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Lear, J. (2007). Working Through the End of Civilization. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 88(2):291-308.

(2007). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 88(2):291-308

Keynote Papers

Working Through the End of Civilization

Jonathan Lear

This is an account of how a civilization works through the problems it faces when it is threatened with destruction. It focuses on the example of the Crow Nation, an Indian tribe of the northwest plains of North America, and their last great chief Plenty Coups. Psychoanalytic ideas play a crucial role in explaining how a creative response was possible. In particular, their collective use of dream-visions and dream-interpretation made possible the creation of a new ego ideal for the tribe. This allowed for the transformation of traditional allocations of shame and humiliation. It also allowed for the possibility of transformation of psychological structure. And it opened up new possibilities for what might count as flourishing as a Crow. Conversely, the threat of civilizational collapse allows us to see new possibilities for the conceptual development of psychoanalysis. In particular, psychoanalysis needs to recognize that destruction can occur at the level of the culture while the individuals are not physically harmed. The psychological states of these individuals can be various and complex and cannot be neatly summed up under the category of trauma. A culture can be devastated, while there is no one-to-one relation to the psychological states of the individuals who participate in that culture. It is also true that a collapse of a way of life makes a variety of psychological states impossible. Coming to understand these phenomena is essential to understanding how a culture works through threats to its very existence.

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