Economy of Violence

Objectification, Psychoanalysis, and the Challenges of Recognition

Dr Jeffrey Murer
University of St Andrews


In Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud theorised that humans have violent impulses that are threatening to humanity or to civilisation, to use his parlance. These violent instincts are tempered by the internalisation of society’s demands for sublimation, and through the mastery of the pleasure principle, whereby an adaptive ego must come to terms with “reality”. But what if the super-ego is not a corrective to violent impulses as Freud suggests, but rather is destructive onto itself, as Sándor Ferenczi suggests, where the superego is the internalisation of society’s denial of ego experience? This project explores how contemporary capitalism may create social norms of violence that are ego syntonic, whereby the superego is formed in the denial of human suffering, formed in the submission of authority, and formed in the denial of one’s own subjectivity, a denial of ego-reality testing. The project explores how such conditions could be worked through in a process of collective reflection, akin to cultural mourning. The project looks to also explore the ways in which psychoanalysis can offer modes of understanding as a way of retrieving emotional experience in the contemporary environment of emotional commodification. The very reification of emotions as objects to be consumed is the hallmark of affective capitalism, creating surpluses through the extraction of emotional life beyond the traditionally recognised modes of extraction of physical labour. Experience itself as a commodity is yet another denial of subjectivity, is the rupture of a continuous, reflexive, personal encounter, to one of reproducible objects, similar to other such objects, and commensurate along a medium of exchange. In this way, psychoanalysis can be seen as a praxis of inter-subjective recognition, which repairs such fragmentation and reification that contemporary capitalism does to ourselves, and that we are encouraged to do to others.

The Research Idea

The project looks to explore how violence could be understood at its most basic as a rupture in subjectivity; it is the failure to hold inter-subjective relations, when an agentive, purposive subject is transformed into an object, or mis-recognised as a only a part, or only even a symbol of that part, rather than being engaged as or seen as an integrated whole. With such an interpretation, violence begins in the inner world, in the psychic world, when one subject no longer sees the other person before her as an integrate being, but only as an object. After that moment neglect, cruelty, abandonment, or destruction can ensue not only in psychic representations, but also in symbolic depictions of speech and physical manifestations of brutality. Through an exploration of potentially violent superegos reproducing ego syntonic violence, the project participants will examine different psychoanalytic traditions as pathways of working through these violent norms, such as mourning as a repetition that makes a difference, and a methods of promoting integrated recognition, that overcomes different forms of negation, denial, and disavowal. As such, psychoanalysis as both individual introspection and as collective reflexivity, offers a potential pathway of elucidating the modes of erasure demanded by contemporary norms – the erasure of recognising the suffering of others, and the denial of suffering within the self – as well as providing forums for reality testing beyond the superegoistic denials of personal ego experience.


In Totem and Taboo and Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud describes the superego as instating through the internalisation of the “civilising” message of sublimation, whereby the superego is a corrective to otherwise violent id-oriented instincts. As such Freud suggests that violence is a threat to civilisation, a theme echoed in the vast majority of discourses concerning violence. Violence is seen as destructive, anti-social, intolerable. However, the processes associated with modernity, particularly the rise of contemporary capitalism, are inclined to alienate and to atomise – alienate individuals from the produce of their labour, from own bodies, and from nature at large, and to atomise individuals from each other. These processes are forms of violence onto themselves. The conditions of modernity are such that we are required to deny our subjective experiences of alienation and of social atomisation in the very name of sociability. Yet getting along under capitalism appears to be the acceptance of reification and objectification, not the promotion of subjectivity. There have been a number of previous explorations of the violence that the outer capitalist world does on the inner psychic world of the individual ranging from Marcuse’s Eros and Civilisation to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. However, not only has capitalism changed a great deal in the forty-six years since the later volume first appeared in French, so too has psychoanalysis. The contemporary emphasis on more relational interactions creates a far more inter-subjective analytic space, and one that strives to recognise the whole of the analysand.

The Focus

The focus of the project is the exploration of the mutual co-construction of the inner and outer worlds that make up our individual and collectively social realities, and the ways that violence shapes both. The project explores how rupture is a pharmakon – both a remedy cure and a toxin, as well as both a ritual sacrifice and a means of producing something. A rupture of inter-subjectivity, as the process of reification or objectification is an act of violence. However within psychoanalysis, the rupture of a pathological repetition, the rupture of a paralysing narrative, can be seen as a violence for life. To put behind one’s self a history or self-abuse or pathological abreactions, can be a healthy break without erasure or absence, but the reflexive presence of memory, mourning, and working through. The project seeks to provide a more nuanced and psychoanalytically informed exploration of violence in its various facets, and the ways by which inner and out, reality and illusion, repetition and movement can all be seen as both facilitating adaptive and psychically healthy ways of living, as well as false selves entrenched in melancholia. The focus of the project, therefore, seeks pathways that facilitate inter-subjective social recognition, as well as the communicative practices that convey the desirability of such recognition for individual selves and for society as a whole.

Theoretical Novelty

The novelty of the project lies not only in the return to psychoanalysis as a mode of criticism of contemporary capitalism, but also in the recognition of the benefits of integrating a number of different psychoanalytic traditions, the attempt to build a synthesis among them, and to see if a reflexive engagements of the similarities and differences between them can itself be seen as a pathway to work through the processes of alienation and atomisation fed by the practices of affective capitalism. The project in its very nature eschews domination, and the certitude of the correctness of a single form, but rather embraces heterogeneity, and reflexive polyphonic relational explorations. Working through as ambiguity and ambivalence in contrast to certitude, as well as melding of a series of images is at the heart of this project of constructive and emancipatory critique. Further, the emphasis of the project returns to my own interest in a re-engagement with the psychoanalytic theory of Sandor Ferenczi who understands the relationship between ego and super-ego very differently from Freud. His vision of the very possibility of mutual analysis, is a model of engaged, emancipatory inter-subjectivity in a world built on alienation, atomisation, and reification.


The basis of the project is itself relational in orientation. The participants will each provide between three and five foundational readings, that inform their own work, as well as a finished or published of their work which they hope to further develop or build upon for the purposes of the project. The participants will be asked to read a series of work presenting critiques of contemporary affective capitalism, which will be engaged with and discussed during the presentations of individual papers during the residency at the Max Plank Institute. This recursive critique of engagement with one another’s work, recognition of the similarities and constructive differences, and the collective attempts to place one another’s papers in dialogue with each other and to build a whole, can be seen as larger relational, hermeneutics that undergirds the entire project. The process of recognition among the participants and between their texts, is an attempt to realise the processes of recognition written about and explored as a critique of the contemporary mis-recognition, or absence of recognition, based on fundamental denials, disavowal, and negation of individual subjective experience. The project seeks to create a harmony of voice, that both reflects the unity of purpose in the project and the produced collected volume, as well as the possibility for variation and difference. The relationality within the project also reflects the interaction between the various approaches to psychoanalysis.

Work Plan

Much of the work plan will be to prepare for the residency at the Max Plank Institute in Berlin in August. First and foremost, I will coordinate with each of the invited participants regarding their expectations of the residency and their contributions to both the immediate and longterm outcomes, including publications and participation in further workshops. The aim of pre-residency planning will be the preparation of papers to be circulated, critiqued, commented upon, and perhaps initially edited during the residency. The goal will be to circulate the papers in advance, each paper with an assigned commentator. The author will present her paper, as the commentator will present her analysis and criticism. The other participants, who also read the papers in advance, will then discuss each paper with a goal of discussing a psychoanalytic interpretation of violence, a psychoanalytically informed approach toward the amelioration of that violence, and a critique of contemporary modes of alienation and atomisation that will provide a backdrop of larger exploration of the challenges of human inter-subjectivity in an age of emotional reification and commodification. After the working through of each individual contribution the groups will collectively explore emergent themes to be developed as leitmotifs within each contribution, as well as the basis of introductory and concluding contributions. The participants will also allocate the labour for such introductory and concluding contributions, both of which I am happy to lead.


This project is largely a theoretical synthesis, connecting three bodies of literature – Kleinian and Ferenzian psychoanalysis with the sociology of the practice of distinction, and to both historical and contemporary Marxian theorisations of alienation and reification under the conditions of capitalism. The goal of the project will be the production of a collected, edited volume, including contributions from the eight key participants, as well as selected others by invited contributors who will be identified by the participants during the Max Plank residence. Additionally, I will use the insights gained by my interactions with my colleagues during the residence to complete my own monograph exploring a number of these themes, as well as an article length synopsis of the project and the theoretical conversation conducted over the course of the residency. A final goal would be a series of workshops to further develop these ideas in psychoanalytic circles as well as other fields of social research.

  • Louise Gyler (Sydney Institute of Psychoanalysis)
  • Stephen Groarke (Roehampton University)
  • Trenholme Junghans (Edinburgh University)
  • David Kaposi (Open University)
  • Kier Martin (University of Oslo)
  • Daria Martin (Oxford University)
  • Jeffrey Murer (University of St Andrews)
  • Candida Yates (Bournemouth University)