WENDY BROWN: POLITICAL IDEALIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS

Ritual recognizes the potency of disorder. —Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger

Everything that the [love] object does and asks for is right and blameless[.] —Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego

WHAT is political love and what is the relationship of political love and political loyalty? If one loves a political community, does such love require uncritical solidarity with certain elements of that community, and if so, with which elements—its laws, its principles, its state institutions, its leaders, or actions taken in its name? What kind of loyalty does political love engender and require, to what extent is love compatible with critique, and to what extent is critique compatible with loyalty? What counterintuitive compatibility might be discerned between critique and fealty, between critique and attachment, even between critique and love? This essay explores these questions about civic or political love, fealty, and critique through a consideration of the relationship of love and idealization. It considers this relationship as it emerges both in conservative expressions of national patriotism and in radical dissent from state policy. It asks about the productivity as well as the costs of political idealization, and considers how we might successfully navigate some of its perils as we think about, and practice, democratic citizenship.

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These reflections were incited by the widespread call for American national unity in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. For the most part, this call demanded unwavering patriotism, uncritical support for policies formulated by the Bush administration, and solidarity with a national narrative about our goodness and our victimhood. In this context, criticism of America or dissent from state policy were, quite simply, equated with disloyalty. And disloyalty, in turn, associated dissenters with what, overnight, had become the enemy.

The equation of dissent with disloyalty has its cultural and political ramifications, especially when combined with state declarations such as “if you’re not with us, you’re against us,” a formulation that tacitly endorses restrictions on dissent enacted by corporate and media powers while sustaining the legitimacy of the state as a protector of free speech.1 However, the most worrisome ramifications may be less the explicit incidents of censorship than the discursive framing of all dissent as un-American, a framing that not only constrains what may be said and heard, but replaces a critically important political debate about what America is, stands for, or ought to do in world politics with a more polemical argument about loyalty or a more narrowly legalistic one about free speech. The instantiation of this polemicism and this legalism in the title and substance of the USA Patriot Acts, and in the now unquestionably necessary arguments about those pieces of legislation, is but one example of this diversion.

Two caveats before beginning. What follows is not intended as universal formulation of the relationship between citizenship, loyalty, and critique; rather, it explores these relations as they are configured by a time of crisis and by a liberal democratic state response to that crisis. The essay does not ask, generically, whether there is some point at which political dissent or critique undercuts citizenship or some point at which political rebellion is legitimate. Rather, it considers the relation of love, loyalty, and critique within a political order, the existence and basic legitimacy of which is not called into question.2 In other words, this is a distinctly nonrevolutionary formulation of the problematic of dissent; it not only presumes something of a stable nationstate population but presumes as well an investment from both critics and noncritics in preserving rather than overthrowing the state. A second caveat concerns the effect on nation-state citizenship of the dramatic transnational migrations occasioned by the latest phase of capital, often termed globalization. My argument presumes reasonably strong identification by citizens with the nation-states in which they are living. However, this identification cannot be taken for granted today. Western liberal democracies harbor substantial and growing populations that often have limited identification with and fealty toward the states they find themselves living in, or that may have fealty in the direction of two or more “nations,” or that may assert a cosmopolitan “world citizenship” or “transnational citizenship” rather than one tied to a single nation-state. Apart from the question of immigration occasioned by globalization, nation-states themselves are receding, however slowly and unevenly, as the basis of collective identification and collective action. It may be that nothing is so important as trying to understand what nation-state citizenship—loyal, critical, disgruntled, or otherwise—means in this historical context, but that is not the aim of this essay.

Socratic Loyalty

We begin with Socrates and the complex model of radical patriotism that is figured in the Platonic dialogues concerned with his trial and death sentence. Socrates, who insisted on the intimacy of love and citizenship, love and knowledge, love and virtue. Socrates, who embodied a perverse but compelling form of citizenship rooted in challenging the premises and practices of the status quo, indeed, who made intellectual work into a distinct form of citizenship. Socrates, who would not flee the city that voted to execute him for his peculiar way of loving it, but also would not be bullied into a more conventional form of affection. Surely this character is almost too extreme for thinking about today’s dissident—rarely intellectual, often angry and alienated from other citizens, hardly a practitioner of love, and more likely to sue the state for abridged liberties than to bow before its sentencing. Yet, as the etymology of theory itself recalls—in ancient Greece, the ria emerged as a term for seeing enriched by journeying— there is often self-knowledge buried in places remote from our own. In the Apology and the Crito, Socrates wrestles with the nature of his relationship and obligations to Athens, both of which configure his life as philosopher and critic, and both of which are activated as topics by his conviction and sentencing.

Charged with corrupting the youth and with a specific kind of impiety—introducing new divinities—Socrates understands these charges to be rooted in the effects of his vocational calling and especially in the effects of his relentless critical interrogation of the contemporary Athenian way of life. In his defense against the charges, Socrates literally reverses them, casting his practice of questioning every individual and collective practice in Athens as a supreme act of loyalty not simply to an inner calling or to truth but to Athens itself. He roots this claim of loyalty in his love for the citizens of Athens, a love practiced and demonstrated by his commitment to improving them, a commitment for which he stakes his life. Pressing the argument still further, Socrates insists that he cares far more about Athenian citizens than his accusers do, indeed cares about them so much that he is willing to be put to death for his efforts on their behalf, just as devoted soldiers are willing to die in battle: For wherever a man’s place is, whether the place which he has chosen or that in which has been placed by a commander, there he ought to remain in the hour of danger, taking no account of death or of anything else in comparison with disgrace. . . . Strange, indeed, would be my conduct, O men of Athens, if I who, when I was ordered by the generals whom you chose to command me at Potidaea and Amphipolis and Delium, remained where they placed me, like any other man, facing death—if now, when, as I conceive and imagine, God orders me to fulfill the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men, I were to desert my post through fear of death. (Apology 28d–e)3

The comparison with military service is no minor one, of course, since the soldier in battle is the ultimate icon of civic loyalty and it is Socrates’ loyalty to Athens that is at issue. Yet the comparison could also not be more strained: the city’s generals command the soldier while “God” commands Socrates, and the question of which god(s) Socrates hears or obeys—an Athenian god or a “foreign” one— animates one of the main questions about his potential civic subversiveness. Indeed, the tension between the fealty Socrates may have to a god other than Athens or to other than an Athenian god is articulated by this comparison even as it is also rhetorically finessed by it. If Socrates’ daemon is uniquely his and if the God commanding him is Truth rather than an Athenian deity, then even his willingness to die for his commitment sustains rather than eradicates the potential tension between his inner calling and his civic loyalty, between serving truth and the effect of this service on the city he claims to love.

Socrates finesses the tension through the trope of sacrifice and through the figure of the servant common to both, and thus allows obedience as such—to the point of risking death—to constitute proof of his loyal character. But civic patriotism is not loyalty as such and is not measured by willingness to die for one’s cause whatever it is; rather it entails loyalty to the specific collectivity by which one is harbored and is generally measured by willingness to sacrifice for that collectivity. Still, in this articulation and finesse, Socrates has articulated a dimension of our problem for us: Is political fealty appropriately attached to actually existing political communities, to their laws, policies or utterances, or to the political ideals we hold out for these communities? Is it sometimes one and sometimes the other? How to know which, when? If one loves another Athens, another America than the one whose actions or laws we decry in the present, what is the place of loyalty in mediating between this love and the polity as it presents itself now, here? Or, if one loves what one is harbored by but is also ruthlessly critical of and devoted to trying to improve, is this loyalty? When might thoughtful disagreement or passionate critique be the ultimate act of love, even the ultimate act of solidarity—not simply because it is engaged but because it constitutes a more comprehensive address of this attachment insofar as it engages the ambivalence inherent in passionate attachment?

From Socrates in the Apology, we have an argument that dissent from existing practices, even wholesale critique of the regime, is not merely compatible with love and loyalty to a political community, but rather is the supreme form of such love and loyalty. Moreover, it would seem that dissent can have this value even when it happens at the fringes of the regime, outside the domain of the officially political realm and thus outside the usual purview of citizenship, suggesting that it need not be a critique with immediate political efficacy where the political is equated with policy. Socrates makes the case for intellectual critique as the highest form of loyalty if and when this critique is aimed at improving the virtue of the citizens.

In arguing that his unconventional ways and venue of working permit the greatest expression of political loyalty to the city, Socrates implies that the conventional political and military domains are not so fertile for the practice of loyalty understood as love—they are too fraught with immediate concerns of the day, with power politics, and above all, too inimical to the thoughtfulness that he takes as both the basis and the necessary content of this love; dutiful citizens carrying out an unjust policy or dutiful soldiers fighting an unjust war are presumably slavish and unthinking rather than loving in their loyalty.4 What is also striking about Socrates’ argument is that even as it is couched in terms compatible with modern Thoreauvian themes of individual conscience, he is making not a moral or ethical argument but rather a political one about what constitutes true citizenship and loyalty. Nor is this reducible to a claim that “the examined life” is the most valuable thing for the polis. Instead, it is an argument that citizenship consists of a relation to individual virtue, to justice, and thus, a relation of citizen to citizen rather than simply a relationship of citizen to state. Indeed, it is a casting of citizenship itself as a cultivation of virtue in oneself and others rather than as an orientation toward law and the state.

Dana Villa’s recent work, Socratic Citizenship, allows us to take this point further and to connect it with the problematic of critique. Villa argues that the Socratic activity of disputing common opinion—of what Villa calls “dissolving and purging”—would be mistakenly construed as only a project of disillusionment. Rather, drawing on Arendt, Villa argues that Socrates’ commitment to thinking, and to inciting thoughtfulness in his fellow citizens, is a strategy for averting evil and injustice. In Arendt’s study of Eichmann, she argued that the precondition for radical political evil is not some moral or ontological predisposition to evil but rather “ingrained thoughtlessness,” and it is precisely such routine thoughtlessness that Socrates aims to disrupt.5 If citizen virtue consists in avoiding evil, and evil springs from such thoughtlessness, then thinking itself becomes the ultimate citizen virtue. Two conclusions follow from this positing of an inherent relation between thoughtfulness and justice, and between justice and citizenship. First, any moral or political belief that is sheltered from interrogation, insofar as it becomes a thoughtlessly held belief, becomes an incitement to injustice.6 Second, insofar as Socratic thoughtfulness—the work of interrogation and critique—requires a certain withdrawal from the immediate scene of political life, part of the action of political justice inherently occurs in a distinctly nonpolitical realm, in what Socrates called private life but in what we would call intellectual (not necessarily academic) life, impossibly fully public but also not private in the modern sense. As Villa concludes, the kind of thinking Socrates requires to avert evil and cultivate virtue, to be a good citizen, cannot take place in the public realm.7

In sum, Socrates’ defense in the Apology would seem to make an argument for (1) critique as the basis for practicing virtue and justice, and hence as essential rather than inimical to civic loyalty;8 (2) the space of this critique as one that either redefines the parameters of the political to include this intellectual work, this cultivation of thoughtfulness apart from the public realm, or alternatively, puts political life into necessary tension with intellectual life; (3) love of one’s fellow citizens as the index of civic loyalty; and (4) devotion to improving citizen virtue as the index of this love. Again, this defense should not be misread as cultivating merely private virtue, merely individual dissent to the existing state, or merely intellectual critique of political life. Rather, Socrates aims to render politically potent a space (the private), an activity (philosophizing, critique), and relations (of individual citizens to one another and of the intellectual to the political) ordinarily conceived as unpolitical or irrelevant to the political. Perversely, his trial and punishment suggest at least partial success in this aim; the philosophical “gadfly” was figured by his accusers as a consequential political player in Athens.

But within the framework of political loyalty I have been developing via Socrates, what are the limits to critique and, in particular, where might these limits obtain political definition? How far can critique go, and in particular how aggressive can it be toward the polity before it ceases to be loyal where loyalty is defined as love? What must be preserved or protected amid its deconstructive aims? The dialogue Crito offers something of an answer to these questions; the dialogue sketches a political container for the work of critique in the form of a warning against excessively loosening the threads of the collectivity that sustain its inhabitants. Indeed, the dialogue as a whole represents a kind of limit on the activities defended in the Apology, a limit in which Socrates’ own preference for living in the city of Athens is made to represent a tacit commitment not to violate or destroy the collectivity that has harbored, educated, and sustained him. The dialogue also argues that the work of critique, Socrates’ work, must be preservative, and to this end must be animated by love, or else it will neither carry its own limits nor have any reason to be tolerated by those who wish to preserve the state. Socrates, in other words, was not a simple defender of political free speech nor a detractor of it. Rather, he was concerned with the kinds of critical speech that are politically and ethically valuable and legitimate.

The dialogue begins with Socrates’ corrupt old friend, Crito, coming to Socrates’ prison on the morning he is to be executed. Crito’s aim is to persuade Socrates to escape prison and flee Athens. Crito knows it is useless to ask Socrates to do this out of his own self-interest, so he appeals to Socrates’ sense of friendship: “people who do not know you and me will believe that I might have saved you if I had been willing to spend money, but that I did not care” (Crito 44c). This concern gives Socrates a final chance to respond to his accusers: he argues that the opinion of the many is unimportant compared to living virtuously, indeed that concern with the opinion of the many is at odds with living honorably (Crito 47–48). But then Socrates turns to the question of the proposed escape itself, asking not simply whether it would be acceptable to escape but whether it would serve virtue and justice to do so. For Socrates, this question ceases to be one concerned either with the character of his accusers or with his alleged crimes, and turns instead upon the nature of his belonging to Athens, and more specifically upon whether he may break the laws of Athens to preserve his own life. Now, given Socrates’ declared object of political attachment in the Apology, namely the citizenry, why this sudden concern with the laws as an object and measure of political fealty? What force or authority are the laws being made to carry here? And in the question of what constitutes his political obligation, why focus on laws rather than principles or practices—Socrates’ usual focus in thinking about virtue? Why is an obligation to God, to truth, to wisdom, to philosophy, and to virtue not more compelling than an obligation to the laws he has spent his life interrogating and criticizing, at times even belittling? And why this stubborn refusal to acknowledge that, in his own case, the laws have been, in Foucault’s parlance, “used as tactics,”9 and that in honoring the decision wrought from them, their tactical and corrupt deployment is dissimulated again?

Why the laws? Socrates lets the laws themselves answer this question, which of course they do with great partiality to their case. They tell him first that the proposed act of escape is one which brings the state to ruin: “Do you imagine that a state can subsist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside, and trampled upon by individuals?” (Crito 50b). They argue, second, that they are his true parents, “more precious and higher and holier far than mother or father or any ancestor,” and that as such, he has no right to destroy them, even as they may have him destroyed (Crito 50e, 51a). So Socrates is enjoined from doing anything that (a) ruins the state, and (b) violates, degrades, or defies what has given him life, indeed, what has given him his life work, what has made him Socrates. But is Socrates really arguing that the laws are the soul and sinew of the state? If so, what is the difference between disobeying the law (as he did, for example, when he would not fetch Leon from Salamis) and refusing to submit to the law’s punishment for disobeying it? Why is one kind of civil disobedience less harmful to the state than another? And what distinction does Socrates allow between the laws themselves and their interpretation and use by men? To which is one obliged? What is the significance, too, of this homage to the laws and the state from one who has just insisted upon the impossibility of knowing and pursuing virtue in public life, and has argued instead for the supervening value of tending individual souls, from one who has essentially argued against the potential for virtue in the political domain, a domain of which the laws are a part? Finally, in what sense are the laws “parents” and what is the significance of this discourse for thinking about Socratic dissent?

I want to suggest that Crito should not be treated as a literal defense of the laws as an object of unconditional fealty. Rather, read alongside the Apology, Crito argues for honoring—or better, preserving— whatever stands for the integrity of the collectivity, what binds and regenerates the collectivity over time. In the Apology, Socrates argued that intellectual life, and especially its cultivation of thoughtfulness, was utterly crucial in this regard. If the laws are also crucial, it is not because they are authoritative or because they are rules but because they generate and sustain the collectivity. When they say to Socrates, “we have brought you into the world and reared you and educated you,” they are describing this generativity and posing the question of what it would mean to injure or demean it; they are reminding Socrates of his own constitution by the polis he has criticized and are thereby delineating a crucial distinction between political critique and political destruction (Crito 51c).10 Indeed, figured as parents, and speaking to him remonstratively, the laws recall the deep attachment, the love, that constitutes the ground and the urgency of Socratic criticism, configuring it as a force for improvement or transformation rather than destruction, and establishing its limit at the place where the one veers into the other.

The laws frame Socrates’ work—they permit it (by permitting freedom of speech), they may well incite it (by being unjust or impoverished, or simply by provoking reflection about the justice they are meant to represent), but they also contain it as they contain him, indeed as they possess him by virtue of their care for him. Another way to see this: the laws as Socrates has figured them in Crito are simultaneously dialogic and authoritative, intellectual and paternal. That is, on the one hand, they speak as Socrates ordinarily speaks; they become Socratic, and interrogate Socrates as if he were one of the slightly dim-witted interlocutors he so often contends with, posing questions whose answers are largely given in the question and patiently leading Socrates to an inexorable and incontestable conclusion. But in assuming this dialogic character, they do not appear as static or formulaic things to be obeyed; rather they embody the very thoughtfulness and capacity for instruction and improvement that Socrates wants to place at the heart of the polis, that Socrates insists is the essence of justice. “[A]ll our orders,” they declare, “are in the form of proposals, not of savage commands, and we give him the choice of either persuading us or doing what we say” (Crito 51e). In part, then, it is this instructive, even philosophical quality of the laws that Socrates wants to protect and preserve. However, on the other hand, in the move to personify the laws as all-powerful parents—both generative of life and capable of taking it away—Socrates has also defined a locus of political authority that is not purely dialogic and certainly not a fount of freedom or egalitarianism. The laws describe Socrates as their “child and servant” and ask: “do you imagine that what is right for us is equally right for you, and that whatever we try to do to you, you are justified in retaliating? You did not have equality of rights with your father or your employer . . . ; you were not allowed to answer back when you were scolded or to hit back when you were beaten . . . . Do you expect to have such license against your country and its laws that if we try to put you to death in the belief that it is right to do so, you on your part will try your hardest to destroy your country and us its laws in return?” (Crito 50e).

So there is both authority and philosophical wisdom at the core of the laws’ claim on Socrates; but in casting this combination in the figure of the father, Socrates has also gestured toward the idealization of the state so essential to its binding function as a state as well as generative of our loyalty to it. That is, in letting the authority of the laws stand for the state, in idealizing this authority as both powerful and wise (and yet also as vulnerable to injury), and in personifying this authority as parental, Socrates has recalled the libidinal and emotional investments that citizens must have in the insignias of the collectivity for the collectivity to bind a people together and command its fealty. At the same time, in personifying the laws as parents, Socrates has landed us on rich psychoanalytic terrain where parents are not just what one loves or reveres but also what one hates and wants to kill, what one desires either to have or to be, what one wants to triumph over or destroy, what one wants to be loved by and for whose love one rivals one’s siblings, what one has eternal longing, aggression, and guilt toward. It is nearly impossible, then, to regard this metaphor as innocent or to ignore the rich cauldron of feeling toward the polity and the state that it signals.

Freudian Civic Bonds

In taking up the challenge to think psychoanalytically about the statecitizen relation, I will not consider all that is entailed in formulating this relation in terms of the filial psyche but rather will focus upon the place of idealization and identification in generating political fealty and conditioning the specific problematic of dissent amid this fealty. In particular, I want to consider the ways that the extreme idealization of the state required for loyalty binds or suppresses an inherent hostility toward the idealized object, a hostility that dissent or critique may articulate. But not only articulates; rather, these isolated and episodic bouts of dissent or critique have the potential to incite a generalized desublimation of the repressed hostility in idealization—what Freud calls the “contagion effect” of violated taboos—thereby imperiling the consolidating power of the idealization. It is because it carries this potential that domestic dissent appears and is cast (by the state, by patriotic citizens) as allied with attacks from outside—each exposes the vulnerability of the nation and what binds it, each de-idealizes albeit in a different way (one by challenging the good of the nation, the other by challenging its strength). The challenge, then, is to discern how critique can be fashioned as a productive de-idealization, one that features and preserves the love that incites or generates it. This challenge would require reorientation on the part of both the critic/dissident and the patriot, the combined figure of which might be said to be Socrates, to whom we will therefore eventually return.

From Freud, we learn that all love requires idealization and that idealization itself is a complex combination of narcissistic projection and sexual inhibition—the latter because love is already an inhibition of a more primary aim, sexual desire.11 The mechanics of idealization are such that “the object is . . . treated in the same way as our own ego, so that when we are in love a considerable amount of narcissistic libido overflows on to the object” (GP, 112). In many cases, Freud argues, the love object is a substitute for some unattained ego ideal of our own—“We love it on account of the perfections which we have striven to reach for our own ego, and which we should now like to procure in this roundabout way as a means of satisfying our own narcissism” (GP, 113). For Freud, then, there is no such thing as simply loving another for intrinsically worthy qualities or capacities; the lover is always recasting the beloved according to her or his own ideals and ego needs.

The lover is also always busily suppressing hostilities toward the love object in order to love, and is always navigating between a desire to have and to be the love object. Idealization, which at its extreme refuses to countenance the perception of any flaws or limitations in the love object, assists in all of these projects, and this especially with love that is not sexually gratified. (Sexual gratification, Freud reminds us, must inherently reduce the idealization or “overvaluation” that love entails—since love springs from repression of the sexual impulse.) Here is how Freud depicts this extreme idealization: Contemporaneously with this “devotion” of the ego to the object, which is no longer to be distinguished from a sublimated devotion to an abstract idea, the functions allotted to the ego ideal entirely cease to operate. The criticism exercised by that agency is silent; everything that the object does and asks for is right and blameless. Conscience has no application to anything that is done for the sake of the object; in the blindness of love remorselessness is carried to the pitch of crime. The whole situation can be completely summarized in a formula: The object has been put in the place of the ego ideal. (GP, 113)

Love is devotion to an abstract idea projected onto an object, but this devotion relieves the lover’s superego of its ordinary tasks—that superego has been supplanted by the projections onto the love object. Thus, the lover is not only uncritically enthralled, without any capacity to judge or criticize the object, but also potentially criminal in this enthrallment—without any capacities of conscience to limit what she or he will do for the beloved or in the name of love. Although we are not quite ready to make the homological move to love of country, it is worth noting how this account resonates with a conventional kind of patriotic zeal. The patriot idealizes the country which is indistinguishable from an abstract idea (e.g., of what America stands for) and devotes him- or herself to this ideal. The country is all, the patriot nothing, except in his or her devotion. There is no limit on what the country can ask for nor on what the patriot will do for the country, including violent, criminal, or suicidal acts.

To this point, we have considered idealization in love as an individual matter; but since we are trying to learn something about the ways of civic love, love that is oriented toward the state and embraces the collectivity that the state interpellates, we need to supplement this account with considerations of the dynamics peculiar to group idealizations. In Totem and Taboo and Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego, Freud offers an analysis of the distinctive ways that love’s complexities operate for groups, and more precisely, of how the reproduction of an ideal binds the group and in particular contains its ambivalence about its love object. In contrast with other moral and clinical psychologists of his day, most notably Le Bon, Freud does not think that group and individual psychology stem from different parts of the psyche or involve different impulses; rather, for Freud, group psychology is an aspect of individual psychology, not a distinctive psychological form (GP, 69–70). This is so because Freud does not take human beings to be group animals but rather, inherently socially rivalrous and competitive, a feature born from sibling jealousies over parental love. Thus, Freud’s challenge is to decipher what generates and then binds a group, how individual psyches repress, divert, or sublimate this natural rivalry. Freud’s answer is simultaneously simple and complex: groups are constituted by shared love for something or someone that is outside the group and even at some distance from the group. “Originally rivals, [individuals] . . . succeed . . . in identifying themselves with one another by means of a similar love for the same object” (GP, 120). Homo sapiens, Freud argues, is not a herd animal but a horde animal, “an individual creature in a horde led by a chief” (GP, 121).

A group becomes possible, then, when individuals put one and the same object in place of their ego ideal and consequently identify themselves with one another in their ego. Where for Hobbes, it is fear that gathers us, for Freud it is love; we are bound to one another through our collective experience of being in love with something that none of us can have, a bond that itself sustains the love and even gives the love a field of expression that the remoteness of the object would otherwise deny.12 The group confirms the love and gives it a reality unavailable to the lone individual beholden to a remote object. (It is the sight of American flags everywhere, and not just his or her own, that gladdens the heart of the patriot.) In short, a group is achieved through identification in love, and is threatened by the sundering of that identification or the collapse of that love.

So, the difference between individual love and group formation is that in the latter, individuals replace their natural rivalry toward one another with identification, an identification achieved by loving the same object. And when this love is not attached explicitly to a person (“a chief”), it will be to something else iconic of the group (e.g., the image of the nation, or the power of the nation), something outside that binds the inside. However, the attachment, given the nature of the displacement and identification it issues from, produces two very significant, indeed troubling effects for democratic citizenship even as it binds citizens into a nation: first, the attachment achieved through idealization is likely to glory in the power of the nation, a power expressed in state action; second and relatedly, because individual ego ideals have been displaced onto the nation, citizenship and patriotism are rendered as both passive and uncritical adoration of this power.

Power thus replaces democracy as the love object, and passivity, obeisance, and uncritical fealty replace active citizenship as the expression of love. In this way, the psychoanalytic roots of nationalism appear as directly antidemocratic to the extent that the latter is understood as the sharing of power and the deliberation and thoughtfulness this sharing requires. Moreover, this kind of love depends upon sustaining a very high level of idealization to counter the hostility that all feelings of love involve, and it depends as well upon externalizing this hostility. As Freud puts the matter in Civilization and Its Discontents, “it is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestation of their aggressiveness.” 13 The development of group cohesion thus depends upon turning aggression and hostility outward; maintenance of this cohesion depends upon keeping that aggression externalized; group narcissism allows the group to do this guiltlessly and even across potentially divisive stratifications within the group.14 Still there is a precariousness to this achievement. First, in Freud’s account, high levels of idealization, and particularly expressions of unqualified adoration and devotion, are themselves often signs of the unconscious hostility inherent in love. As he argues in Totem and Taboo, solicitous “over-affection,” e.g., of a young child for a mother, or between members of a married couple, is a way of “shouting down” this hostility and therefore also an obvious sign of its presence.15 So the lover finds her- or himself in a condition in which she or he must refuse all evidence of flaws in the object, shout down her or his own aggression toward the object, and denounce others’ aggression toward the object. This condition compounds the tendency, already identified above in the psychodynamics of nationalism, toward a radical rejection of what we have identified as Socratic thoughtfulness, both in oneself or others; indeed, this condition will necessarily equate thoughtfulness with potential danger to the idealization and hence to the polity. It is inherently anti-intellectual. It is also a condition that would appear to entail lots of shouting.

The replacement of rivalry with identification through group love for the same object is precarious, secondly, because of what Freud formulates as anxiety about the contagion effect of taboo violation—a violation that breaks the collective awe of the taboo and especially the commitment to repressing hostility toward the revered object or being that is represented by the taboo. In Freud’s account, the fear is that if one person succeeds in gratifying a repressed or unconscious desire, and that gratification is not immediately punished or avenged by the group, the same desire is bound to be kindled in other members of the community (TT, 71). To avert this contagion in the context of a relatively free social order, there must be a relatively even suppression of ambivalence toward the collective love object among members of a group. That is, the level of collective idealization must be pitched high and must be internally policed, even if this policing is not legally sanctioned or institutionally enforced. This is the basic structure of conventional patriotism’s intolerance of critique. We are now in a position to understand something of how the internal criticism of a nation, for those who have invested their uncritical love there, does not simply entail the wound of having one’s love object faulted but rather appears to threaten the very bonds of the nation by challenging both the identification and the idealization constituting these bonds. Moreover, such criticism effectively gives voice to the hostility suppressed by undying devotion; and once voiced, this hostility is potentially contagious, again threatening both the identification and the idealization that binds the nation. Finally, to the extent that such criticism does figure a certain unleashing of aggression toward the nation, it represents the desublimation of aggression in group love that is ordinarily turned outward toward what is named as an enemy. That is, if groups achieve harmony within by diverting aggression outward, not only toward that which does not share their love but toward that which is imagined as opposite to their love—figured as the Other of their idealized object—criticism brings the aggression back inside, which again threatens the identification as well as the idealization binding the nation.

This aggression turned inward, of course, can be turned again, by the patriots or the state, against the dissenter. Nothing does this more effectively than the discursive mechanism of linking domestic dissent with the enemy, correlating internal critique or de-idealization with external attack—“if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” But this is not a purely tactical move. Both external attack and internal dissent wound the narcissism of the lover by challenging the idealization, especially if that idealization fetishizes strength or invulnerability and not simply goodness. Both threaten the group with disintegration, both reveal the thinness of the membrane binding the nation. It is hardly surprising, then, that they would appear not merely equivalent but collusive, leading the zealous patriot to denounce the dissenter as a traitor—“giving aid and comfort to the enemy.”

Briefly now I want to make a turn from Freud to Slavoj Zizek in order to plot one more line in this picture, one that will deepen our understanding of the peculiar character of identification involved in a certain kind of patriotism, and one that will allow us to see why dissent is problematic not only for maintaining idealization in general, but for maintaining the kind of identification upon which a liberal democratic patriotic ideal depends. In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Zizek theorizes political idealization as dependent not merely upon imaginary but symbolic identification. Whereas imaginary identification is identification with the objects in an image, symbolic identification involves identification with the gaze that produces the image, and thus is not only socially located elsewhere from the depicted objects, but may be animated and organized by very different desires and social forces. In Zizek’s own words, “imaginary identification is identification with the image in which we appear likeable to ourselves, with the image representing ‘what we would like to be,’ and symbolic identification, identification with the very place from where we are being observed, from where we look at ourselves so that we appear to ourselves likeable, worthy of love.”16 So, for example, in an image of America as good, free, and true, but injured by evildoers who “hate our way of life,” imaginary identification involves identifying with wounded goodness, while symbolic identification identifies with the power that generates this image, “the place from which such ‘good’ images are seen . . . the place of those who need to legitimize their domination and exploitation of others, those who disguise their aggressivity through the active invocation of a positive image that becomes . . . the symptom, the excess, the secret enjoyment of their lives.”17 If imaginary identification tends toward identification with powerlessness in such scenes, symbolic identification identifies with power, but dissimulates this identification in the image of purity or woundedness through which it is achieved.

In her discussion of Zizek, Rey Chow notes that the significance of symbolic identification is often neglected (in intellectual and political life) precisely because it does not rely upon resemblance.18 Thus, not just ordinary discourse but theoretical discourse tends to treat idealizations rather literally, that is, as a literal idealization of a loved object—whether an individual, a polity, a class or group—and fails to ask the question: “for whom is the subject enacting this role? Which gaze is considered when the subject identifies himself with a certain image?”19 That is, even when citizens are identifying with images, say, of an innocent and well-meaning people, this imaginary identification is performed for an observing gaze, potentially internal but mirroring the external one of the powerful imperial state.

The imaginary and symbolic identifications are thus made simultaneously and in relationship to one another. The idealizations that symbolic identification generates and lives off of are extremely powerful as legitimation strategies; the work of symbolic identification here is to generate a patriotic ideal that disavows its imbrication with state violence, imperial arrogance, aggression toward outsiders. In Rey Chow’s account, the point of language which “proclaims/presents a noble idea/image of ‘the people’” is “to seduce—to divert attention away from the rulers’ violence and aggressivity at the same time that sympathy/empathy with the good idea/image is aroused.”20 The image of a free and good people conjured by contemporary patriotic idealizations generates sympathy, especially if such a people have suffered a wound; but this sympathy, indeed, this idealization, masks the symbolic identificatory function which it also generates—identification with the power that can generate such an image in the first place, that is outside the wound, that delivers the wound, that may be non-innocent, powerful, ignoble, imperial, and/or abusive.21 Identification with power, which is what I am suggesting “my country is always right” patriotism entails, calls for loyalty to power rather than principle; it glories not in the goodness of America but in its power; it needs other nations and peoples to defer to this power and suffers a narcissistic wound when they do not. This is a dangerous political condition, not only because of the volatility and aggression in this kind of patriotism, but because it breeds anti-intellectualism, contempt for thoughtfulness and collective introspection, and disdain for peacemaking.

Certainly the wrath turned against any attempt, in the autumn of 2001, at understanding how America contributed to its own making as a target of Third World and specifically Arab rage is a symptom of this condition. Indeed, the extent to which the plaintive and victimized refrain “why do they hate us so?” was accompanied by a relentless refusal to entertain plausible answers to the question exemplifies the double operation of imaginary and symbolic identification in patriotic idealizations of America. The question invokes the image of aggression against our innocence and goodness and invites identification with the victimized innocents; the refusal identifies with the arrogance of state power and supremacy that feels no need to know anything about its place in the world or to know much of anything about the rest of the world.

Zizek’s distinction between imaginary and symbolic identification allows us to understand the extent to which a seemingly benign patriotic identification, one based in a celebration of the “American way of life,” may disguise its own love of state power, its own enthrallment to the power of the father, and its own potential feasting upon state violence. The patriotism formally features the goodness of the regime and the fineness of the people, not the power of the father to give or take away life, not what Socrates, in openly describing the paternal nature of the state and the filial nature of his obligation or fealty, expressed more directly—that it is in relation to the state’s power that he curtails his defiance of the state and becomes deferential. This curtailment arises not from intimidation by state power but because he responds libidinally to this aspect of the state, because he idealizes the state as the father, and idealizes the father as a literally boundless object of devotion and love. This is the idealization that binds Socrates’ own aggression toward the state (expressed in critique), the idealization that limits what he will do in the name of criticizing or attacking the state, the idealization that tempers his dissidence.

But since this idealization itself is a sign of love, we may also read Socrates as explicitly, perhaps even deliberately, working the ambivalence in love in such a way that the aggression has a productive field and is not only contoured by the attachment but made responsible by it, and put into its service. Recall that Socrates does not simply make a case for the importance of tolerating philosophical critique of the polity but rather casts this work, at least as he conducts it, as the ultimate form of citizenship. The very fact that Socrates affirms his fealty to the state through a philosophical inquiry into whether it would be just to escape his sentencing is a rhetorical demonstration of how his critical philosophical activity works in the service of his love of Athens. A citizen less committed to thoughtfulness might have fled, or cut a deal . . . as the patriotic scoundrels often do.

But if dissent is, potentially, a form of love, and if all love entails idealization, what might be the idealization entailed in relentless practices of dissent or critique? This is a question so complex that most of its provocation must be held for another essay. What can be acknowledged here is that idealization of an eternally deferred elsewhere, of a utopian version of one’s polity, surely animates the work of the radical critic just as idealization of the existing state of things, or more often of a polity’s past, animates the conservative patriot. What is interesting about the figure of Socrates is that he harbors both and in rather extreme fashion. However, cultivating these two idealizations at the extreme is not the only way the tension between critique and fealty can be managed. The tension might be maintained such that one feels for the limits to critique in part by avowing the attachment that fuels it, by affirming the love, e.g., of this America or of another America, behind the anger or disappointment. This is not to say that the attachment itself should be shielded from interrogation, but interrogating attachment and disavowing it are quite different matters.

If critique could be expressly tendered as an act of love, if it could be offered in a Socratic spirit, might it be received differently? Perhaps it would appear less threatening to those who, consciously or unconsciously, experience it as assaulting their love object and as undermining the collectivity rallied around this love object. And if it were received differently, if it were not castigated as disloyal, un-American, or destructive—and thus placed outside legitimate political discourse — perhaps this would incite popular critique itself to more thoughtful, less moralistic or rebellious codes of conduct. It might then inhabit the dignified and authoritative voice of belonging, rather than the moral screech of exclusion. It might also be proffered in the voice of love and desire (for a better nation) rather than the voice of rage, shame, or denunciation. Conversely, if ambivalence in love could be forthrightly avowed in the formation of civic loyalty, the level of idealization (aimed at binding and shouting down this ambivalence) could be substantially lowered and so also might the shouting be reduced. And if loyalty did not seem to require this shouting down of criticism, this refusal of thoughtfulness itself, then in turn might the way be opened for apprehending rich civic debate—even and perhaps especially in times of crisis—as harboring the potential to strengthen rather than undermine a democracy?

Michael Ignatieff, also thinking through Freud about questions of civic belonging, concludes that “we are only likely to love others more if we love ourselves a little less.”22 This view, I think, aptly characterizes the contemporary “cosmopolitan” antidote to problems thought to be posed by parochial attachments and fundamentalist passions, in short by nationalisms big and small. The larger, more worldly view, and hence the one to be counted on for peace, liberal civility, and tolerant coexistence, is thought to require a reduction of local zeals and loyalties, and a corresponding increase in moral and political detachment. But this formulation remains trapped within the zero-sum Freudian economy in which civilization is enhanced or advanced only by depriving Eros of ever more gratification. I am suggesting a somewhat different route, one that brings reason and consciousness to practices of love rather than keeping them forever sequestered from one another, rather than asking reason to displace love on the one hand or barring love from reason and thoughtfulness on the other. This would involve developing political self-consciousness about the nature of civic love and developing as well practices to counter the potential destructiveness and anti-democratic energies and affects of such love. Specifically, it would require (1) avowing the aggression and ambivalence in love, and developing less dangerous outlets for the former and political lexicons that harbor the latter; (2) reckoning with the particular difficulties of group love and tracking the internal idealizations and external demonizations that arise to finesse these difficulties; and (3) coming to terms with the lack of identity and unity in civic love over space and time so as to be able to grasp how certain kinds of civic fervor arise to force oneness and permanence where they do not naturally inhere. Habits of political discourse that thematized these phenomena, or even simply monitored their effects, would not only reduce animosity toward dissent in times of crisis, but help to reset dimensions of the typically imagined trade-off between national security and democracy, between a democratic polity’s strength and the polyvocality that signifies democracy itself. Above all, such discourse could articulate possibilities for a love of country oriented toward a thoughtful and empowered rather than passive citizenry, a love of democratic traditions and practices rather than nation-state power.

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