Friday, October 13, 2006

On the couch

Psychoanalysis is the school of psychology which was founded by famed Viennese quack Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century, and which has been refined by various other intellectuals since then. I thought, this week, that it might be a fun exercise to put Indonesia on the couch, so to speak, to see if there are any potential areas of conflict in its collective psyche that may prevent it from functioning properly, just as there may be in any individual person undertaking analysis.

Even though there are differences between group psychology and the psychology of the individual, there are enough similarities for us to be justified in drawing certain parallels.

Central to psychoanalysis is the concept of the unconscious, an area of the mind in which resides drives, desires, fantasies, attitudes and motivations about which we know nothing. At the opposite end of the mental spectrum from the unconscious (or collective unconscious in this case) is the superego, or conscience, which incorporates the morality and the ideals of the culture of which it is a part and which includes feelings of guilt.

So let's get down to psychoanalytic cases. In the West, alcohol is a chemical that interferes with the normal functioning of the superego. We could say that the conscience is soluble in alcohol. Alcohol is a social ritual in Western countries and has a relaxing effect on the strong or forbidding conscience. This lessening of tension can sometimes be a good thing but excessive drinking can make the normally mild and gentle become violent and antisocial.

In Indonesia, there are many strong prohibitions which inhabit the population's superego and inhibit unconscious drives. Increasing prohibitions on sexual behavior and the sublimating force of artistic expression (i.e. the impending puritanical antiporn legislation) are becoming reality here. Also, strict social stratifications at the heart of the culture that demand excessive politeness and obsequiousness to one's social superiors exist here too, and can serve to build up tension like a pressure cooker under the country's collective superego.

Indonesians though are very often denied, for better or worse, the release of alcohol. Instead, they indulge in that other activity that the good Dr. Freud insists can also negate the superego or conscience, namely gang formation. Gangs of youngsters or adults can commit acts together, such as mobbing to death petty criminals, burning down churches or harassing minorities, that none of them could commit individually. Afterward they cannot understand how they came to participate in anything so violent and destructive without any feelings of guilt, and perhaps even with pleasure.

An almost kleptomaniacal level of corruption is also something that prevents Indonesia's body politic and collective psyche from functioning smoothly. Psychoanalysts talk of the pleasure principle and the reality principle. A child functions exclusively under the pleasure principle; he knows only what he wants (pleasure and not pain) and cannot recognize reality.

Adults cannot live by this principle because society does not permit it. It is the function of the ego (the conscious mind) to transform the pleasure principle of childhood into the reality principle of adult life, and thus to take into account societies restrictions and prohibitions as the subject seeks to find satisfactory solutions for his life. Those involved in corruption here seem to be arrested at the pleasure principle stage of development, i.e. they quite simply can't not steal the money that is in front of them, despite the potential consequences and thus, to avoid painful emotions such as severe anxiety, guilt and shame, they have to mount ego defenses.

Ego defenses are a normal psychological device but their pathological manifestation, as we sometimes see in this country, inhibits normal functioning. Denial and projection are, according to Freud, very primitive ego defenses because they originate in early childhood. They are, however, defenses that we see being used time and time again when we read Indonesian newspapers. When in denial, a child (or person involved in corruption) is reprimanded for something he has done. For fear he will be punished, he insists that he didn't do it, even though he knows perfectly well he did. The next step is automatic; he insists his brother (or colleagues) did it.

In the ego defense of projection, a person's feelings of guilt or shame are assuaged by projecting their own faults onto others. It's like seeing yourself in a mirror and believing that the image is actually somebody else. In Indonesia, social taboos and transgressive behavior such as premarital sex or political manifestations such as aggressive, neo-imperialistic policies are usually projected onto the West and thus the country avoids having to confront its own inadequacies.

Female sexuality and masculine bias are also central tenets of psychoanalysis. Freud talked of penis envy in the female unconscious, but more recent psychoanalytic theory postulates that the reverse is also true, namely that men envy women for their greater sexual capacity and for their ability to create life. Man cannot create life but can only destroy it and this envy lies behind male subjugation of women, something hitting the headlines here with the introduction of the very vague and repressive concept of pornographic actions, namely a prohibition against any celebration or display of female sexuality (i.e. no thighs, please).

So, the prognosis for our couch-bound archipelago? It's hard to say but a few more years in analysis should help. This shouldn't be construed as an insult though. There's really no stigma attached to undergoing analysis these days. A few couches in and around the corridors of power would be a good start.

-- Simon Pitchforth