4 June 2007

The Membrane

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:25 pm

There’s a semi-permeable membrane positioned between the inside and the outside. Call the inner surface of this membrane Self; call the outer surface Reality.

From the inside come instincts, desires, memories, thoughts, behavior patterns. From the outside come affordances, objects, events, other people, social systems. The membrane is the place where, for a given individual, outside and inside interact, continually and proactively reconfiguring itself through attention, perception, intent, behavior, thought, speech.

Self and reality too are continually and actively recongfiguring themselves “on the fly,” anticipating and responding to the ever-changing situations on either side of the membrane. Selves and realities are interdependent and are meaningful only with respect to one another. A self is the continually-changing inner situation that’s activated relative to a reality in which it is embedded. A reality is the continually-changing outer situation that’s activated relative to a self that engages it. Motivation and action come from the self and are aimed outward. Reality consists of those affordances toward which the self can take effective action in pursuit of its motivations.

On the inside is hunger. On the outside is a ripe apple. The membrane recognizes the hunger as an inner motivation, recognizes the apple as something toward which the motivation can be directed, creates an intent to get the apple, initiates a behavior sequence to achieve the intent. During this brief interval self and reality are meaningful with respect to the hunger-food interaction across the membrane. An effective membrane recognizes both the self’s motivations and the reality’s affordances, both the self’s capabilities for acting and the reality’s amenability to being acted upon. So: I am hungry and there is an apple that I can eat; I can pick apples and that apple is within reach.

Selves and realities aren’t restricted to simple stimulus-response situations. On the inside is a set of desires and interests and a set of personal moral standards. On the outside is an opportunity to do or not to do something. The membrane recognizes the relevant moral considerations triggered by the opportunity, as well as the particular desires and interests afforded by the opportunity, and generates an intent to act or not to act, as well as a rationale for arriving at this intention.

Selves and realities are two sides of the same membrane. A self is embedded inside the reality it constructs — and so the self can be made an object of evaluation as if it was on the outside. A reality is assembled from phenomena that acquire their salience from the self that constructs that reality — and so reality can be evaluated subjectively, as if it was on the inside. Psychotherapy takes advantage of this ability to turn the membrane “inside out.”

The membrane can lose permeability, blocking flows of information and action between inside and outside. It may not recognize the presence of a particular inner desire or interest, or it may fail to attune to affordances for satisfying that desire or interest that are present in the world. The membrane may become overly sensitized to a single inner desire or set of outer affordances, which then override other desires and affordances that might otherwise become salient to intentional action taken by the self in reality. These impedances and overrides may come from inside the membrane, the result of repression, denial, obsession, habit, unformulated experience; they may come from outside through legal prohibitions, social norms, marketing. Typically both the inner and outer blockages operate beneath the threshold of awareness.

A psychological practice would focus on restoring the membrane to full permeability, flexibility, and attunement. It would attempt to identify specific areas in which the membrane is “clogged,” then try to “unclog” them. Attention is focused on both sides of the membrane: self and reality, desires and affordances, intention and accessibility. Awareness, formulation, meaning, flow: these are the foci of interaction between practitioner and client.



  1. A very evocative and allegorical explication.

    Cell membranes have proved to be very complex structures and under a tremendous variety of controls.

    One aspect that is particularly fascinating is that of “active transpot”. There are proteins embedded in the membrane, often protruding on both sides, that pump particular things in or out as needed.

    I’m wondering if the therapist would be able to work more efficiently if these sorts of ‘information pumps’ could be clearly identified?


    Comment by samlcarr — 4 June 2007 @ 7:41 pm

  2. We started exploring the membrane metaphor awhile back; it seemed time to put it back into the mix. There’s a sense in PoMo sensibility that the self has gotten too big, too much the focus of attention. Reducing it to a membrane might be a drastic weight loss program, but selves do get cluttered up with junk that just draws energy away from more interesting and worthwhile pursuits. Information pumps: that’s the idea. Information about drives, desires, goals on one side of the membrane; matching up with information about opportunities, affordances, possibilities, etc. on the other side. Some of the pumps might need to have their filters cleaned; some need an overhaul.


    Comment by ktismatics — 4 June 2007 @ 10:34 pm

  3. Somehow, the membrane seems more Deleuzian and less Lacanian a concept. There is an organisation within that structures and utilises the membrane to sustain its self. This is more like a complex of drives and urges, again these being under a pretty tight though hidden control.


    Comment by samlcarr — 5 June 2007 @ 12:01 pm

  4. I agree, Sam. Deleuze uses a lot of organic metaphors, and he does talk about reducing the size of the ego which he characterizes as something like a tumor or parasite. And his whole project of deterritorialization is compatible with the idea of unclogging the membrane. As I read Deleuze and Guattari, the self works on and modifies desires, creating higher-order conscious constructs like ideas, interests, values, morals. I.e., they’re not just proposing a hedonist paradise — and neither am I.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 June 2007 @ 3:02 pm

  5. Interesting, this idea of “clogged.”

    On the one hand we recognize the tendency of the Self to become so involved in the world that it loses its sense of itself. “The world” would mean both activities, environment, and perhaps most especially it refers to other selves. (Heidegger’s “They”, perhaps.) Codependence manifested in extreme need or fearful of isolation and intense feelings of lonliness.

    On the other hand, we know of no other way to be a self except in relation to the world. We need a context within which we must operate.

    Hence, one might say that there is a dialectical relationship between world and self such that one needs the other and feeds off of the other while also continually threatening each other’s destruction.

    Of course, if one goes down the Buddhist path then we seek Enlightenment and eventually Nirvana via a complete denail of affections and desires. Escape the world. The self denies all desire. No pain. No suffering. Of course, there was that one bastard that said, “Tis better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all”?


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 5 June 2007 @ 6:49 pm

  6. I agree that “the they” is the most salient part of the world for us. Maybe one side effect of making too great a distinction between self and reality is this whole idea of objects or people being satisfiers of desire, rather than desire being satisfied in our interactions. The marketplace takes advantage of this side effect, as you’ve observed in your McSex post today. Then there’s the “cult of self” in which self becomes reified as an entirely separate thing, separating us from the world and from other people. I like the idea of self as a thin flexible interface rather than a big deep thing.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 June 2007 @ 9:15 pm

  7. Touching on another strand from earlier posts. The “thin, flexible” and semipermeable membrane may also be able to absorb and identify in a way that blurs this self-other distinction perhaps anabling something other than vicarious intervention…


    Comment by samlcarr — 6 June 2007 @ 9:37 am

  8. I like the idea of self as a thin flexible interface rather than a big deep thing.

    I don’t know that I follow you on this. It sounds like something of a condom commercial, but I can’t be sure….


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 6 June 2007 @ 2:25 pm

  9. Sam –

    I agree with your inference, and it reinforces my recent insight that maybe I’ve gone too far in the direction of blurring the distinctions. Do you think it’s a good idea to blur the self-other distinction? Maybe it’s important to establish also the irreducible otherness of the other, to remind the narcissistic self that it can’t just absorb the other into its own image.


    Comment by ktismatics — 6 June 2007 @ 2:42 pm

  10. Jonathan –

    Do you think I should hand out promotional samples?


    Comment by ktismatics — 6 June 2007 @ 2:43 pm

  11. In order for any melding of selves to occur, I think both sides have to have momentum, and both have to give up in order to get. In other words there would have to be less of self on both sides in order to have less of otherness together, if that makes any sort of sense.


    Comment by samlcarr — 6 June 2007 @ 6:08 pm

  12. I’m not sure if I understand, but I acknowledge that I’ve shifted course somewhat in mid-stream. I’m probably caught in some sort of dialectic between merging all the boundaries and multiplying them. Something about overlapping of selves rather than merging or keeping entirely separate. It’s still working itself out.


    Comment by ktismatics — 6 June 2007 @ 9:41 pm

  13. Jonathan has an intriguing idea. The shingle could read: “A 99% effective membrane over the membrane”. Perhaps psychotherapy really is more like trying to add a thin but flexible shield against possible unwanted aftereffects?


    Comment by samlcarr — 7 June 2007 @ 5:46 am

  14. I don’t think I’m prepared to promise much of anything, not even a good time. Maybe I could call this service Unwanted Aftereffects?


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 June 2007 @ 8:55 pm

  15. Some possibilities:

    Activate your Membrane.
    Special Membrane Activator (after) Fx.
    That Pore is a Portal.
    Tie up your loose Strands.
    How to Fuse your Horizons.
    Posttraumatic Stress Reordered.
    Un-like your Reality


    Comment by samlcarr — 7 June 2007 @ 9:52 pm

  16. Director of Marketing?


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 June 2007 @ 9:56 pm

  17. NOT if you want to succeed!


    Comment by samlcarr — 7 June 2007 @ 10:47 pm

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