense against and a reluctant acceptance of the pure war state in which she lived. Joyce knew about pure war: the things and people that had represented the world for Joyce had been annihilated. Like the rest of us, Joyce cannot completely escape her "certain fate" — death. But to be able to "count on" the process of her analysis became a possibility.

Joyce is highly committed to the defenses around her conflicted desires and needs for intimacy and dependency — as committed as the rest of us are to our defenses against the perception of imminent death. And she uses them in a similar way — to keep herself from awareness of her own destruction — and so she resists any analysis of them that might increase her awareness of the conflict.

Trying to figure out what was actually happening between us was always tricky. Was she being brought back together (as an "I"), or was it I being broken apart? Who was more resistant to the authority/indoctrination/razing of the other at any given time? As part of her analytic contribution, she shared her shattered state, and, as part of mine, I fervently imparted my conscious sense of coherent existence. Neither of those two defensive states could really sustain any kind of valid status as truth; both positions seemed to be more like inhabited roles than fixed positions. Joyce's masturbation continued unabated. Sometimes we both experienced my interpretations as a violent attempt to draw her in to a more understandable existence, corralling her for the purposes of branding, social conformity. She retreated into the spaces of her schizophrenic part-object escapes from the pure war condition, while I scrambled for comfort into supervision, into the safe and sturdy mommy-daddy-me triangle upon which psychoanalysis was built. Even so, Joyce's decompensations wormed their way into me, and it was not often clear who was branding whom.

I wish I could wrap this up neatly — patient gets better and analyst puts together a highly coherent theoretical conceptualization of the treatment to be presented at the Summer Meeting of the American Psychological Association. But really Joyce and I live in a chronic flirtation with disaster, never coming fully together, never breaking completely apart. When our relationship teeters in the direction of imposed analytic authority, we are (perhaps as a necessary defense) driven apart; when we are working from a sense of collaboration and equality, we come back together — more break/flows. When I feel myself in pieces, I find myself crawling away from the desert-like places our interactions reveal; when I experience myself as a total system I have to search for the lost innards of the shell who lies on my couch. I get nervous at the possibility that if we can't find hers she might steal away with mine, and so the cycle continues.

Sometimes pure war enters into our conscious awareness as the transference pull of Joyce's dissection of me brings me too close, brings us together. At other times, she allows herself to depend on me and is transported through time and space, back to a time where, perhaps, the mommy-daddy-me configuration granted her more coherence than it does now. Though sometimes this state exists between us for minutes at a time, her resistance to coherence generally wins out. Nonetheless, we have found our way to one piece of reliable mutuality: we both know that pure war exists — in Joyce, in the city surrounding us, and sometimes, fleetingly, in me.

Indeed, for pure war to exist in our conscious awareness all that Joyce and I have to do (and we do this quite frequently) is look out my window at the clearly visible Empire State Building. During the days and weeks following September 11, many of us in New York (a microcosm of the U.S. and perhaps, in some ways, of the world) would turn our gazes toward it, expecting it to be "next." Joyce and I do that all the time, waiting for it to be attacked and shattered like the World Trade Center, and our sense of ourselves along with it. In the imagining that we now share, pure war is happening.

I hear the clock ticking away the seconds of a recent session (tick-tock-tick-tock). We aren't looking, but we both know what lurks outside the window of my seventh story office window: pure war. Just as we are coming apart, becoming overwhelmed by the magnitude (tick-tock-tick) of the events in our surroundings (tock), everything (tick) stops.

Is the world still standing? Are we still alive? I suppose that, much like Schršdinger's cat, who is shut into a box that contains poison and, until the experimenter opens the box, is both and neither alive and/or dead, it is and it isn't; we are and we are not. At least until one of us looks out to see. At forty-four minutes and counting I begin to move my head to peer out the window, and, as she does once in a while, Joyce follows my lead.


1 Virilio and Lotringer stress that the state of pure war does not depend on the presence of active hostilities. It is the existence of a possibility — the capacity for total destruction (53).

2 A striking example of this can be observed in Bill Keller's recent article, "Nuclear Nightmares," in the May 26, 2002 edition of The New York Times Magazine.

3 The concept of community character resembles Erich Fromm's concept of social character (305). However, Fromm's ideas focused mainly on descriptions of capitalist societies. The concept of community character, in contrast, seeks to highlight how core psychoanalytic understandings of the individual can also be used to understand the workings of a community or culture whatever its political or economic structure. For example, I have previously written on the depressive community character of an impoverished community in South Central Los Angeles. Vamik Volkan, in his study of the fundamental need for political and social enemies and allies, also hypothesized a system of group defense (94). This system-level defense is developed by large groups in the service of protecting its (psychic and actual) identity and borders.

4 Territorialization is a term derived from Lacan's analysis of the process by which parental caregiving maps the infant's erogenous zones, charging specific organs and corresponding objects with energy and value. Territorialization thus programs the desire to valorize certain organs and objects at the expense of others, and at the expense of what Freud called "polymorphous perversity": the free-flowing form of desire that Deleuze and Guattari attribute to schizophrenia. Deterritorialization is the process of freeing desire from established organs, objects, and uses (Holland 19).

5 This resonates with what Foucault's thoughts in The History of Sexuality, i.e., that prohibitions are productive; they produce desire (81-83, 86).


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Online discussion of "Pure War" in connection with its inclusion in a proposed syllabus for a course on "Culture and Psychoanalysis"

Board members of the American
Psychological Association's section
"Psychoanalysts for Social Responsibility"

Dear All,

I wanted to share some thoughts I had while reading Mark Borg's profound article, but even more so I look forward to hearing your thoughts and reactions. What came to mind when reading Mark Borg's article on Pure War was the case of a Holocaust survivor, who was told by a psychiatrist during a consultation in the 1960's that if she were analyzed ('taken apart' was the term she used), she might not be able 'to be put back together again' (as if there was an analysis/synthesis dichotomy). I wondered was this psychiatrist referring to her potential dissolution or his own. Perhaps this experience predated newer developments in relational thinking as the psychiatrist didn't have the tools to deal with the shared fragmented experience of horrific trauma. The co-existence of life and death, the breakdown of the boundaries we have come to rely on.

Mark Borg's case shows the vacillations between coherence and fragmentation that he and Joyce experienced. His case makes me wonder whether patients come to us to be healed/cured or for something else. He enters the profound isolation of her world, perhaps tapping into those historical moments where others existed for her and understood (ie. perhaps before her parents died and her world fell apart). War veterans, concentration camp survivors and others talk about the importance of their buddies and fellow inmates while living through pure war. Yet the experience of "pure war" threatens and can dissolve those very connections. For some their survival was experienced in terms of the death of others.

While discussing his patient Joyce, he also mentions the cultural mechanisms, in this case societal marginalization of the schizophrenic and the system of care (institutionalization) which furthers the person's fragmentation and threatens them with psychic death. He also alluded to the very defenses we use to shore ourselves up — "the compromises we have made in the service of adaptation", the degeneration of corporate ethics, the scapegoating and marginalization of those in our society that remind us of the problems of our society (e.g., the poor). Whether on an individual or societal level "pure war" is expressed in its more direct form or indirectly by the defenses we erect to protect ourselves from it.

We were traumatized by the events of 9/11. Joyce and Mark Borg looking out, anticipating possible doom to the Empire State Building typifies it. We have all experienced similar feelings as the alert levels have fluctuated from yellow to orange. The extent to which these events not only traumatized us as individuals but on a communal/governmental level and reactions in terms of the war, our reaction to the war (as we expressed fears around the election) as we shared our own fears for our future and the potential for defensive enactments around these fears — 'war is an effort at coalescence when the "other" is experienced as our destruction.

Can we hold on to this inevitable dichotomy between dissolution and defense and what would happen if we sat in that space between them not knowing our future.

Mark Borg describes this moment in his sitting with his patient — not knowing what will be — not attempting to "cure" her or to leave her but merely to be there with her and himself.

This made me wonder, can we on a communal level in post 9/11 America sit there in this space not knowing like Mark and Joyce, without moving toward premature knowing in an us/them way, like the psychiatrist mentioned earlier, our government and even some of our own reactions toward our governments as our terror buttons are pressed. Is our struggle between defensively knowing vs. the "utter devastative state of pure war" inevitable, can our awareness of this struggle take us to a new place.

Looking forward to hear your feelings and thoughts on this profound article.

Arlene Lu Steinberg

Lu has brought so much to our attention I hardly know where to begin. I think I have to begin with Terry Schiavo, the latest event to put me in mind of the extent to which disavowal (and sheer manipulation, of course) is marking our moment. How do we make sense of the fight that is going in to keep this woman alive when so many are daily dying in Iraq, so many more in this country unable to pay for health care. I feel my own "systems" are simply overwhelmed when I read that the Institute of Medicine, "a nonprofit healthcare advisory group based in Washington, D.C., estimated that it would cost $34 billion to $69 billion annually for complete coverage of the uninsured" (Boston Globe, 3/24/05) and I compare that to the 80 billion that Bush seems more than once annualy to get approval for in order to continue the war in Iraq. It doesn't take Sept. 11 or raised and lowered alerts to feel that we live in a culture so deeply against life that it boggles the mind that Democrats can't find a way both to counter the Republican "use" of Schiavo AND to stand for life. It boggles the mind to hear the so-called liberal media so quickly formulate the event in terms of Terry "starving to death" while her parents wait for a decision (reminds me of how Laci Peterson's "unborn child" slipped into media discourse, never to disappear or be contested). Many patients this week spoke about the Schiavo case; I hadn't heard so much about current events since the election. Although several expressed a terror of having the government make decisions about their own life or death, I wonder if it's on so many people's minds because somewhere they are registering the deep disregard for life that lies so close to the surface of the pro-life rhetoric. When I read Mark Borg's description of the state of "pure war" this is what comes to mind — the assault on lives in the name of "life." Like Joyce, I wonder more and more frequently: who can we count on if we fall apart?

Lynne Layton

I, too, read with interest the Borg article. Or perhaps I should say, rather than with interest, with recognition. Recognition of my own experience these days living in a culture that seems determined to assault all aspects of life and sustainability and wonderment at how many of my patients seem to be disconnected from any awareness or preoccupation about the social context in which they live. I appreciate the way Borg moves easily between the pure war impulse toward self-destructiveness in the social domain and how it characterizes intrapsychic experience as well, and one could certainly make the case that while the content of patients' concerns may not have social referents at the manifest level, any tendency toward fragmentation or splitting psychically and reflected in the transference/countertransference relationship by inference must contain the annihilation anxiety imposed by the socio-symbolic order. And from my perspective, it would be fruitless to understand intrapsychic annihilation anxiety as a separate register from its social context from the beginnings of life. If that is the case, but unrecognized by the patient, how does or should the analyst introduce that domain of signification that is unconscious in the other? How can we sustain the dream of psychic survival if the dread of individual, collective and thus symbolic annihilation due to the decisions made by those in power, which have brought us to the brink of technological and ecological disaster, is continually and seamlessly denied and disavowed? Borg reminds us that inattention and dissociation are adaptive defenses that aid us in containing primitive anxieties (from the past but interpreted as dreadful about-to-happen disasters) that would otherwise overcome our ability to function and threaten to produce the kind of anarchy-schizophrenia that immobilizes and sustains states of terror. An important notion I take from reading Borg (and his reference to Lynne Layton's work) is that while we can appreciate theoretically the potential importance of our capacity to disconnect from the social order, especially a pure war one, which would entail a process of fragmentation, identity fluidity, a falling apart, we need not romanticize this process, because as clinicians we must respond to our patients' very real desire to feel a sense of continuity of self. But this raises an important question for me, one that I think about in terms of the bystander phenomenon: if our adaptive defenses such as dissociation work really well in terms of protecting us from pure war dread, our subjectivity and we as subjects can experience the larger social order as one that exits out there and is either not relevant to our "personal" lives or is cynically accepted because of an assumption of our impotence to challenge it. Either way, our dissociation is syntonic with pure war society and the self-interested policies of the major political decision-makers and hegemonic ideology that are leading our species toward potential destruction. How to disrupt the adaptive defenses so that we aren't all automatically functioning as the bystanders to pure war without our becoming so overwhelmed that we are "falling apart" and yielding to the dread of annihilation anxiety? As Lynne reports in her response to Borg's article, when I look at the paper and read between the lines of what the government is doing as its citizens are mesmerized by the Schiavo case, I feel a kind of alarmed desperation. Do people's fascination with this media-invented and politically managed case represent a massive dissociation of all who cannot bear to stare the real facts of our pure war culture in the face and know we must do something about it? This is surely not a dissociated defense that is adaptive in the long-range interests of our collective survival. Last week, one NYT editorial page contained articles about the crisis of oil and its depletion in the near future and the absence of concern and attention by those in political and economic power to take on the multiple challenges that recognizing reality would entail for our future ability to generate an energy alternative. And the prior day, that same editorial page listed all the government decisions (executive and legislative) that are concentrating political power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands and condemning the rest of us to lives of absolute desperation as citizens' psychic energies are mobilized elsewhere, on Schiavo, a metaphor of a poor soul living half live/half dead. Is that the transitional state we know, but dissociate from, that we are all living now in the pure war world? As Borg says, in the preparation of it anyway? Which, in actuality, is pure war.

P.S. Borg's last page is quite moving, and I feel myself envious in a way of his relationship with a patient whose psychic states of primitive defenses and fragmentation permit them to share an awareness as they look out his NY window, that we are, indeed, in deep shit trouble. It seems to me there is some value in a profound connection with another with whom we can tolerate together, albeit for a moment at a time, the psychic and social experience of the vulnerability of ourselves. But, of course, we all need hope, and it is also comforting to remember how many of us all over the world opt out of dissociative protections and disaffiliation from prevailing ideologies of those in power to fight against pure war. This activity gives me pleasure; as do the beautiful Spring blue skies and budding flowers of every hue and color that surround me when I walk my dog in late afternoons — before I am aware of fantasies marching across my mind of nuclear explosions that can evaporate the beauty I appreciate at any moment. The battle with/against pure war is constant, just as Borg says.

Nancy C Hollander

Dear All,

The Terry Schialvo case resonated with my very recent experience, just two weeks ago, witnessing my mother-in-law on a respirator and a feeding tube in a Medical ICU — while we dreaded having to make decisions with regard to her life, and then her painful rescue of us from those dreaded decisions by passing away on her own. How even more dreadful it would have been if the world had looked on and the government had tried to intervene while my family was going through these very private, excruciating moments. As I read in newspapers and magazines, I am struck by the grotesqueness of all that has happened to this poor woman, supposedly 'on her behalf'. Lynne and Nancy point our not only our societal disavowal of the 'pure war' state, as our country chose war (with the likely result of death) but the additional disguise not only of that disavowal, but a masquerade of disguising these choices behind a 'pro-life' stance.

Lu Steinberg

Thanks to Lu, Nancy and Lynne for your postings. Your comments bring up the question for me of what is bearable and what is unbearable. There is so much horror in the world and down the street that needs to be addressed and sometimes seems overwhelming. For me, the most powerful part of Borg's article was its title. It is horrifying, like Strozier's talk of apocalyptic anxiety. Some time this week it seemed to me that the millions of well-meaning people out there (including myself) are sitting around complaining and doing nothing. At some point we have to get off our listserves and out into the streets if we want to be heard. But then I went to a conference at Columbia U. on international civil society and social change. Toni Morrison and Desmond Tutu spoke at the opening event. Both were incredibly optimistic while clearly not ignoring any of the pain in the world. Tutu had a very long list of recent instances in which non-violent action has undone violent regimes, from South Africa to the American South, to the Ukraine and Poland, etc. Tutu reminded us of Gandhi's comment that in the long run, violence never prevails. It always undoes itself (in the long run, after much damage is done). Today I thought that this Schiavo matter is being orchestrated by some hardball players — this is how they do their politics, and this is how they do their business. Ruthless self-interest. This is the capitalist system they want to export, this is the freedom they want to promote — the freedom to get what you can. And, along with being horrible, how sad is that? Given that we'll all be dead before too long, how sad is it to be spending your life steamrolling over other people?

Neil Altman

Mark Borg writes:

Virilo and Lotringer gave the name "pure war" to the psychological condition that results when people know that they live in a world where the possibility for absolute destruction (e.g. nuclear holocaust) exists É the definition of pure war culture is that there is no escape (p. 57).

Is it clear to everyone, how the "pure war" condition is different from the human condition? I feel a bit like a broken record on this point. We are all going to be dead pretty soon, regardless, right?

Borg writes:

All we need for the pure war condition to exist is the belief in apocalyptic possibility — and our global culture and its technology bolster this belief day by day, indeed minute by minute (p.59).

And what is it, exactly, that we would be believing without that global culture and technology?

Speaking of "character" and the patterns of interaction that are integral to a person's sense of self, Borg says:

They may require reinforcement, however, when access to security and satisfaction is fundamentally threatened. Given relationships (between parent and child, for example) or specific communities (as in prejudices, taboos, laws, sanctioned rules of conduct, or cultural norms) may pose such threats (p. 60).

Is "access to security and satisfaction fundamentally threatened" when a human being contemplates the fact that he and everyone who is important to him, in fact every single person who is currently alive, will not exist at all in a matter of years? Why does Borg refer to all those "threats" that are not integral to the human condition, threats that are not necessary and that could, in principle, not be part of our lives? Is there an implication that without those threats we wouldn't be facing the absolute end with no exit? Is this a form of "denial of death" a la Becker?

There are many statements like this throughout. In some places Borg grapples more directly with what the "pure war" condition does relative to the inevitability of everyone's death under any conditions. He writes for example:

Psychological defense generally does a fairly decent job of maintaining a separation between our current state of being alive and out future state of being dead; this separation allows us to function. However, when an analyst steps outside of this consensually valid dissociation to interact with a patient who has done the same, the awareness of pure war erupts into the consciousness of both. The analytic engagement coalesces around the reality that we are likely to remain in a state of pure war for the duration of our lives, and so we are challenged to grapple with our own anxieties about deterioration, annihilation, and death (p. 62).

So let's be clear on what he is saying. "Consensually valid dissociation" is as good as it gets. The condition of "pure war" deprives us of that defense against the truth, which we need in order "to function." But it's interesting to me that what follows immediately is some confusion as to the mental state that "pure war" evokes. One would think that since the defense breaks down, what we are then up against is the existential angst of human awareness of mortality. But that's not exactly what Borg says. Instead he imagines the analyst and analysand facing up to the following truth, viz., that "we are likely to remain in a state of pure war for the duration of our lives." Why isn't he saying "we are necessarily going to have to face the inevitability of our deaths for as long as we live"? Then there's the last sentence in the paragraph: "so we are challenged to grapple with our own anxieties about deterioration, annihilation, and death." Now is Borg talking about the impending catastrophes of the human condition, or specifically of the impending catastrophes that arise because of the "pure war" condition? Is it our awareness of the former that the pure war condition brings to the fore, or is it the threat itself that emerges only because of the "pure war" realities? Is it a bad thing that the analyst and the patient are now "challenged to grapple with [their] own anxieties about deterioration, annihilation, and death" or a good thing?

I feel the discussion is more nuanced and interesting if we keep in the foreground the ultimate catastrophic reality that is inevitable and then talk about how different social constructions of reality deal with, face, defend against, that ubiquitous, and from a certain perspective, always imminent disasterous ending. In fact, once we go into it more from that perspective, we might find that the "pure war" condition, is, ironically, a reflection of something the human species has created, in part, as a way of coping with the sheer horror of the inescapable "pure war" dimension of human existence. (This is all connected to a posting of mine in the discussion of sources of evil in the aftermath of the election). Might it not be a very developed form of "turning passive into active" and of "identification withn the aggressor"? And might it not be important to consider that what Borg describes as the "Psychological defense [that] generally does a fairly decent job of maintaining a separation between our current state of being alive and out future state of being dead," is a dissociative process that could have pernicious as well as benign expressions? Are there nuances of "dissociation" that are more conducive to the former than the latter?

For a particularly powerful account of devastating impact of becoming acutely aware that everyone is going to die, see Philip Roth, The Human Stain, pp. 208-209. The scene? A concert in Tanglewood. The time? Well, it's before 9-11.

Irwin Z Hoffman

Hi All,

I appreciate what's been said so far in this discussion. I, too, was struck by the title, as well as the concept of "pure war" in Borg's article. In a way, it was difficult to read the piece, given the reality behind it. I want to address a specific aspect of the paper, which particularly struck me. It has to do with his exploration of the question previously raised by Lynne Layton regarding how to work with patients' responses to social reality, i.e., non-conformism and resistance sometimes manifesting themselves as self-destructive, psychotic behavior, and not wanting to practice a "normalizing" form of psychoanalysis, but also not wanting to romanticize fragmentation and falling apart. This made me think of an elderly (now 94-yr-old) client I have been working with for several years now, a well-educated woman from a comfortable middle-class background who seems to have trouble allowing anyone to truly care for or take care of her (issues probably going back to, among other things, her early relationship with her mother). She is a widow whose husband of many years committed suicide during a depressive episode almost 20 years ago.

[Apologies for a possibly irrelevant and lengthy case presentation of sorts here, but I think that the case somewhat illustrates certain questions which come to mind for me regarding the complex and confusing interweave of the intrapsychic, the interpersonal and the societal which the Borg piece gave me pause to wonder about.] To continue, my client entered treatment with me after having befriended a 40-plus-year-old man who I, for lack of a nonjudgmental way of putting this, would describe as a "malingering sociopath." But this is actually what begins to introduce my "theme," (which, to tell the truth, I am finding hard to clearly articulate. At least in part, it could be called the way in which a well-meaning, self-described socially progressive psychoanalyst, such as myself, finds herself challenged and pulled to protect the status quo vs. the marginal, despite believing herself to have a critical awareness and to care about injustices and the sufferings of others.)

My client's friend, someone who clearly had a very damaging childhood and who is, nevertheless quite bright and artistically talented, lives in a psychological place, as I perceive it, of chronic "victimhood" and "entitlement" (again, these judgmental terms). He is in therapy (financed by my client), but appears to be in an ongoing state of impasse with his therapist and determined to defeat the process. He does not work, and lives with his even more "disturbed" and "paranoid" mother and several pigeons in an apartment, the whereabouts they disclose to no one. His attitude seems to be that he is too sick to change and shouldn't be asked to accommodate society or the environment to even the slightest degree. His resulting approach to life is that he has no qualms about emotionally and concretely "adopting" my client; i.e. accepting large sums of money from her and an inheritance in return for a certain kind of emotional entertainment (certainly not emotional reliability) and visits at his convenience, pending his moods.

I have found that my patient has many motivations for her involvement with this man, and I have found it important to interfere only when her involvement has conflicted with her own most basic self-care. It seems that he is, in some ways, the child she never had (or perhaps the very disturbed child she fears she might have had?). He has also been a belated opportunity to feel wild and adventurous and even sensual and sexually transgressive (although mostly in the form of talk and gesture, not actual sexual interaction). And, perhaps most related to my quandary, he seems to represent an exaggerated form of her own protest against both personally disappointing familiars and against restraints and failures of our society as she experiences them. He also seems to feed a fantasy of being able to fix or to help someone to develop, which is continually thwarted by his refusals to "reform" or "grow" in any way (a parallel to the way I have often felt in regard to my efforts to "help" my client to better care for herself).

Although not as extreme, in some ways similar to Borg's patient Joyce, my client (I'll call her Marilyn), seems poorly defended against the pain of the world, overwhelming realities and a sense of impending doom. I'm actually not sure how similar her difficulties actually are, but Marilyn seems to easily (and perhaps "excessively" — I use quotes to underline the Q of what IS "excessive," perhaps the typical amount of dis-identification and denial is "deficient," at least on a moral, if not psychological level) identify her own personal pain with that of those who suffer due to various political injustices or other social situations (i.e., she finds it emotionally overwhelming and becomes tearful and incapacitated when watching news of disaster or war, hearing the stories of a neighbor who is a Holocaust survivor, or in talking about any situation in which people are deprived and suffering. And she seems to feel a need to give in some way, while she is unable to feel any justification at all in taking care of herself; this leading to much passive aggressive and resentful behavior in her personal and professional relationships.) She identifies with her younger friend's critical attitudes toward "the system," and perhaps toward authority, in general.

So, what is the question here? What am I trying to sort out? I suppose I am trying to highlight the way in which it has been hard (or perhaps impossible) for me to find a way to step outside of the social context and my own unconsciously absorbed cultural values to view these two individuals in a way which gives more credence to the protest they are together voicing against society's failures and limitations — PERHAPS? — more than just against the disappointments of their personal histories. I can conceptualize this easily enough, yet my countertransference leads me to deeply resent this man's behavior (which might be described as verging on elder abuse) and to want to protect the capitalist values and order of money being passed on to the "truly deserving" (translation = family members, i.e., those who already "have" or who haven't "lost" it, or to those who are willing to participate in the system and to work for a living, etc., etc.)

In terms of socio-political identifications, it's as if I am enacting a typical [?] conservative critique of my "bleeding heart liberal" patient and her friend, i.e., tempted to exhort her that it's pointless, or counterproductive, to subsidize someone who refuses to help himself, or rather who rejects the terms of the help-offering "system." [And, yet, for the record, I personally tend to identify myself as a card-carrying "liberal."] In what ways, I wonder, is Craig's (not his real name) refusal to accommodate society a protest vs. our culture's callousness, and in what ways is it simply a deeply ingrained, bad self- and self-other-destructive habit? And what kinds of chords of identification and responsiveness does his attitude strike in my client? An at least partially healthy compassion and a rebelliousness of her own against injustice and heartlessness, or a stuckness in old, angry other-alienating and self-isolating, patterns? I can only imagine, yes, and some of both.… And, most difficult, what does all of this activate in me, the participating-observer?

I'm curious to know if others have similar cases or can relate to some of the dilemmas (countertransferential and otherwise) I've described above.

Also, one minor, quick thought on what is clearly a more complex topic raised by Irwin Hoffman: Perhaps how "pure war" becomes especially threatening and more problematic than the inevitabilities of the "human condition" is in the sense it carries of not only the fact that our individual existences will shortly be snuffed out, but that all of civilization is likely to be destroyed and imminently so (or at least relatively imminently so)? I guess I am thinking that the truth of our own individual deaths is somewhat softened for us by the belief that we live on in the memories our friends, our children and grandchildren, etc. and the awareness that the impact of our existence here on earth carries on after we ourselves are gone (admittedly, in my opinion, a rather small comfort, but some form of amelioration of the terror of oblivion, nevertheless)...For what that's worth. Well, "I grow old..."

Best to all,
Amanda Geffner

Dear All:

I, like Neil, was most moved in Borg's article by the concept of a cultural space characterized by a pure war mentality and psychic experience. And I appreciate Lu's, Lynne and Nancy's comments. I find myself struggling consistently to reckon with the sense of impending doom — by war, global warming, economic collapse and for me, most of all by the "we stand for freedom" totalitarianism that is rationalizing the whole thing. It is that totalitarianism that creates the feeling of unsafety now, not even in the future. It is now that I feel powerless, afraid, persecuted, at odds, something way deepr than being different. I feel on the way to being an other in the worst sense. Of course this is in my personal (Holocaust and its aftereffects) history. But I do feel I am being re-traumatized.

Sometimes it helps me to think of death as death, as Irwin is suggesting. Sometimes it helps to think of being part of the "big pain" of devastating world historical events that I have so far been physically spared of. But it does not help to be reminded of these pieces of psychic and physical vulnerabilities in a way that does not validate the terrible times in which we are living, and that is the feeling I get from Irwin's posting.

I do not think dying and dying in traumatic circumstances — especially world threatening traumatic circumstances are the same. I remember long ago as a graduate student in sociology trying to differentiate between the form of bureaucratic organization of a hospital in the US in the 1960's and early 1970's, and the kind of bureaucracy, for the most extreme example, of the Chinese Communist Party under Mao or the Nazi Party.

In terms of the total war environment that we face, I also find myself associating to a book by the Stephen Levine I read long ago. He is a Buddhist and wrote "Who Dies?" I would prefer to go among family and friends, feeling as clear as I could, than in traumatic conditions.

Susan Gutwill

I feel Susan's comments reflect a misunderstanding. My point is, precisely, that it's important to formulate the difference between one kind of constructed social-cultural reality and another in a way that does not imply that in an oppressive, dehumanizing society one is forced to the realization that everyone is going to die, whereas in a better world that wouldn't be the case. One could say that's very obvious and goes without saying. But I think the obvious, as Becker demonstrates, is very commonly denied, and I think there is a subtle, intermittent kind of denial of the obvious in Borg's essay. Moreover, I believe that denial of death is not innocuous and can even be generative of some of the evils that human beings create that are not inevitable. I doubt that I am less concerned about those evils and the difference they make in the way we live and die than is Susan. I think, however, stepping back, that the dialogue is a good one in that there is a complementarity to the two kinds of denial that concern us. Susan doesn't want the socially constructed evils of our culture to get lost, to be, in effect, denied, via attention to the inevitable horrors of the human condition, and I don't want our social consciousness, and our awareness of the horrors that human beings have created to obscure the painful realities that are inevitably part of life. Surely we would do well to struggle to try to overcome both kinds of denial.


I found Irwin's delineation of the two kinds of denial of death, in reaction to Susan very helpful to think about. But I struggled with the idea of "struggling to overcome them", that seems to be a very hard endeavor. It also made me wonder to what extent the denial of death is universal,

(what we all do to get on with life), vs. different in different cultures, countries etc. It struck me that America has a particular youth driven culture, and the elderly, as they perhaps are reminders of mortality, are neglected in terms of the way they are treated, services and other things available to them. Other cultures treat the elderly with greater dignity and respect. Just some thoughts,

Lu Steinberg

Ok Irwin, I understand -both kinds of denial are destructive and perhaps now they interact in any particular world historical moment and individual historical life is the most interesting of all.

Susan Gutwill

Dear All,

I just wanted to share some thoughts after returning from the New York Division 39 meeting. It was a privilege to hear Dr. Robert Jay Lifton at the Section 9 sponsored session. He discussed his present-day thinking about the world situation and America, and discussed the development of his thinking through his experiences interviewing Hiroshima survivors and Vietnam Veterans, and thoughts about these discoveries in light of the Iraqi War. He also discussed his work about the Nazi Doctors and the Aun Shinrikyu, a Japanese cult that committed the sarin gas terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system.

One was struck not only by his wisdom, but his generosity and humility. The session was moderated by Drs. Nancy Hollander and Steve Seligman and the question and answer period, conducted by Dr. Rachael Peltz, made us feel as if one were at home with Dr. Lifton, as he shared his personal and general ideas, thoughts and feelings.

His talk was apropos our listserve discussion as he presented ideas that seemed to parallel those of Mark Borg in his 'Pure War' article.

Dr. Lifton spoke of the survivor's confrontation with death, the nothingness of it's devastation, but he also spoke of the survivor's desire or need to create meaning from that abyss. He not only spoke of his ideas and theories, but also his feelings doing this work, describing his own terrifying nightmares after interviewing Nazi doctors, which led his survivor friend to say "now I know you understand".

While he intricately portrayed the devastation and state of pure war, he also reminded us of the incredible resilience of many who survived. He connected this resilience with his notion of the 'protean self', which seemed like a fluid self, capable of not knowing and yet able to go with

life's flow.

Thanks to all for planning this session. I look forward to hearing any thoughts, reactions or questions about the Lifton session or if you have any more thoughts in terms of our listserve discussion, in general.

Lu Steinberg

In keeping with something I've been trying to say in our discussion of Mark Borg's article, and in keeping with the possibility that it might include a subtle form of denial of death, and that denial of death might be implicated, ironically, in the creation of the "pure war" condition, Robert Jay Lifton writes toward the end of Super Power Syndrome: America's Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World (2003):

To live with ambiguity is to accept vulnerability. American aspirations toward superpower invulnerability have troubling parallels in Islamic visions of godly power ...
Much of this has to do with accepting the fact that we die, a fact not altered by either superpower militarism or religious fanaticism. A great part of apocalyptic violence is in the service of a vast claim of immortality, a claim that can, in the end, often be sustained only by victimizing large numbers of people. Zealots come to depend upon their mystical, spiritual, or military vision to protect themselves from death, and to provide immortality through killing (pp. 198-199).

Irwin Hoffman

Thanks for this clarification, Irwin, because it helped me see where I differ from this position in a way I hadn't yet seen in the earlier discussion. It seems to me that many psychoanalytic theories refer the myriad awful and disastrous things that humans do to one another to a denial of death. In Lacanian theory, such evils are referred back to a denial of castration. But I think that denial of death and denial of castration, both part of the human condition, are subtly and importantly different from a denial of vulnerability. Vulnerability of course is also part of the human condition, and the ultimate vulnerability is perhaps acknowledging the fact that we die and will lose loved ones to death. But it seems to me that the stuff of repetition compulsions, and the source of most of the bad ways people treat each other, is a refusal or inability to mourn the kind of vulnerabilities caused by relationally inflicted humiliations and other narcissistic wounds. The pure war state, as I understand it, has to do with the hatred for life that those charged with protecting life have unleashed; rather than do the hard work of mourning their own losses and wounds, the protectors, like Oedipus's dad, turn on their progeny — always, of course, in the name of peace and protection, a crazy-making scenario if ever there was one. To render this political, I think we'd have to look at the ways that particular wounds of particular classes and social groups are enacted at any given historical moment.

Lynne Layton

I agree with the sentiments expressed in Lynne's posting. Fear of death is certainly a common human predicament, but I do not think it can explain violence, hatred and war. Belief in immortality is a well-known response to fear of death and many of those who adopt this doctrine are not filled with hatred. If one looks at the Taliban hatred and subjugation of women, for example, I think it's pretty clear that the perpetrators of that abuse were enraged that women have the power to sexually arouse them. In an attempt to abolish this vulnerability, the Taliban enslaved women and committed acts of violence against any expression of the female body. I think this violence is explained by the fear of vulnerability, not the fear of death per se. In the same vein, the so called neocons who are attempting to control the world are battling against the fear they cannot control it. To be aware that regimes are free to adopt beliefs that do not conform to theirs, much less withhold oil, is absolutely intolerable to them, and they will perpetrate any act of violence to defend against it. Again, it seems to me the fear driving their destructiveness is awareness of their vulnerability more than fear of death.

Frank Summers