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Book Review: 'Death’s Dream Kingdom. The American psyche since 9-11'

CHEMISTS have a relative straightforward world in which they have the basic elements (such as hydrogen, oxygen, carbon etc), each atom having a compact nucleus variously composed of similar-mass protons (positively charged) and neutrons (uncharged) surrounded by a negatively charged  electron cloud. Following certain “rules”, atoms “combine” by sharing their electrons to form “covalent bonds”. Thus a single hydrogen atom (H) is much “happier” in a diatomic molecule H-H (H2) and ditto oxygen (O) in O-O (O2).

More complex molecules are formed by a continuation of this molecular “Leggo”. Indeed, in discussing this with my Introductory Biochemistry class recently, I asked whether anyone knew the first line of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and was much surprised to find that one of my students had read all of her works – including her Juvenilia and unfinished novels - and was readily able to exactly quote as follows: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. All great literature deals with the complexity of the individuals, their attempts to understand themselves and others and the consequent interactional story.

Walter Davis’ “Death’s Dream Kindgdom. The American Psyche since 9-11” (Pluto, London, 2006) is about how sensible humans attempt to understand themselves (through earnest, honest, painful  introspection) and others (through empathic internalizing and analyzing of the suffering of others) – as compared to the psychotic,  “ideology-driven” simplicity of “compulsory happiness”, “endless demand”, “axiomatic rightness”, “certainty- and guarantee-demanding”, denial, avoidance of empathy and introspection, and  violent externalizing of inner fears by both the Religious Right and contemporary Capitalist America.

This is a great, must-read book for our dreadful times – but nothing worthwhile comes easy and you have to work at it. Indeed several chapters in the middle of the book are tough going and it was helpful for me to have a Big Dictionary closed at hand. Thus (to help any future readers as deficient as myself) the following confessional (actually I sort of knew some of the following but needed to check for philosophical or contextual exactitude): apotheosis (exaltation),  deracinate (pull out by the roots), deracination (pulling out by the roots), evanescent (vanishing), evanescence (vanishingness), hermeneutics (science of interpretation), hermetic (alchemical /airtight), incarnate (embody or embodied), individuated (formed into an individual entity), ineluctably (inescapably), interpellated (interrupted, exhorted), mentation (from mind), jouissance (enjoyment), noumenal (given only by intuition, non-phenomenal), ontogeny (study of being), quotidian (pertaining to daily or sustaining some character), rebarbative (repellent), reify (materialize), reification (materialization) and thanatos (death; I discovered that I am, among other things,  a thanatologist, one who studies the causes of death). Print this article out and use it as a handy bookmark!

Part I of the book is called The Belly of the Beast. Chapter 1 (9-11 America) links guilt and reaction from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to post-9-11. The lack of questioning is summarized in Bush’s dogmatic assertion: “The American way of life is not negotiable”. Chapter 2 (Living in Death's Dream Kingdom: the Psychotic Core of Capitalist Ideology) describes the “emotional glue” of “certainty”, compulsory Happiness, endless demand and remorseless “advance” coupled with denial of rational introspection and empathy for others. Professor Davis gives 10 lessons on how ideology depends on psychology for its realization. Chapter 3 (Passion of the Christ in Abu Ghraib) deals with the contemporary mainstream American ideological edifice and the emotional glue holding it together with the use of images, symbols and symbolic actions. Mel Gibson’s horrendously violent “The Passion of Christ” is excoriated as an otherwise meaningless, hate-inspiring “sado-masochistic bludgeoning of the audience”.

Chapter 4 is entitled “Weapons of Mass Destruction Found in Iraq” and addresses the critique that the System is a rational, business-like enterprise. However what is deemed to be “technoscientific rationality” is in fact on analysis a “system of guarantees” (religious, philosophical, historical, economic, psychological and emotional) that “exorcises fear” and replaces sensible, introspection and external empathy with ruthless certainty for “happiness and security”.

Chapters 5 and 6 were tough going for me but I appreciated the analysis of alternative paradigms in the psychoanalysis of politics and culture. Davis identifies “a common error: the superimposition upon traumatic historical events of the very guarantees that those events shatter … A correct appropriation of our historical situation only becomes possible through a systematic knowledge of the ways in which we blind ourselves to it”.  To a scientist this is obvious because Popperian science deals in potentially falsifiable hypotheses. While scientists can use contradictory but useful “working models of convenience” (e.g. for operational simplicity variously treating electrons as waves, clouds or particles), ultimately they are profoundly sceptical and everything is subject to reassessment in a process of successively improving our models of reality. Chapter 5 (A Humanistic Response to 9-11: Robert Jay Lifton, or the Nostalgia for Guarantees) is critical of liberal pragmatism. Chapter 6 (A Postmodernist Response to 9-11: Slavoj Žižek, or the jouissance of an Abstract Hegelian) was for me a dense forest out of which I finally emerged to the sunlight of the quotation from Rilke: “Spirit is the life that cuts back into life; with its suffering it increases is knowledge” and the immediately following conclusion by Professor Davis that “This is the way of being we must regain if we’re to explore again our truest and deepest experiences rather than to continue to place a supreme value on those ways of thinking and being that deliver us from them.”

Part II of the book is entitled To the Left of the Left. Chapter 7 (Bible Says: The Psychology of Christian Fundamentalism) begins with a nice quotation from Kenneth Burke: “I know you’re a Christian, but what are you a Christian against?” and is easy reading. The Racist Religious Right Republicans (R4s) and George Bush make everyone else seem like Sorbonne intellectuals.  The philosophic disease of the Christian fundamentalists involves (1) biblical literalism, (2) being “re-born”, (3) infective evangelism and (4) imminent Apocalypse. The magnitude of the problem is revealed by the realities that hitherto science and technology leader America is faltering economically and about 40% of Americans reject Evolution that is now central to the Biological Sciences and Biotechnology.

Chapter 8 (The Psychodynamics of Terror) cuts to the chase. Here we encounter the cowardly, bullying psychopaths that make life such a misery for so many (just have a look at the appalling US workplace, woman and child abuse statistics). Isn’t it empowering when you go to the doctor and you are told what the disease is? In this instance we see the dark manifestations of managerial pathological narcissism and lesser psychopathies now bestriding America like a colossus. Davis: “Terror’s origin is a feeling of inner powerlessness. Its purpose is to reverse that condition by reducing others to it” (“evacuation through projective identification:”) … Empowerment through hate, externalizing the hate one has been made to feel toward oneself by projecting it onto others.”

Chapter 9 (Evil: As Psychological Process and as Philosophic Concept” starts by quoting Theodor Adorn: “Hitler gave the world a new imperative. So act that Auschwitz will never again be possible.” Davis argues that: “Its most telling application is to the many little choices we make that result in what is called our character, i.e., our ability to feel in certain ways and as a result open ourselves to the ethical demands of experience.” In this chapter Davis explores ordinary people, then radical evil and finally systemic evil – “the psycho-logic of capitalism”. As a very optimistic and positive person I loved the conclusion of this chapter entitled “On becoming a socialist in one’s instincts” that Davis describes as “Romanticism … to become socialists in our instincts and thereby to live a relationship to ourselves that is antithetical to the one enforced by capitalism.”

Chapter 10 (Men of Good Will: Toward an Ethic of the Tragic” uses a heroic US football star, Pat Tillman,  and Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark as counter examples in addressing ethical issues in traumatizing situations. Pat Tillman gave up an outstanding football career, joined the Army and ultimately died in action. In his sacrifice Pat Tillman is described as an Apostle of Duty. Hamlet (“to be or not to be, that is the question”) approaches a crucial ethical concern by earnest introspection and reflection, the course favoured by Davis: “Nietzsche calls for a “pessimism of strength” (i.e. to have the courage to face a negative reality and grow stronger as a result of doing so) and I suppose that for most readers this book constitutes a similar call.” Agreed. Professor Davis concludes: “all you have to do is overcome the belief that any argument that doesn’t end up restoring the guarantees and thereby making us feel happy and secure again is a counsel to despair.”


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