Violence - International Reflections

Introduction by Monika Pessler

With “violence” as our theme of the year, an issue we are confronted with on so many levels today, from the harmful abuse of our planet, against women and minorities, or in war, the Sigmund Freud Museum continues the dialogue that Freud once started with psychoanalysis and its socio-cultural implications. The digitally available discussion allows us to expand the analogue communication space of the museum, with an exhibition and a conference on the issue scheduled in 2023. The following text and image contributions were written by the members of our academic board of advisors, and are a meaningful and valuable addition to our annual program for 2023: More ...

Annual Theme 2023

On Violence

In 1932, Freud was asked by Einstein, under the auspices of the League of Nations, to consider the question ‘Why War?’ Is it possible to control “man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychoses of hate and destructiveness”? Freud’s response is pessimistic. Violence is at its base “an instinctual component” of the human animal. Directed both against self and other, transferred through the growth of emotional ties and identifications, it becomes a group system. The laws which govern societies or a system’s workings are themselves the products of brute violence: at their worse only shoring up existing power, at their best allowing its new distribution. Women and children, the weak, are the oppressed, Freud underlines. In the Romance languages and in German, but only partly in English, the word violence already contains the word for rape, a violation. Only the strengthening of the intellect, the internalisation of our aggressive impulses, whatever the consequences of that, may lead to a cultural (or civilisational) repudiation of war and human violence. Freud is tentative but holds out a hope.

Picasso’s Guernica evokes the horror, the brutality of war, the terror it holds for women, children, animals. Violence fell from the skies in Guernica in 1937, as it has in all the many wars since then from Hiroshima to Ukraine. Howling women, a prostrate baby, a gored horse, Suffering is indiscriminate. Yet in his visceral expression of the horror, Picasso’s painting is a call for civilisation. Here is what violence does. Think. Abhor it.

Lisa Appignanesi OBE is a prize-winning writer, novelist, and cultural commentator. She was President of English PEN, Chair of the Freud Museum London, and until 2020 Chair of the Royal Society of Literature of which she is now a vice-president. She is a Visiting Professor at King’s College London. Her non-fiction books include Everyday Madness: On Grief, Anger, Loss and Love (2018), Trials of Passion: Crimes in the Name of Love and Madness (2014), All About Love: Anatomy of an Unruly Emotion (2011), the prize-winning Mad Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 (2008); Freud’s Women (1992/2005, with John Forrester); a biographical portrait of Simone de Beauvoir (2005), amongst others. She is also the author of an acclaimed family memoir, Losing the Dead (1999) and nine novels, including The Memory Man (2004, which won a Holocaust Fiction Prize) and Paris Requiem (2001/2014).

Oleksandr Filts lives and works in Lviv (Ukraine) and is not able to write a statement at this time due to current demands under conditions of war.

Oleksandr Filts, Prof. Dr., is a psychiatrist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist who heads the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the Faculty of Postgraduate Education of the National Medical University Danylo Halytsky Lviv. He is also a founding member and president of the Ukrainian Umbrella Association for Psychotherapy. In 1994, together with Austrian psychotherapists, he founded a training project for group psychotherapy, which he still directs together with Liudmyla Samsonova. From 2005 to 2007, Professor Filts was President of the European Association of Psychotherapy (EAP). Working with crises, traumatic experiences and their consequences is one of the many focal points of his work.

Freud, Violence and the Law

Freud:…the attempt to replace actual force by the force of ideas seems at present to be doomed to failure. We shall be making a false calculation if we disregard the fact that law was originally brute violence, and that even to-day it cannot do without the support of violence” (“Why War?” SE, XXII:208-9). These phrases lead me to think of the assault on the US Capitol by Trump supporters on January 6, 2021: a moment in which the rule of law came close to collapsing while violence erupted in the very building designed to create the law. A rare case in which violence was directed against the institution of the law.  

Rubén Gallo is the Walter S. Carpenter, Jr. Professor in Latin American Literature at Princeton University, where he has taught since 2002. He is the author of many books on Twentieth Century culture, including Mexican Modernity: The Avant-Garde and the Cultural Revolution (2006, MIT Press, winner of the MLA’s Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize), Freud’s Mexico: Into the Wilds of Psychoanalysis (2010, MIT, winner of the Gradiva Prize), Proust’s Latin Americans (2014, Hopkins). He is also a novelist and was published two books on Cuba: Teoría y práctica de la Habana (2017) and Muerte en La Habana (2021). His work has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Chinese. In 2020 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

A Revolt Against the Death Penalty

Mohsen Shekari was a 23-year-old Iranian man who was executed on December 8th 2022, after being convicted of injuring a member of Iran’s Basij Militia and “waging war against God”. Shekari's execution is highlighted here also for being the first known to have taken place as a direct result of the 2022 “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests in Iran.

An ongoing series of protests and civil unrest began in Iran on September 16, 2022 as a reaction to the death of Mahsa Amini, after she was arrested by the morality police for wearing an improper hijab in violation of Iran’s mandatory hijab laws.

I believe that what we are observing in Iran, as I write this, is one of the most significant and subversive feminist movements of our times. This feminist movement is one that does not exclude; it does not exclude men, it does not exclude veiled women, various social classes and ethnicities are included in this uprising, which is mainly comprised of women, but clearly not just women. And it is not even age-specific, though it is predominantly composed of very young people, born mostly between 1995 and 2010, the so-called Generation Z. For in this geography it has become blatantly clear that our emancipation is inherently intertwined.

This sense of relatedness and invitation for cohabitation is the nucleus of this uprising, and it is a revolt at its very core against the death penalty and the infinite symbolic layers of such a stand. It is a march towards an ethics of conditions of life.

We take a stand against the death penalty, this feminist uprising takes a stand against the death penalty, Nasrin Sotoudeh the imprisoned Iranian lawyer and political activist takes a stand against the death penalty. Sotoudeh was just awarded the Robert Badinter prize, and in her acceptance speech sent from Prison she reminded everyone that current public opinion in Iran is closer than ever to abolishing the death penalty.

We take an uncompromising stand against the death penalty, not just out of our humanitarian ambitions but because the interconnectedness of us all is blatantly clear, and because as Judith Butler powerfully reminds us, all lives are grievable. The people of Iran say no to the death penalty, stunningly encapsulated in this uprising of an ethics of life, and its conditions.

In the very fabric of the saying “woman, life, freedom”, there is clear connection to life, binding, linking, libido and sublimation … they are not saying we want to die for freedom, they are saying we want to live for freedom: they are taking to the streets, risking their lives towards better conditions of life. A life of dignity, pleasure, freedom and of transformation, all the very derivatives of the life drive.

Iranian people take a stand against the death penalty encapsulated in this uprising, so when Mohsen Shekari is given the death penalty and there is fear of more executions to come they take to the streets…. for inherent within this uprising there is a no to the silent Thanatos, a no that can only come from the recognition of such a drive in every single one of us.

Let me give you the example of my maternal grandfather, not because he was my grandfather but as a metaphor of what I am attempting to elaborate here. He was the district attorney in Tehran before the 1979 Islamic revolution and although he had the death penalty at his disposal he never practiced it, even when it became extremely conflictual and controversial for him. He just did not believe in the death penalty with no ifs and no buts. After the revolution he was to be executed for his close relationship to the previous regime. But the very people who he had refused to sentence to death were now in charge of executing him, and they just could not bring themselves to order the execution of the very man who had spared their lives, so they took his passport and much of what he owned but refused to give him the death penalty. He lived to be 98 years old, and until the very end we aggressively argued and had vehement disagreements about all other political matters, but we were both against the death penalty. It goes without saying that he was also lucky, unlike many others with such ethical stands who were executed, and continue to be executed. This is an uncompromising position against executions for all in any geography under any circumstances.

We take a stand against the death penalty, not because of morality: for through Nietzsche, Derrida, Freud, Lacan and … we have come face-to-face with the precariousness of our sense of justice, the cruelty masked behind morality, and how Kant’s categorical imperative is embedded within cruelty. Through Freud we have faced our inevitable internal death drive, aggression, ambivalence and the reality that pleasure in inflicting cruelty can be masked as moral duty. We can even deeply appreciate and continuously keep in mind Derrida’s assertion that abolitionists, à’ la fin, could be committed to other forms of cruelty, like long and torturous imprisonments. And we cannot deny yet again Derrida’s absolute psychoanalytic stance that maybe for abolitionists – including himself – our stand against the death penalty in a way comes from an unconscious sense of guilt, from the fear of losing our own lives, so in a sense the motivation for abolishing the death penalty comes from our own fears of being condemned. This is all true, but with all my admiration for Derrida, as Judith Butler exquisitely elaborated: that’s not all there is to it. Maybe we also take a stand, the Iranian people take a stand out of a non-humanitarian hospitality, incidentally another Derridean term. Maybe my grandfather took a stand against the death penalty not out of self interest, or any notion of how that stand might save his own life one day but because of a genuine awareness of our relatedness, of the “I” that only becomes possible via the other, out of the sense of being a thinking subject and to know we are all inevitably linked together. I think my grandfather saved his own life the day he took a stand against the death penalty, not because this stand concretely saved his life later on, but because the moment we become the executioner of someone else’s life we are killing a part of ourselves, we are joining the verdict to execute ourselves and our sense of relatedness to the other, and that is no life at all. For to survive a life is drastically different than living a life, and living a life is only possible, via a becoming of the subject through an awareness of the other. We know very well that route has its own set of hells and problematics but it is none the less the only possible route towards becoming a thinking subject.

So my grandfather saved his life long before his life was saved by another, he saved his life the day he elaborated an authentic sense of relatedness and cohabitation. This is the heritage of this uprising, of woman, life and freedom where the Iranian people, and specially the women have exhibited their authentic sense of lineage, of the objectilizing function of the drive, of interconnectedness, of relatedness, of a sense of linking, a march towards life, with an awareness of the inherent death drive, with all its seductions and traps along the way, not because we don’t agree with Derrida’s warnings about these aggressive parts of ourselves but precisely because we have embraced it in ourselves and that of the other, any “other” in your geography and mine. We take an uncompromising stand against the death penalty for in that stand we orient towards not just an ethics of life but one that is cognizant of the crucial signifier of the conditions of life.

We revolt against the death penalty in Iran in this uprising of “woman, life and Freedom” in a separate togetherness, not in the name of sameness but that of difference and all that inherently, inevitably represents. No ifs, no buts, for in the final analysis this is an ethics of the erotic, of love, of life and pleasure with all its set of ambivalences, conflicts and contradictions. For to say anything otherwise is saying no to a part of ourselves that will come back and hunt us for as Freud warned, we must be aware of the illusion of sleeping dogs which are in fact wide awake and barking.

For our lives begin to end, even if we survive, the second that another’s life and their conditions of life are not treated with dignity and grievability.

Gohar Homayounpour

Tehran, December 10, 2022

Gohar Homayounpour is a psychoanalyst and Gradiva award-winning author. She is a member of the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA), the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA), the Italian Psychoanalytical Society (SPI), and the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis (NAAP). She is a Training and Supervising psychoanalyst of the Freudian Group of Tehran, of which she is also founder and immediate past president. She is also a member of the IPA group Geographies of Psychoanalysis. Homayounpour has published various psychoanalytic articles, including in the International and Canadian Journals of Psychoanalysis. Her first book, Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran (2012, MIT) won the Gradiva award and has been translated into languages including French, German, Italian, Turkish and Spanish. Her latest book is titled Persian Blues, Psychoanalysis and Mourning (2022, Routledge). Other recent publications and book chapters include “The Dislocated Subject” (2019) and “Islamic Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Islam” (2019).

Trigger and Trigger Warnings

Freud’s statement after he left the Clark Lectures in 1909 that „America is a mistake” comes back to haunt us today. America has become a nation where more children are killed in a year than police officers, where it has become more dangerous to go to school than to drive a car. It has become easier for a young person to buy an assault weapon than to buy a bottle of beer and yet, more attention is given to someone who may utter an offensive statement than to a person who commits a brutal offense. America may not just be a mistake, but at present it is a country torn apart by its irreconcilable attitudes and attachments to violence.

How can we understand these incongruities and are we obligated to understand them? Sometimes, it may suffice to simply observe the contradictions, since understanding may, as Claude Lanzmann once said, simply be “obscene”. And yet, how it is that nowadays the controls on free thought and speech are more severe than the laws regulating gun control? How is it that university professors are obligated to warn their students with trigger warnings before they introduce potentially offensive material? And yet, no warning signals are given at elementary or middle schools when young men pull their triggers and kill innocent children and adolescents.

When Freud argues in Why War (1932/1933) “… that right and violence appear to us as antitheses” and “...that one has developed out of the other”, he had in mind that “conflicts of interest between men are settled by the use of violence.”[1] If we transfer this argument to the current socio-political situation in the USA, we may come to the bitter conclusion that this conflict of interest plays itself out over the fate and lives of children and the adults’ right to remain young and innocent. While young children are mercilessly killed in schools, adults demand to be treated like sensitive children, insisting to be warned and protected before they hear the harsh and sometimes traumatic truths of life. Something is rotten in the state of America when the symbolic fathers (in the guise of the Republican Party) only fight to protect the unborn children, refuse to vote for tougher gun controls, and produce a generation of young adults who need trigger warnings not to be emotionally bruised.

Jeanne Wolff Bernstein, Ph.D. is the past president, and supervising and personal analyst at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California (PINC), San Francisco. She is on the faculty at PINC and at the NYU Post-Doctoral Program for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. She was the 2008 Fulbright-Freud Visiting Scholar of Psychoanalysis at the Sigmund Freud Museum, Vienna. She is a member and on the Board of the Wiener Arbeitskreis für Psychoanalyse and works now as a psychoanalyst in Vienna. She has published numerous articles on the interfaces between psychoanalysis, the visual arts and film. She is currently working on her book on Edouard Manet, Enframing The Gaze.


[1] Sigmund Freud (1931/32), Why War?, in: The Standard Edition vol. 22, 204.

Hands of V.

  1. The virgin sheet of paper in front of my eyes suggests the possibility of violence.
  2. A line drawn by hand on the surface of paper is the committed violence of differentiation.
  3. Violence is in human hands; it based on language, language which is a virus carrying the possibility of violence.
  4. Violence belongs to the other side of the symbolic matrix; passage à l’acte is an act of violent transgression of social bonds.
  5. The mirror surface assembling my image and reflecting it as my Doppelgänger brings another violence.
  6. The narcissistic agency of Ideal-Ich with its vertical identifications with the leaders of humankind is violence.
  7. Mass-media as narcissistic protheses are violence of desingularization and desubjectivation. And this process does not occur without the involvement of human hands.
  8. Controlling gaze and media voices belong to the imaginary Other of paranoiac violence.
  9. “Is” is violence. Hands off.

Victor Mazin, Ph.D., is a practicing psychoanalyst. He is the founder of Freud's Dream Museum in St. Petersburg (1999) and an honorary member of The Museum of Jurassic Technology (Los Angeles). He is the head of the department of theoretical psychoanalysis at the East-European Institute of Psychoanalysis (St. Petersburg), and associate professor at The Department of Liberal Arts and Sciences of St. Petersburg State University, honorary professor of the Institute of Depth Psychology (Kiev). He is also a translator from English and French into Russian, and was editor-in-chief of the Kabinet journal and member of the editorial boards of the journals Psychoanalysis (Kiev), European Journal of Psychoanalysis (Rome), Transmission (Sheffield), Journal for Lacanian Studies (London). He has published numerous articles and books on psychoanalysis, deconstruction, cinema and visual arts.

Supreme Injustice

It is early on a  Monday morning in the summer of 2022 after a weekend in which television news programs  and social media were relentlessly ruminating on the Unites States Supreme Court ruling of the Friday before. I open my Zoom window to start the session with my psychologically insightful and high achieving female patient. She is in her sixties and starts by sharing her reaction and associations to the Supreme Court taking away the constitutional right to abortion. This judicial decision abandons almost 50 years of precedent. It paves the way for at least 24 American states, possibly more, to ban reproductive rights.

My patient is outraged and in agony. Gone is her usual melodic voice. Once upon a time, she was a Catholic nun and a social progressive. She understood from working with young people, minorities, and people with limited incomes how disproportionality and violently oppressive laws against abortion can affect women. She is not familiar with Sándor Ferenczi’s 1929 essay on “the unwelcomed child,” or the relational ideas of Jessica Benjamin on maternal subjectivity and recognition, or sociological research. Yet, she has great compassion for others. It’s not a reaction-formation. It comes from a deep place in her heart. On a personal level, she is worried how her daughter-in-law’s body and family might be affected by the long reach of the government. She is incredulous at the glibness of the supporters of the new ruling and their perverted religious arguments in support of the Supreme Court. “How could they be so idiotic and callous!“, she says. From my perspective as her analyst, her reactions are additional evidence of how culture and society saturates individual subjectivity.

On a daily basis, women face many complex decisions. In our modern world, they can face the decision of whether or not to terminate crisis pregnancies they did not plan, did not want or cannot continue for reasons ranging from desire to health concerns. The decisions often take on violent dimensions when anti-abortionists or governments trample human rights. Accessing safe, legal abortion is a fundamental right. International human rights laws and treaties hold that denying women, girls, and pregnant trans people access to abortion is a form of discrimination and jeopardizes a range of health concerns. United Nations human rights committees regularly call for governments around the world to decriminalize abortion in all cases and to ensure access to safe, legal abortion in certain circumstances at least.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not mention reproductive rights per se, but many of its sections are foundational to them. For example, Article 1 – the right to life, liberty, and security of person – supports proper pre- and postnatal care to reduce maternal and infant mortality, the freedom to choose whether and when to have children (and with whom), the right to live without fear of sexual (or other) violence, and the right to refuse medical or traditional treatments (e.g., hysterectomy, female genital cutting). Yet, many of the world’s women, including women in some developed Western nations, lack reproductive rights or have limited access to educational information and medical services they need to make decisions and thus exercise the rights their governments have guaranteed.  

The prestigious NGO Human Rights Watch holds that reproductive rights are human rights, including the right to access to abortion. States’ obligation to provide women, girls, and other pregnant people access to safe and legal abortion is part of their core human rights responsibilities. As Human Rights Watch has stated in amicus curiae briefs to high courts in countries around the world, international human rights law and relevant jurisprudence support the conclusion that decisions about abortion belong to a pregnant person alone, without interference or unreasonable restriction by the state or third parties. Their arguments have been received by the courts in many countries such as Brazil, Columbia, South Korea and most recently by partner organizations in the Unites States.

As I write, Indonesia's parliament has approved a new criminal code. This new code  bans anyone in the country from having extramarital sex. Sex outside marriage will carry a jail term of up to one year under the new laws, which will take effect in three years. Human rights groups say the new provisions will disproportionately impact women, LGBTQ people and ethnic minorities. The moral injury inflicted on women is immense. It’s highly likely that in the largest Muslim country in the world, abortion decisions will be affected by this criminal code. Naturally, it follows that all people of whatever gender and/or sexuality will lose their freedoms to one degree or another.

Psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic psychotherapists are familiar with the dilemmas inherent in the decision of whether or not to terminate crisis pregnancies. The decision is of the most intimate kind. It involves women’s bodies and is not an easy one. It involves the emotional and private lives of people. Depending on the culture and society of the women, it can be a highly conflictual, guilt-inducing, and shameful decision. Of course, clinicians must always be conscious of their own values and it goes without saying that they must be open to possible blind spots. But is there really an argument about the best way to protect autonomy, human rights and reduce maternal mortality and morbidity? In my opinion, morality and misogyny must be challenged.  

Psychoanalysis supports awareness of one’s inner world and its psychodynamics. It is about subjectivity in the context of self and other. In other words, it is about psychological liberation. Human rights support liberation from the other direction – the external, real world. They complement inner liberation. By extension, reproductive justice, including the right to abortion, is also about freedom. Any wrecking ball targeting this freedom is a supreme injustice.

Spyros D. Orfanos, PhD, ABPP, Director and Clinical Professor, New York University (NYU) Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis; Senior Research Fellow Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Queens College, City University of New York; Fellow of the American Psychological Association and past president of the Society of Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Psychology (39) of the American Psychological Association (APA), the Academy of Psychoanalysis of the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), and the International Association of Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy (IARPP). Dr. Orfanos practices psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, teaches, supervisors, and publishes internationally. In 2016, he co-editor the special supplement of Psychoanalytic Psychology (APA) on “Psychoanalysis and the Humanities.” In 2017, he founded the NYU Human Rights Work Group (HRWG) which he partnered with Physicians for Human Rights and the NYU School of Law. HRWG provides mental health services to asylum seekers, Guantánamo detainees, and Afghanistan university refugees and students trapped in Kabul. In addition, he is completing a series of psychoanalytic studies on the Greek composer and activist Mikis Theodorakis (1925-2021).

Violence - Trauma - History

In Freudian thought violence is inherently related to trauma. Freud did not focus on the immediate impact of experiences of violence, but on the delayed traumatizing effects in either repetition or recollection of a ‘primal scene’. In Moses and Monotheism, Freud uses this model of the psychic temporality of (sexual) trauma to analyze repetition, repression and remembering in the history of a people ‘traumatized’ by repressed, inaccessible past scenes of violence. His thoughts gave impetus to contemporary philosophical reflections on collective trauma through past experiences of violence. But his ideas also provoke the speculative question what current ‘violent’ acts have the potential of traumatizing the humanoids that will walk the earth in a future hundreds or thousands years from now. What is the ‘history we make’ for future generations? Does it consist of the ‘events’ we – narcissistically – identify as ‘historical’? In an age of climate change, extinction of species, pollution and the production of junk this is an important question.

Herman Westerink is Endowed Professor and Associate Professor for philosophy of religion at the Center for Contemporary European Philosophy, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. He did his PhD at the University of Groningen and wrote his professorial dissertation (Habilitation) at the University of Vienna. He has published many books and articles on Freudian psychoanalysis, sexuality, subjectivity and religion. Amongst others he published a monograph on Freud’s theories of the sense of guilt (2009), a monograph on and text editions of the first edition of Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (2016, 2021, with Philippe Van Haute). Also, he published a monograph on Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality (2019). Recently he published a monograph on Freud’s metaphysics of trauma (2022, with Philippe Van Haute). He is co-editor of the book series “Sigmund Freuds Werke: Wiener Interdisziplinäre Kommentare” (Vienna UP) and of the book series “Figures of the Unconscious” (Leuven University Press). He is member of the International Society for Psychoanalysis and Philosophy (ISPP/SIPP) and its Freud Research Group.