I was terrified this weekend, presenting my Freudian analysis of New Zealand’s copious war experience to a room full of historians. Did I show it? Nah, I wore my tiniest mini-dress and leather jacket, hair long and three inch heels. I figured so long as my theory stands out, I might as well stand out too. It was great to see old friends from the Stout Centre, where I’d been a Fellow, researching the work ten years ago. Here’s what I presented…



Rethinking War Conference, Victoria University Wellington

Saturday Nov 30, 2013

The subject of this presentation is in fact Part 4 in my book on the larger subject of the colour black and its cultural significance to New Zealand’s national identity.

A quick confession: I am not a historian; I’m a social scientist, namely, I am a political economist and a symbolic interactionist. So the story of the war is not really all that important to me. Rather, I’m fascinated with the value of war for a society, and the value of particular bodies in war time. And I’m also fascinated in a society’s belief in the story of the war; this belief is something that is very positive in terms of constructing a collective sense of nationhood.

I question the way war is taken for granted in the story telling – in our history books – as a “bad” thing. It is cast in darkness, it is a black time and it has black consequences.

blogwarmemorialBut in New Zealand, we’ve been very eager to be in a war, all sorts of wars, in almost every decade of our short existence as a nation. Why would society relish, in real time, like it was an opportunity, going to war, when in history, it is painted so darkly?

There is no doubt war changes everything. It devastates “normal” life and transforms what normal life is, forever afterwards. It is a social death of the everyday, toward a liminal state of crisis.

But perhaps war, or maybe crisis in general, is for a collective, an unconscious demand. A cultural “must-have”. Or maybe this is not generally true, maybe this is just true for collectives that are screwed up, dysfunctional…

…because there are some collectives that hardly ever go to war. While here in New Zealand, according to James Belich, it has occupied a huge portion of our short history and been one of the major causes of death for young men.

So I put forward a few hypotheses that as a social scientist I then explore in my book:

Firstly, that New Zealand, being young and very boyish in its infancy, is culturally quite a screwed up little addition to the Commonwealth family. By the time of the Great War its settler population – for the longest time outstandingly gender imbalanced – had no doubt established bloodroots with the land, via brutal taming of it into farmland, after brutal confiscations of it from Maori. But it retained strong social and economic bonds to Great Britain also. One can almost see, from a God’s eye view, a Motherland and a Fatherland for the people of the Antipodes.

So Secondly, perhaps it was this cleavage of identification for the young boyish nation, between its gorgeous but staunch, barely tamed Motherland, and its distant, Imperial, demanding Fatherland, that ultimately screwed it up, culturally.

And Thirdly, being so inbetween cultures – not yet truly cognizant or capable of its own – New Zealanders relished at chances to express this crisis of identity.

Now there are fascinating anthropological theories of the state of being “in between”. They are theories of liminality. I focus largely upon Victor Turner’s theories when it comes to race and rugby relations in New Zealand.

But for the Great War, I devote some time in the book to exploring Freud’s theory of repression, which introduces an interior space, the subliminal.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

Freud was profound for trying to capture the experience of the body that at once navigated social space with others, while also navigating its own primal or pre-social drives and impulses. Repression was a function, he argued, in order for this navigation between social and primal states to operate without everyday life effectively driving us mad.

Individuals function properly only when they cleave their social self – a conscious and interactive state – from their “unconscious” drives. Repression occurs moment by moment, continually throughout our day, preventing certain impulses from becoming operative.  The ones that are socially unacceptable – the sexual attraction to a twelve year old, for instance, or at the turn of the century let’s say, the infatuation with a Maori sex worker. Urges that might naturally promise pleasure for the colonial body on the frontier, but might be banned from acceptable British behaviour.

This is an internal conflict between the potential pleasure of a pre-social appetite and the potential ‘un-pleasure’ of the outcome in the social environment, if allowed to be expressed.

Freud believed repressed impulses moved in unconscious circuitries throughout the body. True to physics, Freud argued the unconscious impulse did not simply disappear. The greater any ‘damming up’ of an impulse’s satisfaction, the more inspired it would be to “proliferate in the dark” in order to find a form of more adequate social expression. The term “adequate”, by the way, can be measured either by how socially appropriate expressions are for the immediate or present context, or by how sufficiently far-removed they are, symbolically, from the primal fixation that was initially repressed.

This theory is hugely significant for symbolic interactionists. It kind of gives us the rationale for why in social interaction we experience such a prolific need to use symbols, metaphors, poetic and artistic license, and ultimately never stick to what we mean.

What on earth, you may be asking, does such an individually oriented framework have to offer any cultural theory of the Great War?

Well Freud himself speculated that his theory of the individual psyche could be just as relevant, if not moreso, to the body politic, the collective of psyches that constituted society at large. Now as a political economist, I like the way it equates each human body within a society to an unconscious impulse, while it enables us to see society itself functioning as a whole, or singular entity all of its own.

When it comes to the Great War, one of the first global events, this capacity to grasp both an external state operating among others and an interior culture in conflict with itself over its allegiance and identity, is rather helpful I think.

The Motherland By William Adolphe Bouguereau 1883

The Motherland
By William Adolphe Bouguereau 1883

It’s hard for me to take New Zealand’s participation in the Great War out of a much larger Imperial context in this regard, and so I want to take you back to New Zealand’s Land Wars, where I think this identification with the Motherland was first realized in a national way for Pakeha subjects.

When people go to war over their homelands, the bloodshed is to protect spiritual links between the land and human memory. The bloodshed provokes a greater symbolic sense of belonging, of debt-keeping, with the homeland. Death that comes via war over a land is, mythically, a great symbolic act of belonging and membership – of settlement – for any people.

But the Land Wars of the 1860s confused the cultural sense of belonging, or merged it, amongst Maori, pakeha settler, and some troops sent from Australia and Britain to represent the Crown. It was no the ‘homeland’ of these latter groups, who mostly would have been born elsewhere, but it certainly would have settled for them anyway, a sense of belonging. They might have expressed it as a ‘right’ to ownership, but that’s a matter of symbolic interaction.

The crisis of those Land Wars would have symbolised to settlers that they were bound to New Zealand now, through violent bloodshed. In this experience was born a new identity crisis. Bloodshed on this land, Maori’s Papatuanuku, symbolically rendered a new identity, and left unsettled what their original lands in the north – “back home” – now meant to them.

The original homelands, remember, had given them all reasons to leave. I venture that Pakeha’s experience of war in the 1860’s dichotomised the notion of homeland for Pakeha New Zealanders. Fighting for rights to own land and forge settlement inspired primal sentiments of belonging, and yet the political and economic establishment of a British colony and govt simultaneously renewed a sense of “back home” and the patriarchal sublimation of the land to a colonial identity.

I posit a gendered mythical quality to the dichotomous states of belonging. They are parental and very differently positioned in terms of authority. The Motherland is won and then domesticated, and very corporeal, underfoot. The Fatherland is the victor, the authority, patriarchal but largely conceptual, not tangible anymore although certainly real.

I argue this dichotomy of cultural authority came to characterise the national sentiment.

By the late 1880’s cultural duality arose between the abstracted British “way” and the contingent New Zealand context. New Zealanders observed the patriarchal traditions and heritage of Great Britain and related with it symbolically and loyally. But their experience of belonging here was expressed more cathartically. Rugby became popular right then and rapidly, its club formation swept the landscape and nationalised in a matter of only twenty years, during the Land Wars.

My theory is that rugby became so rapidly popular because it was a repressive mechanism. It cleaved the proto-social liminal impulses of a chauvinist culture of mostly men on the frontier, from a newly self-conscious colonial settlement. This is reflected in the demarcations of population on a rugby field: all the players are men, while a whole community watches safely from the sidelines their spectacle.

New Zealanders found, collectively, a primal repression by way of rugby’s play, as it emerged from  Land Wars, which of course is what rugby’s play dramatises: each game a symbolic re-enactment  of the inconclusive outcomes of those violent battles for territory.

The New Zealand Natives Rugby Team, 1888

The New Zealand Natives Rugby Team, 1888

So New Zealanders observed the patriarchal traditions and heritage of Great Britain and related with it symbolically. But then their experience of belonging here grew, and expressed itself cathartically each Saturday in war-games on the field.

By the “black Eighties”, despite economic hardship and poverty, New Zealand mustered a national rugby team to go on an international tour. Rugby’s potency and popularity had grown in the face of New Zealand’s otherwise extreme social hardship.

Historically, New Zealand appeared subnationalist or dominionist in relation to Great Britain, “smaller and junior” as Belich puts it. But young New Zealanders born here cultivated a distinctive identity from their English chum counterparts. There emerged a popular sentiment that a ‘better Briton’ was born from this land.

Freud called the emergence of this sort of conflict in identification an Oedipal complex. I argue young, boyish New Zealand shared the same features of this complex when forming its national identity.

National identity rested tentatively on this question: am I from ‘back home’, or am I already home?

It’s possible that the term ‘better Briton’ developed two different meanings related entirely to whether you stood outside New Zealand or in it. On one hand, New Zealanders compared the lifestyle of citizens ‘back home’ and might have assured themselves the journey down under had bred an evolved manhood, culturally. But such sentiments threatened the status quo of the imperial endeavour and had to be repressed. Another more non-threatening perspective could be found by comparing the patriarchal sibling relations of other commonwealth nations; ie compared to Britain’s other Imperial children, New Zealand might be the youngest, the smallest, but nevertheless the best.

Because it spread just as rapidly throughout all the British colonies, Rugby served to sublimate the more dangerous Oedipal form, and cultivate on a global platform this safer Imperial sibling rivalry between commonwealth nations.

A dangerous set of symbolic associations, therefore, had arisen from the Land Wars that were by no means resolved. The symbolic relation between rugby, war and national identity left it vulnerable, given any crisis of one, its cathartic expression via any other.

Oedipus Rex of the play by Sophocles

Oedipus Rex of the play by Sophocles

Freud called it a primary impulse being sublimated and re-channelled. New Zealanders might think quietly amongst themselves here in the Antipodes, that they bred a better Briton. But on a global platform, they were obliged before the Fatherland to merely mean better than Australia, South Africa, Canada, and all the rest of Britain’s colonial offspring.

The English chum that arrived to New Zealand began to experience social isolation, his Pakeha peers regarding him a bit of a tosser. But while that went on domestically or internally, internationally New Zealand leapt at opportunities to show loyalty to the Fatherland. Troops, for instance, rushed to the front line in South Africa in 1903; shipments of dairy and meat products, rendering our economy dependent on the British marketplace; the thorough Britishness of New Zealand’s school curriculum and philosophy of education in general. It went without saying in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, that the British way was the best way, the way that New Zealanders followed.

But then there was rugby, and in particular, one rugby team; the Originals, who toured in 1905 ‘back home’ and creamed every British team they played. Now for New Zealand this was a good thing, I’m not denying it. This little nation was overwhelmingly proud and the tour has forever stayed in history books as a significant, if not landmark event.

The Daily News reported (November 1905):

“When Shakespeare wrote to the effect that England never did nor never should lie at the proud foot of a conqueror he evidently overlooked the possibility of a team of New Zealand footballers invading this land at some time or other”

You can see how, in this quote, the symbolic relations between rugby and war are intricated? What is critical about this famous quote, is how also, the question of who dominates, is raised.

It’s fine for New Zealanders to think quietly down in New Zealand, that they’re better Britons. But to actually show up in Britain and prove it, is another thing. In psychoanalytic terms, you have a case of failed cultural repression. What was safely proliferating in the dark, has managed somehow to emerge to the surface and be expressed.

I want to argue that the efforts to show Great Britain its loyalty were ramped up as a result of this cultural betrayal in the Imperial rights of Manhood. If New Zealand was loyal to Britain before, it was doubly, triply loyal after 1905. So when Europe went to war, New Zealand was gagging to send its men, no matter what the reasons for that war were. It’s national identity had become hysterical.

Freud called it castration desire, a satiation of the Oedipal complex. In the Great War New Zealand’s men became a sort of displaced currency, paying the price for New Zealand’s unconscious crimes against the Fatherland, receiving a sort of destiny in human sacrifice.

While Britain itself baulked at compulsory consignment, New Zealand persecuted its dissenters and pacifists. Not only were men obliged for duty, every boy was to be a cadet, every baby conscripted to Plunket. From cradle to grave, New Zealand’s fixation upon identity left each single male in the country utterly stripped down to a unitary form, elementary.

And men’s own socialisation in mateship rituals from an earlier crew culture left them readied for this. As soldiers sent to the front they were nothing individually, their only value being collective, one wad of colonial patriarchal sacrifice.


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