31 May 2007

Wartime Reality

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 12:44 pm

When I was in grad school I helped start a counseling center for Vietnam veterans. This was around 1980 — 5 years after the last American troops pulled out of Vietnam, the same year that post-traumatic stress disorder was officially recognized as a diagnostic category by the American Psychiatric Association, two years before the Veterans Administration acknowledged that PTSD was a problem with the Vietnam vets. We started a group, and lots of vets started coming out of the hills looking for help. While we had some research findings and some psychoanalytic theory to work with, we were exploring mostly uncharted waters.

Our plan going in was to get the vets to relive their combat traumas, leading to catharsis and a resolution of symptoms. We soon discovered that catharsis didn’t have a lot of impact. The vets felt alienated from loved ones, paranoid, psychically numb, drawn to substance abuse and high-risk behaviors, prone to outbursts of anger, unable to hold down a job. There were occasional violent episodes and hallucinatory flashbacks (just like in the movies), but for the most part the problems were chronic.

Most of the vets in the group had never talked about their experiences with other vets; now they began to recognize that they shared with one another a similar orientation to civilian life. In getting to know their stories I realized that this orientation to life had begun while the were in Vietnam as survival strategies.

  • Alienation — when your friends are apt to be killed at any minute it doesn’t pay to get too closely attached.
  • Paranoia — the jungle and the village hold hidden terrors; a civilian may turn out to be a guerrilla.
  • Psychic numbing — when threat is imminent and continual, loss is frequent, and killing is part of your job description, then reacting emotionally just makes you less vigilant and more vulnerable.
  • Substance abuse — alcohol and drugs helped with the psychic numbing in Vietnam.
  • Risk-seeking — when life poses a constant threat, actively pursuing the enemy at least gives you the illusion of control.
  • Outbursts of anger — for a soldier, anger is part of the motivation.
  • Unemployability — when victory is not achievable, the only ways out of the war are death, injury, and the end of your tour of duty — i.e., losing your job.

Vietnam wasn’t just a different country; it was a different reality. What gave life meaning in America — home, family, success, competition, possessions, fun — had no place in Vietnam. War strips life back to the basics of survival — life and death, attack and defense, fear and anger and loss, hypervigilance and fatigue. After discharge, the survivors found it hard to return to the petty concerns of daily American life — it just didn’t seem serious. Though they had come home, they were still living inside a wartime reality.

My job was to help the vets to get over it, to re-adapt to civilian life, to lose their symptoms and regain psychological well-being. But as I came to a better understanding of their lives, catching glimses of life the way they saw it all the time, I began to have a change of heart. These guys knew things about life that I didn’t. Maybe they could sensitize me to strands of meaning that I ordinarily ignored.

At the time I wasn’t able to formulate these insights fully. My job was to serve as an ambassador of normal American reality. Welcome home; I’m here to help you resume your place in this reality. Knowing what I do now I’d go about it differently. Welcome home; teach us what you’ve learned.

29 May 2007

Psychological Objects

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:13 pm

Psychotherapy is territorialized in fairly standard ways. The process has a name: counseling, therapy, analysis, treatment, coaching. The participants have titles: therapist and client, analyst and patient, counselor and counselee. There are the diagnoses and the drugs. There are varieties of praxis: ego psychology, Lacanian, ratio-emotive. The “sessions,” usually scheduled and of fixed duration, are conducted in an office. There are the fees.

But there are other ways of dividing the territory. In my work on Genesis I put forward some constructs for understanding the act of human creation. If we think of therapy as a kind of interpersonal creation, then these constructs might be relevant. Here are the most important ones:

A reality is a way of making sense of phenomena, a way of ascribing meaning to our experience of some part of the world. Human experience is interlaced with untold numbers of realities. Each reality stretches itself across a whole array of phenomena; each phenomenon can participate in an array or realities. So, for example, a field of flowers can be meaningful as a subject of a painting, as a source of pollen for bees, as discrete instances of various species of plants, as a relatively unobstructed terrain for setting up a picnic, etc.

A strand is an abstract property of a reality that links phenomena together on a single dimension. In Genesis 1, “light” is a strand: a property of phenomena that affords visibility for a human onlooker, arrayed in a continuum from darkness to brightness. Strands come into conscious awareness through a cognitive process of separate-and-name.

A void is a set of phenomena that does not participate in a reality. A nihilistic void has degenerated from a previously meaningful organization into chaos; an emerging void has never before been assembled into a meaningful array. Voids are relative: various phenomena might already participate in multiple realities, but they might not be assembled into a unified collection whose commonality might be defined by a reality not yet formulated.

An interval is a limited duration of time, either continuous or intermittent, during which someone participates in a particular reality. Inside an interval, a person understands the meaning of phenomena in terms of a particular set of strands that together constitute a reality.

A portal is a place or procedure by means of which someone makes the transition from one reality to another. In transubstantiation, the priestly act of consecration is the portal by means of which the bread and wine make the transition to the body and blood. This is a transition not of the stuff but of the systems of meaning — the realities — in which they participate. So the phenomena of bread and wine pass through consecration from the shared reality of bodily nourishment to the shared reality of communion. The stuff doesn’t change; the realities for making sense of the stuff change.

Using this small set of alternative “psychological objects” I propose over the next few installments to reterritorialize psychotherapy.

28 May 2007

Pentecost in Nice

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:32 am


Anne was assigned the crucial passage — Acts 2:1-11. She had practiced, had looked up the foreign pronunciations, was prepared. The moment arrives; reverentially, confidently she approaches the dais. When Pentecost Day came round, the apostles had all met in one room… Loudly and clearly she announces the mighty wind, the tongues of fire, the filling with the Spirit, the speaking in foreign tongues. ‘Surely,’ they said, ‘all these men speaking are Galileans?’ But somehow Galileans just will not take shape properly on the page, as if some of the letters are missing. Gali…. Galee… And now it’s as if the spirit of Babel has descended, confusing the speaker’s tongue. Parthians and Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia and Judaea and Cappadocia — none would have recognized themselves in this proclamation. At last the passage comes to an end and the lector, having drunk her cup of public shame to the dregs, resumes her place in the congregation.

2 .

Kenzie and I took the noon train to Nice, meeting Anne at the church. For lunch we ate burgers et frites at the McDo on the beach, its second-floor dining area affording a superb view of the Promenade des Anglais and the magnificent Baie des Anges dotted with sailboats and yachts. Then it’s up the boardwalk to the Rialto for the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, shown in V.O. (version originale, English with French subtitles). The title of this latest installment is At World’s EndAWE, as Kenzie pointed out. It’s a virtual theme park ride to resurrection, complete with the ferrying of dead souls across to the other side, a goddess with cool makeup and a nifty Jamaican accent, the uncanny doubling of a dead Johnny Depp, an inversion of surface and depth, and a sunset that turns into a sunrise. If you had to choose between the church’s representation of life after death and Disney’s, which would you find more compelling?


The movie over, we walk three blocks up the rue de France to our favorite kebab place. On the way we see a little boy about 3 years old crouching before a storefront window. He’s making moaning noises, grasping at the glass, trying to reach right through it to the rubber balls displayed on the other side. Here is pure desire, pure frustration. The glass separating the boy from the balls, desire from fulfillment, is the marketplace. Eventually the ball will move forward to become an image projected onto the glass, and the boy, older now, will desire the glassy image for its own sake, not for what it reveals behind itself.


We arrive at the station in plenty of time to catch the next train back to Antibes, but the place is packed, and guards are blocking the doors leading from the station to the platform. A train pulls in heading west, where we’re going, but even after disgorging its Nice-bound passengers it’s still nearly full. Part of the waiting crowd is packed into the cars, and the train pulls out. What the heck is going on? The guy in front of me in the crush hears me speaking English to Anne. “The race is ended,” he tells me. The course for the Monaco Grand Prix runs right through downtown Monte Carlo, making the roads inaccessible to ordinary traffic, so the savvy French spectators park along the coast and take the train in. Now they were all heading back. Two trains later we were on our way, and we even got seats.


The guy who gave me the scoop about the crowded trains was a Californian. He had been to the race (“a dream of a lifetime”), stopped off in Nice for a quick lookaround, and was heading to Cannes for the aftermath of the Film Festival, which ended at about the same time as the race. Note to Ron: the Romanians won the big prizes. And note to regular readers: on the second day of the Festival Anne and I managed to penetrate security and stroll through the bar, grounds and lobby of the fabulous Eden Roc hotel. But that perhaps is another story.

27 May 2007

Toward a Different Sort of Innocence

Filed under: Fiction, Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:19 am

I’ve been posting lately about a possible psychological intervention focusing on sorrow. As usual, I find it easier to say what this thing is not. Is isn’t therapy for depression where the goal is to treat a disorder. It isn’t grief counseling where the goal is to work through a specific loss. It’s more a personal exploration of the ways in which sorrow lays a shadow across everything: self, relationships, world. What would be the point of undertaking this personal exploration? I think it has something to do with achieving innocence.

Sam and I have been talking about this a bit on the Man of Sorrows post with reference to literature. He points out that in Great Expectations Pip retains his innocence into adulthood, not becoming embittered through grievous disappointment like Miss Havisham. The world is hard and cold but, as Estella discovers, becoming conformed to the world doesn’t really protect you from it. Pip holds great expectations for his life, but when these expectations aren’t met he remains open to the possibility of surprise. He even maintains an open-heartedness toward those who have hurt him the most.

The delirious discussions at Cultural Parody Center return again and again to David Lynch’s Inland Empire. I’ve seen this movie twice, posted a couple times on it, have reflected on it a bit. But now I’m thinking about it in the context of sorrow and loss. I’m seeing it as a kind of surrealist variant on the Stations of the Cross, imbued with variations on the Lacanian theme of loss. I realize that the film is not cathartic; that the sorrow is never even fully experienced, let alone resolved; that perhaps this is Jesus’s Via Dolorosa transfigured into a woman half-born trapped in a labyrinth. Maybe these ideas too will remain half-born, but thinking about the film in terms of sorrow opens up new horizons for my experiencing of the movie.

The European churches present a wide variety of interpretations of the Stations of the Cross, some that predate the convergence on fourteen prescribed scenes. But the literal renderings don’t exhaust the possibilities. There’s a starkly magnificent installation by modernist Barnett Newman at the National Gallery in Washington: huge unprepared canvases painted stark white, each one distinctively “slashed” in black top to bottom. Newman was Jewish, and his lifelong output of works was quite meager: I don’t know what motivated him to create, over a period of several years, this series of paintings. Maybe he rendered the Christian tragedy in modernist idiom, or commemorated some deeply personal sorrow, or expressed abstractly the universal experience of suffering.

If I were to delve into sorrow as a psychological intervention, I believe that a fabric of sorrow would weave itself together, suspending the world in delicate threads strong as death, strong as life. I would become a vector of sorrow traversing that suspended world. Every action would be transformed into a pilgrimage; every gesture would reveal sorrow. Something reminiscent of innocence would begin to penetrate the world. It would be a different sort of innocence, one that doesn’t regret or deny experience but that goes through it to the other side of experience, until it enters into the beginning of something like wisdom.

25 May 2007

Living Inside of Sorrow

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:19 pm

If I were to build a psychological intervention for plunging into sorrow, a postmodern Stations of the Cross, I wouldn’t be focused so much on having people relive their personal Via Dolorosa through an iconic representation of the original loss — though that might be part of it. I’d be more interested in exploring how each of us lives every day inside of sorrow.

When we lose something or someone that we value personally we experience sorrow. Unresolved sorrow can make us depressed, or it can make us numb. This continual, residual sorrow suggests the presence of absence: the sense that loss isn’t a past event but a present condition.

Sometimes it seems that loss pervades everything — why is that? In Christianity’s interpretation the loss is a spiritual one: as a consequence of the Fall we always already experience the loss of God in and among us, as well as the loss of our ability to respond to God. We try to compensate by exalting ourselves as gods, but we cannot recover from our loss until by faith we re-establish this lost presence of God. Following Hegel and Freud, Lacan contends that we always already experience this sense of loss because as infants we experienced a loss of personal plenitude. As a consequence we spend much of our energy in one futile effort after another to find or replace what we’ve lost. Lacan says that we can never recover what was lost because we never had it in the first place, and coming to this realization is the first step in becoming fully human. Deleuze believes that our loss isn’t primal and permanent but continually repeated in our interactions with culture, and especially in our engagement with the economy. Every exchange is a frustration, taking away the satisfaction value of our work and of the commodities we buy. Deleuze proposes that by becoming aware of the illusory satisfactions of the marketplace we can begin deterritorializing our desires, letting them find their way to authentic satisfaction.

When we experience an intimate personal loss — the loss of a loved one, say — is our sorrow affected by the endemic condition of sorrow that surrounds and permeates us? Are we reminded of our inability to control the world like a god, and of our own mortality? Do we experience the other’s loss as our own loss, not because of empathy but because we were able to use the other to complete us, and because of our loss of the other we’re no longer whole? Do we experience the other’s loss as a kind of cheat, a bad investment, a sudden withdrawal of the value we’d invested in this other?

I don’t believe that reliving a loss is particularly helpful in resolving the sorrow. This idea of “catharsis” was proposed by Freud as the preferred treatment, but it doesn’t work very well. The sorrowful person relives the loss every day. The experience of traumatic loss plunges the grieving survivor into a sorrowful way of being in the world. Every relationship affords not just fulfillment but also loss — another potential source of sorrow. The chronically sorrowful person withdraws, forces confrontation, undermines the relationship in order to keep from getting too close. As a consequence the relationship sours, destabilizes, fails — loss recurs, again and again. To a significant extent all our relationships play out in an environment tinged by sorrow. We’ve all lost and been hurt; we’re all cautiously self-protective; we all sabotage intimacy.

The unconscious is inside us, causing us to relive the losses of the past. The unconscious is outside of us, channeling our desires into chronic loss. The unconscious bubbles up in the moment, structuring our experiences as tinged with loss. The unconscious is the source of unformulated experience that might lead us out of the Tomb World and back into life.

24 May 2007

Unclaimed Sorrow

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:32 pm

Suppose there is an intervention focusing on sorrow. Depression is an attitude or emotion that resides in a self; loss is an event that happens in the world. Sorrow is positioned somewhere in between depression and loss, between the self and the world. Sorrow is a personal response to loss, but sorrow is also what makes loss personal. I don’t think I’m cutting things too finely here. I’m looking for words that haven’t already been claimed by psychotherapy.

Depression is a formal diagnostic category; a syndrome, or cluster of interrelated symptoms; a disorder. Questionnaires have been devised for evaluating whether someone is clinically depressed and how severe that depression is. Medications have been designed to enhance the synaptic responsiveness of depressives’ brains by increasing the neurotransmitter uptake rate. Various psychotherapeutic techniques are used in the treatment of depression.

Loss is a life event that can trigger the onset of various undesirable emotional responses: anxiety, mourning, insecure attachment, anomie, anger, depression. People who have experienced a loss can be treated preventively, helping them work through the usual emotional sequlae until they re-establish a post-loss equilibrium: grieving programs, programs for children whose parents are going through a divorce, programs for employees who are “let go.” The life histories of people who are experiencing anxiety, anger and depression can be evaluated to identify whether loss may be at the root of the problem. Sometimes loss can only be inferred: something in childhood that has itself been lost to memory. Lacanian analysts trace psychiatric disorder to a primal loss of plenitude, a loss that never happened in reality.

Sorrow hasn’t been claimed by psychotherapy. It’s an emotionally charged and profound word, associated more with religion and poetry than with diagnosis and treatment. The word isn’t heard in everyday conversation. People who say they’re sorry are usually referring to minor violations of politesse rather than deep regret or guilt; people rarely say they’re sorrowful. Sorrow is a noun, like depression and loss, which might reify it as a thing. Sorrow is an oppressively painful atmosphere or force field that permeates everything, welling up from a gash that’s been ripped in the heart, flowing out from a gash that’s been ripped in the world. Sorrow is something so painful we’re reluctant to let ourselves be vulnerable to it ever happening to us. Sorrow has been exiled from our culture and our discourse.

Sorrow doesn’t prescribe how it’s supposed to be understood, or experienced, or treated, or cured. There is no database, no drug, no ten-step program. No a priori tacit agreement is established between therapist and client as to roles, procedures, self-definitions. It’s time: the terms “therapist” and “client” really do have to be banished now. The intervention moves to a loge in the deserted theater or a bench in the garden. Neither outside nor inside, sorrow is the medium in which the intervention is immersed, binding together participants, words, gestures. Filaments of sorrow stretch across space and time, knitting a gauzy fabric strong enough to suspend us all above the abyss.

23 May 2007

Man of Sorrows Tour

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:27 am

The pursuit of happiness seems to generate a lot of depression. Maybe some of it is a cultural artifact: expectations of extreme happiness do tend to generate an emotional backlash. Or, the kinds of happiness the marketplace makes available also produce unhappiness that keeps the market stoked with ever more demand. Therapeutic interventions take all unhappiness seriously, and they try to make it go away. One of the things we all agree on: unhappiness is not something we desire.

Or is it? I’m kind of fascinated by the traditional Roman Catholic praxis of the Stations of the Cross, a simulacrum of Christ’s Via Dolorosa. The sequence of events of Christ’s death are captured in fourteen standardized pictorial images affixed, in two rows of seven, to the walls on either side of the sanctuary. The faithful “walk the stations,” stopping at each station, saying a prayer, contemplating the sorrow of Christ and his followers. It’s a meditative discipline of Catholic mysticism, a way of joining Christ vicariously in his sufferings. Through this ritualized mortification of self you can reduce your stay in the eternal waiting room called Purgatory and speed your trip to Paradise.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novel on which Blade Runner is based, Philip Dick explores a future in which Mercerism has become a popular religious praxis. This is another Dick book that seems to have disappeared from my shelves, so I can’t reference Mercer directly. Here’s the Wikipedia description:

Mercerism is a prominent religious/philosophical movement on Earth. The movement is based on the fable of Wilbur Mercer, a man who lived before the war. Adherents of Mercerism grip the handles of an electrically powered empathy box, while viewing a monitor which displays patterns that are meaningless until the handles are gripped. After a short interval the user’s senses are transported to the world of Wilbur Mercer, where they inhabit his mind in an experience shared with any other people using an empathy box at that moment.

Mercerism blends the concept of a life-death-rebirth deity with the values of unity and empathy. According to legend, Mercer had the power to revive dead animals, but local officials used radioactive cobalt to nullify the part of his brain where the ability originated. This forced Mercer into the “tomb world.” He strives to reverse the decay of the tomb world and ascend back to Earth by climbing an enormous hill. His adversaries throw rocks at him along the way (inflicting actual physical injuries on the adherents “fused” with Mercer), until he reaches the top, when the cycle starts again.

Mercerism is a collective high-tech delirium premised on the Stations of the Cross juxtaposed with the futile myth of Sisyphus. Why would future humans be drawn to this sort of thing? In part it’s because, in a society populated by increasingly humanoid robots, the capacity to feel empathic sorrow remains one of the only reliably distinguishing features of authentic humanity.

To delve into sorrow, even one’s personal sorrow, even someone else’s sorrow, even a projected simulation of sorrow, is to be gripped in the human embrace. There’s something horrible in the human condition, something grotesquely melancholy about the whole affair. We’re compulsively attracted to life, walking endlessly down the corridors of catatonia lik3 tourists in a ruin. (I just wond3r3d: could I l3arn to typ3 lik3 this as smoothly as I type like this?)

I once tried to tell a friend about a kind of practice I was considering, one that would encourage people to pursue difference for its own sake, or for the sake of an open universe. Doing this, I said, might not make the client any happier — in fact, it make the client even more unhappy. My friend was puzzled: why would anyone want to go for therapy that makes them unhappy? I conceded his point — but why does this idea keep coming back to me?

You are escorted into a sorrow that slides down the walls of the corridors. There may not even be any way to dig underneath it to the source, because the sorrow permeates and seals every surface. You bump into other people who seem to be part of the ride you’re on. There’s a gradual, nearly imperceptible incline, and when you get to the top you’re propelled down the slide right back to the tomb world. What if you keep doing this, over and over again? Would you change, or would it change? Would you be able to tell the difference?

So I’m picturing this ride, this Via Dolorosa. There are cinematic and literary source materials to draw on. The Stabat Mater would be playing on the sound system, at least long enough to set the mood. But it’s not a preprogrammed affair; each ride is different — that shouldn’t be hard to manage, because anywhere you set your foot down can be your first step up the hill. Maybe you’re bringing along a film crew, or a sketch pad, or a saxophone. You don’t know how many stations you’re going to stop at, or whether you’ll even recognize them when you come to them. Everything is on a slight incline, but it’s a featureless plateau, like driving west through Nebraska. The landscape might be richly inscribed with distinguishing features and trails, but you have to get out and walk in order to see them. Maybe they don’t even materialize until you get out and walk. It’s an Escher climb through a labyrinth without walls.

Let me be clear: I’m proposing this as a kind of therapeutic intervention, a psychological installation or interactive performance or theme park attraction. It’s a personal and idiosyncratic exploration of a universal sorrow. Maybe it’s an event from the past, maybe something even before memory. Maybe it’s everyday life as a constant sorrow. Maybe it’s a future tragedy, or an imagined one. I’m the tour guide; each session is a station; the stations count forward from one to some undetermined but fated last number. It’s aesthetic, politic, Catholic.

The line forms over to the right.

21 May 2007

Ten Pages of Carl Rogers

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:22 pm

Anne is reading Client-Centered Therapy by Carl Rogers (1951). Here are a couple bits she told me about that surprised me.

Rogers asked Miss Cam, one of his clients, to document her experience in therapy. After her fourth session she reported that she was finding it increasingly difficult to reflect on the therapeutic process:

” My energies are pretty well tied up in whatever process is going on, and it takes a tremendous effort to observe and record the proces: my instinct or impulse, or what have you, is all against analyzing and self-regarding — I’m much inclined to leave myself alone and just enjoy the results, or let them wash over me when I don’t enjoy them: some way or other, the whole counseling process seems to militate against any sort of introspection or preoccupation with self.”

Rogers makes this observation about his client’s reflections:

The client is, in the therapeutic hour, focusing all her attention upon self, to a degree that she has probably never known before. Yet this situation is experienced as a process which leads away from preoccupation with self. The question is worth raising as to whether therapy is not an experiencing of self, not an experience about self.

This speaks to a concern I expressed in my last post, that encouraging someone to talk about herself might just feed the addiction, encourage the obsession with oneself. Self-absorption is a way of reifying the ego as an object with a particular personality, status, self-image, history, resume of accomplishments, set of problems, plans for the future, etc. But maybe, if somebody is ready to listen to you regardless of your self-proclaimed right to be heard, you can get past all that.

During the fourth session Miss Cam experienced Rogers as “present” to her, indispensible to her happiness, someone with whom she entered into “a communion, a mutuality.” The next session didn’t go as well, and her reactions to Rogers were completely different:

“So flat and hopeless, like being up against a flat blank wall — immovable, impenetrable, unscalable, a dead end to life and growth, a sterile, uncaring wall of mystery cutting me off from myself… You might just as well not be there for all the good you can do… But you see, last time your face suddenly looked different — as if it had been black with coal dust, and then was washed clean to reveal an altogether unexpected freshness and individuality… And there’s something awfully wrong and confusing about the way you look to me now. I keep wanting to rub my eyes, as if I were brushing away cobwebs. And I’d like to wash your face. I can see it with black coal dust, and it’s a little relief to imagine taking lots of soap and water and a nice rough cloth and washing it shiny clean.”

Now Rogers consciously presents himself as pleasantly engaged and supportive in these sessions, without revealing much about himself. Miss Cam’s description of him during this fifth session illustrates, says Rogers, the strenuous process of alteration of self… a basic and extensive reorganization of self. Rogers says that clients often perceive others, including the therapist, in the same way that they perceive themselves. He regards this alternation in Miss Cam’s perceptions of him as pure projection. But isn’t it possible that Rogers is always unconsciously projecting himself as both personas, as the supportive, reflective guide in the voyage of self-discovery, and the unresponsive, indifferent blank wall? The client attunes to one virtual Carl Rogers on visit four, and the other one on visit five.

Miss Cam continued reflecting on her fifth session later in the day, which took the form of a visual image of Rogers’ face:

“As I looked at your face, it was as if a hand reached out and quite literally peeled a heavy shadow away from it, revealing the fresh, individual face which I was so disappointed to lose this afternoon. It was the most extraordinarily vivid experience, it wouldn’t be at all adequate to say it was like a hallucination — it was a hallucination. Not the face, that is, that was just a vivid memory, but the shadow of my own feelings, which I had projected on it… And that explains the haunting, but elusive sense I’ve had of something odd and baffling in your appearance, so that I’ve been torn between nervous reluctance to look at you, and a desire to stare and stare in hopes of dispelling the enigma. Then there were two or three times when I would have sworn you laughed, but when I looked you were perfectly sober, and you quite obviously hadn’t and couldn’t have been even smiling. And on one of those occasions when I looked at you, something seemed to move rapidly from your face towards my left hand and disappear.”

Rogers said he was surprised that Miss Cam found this fifth session to have been so intense, and so different from the prior one. Though he regarded Miss Cam’s hallucinations as unusual, he wasn’t particularly disturbed by them.

In general, in clients undergoing drastic self-reorganization, behaviors which would be labeled as ‘psychotic’ from a diagnostic frame of reference are encountered with some frequency. When one sees these behaviors from the internal frame of reference their functional meaning appears so clear that it becomes incomprehensible that they should be regarded as symptoms of a ‘disease.’ To regard all behavior as the meaningful attempt of the organism to adjust to itself and to its environment — this appears more fruitful for understanding personality processes than to try to categorize some behaviors as abnormal, or as constituting disease entities.

Here Rogers’ observations remind me both of Lacan and of Deleuze & Guattari. Lacan reinterprets symptoms as expressions of the unconscious trying to make itself heard and accepted by the Big Other, who is represented by the therapist. And Deleuze & Guattari speak of this radical restructuring of the self as “schizoanalysis,” a kind of controlled psychotic process. The self becomes “deterritorialized,” stripped of its usual ways of understanding itself, temporarily blurring the boundaries between inside and outside, between self and other. It’s only by undergoing this schizoid experience that the self is able to “reterritorialize” itself in some less repressive way.

I’ve been thinking about Rogers as kind of a square. Maybe I’m wrong.

19 May 2007

Nothing Really

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:40 pm

The client comes into the office. She’s here to talk, and you’re here to listen. You’re sure she talks all the time, to everyone she knows, but it’s never enough. Sure they listen, but they don’t really listen, not really listen. They listen for awhile, and then they talk about themselves. They listen for a minute, then they change the channel, change the topic, you know? Yes, you know.

I have this friend, she lives up in Winchester, she spends every cent on clothes. She wants to spend the summer in Australia, I don’t know, she doesn’t know anybody in Australia, and do I want to go with her? Well sure I’d love to go, I’ve never been to Australia, but two weeks? I mean, what would we do? The beach, the shops, the bars. Alicia took a trip to Australia, she positively loved it. But she went with her boyfriend, so what do you expect? They broke up as soon as they got back, just as soon as they got back. She showed me the pictures. I want to see some places, but I don’t know, Australia? I don’t have anything to wear, and that’s bullshit because I don’t care. But this friend, she’s a maniac about clothes, you know she’ll have everything and I’ll have nothing. She’s not all that cute you know, kind of a big nose, kind of a strange little thing on the side of her face, I don’t know. I like her a lot, but two weeks? We went to the auto show together once, which was ridiculous, but we had kind of a fun time. Mustang. She was talking about getting a Mustang. I don’t remember.

She writes her check, smiles, walks out the door. Why does she come here? She could talk to the Mustang, she could talk to the Australian. She could sit here in an empty room and talk and talk and no one would complain. There is absolutely nothing you can say.

There are fat people who want to be thin, depressed people who want to be happy. They are fat because they want to be thin, depressed because they want to be happy. Or because they want to be fat, want to be depressed.

Well Tom Waits he don’t wanna grow up. He don’t wanna put no money down, don’t wanna get him a big old loan, work them fingers to the bone, fall in love and get married then boom! how the hell did it get here so soon?

If there was revolution would anyone come talk to you about it? Would they wonder out loud about the dangers of taking sides? Would they talk like they were under interrogation, as if they’d been tortured then isolated for three weeks and now they’re shown into your office and they’re ready to talk want to talk? Would they talk in code like gnostics hoping you could interpret and not tell the authorities? Would they try to guess which side you were really on? If the revolution itself came in the door and wanted to talk, would you be able to keep your mouth shut?

When you write it down like that, somebody’s always coming in the room to look at it and you put it away quickly but smoothly, slip it into the bottom drawer like you’re not really hiding anything but just done with some ordinary activity and now you look up expectantly ready for whatever it is they want to say. They want to look at it, that’s why you have it there, so they’ll want to see. It’s just something you write when there’s nobody there. It’s your suicide note, it’s your confession, it’s your last words, it’s nothing really.

There will be no revolution, at least not one you’d be able to recognize. If it’s talking to you now it’s not saying anything.

18 May 2007

The Unconscious that Surrounds Us

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 1:37 pm

Two posts ago we looked at Donnel Stern’s contention that “all thought is unconscious thought.” Stern characterizes the unconscious as an unstructured array of ideas, memories, sensations, imaginings, and patterns that organize themselves into structured ideas and words in the instant that we think and speak them. But do all our thoughts come up from underneath, from inside our heads? What about the thoughts that surround us, the vast array of ideas, patterns, events, images and artifacts in which we are immersed? The unconscious isn’t just inside our heads; our heads are inside the unconscious.

In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze & Guattari describe the source of creation as a congeries of unstructured but active desires. Desires are inside us, operating as instincts and drives, but desires are also outside us, imposing structure on us through societal constraints. In contrast, the unconscious of Freud is populated only by the repressed desires, driven below the threshold of consciousness by nurture and conscience, where they fester as neurotic symptoms. Are these unconscious desires intrinsically corrupt, or have they been driven underground by the despotic desires of a corrupting culture?

It is said that the unconscious is dark and somber. Reich and Marcuse are often reproached for their “Rousseauism,” their naturalism: a conception of the unconscious that is thought to be too idyllic. But doesn’t one lend to the unconscious horrors that could only be those of consciousness, and of a belief too sure of itself? Would it be an exaggeration to say that in the unconscious there is necessarily less cruelty and terror, and of a different type, than in the consciousness of an heir, a soldier, a Chief of State? It is not the slumber of reason that engenders monsters, but vigilant and insomniac rationality. The unconscious is Rousseauistic, being man-nature. And how much malice and ruse there are in Rousseau! Trangression, guilt, castration: are these determinations of the unconscious, or is this the way a priest sees things?

For D&G the unconscious is productive. Desires emerge from the unconscious in ways that can be fulfilled, and that create rather than dissipate in their fulfillment. Lacan and Freud, following Hegel, characterizes desire as lack. D&G regard lack not as intrinsic to desire, but as imposed from outside by culture.

From the moment lack is introduced into desire, all of desiring-production is crushed, reduced to being no more than the production of fantasy… From the moment desire is welded again to the law — we needn’t point out what is known since time began, that there is no desire without law — the eternal operation of eternal repression recommences… but the sign of desire is never a sign of the law, it is a sign of strength… From the moment desire is made to depend on the signifier, it is put back under the yoke of despotism whose effect is castration, there where one recognizes the stroke of the signifier itself; but the sign of desire is never signifying, it exists in the thousands of break-flows that never allow themselves to be signified within the unary stroke of castration.

D&G’s schizoanalytic project entails disconnecting desire from law and from the symbolic order, letting it find its own way with out being castrated by the social order. They don’t necessarily regard all desires as joy-producing machines, but desires do produce something, and that something is incipiently revolutionary. At the same time, D&G don’t deny the inextricable link between desire and law. The idea is that desires carve laws into the culture as another creative act, a la Nietzsche — and desires can also destroy laws and replace them periodically. In regarding desire as real rather than symbolic, generative rather than expressive, Wilhelm Reich is recruited by D&G as an ally.

The strength of Reich consists in having shown how psychic repression depended on social repression… The family is indeed the delegated agent of this psychic repression, insofar as it ensures [quoting Reich] ‘a mass psychological reproduction of the economic system of a society.’ Of course it should not be concluded from this that desire is Oedipal. On the contrary, it is the social repression of desire or sexual repression — that is, the stasis of libidinal energy — that actualizes Oedipus and engages desire in this requisite impasse, organized by the repressive society.

Tyrannical culture territorializes desire, forcing it into subjection to despotic laws and into production of economic commodities. In a prior post we saw how Nietzsche traced the mythic origins of the societal punitive repression apparatus to an economic calculus of cruelty. A creditor finds compensation in the pleasure of inflicting pain and humiliation on the defaulting debtor. For a credit-based economy to operate what’s required is memory: the debtor has to remember that he owes, that he has made a promise to repay his debt. To create memory where there previously had been none, severe measures were required. And so it is, say D&G, that governmental power is and always has been exercised in service of the economically powerful. This power pushes its way down to the lowest social units, the family, where the father wields this cruel punitive power over the subjected children, creating a social construct that promotes fantasies of Oedipus, patricide, castration anxiety. Say D&G:

Cruelty has nothing to do with some ill-defined or natural violence that might be commissioned to explain the history of mankind: cruelty is the movement of culture that is realised in bodies and inscribed on them, belabouring them. That is what cruelty means. The culture is not the movement of ideology; on the contrary it forcibly inserts desire into social production and reproduction. For even death, punishment and torture are desired, and are instances of production (compare the history of fatalism). It makes men or their organs into the parts and wheels of the social machine.

Is the economy a collective manifestation of cruel desire, immanent in human nature, the driving force behind creation-as-production, always the main organizing principle of human society? Certainly capital has been the dominant territorializing force for a very long time. D&G subsume Oedipus and castration and lack under this economic calculus of cruelty. This would place Lacan and Freud and Hegel and the entire psychopathology of lack inside the capitalist structure of society rather than innately inside the individual human psyche. Structures that serve capital constitute one among many possible manifestations of cruel desire directed by will. Nietzsche singles out the cruelty of parents inflicting punishment on their children just for the fun of it: this could be an artifact of capital territorialization, but you get the sense from Nietzsche that the opportunity to torture the weak is hard to pass up, that economic discipline is a post hoc justification for the sheer joy of cruelty.

Why do D&G use the term “production” rather than “creation” as that which is freed through territorialization? Are they saying that it’s always the economic nightmare that’s loosed on the world? Or are they saying that production is a primal operation of desires inscribing themselves on the world, and that the economic structures have co-opted them? I’m not sure. Similarly they use the term “engine” for something that produces, even though they use the term “organ” interchangeably with it. Why this particular vocabulary? Is desiring creation the same force as economic production?

Could it be that the identity in nature is at its highest point in the order of modern capitalist representation, because the identity is univerally realised in the immanence of this order and in the fluxion of the decoded flows? But also that the difference in régime is greatest in the capitalist order of representation, and that this representation subjects desire to an operation of social repression-psychic repression that is stronger than any other, because, by means of the immanence and the decoding, antiproduction has spread throughout all of productio, instead of remaining localised in the system, and has freed a fantastic death instinct that now permeates and crushes desire? And what is this death that always rises from without – and that, in the case of capitalism, rises with all the more power as one still fails to see exactly what this outside is that will cause it to arrive? In short, the general theory of society is the generalised theory of flows; it is in terms of the latter that one must consdier the relationship of social production to desiring-production, the variations of this relationship in each case, and the limits of this relationship in the capitalist system… there is no social formation that does not foresee, or experience a foreboding of, the real form in which the limit [capitalism] threatens to arrive, and which it wards off with all the strength at its command. Whence the obstancy with which the formations preceeding capitalism encaste the merchant and the technician, preventing flows of money and flows of productoon from assuming an autonomy that would destroy their codes. Such is the real limit.

As I read Deleuze & Guattari, capital is latent in production, and it might even be inevitable, but capital doesn’t exhaust production or limit its other virtual manifestations. A piece of experimental science can, through the application of capitalist know-how, be turned into a technological breakthrough that’s mass produced, mass distributed, and presented to consumers as a must-have. But latent in that same piece of science might be the seeds for another bit of scientific breakthrough. Both virtual futures can become actualized simultaneously. Desires can become transformed into the pursuit of happiness and mimesis and lack by capital, but those same desires can also aim toward creation and destruction and fulfillment.

D&G propose a universe of countless molecular self-propelling desires careening around looking for surfaces to inscribe — canvases, selves, physical landscapes, stone tablets, societies. It gives D&G a philosophically satisfying bottom-up assembly line for complexity and difference, but it feels impersonal and inhuman in scope. Humans are the only species to care about such things, and humans are intrinsically, latently, virtually (and perhaps lamentably) social. We desire the desire of the other, says Hegel, and he’s right — but not just in the distorted desire for plenitude-of-self that ends in lack and submission to the ultimate Master. Even infants learn only by taking the other’s perspective on the world, and the other can teach only by taking the infant’s perspective. Most human desires are directed toward the other and can be reciprocated and fulfilled most effectively not in the subpersonal or egoistic registers but interpersonally. Even desires aimed into the world presume some fulfillment in the other: a scientific breakthrough that desires to be understood, a wine that desires to be savored.

D&G reference Reich’s dream and support it:

The product of analysis should be a free and joyous person, a carrier of the life flows, capable of carrying them all the way into the desert and decoding them… Shit on your whole mortifying, imaginary, and symbolic theater. What does schizoanalysis ask? Nothing more than a bit of a relation to the outside, a little reality.

But even by getting the ego to step aside you end up with a very individualistic, self-gratifying procedure. Late capitalism works as a collective desire-management system by constructing a mutually reinforcing desire-fulfillment circuitry among individual pleasure-seeking nodes that fuel the machine by their life flows. So what if there’s some capitalist taking a little excess jouissance out of the system as a fee for keeping the machinery running? This drain off the system keeps the economy of lack functioning. Besides, there’s always more desire to be coaxed out of the engine.

D&G write with a surreal-schizoid style that fits the material. And they do finish the story with a happy futuristic ending populated by liberated creatives. Instead of a post-apocalyptic dystopia they offer an apocalypse that ushers in a utopia of ever-unfolding differance. I’d love to live in that future full of creative revolutionaries continually re-creating the world, as long a few of these heroes actually find a measure of fulfillment through my own creations.

17 May 2007

Who’s Hot?

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:31 pm

Who’s the hottest postmodern philosopher in the blogosphere: Zizek, Deleuze, or Lacan? The envelope please…

Thanks to Odile for the IceRocket link. Any other hot topics of interest? Enter them in “blog trend tool” on the site, then put up the 2-month posts-per-day totals in a comment.

16 May 2007

Out of Competition

Filed under: Movies, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:57 am

The sixtieth annual Cannes Film Festival begins today. Here’s my memoir of the fifty-seventh Festival…

Years ago Carla had been a make-up artist in Hollywood; her husband Mateo is a cinematographer. They met on a shoot – apparently the lead actor showed up for work in a drugged stupor half the time, giving the crew a lot of time to get to know each other. A production assistant of that long-forgotten movie had single-handedly withstood the onslaught of utter chaos, an accomplishment that led to his subsequent rise in the industry. Now, fifteen years later, he was a major producer with a film in competition at Cannes. He was gay, and he needed an escort for the red-carpet walk and the fabulous party his studio would be throwing. Carla was an hour’s flight away, in Florence.

I sometimes wonder why I’ve never found myself attracted to Carla. She looks great, and she flirts flagrantly. According to her testimony, the most unlikely of mutual friends has grabbed her ass repeatedly, and I don’t doubt it. It is, I have frequently had occasion to observe, a rather bony ass – I presume she has an eating disorder. Not that I have anything against skinny women. I could imagine her biting my dick off then laughing maniacally as she spit it out onto the floor, one scrawny bangled forearm smearing the blood down her chin. Even in our historically arms-length friendship Carla had established an intermittent yet persistent pattern of volatility. She would react with verbal violence to perceived slights, and she seemed to enjoy provoking people, even strangers. Even me. Toward Mateo she was nearly always caustic; when they were together he usually looked like he had a headache just above his right eye. I assumed that he probably had a fling now and then, and that the extensive travel schedule wasn’t least among the many things that Mateo liked about his work. Still, I couldn’t see him leaving her. I felt fairly sure that if they ever separated it would be Carla’s doing.

The last time we’d seen Carla she’d seemed exultant. Careening through the narrow roads in her little European car, jabbering animatedly into the cell phone she held in one hand while with the other making obscene gestures out the window at the drivers she cut off, Carla seemed hell-bent on out-Italianing the Italians. Some mutual friends had stopped by to see us after a few days in Florence, and they seemed vaguely worried about Carla. Did it seem to us that maybe Carla took a little too much wine with lunch and dinner? I hadn’t noticed anything. Besides, it’s Europe, for God’s sake – you eat, you talk, you drink. I had sent her a hunk of my first novel. “It’s brilliant, of course,” she had told me over the phone. I wondered if she still held this exalted opinion of my stuff once I’d told her what the friend-of-a-friend New York agent said about the first five chapters. In my courteous reply to that pompous bastard I’d observed that, since I rarely read books written in the last forty years, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by “experimental fiction,” but I figured that unmarketability must be the definitive symptom of the disease.

Anne and I got together for lunch with Carla and her producer friend down on the zone pietonne. The day felt familiar: meandering crowds of people watching each other, an enjoyable and leisurely meal of uninspired cooking, a drunken young Frenchman yelling at us in passable English – “I am a Jewish man, I love America, I have four beers.” The producer seemed amiable if not particularly communicative – “oh wow” was his usual observation about anything anyone had to say. By contrast Carla’s effusiveness seemed positively manic. She wasn’t quite satisfied with the ensemble she’d brought for the Saturday night following the producer’s premiere, when they would dine with exclusive company aboard the world’s largest yacht. We paid a visit to our friend at the Chanel shop, but I don’t think Carla could focus her attention long enough to look around, let alone buy. She and the vendeuse were obviously sizing each other up. Both are beautiful women, but in very different ways: one muted and subtle and languid, a figure in a Monet; the other sharply edged in black hair, porcelain skin, blood-red lips.

The plan was this: Saturday afternoon, before the screening, Anne, Kenzie and I would show up at the door of the exclusive beachfront hotel on Cap d’Antibes where Carla was staying — the very hotel where, not at all coincidentally, the Fitzgeralds and their entourage created the Riviera, or at least the version of the Riviera that captivated the imaginations of two or three generations of Americans. Of course we weren’t on The List, so Carla would have to meet us at the front gate. Then we would have lunch and hang around the hotel together, gawking at the stars and listening to Carla gossip about the first two days of the festival.

We would have proven a grave disappointment to Fitzgerald fans. We had no wardrobe. We had no car – our flat was right downtown so we didn’t often need one; and besides, parking cost a fortune in that densely-packed strip of urban space squeezed between the Mediterranean and the Alps. Also we had no money. Or, more accurately, every day we had less of it, with fewer prospects for replenishing the dwindling supply. It’s hard to remember sometimes, but at the time we regarded our small European life as a kind of deliverance. We would not be arriving in style at the grand Riviera hotel, springing from the limousine, lavishly tipping the bellmen who opened all the doors just for us. No, it would be the train for us that Saturday. Now I love trains; to me Europe means trains. Humphrey Bogart smokes in the cold rain at a Paris station, waiting for a woman – this, not Scott and Zelda at the beach tossing back too many highballs, was the Europe of my imagination. Only that day I wasn’t heading for Paris or Barcelona, the kind of passage where even people like me, with boring clothes and flat American accents, can regard themselves as sophisticated world travelers. Instead I was riding the local commuter run, busy weekdays shunting people to work or school or the shops in Cannes and Nice and Monaco, but a pretty desolate operation on Saturday at noon. With its grimy windows and gouged seats and spray-tagged walls, the cars looked like they’d be right at home on a southside branch of the Chicago El.

Carla was going to get her hair and nails done that Saturday morning, then she would call so we could arrange our rendezvous. We waited until eleven: no call. I figured we’d better get started anyway, so we’d be in position when the call finally came. Just before we set off to catch the train we decided to call Carla on her cell: no answer. “It’ll be fun,” I reassured myself.

The ten-minute walk to the Gare Central took us down the Rue d’Italie through the African district, its vegetable markets and patisseries and Hallal bucheries lively and boisterous, the unidentifiable aromas from the Moroccan and Reunion Island cafes infusing me with their exotic funk. We climbed the steps to the Avenue Thiers, lined with sex shops and pharmacies and Chinese fast-food joints, then crossed over to the station. At the automated ticket-dispensing machine I dialed in my destination – Juan les Pins, the stop nearest Cap d’Antibes and the last one before Cannes – and payed the fare with my French credit card. The train pulled in on time and nearly empty – there didn’t seem to be many cinéastes and glitterati riding the rails to the Festival. We chose seats facing each other, from which we caught intermittent glimpses of the sea along the short run through Cagnes-sur-Mer and Antibes to Juan Les Pins.

We called Carla from the train: no answer. We called again when we got off: no answer. Maybe our phone isn’t working? We found a pay phone just outside the station: no answer. Maybe Carla’s phone isn’t working? A shopkeeper looked up the hotel’s number for us: no answer in her room, monsieur; would you care to leave a message at the desk? Sure. We began the slow and pointless stroll through Juan Les Pins, heading generally toward the esplanade. From there we could take either a bus or a cab out to the Cap and the splendid hotel. If worse came to worst we could walk, which I figured was two kilometers from the station, tops. It was May, the weather was perfect – what better way to spend a late Saturday morning than promenading along one of the most beautiful stretches of seacoast in the world?

As it turned out, of course, we never did make it out onto the Cap. We looked in at a couple of boutiques. Anne placed another phone call from the lobby of a small hotel while Kenzie and I watched an elegant Italian family and a Texan wearing skin-tight jeans and a white cowboy hat check in. Eventually we had lunch at an outdoor place where the Cap begins jutting into the sea. I thought about walking the rest of the way, just showing up at the hotel and taking our chances, but decided against it. Instead we headed the other direction, along a walkway embedded with handprints left behind by musicians who over the years had performed at the summer jazz festival in Juan. Louis Armstrong. Django Reinhart. Miles Davis. We made three more phone calls.

Sitting on the pier we could see the cluster of yachts moored just off the end of the Cap, each one serviced by launches shuttling guests between ship and shore. Below us fish glinted sunlit reflections in the clear turquoise phosphorescence. An old man with a cigarette dangling from his lower lip held a fishing line over the side; he shared a tall can of beer with a couple of his copains. I may have dozed off. Out of nowhere a pontoon boat pulled up to the end of the pier, disgorging its cargo of American and European tourists. After a time the old pêcheur reeled one in. “Felicitations,” I called out to him, and he nodded a dignified acknowledgment. He unhooked the fish, laid it carefully in the small styrofoam cooler, and walked slowly away.

At about four thirty Carla called. Up late, took a nap, didn’t hear the phone, never got any messages. You know my cell is Italian, so you have to dial the country code first. No? Oh well, we’re leaving for the opening in forty minutes. Too bad it didn’t work out. Oops, Cameron’s at the door, she wants to borrow a dress. Ciao.

When we got home I picked up a pizza from the guy who bakes them in a van permanently parked on the street about a block from our place. There’s a hole punched in the roof of the van with a chimney sticking out of it, for venting the oven.

We never heard what Cannes was like. No, I take that back. We heard about Mick Jagger ordering a full English breakfast in the hotel restaurant. We heard about some blasted studio executive singing like a crazy man out on the yacht. Mateo told Carla she ought to write about the festival on her blog. She said it was a good idea, but she never did it. As a matter of fact, I don’t think she ever made another posting to that blog after Cannes.

15 May 2007

All Thought Is Unconscious

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:36 pm

Awhile back Ron Wright recommended Unformulated Experience (2003) by Donnel Stern as a psychoanalyst who engages postmodern hermeneutical theory. In the first section of the book Stern offers a reinterpretation of the unconscious, which is the subject of this post.

In traditional psychoanalytic theory, the unconscious is a reservoir of past meaningful experience. The unconscious is already structured in the mind — it might even be structured like a language, as Lacan claims. We can in fact represent the unconscious content in language — if we would allow it. But we’ve erected barriers between the unconscious and consciousness, protecting us from thoughts and memories we’d rather not acknowledge. However, the unconscious is always shaping our desires, feelings and behaviors — it’s the true source of our motivations even if we don’t realize it. The work of traditional psychoanalysis is to “tame” the unconscious by bringing it into conscious awareness, where it can be incorporated into the controlling ego. In Lacanian analysis the work is to allow the unconscious to be recognized as a part of the self by giving it voice in verbal language.

Stern contends that the unconscious is not prestructured. Thoughts and memories are scattered across the neural network in a loose and fluid matrix. The process of bringing this material into consciousness is specifically to impose structure and meaning on it. Because this is so, the same unconscious materials can be consciously assembled in a variety of different ways and assigned different meanings. It’s not that this experience was once structured in a particular way and that the structure has been erased by the unconscious. Rather, the unconscious is the realm of “unformulated experience.”

Well-formed cognitions do not exist in or behind the unformulated states that precede them. Rather, the well-formed version remains to be shaped. The unformulated is not yet knowable in the separate and definable terms of language. Unformulated material is composed of vague tendencies; if allowed to develop to the point at which they can be shaped and articulated, these become the more lucid kind of reflective experience we associate with mutually comprehended verbal articulations.

The unconscious isn’t empty. It’s not that consciousness can make up any old thing. The unconscious isn’t empty; it is the content that must be shaped and explicated. In the unconscious are recollections, images, behavior sequences, ideas, impressions, feelings, imaginings, and so on. But the content swirls around in an inchoate state, adaptable to any number of virtual meanings that can pull them together into a coherent pattern.

If we are asked exactly what is unformulated in unformulated experience, then, we can say that it is meaning. When we accomplish a new formulation, we have created a new meaning. Sometimes a new meaning entails new perceptions, memories, fantasies, and so on; sometimes it does not.

Some unconscious experiences are indeed repressed, just like Freud said. Others are never allowed to take shape meaningfully; they remain in a state of “familiar chaos.” It’s safer sometimes to remain stupid rather than face the consequences of letting ourselves understand something that’s unsettling or potentially devastating. The refusal to formulate is quite simple; one just restricts one’s freedom of thought, and the “offending” experience is never created. We remain embedded in the familiar, not willing to allow our curiosity to rock the boat.

Another kind of unformulated experience is what Stern calls “creative disorder.” Imagine you’re an American visiting a foreign country and you want to know what your new friend thinks about George Bush. You know a little of the language, but you’re far from fluent. You think about what you want to ask, you construct a simple sentence in English, then you substitute the foreign words for the English ones. Now you’re ready to ask (but probably totally incapable of understanding the answer if it involves anything more than head-shaking). This sort of sentence construction is explicitly not based on creative disorder. In America you don’t have to go through all these contortions. As soon as the possibility of asking the question comes to mind you have the words to express it. The question becomes the entree to a potentially free-ranging conversation in which both parties draw on their memory, beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge, in which each person’s response opens up a whole new horizon of available topics and interpretations. The ideas coalesce in the act of thinking; the words align themselves in the speaking.

We have no choice but to wait for what the following moment will reveal. Quite literally, we do not know what we will think next. Thoughts, images, and feelings come to us; they arrive; one feels like a conduit. We are used to the notion that ideas simply arrive in the mind of the genius. The madman, too. But the idea that everyone thinks this way is less familiar… The “unconscious thought” revealed in artistic inspiration and creative dreams is not as unusual or mysterious as it seems. These events are best understood as particularly graphic and dramatic instances of a process that occurs with regularity, and in waking hours as often as in sleep. All thought, in this sense, is unconscious thought.

Stern quotes French essayist an poet Paul Valery on the way in which newly-created ideas and phrases emerge from the vaguely virtual realm of the unconscious:

The instability, incoherence, inconsequence of which I spoke which trouble and limit the mind in any sustained effort of construction or composition, are just as surely also treasures of possibility, whose riches it senses in its vicinity at the very moment when it is consulting itself. These are the mind’s reserves, from which anything may come, its reasons for hoping that the solution, the signal, the image, or the missing word may be nearer at hand than it seems. The mind can always feel in the darkness around it the truth or the decision it is looking for, which it knows to be at the mercy of the slightest thing, of that very meaningless disorder which seemed to divert it and banish it indefinitely… Disorder is the condition of the mind’s fertility: it contains the mind’s promise, since its fertility depends on the unexpected rather than the expected, on what we do not know, and because we do not know it, than on what we know.

14 May 2007

Psychotherapy as Modern Artifact

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:12 am

People have interpersonal desires for affection, sex, learning, communication, recognition, affiliation. These desires aim outward, seeking fulfillment in other people. People also have affordances for satisfying others’ desires. In interactions we spend a lot of time navigating the force fields of desire and affordance, moving forward slightly if there seems to be reciprocity, backing off if we sense resistance. We look for mutual attunement: by tentatively expressing our desires we seem to activate the virtual fulfillment we detect in others’ affordances, while at the same time their desires seem to detect and to elicit our affordances. Through small cycles of reciprocal desire and fulfillment we gradually we move closer together, setting aside the barriers we ordinarily maintain to protect ourselves.

In a therapeutic relationship the therapist responds positively to the client’s desire to be accepted, acknowledged, understood. The therapist is interested in the client, curious, involved, seeking to see things from the client’s perspective. The client gradually lowers his barriers, becomes more open and honest, receptive to the therapist. All this seems perfectly natural. Why, then, is it necessary to speak of transference? Why should the therapist assume that the client is recreating past relationships when he seeks to fulfill his desires through the therapist? The cues of reciprocal attunement are in play; this is a forward movement toward closer intimacy at least as much as it is a backward plunge into the past.

But the therapist is committed to the rule of abstinence, not succumbing to the client’s desire for love, or even to the therapist’s own desire reveal himself reciprocally in the evolving relationship. Faced with the therapist’s anomalous juxtaposition of receptivity and remoteness, he client becomes confused, frustrated, angry, resistant. The blocked flow of the client’s desire and his efforts to overcome the frustration becomes the main focus of analysis, revealing ways in which the client relates to the therapist in ways that repeat the client’s frustrated relationships with others in the past. In The Technique and Practice of Psychoanalysis (1967), Ralph Greenson writes:

The task is to get the reasonable ego of the patient to realize that his transference feelings are unrealistic, are based on a fantasy, and have some ulterior motive. Then the patient will be more willing to work on his feelings, to try to explore them with the aim of tracing them back to his past life.

The therapeutic relationship plays itself out simultaneously in two registers: the transference and the working alliance. Greenson again:

The working alliance is the relatively nonneurotic, rational relationship between patient and analyst which makes it possible for the patient to work purposefully in the analytic relationship… The clinical manifestations of this working alliance are the patient’s willingness to carry out the various procedures of psychoanalysis and his ability to work analytically with the regressive and painful insights which arise. The alliance is formed between the patient’s reasonable ego and the analyst’s analyzing ego. The significant occurrence is a partial and temporary identification that the patient makes with the analyst’s attitude and method of work which the patient experiences firsthand in the regular analytic sessions… The patient’s ability to form a relatively rational, desexualized, and de-aggressified relationship to the analyst stems from his capacity to have formed such neutralized relationships in his past life. The analyst contributes to the working alliance by his consistent emphasis on understanding and insight, by his continual analysis of the resistances, and by his compassionate, empathic, straightforward, and nonjudgmental attitudes… The analyst’s way of working, his therapeutic style, and the analytic setting produce an “analytic atmosphere,” which is an important means of inducing the patient to accept on trial something hitherto repelled. This atmosphere promotes the working alliance and entices the patient temporarily and partially to identify with the analyst’s analytic point of view.

You could say that the therapeutic relationship too is predicated on reciprocal transference and countertransference. The therapist projects onto the client a persona compiled from prior training and experience and professional intent; the client, also based on prior experience, responds by identifying himself with the therapist’s professional persona. Both therapist and client enter into the analytic atmosphere, a particular kind of interpersonal environment in which the client is induced to act in ways he would ordinarily find repulsive.The client plays a double role with the therapist. In the working relationship the client’s “reasonable ego” aligns himself with the therapist’s “analyzing ego,” oriented toward accomplishing the work of analysis. In the transference relationship the analyst’s analyzing ego aligns himself with the client’s neurotically regressive experiencing ego in working through the transference. For therapy to progress the client must oscillate between the working relationship and the neurotic transference, between the reasonable ego and the neurotic ego. The therapist, on the other hand, sustains the analyzing ego even during the client’s regressive, neurotic transference. Says Greenson: The relative anonymity of the analyst, his nonintrusiveness, the so-called “rule of abstinence,” and the “mirrorlike” behavior of the analyst all have the effect of preserving a relatively uncontaminated field for the budding transference neurosis. In other words, the therapist tries to present the client with a neutral but observing presence, ensuring that the transference flows exclusively from client to therapist without being triggered or shaped by the analyst’s behavior or affect. All the while, of course, the analytic atmosphere is embedded in a primal interpersonal environment continually traversed by unconscious flows of desire and affordance, continually converging and diverging in a limitless flux of virtual realities.

A third relationship exists between client and therapist: the “real” relationship. The transference relationship, while genuine, is neither realistic nor appropriate, being predicated on a repetition of the client’s prior experiences in other relationships. The working alliance is both realistic and appropriate, but it’s an artifact of the professional nature of the transaction and the analytic atmosphere established by the therapist. But there is always a real relationship that exists virtually between therapist and client, a mutual recognition that they are human beings with personalities and lives (and desires and affordances) outside (and inside) the therapy. Though the therapist attempts to present himself as a professional and a neutral transference object, his real self occasionally (always) peeks through. Similarly, the client can (will) engage the therapist not strictly as a professional or a transference object but as a real conversational partner. For the therapist to deny his “real self” to the client is to take therapeutic neutrality and abstinence into a kind of cryogenic inhumanity. Greenson again: For the analyst to work effectively and happily in the field of psychoanalysis it is important that his analytic and physicianly attitudes be derived essentially from his real relationship to the patient.

Superimposed on an interactional environment traversed by desires and affordances, the complexity of the therapeutic relationship is striking. It’s an incredibly sophisticated cultural artifact, demanding stylized and carefully nuanced choreography of both partners in the interaction. Though therapy seeks te elicit covert, regressive, irrational, chaotic, unconscious responses from the client, the relationship that facilitates these reactions is explicit, progressive, rational, disciplined, conscious. The theory is comprehensive, integrated, systematic; the praxis and the analytic atmosphere are thoroughly professsionalized, embedded in transactional exchanges of the market economy.

In short, this sort of analytic therapy is a characteristic production of high/late modernity. That isn’t an indictment; it’s merely an interpretation.

12 May 2007

An Environment Charged with Desire

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:06 pm

This is a further elaboration of Gibson’s theory of affordances outlined in yesterday’s post. Here I extend the ideas to the understanding of human desires.

All animals are genetically equipped with desires. These desires begin as surviving-machines — inboard motors that enhance the likelihood of the animal transmitting its genes to the next generation. An animal’s desires are “aimed” at the environment in which the animal lives, seeking fulfillment in features of the environment that afford survival and reproduction. So: an animal’s desire to eat seeks its fulfillment in things in the environment that afford nourishment. If the animal has no desire to eat it will not survive. If the animal desires to eat foods that are non-nutritious or toxic to its species, the animal will not survive. Genes that induce the animal specifically to desire nourishing foods (e.g. through visual attraction or taste pleasure) would persist in the gene pool; genes that cause the animal to desire toxic foods would not persist.

The animal’s innate desires have been shaped by features of the environment that can fulfill those desires. Perception and action are selectively drawn to these environmental affordances. Affordances are real, existing in the environment as virtual satisfiers of desire; they become actualized when an animal’s desire is drawn to them.

Many of our desires are “aimed” toward other people for their fulfillment. We look to other humans for protection, for learning about the world, for affiliation, for affection, for procreation, for communication, for learning about ourselves. These desires too have been shaped through evolution, genetically passed on to us as motivations to surive and to reproduce. Our desires are attracted to the affordances that other people possess for fulfilling our desires. Everyone else is a virtual fulfiller of our desires, actualized when our desires are drawn to them.

Because we individually are “other” to everyone else, we are also virtual fulfillers of others’ desires. We afford protection, friendship, learning opportunities, sex, conversation — virtual fulfillments of others’ desires, actualized when their desires are drawn to us.

We aren’t isolated atoms traversing the world, occasionally bouncing off or sticking to another atom. We are always immersed in the environment, an environment in which our species evolved and to which we are genetically suited, an environment full of objects and other people that afford virtual fulfillments of our desires. As we move through the environment one or more desires may become activated in us. Then we move through the environment attuned to the multiple virtual fulfillments that the environment affords. The environment becomes charged with desire. Things and people possess features that now attract our attention; they emerge from the flux as virtual fulfillments of our desire. And we are predisposed to respond to their attraction — as if the environment desires our desire.

At the same time we are always also part of the environment. We possess affordances for fulfilling others’ desires. For some our affordances remain latent and undetected, and we recede into the undifferentiated flux of the environment. For others our affordances have become evident, attracting their attention. These are the ones whose desire is activated, who as they move through the ambient environmental array are attuned to the virtual fulfillments of desire that surround them. They detect our affordances — the attractors we always emit as virtual fulfillers of others’ desire. They find themselves attracted to us.

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