ATTACK AND DEFENSE MECHANISMS IN PSYCHOLOGY
MECANISMOS DE ATAQUE PSICOLOGICOS
Publication of 16 April 2012
THE PERSONAL WEAPON ARSENAL
Traduzione di Paola Costa
In the following pages we will develop some concepts that will be treated in greater detail in the following chapters, which are a continuation of “My Dear Enemy: the Daily War in Families and institutions” for a project on the analysis of interpersonal conflicts. Why do we consider defense mechanism and forget attack mechanisms? If someone defends himself it is because someone else attacks. Attack and Defense mechanisms should be read in the framework of the theory of interpersonal polemology.
Psycho-pathology bases its premises on descriptions of clinical frameworks based on defense types that predominate in one of the other case. In a neurotic context what predominates are removal, reactive formation, displacement and condensation, rationalization or intellectualization. In cases of serious personality troubles, one sees scission, projection, idealization, if not denial and the rupture between the self and the reality principle.
Why does one consider defense mechanisms and forget attack mechanisms? If someone defends himself it is because someone else attacks. In the field of biology, one studies both the mechanisms of pathogenic agents which attack the immune system of a subject, and the defense mechanisms that an organism puts into action to protect its own integrity. In the field of psychology it is more difficult to distinguish attack from defense mechanisms.
Furthermore, there are attack mechanisms in the area of language. They belong to the war arsenal that each subject constructs throughout his or her existence, through personal experience and the education they have received. Offensive words leave marks, sometimes real wounds, and have the effect of devastating the personality of the other.
Attack and defense mechanisms should be read in the framework of personal polemology. The person receiving the offensive action is the one who takes the place of the subject on which the observer’s attention is centered. It is the offended person who demands attention. The theory of defense mechanism has neglected, according to my own interpretation, a more attentive analysis of the attacking subject. There may be the denial of one’s aggressiveness. No one accepts to be aggressive and even less that he was the first to attack. And yet, a paradox is verified: the initial reaction of an observer facing a murderer who just committed a crime is to harass him with a view to avenging the criminal action. After a while, those same people who witnessed the episode are moved by seeing him incarcerated on the basis of the principle that it is not human to deprive a human being of his liberty. They feel the need to defend the weak in relation to the strong, the detained person in relation to the State. That satisfies their feelings of justice and compassion. However they forget about the assassin’s victim, who lost his life, and the effects on relatives and friends. This is not to say that we want to maintain the harsh and unlivable contemporary prison system. That prison must imperatively play its rehabilitating role. But it is to be noted that those who suffer an action that leads to death are not taken into account.
The victims themselves have sometimes also exerted their attack mechanisms toward the person who killed them, by attacking in their turn and in a more violent way. On the other hand, such attack mechanisms are considered by law either as extenuating or as attenuating circumstances. Polemology should be a fundamental aspect of psychology. Michel Foucault considers the speaking subject not so much as polemical but more properly war-like. The concept of polemology reflects Hobbes’ thesis of the “war of all against all.” The power relation is a shock relation, of fighting to death; according to Foucault, behind peace, wealth, authority and order there is a sort of permanent war.
THE TRIADIC READING
An interpretation of violence in couples and families can be found in the mimetic theory developed by René Girard. It consists in the fact of choosing the mediator who orients the desire of a subject, who indicates the object to be desired. This is called a triadic reading. The mediator becomes a model to be imitated. What initially seems to be the fascination for an ideal later becomes the reason for the beginning of a violent escalation which leads to the extreme crisis, up to homicide or suicide. This mediator – according to my interpretation – is the enemy, the one who justifies my unhappiness. That is why the subject cannot detach himself from the enemy. He needs him. However, the victim in this relation of reciprocal violence also appears to the model as an indispensable enemy (that one cannot do without). From this one can deduct the alternance of violent, seductive, affectionate, conciliating behaviors. This may explain in certain cases even the desire to have a child to consolidate even more a see-saw love-hate relationship. According to the perspective of reciprocity, one can note that, seen from outside, the sum of the non-mutual moments between two conflicting individuals; seen from inside, it is the response from one to the other in a crescendo of speed and force in parallel. From the outside the adversaries seem to be simple doubles. War is a unity between alternation and reciprocity: an accelerated oscillation of differences. An exasperation of reciprocity can lead to the elimination of the adversary. The attack of one of them does not imply the defeat of the other; the attacker obtains a provisional victory over the defense, the one who defends himself can prepare a decisive counterattack. Clausewitz holds that the conqueror wants peace and the defender wants war. The paradox is that the defender is the one who starts and ends the war. The defender is therefore the master of the game; the concept of defense includes that of attack. In war, the one who believes he masters violence is overthrown by it. According to Girard, in his reading of Clausewitz, rivalry relations are never perceived as symmetric. Each one believes it is the other who attacks first and does not realize that he himself started the conflict.
“One wants to make the other understand” — says the anthropologist – “that he has registered the aggressive signals that the other sent to us. As for the other, he will interpret this way out as an aggression, and so on. The time arrives when the conflict explodes and the one who started it puts himself in a position of weakness. Now, in the beginning the differences are so small and so quickly exhausted to the extent that they are not perceived as reciprocal, but always one way only.” In conclusion, we do not start anything, we always respond. We are far from a psychology of the individual, it is always the other who decides for me and forces me to answer. But I’m the other of the other and then, I oblige him to answer me.
According to the master Sun Tzu the best fighter is someone who takes possession of the mind of the enemy. So the victim cannot even think of himself as being outside the relationship with the model and, paradoxically, any violent action of the model against himself is interpreted, according to Girard, as a proof of the power of the enemy, and in a circular reading this perception increases the attraction to the violent person to such an extent that one challenges the other through provocations. The person involved in these actions will always narrate from his position as a victim, unable to understand how sometimes it is he who, unwittingly, creates the conditions for a violent escalation.
The triadic perspective also refers to a terminology proper to the theater. We talk about the crime scene, the author, the actors who take part in it and above all of the effect that this scene produces in the viewer. He participates as estranged, as if dissociating what happens to others from his own life, or else he actively participates identifying himself with the characters. The crime scene has a cathartic effect, and for this it is also an object of fascination and it can dangerously become an act to be imitated and then to be reproduced. It is not by chance that certain crimes follow one another in the same way in a short period of time.
Attack mechanisms do not always have a tragic ending like the one given by crime. Attack is also a concept that is used in music, as well as in the theater when the actors “attack” to say their lines. In the case of these actors they must fit properly in the context of participants, respecting the right timing of their intervention. From this perspective, attack mechanisms can become instruments of reflection which give rise to an active subject rather than a passive one when the perspective of the defense mechanism prevails.
The concept of attack has two fundamental aspects in the field of polemology: disarming and breaking the will of the other, considered as an opponent and an enemy. Certain behaviors can be read as a function of the metaphor that makes them ambiguous and seemingly without any logical reason.
In future articles we will deal with attack mechanisms that prevail in pathologies or with the new symptoms that emerged after the fall of the Father metaphor, which gave rise to Post-neurotic Society, that is the society without borders or borderline.
A panic attack is an ambivalent metaphor: 1) the person who suffers from such an attack is the victim of an act that has its source in the person’s unconscious which projects his fantasies of persecution outside; 2) it is the effect of the present global crisis that has led to a general state of uncertainty: it is because the person hit by the panic attack is located in a space that he lives as constrictive, with no way out, and in a fragmentized time in which he loses the perception of the future and the past, while the present becomes suffocating.
Massimo Recalcati considers “the panicked subject as a symbol of our hypermodern civilization” it appears disoriented and lost, lives the loss of boundaries, he is deprived of a permanent center of gravity, finds himself in front of the evaporation of Ideals. The experience of panic, according to Recalcati
“it is an experience of alienation, detachment, loss of self. What is at stake is the failure of subjective defenses against reality.”
If we read this phenomenon as an action not only of last defense, but as a mechanism of attack by the subject himself, that through this ruse succeeds in disarming the others, an action can be taken against this person levering on his own resources and therefore on his capacity, according to Ricoeur’s triad: suffering, acting and speaking.
In the case of anorexia the person who suffers from it does not arouse pity in the other, indeed, it creates anger because through the refusal of food he is able to disarm anyone who is near him, powerless to intervene to stop this kind of slow suicide. The great challenge of the anorexic is to be able to pass without fear through the lack of food, which represents the terror that can affect entire populations in times of war.
The bulimic is instead the one who, for instance, destroys the resources the family; his behavior might give the impression that he wants to starve them, like a bulimic greedy of wealth wants to starve the society; but in reality he collects food to face the fear of a global war in which he feels imprisoned without being able to predict an end.
Drug addiction is a survival strategy in the context of a war that is increasingly globalized. The cocaine addict lives in constant competition; his violence is directed mainly against the others. The heroin addict, instead, feeling himself as a failure, withdraws from the competition, directs violence against himself and, indirectly, against others involved in his life, becoming a real kamikaze for them.
THE IDEOLOGY OF DEFENCE
The ideology of the defense starts from the assumption that a person attacks under a real or imagined threat. Perhaps this is a hypothesis that can explain the apparent neglect of a more detailed analysis of the mechanisms of attack. If we consider, in the field of biology, the attack of microbes to the organic structure, no one could believe that these germs attack to defend themselves. Attacking in humans represents not only a defensive reaction, but also a thrust to the expansion of one subject against another, from one country against another country, that is to say an action of conquest. The research must move towards the mode of attack by subjects who have styles of behavior by psychopathology: for example, the mode of attack by a person that is manifested through an obsessive rather than an avoiding style or which is expressed according to a paranoid or schizoid style, etc. The difference between an aggressive action and an attack mechanism is that in the latter there is an intentionality, a goal, and therefore fits into a strategy or tactic program. The difference between these two concepts is linked to the exercise of power: strategy is designed by a person or structure that has the power over a territory or a person, tactic is the reaction of a person who is in a position of subjection; in other words those would be the actions that one could exercise in parrying or striking someone who has a position of dominance. This distinction is partial, following the studies inspired to Michel Foucault and especially to Michel De Certeau. Modes of attack can be fast as it happens with the “stroke of lightning ” in a couple relationship which then ends up in a negative way if not tragically. In this stroke of lightning the prospective victim delivers itself in the function of love, without considering the consequences of such an undertaking. Softer modes are the ones that appear passive; through them the subject goes slowly into the mind of the other, unhinging his defenses and making him a slave. These procedures, often used by drug dealers or pimps or even by those that oblige sellers and dealers to pay them “protection money”, affect the subjects in a total manner, either through addiction to drugs, dependence on the prostitution round or the looming threat of the Mafia structure.
THE PERSONAL WEAPON ARSENAL
Each subject maintains a weapon arsenal that he uses through any form of attack. Some people train to learn the techniques of self-defense, both designed to train the body through the so-called “martial arts” and projected towards the use of weapons with which they practice shooting, or through other kinds of defense and offense tools. A large proportion of these people imagine being faced with a real or virtual enemy, but in reality they are not thinking of defense but of a proper attack: they are therefore waiting to be attacked, sometimes provoking such an attack for the sake of attacking in their turn. Their waiting enacts, in subterranean forms, an invitation to engage in some form of violence against them, that will serve them to test the use of weapons they have prepared.
The language arsenal is no less effective than martial arts in knowing how to use certain words that become real missiles capable of devastating the person to whom they are directed. These words are used at a particular time that takes the other by surprise. The attacking subject should know what the right words to hurt the feelings of the attacked person are. When one is not master of this arsenal, one risks of wasting his defense resources by downloading them against attacks maybe a little weight – as when an individual i uses a bazooka n front of a mouse- while, when he is in front of a wild animal, not having an adequate weapon any longer, uses a slingshot. Some words have a different destructive power, depending on whether they are used in private or in public. The person who attacks in public blocks the defense of the other as it involves others in the knowledge of the situation, and at the same time prevents the person attacked from responding appropriately, since he does not intend to let others know that particular fact about him. The person who attacks in public or in front of members of the family because he wants to introduce a fact hitherto shared only by the two partners, behaves in such a way since he seeks in the others the consent to the reason he deems to have.
Other forms of attack occur at times when the other is in an unbalanced position: he is going out to go to work and has no time to argue, he has to eat in a hurry because he has got an engagement, he is sleeping after a whole day of work, he is about to go on stage to play his part as an actor in a play, etc.