Transference and News

In life and public performance, and in creating forms of fiction and nonfiction, we all do the same thing: we manipulate the psychological acts of identification and "disidentification" in our audiences, to get the responses we desire. The forms of identification that we evoke are primal responses that we all have to each other all the time. Watching a fictional television story or listening to someone in conversation or reading a news account, we typically spontaneously identify with some of the people and characters we perceive, based on the fact that they have characteristics we would like to have and that we perceive them as like ourselves and that they manifest behaviors which invite us to put ourselves in their shoes. These acts of identification take a basic form: we react as they react or as we think they will react, in our emotions and many of our thoughts. If a character on television grimaces in disgust, we have the urge to grimace in disgust; if a character is paralyzed with fear, we have the urge to run for them; if a couple melts into each other's arms, there is a third party there -- use -- melting into their arms, as well. Identification also consists of the fact that we go through thought processes like theirs or thought processes that are about what it is like in their shoes.

Performers in everyday life and in public life (which is to say, media) and the creators of stories, are forever playing on these urges to identify, evoking our tendency to attach ourselves emotionally to themselves and their characters. They similarly play on what, for lack of a better term, will be referred to as disidentification. they want us to reject some people and characters, to experience hate or repulsion toward them. All of this is based on the primitive emotions of early childhood, and our urge to take in and spit out; and our perception of good and bad selves and others.

These primal acts of identification and disidentification bear important connections to our power relations with each other. We can identify from below, for example, in which case it is as if we are children identifying with parents. We can identify from above, looking empathetically down on others. We can identify in an equal relation, as if those we identify with are peers, siblings, or ourselves.

These primal acts of identification and disidentification are also bound up with acts of credit and discredit. We tend to credit those we identify with and identify with those we credit. And those who trespass on the rights of those we identify with evoke our hate, our disidentification and are discredited in our eyes. Indeed, the very act of perceiving a person or character (or groups of person or characters) to be trespassing on another's rights can cause us to identify with the victim.

Much depends on how we define trespassing, of course, based on primal, narcissistic, perceptions of the boundaries of the self, as these perceptions are shaped by culture. But our response to these acts of trespass is the same as if it had been done to us -- we have a primitive and spontaneous desire for the perpetrators to be, not only stopped, but punished. The same primitive emotions that cause us to want to strike back when we are injured and put down cause us to want to strike back when those we identify with suffer this same fate.

Performers. in everyday life and media, and the creators of stories, intuitively understand all this, based on the emotionally- and drive-saturated cognitive schemas that make up their own minds. They use this, often tacit, knowledge to manipulate and influence their audiences. First, they seek for us to have a primal identification with them; they want to bind us to them so that a connection, a sympathy will exist in which we will react as they do and see the world as they want us to see it. Story-tellers, of fiction and nonfiction, want us to be drawn into their world view, to see the world through the eyes of the story. In a sense, they become parents we identify with; and, in a sense, we internalize their view of things by seeing events through their stories.

Once we do, they can then manipulate and play on our reactions. They can evoke our acts of identification and disidentification, causing us to see some people and characters as fellow suffers, heroes and saints, and others as wrongdoers or pathetic souls. They use the full repertoire of image manipulation techniques, crediting and discrediting in symbolically rich depictions, to evoke these responses. Journalists write outrage stories about the persecution of victims, in which they get us to hate the perpetrators and put ourselves in the shoes of the victims. They evoke primal responses of sympathy and hate, and a desire for revenge. Politicians give speeches that "demonize" opponents, to accomplish the same thing. All are busy creating a world full of "us" and them" in which "we" are good and they are bad.

It is only when we intellectually lift ourselves out of all this, and see the degree to which we are normally immersed in these responses, that we can begin to think critically about it, and enlarge our freedom. Then we can see that these responses do give us a kind of information about the world. But they are also the reactions of a primitive side of ourselves, the emotional brain if you will, that drives us and weaves a spell of illusion around us in which we see the world through a haze of our own feelings. And we begin to see that these are tools of manipulation, relied on by those who often want to evoke emotional responses in us that they themselves don't believe in, to influence our behavior.

* * * * * * *

In creating fiction, authors spin out characters and situations that represent the good and bad selves and significant others of their early childhood. The creation of heroes and villains, all the stories about battles and overthrows, the constant assignment of blame, the efforts to evoke empathy, identification and hate, and to engage in ridicule, replay the story lines embedded in their minds. Audiences then experience these psychologically-rich depictions according to their own psychodynamics.

In the news media, we see the same thing. Journalists perceive the situations they find themselves in, in terms of the conflicts of early childhood. They then tell stories about these that are full of characters and situations that represent the people and situations of their own childhoods. These disguised depictions ride piggyback, as it were, on the actual people and situations which are avowedly being described in the stories. And, once again, audiences experience these psychologically-rich depictions according to their own psychodynamics.

What we see going on in here is a direct line of communication from the unconscious of authors to that of audiences, which share many of their essential psychodynamics. Authors and journalists know how many audience members will react, because they share their dynamics, as well as their culture and many of their values, and, thus, they create their stories, often without conscious knowledge, to evoke certain responses. One might almost say they take the role of the other, outside of consciousness, to achieve their desired effect.

Before it can ever be complete, therefore, media criticism will have to understand how psychodynamics affects the way journalists perceive and interact in situations; how psychodynamics ends up getting expressed in stories; and how it affects the reaction of audiences.

One of the most important childhood issues journalists often reenact has to do with the child’s jealousy of the power of adults. Put simply, the job puts them in a situation that many unconsciously perceive in terms of early childhood. Here, the politicians play the parents and journalists play the children.

Like parents, politicians sit in the center of power; they have prerogatives, they are admired, sought after, in control. By contrast, journalists sit on the sidelines and record. Like children, they are frequently frustrated by their own powerlessness, by the way they feel reduced in size, and by the way they are marginalized. They yearn to take center stage and take control. Like children watching parents, they are often affronted by the way politicians make bad decisions, misuse power, mislead the public and govern with so little regard for the public good or common sense. Time and again, young reporters discover they are appalled by what they see. And time and again they experience a profound frustration at their own inability to use their position to expose what is going on. Here the yearning for power and justice become one - "If I was in charge, things would be different..." But then those who yearn to take power, from children on up, always tell themselves they will govern more wisely than their intended victims.

Oedipal and generational desires to bring down authority and take its place are usually in full operation. The prize is the prerogatives of the position itself, and the experience of being in the inner circle of power and attention, although fantasies of stealing sexual partners undoubtedly operate as well. The meeting behind closed doors between powerbrokers is one of many parental bedrooms. The innumerable secrets journalists are perpetually trying to expose are the secrets of the parental bedroom and of the distinction between men and women. Journalists circle around, wishing there were some way they could get inside.

The audience participates vicariously in these Oedipal dramas as it identifies with the reportorial-avengers who bring down politicians, and as it laughs along as politicians are reduced in size by belittling coverage.

Tellingly, reporters often experience the thrill of victory after they destroy a public figure’s credibility, discover incriminating evidence about him or expose a secret. That a knock-out punch or a winning move has been scored is obvious to anyone who has seen the congratulations and excitement in newsrooms over some of these victories.

Not surprisingly, it is not uncommon for reporters to feel as if they are children talking to adults when they deal with politicians. In some instances, they may well be close to children, as young reporters cover older, shrewder and richer public officials.

This generational battle, embedded in the mind, plays a central role in the contemporary news media. But interactions between journalists and those they cover can repeat any of the real and imagined relationships of childhood. To understand how this works, we have to recognize that in the early years of childhood we develop mental images of ourselves and significant others as good and bad, competent and incompetent, worthy and unworthy, admirable and ridiculous, and so on, based, once again, on the binary pairs of values. Later in life, we can reenact the essential issues from childhood in which any part of our selves is imagined to interact with any part of significant others.

Relationships replay rebel sons and threatened parents, admiring sons and admired parents, competitive siblings, good selves blaming bad selves, demanding mothers and compliant children, seducers and seduces. Interactions are kept from psychodynamic anarchy by two factors. First, situations that are similar to experiences of the past will evoke the fears and desires associated with those experiences, so that many people will have similar reactions. Second, people have a remarkable way of fitting into each other's fantasies, engaging in transference dances in which each side acts out a complementary role. Some such dances, including those involving Oedipal issues, play a dominant role for so many people that they take on the character of a significant cultural dynamic.

Amid this multiplicity of potential selves and others, there are a number of basic power positions including phallic battles between equals, as when the celebrity television journalist aggressively interviews the politician; sadistic assaults from above, in which journalists in a position of power mercilessly beat and expose their victims; and attempts by the powerless to pull down giants from below, such as when Lilliputian reporters traveling in packs, backed up by political opponents, pool their effort to bring Gulliver down. None of these are mutually exclusive, of course, and since they refer to the way we experience situations, different players and audience members may experience the same situations differently. And each of these may have a sexual component, so that phallic battles may be attempts by each side to force the other to play the receptive partner, merciless beatings may replay what the child imagined to be the sadism of sexual relations and so on.

When we start getting into specifics, we discover that there are a multiplicity of overlapping ways that relationships between journalists and politicians can express psychodynamics. Reporters may attack because to not attack is experienced as a castration, or as losing their will, or as an act of sexual submission. The reporter may believe there are only two options: winning or losing, raping or being raped. He may yearn to experience himself as phallic. He may want to expose unworthy parents because he is immersed in replaying the Oedipal struggle or he may project his own forbidden desires onto the politician and then expose them. He may seek revenge for past slights, based on the principle articulated by W.H. Auden: those to whom evil is done, do evil in return. He may experience attacks as a form of sex and the excited reaction of the intended victim as a kind of sexual response.

Journalists may submit to politicians to protect themselves from retaliation, including real acts of retaliation that take on significance because they are experienced as sadistic rapes, castrations, humiliations and counter-attacks by authority figures. The reporter who submits may be protecting himself from knowing about his own aggressive or sexual desires or engaging in sexual and aggressive actions that he unconsciously fears will provoke a counter attack. He may be in flight from knowing what it is like to feel phallic. He may fear engaging in any of the fantasies actions described above.

As a result of all this, journalists may regress to a state of oral dependency on sources, allowing themselves to be fed information they use uncritically. They may then be in a state of symbiosis with the politician. Of course, the symbolic child at the symbolic breast can also bite at unexpected moments, and then deny intending to do so.

Reporters may submit because they unconsciously fantasize they are playing the receptive role in heterosexual or homosexual intercourse, to escape feared retaliation for aggressive desires, in which case regressive sexual desires are actually a defense. Submitting may also mean fulfilling an sexual desires.

In terms of anality, providing positive press may be experienced as giving a gift, just as holding it back may be the stubborn refusal to produce. Negative coverage may be a way of spewing dirt. Reporters can get into anal battles with politicians (and editors) over who controls their stories.

Journalists may respond masochistically to their aggressive desires, making errors or other missteps that focus attention on their own flaws rather than on the individual they are trying to expose. They take the rap for the politician, to cover for parents or their own desires. Many children learn to deflect feared retaliation by engaging in self-punishment or auto-humiliation, tripping themselves up, spilling something, failing at a task, making an embarrassing remark. As an adult, the journalist may sprinkle an expose with one or two crucial errors, thereby giving the target ammunition to use against him, surrendering, punishing himself and confessing to the crime of aggressive and sexual desires all at once, while providing a limited point of attack in the hopes of saving the larger self from destruction. Masochistic acts against the self may provide gratifications, allowing the reporter to become a center of attention and/or hold consultations with upper level editors or discredit his own newspaper, providing a porthole for the release of aggressive desires.

When journalists engage in these acts of masochistic self-destruction, they are breaking the rules of journalism to get the desired effect. By contrast, journalistic sadists and flunkies, at least those who survive in the business, are better able to disguise their motives and actions, and stay inside the rules of the game.

Politicians frequently act masochistically as well, providing the press with much of its opportunity for discrediting attacks. A prime example is Gary Hart, who is a laboratory of psychodynamic motives in public life. Hart was determined to display his guilt and make himself an object of press attacks, which he would then denounce and blame for his fall.

Intermixed with these issues over sexual desire and aggression are two narcissistic desires described by the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, which, for purposes of this analysis, can be described as the desire to be admired and to have someone to idealize and admire. "Look at me," says the child, as he performs a simple trick. A Kohutian would say that he is seeking the confirmation of grandiose fantasies of himself. At the same time, every child has an inherent need to look up to, idealize, and participate in the greatness of a larger adult.

In general, enhancing image is a way of enlarging the admired selves of our selves and others. Discrediting attacks reduce and devalue.

Reporters frequently attack and expose so they themselves will look important and powerful and be admired, by politicians, peers and the public. News stories may be their symbolic bodies. Seeing their own stories displayed in a prominent place and knowing others admire it can revive childhood desires to be admired and exhibitionistic yearnings to have the body and genitals admired and appreciated. (We are actually back to psychosexual development, here.) Some journalists are their own best audience, falling in love with their own handiwork, reading and rereading it, admiring the contours of the margins, the placement on the page, the headlines, the accompanying photographs, which are all by virtue of placement drawn into the piece. The article has become themselves, admired and loved in the mirror of the mind.

Then an editor cuts off part of the article and sticks it on page 8c, and the journalist may experience rage at the castration, and the diminution and deflation of his self. The child has said ``Look, look'' and has then been belittled or put down.

Reporters may also pull their punches and provide good publicity to stay in the good graces of their imagined, idealized parent figures.

Politicians often use the journalist's desire to be admired as a tool. They flatter reporters and stroke fragile, inflated egos. Journalists are often desperate for praise, particularly if, as in many instances, they feel isolated and receive little feedback from editors or the public. The politician's praise can become a motivating force and he can be experienced as the audience for whom the journalist is writing.

Politicians also play to the journalist’s desire to participate in their imagined greatness by engaging them in confidences and interacting with them. They bind the reporter to their inner circle and, through long conversations, the reporter comes to adopt their view of events. When the politician-friend suffers a discrediting attack by another politician, the journalist may get angry as if he or a family member were attacked and come to their rescue.

Politicians who fail to stroke narcissistic yearnings, withholding information or praise or slighting reporters, often find themselves attacked in retaliation, because they have aroused feelings of rejection, reduced size, and narcissistic rage.

The Kohutian desires to admire and be admired and the urges toward sex and aggression interact in myriad ways, as they do in all human psychology. The desire to admire the politician and disgrace him may coexist, or those who fail tests or withhold may be attacked after an initial honeymoon period, or some routine from childhood in which expressions of love are followed by urges to disgrace may be acted out over time.

Journalists may be motivated by another set of dynamics revolving around desires for independence from parents and fear of independence, by the desire for symbiosis and the fear of being engulfed. The important story can be a declaration of independence, in response to the politician's attempts to use fear or favor to enforce submission. It can be an attempt to overcome fears of challenging parents or an attempt to threaten a politician into taking the journalist into the fold. Journalists can attack to escape closeness, which, it is feared, may result in loss of identity or the sudden experience of forbidden sexual desires or feelings of strength that could encourage the reporter to take risks.

Submission can be gratifying because the reporter imagines himself saying yes to loved authority figures who want them to go along with their desires. The journalist may attack out of a need to sour every relationship early, to forestall being rejected for complex reasons that may or may not be related to issues of independence. He may act sadistically because it is the only way he knows how to be independent or because every expression of independence and assertiveness brings out sadistic desires.

Of these various possibilities, it seems obvious that when it comes to attacks on public figures, primitive fantasies of castration and sexual assault are at play, combined with fantasies of humiliation and smearing with feces. At the same time, there is a transfer of guilt -- "It was that person who committed the crime, not me." Fearing castration and degradation as very young children, during a time when they could easily be taken in by their primitive, many people carry these issues to one degree or another for life. The news does them a favor that lessens anxiety -- it transfers guilt and punishment to someone else. Audiences who are so inclined get to enjoy the spectacle of seeing what they fear happening to someone else. And they get to tell themselves the target deserves it, to justify their sadistic enjoyment of the person's suffering.

Back to Image and Action