How does one bear ‘it’?

On 30 April 1968, the Administration at Colombia University called the New York Police Department to break up an anti-war protest that had shut down the campus. Fifty-six years later – almost to the very same day – we are living through the same thing again. Sure, then it was Vietnam, and now it is Gaza – two completely different wars involving completely different ideologies and contexts, but all the same, the similarities are striking. And just like back then, we see increasingly violent clashes occur between protestors and the authorities, as recent events at the University of Amsterdam perhaps best exemplify.

I am too woefully ignorant to speak about the question “why war?” and this ‘mental health and wellness’ column lacks the framework for introducing any kind of nuanced position I might hold. However, that being well and true, it feels completely self-indulgent to write about anything other than the terror of our times. So, with that in mind, a question that has consumed me – and I will attempt to elaborate upon it here: what is aggression?

To reemphasise, while I cannot speak directly about war, the tragedies it has brought with it, or anything at all about ‘what side’ someone might or should be on, a brief introduction into Lacan’s ideas about aggression might offer something for how we position ourselves within these troubling times. In particular, he provides a distinction between aggression and aggressivity, which might aid us in thinking about our current ideological divisions, which are slowly turning into steel walls.

For Lacan, aggression relates to violent acts, whereas aggressivity is a fundamental link that underlies each of our relationships with ourselves, others and the world. In a sense, Lacan elaborates upon Freud’s concept of ambivalence, which argues that we love and hate in equal(ish) measures. For instance, for Freud, if you love someone, the narcissistic part of you wants them to exist entirely for you. That person obviously cannot do that, so a part of you ‘hates’ them for it. Hence, for Lacan, aggressivity is as present in loving acts as in violent ones.

This aggressivity is a residue of how our ego enters into a dual relationship with its specular image. Specifically, for Lacanian psychoanalysts, the ego is formed when the infant sees its reflection in the mirror and identifies, in that image, a sense of wholeness and completion which stands in direct contrast to their helpless incoordination (i.e. it is only in the image that the child can see that this arm is his, etc.). This juxtaposition is experienced as an aggressive tension between the image and the body, since the wholeness of the image is perceived as threatening the body with disintegration and fragmentation.

From that tension, we will develop ego-to-ego relationships with other people built on the same turbulent terrain. For instance, have you ever felt that other people just seem so whole? Whereas you are a lacking and fragmented ‘imposter’ of a person? I would bet most of us feel that quite often. It perhaps goes without saying that social media fuels this tension; the image is one of wholeness that can only work to reinforce that aggressivity and strengthen divisions between us.

The only times we might manage to ‘escape’ this position is when we are wholly and completely identified with a group or a goal, or, in other words, an ideology. However, such positioning will, like with our own self-image, inevitably create deeper and stronger divisions: if you cannot see the world as I do, then the threat of disintegration returns and – like any creature who feels a threat fast approaching – my defences will kick in.

However, and I want to make this very clear: while it is more important than ever before to speak out and to fight for what we know is right, what feels so overwhelming to me is that everyone in the world right now seemingly thinks they are ‘on the right side’. This certainty of our own side of the fence feeds the growing and intensified divisions among us, while in the meantime people are dying. Thus, I cannot offer any kind of solution, but I suppose a sense of awareness of the natural underlying processes feeding this widespread aggressivity is important. In other words, it is perhaps useful to think about how our difficulty in seeing another’s perspective is the product of an ego-to-ego dynamic, and we should question whether such a dynamic is actually conducive to solving any of the present suffering.

Written by Molly Fitz