Ultra-realism’s explanation of violence reduction through drives, libidinal energy and sublimation

A second set of issues relate to the Freudian-esque hydraulic model of the mind presupposed by the pseudo-pacification model. Thus, the sublimation of libidinal energy away from interpersonal aggression and into ‘socio-symbolic competition’ is central to the ultra-realist account of the pseudo-pacification process (Hall, 2012a, 2014a). Wood et al. (2020) first observe that such hydraulic conceptions of libidinal energy channelled within a ‘dynamic unconscious’ are repudiated by many contemporary traditions within social and cognitive psychology (O’Brien and Jureidini, 2002). Second, even if we accept the hydraulic model of the mind, the pseudo-pacification model rests upon key inconsistencies within the model itself. Thus, the pseudo-pacification process model proposes that physical, interpersonal violence and aggression are underpinned by the same ‘drives’ as ‘socio-symbolic competition’. This is a key claim that might be problematized with scrutiny.

The pseudo-pacification process naturalizes violent drives, contradicting ultrarealism’s claim that we are hardwired for plasticity.

The first problem with the hydraulic model of drives and psychic energy described by the ultra-realist pseudo-pacification model is that it proposes that a set amount of ‘libidinal’ energy can be moved around, channelled or blocked but not diminished or fundamentally transformed. Hence, rather than diminishing the ‘libidinal energy’ that also drives interpersonal violence, capitalism instead channels the energy underpinning such drives into a different form of violence: socio-symbolic competition. This model thus presents a number of claims, each inviting contradictions into the ultrarealist account of crime.

First, the pseudo-pacification model has the unfortunate effect of naturalizing and universalizing violent ‘instinctual drives’ (Hall, 2012b: 367), which simply shift in their mode of expression depending on the milieu. It is a point which might appear to be an erroneous reading of the transcendental materialist focus on the plasticity of the human neurological system which is a central part of the ultra-realist theory:

The core of the human neurological system is shot through with conflicting drives; therefore, the human being has weak ‘instincts’. This means that the human being is malleable at the material level, hard-wired but only, paradoxically, for plasticity, which has been necessary for survival in multiple and changing environments.

(Hall, 2014b: 154)

Wood et al. (2020) nevertheless observe that such assertions are fundamentally incompatible with the ‘strong’ instincts presupposed by the pseudo-pacification process. Thus, in explaining the pseudo-pacification process, Hall (2014b: 155) states:

The pseudo-pacification process fundamental psychosocial drive is provided by the sublimation of the once ubiquitous physical aggression that ordered Feudal societies, and its subsequent conversion into socio-symbolic competition ordered by the signifies of consumer culture.

Now, if this is the case, it introduces a temporal problem. For without naturalizing aggressive drives, the theory can explain the sublimation of interpersonal violence into socio-symbolic aggression among those living at the dawn of (neoliberal) capitalism. But it cannot explain the sublimation of interpersonal violence into socio-symbolic aggression among those born into capitalism without naturalizing aggressive drives to interpersonal violence. For if aggression channelled into socio-symbolic competition is central to the ongoing momentum of capitalism, and not just its establishment as a new socio-economic system, then this aggression cannot be attributed to the preceding feudal order, but to the constitution of humanity'. And if it is the case that aggression is simply a ‘weak instinct’, then pseudo-pacification is the best we can hope for.

In presupposing a hydraulic model of the psyche, the pseudo-pacification process sets up a zero-sum game between socio-symbolic competition and physical aggression.

Wood et al. (2020) observe that the theory of pseudo-pacification sets up an opposition between socio-symbolic competition and physical aggression as two distinct and separate expressions such drives may take. This posits something of a zero-sum game between socio-symbolic competition and physical aggression: thus, all the psychic energy that is channelled into socio-symbolic aggression is taken away from physical aggression. The problem with this hydraulic conception of the mind becomes particularly clear when we address instances when individuals engage in interpersonal violence but remain committed to socio-symbolic competition through consumption and other capitalistic practices. Yet if we are to follow the processes proposed by ultra-realist theorists to explain the role of sublimation in the pseudo-pacification process - violent drives are channelled into socio-symbolic competition — then it should follow that the breakdown of the pseudo-pacification process should entail the de-channelling or de-sublimation of energy away from socio-symbolic competition back to acts of physical aggression. If not, then proponents of the perspective might admit that there are different, and at least partly autonomous mechanisms underpinning the formation of socio-symbolically competitive subjectivities and the formation of‘violent subjectivities’.

In practice, it is the theoretical premise of ultra-realism that with the breakdown of the pseudo-pacification process, individuals engage in acts of physical violence because of their commitment to socio-symbolic competition vis-à-vis consumerism and ‘anything to get ahead’ capital accumulation (Raymen, 2016). But this fundamentally contradicts the hydraulic model of the psyche used to explain the fall in violent crime as a product of the pseudo-pacification process.

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