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.