In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud concerns himself with man as a member, man in his belonging to: how is that that to which man belongs, belongs to him?
We should note that the German title refers to Massenpsychologie. The English "group" could have been translated as mass or as crowd. I consider the book in some detail for several reasons: first, because of the way the group is enclosed in the individual; second, because of the link between transference and the group; third, because many of the elements of Freud's account reappear in later writers' discussions of crowds. What is crucial in this text is the primacy of the group to the individual. Group psychology--belonging, connection, will--comes first. The individual ego develops out of it in a process that is unstable and incomplete.
Group psychology, Freud tells us, is concerned with the simultaneous influence of a large number of people, generally strangers, on the individual. It thus concerns man as a member of a race, nation, caste, profession, institution, or crowd organized at a particular time for a specific purpose. What's interesting to Freud is that man's insertion into a group leads to thoughts, feelings, and actions that are unexpected. He wants to understand the nature of the mental change effected by groups.
I have italicized insertion into a group because in some ways Freud's account actually seems to be inverted, an account of the group's insertion into the man or, differently put, the enclosure of the group in the individual. Perhaps it makes sense to say that there is an ambiguity here as to what is incorporating what: does the group incorporate the man or does the man incorporate, internalize, introject the group? Is it possible that there is a reciprocal, albeit uneven and not without remainder, incorporating? And might this unsteady, unstable site of overlap be the space of the subject such that subject is necessarily collective?
Freud develops his account by quoting extensively from Gustave LeBon's The Crowd. There are two significant elements in the first passage from LeBon that he lifts: the fact that individuals in a group are in the possession of a kind of 'collective mind that makes feel, think, and act in manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel, think, and act were he in a state of isolation' and the idea that the psychological group is a 'provisional being formed of heterogeneous elements.' Neither of these points interests Freud. He basically assumes that LeBon's ideas are in keeping with his. What he wants to know is what it is that unites individuals into a group, but LeBon isn't telling.
Instead, LeBon is talking about things like a racial unconscious, an 'unconscious substratum created in the mind in the main by hereditary influences.' This substratum is similar in everyone. Individual characteristics are a kind of superstructure of difference built on this common base. This suggests that the base is common, that it consists in the group. The group is again incorporated in the individual. As I see it, the problem with this sort of claim, one manifest in its racism, is an assumption of substantial content. It is insufficiently formal. So a similarity is implied and inserted into what is formally the press and presence of many, of the crowd. Similarity is assumed when all that can be assumed is commonality.
One might expect the argument to be that this unconscious is what manifests itself in the crowd. Somewhat surprisingly--at least Freud is surprised--LeBon's argument is instead that new characteristics, characteristics not previously possessed, are displayed. The first is a sense of invincibility that accompanies a loss of a sense of responsibility. Freud writes this off as not surprising--of course our deepest selves lack responsibility; the crowd enables the individual to 'throw off repressions.' Note, insofar as the repressions that mark the individual are thrown off, it's the crowd that returns. More interesting is the second: contagion. It is kin to hypnosis. The third is suggestibility. I should add that nearly everyone who writes about crowds describes crowds in terms of contagion and suggestibility. We see the language of contagion, for instance, in discussions of the movements of 2011 as well as in networked media.
Freud's next two pages consist almost entirely of long passages from LeBon on contagion and hypnosis. He notes that there is an assymetry in LeBon's account. Contagion refers to members effects on each other. Suggestibility, particularly when understood in terms of hypnosis, suggests something else entirely. Who is the hypnotist?
Before investigating this problem, Freud includes another long quote from LeBon:
Moreover, by the mere fact that he forms part of an organised group, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian -- that is, a creature acting by instinct. He possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings.
Freud approves, finding this helpful for understanding the individual in the group. Again, he seems to me to invert his point since the passage seems to describe the primitive group within the individual, sedimented as the hereditary components of the unconscious.
Freud next turns to the group per se and repeats various elements of LeBon's description, saying that the group is changeable, irritable, impulsive, credulous, incapable of perseverence, desirous, intolerant of delays in the satisfaction of its desire, open to influence, and that it thinks in images. The group is inclined to extremes, obedient to authority, respectful of force, it goes to extremes. It has a thirst for obedience: it is an 'obedient herd.' "It wants to be ruled by force and to fear its masters." At the same time, because it is not ruled by personal interests groups may be devoted to ideals. In short, in groups extremes exist side by side.
Finally, Freud notes that LeBon's discussion of leaders is rather minimal. What he likes in it, though, is LeBon's account of a mysterious power, 'prestige,' as a kind of domination exerted by an individual or idea that paralyzes our critical faculty and fills us with astonishment and respect. Prestige, Freud says, arouses a feeling like that of fascination in hypnosis.
Freud is preoccupied with the leader because he wants to know what it is that ties the group together--the main thing he thinks is missing from LeBon's discussion. His hypothesis is that the answer is love, or emotional relationships. Love holds the group together. The individual gives up his distinctiveness to the group because he wants to be in harmony with its members.
Before I continue we should keep in mind a few things at this point. First, we are talking about groups that range from race, to caste, to nation, to profession, to institution, to crowd. Second, these groups are all considered to be psychological groups. Whether an individual is physically in the group--in the crowd or in an institution--is no different from whether the individual is imagining or feeling himself to be in it--as with the nation or race. There is no difference between whether the individual is in the group or the group is within the individual. Third, the description of the group's behavior comes primarily from LeBon, who takes his description from Taine's account of the French revolution, that is, from descriptions of revolutionary masses.
It would be too easy simply to reject Freud at this point. Better, I think, is to try to get at what's compelling so far. Why, in other words, it might not be completely wrong to compare a professional organization, with one's membership in the imaginary community of the nation, with the experience of being in a crowd. When one thinks of oneself as a member of any group, one is occupying the position of that group towards a specific issue or question. One isn't thinking from one's own personal interests, but from a collective interest. Personal interest is subsumed in the collective. [Incidentally, the problem of the US--which might be the same as the problem of liberal democracy as well as any form of libertarianism--is that the collective is subsumed by the individual; the individual is prioritized.] This is a rather cognitivist illustration. What about something more affective? Here as an example we might think of nationalist responses to the burning of a state flag or perhaps to the invocation of threats. Or, with regard to professional organizations we might think of the way we apply certain standards of 'professional excellence' when we assess matters that we might approach differently under other circumstance ("well, I like X's work, but X is not right for this job").
Are we far removed from suggestibility and contagion? Not if we recall the mysterious 'prestige.' In professional situations we often respond to the fact of another's prestige--which is one of the reasons for double blind peer review. We also often find ourselves rather automatically repeating terms, phrases, ideas that have been suggested to us. I wonder if our often overstated critiques of others' work are reactive attempts to shake ourselves loose from these kinds of attachments. There could be, then, habits of mind that are not fully our own, that inhabit us in ways rather too much like the enthusiasm of the crowd at a football match.
So Freud has accepted LeBon but wants to look further at what it is that ties together members of a group. He has suggested that the ties are emotional--love. To explore this further he turns to the church and the army. What is the intervening step? He says that what is really worthy of attention is the distinction between leaderless groups and groups with leaders. And, 'in complete opposition to the usual practice,' he will begin not with simple groups but with highly organized, lasting, artificial groups, again, church an army -- two groups, incidentally, not mentioned in his summary of LeBon.
According to Freud, church and army are groups that people don't typically choose to enter and that they leave only at high personal costs such as punishment or persecution. Each are headed by an individual (Christ, commander) "who loves all the individuals in the group with an equal love." This illusion of equal love is absolutely essential, Freud tells us. Everything depends on it. Christ stands in relation to the individuals in the church as a kind of elder brother or 'father surrogate.' In fact, because of the equality of members (each shares equally in Christ's love), the church is like a family. Members call each other brothers (and sisters). 'The tie which unites each individual to Christ is also the cause of the tie which unites them with one another." The army is basically the same, with the fundamental difference being that this familial structure is repeated in a hierarchical fashion (sections, units, squadrons, etc). What matters here to Freud is the double nature of the libidinal tie of the group: individual to leader, individual to individual.
The tie to the group is libidinal, strong enough to limit one's narcissism. So, what kind of libidinal tie is it? Answering this question takes Freud to a discussion of the differences between identification and object choice. "Identification is known to psychoanalysis as the earliest expression of an emotional tie with another person." Additionally, from the very first identification is ambivalent; tenderness can become hostility. Freud's example (a nice convergence of identification and incorporation) is the cannibal who only devours those of whom he is fond.
The repercussion of the discussion of identification for Freud's account of the church and the army is that he oedipalize them, that is, present the group as ultimately no different from the family.
The discussion of identification is detailed, detailed in a way that Freud notes has left the riddle of group ties untouched, shifting it over to the riddle of hypnosis. He got to hypnosis via 'being in love.' He explains that hypnosis is not actually a good object to compare with group formation because it is 'identical with it,' isolating 'the behavior of the individual to the leader.' In a group, the individuals have all substituted the same object for their ego ideal and 'have consequently identified themselves with one another in their ego.' (Because Freud is interested in the leader, he addresses the ego ideal and its relation to the ego in some detail; I might have to take this up in a subsequent post. For now, I am leaving it to the side because I am more interested in the group, not in the somersaults Freud does to try to discuss groups in terms of a leader.)
Freud wonders whether it would have been simpler just to talk about a herd instinct (he invokes Trotter, Instincts of the Herd in War and Peace, 1916). But, he says no. What's really at work is the more complex structure he already outlined, the one where multiple individuals identify with one another in their love for the same object (his example is that of 'the troop of women and girls ... who crowd around a singer or pianist after his performance'). Trotter's problem, and the reason the herd instinct doesn't explain groups, is that it leaves out the leader. There isn't a herd instinct. There's a horde instinct. Man is a horde animal, an individual creature in a horde led by a chief.
And so, the primal horde, the originary form that the group revives. Recall the basic characteristics of the group: the dwindling of conscious, individual personality, the predominance of the emotions and the unconscious metal life, the focus of feelings in a common direction, the tendency to immediacy--"all this corresponds to a set of regression to a primitive mental activity." His note regarding the primal horde is even more telling: "The will of the individual was too weak; he did not venture upon action. No impulses whatever came into play except collective ones; there was only a common will, there were no single ones." He concludes that the oldest psychology is the group psychology; individual psychology has only come into prominence from it gradually and in a way that is still incomplete.
Then Freud forces himself to make a distinction and make individual and group psychology co-equally primary. Why? Because of the leader. Yet this reintroduces the problem of individual psychology at another level: how does one who is a member of a group become a leader or how is that after the leader dies there is another who can take his place: "there must therefore be a possibility of transforming group psychology into individual psychology." Freud's answer is nearly nonsensical--he explains how the primal father forced his individual sons into group psychology (denial of sexual access to women; restriction of libidinal ties redirects them toward group). That is, he inverts what he said he was going to explain.
At any rate, Freud argues that the leader of the group is the same as the primal father, which is why the group wants to be dominated or led, why--and he quotes Le Bon here--the group has a thirst for obedience.
The mental differentiation part of the psychic development of the individual involves a separating from the group, but this separating is also an internalization (formation of ego ideal out of which the ego separates). The process is none to stable and liable to shock. Freud notes that it is conceivable that this separation can't be born for long and has to be temporarily undone (festivals). (To be clear, the primary direction of Freud's discussion involves the separation between the ego and ego ideal; I am trying to read it as the separation of the individual from the group. I think that this is fair insofar as the ego ideal is a figure of the group.)
In his closing remarks, Freud returns to the myth of the primal horde: father feared and loved, killed by band of sons, sons fight among themselves for power, gynocracy installed during this period, "some individual is moved to take over the father's part and free himself from the group" -- he was the first epic poet who invents the heroic myth, the myth of the hero who slays the father. The hero claims to act alone -- but folklore reminds us that he is always accompanied by a crowd, like small animals, bees, and ants.
"The myth, then, is the step by which the individual emerges from group psychology."
He also schematizes being in love, hypnosis, and the group. In the latter two, sexual tendencies are inhibited in their aims; the object is substituted for the ego ideal, with the extra element of identification with others in the case of the group.