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Theorizing Repression: From Psychoanalysis to Counterinsurgency Theory

Instructor: Patrick Blanchfield
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

“The individual’s dangerous desire for aggression,” theorized Sigmund Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents, can only be “disarmed” by the establishment of “an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.” For some, Freud’s invocation of surveillance and military occupation were no mere metaphors: they entailed concrete approaches to social control. Indeed, throughout the 20th century, figures in surprising places—from military think tanks and the halls of power to prison cells and underground safe houses—turned to Freud and psychoanalysis more generally to formulate new strategies for state violence and guerilla subversion alike. “Repression” was not just a psychical phenomenon: it was a tactic.

In this course, we will excavate the neglected and provocative history of psychoanalytic thought’s relationship to the development of new approaches to urban policing, military operations, and psychological warfare. From early psychoanalytic criminology to the rise of counterinsurgency theory, we’ll explore how the work of Freud and his successors offered a point of departure for state actors to pathologize resistance, profile dissenters, and formulate strategies for everything from “de-Nazification” to COINTELPRO to outlandish ventures in search of “mind control.” We’ll also explore how various radical thinkers turned to psychoanalytic concepts to theorize social dynamics and justify actions they saw as revolutionary—actions that could at times be quite literally explosive. Is the psyche the real battlefield where “hearts and minds” must be won? Do state terror and dissident terrorism operate in a kind of libidinal dialectic? And are the concepts of psychoanalysis inherently revolutionary – or are they just as easily put towards reactionary ends? Readings will be drawn from works by Franz Alexander, Rosa Luxemburg, J. Edgar Hoover, Antonio Gramsci, Frantz Fanon, Erich Fromm, Angela Davis, Daniel Guérin, Mao Zedong, Jean Genet, Dagmar Herzog, Thomas Szasz, David Petraeus, and others.

Course Schedule

Sunday, 2:00-5:00pm ET
May 19 — June 09, 2024
4 weeks


Course enrollment is currently only open for waitlisted students. Please email us to be placed on the waiting list.

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