November 11, 2006

Psycho-sexual terrorism

Until now I'd been unaware of the American thinker, Ellen Willis, and have just become aware of her, thanks to Professor Cutler's blog which contains some interesting thoughts about the right, left and her place within that dichotomy. Despite this ignorance, and in the grand tradition of political blogging, I want to comment on something that Willis wrote in response to the terrorist phenomena which has permeated so much of political discussion for understandable reasons since the events of September 11th 2001.

Willis's essay on the mass psychology of terrorism is definitely one to read. She charts more interestingly than most theorists have at the moment the psychosis of terrorism. By linking terrorist atrocity to threatened sexuality, to threatened identity, she provides a much more coherent and interesting case for why young men and women become terrorists than has been provided in the past. Simple economic explanations such as that advanced here by Marwan Bishara fail to explain why citizens from so many countries with different economic expectations and also citizens from so many classes turn to terrorism to express their rage. Willis's analysis of the threat provided by "modernity" makes more sense of this phenomenon and links it rather more cogently to the violent rhetoric of other religions. Willis is right therefore to argue that there is a psychological background to what is going on and the psychological explanations she provides make a lot of sense- the threat especially to sexuality from female liberation is something that is often underplayed and underexposed as a source for the frustrations of modern politics. The fact that men, to paraphrase Dean Acheson on Britain, have lost an empire and not yet found a role, has led to all sorts of instabilities within the modern world- instabilities that Willis is right to note emerge in different contexts and are connected to other rationales.

Willis's analysis is not however complete. Part of the problem lies in the way that we in our society deal with the religious impulse within human kind. Psychological research done by many practitioners throughout the world has found that religious experience is an almost universal feature of the human psyche. Almost 10% of the population claim to have heard voices at some point, the number of Americans claiming to have been abducted by aliens stands at around 4 million, my own research into the New Model Army in 17th Century England shows that one of the ways that people cope with extreme situations and mass casualties is to fall back upon religion. As Richard Noll's anthropological research of Native American Shamans showed the diagnosis of schizophrenia and the state of Shamanism share simularities- indeed Richard Bentall has claimed that one of the distinguishing factors about more traditional societies is that they deal with some varieties of delusional belief in a different way to the way that modern societies do. In that sense the capacity of modern society to deal with delusion as opposed to older societies has been diminished and one of the consequences might be the terrorism we all perceive.

One of the problems with her article is that missing that aspect misses the timelessness of this phenomenen. The Children's Crusade, the Assassins in early Islam and many others illustrate that beleivers in a cause have often been casual about the loss of their own or other's lives. Terrorism is as much a function of technology as it is of modernity and can't be linked as simply as she has linked it to psychosexual frustration.

Despite these caveats, Willis has picked up on something interesting- the sexual rhetoric of the Islamist or indeed of some rightwing Christians and Jews is fascinating. Her article as a brief survey isn't able to deal with the nuances of the situation- the American reaction to modernity is not the same as the Egyptian- though Said Qutb and Pat Robertson would be revolted and were revolted by the same aspects of American modernisation. Each kind of reaction comes attached to its own cultural context and economic context- those contexts influence the ways that that reaction is pursued. Furthermore each reaction comes with its own individual context- I react in a different way from you to the reordering of society.

Willis's paper is interesting and worth reading. She delineates one of the most important changes in the history of the world, a change in many ways which we are still living through and whose implications will govern the rest of our lives. That change has yet to find a mould in which to settle itself- our structures are largely those evolved within patriachal society- but they are evolving under new pressures and one of the birthpangs of the modern World may well be the emergeance of terrorism- we should just be cautious about being too absolute in our claims about this.


edmund said...

I think all your criticms are right- frankly I think you give the pieice far too much credit. It's ridiculous comparisions, poor history, illiterate and Victorian economics ect weakens it massively. One is tempted to focus on the outragous comparisions ( how many christins supported anti-aboriton terroists who very often are not actually theogloically Christian by the way, a few thousand-how many muslims support Bin ladin in the same way-100 million?) , her absurd history ( there was no cultual war in the eastern block- has she not read about the battles between church and s tate in poland or Hungarey or the role played by the churches in the coallpse of the Communist empire-she appears to think if her side is doing all the running then it's not war!!) or her illiterate economics ( capital decided to break the terms of the economoy in the 70's-how did they decide this? ) But the two main flaws of this particular essay are diffent. They are firstly that she makes no real tie between psycholsexualism and the movments she discusses-it works throug infernece ( I thik she has the best point when it comes to islamisim but evne there she argues through assertion). Secondly her conception of "patriaarchial" is ridciusllus- basicaly any society that is not radicaly femiist, how weak this is can be seen by the fact she regards nazism as a rebellion against "englightenment" values when it's hard to think of a more nelightemnt based ideology-and she's clearly not identify enlight and liberalism so that defence faills. The idea nazisim is rooted in sex is without factual basis.

I also would say that cutler presents it as far more unrepresenative of leftist thinking than it actually is- her thought is very very compatible with the Alliance for Workers Liberty for example and indeed very Frankfurt school in its contours.

Your post is very intersting. I thik your point about "religous expereince" while good, conflates two relatived by differnt phen a "visions" (for want of a better word) and the natual tendency to metaphysical belief , in islamisim the latter is the real relevence. Obvious the two blur but I think they are diffent in explanions-mystiism and fanatcisim are different things,

I think her sexual theory fails just as much as economic-look at the number of married suicide bobmers for example. The best explantion os suicide boming is simple it works-or at least can plausibly be expected t owork , that why groups use it as long as it pays for them to do so they will .it's not some peculiar aspect of relgious fanatsim indeed it was invented by marxists.

I'm also not sure how new the phent she and you are talking about-i'd be interested which of them are new to mankind, because I don't think any of theo nes she touches on are. Belief that homosexual reltioshops are siimilar in nature to hetorosexual (as opposed to simply morally equivin or superior) might be but as a whole they represent very old phenomena

I totally agree on context-in fact I don't think yo9u go far enough ON a minor note i don't think Qutb and Robertson are revolted by The same aspects- I thik robertson could find he could endure a traditonal methodist church dance! iNdeed insofar as Robertosn is a social ocnservative-it's the 50's us he looks back on whcih for qutb was the face of horror.

Gracchi said...

I think for Nazisim she relies upon the work of Wilhelm Reich which I haven't yet read- though will do soon so I can't comment. I'd like you to expand on your Naziism enlightenment point- ever since Berlin's essays on the counter Enlightenment I think its been fairly widely accepted that if Naziism has roots in the eighteenth century its in the reaction of De Maistre, Hammann and Herder rather than the intellectual apparatus of Helvetius and Rousseau.

I am not as convinced as you are that she is wrong about the West though her essay is a generalisation and all general arguments need correction. It strikes me that one of the strengths say of the conservative Christian movement in the Us does flow out of a fear about the women's movement and particularly about the position of women in the workplace. Just look at the hot issues- abortion, homosexuality etc, whilst there is hardly a mention of more New Testament issues like the need for the rich to give up their money.

In terms of the Eastern bloc, a couple of years ago I spent a lot of time speaking to an academic in Warsaw about what was happening in Poland and the consequences for women of the rise of Catholicism- not all good I'm afraid despite the fall of Communism. So I think this is one issue in a mixture and probably an issue coming to be more important in Eastern Europe- look at the twins there at the moment.

This is thoguh a generalisation and is obviously not going to work in many cases- but I would defend her article as an interesting view.

rawprawn said...

this may be a tangent but I've always been interested in the phenomenon of the 'terroristic superego' first noted by US analysts amongst disturbed patients in the 1990s. The basic theory is that a person who allows their Id drives free rein will 'enrage' the superego which can become destructive and 'terroristic'(many suicides are analysed in this way). If you extend this idea from the individual to the collective, you could say that a society that feeds and feeds off Id desires (ie. western society, Qutb's 'America') will create a superego 'backlash' of terroristic proportions from society's superego institutions ie. religion, law, or from societies where these institutions are central. Read this way, the world is like an unbalanced mind...

by the way, thanks for visiting my blog...

Gracchi said...

No probs- really interesting comment I'm still trying to get my mind round it- what's the source of the info- I'd love to have a read of it.