Monolithic Intentionality, Belonging, and the Production of State Paranoia

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Glaeser: Monolithic Intentionality Belonging and the Production of State Paranoia /

Monolithic Intentionality, Belonging, and the Production of State Paranoia:

A View Through Stasi onto the late GDR1

in Shryock, Andrew, Editor, 2004. Off Stage/On Display: Intimacy and Ethnography in the Age of Public Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 244-276

This paper sets out to explain an institutionalized form of distrust that permeated most of public life in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Pitting individuals against collectivities, especially citizens against the state, members against the party, and workers against their work collective, it manifested itself as a highly indexical suspicion which radiated from the center of the party state to its periphery. To trigger it, no empirical proof was needed, and anybody could become affected by it, irrespective of previous behavior and actual intentions. Due to this particular gestalt and its blatant phenotypical similarities with the characterological disorder of the same name, I call it state paranoia.2

Paying close attention to the processes which together produced state paranoia in the GDR is a fruitful enterprise because it reminds us that corporate groups can be based on ultimately self-defeating ideologies, practices and institutionalizations of belonging. The case of the GDR (and the other Soviet style socialisms around the world) is particularly fascinating because it encapsulates a veritable paradox of intentional community formation and of social identities. The more the GDR leadership attempted to manufacture and control the collectivity’s cohesion on the basis of the collective affirmation of a set of designated goals, the more the collectivity as a whole lost its capacity to develop politically actionable understandings of it own relations to a wider context. At the same time the leadership undermined the very solidarity which it hoped to stipulate.

In many ways this paradox of intentional community formation corresponds to the paradoxes of rational planning and design which James Scott has analyzed in his seminal Seeing Like a State (1998). The connection between intentional community formation and rational planning lies in the reification of particular representations which has historically undergirded both processes. In both cases, reification obfuscates the knowledge that representations are, ontologically speaking, operating in a realm different from what they represent. They make us forget that representations of whatever kind are but aspectual translations of the represented, a process which necessitates selections, simplifications and reductions. Through this obfuscation they in fact assume the character of a fetish: a political one in the case of state paranoia and a cognitive one in the cases of failed rational design which Scott discusses. What the confusion of concept and world is to rational planning is the confusion of a unitary goal, belief or habitus with actual solidarity, intimacy and trust in the political realm. In both cases an aspectual translation is identified with the totality while repressing the knowledge of an underlying plurality.

As guidelines for action both schemes ultimately fail for a kind of “a return of the repressed.” Yet the reason for failure does not lie in reduction itself, a move which is ultimately necessary, both in the cognitive and in the social realm3, but it lies in the fetishization of the aspects represented. This move involves a denial which can come in various forms, all of which are not only parts of certain ideologies, but they are characterizing a good deal of our everyday interactions. They are in fact part and parcel of what phenomenologists (e.g. Schütz 1984) have called the natural attitude. Most absolutely there is the denial that there is a reduction involved at all. This is the naïve positivistic illusion that representation and the represented are essentially identical: the formula is taken for the law of nature; the king is taken for the state tout court. Somewhat less absolutely the fact of reduction in aspectual translation and thus the ontological gap is acknowledged but deemed irrelevant. It is denied that reduction may quickly become problematic and in need for adjustment because it is seen as "right." Finally there may be either a dread of disagreement or a longing for harmony. In this case it is denied that genuine plurality of perspectives entailing substantive controversy is likely to be the best way to check which kind of aspectual translation and thus reduction is currently more suitable or acceptable. And again phenomenologist have shown time and again (e.g. Goffman, 1967) that much of our everyday interactions can be characterized in this way.

At the heart of the matter is then the tension between the representation of a totality and an empirical reality which always threatens to explode the representation due to the sheer complexity of lived life, or if you will, due to its unruliness, its refusal to conform to the representation. Such tensions play a significant role in the construction of in-group solidarity, of in-group presentation to the outside world as well as in the delineation of who belongs and who doesn’t.4 I have once before characterized a related phenomenon as the practice and fear of synecdochical mischief. I have defined synecdochical mischief (Glaeser, 2000) as someone’s readiness to discredit a whole by virtue of discrediting any of its parts. In many social contexts, the practice of synecdochical mischief is taken to constitute outside status. Inside status is by contrast constituted by the (mostly imputed) ability to criticize parts without drawing the value of the whole into doubt. The displayed fear or practice of synecdochical mischief is thus a useful marker to delineate perceived boundaries of belonging. As such, the absence of the fear of synecdochical mischief lies at the root of the phenomenon Michael Herzfeld has described as cultural intimacy, that is the ability of group members to identify over putative shortcomings of the group, which, however, are omitted regularly in the self-presentations of groups to the outside world precisely because they fear its practice of synecdochical mischief. In this paper I will show in particular how the prevalence of a fear of synecdochical mischief in the GDR has undermined the emergence of a political cultural intimacy which includes the knowledge about cognitive and social reduction in representation and openly accepts its precariousness, thus allowing for the emergence of a lively public sphere in which contestants accept each other as authorities.

Through its focus on the tension between the representation of a totality and an experiential reality which tends to undermine it, this study can also be read as a contribution to a theory of totalitarianism. However, it is a theory of totalitarianism which takes a decisive turn away from typological concerns to an empirical investigation of social processes, here the fetishizations of representations which become the organizing principle for regimes of belonging and which can take place in a wide variety of social settings rather than being the exclusive properties of states labeled as totalitarian.5

By calling the phenomenon I try to explain state paranoia, I borrow a term from psychopathology. Since such borrowings can produce a host of misunderstandings in social analysis, it is important to note up front what kind of explanation I will put forward in this essay. I will not try to link state paranoia in the late GDR to the personality of its leadership, although such an explanatory move had considerable currency in everyday socialist discourses. As such it was a particular instance of a widespread socialist cultural form, which might be called the “personalization of perceived problems.” In keeping with this cultural form the blame for the GDR’s ossification were typically put on the shoulders of an “aging and increasingly rigid leadership,” while hopes for change were pegged to a “biological solution” that is a change in leadership personnel forced by ill-health or death. However, as I will show in what follows, besides overplaying the importance of individuals at the expense of institutions, personalization as a cultural form is more a part of the production of state paranoia than a suitable framework for its explanation.6 Sometimes Western academics too engage in an explanatory move – Lasswell (1960, 173) calls it the “displacement of private affects upon public objects” – in which the personality characteristics of dictators are seen to shape emergent institutions (e.g. Bullock, 1993). The problem with this approach is that its explanatory purchase is limited to the rare moments in which individuals indeed have the extraordinary power to shape emerging institutions. The late GDR, however, hardly belongs in this category. What I propose instead is to look at state paranoia as a fully institutionalized form that is largely independent of the personality characteristics of those who enact it. Neither political leaders nor their functionaries have to be personally paranoid while enacting state paranoia.7

After turning away from psychopathology, there remain two possible sociological routes toward explaining state paranoia in the GDR. They mirror the two ways in which it can be thought of as having been socially constructed. The first explanation is genetic. To travel this route, one would have to trace state paranoia and the process of its institutionalization back in time, a task which would require both an excellent GDR and Soviet historian with something of an ethnographic bent. The second route traveled here is a more modest investigation of the reproduction of state paranoia in the GDR during the 1980s. The social arena in which I will analyze the (re)production of state paranoia is the attempt by Stasi (the secret police) to control critical statements about the GDR in general and the peace and civil rights movement in Berlin in particular.8 Stasi is an especially revealing window through which to view the reproduction of state paranoia because Stasi was at the same time that it was subject to this kind of paranoia (deletions) its key executor outside of the party.

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