[p2p-research] The psychopath as peer?

Andy Robinson ldxar1 at gmail.com
Mon Nov 2 16:17:58 CET 2009

I'd be careful with these kinds of classificatory schemas for other reasons
as well - they have a history of complicity in regimes of regimentation and
control, as ways of pathologising difference.  While I'd be the first to
endorse the idea that there are real kinds of neurological difference in
cases such as autism and possibly schizophrenia, I'm sceptical of the idea
that real differences can be deduced simply by creating checklists of
"behaviours" or subjective stances.  Most often it is a matter of old men
with beards sitting round in smoke-filled rooms deciding arbitrarily which
"behaviours" or subjective dispositions will be classified as "abnormal" and
hence included on these lists - hence the inclusion of such things as
homosexuality.  We are never far away from the world of Soviet and Chinese
designations of dissidents as mad - and there have been cases of this kind
in Britain and Holland too.  Today we have another sinister development in
Britain of the use of psychiatric testing to jail people "indefinitely" (for
life) for middle-level offences, on the grounds of the supposed risk they
pose.  I actually know someone who had to argue with her psychiatrist to
avoid being classified as a psychopath (presumably she means ASPD?) on the
grounds of her political support for property damage in some circumstances.
Psychiatry mobilised as system of control - the opposite of what it should
be doing, which is protecting difference from persecution through
assumptions of sameness.  A full recognition of the radicality of
psychological difference has drastic effects for ethical theory and
jurisprudence, amounting to an effective suspension of judgement due to
incommensurability of difference and intangible effects of unjust context -
something recognised in historic ideas of *mens rea*, but increasingly
resisted today.

The historical construction of the "psychopath" is problematic, because it
is clear from the studies of the "London Monster" that the *figure* of the
psychopath in popular imaginations precedes the actual emergence of serial
attackers of this particular kind.  Also that the emergence of this figure
is closely connected to the rise of modernity and the alienated city in
praticular.  Of course, the biological determinists will then revise the
historical record to attempt to reinterpret earlier instances of mass-murder
in the same terms - but the discursive status was quite different.  Anyway -
it is clear that the social fears of the random stranger without social
ties, who will behave in a "predatory" way, arises from the disintegration
of social density in the modern city and the increasing frequency of contact
with people with whom one has no particular affinity or specific relation.
Hence the fear that such a person might be something monstrous.

Simultaneous with this is the rise of instrumental social relations - from a
related but distinct source - capitalism and statism specifically encourage
instrumental relations (contracts, law, master-slave dyads, instrumental
rationality) as a replacement for dense horizontal networks of connections.
This certainly has a psychological dimension, and there are psychological
techniques (they would be termed "moral" at the time) for producing
instrumental and alienated selves, but these are deliberate strategies of
subjectification, the social production of a kind of "normality".  This is
presumably where we get the prevalence of alleged psychopaths in stock
markets and management, and the idea of the corporation as psychopath (as in
the film "The Corporation"), in which case "psychopath" really means,
someone who relates to others in a purely instrumental way, who has no
affinity-connections but only instrumental connections.  I wonder in this
context if "psychopathy" of the clinical sense would then be a kind of
overconformity - an excessive effect arising from dominant, "normal" kinds
of subjectification - a case of people being "too normal", being what the
dominant system desires, but in such a way that its desire is returned in
"true-inverted form" as the Lacanians put it - when the psychopath gives the
social system what it wants (a perfectly instrumentalised subjectivity), the
system sees how horrific what it desired was to begin with - hence the
peculiar traumatic fixation on psychopathy, out of all proportion to the
actual level of observable harm (the number of people killed by serial
killers, children abducted by strangers, etc) in relation to more "mundane"
harms (deaths in car accidents, children killed by their parents, etc).

In other words - in the absence of definitive proof of transcultural
universality, I would assume that a society makes its "psychopaths".  In
this case, what is more, it is not even clear that they are made as

Also, we need to remember that explanation is not just about "lack" (the
"psychopath" does not have the ethical or compassionate barrier to harming
others) but also motive or cause (a person with no barrier to harming others
would nevertheless be harmless unless they had a specific *reason *to wish
to harm another person) - the bracketing of the latter implies that in
dominant culture it is assumed that we all *want* to harm other people, that
the only thing holding us back is the ethical or compassionate force (the
superego one might say), which itself says something very disturbing about
contemporary society - perhaps that all the neurotic mainstreamers differ
from the "psychopaths" only in having a superego, in other words, that they
too have been subjectified as "psychopaths" (as instrumental subjects and
also as expressing a general *ressentiment* and desire to harm others) but
with an extra element added on top (Locke built on top of Hobbes).  Quite
probably, there are peoples without superegos, who nevertheless do not harm
one another most of the time (the Bushmen for instance are quite capable of
murder, but usually simply lack the motive to do so).

The bias in Anglo-American psychology is in three directions - towards
classification and correlation, towards fetishising "behaviour" and the
observable, and towards resorting as quickly as possible to reductive
biological explanations.  All of which avoid the role of social relations
and the alienating context on emotional wellbeing, interpersonal relations
and social action.  Not that switching to social causality necessarily
solves the problem - there are ways of explaining through social causality
which are just as uncritical, usually by emphasising the microsocial and
seeking abnormalities in it as a cause of personal abnormalities.  If we
really want to understand psychology, we need to get into a whole range of
quite complex issues.  Firstly, the experience of connection across a social
and ecological field and the experience of rupture in this connection.
Secondly, the traumatic effects of authoritarian and alienating social forms
on subject-formation.  Thirdly, the impacts of specific dominant macrosocial
forms in terms of traumatic effects and also in terms of productive
connections (how violence is experienced in a militarist and patriarchal
society for example, how exhilaration of speed is related to the social role
of cars, and the social construction of the idea of chemical fixes both
pharmacological and illicit).  And fourthly, how all of these intersect with
questions of difference, ways in which particular differences are channelled
in particular ways, or are criminalised, pathologised or labelled from an
early point, often with effects of reinforcement of deviance.  There are a
number of psychoanalytically-inspired and critical psychiatric theorists who
have looked into these issues - Reich, Marcuse, Fromm, Laing, Guattari,
Bateson, Foucault all come to mind.  Reich in particular I find useful in
thinking around these kinds of issues.  The concepts of "character-armour"
and especially "affect blocking" cover a lot of the terrain of
stereotypically psychopathic dispositions such as the blocking of compassion
and the ability to lie easily (actual emotional states do not show due to
character-armour), and also related matters such as how affect-blocks might
be connected to a positive valuing of aggression.

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://listcultures.org/pipermail/p2presearch_listcultures.org/attachments/20091102/6157c2cf/attachment.html>

More information about the p2presearch mailing list