Sunday, May 24, 2009

Tell Me About Your Mother…

In the wake of April’s parliamentary elections, many failed candidates apparently lost their perhaps already feeble grip on the lodestone and, unable to face defeat, were admitted to various mental health facilities across the archipelago. A couple even ‘cashed in their parliamentary deposits’ as it were and took their own lives.

In the warp and weft of Indonesia’s social fabric, many emotions are seemingly repressed as people try to conform to the sometimes rigid demands of the culture. Perhaps a few analytic couches around the archipelago would help many to deal with their various issues and help to prevent more politicians from topping themselves (although many of you probably wouldn’t have a problem with that).

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 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. An extremely high level of corruption is certainly something that prevents Indonesia's body politic and collective psyche from functioning smoothly (you just ask Mr. Antasari, the golf loving now ex head of the KPK anti corruption commission). 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 can not 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. Corruptors here often 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 newspaper stories. When in denial, a child (or corrupter) 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 idologies 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 or nurture life like women and their power over life lies in their ability to destroy it. This creates an envy which lies behind male subjugation of women, something hitting the headlines here with the introduction of the draconian new pornography law and increasing sharia-isation of the provinces. Prohibition against any celebration or display of female sexuality is now on a religion backed upsurge. A few religious leaders engaging in a few courses of therapy on the couch would possibly relieve pressure on Indonesia’s sisterhood.

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, after all it would be a shame if any Presidential or vice presidential candidates also took their own lives. Prabowo and Wiranto in analysis? Let the healing begin.