Death’s Dream Kingdom

Walter A. Davis, Death’s Dream Kingdom (London: Pluto Press, 2006)

The most important contribution of this important and wide-ranging book is its re-definition of ideology: Davis argues that ideology is not so much a matter of what you believe as why you believe it. Ideology is not just — or not even primarily –- about distorting reality or about purveying a version of reality that serves ruling-class interests and/or reproduces the mode of production (although it of course does those things as well): ideology is about satisfying deep-seated psychological needs that remain for most people completely unconscious. Death’s Dream Kingdom thus consolidates an approach to ideology first presented in Deracination (reviewed in this journal, 19:1 [2005]), where it exposed the unconscious motives for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here, it is extended to more contemporary material, including most dramatically Mel Gibson’s wildly popular, sado-masochistic sacred-snuff movie, the torture fiasco at the Abu Ghraib prison, the ecocidal use of depleted uranium munitions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Bush regime’s reaction to and exploitation of the trauma of 9/11. The choice of these particular recent events may appear extreme, but Davis’s psychoanalytically-informed theory of ideology is radical enough to do them justice, and to show that they are but the most remarkable tip of a much larger iceberg.

Any and all ideology, on this argument, involves the mobilization of fantasy to construe potentially traumatic historical events so that they merely reconfirm the reigning myths or “guarantees” through which society prefers to think about itself. What is distinctive about ideology in traumatized America today, Davis shows, is that it is “borderline psychotic” in its structure and dynamics. So, compared with its earlier Marxist incarnations, ideology critique today has a new task:

Karl Marx, at a far more innocent time in history, saw the task of philosophy as one of extracting the rational kernel from the mystical shell of Hegelianism. That kernel was the proletariat and the materialist understanding of History the new guarantee. Living at a later stage of things, shorn of all guarantees, we face a far different task: to extract the psychotic kernel from the fantasmatic shell.

The cogency of such a radical, depth-psychological version of ideology critique thus hinges on demonstrating how the collective American psyche has become so disjointed in its structure, so unbalanced in its dynamics, so divorced from reality as to be deemed very nearly psychotic.

Although concrete examples of such collective psychosis appear throughout the book, its kernel is presented through the four features of fundamentalism catalogued by Charles Strozier in Apocalypse (Boston, 1994); in Davis’s account, these features become the stages of development of the fundamentalist psychosis. The starting point is a psyche unable to handle complexity, nuance, contradiction: it relies instead on a literal reading of an absolutely authoritative text. Real human life, of course, is not that simplistic, so the next stage – conversion – requires that the fundamentalist psyche split off from itself any “sinful” desires or behaviors, cleaving instead to an idealized self in thrall to the super-ego and that would thus become worthy of salvation. The conversion experience is supposed to commemorate and consolidate the split; instead, the fragmented psyche must engage in repeated and desperate attempts to maintain the idealized self against the threats and temptations of desire. Being unreliable and unstable itself, the psyche must look outward to others for such continuing confirmation of this ideal self. Relations with others thus take three forms: in-group consorting with other converts to shore up the idealized sense of self; repeated attempts to convert others (evangelical proselytizing) who would thereby validate the ideal; brutal punishment of anyone who doesn’t conform to the ideal and thus reminds the convert of all the desires he has split off and repressed. The inevitable and continual return of the repressed fuels a vindictive rage devoted to repeatedly punishing in others the parts of human being that the convert wishes to have banished from himself forever: this is the process of punitive projective identification Davis had already identified in the atomic bombing of Japanese civilians in 1945. The fundamentalist dynamic is here taken one last, harrowing step farther: since the offending split-off elements can never be completely removed (internally or externally), the final solution is to end it all: to attain a complete and ultimate purification by destroying everything, confident in the apocalyptic delusion that the righteous self will be saved by an all-powerful super-ego figure after all.

The resulting personality -– grandiose borderline narcissist -– is so hollowed out by repressing everything human in the service of an insatiable super-ego, that it can only experience satisfaction by staging repeated victories over others whom it dismisses with contempt as soon as they have served the purpose of shoring up the narcissistic sense of self. Voracious consumption and accumulation of commodities serve much the same function, as “capitalist ideology fuses economic and psychological imperatives. The pursuit of narcissistic ‘identity’ and the fetishization of commodities are inseparable and finally indistinguishable processes.” And for Davis ideology-critique must be able not only to identify the psychotic processes at work in the collective psyche, but also to provide an alternative approach to the trauma of historical events that would lead to more adequate responses. Davis contrasts his approach with those of Robert Jay Lifton and Slavoj Zizek. Instead of falling back on the humanistic guarantees (Lifton) that history continues to prove wrong, and instead of reciting the mantra of a Real that remains completely abstract from history (Zizek), Davis insists on dwelling in the anxiety of trauma and using it to do tragic battle with the super-ego. Two concrete analyses are particularly important here. One is a brilliant debunking of Kant’s claim to have developed a rational ethics, for Davis shows that Kant’s entire ethical system hinges on an emotional -– and ultimately irrational -– relation of reverence toward the law (i.e. the super-ego). The other is an illuminating comparison between Pat Tillman and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, whereby the former “tragically” sacrifices his life while naively obeying (and hence reinforcing) the imperatives of the super-ego (he gives up family and football stardom to serve in Bush’s army), while the latter refuses the commands of the super-ego (Claudius) and tragically struggles instead to find a new sense of himself and his position in the rotten state of Denmark.

My only disagreement with this important book concerns the source of the psychosis whose expressions Davis so brilliantly anatomizes. I am in complete agreement that all effective ideology “fuses economic [or social] and psychological imperatives”: the question is, which imperative comes first? Where do psychological imperatives come from? Davis’s existential-psychoanalytic framework -– along with his searing accounts of the ways abusive family relationships and religion can foster borderline psychotic proclivities in children -– predispose him to privilege the psychological register. Hence he will suggest that “One does not become a Nazi only when circumstances call for such beings. The grounds for that choice are prepared long before. One has already become a Nazi in one’s heart. And it is there that the disorder sits awaiting the circumstances that provide the objective correlative of what is an inner condition.” But not everyone is from infancy a Nazi at heart just waiting for objective circumstances to bring their disorder to realization; as widespread as the familial and religious abuse of children unfortunately is, the excessive cruelty and humiliation he describes are not everyone’s universal fate, even if every infant does have to negotiate somehow the prolonged period of dependence characteristic of human being. In this connection, the Freudian concept of nachtraglichkeit or ‘deferred action’ suggests a somewhat different explanation: rather than conceiving of a specific infantile disorder as simply awaiting circumstances to realize it, Freud insists that childhood experience only becomes meaningful in relation to later circumstances; this suggests that it would be e.g. Nazism – or capitalist consumerism -– that enables the trauma of infantile dependency on all-powerful caregivers as one infantile complex among many to take center stage later in social life, when specific circumstances require or encourage it. Thus it would be the separation-anxiety over the loss of one’s job (which in adult life means losing access to means of life supplied by the market) that would make the earlier separation-anxiety over the loss of parental love (which in infancy means losing access to means of life supplied by parents or care-givers) into a trauma, regardless of how harshly or tenderly that relationship was experienced in infancy.

This difference may appear slight, but it puts radical social change back on par with the kind of radical personal change Davis advocates so persuasively. In any case, it is the fusion of social and psychological imperatives that is important to recognize, for it is this that renders desperately needed social change all the more difficult to achieve. For what we’re faced with is not just a political conspiracy, it’s a psycho-pathology. As Davis says, quoting Marx, the root of the problem is man; and as Marx also said, the problem is that the educator himself needs to be educated.

Reviewed by Eugene W. Holland
Ohio State University

This entry was posted in 41, Volume 20, No. 2. Bookmark the permalink.