Psychotic Rationality

Responding to my post on the unconscious sources of culture and
history, Hebe Comerford noted that the anthropolgist Marvin Harris argued that all
human action and consciousness was the competition for a scarce

Larry D. responded by saying that, "I don't think Koenigsberg is
ignorant of the reality principle, and I hope Marvin Harris is not ignorant of the

Koenigsberg does acknowledge the reality principle (the
air-conditioner, for example, is a wonderfully adaptive cultural invention, not to mention
light-bulbs and a hundred other things). However, I am afraid that Marvin Harris
unfortunately is (was--he died recently) ignorant of the unconscious.

You are familiar with the Aztec ritual of cutting open the chests of
human beings and pulling out their hearts. They did this for two-hundred years.
What a horrible ritual. The Aztecs fought wars in order to capture soldiers
that subsequently were fed to the sun god. The purpose of this rite was to keep
the sun god alive by feeding him with the heart and blood of sacrificial

After the warrior's chest had been cut open and his heart pulled out by
the priest (at the top of the sacrificial altar), his body was thrown down the
pyramid. The body was picked up at the bottom, and a few were provided with
meat for a cannabilistic feast. The consumption of the body was somewhat of an
afterthought from the perspective of the ritual ("waste not, want not").

Marvin Harris came up with the theory that the Aztec's sacrificial
ritual had a hidden "functional" basis: It was undertaken, he argued, on the basis
the Aztec need to obtain protein that was lacking in their diet.

I'm not an expert on Harris' argument and the controversy surrounding
it, but to my knowledge this theory has been entirely discredited by

From a psychological perspective, it's not difficult to perceive that a
profound denial mechanism is operative in the desire to create such a theory.
The theory grows out of a desperate need to try to "make sense" out of a
ritual that seems bizarre, awful, irrational and self-destructive. I call this
effort to explain the unexplainable, to pretend that irrational behavior has a
functional basis psychotic rationality.

Rather than acknowledging that many forms of cultural behavior are
irrational and maladaptive, not to mention horrible and self-destructive, some
would prefer to believe that these forms of behavior serve a "function." It is
terrifying to confront the profound irrationality and destructiveness that lies
at the very core of the human psyche (manifesting as "culture" and "history").
We don't wish to acknowledge that unconscious fantasies are being expressed
and acted out, that indeed they are the source of many beliefs and practices
constituting human society.

It is terrifying and weird the way humans invent strange forms of
behavior and collectively act them out.

It is equally terrifying and weird the way scholars, observing these
culturally patterned forms of irrational and destructive behavior, pretend that
they have a rational or functional basis.

Like: The Holocaust occurred because this was a convenient way of
obtaining gold (from the teeth of Jewish victims), or because human skin is good
material for lampshades.

"Rational choice" theory still predominates in political science, in
spite of Rwanda and Cambodia and Communist mass-murder and Nazism and World War
I--as if those who perpetuated and participated in these events had the
slightest clue of why they were doing what they were doing.

This is a serious form of psychotic thought: belief that everything
that human beings do has a "reality" basis. This is the delusion of rationality.
Unfortunately, when everyone is caught up in, embraces a similar fantasy, then
that which is irrational and destructive comes to seem to be real.

In such instances, we are not dealing with psychosis in the clinical
sense. Psychotic thought processes that manifesting as culture are something

Human being live within the nightmare of history. To begin to awaken
from the nightmare of history is to recognize that we are living within a dream,
a dream that appears to be real because many persons share the same nightmare.

Best regards,

Richard K.

Richard A. Koenigsberg, Ph. D.
Library of Social Science

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