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.


  1. + Speaking of formation and order as a hermeneutical lense for Genesis :)

    + McLuhan said: “I never know what I’m going to say until I say it.”

    – Reading this makes me realize just how modern the structuralists were, and in a partiucar way that I hadn’t really thought of in quite some time…and the post-structuralists, too then, really. How on earth would anyone have ever claimed the unconcsious to be “structured” prior to our field of all play (epistemological, political, economical) being delineated by the entirety of the globe!?


    Comment by Jaosn Hesiak — 15 May 2007 @ 6:05 pm

  2. Jason –

    Welcome back. Yes, you can picture elohim formulating the idea as he speaks it: “light.” No big plan, no prior structure in the divine unconscious; the words and the ideas coalesce in the speaking and the thinking.

    Lacan has been called a structuralist, but as you point out the post-structuralists share similar orientation. Derrida can deconstruct a text, arguing that the original structure was culturally imposed, but he never sets the text free from structure. So too for Lacan (I think) the unconscious can slide around into different structures, but it is always already structured.

    I think it’s fair to say that we never get access to the unconscious in its primal unstructured form. We don’t know what McLuhan is going to say until he says it either, but in the saying it comes out of the mouth structured. It’s difficult to speak with either empirical or metaphysical assurance about whether something exists in an unstructured form that we are forever prevented from detecting, since in the act of detecting it we impose structure on it (like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle). I am, however, persuaded in part by brain science. There is a rudimentary structure imposed by the brain on every bit of information it retains, but the structure is distributed, disaggregated, unusable in its raw form. Thought and language pull it out of this neural structure and strap it into the more constraining structures we’re used to dealing with.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 May 2007 @ 8:12 pm

  3. Thanks. Feels good to be back!

    I’ll get to your comment in a minute…I’m trying to catch up on the “backlog.” I like what you said way back there somewhere, which I just now read: “Once it enters our awareness we can describe the parameters of personal space in structural linguistic terms, but is it intrinsically structured this way? I doubt it. I think human interactions generate emergent collective structures that aren’t the result of conceptual-linguistic operations of the people involved. Consequently there’s no reason to assert that these emergent phenomena structure themselves like language.” From: “Language Is Not Linguistic?”

    And while I was having the conversation that was part of what kept me away, I was arguing with the guy over Girand’s notion that there seem to be “certain neurological” features that make his “scapegoating mechanism” “necessary” to the “very survival” of a community. The “realist” with whom I was arguing said that that meant that Girand was making God the author of evil since it made human “nature” evil. He seemed a bit overly stuck on bashin Luther in an unrelated situation (speaking of pre-formed structures).

    Interesting reference to Heisenberg.

    And I think part why my “mystical experience” in Chicago threw me for such a loop is exactly because I DID “get access to the unconscious in its primal unstructured form” – at least in a way. I was in that doorway between the two, I think.



    Comment by Jaosn Hesiak — 15 May 2007 @ 8:23 pm

  4. Jason –

    It would be odd for Girard to argue that scapegoat is neurologically necessary to communities, since I think he says that Christianity does away with the scapegoat mechanism. Although Girard is Christian, so maybe he regards the end of scapegoat as a kind of miracle. Still, you’d think Girard would agree that scapegoat is a socially-imposed structure that imposes itself on the unconscious, rather than a way the unconscious is intrinsically formed. But Girard and Lacan converge on Hegel, who sees lack as intrinsic to the human condition. Scapegoat is a kind of castration operation, cutting off what comes later to be regarded as divine, the desired object of the culture, the phallus, the big Other. And certainly Lacan sees castration as intrinsic to human development. Deleuze disagrees, regards castration (and, by implication, scapegoat) as societally imposed by an oppressive and repressive culture.

    Your mystical experience in Chicago — maybe a more direct connection with the unconscious is one aspect of mystical experience. Some kind of pre-linguistic awareness, a taking-shape. Having an awareness of this process is also something that artists and poets can feel happening, a sense of a source of creativity that finds its way. “In the doorway.”


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 May 2007 @ 9:13 pm

  5. More Paul Valery: I know that I shall be astonished by a certain thought that shall come to me before long — and yet I ask myself for this surprise… The surprising thing is that one sometimes gets an impression of poise and consistency in human constructions made with an agglomeration of apparently irreconcilable materials, as if he who had arranged them had known that they had secret affinities. But astonishment passes all bounds when one realizes that the author himself, in the vast majority of cases, is unable to give any account of the lines he has followed, that he is the wielder of a power the nature of which he does not understand.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 May 2007 @ 9:19 pm

  6. (see if it works now…it was working for me on the other posts, below…)

    Well, for one, I don’t think Girand viewed Christianity as the end of scapegoating, but instead he made a distinction between “good” and “bad” sacrafice, saying that Christianity is centered on a “good” sacrafice that still, in a way, participates in the scapegoating…we are saved FROM scapegoating BY its occurance at the Cross.

    On Girand and necessity…I think he was just misspeaking when he said that. Like…it was an interview. I think he was just sort of speaking loosely. Here’s the link to which I was referring:


    “What I have called ‘bad sacrifice’ is the kind of sacrificial religion that prevailed before Christ. It originates because mimetic rivalry threatens the very survival of a community….Well, I must stay within the scientific use. This is the language people speak and understand in this time. I am an anthropologist. As I view the process of hominization, it is a kind of historical inevitability. We don’t know of any other creature that practices sacrifice, and there seem to be neurological features that required this, based upon the fact that we are the most mimetic of all animals. On the other hand, even if this had a kind of historical necessity, it is also a form of a lie. The scapegoat mechanism is something men ‘do but know not what they do.’ It is indeed from that Original Sin and something from which redemption is required.”

    But then in the same interview he says: “Note that it does not matter who is the biological mother. The one who was willing to sacrifice herself for the child’s life is in fact the mother.”

    I printed out all your posts that I missed…and will probably read them over lunch…tonight…and over the next couple days…


    Comment by Jaosn Hesiak — 15 May 2007 @ 11:08 pm

  7. I was thinking about this a bit more, and…

    I remembered that I had heard a number of times that for Derrida, a referrent, as well as a system of referrents, is “closed.” I think…or maybe just the system, I don’t remember.

    Anyway, the point is, I can see how that essentially says the same thing as the assertion of a structured unconscious, particularly one structured by a system into which one is immersed from birth.

    I can also see, then, how such a “closing” is related to Derrida’s assertion/assumption (?) of a lack of trascendent meaning in (or beyond) the system (so far as he is concerned). I am still wondering, though, where the line is between his asserting and assuming (or whatever) the absence of transcendent meaning for language.

    I mean, as soon as the system is opened, it is opened to at least the possibility for transcendence. Once it is opened, too, it is aknowldeded to be incomplete. Once incomplete, relying on something outside itself. Derrida seemed to have something to say about that: “There’s nothing outside the text.”

    I used to think, “Maybe he was saying: there’s nothing so far outside the text that you can get outside the text to read from such a position.” In other words, I used to think: “Maybe he was saying that you can’t know what’s beyond the system, and its in that sense that its closed.”

    Talking to you, however, he didn’t really give a hoot about all this wondering of mine, it seems. I guess for him, my system is my system, plain and simple. Which I guess is what lead folks like Badiou to seek something beyond what gets attacked as “subjective,” whether rightly understood as on its own terms or not.



    Comment by Jaosn Hesiak — 16 May 2007 @ 1:29 am

  8. I just realized that these last two comments belong to your “Derria and the Metaphysics of Presence” post, lol. I’m reading too many of your posts at once! You can delete these if you want. I’m going to copy/paste them there, as one comment.



    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 16 May 2007 @ 5:23 am

  9. Now I’m really confused. I posted another comment that was supposed to go on your “derrid and the metaphysics of presence” post, but i posted it elsewhere, and i thought it was here. now i don’t see it here! anyway, i’ll copy paste the one i DO see here, and add the thought that i had thought i just added but maybe did not i’m going insane this is a run on sentence…


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 16 May 2007 @ 5:26 am

  10. Jason,
    What is your unconscious trying to tell you?
    answer: a not yet shaped set of thoughts, experience and meaning is being processed.

    This post about language and meaning is very interesting to me. Also regarding my book still at the publisher, no reply yet.
    My clear thoughts when reading your post were: so the competenties of people shape their structure and the environment shape your thoughts. No wonder people with more competenties get more into conflict with their environment in a society that imposes much structured, whereas people with less competenties in working with ideas get into conflict in a society that does not give external structure.
    Also I realize that I have a slighly different view in this, based on emphasis on verbalising. My emphasis is not on expression but on the thought process itself. The thought process is not only about formulating, is it? There are nonverbal thought processes. One of which is visual.
    This post has many consequences for education and society building.


    Comment by Odile — 16 May 2007 @ 8:20 am

  11. Jason –
    It seems that Girard regards the act of sacrifice as something close to innate. In turn he regards sacrifice as an inevitable outcome of mimetic desire. Girard says that everybody desires what the other person has or wishes they had, so that eventually we end up competing for this same desired object. Through sequences of attack and retaliation the rivalry escalates, the mimetic combatants come more and more to resemble one another. When someone comes along whose death will not be avenged, that person becomes the scapegoat: both sides agree to kill him without retaliation, thereby ending the cycle of violence. Now the sacrificial victim becomes the sanctified one, perhaps the one that everyone desires, thereby starting up the mimetic desire/rivalry cycle yet again. This idea is premised on Hegel’s desire-as-lack, which I discussed in a prior post linking Girard to Hegel. So since desire as lack leads to mimetic desire which leads to rivalry which leads to scapegoat sacrifice, I guess it’s the case that Girard would regard scapegoat as integral to the human condition.
    The two women are engaged in mimetic rivalry, fighting over a baby. Solomon issues a decree that would kill the baby as a scapegoat to resolve the conflict. The woman who rejects this scapegoat sacrifice is the true mother, because she will not allow someone to substitute for her own victimhood at the hands of the other woman, nor will she retaliate. This ends the mimetic rivalry cycle without substitutionary sacrifice; the woman who ends the cycle unilaterally is the true mother, not the mimetic simulacrum.

    Your comment on Derrida I’ll address on the Metaphysics of Presence post. Hopefully everything showed up eventually. As I said, WordPress is having trouble with its comment function lately on various people’s blogs.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 May 2007 @ 2:19 pm

  12. Odile –

    I agree with your assessment that competent and creative people have a harder time functioning in overly structured environments. One wonders whether the less competent, less creative people are in the majority, and are more insistent on their leaders to impose structures that make life less confusing. This would why the majority in a supposed democracy would desire their own repression under a highly structured social order like fascism.

    I also agree that not all conscious processes are verbal. Some are visual, or tactile, or spatial, or procedural. It’s possible that we can describe all our experiences and creations and discoveries and imaginings verbally or mathematically after the fact, but that’s not how they all came into being. The structure of the idea would be compatible with the nature of the idea. The first idea for a voyage would be different from the first idea for some new cooking recipe, or a 4-dimensional building, or an ideal romantic relationship, etc.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 May 2007 @ 2:36 pm

  13. On unconscious thought…verbal thought is still conscious; but that doesn’t mean that there is no unconscious stuff going on on the other side of that image. Heiroglyphics are not an alphabet.

    As for Girand – that’s really interesting. I should have consulted you when I was having my conversation with T.G.! I should have gone back to your old post! “Desire as lack”…that’s the “necessary neurological feature”! Argh. The puzzle comes together. Interestingly, the Son of God is the saving force, because his sacrafice displays an unconditional and unending love rather than an erotic one ultimately founded on lack.

    At least that’s how I read Girand; my argument in Girand’s favor with T.G. was that when he was talking about some “inevitable” or “necessary” neurological feature – in terms of survival – he was speaking in the context of a fallen world…which…aaahhh…is lacking. Interestingly, then, the scripture that lead myself and T.G. to talk about Girand was James 4, where it talks about the cause of conflict being, “you do not have, because you do not ask;” and it also talks about lustful desires, ect.



    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 16 May 2007 @ 4:21 pm

  14. Oops…I meant to say that visual thought is conscious…


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 16 May 2007 @ 4:22 pm

  15. Oh…and “Howdy” Odille :)


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 16 May 2007 @ 4:25 pm

  16. I must get back to reading Stern. There is something that feels quite right about the text that you quote, in that I often find it difficult to “think about xyz”; instead, whatever I think about “xyz” seem to just pop into my head. Deliberate, controlled thinking often seems beyond me. So, maybe this is because what I think has been floating around unformed in my unconscious and then when pressed in the right places, comes to language and hence to thought? Hmmmm….

    Meilleurs voeux!!


    Comment by bluevicar — 18 May 2007 @ 3:45 am

  17. Forcing yourself to think or to be creative is like trying to plan a conversation in French — doomed from the beginning. Besides the unformulated experience bubbling up from the subconscious, there’s also the immersion in the affordances of events and conversations and settings that relate to the creative milieu. That’s part of the value of living abroad — a context that affords different thinking and feeling, seeping in from outside.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 May 2007 @ 4:01 pm

  18. I know of this problem of trying to plan a conversation in French first hand! Imagine trying to make a pretty French waitress laugh with a pruposeful southern draw on your “merci beaucoup.” Didn’t go so well. Doyle…I shared that story with you somewhere sometime ago.


    Comment by Jaosn Hesiak — 19 May 2007 @ 12:03 am

  19. That story must have made a lasting impression on you. Maybe you’re compelled to repeat it until you resolve whatever neurosis it masks?


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 May 2007 @ 4:25 pm

  20. I’m compelled to repeat lots of things that I’d rather not repeat. Maybe all of them mean the lack of resolution of the same neurosis? Good question. I’m inclined to think that such a neurosis does indeed exist. Only problem is, I probably won’t actually know what it is till right about that time I don’t have it anymore.

    What exactly IS a neurosis, anyway? You’ve written about this from Deleuze. I guess it was too much for me to sort through; maybe a small reminder would be good. Plus, maybe I was blind to it, myself having a neurosis and all?

    The following really rings a bell:
    “Frequently, the coping mechanisms enlisted to help ‘ward off’ the anxiety only exacerbate the situation, causing more distress. It has even been defined in terms of this coping strategy, as a ‘symbolic behavior in defense against excessive psychobiologic pain [which] is self-perpetuating because symbolic satisfactions cannot fulfill real needs.'” You probably know what I’m referring to here, I would think. Anyway, the quote came from:

    At my last counselling session, we painfully began a bit to get into: “As an illness, neurosis represents a variety of psychiatric conditions in which emotional distress or unconscious conflict is expressed through various physical, physiological, and mental disturbances, which may include physical symptoms (e.g., hysteria). The definitive symptom is anxieties. Neurotic tendencies are common and may manifest themselves as depression, acute or chronic anxiety, obsessive-compulsive tendencies…”

    I’m not sure how extremem is my “neurosis” or my symptoms, as described there. What I find especially interesting there, though, is the following: “neurosis represents a variety of psychiatric conditions in which emotional distress or UNCONSCIOUS conflict is expressed through various physical, physiological, and mental disturbances…”

    The conversation leading to those symptoms (of questionable severity…its hard for one to observe the relative severity of one’s own symptoms) came about through discussion of a DREAM I had recently!


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 20 May 2007 @ 6:05 am

  21. I love dreams. Regarding what’s a neurosis, I’m sure I don’t know either. One of the things I’ve been trying to work out is what it means to be anxious, depressed, etc. I have a sense that, when I’m hung up on some conflict or distress, I tend to repeat failed responses that I’ve tried in the past. I don’t have enough flexibility to read this particular situation in its own light; I end up seeing it as something I’ve failed to deal with before. The funning thing is, though, if I’ve figured out a good solution to a conflict in the past, I tend to repeat that also. Still, it does seem pretty futile to keep trying the same old failed responses. You might not recognize that’s what you’re doing: your reaction might seem like the only possibility. But the situation and your own flexible self might be able to generate all sorts of alternative pathways if you’re not locked into the past. Gotta deterritorialize the terrain of the world and the self, give yourself some breathing room. (Easy for me to say.)


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 May 2007 @ 1:47 pm

  22. […] via All Thought Is Unconscious. […]


    Pingback by Thoughts on the Unconscious: Lacan vs. Stern « nom[ADD]ic android — 12 January 2013 @ 5:36 am

  23. U created a lot of superb stuff within your blog, “All Thought Is Unconscious Ktismatics”.
    I may you should be returning to ur web-site shortly.
    Thank you -Floyd


    Comment by http://tinyurl.com/modeblake37609 — 25 January 2013 @ 3:19 am

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