9 April 2007

Therapy as Alternative Social Reality

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 1:34 pm

I’m trying to think about what kind of psychological practice I might like to launch, one that has a kind of postmodern feel to it. I begin by thinking about realities, with some references to the series of recent posts about “topias.” This is all very fluid, so please jump in with comments, suggestions, corrections, etc.

What passes for reality is an ordinary everydayness of being in the world. A major component of ordinary reality consists of tacit interpersonal agreements about ways of being toward one another. For the individual, being-toward requires adopting a social persona that enables the self to participate in ordinary social reality. Each other individual likewise has adopted an ordinary social persona, such that social engagement becomes readily navigable. It is possible to occupy one’s social persona seamlessly if s/he can pursue his/her personal agenda and rectify interpersonal conflicts or misunderstandings within the implicit channels afforded by ordinary social reality. If not, then it may become necessary for the individual to engage in a therapeutic interpersonal relation that differs from ordinary social reality.

What is therapeutic interaction relative to ordinary social reality? Therapeutic interaction can occur as part of ordinary social reality, restoring disrupted everyday relationships within the ordinary course of being toward one another. Therapeutic interaction need not be completely separated from ordinary social reality; it can erupt at any time, in any place, as a kind of ek-static interval, an a-social reality. The therapeutic milieu can also be assigned a separate social space, a site within the broader ordinary reality, like a gym or a school or a doctor’s office. Here the expectation is that therapy is designed to equip people for more effective interpersonal functioning within ordinary social reality. However, therapy exists in part therapy because of the limitations of ordinary social reality and in contrast to it, as a kind of anti-social realty. Or therapeutic interaction can take place at the margins of ordinary reality, outside of the usual social flows but not directly positioned in contrast to it: a hetero-social reality.

The therapeutic relationship need not be bounded by the interpersonal agreements that characterize everyday social reality. The therapeutic isn’t necessarily more real than ordinary reality by stripping away the social conventions preventing more direct interpersonal encounters. Nor is the therapeutic necessarily less real because it takes place outside of ordinary reality. No a priori relationship need be established between the therapeutic and ordinary reality; e.g., a restoration of the individual to ordinary reality, an adjustment of the social reality to “make room” for the individual. Because the therapeutic relationship operates outside the ordinary social agreements, it is free to establish an alternative interpersonal reality that is different from everyday reality.

The term “therapeutic” implies the treatment of a disorder. When the individual finds it difficult to live seamlessly within ordinary social reality, it’s assumed that the individual suffers from a disorder and that therapy is treatment of the disordered individual. However, social reality is built on a set of tacit interpersonal agreements rather than on some foundational or universal truth about how people are to live with one another in the world. Ordinary social reality shifts over time and place; it contains elements that are arbitrary. Because this is so, there is no reason to assert that the individual who doesn’t fit seamlessly into ordinary social reality is sick. Nor for that matter is it necessary to assert that ordinary social reality is sick. All that can be asserted is that the individual is not one with the ordinary social reality in which s/he is embedded. “Therapy” may thus be an inappropriate word. Analysis? Counseling? Consulting? Maybe we need to be clearer about what might happen in this hetero-social reality before assigning it a name.



  1. I agree that the stimulus for a visit with a “helper” is some sort of “burr,” something that doesn’t fit or feel right. It might be interpersonal or it might be situational, though I suspect that even situational problems stem from or result in some interpersonal lack of response (e.g. “no one will listen when I say that I hate this place!”). So, the “helper” and the “helpee” can define the sort of “relationship” they have to address the “burr” or the reaction to it. I think of the visit as trying to establish an “ideal” listening-responding-accepting relationship, but it need not. It could be antagonistic or conflictual or imaginary or anything else, I suppose.

    And I agree that the “sickness” model is not necessary. It is often used, but it is very negative towards the “helpee” in an unnecessary way…a demeaning way.

    I like “consulting”…sort of. It captures the idea of listening, questioning, considering, and offering feedback about things to try, not answers.

    But we’ll see…


    Comment by bluevicar — 9 April 2007 @ 4:27 pm

  2. bluevicar –

    I’m not sure whether the therapeutic relationship addresses directly the “burrs” the individual incurs from friction with ordinary social reality. Maybe the burrs ought not be the focus, but rather the friction that produces them.

    I think of the visit as trying to establish an “ideal” listening-responding-accepting relationship. Ordinary social relationships don’t often approach this ideal. Should they, do you think? Or is this “ideal” an aspiration of the distinctly “other” sort of relationship that becomes possible in therapy? Maybe therapy is artificial in the sense that it pursues excellence in attaining this particular kind of listening-responding-accepting way of being-toward. Also, the therapeutic relationship is usually built around the client’s social abrasions, with the therapist aspiring to excellence in listening-responding-accepting. Should the client also aspire to this same kind of excellence toward the therapist? I.e., perhaps it’s an artificially constructed two-way relationship where both parties try to master this particular kind of excellence in being toward one another.

    Consulting? Maybe so.


    Comment by ktismatics — 9 April 2007 @ 6:58 pm

  3. Ktis….Because this is so, there is no reason to assert that the individual who doesn’t fit seamlessly into ordinary social reality is sick. Nor for that matter is it necessary to assert that ordinary social reality is sick. All that can be asserted is that the individual is not one with the ordinary social reality in which s/he is embedded. “Therapy” may thus be an inappropriate word. Analysis? Counseling? Consulting?

    But there are reasons why the subject refuses to fit seamlessly. Those reasons would vary widely and some are deeply embedded in the subconscious. So, the analysis is an interpretation – a hermeneutic of the self. The analyst is the interpreter trying to read the text both as the author (the self) intends it to be read, but the analyst must also read the self as society interprets that text/self. The text, of course, does not remain static but changes with each day, with each encounter, with each passing moment. So, we peel back the layers that went into the writing of the text? We read what is not written (the anti-text)? Maybe we suggest that the text re-write itself so as to fit better within society/culture (the case of the serial killer or sexual deviant comes to mind) or maybe we we suggest that some of the forces that have gone into the writing of the text need to be consciously addressed…or maybe we just make the text more self-aware and say, “to hell with society the text/self is what it is” and in this way society might have to adapt to the text/self and change its own reading of the text/self because the text/self asserts its own right to be unique.


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 9 April 2007 @ 9:32 pm

  4. Jonathan –

    I agree about multiple possible reasons for frayed seams, and that the therapist needs to be hermeneutical in interpreting what they might be. Part of the question is whether the therapist shares his interpretations directly with the client, or asks questions that lets the client work on doing his own interpretations. Everybody is already a personal hermeneutician; hopefully the client can get better at interpreting the world and other people as a benefit of the therapeutic experience.

    I agree with the things you say here — this is the direction we need to go to explicate a psychological praxis framed in the context of continental postmodern thinking. Peel back the layers? Yes. Read what is not written? Yes. Self-aware? Yes. Critique the culture? Yes, even if the client can’t really control how society reads the client. Rewrite? Perhaps, or at least let the client realize that it’s possible, that his own text isn’t chiseled into the stone of the self or the world. Serial killer? Hmm.


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 April 2007 @ 11:11 am

  5. To some extent we are all in the process of rewriting. Rewriting is a necessary aspect of existing and being-in the world.


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 10 April 2007 @ 12:28 pm

  6. Even repetition is rewriting. Death is at the dawn because everything has begun with repetition, says Derrida. I’m on a bit of a Derrida search…


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 April 2007 @ 1:33 pm

  7. “Death is at the dawn because everything has begun with repetition.” It’s interesting – John – I read that, and I’m like “YEAH!” But its funny…because you and I sure would read that sentence differently, yet while both going “YEAH!”


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 10 April 2007 @ 6:18 pm

  8. I’m not sure how you read it; I’m not sure how I do either, nor am I sure I rejoice over it, but here goes. For Freud repetition is the “death instinct,” what Nietzsche called the “eternal return,” the sense of being trapped in the same old cycles over and over again, without the possibility of progress or change or difference or birth. Derrida here is referring to writing, and I think his point is this. The first word you write in a text is the repetition of a word that already exists in the vocabulary. Your use of the word points to the meaning it shares with all prior and future uses of that word. So writing a text begins with this sort of repetition of meaning that reverberates throughout all texts. But repetition remains a death for Derrida, mostly the death of any original definitive signification of the word that serves as the “basis” for all subsequent meaning. Which means the death of absolute reality and the unambiguous linking of meaning to that absolute ground. But of course it might mean other things as well…


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 April 2007 @ 10:04 pm

  9. Because Geoff over at churchandpomo in the comments to “Will to Action” did better than I would, I will just quote his entire comment to Erdman here:

    “He is Risen!
    He is Risen Indeed!

    Sorry about the long silence. Preparations for Easter Week consumed most of my time.

    You said, ‘If truth is linguistically mediated and always dressed in the garb of culture, then I think it is reasonable to conclude that this would necessarily bar us from truth.’

    Indeed, the very ‘reasonableness’ of this claim is was is in dispute. In these postmodern times it does seem ‘reasonable’, even ‘common sensical.’ But linking ‘linguistic mediation’ and ‘cultural conditioning’ with ‘barring us from truth’ is something I’m not willing to do.

    It works like this. Linguistic realistic/representationalist claim that reality is NOT mediated by language, but that rather the Truth is transparent and immediate. The see any claim of ‘mediation’ as giving up on Truth. Deconstructionist agree with them. But since for them ‘mediation’ is inescapable, then Truth is lost, leading to the line of thought that linguistic concepts are ‘violent’. The terms of the argument are the same (essentially Enlightenment): Mediation = No Truth.

    But many are disputing this equation claiming instead the mediation does not equal limition, but rather a celebration of our creaturely situation. We are finite, not infinite in our knowledge, and God has given language and culture not as bars against the Truth, but as paths on the Truth.

    This shift is subtle, moving from humiliating about we presume to know, to being humble in what we know; from celebrating all that we don’t know, to provisionally accepting and increasing what we know; from marking off the bounds of the unknowable, to walking into ever greater knowledge.

    The shift is really from ‘representation (or its denial) of reality’ to ‘participation and co-creation in reality’.

    As David Fitch has alluded to in the most recent post, Wittgenstein is very helpful in this regard, as is Aguinas.”



    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 11 April 2007 @ 7:05 pm

  10. In other words, I guess its a question of whether you believe in a God who speaks through the medium in some way. That was my original reference in saying that you and I would read differently the following statement. “Death is at the dawn because everything has begun with repetition.” I like it because it heralds the return of the medium, which I think is very important. With the return of the medium, too, I think, comes a new and important re-membering of death. In the medium we can’t forget it, like it was so easy to do before. Before it was either forgotten or very-disharmoniously sort of grafted onto our unmediated directly-accessing-of-Whatever beings.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 11 April 2007 @ 7:08 pm

  11. I exchanged some emails with Jonathan about this series of comments at Church and PoMo. Briefly, I read Derrida as saying not that there is no truth, but that there are multiple truths, in part because there is no grounded Truth to reduce all the multiplicity to the One. I think that saying there’s nothing outside of language isn’t right. Language emerged (or was created) as a cultural artifact that let people talk to each other about the world, not just to talk about the words. I don’t, however, believe that words represent the world. Words are like a pointing finger: the finger doesn’t look like what it’s pointing at. Eyes and ears are pointers too, so there’s always mediation in human apprehension. But that doesn’t mean no truth is possible about the world. I don’t think this mediated correspondence of human understanding with the world is problematic to a Christian perspective, though it might violate certain Christian interpretations. So I guess I’m with Geoff on his main point, though I might quibble about whether Derrida is really as nihilistic as he makes him out to be. And none of what Geoff says really sounds specifically like a Christian theory of truth, despite a brief argument from creation rather than evolution of human cultural capabilities. Aquinas, of course, would go more in a Hesiakian direction.


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 April 2007 @ 8:17 pm

  12. I can buy all that. But in a pissing contest between Hesiak and WHOEVER on what Derrida was really saying (particularly about no truths or multiple truths)…WHOEVER pisses further. You can take that to the bank as something akin to a certainty. As for representating the world…wasn’t Derrida Jewish?


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 11 April 2007 @ 8:36 pm

  13. I mean…as for NOT representing the world…wasn’t Derrida Jewish? In reference to the recent “participation” thing happening at churchandpomo and Fitch’s blog and Libeskind.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 11 April 2007 @ 8:38 pm

  14. I think your meaning of Derrida’s statement is as legitimate as mine, and probably as intended by the author as mine. Yes, Derrida was Jewish. This quote I gave you comes from a short piece that he structures as a conversation between several Rabbis, as if it was a Mishnah. Here’s a few more: To write is to have the passion of the origin. The line is the lure (= medium is the message?). The center, perhaps, is the displacement of the question. The center is the threshold. The center is mourning. The last obstacle, the ultimate limit is, who knows? the center. For then everything comes to us from the end of the night, from childhood. Tomorrow is the shadow and reflexibility of our hands.

    Derrida studied under Levinas, also Jewish, who gets props from time to time in these conversations. I hadn’t thought about this, but I don’t think Aquinas’s participation requires that words represent. The word “truth” as applied to human understanding is metaphorical of God’s truth. The word points to real concepts in both cases. But the word doesn’t necessarily represent the concepts it points to. A technicality, but so what?


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 April 2007 @ 9:07 pm

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