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Presence and Absence: Melancholia and confusion in the digital age
| Simon Western |

More articles in the Issue

Issue #1 – October 2021

Digital KavOFEK #1


We are delighted to launch the first digital issue of KAV OFEK.

In September 2000, the first issue of KAV OFEK was published.Avi Nutkevitch, who was the chairman of OFEK at the time, wrote, among other things, in his words of blessing:

“OFEK Writes” is of course another way to promote ideas, but it is primarily the creation of a space for the production of new ideas, for new conceptualizations, for further processing of experiences; It is another way to channel creativity; It is also another channel of communication between us and ourselves, between us and the world.”

Silvia Silberman and Ilana Litvin wrote in the editorial: After debates that ranged from excessive modesty to grandiose ambition, between the intention to publish a “dry” informative page and the desire to create a polished professional journal, the members of the committee decided to launch a journal that would encourage experiential and spontaneous writing even by those of us who shy away from writing for the established professional press.

The journal was published every year; grew, developed and expanded, and the members of its board also changed over the years. In December 2011, issue No. 12 was released, which was also the last. Since then, it fell asleep for ten years. The image of “Sleeping Beauty” waiting for the prince to come, give her a kiss, and wake her up from her slumber came up in the system.

The first thoughts about renewing KAV OFEK in a digital format, with the encouragement of OFEK’s board, came up over two years ago, even before the outbreak of COVID, and began with meetings between Sivanie Shiran and Yermi Harel. Sivanie was obliged to retire and a new editorial board was established which includes Eliat Aram, Yermi Harel and Shelly Sussman: on the editorial team of the first issues, on the editorial team of the middle issues and a newcomer to the board, respectively, hoping for a combination of old and new, tradition and innovation, an important issue in itself, in the field of group relations.

The theme of the issue, which turns the gaze to organization and organizing during the days of an epidemic, invites consideration of the effects of the epidemic on the new system that formed during this period. The digital acceleration in the days of Corona and the transformative change in the perception of location and space, removed limitations on a global society, which became “natural”. The technological tools also became “natural”, and the editors were helped by the available technology of Zoom, WhatsApp, email and shared files for the day-to-day work and communication with the article writers and other people who took part and helped in the production of the issue. Plans for an editorial meeting in Israel were canceled with the imposition of the lockdowns and movement restrictions, so that in fact, like many teams during this period, the editorial board operated in the online space and did not meet physically from its establishment and throughout the period of work on the magazine.

The Corona epidemic gave renewed validity to renewing the journal in an online format, one that is accessible and available beyond the boundaries of time, space and language, and invites expression in a variety of media and styles, such as video and visual images. As in the previous links in the KAV OFEK chain, in the renewed digital edition the wish is to provide a creative and playful space for engaging in the areas of OFEK’s knowledge, a space for conceptual and experiential expression, for collecting and processing experiences and for communication within the community of members and between it and the world.

This task is part of the contemporary challenge of searching for alternative ways and additional channels for meeting and dialogue. For example, KAV OFEK’s digital platform allows comments on the article page, as a channel of this type. Is it possible to think of a “hybrid model” in OFEK, which has some physical meetings, some online meetings and some on the online KAV OFEK? Time will tell.

The first part of the issue contains three articles dealing, from different angles, with the learning experience from online conferences or meetings about conferences. They all took place during the months of the epidemic. We opened with an piece by Ronit Kark and Miriam Shapira examining their experience as participants in the pioneer eGRC conference in 2020. The central theme, around the question or the feeling of omitting intimacy in a conference with digital authority, immediately stimulated thoughts in the editorial board and indeed we included a comment on the subject of omission by Yermi Harel.

The second piece is actually a collection of contributions from the director, staff members and participants of the online conference that took place in February 2021 and to which an OFEK evening was dedicated in June of this year, led by Smadar Ashuach and Amir Scharf, the content of which can be found here.

This part of the issue is concluded with a meta-learning article about learning from conferences through a series of Zoom meetings. The article was edited by Mira Erlich-Ginor who conducted three OFEK evenings on Zoom in the fall of 2020, between the waves of the Corona virus, with the primary task – learning from conferences. The second part of the issue also contains three articles, which deal with the question we presented in the call for proposals about OFEK as a host organization and the experience of leadership in its various shades and colors during the epidemic years.

We start with chairperson Yael Shenhav Sharoni’s view on the management of OFEK – the organization as an organization – in times of epidemic, physical distance and uncertainty.

We continue with a thoughtful article from an OFEK member, Gabi Bonwitt, about the group of OFEK members that examined group relations and Corona, in which he touches on issues we will return to later – memory, otherness and foreignness.

We conclude with the contribution of Leslie Brissett, director of the program for group relations at the Tavistock Institute London, who also sent an article thinking about identity, belonging and the digital experience in the days of an epidemic from his point of view as a director. This article also provoked deep reactions among the members of the editorial board and here you will find Shelly Sussman’s response to the idea of “a person in a body”.

The third and last part of the issue is dedicated to the memory of our dear friend Judy Levy who passed away prematurely before the epidemic. The memorial evening for her death in August 2019 at Yigal Ginat’s house in Jerusalem is perhaps one of the last memories before the epidemic of OFEK members getting together, talking, crying, remembering and singing Judy.

Here you will find a collection of interviews, some recorded, some written, of friends who remember Judy; Judy’s original article from 2011, “Memory Lost and Memory Found”, with her original response and with a contemporary addition from Gabriella Braun, a memory wrapped in sensitive, responsible and loving editing by Leila Djemal and Miri Tzadok.

It seems to us that maybe Judy is our sleeping beauty, helping us wake up and wake KAV OFEK. Although unlike in fairy tales, we cannot bring her back to breathe within us, we can try and carry on as she breathes from our memories.

We hope you enjoy the issue and that its various “kisses and caresses” will inspire you to contribute in the future.

The Editors,

Shelly, Yermi and Eliat
September 2021

* The editors would like to thank first and foremost, Ilan Kirschenbaum, for his partnership and assistance in the realization of the digital edition.

* To OFEK’s board, which approved funds that helped in the realization of the issue, especially in the editing of the recorded segments.

* And of course. to all the writers and contributors – there is no journal without content.

Issue #2 – November 2022

Digital Kav OFEK#2


We are delighted to put forward Kav OFEK’s 2022 – the second digital edition. In preparing this edition, we could identify characteristics of doing something for the ‘second time’. In the second edition of Kav Ofek in-print, in 2001, Ilana Litvin, Silvia Silberman and Eliat Aram, the then editors, wrote:
“we are all familiar with the burst of energy that comes with beginnings, with a genesis. It is much harder to generate energy in order to persevere in creating and invest in maintenance”.

These similar feelings, that accompanied the preparation of the second edition echoed the title: “on longing, movement and nevertheless”. Inspired by the famous lyrics* pointing to the “ongoing journey” and the necessity to relentlessly “keep on moving”, we have wondered – what is the meaning of ‘movement’ these days, when the journey seems to go on and on, regresses, comes to a stand-still – how do individuals, groups, organisations, societies, communities move? Where do longing for human touch and closeness meet movement and moving? Where do we find the resources to keep on moving nevertheless and despite it all?**

We have recognised the circularity of movement in OFEK in the very recent GRC which took place with TAU entitled “Being a Therapist at this time” under the leadership of Yosi Triest and Moshe Bergstein. The GRC was cancelled twice during the pandemic, the journey extended, and eventually it happened this last September with a significant number of participants. What has been the place of longing, perseverance, determination, in the success of this GRC, despite it all and nevertheless?

The articles in this edition are also characterised by the circular movement of back and forth. The first cluster includes two articles dealing with insights from the Corona years, and relate to loneliness, movement and stuckness. First, a thought piece from Shmuel Bernstein dealing with loneliness and lack of movement, and – through re-examining Baudelaire’s La Solitude- offers a new perspective to think of the “empty space”. In the second thought piece, Simon Western touches on questions of loneliness, isolation and melancholy in the digital age, and discusses them through a case study of drone pilots in the USA air force.

The second cluster includes three articles emerging directly from OFEK-related activities and Group Relations thinking. The first, by Hagit Shachar-Paraira and Eyal Etzioni, examines sensitively and from the perspective of the participant, the processes in a reading group of systemic-psychoanalytic papers, which took place over a period of four years (including during covid and lockdown and a return to in-person), suggesting a relationship between learning/study and food/feeding. In the paper “tears of an administrator” which also deals with the experience of participating, Ori Weyl shares his experience of being a GRC administrator this past July with a touching humorous style. This section concludes with a thought piece from Gilad Ovadia which examines the addition of a fourth T boundary, in addition to the original three of Task, Territory and Time. He suggests that of reality Testing, which contributes the strengthening of movement between the ideal and the real in organisational work.

This edition is sealed with the contributions of two guest writers, asking us – “moving – where to?”
Gili Yuval, poet and writer dealing with the world of work, points to the tension between loneliness and a road-trip type movement, to the longing for solitude and suggests a ‘solution’ of a journey-to-nowhere.
Coreene Archer’s thought piece responds to the ancient song “keep moving on the ongoing journey” with contemporary voices and songs and challenges us to examine for ourselves questions of choice and internal listening.

Happy reading and please do use the comment boxes to share your reflections, questions and thoughts.

The Editors,

Yermi, Eliat and Shely
November 2022
* “Ze Kore” (It Happens) / Lyrics Shmulik Kraus
** Call for Papers Kav OFEK #2

Presence and Absence: Melancholia and confusion in the digital age

A psychoanalytic perspective drawing on the experience of US drone pilots

Drone Control Room

Simon Western


This essay draws attention to how today’s digital society transforms not only the material world (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. It offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of how working across the virtual and physical realms, creates dissonance, melancholy and confusion in the digital age.

The essay 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 their ‘killing work’. As reported in a recent NY Times article1 (cited in this essay in italics) drone operators are suffering stress on an epidemic scale so that flights are being cut back.

Our affective and emotional states, are not simply a soft after-effect of experiencing the material world, they are symbiotic to each other. The material world shapes our affective state and vice versa. In this case drone pilots are impacted by the work, families are affected, in turn flights are seriously reduced due to high stress levels, (and perhaps the errors made by pilots are also linked to their high stress levels, which is ignored in the NY article). Emotions and affects are a life and death matter. In particular the essay 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.

The experience of 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!

Discussion: Melancholia, presence and absence
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, leaving 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 and social media are virtually more present but may experience the loss of autonomy, freedom and personal space to be themselves. Another example is when talking to my children on video links 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 a physical presence, in turn paradoxically enhances their emotional presence within me. My children become more present to me and I then experience greater loss of not being able to hug them or be with them, and of my absence from the family and home is ever-more present in me and in them. 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 they experience the loss of being separate from civilian life during their ‘war work’, freed from some of the intimacies of family and home life 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 digital world and the psycho-social meanings and implications it evokes. 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.

1 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/17/us/as-stress-drives-off-drone-operators-air-force-must-cut-flights.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

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.

Image by S. Hermann / F. Richter from Pixabay

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