[p2p-research] The psychopath as peer?

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Mon Nov 2 19:16:27 CET 2009

Andy Robinson wrote:
> 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.

Thanks for the great reply.

To amplify on your point:
"The War on the Unexpected"
"We've opened up a new front on the war on terror. It's an attack on the 
unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it's a war on different. If you act 
different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even 
arrested -- even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing 
anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants and a CYA 
attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation of reported 

> 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.

Just to note that Jane Jacobs suggests this happens most at intermediate 
population densities.
* In low density villages or rural areas, everyone knows each other (or used 
* In very high densities, there are many eyes on the street.
* In middle densities, people are strangers but there are not many people 
around to be watchful.

Sometimes towns get more dense and then fall apart socially, but that does 
not prove that cities do not work which are much higher in density. Jane 
Jacobs also talks about how you can look at certain areas in cities, like 
edge areas around parks or big certain zones, and see how density issues may 
make them specifically unsafe. She gives an example of how, in a city, if a 
kid is being bullied or chased somewhere like in a currently desolate park, 
they generally go to the crowded streets with shops to seek safety.

> 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 

Good point. And that connects both with the corporation as psychopathic just 
doing what it is designed to do in terms of be profitable with limited 

> - 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).

We also get a disproportionate response to some real problems when a society 
is fixated on the wrong things. For example, the WTC disaster cost billions 
of US dollars and thousands of lives, and was a huge tragedy and a crime, 
but the response, the war in Iraq, is costing trillions of US dollars before 
it is done and hundreds of thousands of lives (mostly Iraqi lives, directly, 
true). But trillions of US dollars wasted though means millions of US 
Americans without health insurance, which is costing tens of thousands of US 
lives a year though. So, a focus on what have been termed psychopathic 
terrorists has produced far more suffering in the USA than dealing in other 
ways with that crime.

> 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
> "abnormal".

Good point.

> 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) 

Good point.

> - 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

Yes, like Alfie Kohn talks about in relation to celebrating competition:
"Contending that competition in all areas -- school, family, sports and 
business -- is destructive, and that success so achieved is at the expense 
of another's failure, Kohn, a correspondent for USA Today, advocates a 
restructuring of our institutions to replace competition with cooperation. 
He persuasively demonstrates how the ingrained American myth that 
competition is the only normal and desirable way of life -- from Little 
Leagues to the presidency -- is counterproductive, personally and for the 
national economy, and how psychologically it poisons relationships, fosters 
anxiety and takes the fun out of work and play. He charges that competition 
is a learned phenomenon and denies that it builds character and self-esteem. 
Kohn's measures to encourage cooperation in lieu of competition include 
promoting noncompetitive games, eliminating scholastic grades and 
substitution of mutual security for national security."

> - 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).

Interesting hypothesis.

> 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.  

Something to always be aware of...

 > All of which avoid the role of social relations
> and the alienating context on emotional wellbeing, interpersonal relations
> and social action.  


And even other simple things play a role like nutritional deficiencies and 
vitamin D deficiencies, that can emerge out of related changes in culture 
and infrastructure, like spending more time indoors, eating less fish, and 
so on.

It is some interaction of genes, history, environment, culture, 
relationships, personal choice, and other factors.

 > 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.

So, you list these problem/solution areas:
1. connections
2. alienation
3. trauma
4. labeling/distinguishing

> bw
> Andy

Thanks for your great contribution on this subject, to complement Stan's 
insights as well, to understand this issue better in a broader context.

How would you say peer-to-peer relates to everything you wrote?

--Paul Fernhout

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