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Mourning and ModernityReview - Mourning and Modernity
Essays in the Psychoanalysis of Contemporary Society
by Isaac D. Balbus
Other Press, 2005
Review by Petar Jevremovic
Jan 16th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 3)

This book is about psychoanalysis and modern culture. It is mainly concerned with the very important questions of gender, parenting, and ontogenesis. Developmental psychoanalysis (predominantly post-Kleinian) is seen as a possible interpretative tool for critical understanding of human (we could say personal) development in the actual (modern or even postmodern) cultural context.

Since the publication of Dorothy Dinnerstein's book The Mermaid and The Minotaur in 1976 there has been a remarkable upsurge of interest in the legacy of Melanie Klein. Dinnerstein effectively subsumed critical theory under feminist theory. She claimed not only that male domination but also political domination and the domination of nature  were psychologically rooted in the soil of the maternal monopoly of early child care. Nancy Chodorow also argued that mother-dominated child rearing engendered the psychology of male domination. Chodorow relied on object-relations theorists like Fairbairn who assumed that the infant's first and most fundamental experience of the world is merger with a mother on whom it is totally dependant. She argued that men devalue women because boys must deny this dependence on, and identification with, their mothers in order to become men. Dinnerstein did not neglect the boy's need to dis-identify with mother, but placed this problem within the context of Melanie Klein's assumption  that infancy is a state of intensely ambivalent feelings for, rather then perfect fusion with, the mother. For Dinnerstein, the domination of men over women reflects the rage that boys and girls feel for the first, and most important, woman they encounter.

In the United States Christopher Lasch made limited use of Kleinian theory in Culture of Narcissism, but it was not until the publication of Fred Alford's book Melanie Klein and Critical Social Theory in 1989 that a sustained case was made for the integration of critical theory and Kleinian psychoanalysis.

Dinnerstein follows Klein in arguing that the mother, as the source of the infant's ultimate distress as well as ultimate joy, is at once the object of the infant's  intense, worshipful longing and the target of the infant's overwhelming, murderous rage. Like Klein, she also argues that the young child handles this otherwise explosive, intolerable mixture of love and hate for the mother by splitting her in two. The price that child pays to keep in connection to a loving object is the creation of a terrifying, hostile object against which it must defend.  Thus Dinnerstein agrees with Klein's assumption that the paranoid-schizoid position is both the foundation for, and the chief obstacle to, the child's further emotional development.

The basic ideas of Melanie Klein (and of all classical psychoanalysis) are deeply connected with classical structure of parenting. There is only one primary parenting (maternal) object in the context of  the paranoid-schizoid position. Function of the father is something that becomes actual much more later than function of the mother. Recent and systematic observations of newborns have revealed that they are active participants in the interaction that takes place between them and their primary (maternal and paternal) caregivers. The actuality of two objects in the external world performing a single function (dual parenting) leads in an unmediated fashion to the integration of the mental representations of these two (maternal and paternal) objects in the psychic world. Many important questions that are closely related to these facts and ideas are carefully discussed in this book¸ with good sense for argumentation.

In its second part, modernity is conceptualized as a manic defense against the mourning that is developmentally and ontologically linked to the primitive mental states and anxieties. The fantastic declaration of independence from nature that fuels modern culture engenders an emotional emptiness for which an equally fantastic overdependence on object of consumption is the remedy that only renews the dis-ease.  Put differently, the repressed (or rather split-off) need for nature resurfaces in the form of a desperate search for stuff  that both defends us against, and (like all defenses) reproduces, the depression that results from the repression of that natural need. Thus is an omnipotent modernity compelled to repeat the damage it does to both the planet and its people.

This book will be of interests for developmental psychologists, psychoanalysts, for gender-theorists and for social psychologists. It is well documented, provocative and logically composed. It could be really stimulating for many further readings and (critical) thinking.



© 2007 Petar Jevremovic


Petar Jevremovic: Clinical psychologist and practicing psychotherapist, author of two books (Psychoanalysis and Ontology, Lacan and Psychoanalysis), translator of Aristotle and Maximus the Confessor, editor of the Serbian editions of selected works of Heintz Kohut, Jacques Lacan and Melanie Klein, author of various texts that are concerned with psychoanalysis, philosophy, literature and theology. He lives in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.


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