On the Thing, or Love and Violence

The inclination to aggression constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization.
— Sigmund Freud (1929)

The Judeo-Christian injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself, as well as to love one’s enemies remains, in contemporary conservative politics, the core of Western identity. As such, it has been taken up as a topic of exploration and point of contention for its implications across many disciplines, and for good reason. To be hospitable to the other is to put oneself at risk. Indeed, our conception of the neighbor has everything to do with our understanding of and capacity for violence. This paper is written in response to Alenka Zupančič's seminar, “Civilization and Its Discontents 2.0” presented at The European Graduate School in November 2021, and will further explore Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents in light of the concept of neighbor and its relationship to violence.

Written in 1930, Civilization and Its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur) remains one of Freud’s most important works. The term Das Unbehagen, translated as “Discontents,” could be understood as malaise or taken as a sentiment of social crisis. Interestingly, however, Zupančič explains that Freud originally chose Das Unglück for the title, which has more to do with a happy or unhappy accident, misfortune or luck, evoking at times an element of surprise. He ultimately decided to go with Das Unbehagen, thus suggesting something entirely different. With this term, the element of misfortune and accident is less present. As Zupančič notes, it involves being made miserable in a different way than simply unhappiness. Rather, Das Unbehagen “suggests an enduring presence of an odd foreign element at the very heart of the usual familiar environment.”1 Such discontents, as described here, are present all the time. So, what is this familiar environment at the heart of which something strange and uncomfortable tarries? In short, civilization. Indeed, even at the beginning of this text, within the naming of the essay itself, is the concept of neighbor, as civilization invokes something that is at once both familiar and strange. This discontent is not a passing state, but something which Freud conceives as belonging to civilization in a very essential way. Freud writes:

We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to other men. The suffering which comes from this last source is perhaps more painful to us than any other [emphasis added].2

What is made clear throughout the text is the link between the discontent that is always already present within civilization and the violence that comes from others. Freud takes up the concept of neighbor most explicitly in chapter five of Civilization and Its Discontents; it could be suggested, however — and Lacan makes this very suggestion — that this is the subject of the entire book.3 He is insistent on the problematic nature of the Judeo-Christian injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself, and in fact goes so far as to suggest its very impossibility.

It is worth returning here to Freud’s early conception of neighbor — the figure of the Nebenmensch, the complex of the fellow human being — found in his 1895 manuscript referenced in other works as “the notebooks,” and later titled by the translator as “Project for a Scientific Psychology” (Entwurf einer Psychologie). For Lacan, this Nebenmensch or Thing is at the heart of all of Freud’s work, as well as his own Seminar VII on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, yet for Freud himself, this term remains in the shadows and is hardly mentioned elsewhere, outside of the following key passage quoted at length below:

Let us suppose that the object presented by the perception is similar to the [percipient] subject himself — that is to say, a fellow human-being [Nebenmensch]. The theoretical interest taken in it is then further explained by the fact that an object of a similar kind was the subject's first satisfying object (and also his first hostile object) as well as his sole assisting force. For this reason it is on his fellow-creatures that a human being first learns to cognize. The perceptual complexes arising from this fellow-creature will in part be new and non-comparable — for instance, its features (in the visual sphere); but other visual perceptions (for instance, the movements of its hands) will coincide in the subject with his own memory of quite similar visual impressions of his own body — a memory with which will be associated memories of movements experienced by himself. The same will be the case with other perceptions of the object; thus, for instance, if the object screams, a memory of the subject's own screaming will be aroused and will consequently revive his own experiences of pain. Thus the complex of a fellow-creature [Komplex der Nebenmenschen] falls into two portions. One of these gives the impression of being a constant structure and remains as a coherent “thing” [als Ding]; while the other can be understood by the activity of memory — that is, can be traced back to information about the subject's own body.4

Here, the fellow human being is both the first object of pleasure or satisfaction, as well as the first hostility, or the “hostile character” as Freud references later in this same text.5 In Simon Critchley’s analysis of this text, he notes that the figure of the Nebenmensch is “both capable of being understood… and escapes understanding.”6 This description remains true of our modern conceptions of the neighbor/stranger today. What is fascinating in the above passage is the scream — a traumatic origin that initiates an ethical subjectivity. It is the other’s wounding that reminds me of my own.

For Lacan, as for Julia Kristeva, this figure of the traumatic intruder, neighbor, foreigner, stranger, other, Thing, dwells within each of us. This feels more in line with Freud’s own early conception of the figure of the Nebenmensch. Lacan undertakes the concept of neighbor in reference to his structure of extimité, or “extimacy” wherein something is both as intimate as having been part of you, but at the same time is foreign. Žižek’s reading of the neighbor with Lacan’s three registers is helpful here:

First, there is the imaginary other — other people ‘like me,’ my fellow human beings with whom I am engaged in the mirrorlike relationships of competition, mutual recognition, and so forth. Then, there is the symbolic ‘big Other’ — the ‘substance’ of our social existence, the impersonal set of rules that coordinate our coexistence. Finally, there is the Other qua Real, the impossible Thing, the ‘inhuman partner,’ the Other with whom no symmetrical dialogue, mediated by the symbolic Order, is possible. And it is crucial to perceive how these three dimensions are hooked up. The neighbor (Nebenmensch) as the Thing means that, beneath the neighbor as my semblant, my mirror image, there always lurks the unfathomable abyss of radical Otherness, of a monstrous Thing that cannot be ‘gentrified.’7

Additionally, Zupančič, by way of Žižek, offers an example of what is at work within this concept with the idea that once one spits into a glass, it becomes very difficult for one to then turn the glass up and drink it — in this case, something that was once part of you, inside of you, becomes disgusting.8

Slavoj Žižek, citing Wendy Brown, writes that the enemy is one whose story we don’t know, suggesting that once we've heard their story, and the enemy-in-question acquires a meaningful life experience, such a person cannot “ultimately” be an enemy.9 Perhaps it’s that such a person can’t ultimately be an enemy for some people. In his recent seminar, Žižek points out that even for Hitler, there must have been someone for whom he was irreplaceable.10 On the other hand, Judith Butler on an ethics of cohabitation, suggests that our alliances are very often anonymous, that we do not always know “the history or the face of the one with whom we are allied.”11

I am reminded here of Denis Villeneuve's 2016 sci-fi/thriller film Arrival. In a sort of Derridean motif of the Other, my personal takeaway is that Arrival is a film about confronting and cohabitating with that which terrifies us. Further, it is the realization that what (or who) terrifies us really isn't that terrifying at all. That is, as one comes to terms with the foreigner within, the strangeness of the other becomes less monstrous. As Kristeva notes,

Strangely, the foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity, the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder. By recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself. A symptom that precisely turns "we" into a problem, perhaps makes it impossible. The foreigner comes in when the consciousness of my difference arises, and he disappears when we all acknowledge ourselves as foreigners, unamenable to bonds and communities.12

In the film it takes the other, an absolute alien, to bring everyone together, offering a reminder of what it looks like to be humane to one another, and that we need each other to survive. It is a film on proximity, that when the other intrudes, such that there are no longer clear boundaries, it creates paranoia and rather than receiving the other as a gift, we wish to destroy them. Could it be that the neighbor — as a third term — is always in proximity, the root of which means ‘nearest,’ always nearest, but neither fully or finally friend nor enemy; never arriving, thus always remaining something other? As a third term, neighbor is unassimilable. Proximity demands a sort of moral and ethical obligation. Perhaps this is why we want a clearly defined answer to the question of “who is our neighbor?” — because the neighbor disturbs. And already there are those whom we wish to exclude, certain persons or people groups whom we cannot possibly conceive as neighbors.

If we’ve gleaned anything from Freud, it’s the duality of the drives: that our capacity for self-preservation, or life, is just as strong as our capacity for self-destruction, or death. Perhaps what Freud is getting at in Civilization and Its Discontents is precisely the political implications of how this duality functions within society as a whole. As Judith Butler highlights, “in the very action that seeks to establish and build a social bond, a counter-tendency exists that just as readily seeks to take it apart…”13 There is something to be said for what happens to one’s individual morality when in a group. It seems that there is a tendency of sorts to go with the flow of what Freud calls the “masses,” as if when part of the masses there is a shift from early Freud’s figure of the Nebenmensch, wherein another’s suffering calls forth our own.

As Nietzsche wrote, “Madness is rare in individuals — but in groups, political parties, nations, epochs, it is the rule.”14 In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud links this back to an almost innate disposition toward hostility, the inclination to aggression that we find in ourselves and can only assume is present in others.15 Indeed, for Freud, it is this inclination that perpetually threatens to destroy civilization as a whole. As aforementioned, suffering caused by another, the stranger, foreigner, neighbor, or Thing is more painful, Freud writes, than any other exposure to suffering and violence that we are confronted with. Freud takes up this concern of the group or masses in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, published in 1922. In his considerations for what happens to individual morality in the midst of a group, particularly a group compelled by a leader, what is most likely is the emergence of unconscious impulses, leading to conditions of disinhibition and the tendency toward violence. We have seen this at work most recently before, during, and after the presidency of Donald Trump, wherein individual morality becomes effaced in the formation of the masses. We are tasked not only with acknowledging such tendencies, both individually and within society as a whole but more importantly, with “strengthening whatever capacities humans have to counter such formations.”16

To end the seminar, Zupančič returns to love: love is what makes something that intrinsically doesn’t work, work. It allows our desire to coincide with the empirical other. For Freud, loving one’s neighbor is incomprehensible. Lacan, as he does, takes Freud further: “I love you, but, because inexplicably I love in you something more than you — the objet petit a — I mutilate you.”17 In Lacanian theory, this ‘objet petit a’ is the unattainable object of desire, but its starting place is the Freudian das Ding, or Thing of the Nebenmensch. Love for the other and the capacity for destruction remain intertwined. Zupančič closes not with a solution, but a question: what about the social bond? Is love possible as a kind of social bond?18

1. Alenka Zupančič, “Civilization and Its Discontents 2.0,” (seminar, The European Graduate School, November 13, 2021).
2. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 44.  
3. Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, trans. Dennis Porter (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992), 179.
4. Sigmund Freud, “Project for a Scientific Psychology,” in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. 1: Pre-Psycho-Analytic Publications and Unpublished Drafts, trans. James Strachey (New York: Vintage Classics, 2001), 393-394.
5. Freud, “Project for a Scientific Psychology,” 423.
6. Simon Critchley, “Das Ding: Lacan and Levinas,” Research in Phenomenology 28, no. 1 (1998): 83.
7. Slavoj Žižek, “Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence,” in The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 143.
8. Zupančič, “Civilization and Its Discontents 2.0,” 28 November 2021.
9. Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008), 46.
10. Slavoj Žižek, “Living and Dying in a Topsy-Turvy World” (seminar, The European Graduate School, October 2, 2021). 11. Judith Butler and Stephanie Berbec, “We are Wordless Without One Another: An Interview with Judith Butler,” in The Other Journal 27 (June 26, 2017), 64-75.
12. Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 1. 13. Judith Butler, “Political Philosophy in Freud: The death drive and the critical faculty,” in On Psychoanalysis and Violence: Contemporary Lacanian Perspectives, ed. Vanessa Sinclair and Manya Steinkoler (New York: Routledge, 2019), 24.
14. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Marion Faber (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 70.
15. Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 95.
16. Butler, “Political Philosophy in Freud,” 27.
17. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 263.
18. Zupančič, “Civilization and Its Discontents 2.0.”