ISRF Mid-Career Fellow 2021-22
ISRF Mid-Career Fellow 2021-22
David Kaposi is a Senior Lecturer at The Open University. As a social psychologist and a psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapist, in his research he seeks to understand violent phenomena with a therapeutic sensitivity to inter- and intra-subjective processes, and joint making and unmaking of meaning.
For his PhD thesis, Kaposi looked at a fabled and acrimonious exchange between Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem. He found that explanation for the ultimate cutting of the chord between these two intellectuals and friends may not be found in diametrically opposed ideologies or identities; it is rather in a shared but barely articulated sense that who we are cannot be escaped, that it is in our blood. Subsequently, looking at British broadsheets’ portrayal of the conflict in Palestine-Israel, he found that to account for warring representations we may not look at human facts or politics; it is rather in the shared sense of a present battle between the non-human pure and impure.
For his ISRF Fellowship project Kaposi examines hundreds of sessions conducted by Stanley Milgram for his “obedience to authority” experiments. What was it that kept people in a violent situation they wanted to escape? And what capacity was required to actually get out of it? The answer may once again be found not in the explicit clarity of the order, persuasion, or manifest forms of pressure; but in processes that are implicit and barely visible on the surface of conscious accounting. With the help of his hardly believable data, Kaposi ultimately hopes to formulate a psycho-social theory of violence.
The proposed project has two aims. The first is to re-interpret Stanley Milgram’s “obedience to authority” experiments via the quantitative-qualitative empirical analysis of the largest currently researched data-set of experimental sessions (N=210). The second aim is to expand this re-interpretation towards a general theory of social-political violence. Both aims will draw conceptually and methodologically on psychosocial studies and (object) relational psychoanalysis.
The analytic focus of the project is the interpretative framework that Milgram constructed to make sense of his laboratory proceedings: a binary moral scenario where the supposed task of his naïve participants was to choose between the experimental authority, who was instructing them to continue administering painful/lethal electric shocks, and the learner/victim, who was begging them to stop. Many important aspects of the “obedience” experiments are now contested, yet this moral framework remains unchallenged. It continues to reinforce the customary bifurcation of violent acts into wholly bad perpetrators (to be exclusively blamed) and wholly innocent victims (to be exclusively empathised with).
Empirically, the present project will contest the validity of the binary framework. It will explore alternative ambiguous, ambivalent and even self-contradictory positions within the experiments: a divided learner/victim appealing to yet undermining a potential ally, and an elusive experimenter whose effectiveness in engendering violence derives not from explicit instructions to participants but from disengagement from participants’ moral existence.
Theoretically, the project will then expand this analysis towards a general account of social-political violence. Drawing on psychosocial and (object) relational psychoanalytic resources, violent (internal and external) relations will be highlighted to challenge the customary bifurcation. This potentially troubling alternative framework will introduce the possibility of violent agents who suffer and victims who are violent, and highlight thus a non-binary reality that is constantly in flux and may undermine our very agency.