anxiety - dynamic, existential

How do existential and psychoanalytic understandings of anxiety interact? Are they in competition? Are they complementary? If the latter: do they provide complementary perspectives on the same, or on a different, phenomenon?

Both theories distinguish between anxiety and fear. They do so in different ways. Psychoanalysis considers fear to be of an external (a tiger), whereas anxiety relates to an internal (an emotion), noxious stimulus. Existentialism tells us that fear is of a specific phenomenon in life (a tiger) whereas anxiety is a recognition of a fundamental fact of life (our contingency, mortality, ungroundedness).

They also have different understandings of anxiety. Psychoanalysis tells us that it arises out of intrapsychic conflict. Some (affect phobia) theorists have it that the conflict is between the self and a feared emotion. Thus I fear being angry with you since I am troubled by the prospect of jeopardising our fragile relationship. I fear to hate you: this fear is itself the anxiety. Other theorists view it as a function of a clash between parts of the self; in short, the superego is shouting at the ego or at any collusion between ego and id. Other theorists view anxiety as the experience of conflict between different incompatible emotions. Thus I love you and I hate you. It's not so much that I fear the hate, but that the emotions are simply incompatible and so start to shake apart the ego without sufficient capacity. ... Straighten out terminological and theoretical imperfections and these (self-emotion and self-self and emotion-emotion) views will probably collapse together quite happily. ... One of the things which will need to be thought about here is the intentionality of anxiety. Fears have intentional objects (tigers), whereas the 'of' in 'anxious experience of conflict between love and hate' may not denote intentionality but rather identity. (When I have an experience of happiness I am not having an experience with happiness as its object! I'm having an experience which is happiness!) My own suspicion is that the 'affect phobia' view is too intentionalistic. ...


Existentialism tells us that anxiety is the experience of our recognition of our ungroundedness, contingency, mortality, abandonableness, dependency, vulnerability to illness, vulnerability to insanity, etc. The mood of anxiety, Heidegger tells us, is what reveals to us the true character of human life - it is the essential revelatory clearing for the existential analytic of Dasein. And we shy away from anxiety - we lose ourselves in the banal chatter of the They, or we lose ourselves out amongst the objects and tasks and projects we are embarked on. We don't ask about the meaning or mattering or intelligibility or availability of these - and so we are not cognisant of the contingency (non-necessity, arbitrariness, vulnerability) of these projects. (I will come back later to the intelligibility of this question of intelligibility.) But pause for a minute, pull back from the They and from the World, inquire into the possibility of our having a World, and do so in seriousness, and we will get in touch with our anxiety.

One essential point is that for the psychoanalyst anxiety is something to be overcome. Sure, we cannot escape the miseries of life, but the miseries of inner conflict can at least be overcome through a growth in ego capacity. For the existentialist anxiety is inevitable: it is the inevitable character of an authentic recognition of our finitude. The abyss is ever-present, even if most of the time we avert our gaze. What we can do is to meet it with courage. This is the examined life.

So how do these views intersect? Are they compatible or incompatible? Sure, they may sound incompatible - to be different theories of anxiety. But perhaps, say, we can solve this as simply as by saying that the existentialists are theorising Angst, whereas the dynamicists are theorising Anxiety. After all, the thought goes, there's no reason why you shouldn't have both inner conflict and existential alertness. ... This compatibilist project reminds me of Dreyfus's brilliant paper on the unconscious in Freud and Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger. Dreyfus accepts the value of a Freudian depth unconscious, but proposes that we also think about a breadth unconscious - which has to do with what gets lodged in the structuring apparatus of the clearing itself, rather than to do with what shows up or doesn't show up within it. ... But to my mind Dreyfus's account is too friendly to Freud, and would be better cast as a better way of theorising the phenomena which get mis-theorised by the misleading metaphors of inner blindness which permeate the Freudian depth unconscious. 

The main objection I have to compatibilism here is that: it - is - boooorrring. (In the same way that the biopsychosocial model is boring. One wants to say: if that's the nature of reality then, well, I give up! Show me to the abyss!) The suggestion pursued here instead, in the spirit of thinking them together, constitutively or competitively and not simply alongside one another, is whether they may be better understood as windows into different aspects of the same phenomenon, or as competing theorisations. How would this work? 

So, imagine: I love you - and right now I also hate you. You were selfish earlier and it angers me. But I struggle to allow myself a conscious experience of this hate. Perhaps I repress it. Perhaps I do so by depressing myself: I lower myself, painting myself as deserving of your actions. I shy away from my intrapsychic conflict and I shy away from conflict with you. So far so psychodynamic.

But let's think a bit about what real love involves. To do so I will draw entirely on the unsurpassed thought of Joel Backström. Love for the psychodynamicist is an inner intrinsically possessive force of attraction and attachment. But that is hardly the only conception available to us - in fact it is a rather impoverished conception. On a more let's-call-it-Christian take, love involves a real desire to know and be known by the other, to be open to her; it is a longing for togetherness with him. 

To be open in love to the other is to be in a state of existential vulnerability. My love may not be reciprocated. Or you may die or otherwise leave me. The openness of love, the forging of value in love, can be frightening. And then, yes, we have this falling out. I'm angry at you for, as it seems to me, being selfish earlier. This brings me closer to my existential anxiety in the relationship. Closer to the fact that I cannot take for granted my own goodness. Or yours. It is destabilising. But note - and here I want to stress that I really am borrowing straight from Backström - that this is not particularly aptly described as a conflict between love and hate. For one thing I only hate you because I love you. If I didn't love you then there would be at most a mild annoyance - your selfishness wouldn't matter to me because you wouldn't matter to me. In my desire to keep on good terms by squashing my anger I am really showing a failure of love. I am no longer staying open to you, wanting to know and be known by you. 

In this working through of the example what we have is something which looked 'intrapsychic' (whatever that really means) - a putative conflict between love and hate - being analysed into something existential. My baulking at my anger amounts to a failure of existential nerve - to a failure of love or openness itself, not really a conflict between love and hate. In fact that way of putting it will most likely only occur to us if we have already pulled away from the other such that we confuse love with lust or some other self-interested emotion. But keep true to an existential conception of love as openness to the other, and the psychodynamic theorisation of the conflict may start to look as defensive as the conflicted individual.

This is one example, and I may have become over-organised by it. I leave that for another day, but turn back now to the question of the existentialist's consideration that anxiety is inevitable and inexorable and that it is the disclosing window for an adequate explication of human nature.

Consider first the soothing effect of standing on a mountain top or staring out to sea. We become helpfully small. Our own troubles seem insignificant, pared down. At such moments our contingencies and mortality don't seem to matter half so much! And it's not at all clear that this is because the mountain perspective defends against anything. 

Perhaps, I suggest, our lostness in our projects and in the They may not be simply a defence against our terror at the abyss, but also the condition of possibility of that terror. What I'm suggesting is that existential anxiety may not be an inevitable truth-telling mood which comes whenever anyone considers the basic facts of the human condition. Rather, perhaps death only becomes quite so fearful when we've dealt with the more tractable anxieties of our lives with a set of narcissistic defences. These give a false sense of comfort and 'necessity' by a spurious arrogation of control to the person and a deficient sense of control to the other, to nature, etc. But if we align our will with that of God/fate/nature, if we practice Gelassenheit (the releasement from self-aggrandising will), the existential predicament appears not half so bad. 

The question then arises as to whether anxiety really does provide a better window for an existential analytic of Dasein, or rather whether it just provides the person who is otherwise lost in narcissistic defences a better such window on their own defences. Taking up our place within the natural order, and in this sense being non-defensively lost in one's projects: anxiety now hardly seems so revelatory. Perhaps other moods may now also be allowed to do their revelatory work. Joyful wonder for instance. Yet perhaps what they reveal is not anything so theoretically general as 'the' nature of human life - but instead some of the ways we struggle to live a life which in its plenitude and diversity can never be pinned down by any 'existential analytic'. 


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