Three Versions of Truth: Hysterical Truth, Psychoanalytic Truth, and Revolutionary Truth

Helpful blog if your struggling with defining the Truth! Not convinced that psychoanalytic truth and Badiou’s Truth are incompatible…


It seems to me that there are really three versions of Truth on the table today. The first version of Truth is reductive. The second is destructive, and the third is productive. All three are responding to a similar threat: the threat of absolutism/universalism and the equally potent threat of relativism. To begin with, there has been an awkward conflation of universalism with absolutism. For the purposes of this blog, I will avoid the debate. But I will state up front that I do not share the view that universalism is inherently absolutist. Moreover, I do not share the view that universalism, as a position, is necessarily hegemonic or unethical. So, for the purposes of this blog, I prefer to use the word absolutism over universalism.

The reductive position is best exemplified by John D. Caputo. Caputo discusses the shift in the status of Truth from the Enlightenment to Postmodernity…

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Drone warfare reveals psychological tensions of living in the digital age

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This blog draws attention to how today’s digital society transforms not only the material world (e.g. how wars are fought), but it also changes our psycho-social world i.e. how people relate emotionally to their inner-selves, to each other, and to the social contexts in which they live and work.

The blog draws on the example of US Air force drone pilots, operating from a home base in the USA, attacking and killing enemies ‘virtually’ then returning to their homes after ‘work’. As reported in a recent NY Times article[1] cited in this blog drone operators are suffering stress on an epidemic scale so that flights are being cut back.

Our emotional state also impacts on the material world, in this case drone flights are reduced due to high stress levels, and perhaps many errors are made (which interestingly are not connected to stress levels in this article) and also families are affected. In particular the blog reveals the problematic of working between the virtual and real world, and how this complicates our emotional and psychological experience of being present and absent.

Drone Operators

Drone pilots are worn down by the unique stresses of their work “We’re at an inflection point right now,” said Col. James Cluff, the commander of the Air Force’s 432nd Wing”

Putting aside the question of whether or not USA drone attacks are ethical, rational or desirable, I want to explore the impact of using computer technologies and operating in the virtual domain, and how easily we make wrong assumptions about the psycho-social dynamics that occur. This recent NY times article challenges 3 assumptions that are made, and two other points are raised by myself.

Point 1.   Assumption  Physical distance from the warzone makes the killing less real, and more easily dealt with for the ‘pilot’

Correction 1. Physical distance doesn’t make any significant difference, in fact it may be worse. In some ways the drone operator is closer to the killing and gore, because unlike an airline pilot who sees the damage from a great height and speed whilst flying over the strike area, the drone operator revisits the site and the video replays are studied in close up detail to assess the strike. Whilst the drone operator is thousands of miles away, emotionally they may be a lot closer to the consequences and violence inflicted on others by their actions. This is particularly horrifying when innocent civilians and children or their own men get killed in error.

Point 2   Assumption . Virtual’ killing mediated through a computer screen is less ‘real’ and therefore less stressful than when in the warzone.

Correction 2. The killing appears to be no-less real in its impact on the operators.

 “A Defense Department study in 2013, the first of its kind, found that drone pilots had experienced mental health problems   like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan”.

As mentioned in point 1. the close up reviewing of the killing can make it more real, and the assumption that it’s like a fantasy war-game seems to underestimate our human capacity to differentiate between reality and fantasy games.   Perhaps in reverse when a susceptible person plays fantasy war games they may be more vulnerable to shoot up a school, or commit a terrorist act because their real and virtual worlds are blurred, but mature drone operators seem as equally vulnerable to stress as ‘real’ pilots, suggesting that they know the difference at a deep level.

Point 3. Assumption Being close to family and community gives the drone operator more support.

Correction 3. The stress of transitioning on a daily basis between war and Walmart’s, killing at work and the kids school run; seems far too difficult to manage psychologically. The problem is increased a) because whilst air pilots are deployed to a war zone for a limited time period, the drone operators are ‘perpetually deployed’ there is no looking forward to an end or a break, b) because being deployed with ‘a band of brothers/sisters’ in a war zone provides certain rituals and camaraderie that helps contain the stress.

“Having our folks make that mental shift every day, driving into the gate and thinking, ‘All right, I’ve got my war face on, and I’m going to the fight,’ and then driving out of the gate and stopping at Walmart to pick up a carton of milk … and the fact that you can’t talk about most of what you do at home…. “

Point 4. The impact of killing whilst being free from danger oneself

This final point isn’t mentioned in this NYT article, but I hypothesize that it might also be a factor in the drone operator’s stress.  Pilots and soldiers in a warzone put their lives at risk and see colleagues at risk. Drone operators unleash violence upon others (and sometimes on innocent others) when their lives are free from danger. Does this make the killing more difficult to rationalize internally? Even if consciously they believe their killing is an act of a ‘just war’, perhaps unconsciously it is less easy to psychologically adjust to killing from afar. Does killing in rational, clinical circumstances, without the danger and risk, without the adrenalin of being in the warzone, without fear, make those doing the killing more psychologically vulnerable to an unacknowledged guilt, a dissonance between what is believed and what is felt, leading to anxiety, stress and depression?

Point 5. Techno-Utopian War without Casualties

The Drone operators may also be experiencing the fall out from the techno-utopian idea that a clean, digital war can be fought without casualties (‘our’ side) which represses and disavows the reality that war is always ugly and violent.   When something is repressed it always returns, but not in obvious ways. The return of the repressed here may occur in three ways: 1) ‘Friendly fire’ and killing of their own soldiers by error, 2) the unleashing of arbitrary terrorist acts on civilians back home, that are almost impossible to defend against. 3) the repression returns in the form of internalised ‘violence’ i.e. stress, depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness as seen in the Drone operators. There are always casualties!


Presence and Absence – the psychological confusion of our times

Critics against drone attacks, and those who planned the drone operations believed that drone operators are less psychologically present due to their physical absence, but it seems much more complex than this. Freud writing about melancholia says;   “It must be admitted that a loss has indeed occurred, without it being known what has been lost[2]

Freud theorized that when mourning and grieving doesn’t get fully processed, this leaves the person in a debilitating state of melancholia.  This might help us understand the psycho-social dynamics that occur when we are constantly working between the real and virtual. When working in the virtual domain, loss occurs in many ways sometimes due to physical separation and sometimes due to more nuanced factors.   Whilst we feel the affect of the loss, we rarely recognize what is actually lost in translation between the virtual and physical domain. As Freud says ‘we experience the feeling of a loss but are not sure what has actually been lost’ and therefore we cannot mourn it which leaves us with the experience of melancholia.

Loss can also be enhanced by presence. Just because we are not physically present, doesn’t make us absent.   Physical absence can also enhance our emotional presence, and our virtual presence can evoke an affect of loss. For example the teenager in constant contact with parents or friends on cell phones or facebook, are virtually more present but may experience the loss of autonomy, freedom and personal space to be themselves.   Another example is when skyping my daughter when working abroad. Our live presence on the screen to each other is both a joy, but at the same time it enhances the absence i.e. the loss we feel because we are apart and know it more because of the screen presence. This experience of loss and absence of her physical presence, in turn paradoxically enhances her emotional presence within me. She becomes more present to me and I then experience greater loss of not being able to hug her, and of my absence from the family and home is ever-more present in me. This cyclical reinforcing of emotions that dance between presence and absence, virtual and real is a condition of our digital times.

It seems the Drone operators are also experiencing a loss and melancholia that becomes somatised to depression or other mental health conditions. Perhaps a pilot fighting in the warzone processes their killing and their own personal losses of being absent from family more fully because they have a tangible context to work this i.e. they share an experience of killing, danger and loss of fallen comrades which they collectively mourn (and if they don’t they often suffer when returning to civilian life).

The drone pilots loss is unrecognized and unnamed, they are at home so it’s easier right? I would suggest their loss is of being active with comrades the warzone- the adrenalin, the fear, the danger, the comraderie and the rituals that enable soldiers at war to contextualize the meaning. Also there is the loss of being separate during their ‘war work’, away from family concerns. The absence of the family is tough when deployed, but perhaps the presence of the family is tougher as it raises such inner conflicts and tensions.   The Air Force didn’t account for this in their planning.  The assumption was that their absence from the war zone would make their killing work less stressful, so they planned perpetual deployment, which meant relentlessly flying drones on potential killing operations. It seems the reverse may be true; their absence from the warzone may make the killing more present to them. Finally; the unconscious guilt or dissonance that occurs when killing the other, when not in danger one-self perhaps inflicts another hidden loss. A loss of humanity and of self-esteem at an unconscious level, that cannot be integrated or spoken of, as it breaches the agreed narrative of fighting righteous war.

We have a lot of work to do on understanding the dynamics of our unfolding hi-tech world and its psycho-social meanings and implications. The blurring between the real and the virtual worlds are creating new dynamics that are not easy to read.   Assumptions about our emotional and psychological experience of physical distance and virtual engagement need constantly re-working in this digital age. The meaning of presence and absence are key to our understanding of the fluid boundaries between virtual and real.

Leadership Lessons

What are the implications for working virtually with international or regional teams?

Take time to think through the impacts of virtual work on employees and families, both locally and globally (especially review the wider network of suppliers, contractors etc)

Coaching Lessons

When coaching leaders, test their assumptions when discussing virtual work.

Explore with them their own personal experience of presence, absence and any melancholia/stress in them or the system that needs working with.

Also explore what impacts of virtual – distant work may be hidden or disavowed. For example, what violence is done due to physical absence? E.g are manufacturing workers in Asia violated because they are not present in the USA or Europe….. and if so, in what form does or will this repressed violation return to the home base?


[2] Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, in Collected Papers, Vol. XIV, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1957) p. 252.

Leadership, Projections and Power: Psychoanalytic insights


I have just been elected to a new leadership role, ‘President-Elect’ of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations (  Whilst delighted and honoured, this also raises issues about taking up this public leadership role. It made me revisit some earlier work I have done on how leaders project onto others, and how ‘followers’ project on to leaders. Having an understanding of these psycho-social dynamics and constantly reworking them is the essential work for any leader.   This blog is an extract, from the chapter I wrote on ‘Leadership and Diversity’ in my book ‘Leadership a critical text’, and it reflects on my leadership role when Director of Coaching at Lancaster University Management School.

To cite this work: Western, S. (2013). Leadership: A critical text. Sage. pgs 92-100

I write as a white, heterosexual, English male. I carry with me the history, social and cultural meanings, stereotypes, power and privileges and disadvantages, associated with this position. I had ‘working-class’ school education that offered a very poor education.   I dropped out of school and didn’t get to university. I accessed higher education in my thirties and now have a two Masters and PhD, which now adds to my privileged status. This experience gives me a heightened awareness and sensitivity to issues of class, the elitism of education, and less personal experience of issues such as disability.   When working as Director of Coaching at Lancaster University Management School, taking on a role and the title; ‘Dr Simon Western’, I had a heightened awareness of the powerful unconscious projections I received. By projection(s), I use the term in relation to the object relation’s school of psychoanalysis. Projection occurs when powerful feelings are located in another person. It refers to Melanie Klein’s (1959) original work on splitting, projection and introjection. Powerful feelings (often unwanted feelings) are split off from the conscious mind, and can be located in another person. These can be feelings of love, idealisation, or perhaps hatred or envy. For example parents often project their unfulfilled ambitions on their children. An angry boss may project his anger onto his personal assistant, making him/her angry. The boss retains a safe distance from his own rage, and the assistant (if they introject or take in the projection), acts out this anger.

These projections towards an ‘academic’ clashed with the internalised sense of ‘uneducated’ self I had grown up with. These projections arise because of what I represent to others, in my body, personality and role.   Depending on the personal emotional and developmental histories and social location of others, will depend on how they respond to me. This is a two way process a dynamic that is both conscious and unconscious. I have observed that these projections are triggered through five key sources, which I believe are also applicable to leaders working in other contexts

Sources that stimulate Projective Responses’ in leaders

1.     The Institution and Context: In my case this is the University, which carries with it the history of academia and elite knowledge, which I represent in the ‘here and now’ when standing in front of a lecture theatre.   Each leader will have a specific context that ‘speaks through them’

2.     ‘Embodied and Cultural Self’: For example, my whiteness, my sexuality, being British, my accent denoting working class and my region, my maleness,   age, ‘able-body’; each individual carries in their embodied self, a cultural self that stimulates reactions in others.

3.     Personality:   Personality traits, ‘charisma’, quietness, calmness intellectual capability, elements that make us distinctive. Each personality will trigger some people’s feelings in powerful ways,   positive and negative and in others they will have a bland reaction.

4.     Expertise:   I teach Coaching at Masters Level drawing on my psychoanalytic and systemic background. Coaching and therapy can carry the mystique of the ‘shrink’ or of a secular priesthood and with it the fear/curiosity of being able to read the hidden unconscious or people will expect me to be a caring holding figure for them.   The expertise signifies meanings, a physics or maths lecturer will stimulate different reactions, an engineer or nurse different reactions again.

5.     Role Power As Course Director I have the power and authority to assess students, and position power and influence in the lecture theatre, my voice may be given more weight than others. Leaders must recognise power relations, if they are to overcome bias discussions or worse work in ‘silent organizations’ i.e. organizations with employees who speak but say nothing in public of importance or dissent.


Leadership lessons

Leaders and followers should reflect on these five areas when in role at work, to begin to understand what they carry with them, how they use it, what biases they have, and how others react to them.

Coaching lessons

When coaching leaders, try and help them see how the ‘social speaks through us’. How they and their teams, will carry assumptions, perceptions and emotions pending on their personal and social experiences, and project these on others, and introject these from others. Try and raise awareness of this as you coach the leader, in particular with relation to power dynamics.

An extended version of this can be found on Simon Western

and the full version in Leadership a critical text Western S,  Sage 2013,

Apple Watch and the Neurotic Age

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I joined millions of viewers online to see Apple CEO Tim Cook launch the new Apple Watch, and I admired both the extraordinary technology and the ‘classic’ Apple design aesthetic. I reflected on how we become so blasé about new technology, when only a decade or two ago this product would have seemed like science fiction. A watch that you can ask questions and it answers you! A watch that is also a phone, and an email device, and that can automatically pay your grocery bills without using a credit card. It also opens up new possibilities for health research and individual health and well-being monitoring, which I will return to. This watch is marketed by Apple as their most intimate product yet. To cite Tim Cook ‘ “It’s a revolutionary way to connect” “Apple Watch is the most personal device we have ever created. It’s not just with you, it’s on you.” 

Its not just on you, its in you!

“We gain instant and intimate contact with others through our machines, and we also experience intimate contact with our machines. New technologies and machines have become emotional attachments in our lives, and there is a reciprocal relationship between machine and human” (Western S. 2008) I thought Tim’s claim that ‘it’s not just with you, its on you’, only went part way to describe the real aims of this watch (building on previous technologies). Apple and other hi-tech companies, are working on the premise that their products (hardware and software) are so intimate and personal that they are not only on you but ’in you’. What I mean by this is that you internalize these objects, so that they affect your ways of being in the world.

It is not what computers do for us; its what they do to us (Turkle, S. 2005)

Once these objects are ‘in you’, they become part of you, and this is really a great business model for Apple and other tech companies; but what does it do to us? When this happens, you not only have cognitive and affective attachments to the brand and it’s products; you function like a cyborg (Haraway 1991). Technology becomes part of your emotional, bodily and cognitive self. Increasing numbers of us, (particularly the young ‘digital natives’) are so shaped by today’s mobile technologies and social media, that they cannot imagine a life without being in constant relationship with their Facebook, Instagram, google search engine, emails or whatever is their preferred object of desire. The smart phone has become an appendix to the soul, something we feel lost without. Now the Apple watch takes this a step further, it not only acts as the transitional object that we reach for to transition us to our virtual world, it becomes part of us. It is attached to us, and we become emotionally and bodily attached to it. Furthermore; it interacts with us; we read the watch face, whilst it reads us. It doesn’t wait for us to initiate communication, the watch becomes a super-ego for us, nagging us, prodding us, reminding us to stand up if we sit for too long, telling us our heart rate and stress levels, when  to exercise, to have a health check, to go to an appointment, and as more apps are included we will be nagged about many other things.

From the Narcissistic Age to the Neurotic Age

Christopher lasch famously wrote about the culture of narcissism (Lasch 1979), claiming our weak-selves constantly seek external validation, and how self-centeredness becomes normalized. Today I think a cultural adjustment has taken place, we seem more connected to others than ever, and perhaps these are ‘weak ties’, but I don’t see narcissism as being the real problem today. A change has occurred from normalizing a culture of narcissism, to making neuroticism a cultural norm.

Apple and other hi-tech companies no-longer just interpret our needs and provide product solutions; they create an ever-increasing neediness, a dependency and a regressed state of being, with a heightened obsessive anxiety. When we can no-longer decide for ourselves that our back aches and we need to stand up, we are in serious trouble. Whist Apple claim this watch will be a great benefit to health, putting us more in control of our own health and well-being which is clearly a good thing, this watch at the same time helps produce the neurotic age, and will surely increase mental health and social problems. For those with obsessional, neurotic or paranoid traits, this technology is a nightmare, as it amplifies their anxiety-ridden behaviour.  For others and young people in particular, it actually produces the neurotic age, shifting normality towards being obsessional, regressed, slightly paranoid about health matters, losing contact with others, being liked and constantly monitoring ourselves and our relationships.To realise where this state of affairs comes from, one needs only to turn to the words of Tim Cook who said proudly about Apple in a recent interview

We’re always paranoid. We live paranoid. And– we always want the very best product. And so if we’re not beating someone   else we’re trying to beat the thing that we have currently shipping… Everybody here lives on edge (

And he says it in a way as if that’s how life should be lived, as if paranoia and being obsessive are good qualities, and  when there is no-one else to beat, beat yourself, and living on the edge (of neurosis and falling apart) becomes the new normal.

So there we have it.   Wonderful advances in technologies, but worrying times ahead unless we find ways to discern how to regain autonomy from the machine that constantly nags us like a overpowering super-ego, that gets inside of us and produces a constant stream of ‘engagement anxiety’ that makes us feel alive, yet in a kind of obsessive, deadening way.

Apple make surplus profits from being fantastic at what they do, (and by using cheap labour, and avoiding taxes).    They create excess, both in terms of profits and also in the libidinal economy that surrounds their products. Their own company is proudly paranoid, obsessive and neurotic, and they project this into their customers, who lap it up, as they are now affectively attached to this way of being.

The problem is that this surplus engagement with technology has the by-product of excess obsessional, anxiety.  This is making our culture a neurotic age.  An age when neurosis is normative, countered only by the fads of mindfulness, and the yoga class,  with readily available Apps to remind you to do your daily sun salutation, or to stay in the present… perhaps there really is no escape from the neurotic age.

Leadership Lessons

Time to find the space to discern with trusted colleagues what technology is doing to you, your team and your organisation.  Analyses the benefits and the costs, in terms of time and emotions.   It is my guess that the technology obsessiveness of the workplace is costing the economy billions;  hyper-emailing for a start is such a drain on time and energy.  It is also has a greater cost to the libidinal (emotional economy) of your organization

Coaching Lessons

Challenge the leaders you coach to take a hard look at how humans and non-humans interact. As a coach learn how to discern with your client and practice this process.  Be courageous and challenge the obsessiveness and paranoia that may help with short term gain and productivity but is socially undermining.   Help them realise it really is not ethical or cool to run an organisation this way.

Lasch. C “The culture of narcissism.” NY.: Warner books (1979).

Haraway, D. J. (1991). Simians, cyborgs and women : the reinvention of nature. London, Free Association

Turkle, S. (2005). The second self: Computers and the human spirit. Mit Press.

Western, S. (2008) Cyborgs and Entanglements: Locating Ourselves in a Strange Land. Conference Paper ISPSO, (published on

The UK Green Party Surge (but don’t mention the environment)


The UK Green Party Surge (but don’t mention the environment)

Psychoanalytic insights into the disavowal of climate change

In the UK, there is a ‘Green Surge’ where party membership grew by 13000 members in one week, taking the party in January to 46,000 overtaking other parties such as UKIP and the Liberal Democrats in membership. “If the Greens’ growth rate were to continue, they would overtake the Tories (on around 134,000 members) toward the middle of March, and Labour (190,000) by the general election.”

There are many views as to why this is happening, disillusionment with the major parties and the desire for new politics across Europe, that is showing swings to far left, far right, and to independents and new parties such as Podemos in Spain.

The Green Surge has happened as the Greens have shifted their political message away from their core mission of the environment (green politics), to issues of justice (left politics).

Climate Change Denial

The trouble with selling the Green environmental message, is that it is too overwhelming, too distant and frankly too despairing i.e. we are all doomed!   Peoples everyday concerns outweigh a future catastrophe in the making, and who wants to think about future catastrophe anyway…its too devastating to contemplate. Climate change denial is one form of dealing with this, but Psychotherapist Paul Hogget discusses a more subtle form of denial that psychoanalysts call disavowal, that allows us to turn a blind eye, whilst knowing what is happening.

Psychoanalysis since Freud has linked denial to perversion. Besides the outright repudiation of disturbing reality that we see in psychosis there is a much more subtle and pervasive form of denial, called disavowal, in which one part of the mind sees whilst another discounts what is seen. The more subtle and pervasive form of denial accepts some or all of the evidence but finds ways of carrying on undisturbed.

Psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe agrees with Paul Hogget ….

that climate change denial is not best understood at an individual level, but needs situating within a perverse culture of denial………Disavowal is the territory of fraud, distortion and finding more enduring ways of not facing the truth and hanging onto our illusions. Disavowal can severely undermine our thinking, particularly being able to think rationally and with a sense of proportion.

So we have a Green party riding high on leftist-justice politics, and parking the climate change issues at the back of their mission bus. Politically this is astute and clearly working, disassociating themselves from the very thing they are most concerned about, but that the rest of us cannot bear to think about.

The trouble is that climate change and environmental issues are becoming political no-go areas, even by the Greens. However, through applying psychoanalytic thinking and understanding the psychodynamics of our collective disavowal, we can perhaps to begin to find collective ways to overcome the anxiety and fear. Paul Hogget in another paper says ‘The quandary we face is how to sound the alarm without being alarmist’….. but perhaps the task is not to sound the alarm at all, but to begin from a different place. As Lenin said to succeed we need to, “ ‘begin from the beginning again’ over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task”.

A new beginning would be to abandon the castrophe warnings, and to connect the here-and-now challenges and peoples direct concerns with sustainable futures.

The Greens have such policies, such as building a green economy that not only works for a sustainable planet, but also provides jobs, new infrastructures, collective engagement of communities etc. So they need to find ways of communicating this. In my book Leadership a critical text (Western 2013) I write a chapter on Eco-leadership,,_Chapter_12_The_Eco_Leadership_Discourse.pdf

and cite examples of businesses and social enterprises which link their task of short term success in the present, with the task of creating a sustainable future. What surprised these leaders was how their new focus on sustainability and ethics, produced very unexpected gains. I once met Ray Anderson the late CEO from Interface, who led an exceptional turn-around in his global carpet business aside from doubling profits his vision of zero-waste in the company, led to raised morale, improved retention of talent, huge savings, and most of all an innovative culture. Pushing to make radical changes in sustainability, led to innovative changes in organizational structure, new business models and new products.

What has become clear to me, is that the only way to escape denial and disavowal, is to offer here-and-now opportunities to change things.

Leadership lessons

The by-product of being courageously ethical, leads to surprising rewards for all.

Coaching lessons

When faced with a leadership or organization engaged in disavowal, it doesn’t work to argue rationally!  As coaches we have to find creative ways to undo the leaders attachments to their disavowal. This always entails offering them some other attachment for their desire!

The Pope, the Big Other and the Network


It’s a very, very tough leadership role to be negotiating international political agreements (Cuba – USA relations) and then act as the spiritual leader and preach to millions over the Christmas period, and trying to achieve this and much more in an organization that is morally bankrupt, filled with stifling bureaucracy and is actively undermining you. This is what is happening to Pope Francis, and during his Christmas greeting to the curia (the Vatican civil service), he made a very public condemnation of their morality and behaviours, naming their 15 sicknesses (see below), which undermine the work of the church.

Commentators point out just how dangerous this is, as the curia holds immense formal and informal power as reported in the Irish Times: This is more or less the same curia blamed by the College of Cardinals in great part for Pope Benedict’s unexpected resignation last year”

The leadership question posed here is where does Pope Francis find the resources and courage to challenge the curia so openly, and where does he believe the dynamic for change will come?

I propose that one way to look at this is to examine virtual and lateral dynamics, a) Vertically- how the Pope interprets the ‘Big Other’ in relation to the church, and how this mirrors the structures and culture of the Vatican; b) Laterally- how the Popes life-long engagement with grass-roots poverty, social movements and liberation theology, gives him a much clearer understanding how real change takes place in the 21st century through lateral not vertical dynamics.

The Big Other[1]

We all relate to a Big Other, sometimes we are aware of this, and sometimes not.

Religious fundamentalists and secular fundamentalists identify with a Big Other that is omnipotent, that offers one way truths, coming at us top down in a vertical fashion, that are non-negotiable. Religious fundamentalists identify the Big Other as an all-powerful God, usually a God of prohibition, a “thou shalt not” God. Secular fundamentalists place a total faith in a Big Other of science and rationality, an ideological force and discourse that cannot be questioned, but does not have a claim on the other social-cultural forces that shape our lives, such as nature, beauty, love, poetry, and spirituality.

These secular and religious fundamentalists fight culture wars between themselves, thinking each other crazy, but in essence they are two sides of the same coin as they both place their total faith in a Big other that espouses a dominant ideology that cannot be questioned. Anything outside of the realms of their dominant ideology is forbidden territory.

What Pope Francis seems to be aware of is that this vertical relationship between the Church and its omnipotent Big Other (God) has to change. This uni-lateral relationship of an all-powerful God of prohibition, who passes judgment upon us, is not the Big Other the Pope recognizes. The Catholic church mirrors its structures and culture on this way of relating to the Big Other, creating an all powerful, centralized and hierarchical church that has got out of control. The sexual abuse scandals are one manifestation of this and the cold manipulative curia is the another. Top down omnipotent power relations always lead to abuse and dehumanized behaviour. What this fundamentalist mindset does is create a Big Other than cannot be questioned, that is non-relational. It is an ideology that becomes normative, and unquestionable – whether the Big Other is scientism, or an omnipotent God; danger lurks.

What Pope Francis is doing is reclaiming a relational Big Other. In doing this he challenging contemporary western society that is in denial of the Big Other, claiming to be free of authority from above, which has led to narcissism, hedonism and fantasmatic ideas about individual freedom and our ability to attain pure enjoyment (what Lacan calls jouissance).  He is also undermining the omnipotent uni-directional Big Other, that resides in the Vatican at present.

The Pope is evoking a Big Other that each of us can relate to, the Big Other retains authority and elements of prohibition and limitation (it is not a cuddly sweet God!) but the relationship with the Big Other is dynamic, and it is a Big Other who can love as well as punish, and be generous as well as prohibit.

Facing limitations and relating to authority outside of the self, is vital for a healthy society. Doing it in a way that is relational and dynamic, is a 21st century way to relate to the Big Other and this transforms the fundamentalist mindset, and then the structure and culture of the organization changes as well. This is a reording of the libidinal economy of an organization. The Popes message is to the Catholic church, but also to secularists with similar fundamentalist mindsets.   It challenges us to think beyond our dominant ideology, and be prepared to engage in dynamic relation with authority, knowledge, and with that which is beyond us.

The Network

My hypothesis is that Pope Francis is also placing a greater faith in the digital and social revolution of the network society and the rising importance of lateral dynamics.  Alone he cannot transform the Catholic church or the curia, but as a leader-from-the-edge (the first outsider from the Americas to take the role) he understands the power of new social movements that are emerging in all walks of life.  He understands liberation theology and the grass-roots power that subverts hierarchy and utilizes community and lateral networks to create change.

Pope Francis seems to be working on a dual task

1) To trust, encourage and influence the power of the laity. To unleash the talent, commitment and love of the millions who are working for a better world. Believing change will come from the lateral and bottom up, not top down.

2) To transform the relationship people have with their Big Other, to recognize a Big Other that demands prohibitions, and yet also can be generous, loving and redemptive. Most importantly, a Big Other that is relational – not uni-directional, omnipotent and punitive.

This is radical theology, and yet it goes beyond the theological. The same principles apply to the secular world that either lives in pretence that the Big Other is dead; or worse, takes a fundamentalist position and puts scientism as a new unquestionable faith. Denying the Big Other merely displaces the problem elsewhere, for the Big Other is with us whether we are religious or secular, the task is how we relate to the Big Other, and not to be condemned to follow it either consciously or unconsciously either as an omnipotent God, or as an omnipotent ideology.

Lessons for leaders: 

Go through Pope Francis checklist and see how you, your leadership team and your organization fair against this list.

Lessons for Coaches

What is the coachee, and what are you bringing into the room in terms of hidden belief systems, and where do you imagine hidden authority lies? i.e. what is the unspoken Big Other in the room?


In full: Pope Francis’s 15 ‘ailments of the Curia’

1) Feeling immortal, immune or indispensable. “A Curia that doesn’t criticise itself, that doesn’t update itself, that doesn’t seek to improve itself is a sick body.”

2) Working too hard. “Rest for those who have done their work is necessary, good and should be taken seriously.”

3) Becoming spiritually and mentally hardened. “It’s dangerous to lose that human sensibility that lets you cry with those who are crying, and celebrate those who are joyful.”

4) Planning too much. “Preparing things well is necessary, but don’t fall into the temptation of trying to close or direct the freedom of the Holy Spirit, which is bigger and more generous than any human plan.”

5) Working without coordination, like an orchestra that produces noise. “When the foot tells the hand, ‘I don’t need you’ or the hand tells the head ‘I’m in charge.’”

6) Having “spiritual Alzheimer’s”. “We see it in the people who have forgotten their encounter with the Lord … in those who depend completely on their here and now, on their passions, whims and manias, in those who build walls around themselves and become enslaved to the idols that they have built with their own hands.”

7) Being rivals or boastful. “When one’s appearance, the colour of one’s vestments or honorific titles become the primary objective of life.”

8) Suffering from “existential schizophrenia”. “It’s the sickness of those who live a double life, fruit of hypocrisy that is typical of mediocre and progressive spiritual emptiness that academic degrees cannot fill. It’s a sickness that often affects those who, abandoning pastoral service, limit themselves to bureaucratic work, losing contact with reality and concrete people.”

9) Committing the “terrorism of gossip”. “It’s the sickness of cowardly people who, not having the courage to speak directly, talk behind people’s backs.”

10) Glorifying one’s bosses. “It’s the sickness of those who court their superiors, hoping for their benevolence. They are victims of careerism and opportunism, they honour people who aren’t God.”

11) Being indifferent to others. “When, out of jealousy or cunning, one finds joy in seeing another fall rather than helping him up and encouraging him.”

12) Having a “funereal face”. “In reality, theatrical severity and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity. The apostle must be polite, serene, enthusiastic and happy and transmit joy wherever he goes.”

13) Wanting more. “When the apostle tries to fill an existential emptiness in his heart by accumulating material goods, not because he needs them but because he’ll feel more secure.”

14) Forming closed circles that seek to be stronger than the whole. “This sickness always starts with good intentions but as time goes by, it enslaves its members by becoming a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body and causes so much bad scandals especially to our younger brothers.”

15) Seeking worldly profit and showing off. “It’s the sickness of those who insatiably try to multiply their powers and to do so are capable of calumny, defamation and discrediting others, even in newspapers and magazines, naturally to show themselves as being more capable than others.”

[1] the Symbolic big Other also can refer to (often fantasmatic/fictional) ideas of anonymous authoritative power and/or knowledge (whether that of God, Nature, History, Society, State, Party, Science, or the analyst as the “subject supposed to know” [sujet supposé savoir]

The orgasmic joy of work


Two recently released films (Sept 2014) The Great Seduction and Two Days, One Night, reflect diverse social insights into the relationship between work, unemployment and well-being, and also how ideology functions today. (Note this blog reveals the films endings.)  Lets begin with the Canadian film, ‘The Great Seduction’ which sends a message that work is the answer to our desires and the cure for our symptoms.

In brief, the story is about a small idyllic Newfoundland fishing village, where the fisherman are unemployed because the fishing industry has collapsed due to global pressures. Their only hope for work is attracting a petrochemical factory to their harbour, but they face stiff competition from others. As part of the conditions to win their bid, they need to attract a resident medical doctor to their town.  The film title ‘the great seduction’ refers to their opportunity to seduce a young handsome urbanite doctor, who is stuck on the island for a month, to stay.   The comedy ensues, they persuade the doctor to stay, the factory is built, they are all employed, families are reunited and everyone is happy. So far so good.   What I found interesting was that at the end of the film, we see a box shaped factory sitting on their picturesque harbour, inside the workers dressed in white uniforms laughing as they work, and the film ends with a shot of the harbour town and from each house smoke rises from chimneys along with the sound of sexual orgasms from each house.

The message is clear;  by building an aesthetically displeasing factory overlooking a beautiful traditional wooden-housed harbour, and when the fisherman work all day in a petroleum factory (which they know contributes to the destruction the natural environment – this is said in the film), the result is orgasmic happiness.    Whilst I appreciate that getting welfare cheques and being unemployed is not good for the soul, does working in a factory really bring such joy, especially when for generations your town-folk have been fishing on the open seas? This film would have flown past the censors in communist Soviet Union, because as a piece of propaganda, idealising the work ethic under the cover of a harmless comedy it was perfection itself, and the west would have derided this as pure ideology being fed to a naïve brainwashed proletariat. Yet we see this movie as escapist fun, and is described as ‘adorable’ by a New York Times critic. This is precisely how Slavoj Zizek claims that ideology works in democratic countries today.   He says: “It is when we think we escape it (ideology) and are in our dreams, at that point we are within ideology[1].”  In the cinema we escape, and at this point when we relax and enter our fantasy world, mainstream cinema deposits the dominant neo-liberal ideology within us.  The ideology that speaks through this film is clear; to find yourself unemployed is sinful and harmful, it will destroy your soul. To work, albeit as unskilled labour in a factory brings pure, even orgasmic pleasure (what Jacques Lacan called jouissance[2]).

The powerful French movie, Two Days, One Night, offers a different view of work.  This film depicts how (factory) work is not necessarily pleasurable, but it does has value in economic terms i.e. it pays some of the bills, and it offers a place of sociability between workers.   The film also shows also how workers are set against each other in terms of global capitalism and how this is translated to local workers. Sixteen workers in work team were told by their boss they would only get their annual bonus if they vote to sack a colleague who is returning to work after a depressive illness…its their democratic choice.  The film shows the woman suffering from depression, going from home to home to persuade her colleagues to vote for her, and give up their bonus. She breaks down often, at one point attempts to overdose on her anti-depressives/sedative pills, but her husband pushes her on and encourages her, as they need the work to keep their home.   It captures the stress of low paid workers, and shows the dilemmas and pressures each family faces, for example, many had second jobs at the weekend, working seven days a week and needed their bonuses to get their kids through school. The film concludes with the vote which ends a draw, meaning that she didn’t get the majority she needed so was to be sacked.   However, the boss intervenes and congratulates her on persuading so many to support her, and tells her she can keep her job, but with a cruel twist. This would be in place of a workmate on a temporary contract who he will ‘let go’. This same person voted to give up his bonus to support her, and knowingly risked his own job as a consequence. She refused, walked out of the office, phoned her husband and said ‘we put up a good fight didn’t we….. I am happy’. It was the first time we had seen her happy in the film.

The message in both films is about work, both narratives shared the same problem of globalisation impacting on traditional jobs. The fishing village suffered due to globalised fishing problems – low stocks, quotas etc. The French factory suffered due to Asian competition and couldn’t compete due to French labour costs. The ideological difference however is stark. The Great seduction message is two-fold: 1) any work is better than no work…. in a globalised world take what you can. 2) It idealises work as the ‘kernal of the real’ the thing that fills the gap, taking away our existential angst, enabling us to be fulfilled and ultimately find pure orgasmic joy.

The French films message is that globalised capitalism produces insecure and low paid work and life is pressurised and tough. This drives disturbing behaviours that can undermine our humanity and communities. However, the ideology that speaks through this film, is that true contentment comes from something beyond the dignity of labour and security of work.  Only if we we can hold to our human values, to an ethical stance we will find a deeper existential happiness and meaning to our lives.

Which version do you believe?

Lessons for Leaders

Check out the ideology that is hidden in your dreams! Also what is hidden in the workplace culture? Are the vision statements real, or are they part of a fantasy culture that aims that keeps employees compliant?

How in a globally competitive world can leaders create more humane workplaces?

Lessons for Coaches

As a coach do you hold onto your values even if it means turning away work? Or do you collude with a bullying boss to keep your own job?

What is your role in co-producing a fantasy world at work.  One example I see is when hyper-positive coaches preach the message “you can achieve anything you desire?” Clearly, a narcissistic fantasy on the one hand, but with a hidden message that is harmful…… “if you don’t achieve what you desire, its because you personally are not working hard enough at it”.

[1] The perverts guide to ideology

[2] Jacques Lacan was French Psychoanalyst, and jouissance is his term for a fantasy pleasure that is unobtainable.