Authoring obedience

Santi di Tito’s famous portrait of Niccolò Mac...
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“When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have been committed in the name of rebellion.” C. P. Snow, ‘Either-Or’ (1964)


Power relations

Power has been said to find significance, writes Honderich (1995), as ‘a disposition; an ability or capacity to yield some outcome.’  If true, these dispositions are also sometimes thought to be relational (social) properties of objects. That is, properties of objects possessed only in virtue of those objects standing in appropriate relation to other objects (i.e. as one might find within a political relation). So, the proximity of phenomenal objects in relation to other objects, and, an asymmetry of the relation said to exist between these objects duly noted, powers and dispositions can yet possess a property or capacity which is potential but not manifest in some form of reciprocity (i.e. energy may be described as either kinetic or potential). In this sense one can begin to discern between active/passive and intrinsic/extrinsic powers at work (see also Locke, 1690). The notion of an intrinsic, latent or passive disposition of power noted also, one might then turn to the evidential difficulties of relational or political properties of these dispositions to power which are also features of our world. Among the greatest political power theorists stand the names Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx, Michel Foucault and Elias Cannetti.

For Machiavelli (see also Masters, 1996) wielding command successfully entails moral expeditiousness and ample helpings of pragmatism, decisive action, and certain public relations skills. Machiavelli’s treatment of power situates command unambiguously in terms of an art of political siege warfare. His formulations did not shelve morality entirely; rather, morality is stretched to include criteria from which customary cruelty can be warranted for the sake of the greater good of the many. Machiavelli’s greatest deception might be said to lay in his deft use of command to resemble utilitarian governance. Entire populations are instrumentally conditioned against disobedience through the utility of a grim efficiency of dread. For Hobbes (1651/68; see also Kraynak, 1990) the explanation of power takes the form of a political solution where absolute power undergoes transubstantiation from disposition to personification. In this formulation a figure-head, an embodiment for the common wealth of the governed and national identity, alike, resides in a single all-powerful sovereign figurehead (and lineage) to whom civil obedience becomes civil duty under dread threat of treason. For Marx (1859; 1867; 1884; 1893) the situation could not have been more different to Hobbes’ formulation, for his is a position of a ruling coterie or group or class (i.e. those said to hold possession of Hegel’s dialectic role of the ‘master’ to the ‘slave’) understood and explained through enforced relations of production (competition and power as the unsatisfactory basis of and for social organisation).  That having been said, it is interesting that, whilst the enforced relations of production may indeed produce a proletariat, or a worker class, it is equally clear that the worker class can also be co-opted to contribute towards, or otherwise help, to create the apparatus of state (say, the military architecture of state) which ultimately may become impervious to the threat posed by the worker class.

For the distinguished political theorist Foucault one detects an examination of the subjectivity of power resulting in what appears largely as a diagnosis of the subject at hand. If contextualised historically within the prodigious company of key political thinkers (though he might well have baulked at the notion for reasons which shall become clear) Foucault’s prognosis for the disposition of power relations, and the impact of these relations on the grounding of the subjectivity of the subject, are layed out as requiring surgical and precise historical intervention. However, by locating himself at the heart of a movement against the authority of the institutions with whom, essentially, his creation (and battle against creation myths therein) in the name of the subject, so to speak, are creations, on several notable occasions, delivered from a brilliant mind in the form of transparently ironic and cruel diagnostics (Miller, 1993); calls to arms against an authorising state, legislature, sense of cultural historical continuity, but a rage against authority in all its institutional forms. In favour of a recognition of what appeared to him a glaring historical discontinuity, a means of production where the commodity was the subject in-itself and for-itself, and, the arrested development of that subject was recognised and rejected, Foucault’s inducements were, indeed, those of a revolutionary (rather than an evolutionary) thinker, a call to what were then the children of the bomb; an educated and vital youth culture that, whilst well-versed in making passionate and scholarly protests on the urgency of a revolt against all things authorised by their forefather’s generations, had, in actuality no reconstructive ideas about what to replace the old structures of authority with. According to Dosse’s (1997) exceptional History of structuralism, one remarkable protest banner read simply: “Let’s be realistic, let’s ask for the impossible.”

To the passionate mix of youthful longing for institutional recognition, the remains of what was, in many ways, Foucault’s influential idealism had, in part, fused with Sartres’ ideal of absolute freedom, and in part with Marx’s critique of social production, and, also, in part, with a twisted formulation recovered from Nietzsche’s original call for the revaluation of values. The revolt of the mob gobbled everything up, indeed anything seen as traditional rational thought was defenestrated, as was the case with moderation itself. Foucault’s utopian thought experiments had, it seems, escaped from the safety of the experimental thought laboratories of the Academy. Young people had become Maoist revolutionaries in the blink of an eye, and had emerged on the streets of Paris fighting pitched battles with the police. Some there fought because their youthful energy had been perceived as being repressed for too long; others fought for a cultural revolution in the capital of a European national republic for its own sake. Foucault’s own works on the removal of the sovereign power of the subject from their real lived history, the inevitable fragmentation of continuity, held under the term epistemes, were held aloft as credible examples of process of decentring and repression of the sovereign individual (e.g. via state psychiatry), control and discrimination against the individual (e.g. via state legislation); and, further, the individual subject was exampled as still more alienated from those cultures to which the dominant (controlling) groups gained their self-identity (e.g. sexuality). Here, then, a historical discrimination was pointed up as founding the basis from which individual differences were not just forged but mantained. That is, the departure point for this radical analysis of the ahistorical subject was argued to stem from the dominant group norms and discrepancy it marked between itself (the majority in-group) from the itinerant, idiopathic individual (e.g. perversion); and, by those historical critiques levelled against other idiopathic subjects whose self-identity might be gained expressly by their association with marginal cultural activities and activisms, or, those other actions deemed to be derived from outside the dominant social structures of the prevailing groups (e.g. social archaeology). All these potent ideals constellated around each other and became something altogether more immanent and chimerical on the days that followed. On May 10th 1968 the discontents’ rising burst its bindings completely and mob rage directed against the most venerated Parisian institutions and apparatus of state ensued. To many the moment was caught in the phrasing of Le Monde headline of a few days later, it was all, so the newspaper coined, a “Divine surprise.” But, then, for the old general, de Gaulle, the incendiary over-spilling of the student protests onto the streets as a full-fledged riot was simply “difficult to grasp.” After the 10th May, the so-named Night of the Barricades some attributed the riots in part to the sheer strength of the unions and their solidarity with the students was viewed as a vent, in part as a form of solidarity with the students and their ongoing anti-war campaigns. The symptomatic society as if Foucault’s patient, duly appeared at the appointed time for a systematic lancing begun at the University of Nanterre. The savoir-vivre of the bright young things under Touraine and Lefebvre’s oratorical control (see May 1968) was now prescribing and discharging its cure for an ailing State freely and indiscriminately.

For Cannetti’s thought (1960) to unlock the fear of being touched as an individual within the crowd (the pack, the mob) is to come closer to unlocking the complex disposition of the structures of command and production. Cannetti had  suggested (1960) that the cult of increase (production) – generated by the opposition of the twin discourses of socialism and capitalism – has led to the creation in modern times of vast potentialities of power inherent within the crowd in and of itself. The sheer dynamism of the cult of increase, said Canetti, had led humans to a point where only a moment exists between command and effect – it is as if humans have indeed stolen and shared amongst themselves the same godlike powers as existed in the symbolic transcendental Father. Measured by the potential of powers available today even terrible figures from the past, says Cannetti (1960: p. 468), such as ‘Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and Hitler seem pitiful amateurs.’ As one might safely imagine, power is a highly complex historical and psycho-social entity which touches every aspect of our lives in relation to others.

Nevertheless it does seem reasonable to suggest that despite the discernible existence of two main thematic discourses on power and exploitation (known as co-ordination power) or material production and organisation (known as exchange-power) the major discourses on power do appear to yield different value outcomes whilst presenting the clearest possible evidence for the truth that the disposition of fear is clearly a significant, recurrent and common factor to each.

Authority relations

Authority may be distinguishable from Power and Force per se in so far as authority is an attribute of social organisation (i.e. family, corporation, university, or government) in which some degree of command inheres in the recognition of some greater competency lodged either in the person or the office itself rather than the individual. Moreover, relations between individuals and groups, if regularized and subject to rules, traditional or legal, tend to find significance as authority relations. To the thought of the influential social theorist, Max Weber, there are three main kinds of authority relation distinguishable.

  • Rational-legal authority relations exist where the right to give orders or to act in certain ways derives from an office or role held within a set of rules setting out rights and duties.
  • Traditional authority relations exist where those accepting the authority see it as deriving from a long and hallowed tradition of obedience to a figurehead.
  • Charismatic authority exists where exceptional abilities cause a person to be obeyed or followed, and the exceptional ability is perceived as conferring a right to lead.  Groups such as the family clearly incorporate into themselves some of these attributes into the system and dynamics of everyday life for the greater good of the group.

Authorising functions

For Nietzsche – the arch-enemy of free-will – every form of human action cannot find adequate expression as mere attributions of genuine human agency or responsibility inhering from agency within a sovereign autonomous individual. Here, then, within Nietzsche’s psychology, the human cannot be held to account as an autonomous organisation, for, as is made clear throughout the corpus repeatedly, the human is treated as imperfect in this regard insofar as the human is a decentred being. Moreover, human action is a limited insofar as its instinctual natural legacy allows, and conscience (and actions made as a consequence of that conscience) are informed at best by good faith (albeit, with an imperfect compass of valuation at its disposal). In this terrain the notion of the force which authorises human action is located squarely, time after time, through various motifs, lodged with the Will-to-power. Initially, that is, in the early corpus, there is the Schopenhauerian influence of the Will-to-life (see also TSZ 1.15; 2.12; BGE 9; a36). So what is the Will-to-power? Nietzsche is only relatively clear on this point, the Will-to-power is derived from the lack which drives being; the Will-to-power inheres in the substratum beneath consciousness (Ger. Triebe); it is what inaugurates each action from beneath each consciousness, and is, in turn, supervened upon by the full composition of all substantial existence continually played out in an eternal unfolding of iterative interpretation (see below eternal recurrence). That is, in synopsis of the various contributions on the concept, Triebe is the basis from which substance (energy/matter) desires to have being – it is, then, Triebe which is set in a continual interpretive process of becoming other substance. (In passing, one may also note that Nietzsche’s system can be discerned as fitting the criterion of a reflexive monism not (merely) an epiphenomenal system as one finds in cases with Leibniz, Spinoza and von Hartmann for instance.)

But Schopenhauer’s early influence upon Nietzsche largely wanes foreshadowed by another concept (termed eternal recurrence) which becomes more clearly articulated by him. The thesis of the Will-to-power is situated at the beating heart of the greater symphony of eternal recurrence (see JS 341). At a dash any potential misattribution of fatalism or radical pessimism toward Nietzsche till this point (1882) now becomes palpably unsustainable. Here, then, in the wake of the injunction made to each individual by an apprehension of ethical responsibility vital to eternal recurrence, each individual action faces the potential of a completely new ethical weighting attached to every thought and deed. That is, each action had become, in the Nietzschean moral revaluation at least, a thought or action with a reciprocal connection with all other substance (i.e. time / matter / energy) everywhere and for all time. Eternal recurrance then, does appear to be something resembling a radical and new ethical encumberance for humankind (and what an encumberance – the eternal repetition of ones actions).

In this scheme the human being can be initially held no more accountable than the fruit formed from the tree of custom and social mores; the free standing man stands for everything except freedom of functioning. Nietzsche’s conceptual framework is exampled amply in this regard, quote: “relative imperfection of the organism”, or, “the blind instrument of drives”; where free will is the “the foulest of artifices”, moreover, “to be free is to be reconciled to the truth of the inescapable actuality of his situation” (see Twilight); and, where “values are the levers of other natural artefacts” (see Untimely). Nietzsche continually posits the human placed in the world as an instrument to the more powerful urges of a substrate not available to consciousness, that is, to be a man in the grip of an interplay of unceasing non-conscious forces; a constant flux of organisation and reorganisation of category and disposition, a disposition which essentially gives rise to all other relations sui generis. Nietzsche’s metaphysics evolves directly from the disposition he termed the Will-to-power (BGE a36): ‘This world is the will to power – and nothing besides, and you yourselves are also this will to power, and nothing besides.’

On a somewhat different nonetheless related tack, the researcher finds in clinical observations drawn from over a century of recognisably psychodynamic psychology that one encounters the notion of a system composed of internal and external objects coextensively authorised by familial prototyping under the auspices of the Imago (after Jung; the symbolic familial archetype). It was Freud who had consolidated the import of our ancestral beginnings in the primal horde (after Darwin, 1859) with the familial types found within Carl Jung’s term imago (Freud, 1913). However, that being so, Freud had also added considerably to the weight of the term (i.e. imago) when he transposed the notion onto the triadic relation of Father-Mother-Child.  The result of which (positioned as a dialectic in- and for-itself) he called transference.

In the classical analytic motif for the family grouping, the much misattributed Oedipus complex, one becomes exposed to a classical analytic notion whose presence is never left unfelt throughout the dynamic edifice of psychoanalytic thought. That is to say, a close reading of Freud’s earliest prose introduces the reader to a crafted consideration of pure psychological understanding based upon an architectonics of family tensions in the universal constitution of libidinal development (see 1905d/20): ‘Every new arrival on this planet is faced with the task of mastering the Oedipal complex.’ Only later in the writings can the more commonly recognisable structural view of processes (the agencies of id and superego) set against each other, yet, once more, set in the wider context of phylogenetic architectonics, as the recognisably antagonistic nest of psychical systems (i.e. unconscious, preconscious and consciousness). Indeed, the complexity of the oedipal complex is one founded in the weave of comorbid tensions (anxiety) seen as variously stemming from: unconscious guilt, primary identification, temporary renunciation (and subsequent rediscovery) of the contrasexual parent, anxiousness borne of rivalry and the phylogenetic inheritance of survival pitched against a dread fear of the propinquity of a recognition of mortality.

For Freud (1905; 1920), one might say, the human being is born as a conscious being driven by an unconscious desire for being. And it is in the unfolding of this desire-to-experience that the mediated avoidance of unpleasure becomes most manifest, perhaps, via the inwardgoing and outwardgoing processes of projection or introjection. However, this is not to say that the individual cannot be seen through the main conduit to acculturation – the family. In fact, the family is always implicitly implied through recourse to the ontogenetic reality of the oedipal triangle. Here, also maturational processes are seen to unfold, and these processes set the stage for the inevitability which is of course the scene of oedipal conflict and the subsequent development of the superego. It is here, in direct conflict with the authorising function of family’s reality-sense, one finds oneself returned – desperately seeking status perhaps – to our most humble beginnings in the primal horde. It is in this situation that we come to desire the symbolic death of the primal father and experience the reciprocal desire for all properties that were rightfully his. However, therein one finds the aperture for guilt, and, the imaginary reprisal borne out from fetishistic myth – castration anxiety. In keeping with the dynamic line of thought, the imaginary and actual experiences of our earliest beginnings are centrally positioned to come together in a repeated interpretation informing the basic patterning of the ego, identity and sexual orientation in an eternal series. With these similarities it is perhaps easy to sympathise with those whom might hear echoes of Nietzsche in Freud’s self styled discovery.  It should be clearly pointed out however that in concentrating on the triangular relation of family itself – oedipal complex – we are led to assign an essential role in the constitution of this clearly complex formation to each of the other points in this dynamic relation – the unconscious desires of the parental figures, the seductive powers of the other figures within the relation, the actual relationship of the parents, as well as the child’s instincts and desires.  For the analysts Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis (Trans. 1973) it is not simply the case of an emphasis upon one aspect of the family system: ‘It is the different types of relation between the three points of the triangle which – at least as much as any particular parental image – are destined to be internalised and to survive in the structure of the personality’.

If there is one idea at the centre of Freud’s psychology (psychoanalysis) it is the idea of the unconscious. Even in the context of present-day arguments, the suggestion that one might be driven by irrational motives does seem to be unbearable.  Sometimes Freud is placed in a long line of revolutionary thinkers (Galileo, Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx) who have transformed humanity’s penchant for believing that we are at the centre of things. In fact, the notion of the unconscious was not new, as Freud himself recognised. Freud’s innovation was to refine the idea and build it into the centre of a systematic psychological theory of an ego and its vicissitudes – in tension between the desires of the id and the ‘conscience’ of the super-ego.  One way in which he thought about the unconscious was as one of three ‘levels’ or systems (primary-processes) in and of the psyche: Consciousness, Pre-consciousness and the Unconscious. For Freud (1895; 1900; 1920; 1923) there were secondary processes, the workings of the rational conscious mind and its preconscious materials, and, there are primary processes, the dynamics of the unconscious, and, it is both of these processes which unerringly interact. To understand these dynamics it ought to be remembered that it is ideas (representations, Ger. Vorstellung) that are repressed. The unconscious ideas, images and representations at hand are not subject to the laws (i.e. spatiotemporality) to which our conscious ideas and drifting thoughts are subjected. The unconscious process of representation are accepted as is, insofar as they unconscious, as the reality of the internal world. It is as if we carry within us a demanding, screaming homunculus that will not rest until its demands are met – some might draw a comparison with an infant. Moreover, the unconscious systems and processes do not recognise the laws of contradiction and paradox that we hold dearly to in the course of our rational lives. For instance, according to the functioning of unconscious systems, it is very difficult to recognise that we can love and hate the same person. As mentioned previously, the unconscious is timeless. It does not develop or change once constructed; it does not mature, although if we are lucky the rest of our psychic apparatus does change, becoming more complex and adept at handling the unconscious impulses and demands in ever newer more creative ways.

For Freud the ego is what develops in the attempt to maintain a balance between the inner demand for immediate satisfaction, and the demands of the outer world, which threatens us as much as does the inner world. The most effective way in which it can deal with the internal pressures of the id is repression, and it was the problem of this aspect of the ego’s work that contributed to Freud’s development of his structural model of the psyche. If it were going to work effectively, the repressing mechanism could not enter consciousness (if I know I am trying to repress something, then by definition I am not repressing it); and if repression is part of the work of the ego, then the ego cannot be assigned simply to the conscious or the preconscious. Like the id, it has both conscious and unconscious aspects. The ego or the ‘I’ grows out of the struggle between the demands of the internal drives and the demands of the outside world, in order to mediate between them. It originates in identifications with objects that were ‘cathected’ by the id, and then lost. The conscious element of the ‘I’ is that sense of personhood that we have when we use the pronoun, the sense of a reasonably coherent agency that can result for periods when we have the conflicting internal and external demands in an approximate balance. I would emphasise that this only occurs for periods: the psyche is a combination of dynamic processes and an absolute, stable balance or integration is never achieved. One of my own criticisms of some contemporary psychoanalytic theorists centres on the use of the concept of ‘self’ when that mentioned comes to be convicted of and identified with only those aspects of the conscious part of the ego, and, in some cases, attempts are made to clinically produce a strong or stable ‘self’ object by involving and encouraging in the patient/client what appears to be an omnipotent attitude towards the external world. Nonetheless, the unconscious part of the ego, made up of internalised objects that were once vital for the infant’s survival, is the repressing and defending agency, indeed, what one might call the internal negotiator between the outer and the tumult of the inner worlds. However, as Juliet Mitchell (1974) points out with characteristic certainty, the ego is the originating point for all anxiety. So there it is then. Or is it?

The colloquial term that Freud used for the super-ego is, as we have noted, the ‘over-I’, an internal agency that, as it were, lays down the law for the rest of the personality, often providing a critical commentary on a person’s actions. It is tempting to see it as a conscience, which, through the internalisation of the parents’, particularly, for Freud, the father’s, prohibitions, takes in wider social prohibitions. In fact some might suggest that Freud was trying to get at a much deeper process. Certainly our conscious experiences of judging ourselves and giving ourselves ideals, and of guilt, when we feel we have done something wrong, are connected with the super-ego. But they also have important unconscious dimensions that make ‘super-ego’ much more than another term for a simple process of socialisation. The super-ego is formed from the same sort of psychic material as is the ego and in order to reinforce the latter in its task of managing the drives. However, there is, on the surface, an unexpected connection between the id and the super-ego, because the latter is formed, according to Freud, from the introjection of objects in which the id has invested most energy. The principle seems to be that the more powerful the desire for the object, the greater the force needed to repress that desire, and that force is attached to the introjected object and turned against the id. It is important, perhaps, to think of this as an internal, psychological process rather than something that occurs primarily as a response to outside forces. The strength of and force behind a person’s self-critical and self-controlling functions is not necessarily related directly to the strength and force of parental prohibition. Some believe that, if anything, the opposite is true – if parental prohibition is weak, the internal control has to be that much stronger for the ego to cope with the world. Freud believed the super-ego appears around the age of three to four, at the end of the oedipal stage. This is when the authority of the father is paramount, and for Freud it is probably true to say that the major component of the super-ego is paternal; it is the father who forces the child (of both sexes) to give up its desire for the mother. Nonetheless, the question may be raised as to whether the functions assigned to super-ego have some forshadowed interest or bearing as yet inadequately regarded perhaps in the field of obedience and conformity.

For Melanie Klein (see Hinshelwood, 1991; Klein, 1975; Segal, 1964), a radical, literal reading of analytic theory heaped emphasis and clinical focus onto the contents of the unconscious (the Kleinian term phantasy is used to denote the concretisation of vorstellung) and marks her departure from classical Freudian theorists. For her the heir to the oedipal complex came not in the formation of a classical Freudian super-ego (1932), but, rather, as a position in the development of the child where both love (Eros) and hate (Thanatos) are directed against the same object – the mother (or primary caregiver). She termed this important developmental achievement in the child the depressive position (1935) – which is not at all merely to say that the child was depressed. The appreciation and apprehension of the whole object marks for the child the becoming of an awareness of its own ambivalence through feelings of concern and guilt extended toward outwards to the mother. The child’s growing sense of concern and guilt for what damage might have been dealt to the mother takes the form of reparative behaviours. Klein’s system concentrates on the death drive (Ger. Todestrieb) and the innate aggressivity she suggested which poured out from a defensive externalisation of dread fear (termed as sadism) in both normative (i.e. whole object usage and ambivalance) and pathological forms (i.e. part object usage and splitting) as might be seen in schizotypal disorders (i.e. psychoses). One can say, then, that for Klein the structural model gave way to a spectrum of functioning with its beginnings on the one hand in a paranoid-schizoid functioning mode and on the other a depressive functioning modality. Later theorists such as Wilfred Bion were to express this formulation as Ps↔D. One might suggest that in Klein’s system obedience may appear to be contingent upon, if not as a direct consequence of, the successful internalisation of a healthy object-relationship, that is, an initial familial relationship (good and bad), and, the moral dimensionality forthcoming from a conscious awareness of others linked in turn to the reparative mode of functioning born of the capacity of guilt toward the other.

To the thought of the post-Freudian thinker Jacques Lacan, psychoanalytic thought may have possibly made its most revealing inquest into the peculiar human relation to authority (after Freud, 1930) and in relation with the aspect of an authorising function (as both an individual superego and a mass conscience of guilt). Lacan had initially been trained in classical psychoanalysis, but upon finding himself discontented with the analytical emphasis on a Cartesian reality (for Lacan this reading of the Freudian ego is a misunderstanding) felt himself impelled to recreate the given topography in describing the peculiar plight of the imaginary subject of ego. Lacan’s structural concern came to include both the private world of the individual and the public world of society as if both were structured and stratified by language. In this way one can say that Lacan’s reading of Freud is a radical departure from both the structural model (id, ego, and superego) and a belief in the usefulness of a single ‘reality’, as enshrined at the surface of the reality-principle (see also Freud, 1911; 1920). Lacan replaces the agencies of the structural model with his own schema for phenomenological registers or orders, and these schema revealed what became known as the orders of the Real, Symbolic and Imaginary (RSI). Moreover, alongside the replacement of Freud’s structural model of psyche with the RSI, Lacan’s structural orientation also began to discern an expression which directly referred to the prohibitive role of the primal father (as the one who lays down the ‘No’ of the incest taboo in the Oedipus complex). Here then he coins the phrase ‘the name of the father’ – ‘nom du père’ – to explicitly refer to the authorising (anthropological, social and theological) function of the symbolic father; thus, his choice of the phrasing becomes clearer when he writes (1977): ‘It is in the name of the father that we must recognise the support of the symbolic function which, from the dawn of history, has identified his person with the figure of the law’.  Shortly after this first appearance (1955-56), in the seminar called The Psychoses (Trans. 1993), the expression (actually, a neologism) in question (i.e. Nom du Père’) becomes capitalised and hyphenated and begins to freight another payload of meaning. Here the Name-of-the-Father (i.e. Nom-du-Pere) becomes, for the Lacan (1993), the fundamental signifier which acts as the ‘sentinel for psyche’ and which ultimately ‘permits or precludes any signification to proceed.’  But what, one may well ask, does that mean?  What Lacan is saying here is, perhaps, that the (anthropological, social and theological) significance of and for the Name-of-the-Father is so powerful and pivotal an unconscious function in the construction of the subject’s identity that it is the binding which confers and authorises all other meaning to proceed. Moreover, without the fundamental authorisation of the Name-of-the-Father the act of signification itself – and thus any notion of self or identity – becomes lost and no distinction between self and other can be sustained. In this extreme situation for the de-authorised psyche a lack inhabits where once there was a subject; the desire-for-being has been lost to the subject; the subject who is barred from significance has lost the necessary purgation (i.e. cathartic expression) provided by the correct functioning of significance, and, this newly alienated subject (i.e. from him/herself) comes to be seen as foreclosed (the psychotic defensive position, distinct from repression which is the sign of the neurotic defensive position, and outright disavowals which are held to signify the perverse defensive position).

Obedience to authority

Ask most people in most streets in most any conurbation and they may have heard of, or know a little about, the  so-called ‘Milgram Experiment’; a singular piece of socio-psychological experimental research more correctly known as the ‘Obedience to Authority Study’. It is quite simply put one of the most famous experiments in psychology.  The experiment was first described by Stanley Milgram – someone who, it is heartening to add, confessed himself as something of an outsider within academic psychology  of the early sixities, initially at least, having been an emigre from higher studies in political science at Yale – in an article entitled ‘Behavioral Study of Obedience’ initially published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1963, and later discussed in his book, ‘Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View’ (1974). The conceptual framework for the experiment was, said Milgram after the event, to try to measure the willingness of a participant to obey an authority figure who instructs the participant to do something that may conflict with the participant’s moral conscience.  The experiments, which were conducted on 40 subjects, began in July 1961.  Milgram was to state in 1974 that, he had first conceived and devised the experiment as a direct response to answer the following question – posed by the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a high ranking official of the Nazi Party, which had taken place one year prior in Jerusalem (1974): “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?”

In response to a newspaper ad offering less than five dollars per hour individuals attend a psychology experiment at Yale under the premise of an investigation into ‘memory and learning.’ S/he is introduced to a stern looking experimenter in a white coat with lots of pens in his top pocket, and a friendly co-subject. The experimenter, Milgram, explains that the experiment will look into the role of punishment in learning, and that one subject will be the teacher and the other will be the learner. Lots are drawn to determine roles, and it is decided – albeit actually rigged – so that the individual who answered the ad will always become the teacher. Omitting much unnecessary detail to the discussion at this point, the ‘learner’ is taken to a room where he is strapped in a chair to prevent movement and an electrode is placed on his arm.  Next, the teacher is taken to an adjoining room which contains a generator.  The teacher is instructed to read a list of two word pairs and ask the learner to read them back. If the learner gets the answer correct, then they move on to the next word.  If the answer is incorrect, the teacher is supposed to shock the learner starting at 15 volts and rising incrementally with each incorrect answer. The generator has 30 switches in 15 volt increments; each is labelled with a voltage ranging from 15 up to 450 volts.  Each switch also has a rating, ranging from ‘slight shock’ to ‘danger: severe shock’. The final two switches were labelled ‘XXX’. The teacher is supposed to increase the shock each time the learner misses a word in the list. Although the teacher thought that s/he was administering shocks to the learner, the learner is actually a student or an actor who is never actually harmed.  To reiterate what was said earlier, the drawing of lots was rigged, so that the actor would always end up as the learner.  At times the worried teachers questioned the experimenter, asking who was responsible for any harmful effects resulting from shocking the learner at such a high level. Interestingly, upon receiving the answer that the experimenter assumed full responsibility, the teachers seemed to accept the response and continue shocking, even though some were obviously extremely uncomfortable in doing so.  Also interesting, was the fact that the distribution of obedience to gender was found to be negligible, that is to say, no marked differences were detected between the Findings for male or female teachers. Today the field of psychology would deem this study highly unethical, and it is worth a mention that even in the early sixties the American Psychological Association did have serious concerns as to the ethics of Milgram’s work, and yet, the study did reveal some extremely revelatory findings. In fact, Milgram’s original theory that only the most severe monsters on the sadistic fringe of society would submit to imposing such cruelty is disclaimed. Instead, the findings actually showed, Milgram (1974) writes:

‘Two-thirds of this studies participants fall into the category of ‘obedient’ subjects, and that they represent ordinary people drawn from the working, managerial, and professional classes’.

Ultimately then, 65% (26/40) of all of the teachers punished the learners to the maximum dose of a 450 volt shock.  It is also of considerable note that not one single teacher stopped questioning the learners before reaching 300 volts and, more interestingly still perhaps, not one single teacher inquired as to the well-being, or, into seeing the state of the learner after the experiment has concluded.

‘Shocking’ Evidence

During Milgram’s researches a number of participants pestered the experimenter to take responsibility for the situation. They typically asked, “who is going to take the responsibility if anything happens to that gentleman?” They were determined to absolve themselves of any personal responsibility and to see themselves as simply carrying out orders from a higher authority. Milgram called this “being another person’s agent”, a situation known as the agentic state or the theory of agency. Milgram’s agency theory states that people operate on two levels:

  • As autonomous individuals (i.e. independent agents), people behave voluntarily and aware of the consequences of their actions, and,
  • On the agentic level, seeing themselves as the agents of others and not responsible for their actions.

Milgram believed that this explained the behaviour of the participants in his study; they denied personal responsibility, claiming that they were merely “doing what they were told”. The consequence of moving from the autonomous to the agentic level (termed agentic shift) is that individuals attribute responsibility for their actions to the person in authority. At this agentic level, Milgram argued, people mindlessly accept the orders of the person seen as responsible in the situation. Milgram believed that this explained the behaviour of the participants in his study; they denied personal responsibility, claiming that they were merely “doing what they were told”. You probably know that when those responsible for atrocities during World War II were asked why they did what they did, their answer was simply: “I was only obeying orders”. Indeed, Adolf Eichmann is a classic ‘real life’ example of this in so far as at his war trial he pleaded, like other Nazis at the Nuremberg trials, that he was only obeying orders. In fact, he claimed, he was not the ‘monster’ the media of the day had painted him to be.

In Hofling’s (1966) hospital experiment, personal responsibility was partly removed from the nurses. The doctor promised to sign the authorisation papers when he arrived at the hospital ten minutes after his phone call. There is considerable evidence both from experiments and real life that the removal of personal responsibility encourages obedience. This is seen most vividly in the Nazi war crimes and the My Lai massacre. Let’s turn to some important studies into both conformity and obedience to better understand what is at stake in this type of research.

Autokinetic Effect Experiment

Sherif (1935) conducted an experiment with the aim of demonstrating that people conform to group norms when they are put in an ambiguous (i.e. unclear) situation. Sherif (1935) used a lab experiment to study conformity. He used the autokinetic effect – this is where a small spot of light (projected onto a screen) in a dark room will appear to move, even though it is still (i.e. it is a visual illusion). It was discovered that when participants were individually tested their estimates on how far the light moved varied considerably (e.g. from 20cm to 80cm). The participants were then tested in groups of three. Sherif manipulated the composition of the group by putting together two people whose estimate of the light movement when alone was very similar, and one person whose estimate was very different. Each person in the group had to say aloud how far they thought the light had moved.

Sherif (1935) found that over numerous estimates (trials) of the movement of light, the group converged to a common estimate. That is, the person whose estimate of movement was most greatly different to the other two in the group conformed to the view of the others. Sherif said that this showed that people would always tend to conform. Rather than make individual judgments they tend to come to a group agreement. The findings suggest that when in an ambiguous situation (such as the autokinetic effect), a person will look to others (who appear to know more / better) for guidance (i.e. they adopt the group norm). These findings also suggest that poeple want to do the right thing but may lack the appropriate information. Observing others can provide this information. This is known as informational conformity.

Line Judgement Experiment

Solomon Asch (1951) had believed that the main problem with Sherif’s (1935) conformity experiment was that there was no correct answer to the ambiguous autokinetic experiment. How could we be sure that a person conformed when there was no correct answer? Asch (1951) devised an experiment whereby there was an obvious answer to a line judgement task. If the participant gave an incorrect answer it would be clear that this was due to group pressure. Asch had conducted an experiment to investigate the extent to which social pressure from a majority group could affect a person to conform. He used a lab experiment to study conformity. Using the line judgement task (see above), Asch put a naive participant in a room with seven confederates. The confederates had agreed in advance what their responses would be when presented with the line task. The real participant did not know this and was led to believe that the other seven participants were also real participants like themselves. Each person in the room had to state aloud which comparison line (A, B or C) was most like the target line. The answer was always obvious. The real participant sat at the end of the row and gave his or her answer last. In some trials, the seven confederates gave the wrong answer. There were 18 trials in total and the confederates gave the wrong answer on 12 trails. Asch was interested to see if the real participant would conform to the majority view.

Asch (1951) measured the number of times each participant conformed to the majority view. On average, about one third (32%) of the participants who were placed in this situation went along and conformed with the clearly incorrect majority. But why did the participants conform so readily? When the participants were interviewed after the experiment, most of them said that they did not really believe their conforming answers, but had gone along with the group for fear of being ridiculed or thought “peculiar”. A few of them said that they really did believe the group’s answers were correct. Apparently, people conform for two main reasons: because they want to fit in with the group (normative influence) and because they believe the group is better informed than they are (informational influence). All participants were male students who all belonged to the same age group (biased sample). The task (judging line lengths) was artificial (low in ecological validity) as it is unlikely to happen in everyday life. Therefore, it is not similar to a real life situation demonstrating conformity. The Asch (1951) study has also been called ‘a child of its time’ (largely as conformity was the social norm in 1950’s). Finally, there are ethical issues as the participants were deceived and not protected from psychological stress which may occur if they disagreed with the majority.

Hofling’s Obedience Study

Hofling (1966) aimed to create a more realistic study of obedience than Milgram’s by carrying out field studies on nurses who were unaware that they were involved in an experiment. Nurses in a hospital were given orders from a ‘doctor’ over the telephone to administer a dose of medication above the maximum allowed. The nurses were watched to see what they would do. The medication was not real, though the nurses thought it was. Hofling (1966) had found that 21 out of 22 (95%) nurses were easily influenced into carrying out the orders. They were not supposed to take instructions by phone, let alone exceed the allowed dose (The drug was a placebo). When other nurses were asked to discuss what they would do in a similar situation, 21 out of 22 said they would not comply with the order. Hofling (1966) does appear to have demonstrated that people are very unwilling to question supposed ‘authority’, even when they might have good reason to.

Blue-green study

Moscovici et al. (1969) aimed to investigate the effects of a consistent minority on a majority. Moscovici et al (1969) used an experimental method in which participants were shown blue slides of different intensity and asked to report the colors. In one condition the two confederates said the slides were green on every slide. On another condition the two confederates gave different answers. A control was used consisting of participants only – no confederates. In condition one it was found that the consistent minority had an affect on the majority (8.42%) compared to an inconsistent minority (only 1.25% said green). A third (32%) of all participants judged the slide to be green at least once. A third (32%) of al participants judged the slide to be green at least once. According to this research minorities can be suggested to influence a majority, but not all the time and only when they behave in certain ways (e.g. consistent behaviour style).

Stanford Prison Experiment

Zimbardo (1969) aimed to investigate how readily people would conform to the roles of guard and prisoner in a role-playing exercise that simulated prison life. Zimbardo was interested in finding out whether the brutality reported among guards in American Prisons was due to the sadistic personalities of the guards or had more to do with the prison environment. Zimbardo (1969) used a laboratory experiment to study conformity to obedience. That is, to study the roles people play in prison situations, and for this Zimbardo converted a basement of the Stanford University psychology building into a mock prison. He advertised for students to play the roles of prisoners and guards for a fortnight. Participants were randomly assigned to either the role of prisoner or guard in a simulated prison environment. The prison simulation was kept as “real life” as possible. Prisoners were arrested at their own homes, then charged, finger-printed and unceremoniously deloused. The prisoners were issued a uniform, and referred to by their number only. Guards were also issued a khaki uniform, together with whistles, handcuffs and dark glasses, to make eye contact with prisoners impossible. No physical violence was permitted. Zimbardo observed the behaviour of the prisoners and guards. Everything Zimbardo did was to enhance the participants’ impression that they were undergoing a ‘real prison experience’. The students playing the part of prisoners for the experiment were arrested without warning (much to the surprise of their neighbours). They were accused of some crime, read their rights, handcuffed and taken to the local police station. Here they were treated like every other criminal. They were fingerprinted, photographed and ‘booked’. Then they were blindfolded and driven to the psychology department of Stanford University, where Zimbardo had had the basement set out as a prison, with barred doors and windows, bare walls and small cells. Here the deindividuation (read dehumanising) process began. When the prisoners arrived at the prison they were stripped naked, deloused, had all their personal possessions removed and locked away, and were given prison clothes and bedding. Their clothes comprised a smock with their number written on it, no underclothes, and around one ankle a length of chain.

Within a very short time both guards and prisoners were settling into their new roles, the guards adopting theirs quickly and easily. Within hours of beginning the experiment some guards began to harass prisoners. They behaved in a brutal and sadistic manner, apparently enjoying it. Other guards joined in, and other prisoners were also tormented. The prisoners were taunted with insults and petty orders, they were given pointless and boring tasks to accomplish, and they were generally dehumanised. The prisoners soon adopted prisoner-like behaviour too. They talked about prison issues a great deal of the time. They ‘told tales’ on each other to the guards. They started taking the prison rules very seriously, as though they were there for the prisoners’ benefit and infringement would spell disaster for all of them. Some even began siding with the guards against prisoners who did not conform to the rules. Over the next few days the relationships between the guards and the prisoners changed, with a change in one leading to a change in the other. Remember that the guards were firmly in control and the prisoners were totally dependent on them. As the prisoners became more dependent, the guards became more derisive towards them. They held the prisoners in contempt and let the prisoners know it. As the guards’ contempt for them grew, the prisoners became more submissive. As the prisoners became more submissive, the guards became more aggressive and assertive. They demanded ever greater obedience from the prisoners. The prisoners were dependent on the guards for everything so tried to find ways to please the guards, such as telling tales on fellow prisoners. One prisoner had to be released after 36 hours because of uncontrollable bursts of screaming, crying and anger. His thinking became disorganised and he appeared to be entering the early stages of a deep depression. Within the next few days three others also had to leave after showing signs of emotional disorder that could have had lasting consequences. (These were people who had been pronounced stable and normal a short while before.) Zimbardo had intended that the experiment should run for a fortnight, but on the sixth day he closed it down. There was real danger that someone might be physically or mentally damaged if it was allowed to run on. After some time for the researchers to gather their data the subjects were called back for a follow-up, debriefing session.

Again these findings would appear to suggest that people will readily conform to the social roles they are expected to play, especially so if the roles are as strongly stereotyped as those of the prison guards. The prison environment was an important factor in creating the guards’ brutal behaviour (none of the participants who acted as guards showed sadistic tendencies before the study). Therefore, the roles that people play can shape their behaviour and attitudes. After the prison experiment was terminated Zimbardo interviewed the participants. He writes (1973):

“Most of the participants said they had felt involved and committed. The research had felt “real” to them. One guard said, “I was surprised at myself. I made them call each other names and clean the toilets out with their bare hands. I practically considered the prisoners cattle and I kept thinking I had to watch out for them in case they tried something.”

Another guard from the study, is quoted thus (1973): “Acting authoritatively can be fun. Power can be a great pleasure.” And, another said, quote: “… during the inspection I went to Cell Two to mess up a bed which a prisoner had just made and he grabbed me, screaming that he had just made it and that he was not going to let me mess it up. He grabbed me by the throat and although he was laughing I was pretty scared. I lashed out with my stick and hit him on the chin although not very hard, and when I freed myself I became angry.”’

Most of the guards found it difficult to believe that they had behaved in the brutalising ways which they had. Many said they hadn’t known this side of them existed or that they were capable of such things. The prisoners, too, couldn’t believe that they had responded in the submissive, cowering, dependent ways they had either. Several even claimed to be assertive types normally. When asked about the guards, they described the usual three stereotypes that can be found in any prison: some guards were good, some were tough but fair, and some were cruel.

Reflections in Conclusion

Relating to what are astonishing findings by any measure, Milgram famously wrote an article named The Perils of Obedience (1973) where he writes: ‘The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.’

One ought to therefore bear in mind that although those with power may in actuality have no right to authority, on the other hand, those with claim to authority do appear to have power on their side. In this sense one can suggest that power and authority seem to be discreet notions from one another. Further, the most salient aspect of Milgram’s shocking experiment, namely the fact most urgently demanding explanation, does appear to lack any reference to or otherwise understanding of the notion of an authorising function as a factor with respect to conscience or authority relations more generally. One can then perhaps say that an answer to what is rightful obedience to authority, though central to analytic concern through the development of autoerotic, anaclitic and narcissistic functioning was, for some time, considered to be of no cognitive or clinical psychological usefulness between the 1950s and 1970s. That said, Zimbardo, the researcher who devised the now-legendary Stanford Prison Experiment, has recently once again asked the question of ‘Why do good people turn evil?’  In his latest foray into this complex question entitled ‘The Lucifer Effect’ Zimbardo (2007) writes: ‘The Lucifer Effect raises a fundamental question about the nature of human nature: How is it possible for ordinary, average, even good people to become perpetrators of evil? In trying to understand unusual or aberrant behaviour, we often err in focusing exclusively on the inner determinants of genes, personality, and character, as we also tend to ignore what may be the critical catalyst for behaviour change in the external Situation or in the System that creates and maintains such situations. I challenge readers to reflect on how well they really know themselves, and how much confidence they have in what they would or would not ever do when put into new behavioural settings.’

In conclusion, the terms under brief discussion here – conformity, obedience and authority – are perhaps most clearly seen though the prototyping lens of the family as a group system bestowing identity. As such, for Zimbardo (2007) the notion of individual dispositions and systemic ethos of power – ‘bad apples’ and a ‘bad barrel’ – remain central to any future socio-psychological understanding of human behaviours in relation to dispositions or capacities of and for power; further, toward attributes of social regulation of authority and obedience. Yet, the fascination continues for us as we grapple with these functions and dispositions of power in the social world, as one deigns to continue to endow to them greater significance in the service of everyday understanding.


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