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.



  1. Indeed! and where will this schizostreamofconsciousness actually lead? primary desires let loose without supply and demand or social castration to control them, the happy ending has been projected (Atlas shrugged) and found wanting, perhaps “Lord of the Flies”?


    Comment by samlcarr — 19 May 2007 @ 6:53 pm

  2. The left contends that Deleuze & Guattari create a utopia run by academics which does nothing to counteract capitalism as the main territorializing force in society and the loudest voice of the unconscious that surrounds us. I agree that money is the biggest influence on culture and individual behavior, outstripping science and religion. And I’m skeptical that capitalism is living up to its self-promotion. It’s hard to separate Deleuze & Guattari’s desire-fulfillment from capitalism’s demand-supply. Where is the interpersonal fulfillment? Where is the systematic alleviation of suffering among large groups of disenfranchised people?

    On the other hand, D&G are right in emphasizing the importance of cultural conditions that permeate individual psyche. They aren’t the only ones to recognize this, but it’s a counterbalance against the strictly intrapsychic ideas of the unconscious. Psychotherapy can at least help the client acknowledge that some of the disorder is societal, that to be symptomatic is to be attuned to the psychologically oppressive features of culture.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 May 2007 @ 10:37 pm

  3. I guess the unformatted unconscious may not be contradictory to the primal urges unconscious but both somehow seem anti the empty or lacking centre of lacan. Could all three coexist in slightly antagonistic balance in the dark world within?

    The reality is that the best and purest of science is non commercial or even anti commercial. This is a reality that is rarely faced. The truth is more general than that, real quality or even value for money doesn’t count half as much as good marketing


    Comment by samlcarr — 20 May 2007 @ 8:09 am

  4. Sam –

    I agree about the multiple aspects of the unconscious, and I think so would Deleuze & Guattari and Stern. Opening up the free flows of the unconscious into consciousness is something to work toward. Repression, territorialization — these are blockages to the flows. And there may come a point where the unconscious stops talking not because it’s blocked but because it has run dry, and then you must face some profound emptiness that’s either intrinsic to the human condition or the result of society hollowing you out.

    Does good marketing stimulate the desires that are already there? Or does it create the sense of lack? Or both?


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 May 2007 @ 3:39 pm

  5. Deleuze and Guattari insist that lack only exists insofar as it is “counter-produced” by the social system in which our positive desires are invested. Capitalism, for instance, creates abundance on an unprecedented scale. But capitalism also needs to produce lack — to deny that very abundance it produces to the very people who produce it — in order to perpetuate itself, since its entire logic (what Deleuze and Guattari call its “axiomatics”) is grounded in the notion of perpetual competition over perpetually scarce resources. it’s what happens when the supreme goal of a society is capital accumulation rather than expenditure or even just pleasure. This is also why consumer society, no matter how vehemently it exhorts us to spend money, or to “enjoy,” is never fully hedonistic. – From this post at Pinocchio Theory.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 May 2007 @ 8:40 pm

  6. The best marketing convinces you that you absolutely need “must have” something that you do not at all. So marketing convinces you that you lack the whatever, creating demand that can then be supplied. Opportunity can then be taken advantage of by the market, and in a good market competition moves in to spread the benefits around so that you pay a little less for what you never needed in the first place.

    The real question is, we know we’re being scammed but we play the game anyway…why?


    Comment by samlcarr — 20 May 2007 @ 9:01 pm

  7. Because everyone else is playing and we don’t want to miss out? This is the difference between Deleuze’s picture of desire and Hegel’s. For Deleuze (from Spinoza and Nietzsche and, I think, Jonathan Edwards believe it or not) desire is generated by innate drives seeking fulfillment; for Hegel (and subsequently Freud and Lacan and Girard) desire is generated by lack seeking imitation. The marketplace thrives on Hegelian desires, even though its marketing department tells us it’s satisfying Deleuzian desires. This is an implication of Deleuze & Guattari’s notion of the unconscious as an external force: the marketplace can instill us with a desire-as-lack that we aren’t even aware of. So we can rationally and deliberately choose between this “must-have” and that one, but our conscious decision-making is acting in the service of desires that operate outside conscious awareness.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 May 2007 @ 9:19 pm

  8. The flip side of the coin: “you lack the desire” so suddenly the individual has to create (or discover) the desire that s/he was never previously conscious of (never had) and the market capitalises on the new felt need.


    Comment by samlcarr — 20 May 2007 @ 9:38 pm

  9. This has to be a key element of why Jesus was crucified then and why we would do the same today. He broke the market.


    Comment by samlcarr — 20 May 2007 @ 9:39 pm

  10. Sam –

    “You lack the desire” — that’s very good. Girard is explicit on this: nobody desires anything in particular, so we look around to see what everyone else we admire is desiring lately, and we imitate that desire.

    I’m not sure how Jesus fits into this discussion. You’re saying that he wouldn’t take on the desires instilled by his culture, and so he had to be killed? What would those desires have been? Desire to subject oneself to the Law, always to be found lacking, needing to participate in the priestly economy to compensate for the lack, but the system is set up continually to create more lack and thus more need for priestly control?


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 May 2007 @ 10:21 pm

  11. Sorry, that was really tangential. I was thinking that the gospel message denies both avenues. There is no lack, and one doesn’t need any new desires. Denied both possibilities to build the ‘market’, the market becomes static and is limited only to filling real needs, and that too at fair price and good measure – now who wants that?


    Comment by samlcarr — 21 May 2007 @ 5:26 am

  12. A redeemed market economy where desires find their fulfillment, not their repression or their frustration or their intensification. First thing: get rid of all the advertising people.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 May 2007 @ 11:05 am

  13. Even more drastic, no more corporations, no more stock market, no more big government … atrocious


    Comment by samlcarr — 21 May 2007 @ 2:48 pm

  14. Strangely though, those who claim to already be of the kingdom seem to be a dissatisfied lot


    Comment by samlcarr — 21 May 2007 @ 2:49 pm

  15. Sam –

    Christian communism? Christian anarchism?

    Christianity is once again in a position to critique culture from outside the mainstream. Adorno and Marcuse proposed that dissatisfied negativity was the proper stance of a social critic.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 May 2007 @ 4:01 pm

  16. I’ve been thinking we need invention-laboratories where children and adults can play in a non-scholastic setting.


    Comment by Odile — 24 May 2007 @ 8:18 pm

  17. That would be a good addition to the world, Odile. Freud never talked about play; always it was work. He needed to loosen up!


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 May 2007 @ 8:48 pm

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