16 June 2007

Decentering the Self

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:55 pm

Rational consciousness has long retained its position at the center of the self. Freud drew attention to the unconscious, but it remained marginal, transgressive, frightening. The task of the therapist was to help the client bring unconscious material into awareness, thereby subjecting the unconscious to conscious control. But it turns out that consciousness doesn’t have much substance; it continually reconfigures itself on the fly from material available in the unconscious. It begins to seem as though the unconscious is the center of the self, while consciousness becomes a thin and flexible membrane floating on the periphery. But now we realize that even the unconscious isn’t necessarily inside the self. The self is also immersed inside the unconscious — the various loosely-processed sensory impressions, bits of information, behavior patterns, and social interactions in which our lives unfold. So perhaps reality is central, while the self floats along at the periphery.

In the last post Derrida observed that the center of a structure serves as the source of a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude. So consciousness is stable, reliable, secure, fixed, while the unconscious is unstable, volatile, dangerous, wild. If the unconscious becomes the center, then it’s conceivable that the self becomes marginal at its core. Alternatively, the unconscious must become our reliable source of stability. The first alternative seems frightening; the second, unlikely — but Lacan comes close to this assertion. He offers a double paradox: the center of the self, the source of stability and plenitude and the shaper of Reality, is the Other; however, the Other is always already absent. So the structure of the self is completely inverted and undermined. The unconscious speaks in a language that has not been absorbed into the discourse of the absent Other, so the unconscious speaks for whatever is authentic about the self. The unconscious reveals the truth: our lost sense of security at the center can never be recovered, and so we must carry on as best we can in its absence.

The structural inversion of Lacan sets the stage for Derrida, whose decentering project was discussed in the prior post. Let’s acknowledge that the center was never part of the structure. What we always wanted was the function that the center performed, which was to provide a sense of stability and assurance that gave us confidence to explore and to play. We demand that whatever we put at the center — consciousness, the Other, reality — must serve this function by remaining immobile and stable. Anything we discover about the center that is unstable, transient, different we must disallow, exiling it to the periphery. The center then must maintain vigilant guard against incursions by the periphery. In response the periphery mounts a subversive guerrilla campaign, trying to be recognized by the center. The resulting inner conflict between central authority and peripheral disruption brings sin and guilt, symptoms and shame, self-aggrandizement and self-destruction.

But maybe we can come to an awareness that whatever it is we’ve assigned to the center doesn’t really belong there. We’ve forced our consciousness to be single-minded and repressive, our unconscious to be haphazard and menacing. Or we’ve forced reality to be totalizing and fascistic, ourselves to be criminal or corrupt. If instead we relax our insistence that a stabilizing force remain at the center, then consciousness and unconscious, self and other, self and reality, are freed to establish a variety of relationships with one another. Consciousness can become not only a rational decision-maker and law-enforcer, but also a critic and a creator and a revolutionary. The unconscious can be occupied not just by forbidden urges but by perfectly ordinary desires and perceptions and unformulated experiences. The membrane that separates consciousness and unconsciousness, self and reality, loses its importance. Instead there are filaments and trajectories that pass across the membrane, dynamically crisscrossing each other, creating an ever-changing network of meaning that links us to one another and the world.

Next: implications for therapy.



  1. Ktismatics I need some counselling by the way, I was raped yesterday by a well-endowed feminist-orthodox Marxist hydra. I can barely talk, but here’s a chance for you to test your practice!


    Comment by parodycenter — 17 June 2007 @ 11:22 am

  2. I hear you saying that you need some counseling. You say you were raped yesterday: how did that make you feel? A feminist Marxist hydra? Does she remind you of your mother? Or your father? And you say you’re testing me?


    Comment by ktismatics — 17 June 2007 @ 5:00 pm

  3. She came in yesterday and started lashing out at me about Lynch. She didn’t let go until I was forced to admit that Wild At Heart is not subversive. She did this by forcing me to list 25 films after 1982 that established the norm Lynch subverted. All the while all my friends, Patrick, SLP and Catmint just watched and didn’t do anything to help. They called me a masochist too and said that I was asking for it.


    She reminds me of my mother mostly, and of Jezebel.


    Comment by parodycenter — 17 June 2007 @ 8:29 pm

  4. I followed the bloody trail in the aftermath of the assault, and I must agree that you were brutalized. I had the sense that you were being forced to say you wanted it. If you had said it maybe, like Bobbie Peru, your assailant would have let you off the hook. That you retained your integrity bespeaks an inspiriting, almost heroic level of masochism.


    Comment by ktismatics — 17 June 2007 @ 9:05 pm

  5. So if you followed it, why didn;’t you HELP?


    Comment by parodycenter — 17 June 2007 @ 9:12 pm

  6. By then it was too late — the travesty had already been perpetrated. Besides, I like to watch.


    Comment by ktismatics — 17 June 2007 @ 9:22 pm

  7. Makes you HOT, doesn’t it? Anyhow – are you in America already, how are you feeling, what’s happening?


    Comment by parodycenter — 17 June 2007 @ 10:22 pm

  8. We fly out on Thursday.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 June 2007 @ 5:18 am

  9. Parodycenter, sorry to hear of your being so roughly handled, you have my sympathy, though that’s probably what you wanted in the first place, wasn’t it?

    Anyhow, I’m wondering whether to some extent the relationships between unconscious and conscious, self and other, this mysterious stabilising center and so on was not always recognised to be something more of a dynamic and interrelated rather than servant-master or center vs. rebellious externalised forces or whatever. I always assumed that these were always known to be pseudocategories that do not actually describe anythings within the self, or was i just ignorant?

    In other words, is there any real necessity to see things so dichotomously at first in order to free up this self that didn’t need freeing in the first place?


    Comment by samlcarr — 23 June 2007 @ 8:02 pm

  10. Sam –

    Descartes placed consciousness at the center of the self. He followed a long tradition dating back at least to Plato and Aristotle, for whom the rational self resonates with pure Logos that is the center of the universe. Certainly for the Greeks the passions were of lower quality than reason; the challenge of the virtuous man was to subject the passions to the mastery of reason. The Greeks were very structural in their tripartite topography of the self: body, passions/emotions, mind/spirit. Freud was too, though his categories were different: id, ego, superego. For Freud the reasonable ego was demoted from master to arbiter, balancing the more powerful structures of id and superego.

    I agree that the structural language is overdone, that structural understandings of the self are convenient ways of describing various kinds of psychological activities. But we still talk about selves as if they were structured entities. So when we speak of personality or intelligence we act as if they are “things” that reside inside our minds which can be described and measured. Goals and values and virtues are similarly reified into nearly tangible things that we carry around in our conscious minds. Even to speak of a self or a mind or a soul is to talk structurally, as if there is something tangible inside us that can be located as our core or true self. This language needs to give way to more dynamic and interactive descriptors.

    That said, I agree that it’s unnecesssary to engage in a dispute with the client about these dichotomous structural issues. I’d prefer to use language that more closely reflects the dynamic rather than the structural, and that decenters away from consciousness. So, e.g., instead of talking with the client about whether s/he is or is not creative, I’d talk more about what the client creates, how s/he goes about it, what the creation itself is like, and so on.


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 June 2007 @ 9:04 pm

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