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Essay: How can we displace destructive friend-enemy mechanisms/relationships (Beck/Kristeva)

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  • How can we displace destructive friend-enemy mechanisms/relationships (Beck/Kristeva)
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In a world dominated by technological advancement, today’s societies have been exposed to risks arising from modernisation. The development of science and technology alongside economic growth and globalisation have led to new serious hazards. While some hazards are domestic in nature, some issues, like climate change, are global and ubiquitous. However, one of the largest risks in a technology-enabled society that can lead to mass destruction is how individuals and particularly nations relate to one another. Othering mechanisms which have always pervaded society are much more dangerous in a globalised world filled with newer risks of larger magnitudes. Therefore, it has been proposed that to manage and avoid these emerging risks, a new configuration of society which can only arise with reflexive consideration of modernity is required. How likely will this occur? In this essay, I will highlight the strengths of Ulrich Beck and Julia Kristeva on their conceptions of how to displace destructive friend-enemy mechanisms/relationships. I will also use current events, such as the increasing acceptance of fluid gender and sexual identities, to evaluate these two theorists’ arguments. Additionally, I will examine the limitations of Beck’s and Kristeva’s theories, including the rise in nationalism.

In an ever-divided world, it is becoming harder to imagine how friend-enemy relations can be displaced. The new technological and political landscapes that have arisen over the past few decades carry the risks of catastrophe and destruction, rendering this issue even more critical. Considering recent events that have occurred over the past decade, such as the America presided by Donald Trump wherein Americans have become increasingly divided on a range of issues, and immigration issues in Europe leading to Brexit, it seems as though the world is regressing to othering mechanisms rather than becoming more democratic and accepting of diversity and differences. While the current situation mostly seems to elicit a feeling of hopelessness, Beck finds hope in this destruction that a necessary cultural shift will occur to fundamentally change the relationships between institutions, nations and individuals. Beck’s argument delineates a new way of relating to others based on a foundational change in individuals’ mentalities. He clearly describes the risk society, a modernity that is no longer combatting external natural hazards but instead battles “mega-hazards” (Beck 1999, 53), such as climate change, created from the world risk society itself. In doing so he precisely encapsulates the preoccupation with minimising and anticipating self-produced risks and “doubts about the capacity of a flourishing risk regulation industry to cope with them” (Power 2007, 21). Thus, he aptly defines the underlying insecurities and anxieties of the modern age which have come to affect issues such as othering and nationalism that are increasingly observed.

Additionally, Beck outlines the naiveites of the enlightenment and states that to recover from the mistakes of the enlightenment, modernity must not “fear doubt but instead make(s) it the element of its life and survival” (Beck 1997, 161). Therefore, Beck emphasises that individuals must become comfortable living in doubt which will engender the “tolerance and curiosity with respect to the otherness of others” (Beck 1997, 162). Beck explains this foundational change as one beginning with evolving from thinking according to linear doubt, which is doubt in pursuit of objective truth, to reflexive doubt (Beck 1997, 166). Beck’s bright side of modernity’s destruction lies in its ability to generate a cultural shift towards reflexive doubt that is “necessary for the change to a new modernity” (Beck, 1997, 168), wherein individuals live in uncertainty and assumptions can be questioned in pursuit of greater knowledge rather than complete knowledge. This cultural shift can somewhat be seen in the increasing acceptance of ambiguity and fluidity in gender and sexuality arising from its destructive history (Dowd, 2018). Historically, conceptions of gender and sexual identity have been harshly unaccepting with any deviation from traditional gender roles to be treated and repressed. The history of discrimination against LGBTQI individuals has been fraught with violence or even death (Nunez, 2016). However, over the years, significant increases in acceptance of fluid interpretations of sexuality and gender roles has occurred.

Kristeva, in accordance with Beck, highlights how our civilisation will be unable to survive unless the way we relate to others is transformed and the stranger within ourselves is acknowledged. Kristeva, like Beck, highlights the importance of individual changes in thinking and relating, however, her argument is strengthened by its explicit basis on psychoanalysis. When confronted with an environment different from our own, we often withdraw into familiar ethnicity, nationality or other identities. Kristeva’s argument addresses this tendency by grounding her understanding of othering mechanisms in Freudian theory. Kristeva acknowledges the familiarity of regressing to othering mechanisms as it is the primary way of relating to the other (Kristeva 1993, 3). Kristeva highlights how the “human child differentiates itself from its mother through a rejection affect, through the scream of anger and hatred that accompanies it” (Kristeva 1993, 29). It is unsurprising, therefore, that this primary relationship leaves a trace which may explain our “fascination and horror” (Kristeva 1993, 30) to individuals that are different from us. Thus, the strength in Kristeva’s argument lies in its ability to encapsulate the obdurate human tendency to abject what is unfamiliar and to reaffirm one’s own sense of identity in the face of uncertainty or others which is crucial to identifying ways to relate differently to the unconscious self and the other. Therefore, she aptly describes why nationalism and other forms of ideologies that separate individuals and reaffirm their identities can be so enticing as they appeal to the primary ways that we relate to others around us.

However, a counter trend of non-inclusivity has been seen in immigration in the US, Britain, Europe and Australia, reflecting strengthened national identities. Beck’s upside of destructive modernity, which is filled with pervasive insecurity from globalisation and technological advancement, lies in the hope that these dire circumstances will promote the psychic properties needed for a cultural shift wherein individuals can practice “self-confident doubt” (Beck 1997, 162). Currently, there appears to be a shift towards the opposite direction with increasing individual or national interest which is better accounted for by Kristeva’s psychoanalytic account. For instance, Brexit was largely influenced by the anxieties surrounding immigration which drove anti-EU sentiment (Goodwin & Milazzo 2016, 451). In America, immigration has become a hot topic and Donald Trump’s rise to power largely depended on a rhetoric against immigrants, protection of Americans and building a wall to keep others out (Altman, 2017). Perhaps this is because political and economic instability may not lead to a cultural shift as Beck predicted if political actors take advantage of this instability to gain power. Political strategies using othering mechanisms are often observed in leaders who use fear rhetoric, which can be seen in Trump’s campaign (Altman, 2017). Many autocratic leaders, such as Hitler and Mussolini, stoke nationalism, fear and resentment to gain favour which may be enticing as it maintains our shaken sense of certainty and security in the face of globalisation and Kristeva takes note of this in Marie Le Pen’s nationalism (Kristeva 1993, 37). Therefore, with these ways of relating remaining potent and available, othering mechanisms will unlikely be displaced. This undermines Beck’s argument as he fails to acknowledge how strongly individuals crave the comfort of certainty and how when confronted with hazards, the threat of mutual destruction may not be enough to elicit a cultural shift.

Kristeva, contrarily, addresses and supplements some of Beck’s limitations as her conception of the friend-enemy relation and modernity’s destructive nature incorporates a psychoanalytic lens which more comprehensively explains why individuals desperately cling to familiarity and certainty and thus better indicates how to displace othering mechanisms. Kristeva’s argument around our primary way of relating to others is reflected in Antony Gidden’s explanation of why it feels so necessary to protect oneself from ontological insecurity when confronted by globalisation (Giddens 1991, 38-39). However, unlike Giddens, Kristeva delineates a way to change our relationships with ourselves and others. She proposes that it is crucial to undo distortions resulting from becoming a subject by relating to the unconscious through sublimation rather than abjection (Kristeva 1993, 44). Sublimation would be a less destructive way of relating to the drives that would promote more harmonious relationships as one recognises the unconscious and unknown aspects of the self which no longer have to be located in the other and can instead be explored and expressed creatively. Therefore, Kristeva recognises that “cosmopolitanism that affirms and sublimates the unconscious, rather than repressing” is necessary in displacing othering mechanisms in a globalised world (Cash 2016, 175).

Kristeva’s form of sublimation has advantages over Freud’s, such that she does not present sublimation as something of which only few are “capable” (Freud 1995, 745) nor as a defence mechanism. Conversely, Kristeva indicates that we all have the capacity for sublimation through the formation of a new expressive form (Russel 2013, 137). However, while the concept of shifting from a regressive relationship with our unconscious to one grounded in sublimation may help displace othering mechanisms, Kristeva fails to outline how this would look like or what this would entail. Nevertheless, unlike Beck, whose theory was based on the environment being sufficient to encourage this shift, Kristeva highlights the importance of literature as a cultural tool that will support this cultural shift (Kristeva 1993, 44). In this increasingly globalised world, there is a necessity to find a more cosmopolitan way of relating to each other wherein we are not consumed by our origins, which is so inherent in nationalism, and identify a whole new way of relating to each other (Kristeva 1993, 41). Kristeva argues that literature will inform the new cosmopolitan ways of relating, being and thinking in light of globalisation. However, therein lies the issue. Can literature engender this cultural shift? Literature surrounding displacement of othering mechanisms has long existed and yet the trend of growing nationalism continues to persist. Regression to old ways of thinking and relating to the other continues to persist and is ever more destructive in a technologically advanced environment with the tools for destruction. Kristeva wrote her theory in 1993 and yet, countries continue to experience difficulties in how to relate to immigrants. Thus perhaps both Kristeva and Beck have been unsuccessful because neither theory addressed societal changes that can encourage the cultural shift needed to displace othering mechanisms as neither the environment, nor the literature seems to be adequate in driving such a foundational cultural shift in ways of thinking, being and relating to others.

Education may be an answer to encourage or implement Beck’s and Kristeva’s proposals of different ways of relating to the self, others and the world as individuals fail to turn to literature as a relevant cultural tool. As the internet and technology proliferates, individuals are turning away from literature and towards more passive forms of media such as movies, TV and social media. Thus, individuals are decreasingly turning to literature to inform their lives. While history is considered an imperative part of education, psychoanalysis is often excluded from education. A potential way to introduce and increase awareness around new ways of thinking, being and relating to others may thus be teaching history with a psychoanalytic lens to understand how horrors such as the World War Two occurred and how individuals may play a role in preventing these tragedies from occurring again. For instance, when informing students about how Hitler rose to power, a psychoanalytical analysis around how repression, abjection and friend-enemy distinctions is presented to explain how such horrors, such as concentration camps, happened. Therefore, incorporating psychoanalysis into mainstream education may highlight the importance of subverting friend-enemy ways of thinking by changing the way we relate to our own psychic lives and reflexive doubt which is increasingly important in a globalised, multicultural world full of mega-hazard risks.


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