Given today's impending apocalypse, I am reposting an excerpt from my 3-part post on political messiahs and scapegoats. First, though, a brief comment on the relationship between scapegoating and apocalyptic narratives.
Scapegoating is a temporary solution to the problem of the ever-present tension between the good and bad within each of us. Apocalyptic fantasies represent the final solution to this problem. In a post-apocalyptic world, the all-bad objects are separated from the good, consigned either to final destruction or permanent quarantine in a sealed, inescapable, all-bad place.
In the all-good world that is left, purified good beings are no longer stalked by evil and its ultimate manifestation, death. There is no more loss, no more anxiety. An apocalypse can be thought of as an all-inclusive, cosmic-level scapegoating to last for all time.
In the Christian narrative, Jesus is the ultimate scapegoat whose death is the precursor to the the final cosmic cleansing.
Everything Melanie Klein had to say about projective identification and splitting is relevant to the discussion of apocalyptic narratives. The connection between splitting and the final judgment is especially obvious.
The excerpt from my earlier post begins below the fold.
When Melanie Klein began her pioneering work, it was believed that children couldn't undergo psychoanalysis because their real psychological ties to parents were too strong to manifest themselves in a transference relationship with a psychotherapist. But Klein noticed that when she "played" with children in therapy, they would often assign her a specific role to play. She would become a character in the child's story. She compared role-assignment with transference in adult analysis.
Klein assumed that these assigned roles represented a part of the child's inner world because the roles corresponded with the child’s general mood and frame of mind. Thus, the assigned role was a window into the child’s inner life. Klein also saw role assignment as a way for the child to reduce anxiety. Troubling aspects of experience, aggression for example, could be put into the therapist, providing a measure of anxiety reduction.
The projection of unwanted parts of the inner world into others is called projective identification. Projective identification isn't simply seeing unwanted parts of one's interior world in others; projective identification entails real pressure on the object of the projection to both experience and act on the projected impulse.
Did you ever have the experience of an angry person doing their utmost to anger you? Have you noticed, as well, that they may feel better after they succeed? They may even derisively ask: what's wrong with you?
The provocateur in this situation denies the provocation and makes it all about the reaction to the provocation. That's projective identification. Klein realized that the recipient of the projection has an experiential window into denied aspects of the internal world of the person relying on projection to alleviate anxiety.
Projective identification is an essential dimension of scapegoating and scapegoaters sometimes go to outrageous lengths to provoke scapegoats into reactions that will confirm the scapegoater’s projection. An intuitive understanding of projective identification is behind a stance of deliberate calm in the face of insult that many African-Americans routinely adopted in the past. And I think most of us are acting on an intuitive understanding of projective identification when we refuse to let someone get our goat.
Projective identification is one of two principle defenses employed in what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position of mental life. The other principle defense in the paranoid-schizoid position is splitting. (Paranoid refers to the projective defense and schizoid refers to the splitting defense.)
In infants, good and bad internal states are very transitory and split between all-bad and all-good. In this position, bad feelings are poorly moderated by good feelings. One little bad thing can immediately ruin everything.
Splitting-off and projecting the bad into an external object (e.g. a person) protects the good that is left behind. Sometimes when a child misbehaves, she will indignantly blame Mommy for her own misbehavior. When this happens, the child is protecting the good in her internal world by splitting-off, projecting and attacking the bad which has now been relocated into Mommy. To the child, Mommy who caught me in my bad behavior is actually the bad one and I am the good one who scolds bad Mommy. If Mommy uncritically accepts the projection and rages back at the child, the projective identification has succeeded in flying colors, because Mommy is now acting like a crazy, bad person.
Most scapegoats, including politicians confronted with ridiculous accusations, face a dilemma. If they react too strongly, they risk affirming the scapegoater’s projection; if they fail to react strongly enough, they may be assumed to be guilty simply because they haven’t defended themselves vigorously enough. Unlike Mommy and Daddy, politicians can’t send raging scapegoaters to time-out until they get a grip, but I wonder if this is why a subset of American conspiracy mongers believes the government has secret internment camps waiting for them. Perhaps they’re anticipating retaliation or, at least, a time-out reaction for all their paranoid attacks. I’d go even further and hazard the interpretation that the internment camp fantasy could be a therapeutic fantasy. The camp will put a stop to escalating paranoid fantasies.
And therein lies the very serious downside of the paranoid-schizoid position. The position is, essentially, psychotic because the psychological boundary between internal and external is deeply compromised by the need to split-off and project the bad. While it can be said that splitting and projective identification alleviate anxiety, relief is achieved at some cost to realism.