30 September 2008

Offloading Risk: A Memoir

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 2:45 pm

Back in the last century I briefly held a job as first VP of an insurance company, reporting directly to the president. I claimed to be head of strategic planning, but operationally I was supposed to be in charge of the company’s warranty business nationwide. I knew nothing about this business when I got the promotion, and I inherited a pretty sizable book of business from my predecessor. So I had to get up to speed quickly.

Suppose you buy a new refrigerator and the sales clerk asks if you want to buy the extended warranty. Let’s say you do. The store writes you the warranty and takes your money. After pocketing part of the warranty fee as sales commission, the store bundles your warranty with all the others it has sold and sends them, along with the rest of the money it collected from its warranty buyers, to an insurance company. If your refrigerator breaks while under warranty, it’s the insurance company rather than the store that pays for repair or replacement.

Warranties are very profitable for the stores: unlike most other forms of insurance, warranty fees aren’t regulated by the government, so the stores could charge whatever the market will bear. Warranties on “white goods” (appliances) and “gray goods” (electronics) were a very profitable line of business for my insurance company too: most of these devices held up pretty well, and the buyers often forgot about or lost their warranties. The only real loser was the automobile warranty portfolio, but it was a big loser, and here’s why: the car dealers not only sold the warranties to the customers; they also provided the repair service. So let’s say you bought a new BMW with a 5-year extended warranty. At about year 4½ the auto dealership would call you up. “Your warranty is just about ready to expire. Wouldn’t you like to get all those little problems fixed for free? If you do you’ll get top dollar on a trade-in for a brand new BMW.” The auto dealership made money on both ends: their repair shop got reimbursed by the insurer and they got the money from the new car sale. For the insurer — that was us — things didn’t look so rosy: the auto warranty loss ratios would look really good until right up to the end of the warranty term, and then losses would go sky-high.

I talked with the actuary about all this. Didn’t Hutch (my predecessor and former boss) realize what was happening here, what a potential catastrophe these auto warranties represent? After awhile it became clear: Hutch did know, but the income and cashflow were tremendous, and because this was an unregulated line of business there were no legal requirements for maintaining loss reserves commensurate with the projected risks. Hutch’s plan was to keep growing the warranty business as rapidly as possible, so that cash from the new warranties always more than made up for the losses on the old warranties. But what happens when we can’t grow this business any more, and all the losses start piling up? Well, Hutch was living in the now. He got bonuses for sales and profits, which on paper looked great. He was getting up there in years, so by the time the shit hit the fan he would have eased into a cozy retirement. Does Don (the president) know? Sure: he and Hutch came in together, he too was financially rewarded for short-term results.

I didn’t really want to run the warranty business anyway, and I knew that none of my strategic planning could possibly offset the pressure building up in this volcano. So I quit and went to work for a healthcare thinktank. Don thanked me for my service; Hutch enthusiastically told me I what a pro I was — meaning that I didn’t blow the whistle on his corrupt business dealings. About three years later the volcano blew, the losses overwhelmed the reserves, and the company had to sell itself off to a bigger firm at a drastic discount from its heyday.

What could have saved my company from this disaster? Well, of course the government could have regulated the warranty business to prevent insurers from overextending themselves and threatening their shareholders’ equity. Or my company could have never written these auto warranties in the first place. Or, once they realized what was happening, Hutch and Don could have bitten the bullet, written down their losses, and lost their bonuses for a year or two. Or they could have rebundled the warranties and sold a big chunk of them to a big reinsurer like AIG (this last move is the only one they actually did).

Or they could have waited until the federal government established a bad debt relief fund for insurers. Then they could have stripped off their entire auto warranty portfolio and sold it at a small discount to the American citizenry, while retaining the highly profitable white goods and gray goods warranties for themselves, thereby assuring their executive bonuses and securing their shareholders’ equity.

Could I have done anything? Yes, I probably could have. It would have gotten ugly, and I’d have caught a lot of shit, but I had caught shit there already and survived — hell, it’s what got me the promotion that put me in charge of warranties. I think Don the president secretly entertained hopes that somehow I’d be able to pull the plug on this imminent catastrophe because he knew it was the right thing to do but he couldn’t make himself do it. I didn’t really have anything to lose, since I had no intention of staying long-term with the company or in the industry. But I had other fish to fry. I just walked away.

Should I have done something? Well, one could argue that it was none of my concern to protect shareholder equity, that those rich bastards deserved to eat the bad along with the good. But this was a mutual insurance company, which means that the policyholders themselves own the company. Instead of building up share value or distributing dividends, the company would use its profits to reduce premiums for its policyholders. This is as close as American business structure comes to a socialist enterprise.

Spirit of the Beehive by Erice, 1973

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 10:10 am

29 September 2008

Rereading the Genesis Book

Filed under: Genesis 1, Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:03 am

For some time now I’ve had the feeling that if I could make myself reread my Genesis 1 book I wouldn’t like it any more. I was right.

It’s not that the thing sucks in its entirety. There are some vibrant passages scattered liberally throughout the generally well-crafted prose. The thinking is pretty clear and at times quite original, though I’ve lived with the ideas for so long now they seem stale. What mostly sucks is that this never was the book I really wanted to write.

I had written two novels, both of which pleased me (and practically no one else). I had sent them to an agent who said they were “too experimental” for the mainstream marketplace — an incongruous reading I’ve since interpreted as a generic rejection intended to make me, the Author, feel like a misunderstood genius. So I decided to pursue an alternative sales strategy. Having read somewhere that nonfiction is easier to get published than fiction, I decided to write a nonfiction as a door-opener with the agents. My first novel refers to the Biblical creation narrative, so it was already on my mind. I had come up with an innovative and paradoxical reading of the Biblical text which I thought might stir up some controversy. The creation-versus-evolution topic was hot in the aftermath of Richard Dawkins’ and Sam Harris’ anti-religion diatribes. The subject of creation interests me professionally as a psychologist. I have the right letters to string after my name to lend at least a modicum of certified credibility to my bold assertions. So I wrote The Seven Creations of Genesis 1, describing it to potential agents as a “high bridge” spanning the chasm between science and religion. I also launched Ktismatics ( a technical term I made up, based on the Greek word for “creation”) as a means of disseminating the ideas in the book, hoping to build some sort of viral enthusiasm among potential readers. This strategy failed: the several agents to whom I sent my proposal and outline weren’t interested; the blogged elaborations of the idea certainly didn’t build any sort of buzz.

Consequently, when last week I read the book again it was hard not to feel a sense of regret and futility. Here’s a project I didn’t even want to do, that didn’t pay me any money, and that didn’t get my novels any farther out the door than they were before. But it’s not just the bad feelings: there’s a lot that’s substantively wrong with it too. I don’t like the parts where I’m too conciliatory to traditional Judeo-Christianity and too complimentary of modern Western culture. Or the parts where I’m too respectful of conservative methods of Biblical exegesis. Or the parts where I’m trying too hard to establish myself as a professional ktismaticist who knows what it takes to be a creator just like God.

I remember times while writing the book when I was really enjoying myself. It felt like writing fiction, speculating about events that in all likelihood never even happened, stringing whole paragraphs together that didn’t have to be justified in footnotes, immersing myself in an alternate reality which in many ways isn’t so different from the sort of imaginary reality I explored in my first novel. I suspect it’s those parts of the text I wrote while in fictive mode that I like best now. The speculative parts. The ironic and paradoxical parts. The self-consciously bombastic parts. And then there are the parts I haven’t written yet. The part where I shop my clever ideas around but nobody seems able to hear them. The part where I redesign the Judeo-Christian religion around a God who had nothing to do with creating the material universe. The part where this redesigned “atheistic theism” catches on in an alternate reality that looks a lot like our own. The part where this new version of the faith becomes just as mystified and totalizing and hegemonic as the old version.

By now this book is starting to sound a lot more fictional. I could embed most of the features I like into a radically revised work of speculative nonfiction. Or I could come up with some characters and some story and turn it into a novel. This hybrid area of fictional nonfiction or nonfictional fiction, where things could easily go either way, is where I’d like to set up shop and start again — that is, if I can persuade myself it’s worth the trouble, or that it’s something I really want to do regardless of how it’s received.

Eventually I’m going to take down the blog page describing the Seven Creations book as written, but I think I’ll leave it up for public scrutiny and disdain as a personal motivation to replace it with something I like better.

27 September 2008

The Crow, 1994

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 8:28 am

Who does this remind you of?

That’s right — it’s The Bride from Kill Bill.

25 September 2008

Branded to Kill by Suzuki, 1967

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 6:34 am

24 September 2008

Kairo by Kurosawa, 2001

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 10:45 am

23 September 2008

Play and Intermediate Space

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:00 am

Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together. The corrollary of this is that where playing is not possible then the work done by the therapist is directed towards bringing the patient from a state of not being able to play into a state of being able to play.

– D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (1971), p. 51

In my prior post on Winnicott I described how the child’s “transitional object” — a teddy bear or blanket, say — serving first as a symbolic representation of the mother, expands to become an intermediate space between subjective and objective realities, a space where the child can play. Winnicott associates playing both with dreaming and with the ability to create. Free association by the patient constitutes a kind of verbal playing. So too with the therapist: it’s less important, says Winnicott, for the therapist’s interpretations to be accurate and for the patient to accepts them as Truth, than it is for the therapist to play with the patient’s verbalizations and for the patient in turn to be able to play with the interpretations — to entertain them, to explore and elaborate on them, to use them as a springboard for the patient’s own interpretations.

Winnicott contrasts play with fantasy. Play emerges from the unconscious, providing raw material for conscious engagement in the real world with new ideas, experiences and interpersonal relationships. Fantasy, on the other hand, is shaped by consciousness and constructs an alternative wished-for reality that forecloses active engagement in the here-and-now. For Winnicott, the ability to play is associated with the establishment of an intermediate territory between the subjective and objective worlds, a space where the self can encounter objects and other people without entirely dominating or being dominated by them. This play-space opens up around the self during childhood as the consequence of a non-traumatic separation from the mother. The child learns that, when the mother departs temporarily or withholds satisfaction of the child’s demands, that the mother hasn’t completely abandoned him. Likewise, when in anger and frustration the child “kills” the mother — i.e., detaches the mother from himself — the child is pleased to find that the mother survives her own death by becoming a separate person. Only then can the child regard the space between himself and the (m)other as a non-threatening area to explore. The objects and people he finds in that space become things he can play with. Without this non-traumatic separation from the mother, the intermediate space surrounding the self is experienced as a zone of threat and alienatation, cutting the person off from enjoyment and satisfaction. Satisfaction cannot be found in this zone; it can only be fantasized inside the person’s wholly subjective, imaginary realm that remains under the full control of the self. The rest of the world retreats to a position entirely exterior to the self, a place with which the self has no direct contact and which remains forever impervious to the self’s active engagement.

Winnicott presents a less traumatic picture of maternal separation than do Freud and Lacan, for whom the father’s implicit threat of castration provides the motivation to accede to this undesired separation. Like Lacan, Winnicott regards the Symbolic order as something that “kills” the primevally Real symbiotic connection with the mother. But for Winnicott the child who successfully enters the intermediate territory between self and (m)other where the Symbolic holds sway can have his cake and eat it too — the mother survives her symbolic death and is resurrected as a companion, someone for the child to find in the world, to use, to play with.

In the state of confidence that grows up when a mother can do this difficult thing well (not if she is unable to do it), the baby begins to enjoy experiences based on a ‘marriage’ of the omnipotence of intrapsychic processes with the baby’s control of the actual. Confidence in the mother makes an intermediate playground here, where the idea of magic originates, since the baby does to some extent experience omnipotence… Play is immensely exciting. It is exciting not primarily because the instincts are involved, be it understood! The thing about playing is always the precariousness of the interplay of personal psychic reality and the experience of control of actual objects. This is the precariousness of magic itself, magic that arises in intimacy, in a relationship that is being found to be reliable… When a patient cannot play the therapist must attend to this major symptom before interpreting fragments of behaviour. (pp. 63-64)

For Winnicott, then, psychotherapy is primarily a process of creating or restoring the patient’s ability to play. The means directly serves the end, because therapy is itself a form of play, and play is itself therapeutic.

The essential feature of my communication is this, that playing is an experience, always a creative experience, and it is an experience in the space-time continuum, a basic form of living. (p. 67)

Through identification with the mother, the child comes to an acceptance of himself as being. Through play, the child discovers himself as doing — a creator, a freely active agent in the environment.

What Winnicott never directly addresses in this book, however, is the situation in which the playing self encounters resistance from even the most supportive of environments. Certain kinds of playing are not allowed in the childhood environment: they are proscribed by rules. Other kinds of playing don’t yield the results the child may have intended: the crayon drawing of myself doesn’t look like it should, the cat won’t wear the party hat. Is it resistance that turns play into work? Or does a self-confident creator regard resistance as part of the game?

In the contemporary workplace, creative jobs provide workers with a loosely-structured, semi-protected “play space” and materials to play with. But this isn’t a free-play environment, and the players aren’t occupying the subjective state of non-purposive floating attention that is most conducive to creative play. That’s because the object of the game has already been assigned, and since the rules are never explicitly stated the worker must always be alert to signs that he’s being either not creative enough or too creative.
For some of the more creative workers the ambiguity of the creative workplace becomes neuroticizing or schizogenic: play becomes formulaic and repetitive, creativity is replaced by fantasy, the intermediate zone between subject and the cold objective world shrinks to nonexistence, the transitional object returns as a fetish or a mystified threat of castration…

20 September 2008

Winnicott’s Transitional Object

Filed under: First Lines, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:14 pm

In order to follow along with Psychoanalytic Field’s latest project (which now seems indefinitely delayed), I read D.W. Winnicott’s Playing and Reality (1971). As Winnicott states in the first sentence,

This book is a development of my paper ‘Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena’ (1951).

Positioned between inner subjective reality and the objective outside world there is an intermediate space in which we play and work, discover and create, interact with others. Winnicott says that this space opens up in infancy, when the child first comes to realize both that his mother isn’t merely an extension of himself and that the temporarily absent mother will return. At first the space between infant and mother is occupied solely by the “transitional object” — the teddy bear, the security blanket, le doudou in French — that for the child represents the absent mother, or more specifically, the mother’s breast. Winnicott summarizes the “special qualities” of the infant’s relationship with the transitional object:

1. The infant assumes rights over the object, and we [i.e., the mother and other adults] agree to this assumption. Nevertheless, some abrogation of omnipotence is a feature from the start.

2. The object is affectionately cuddled as well as excitedly loved and mutilated.

3. It must never change, unless changed by the infant.

4. It must survive instinctual loving, and also hating and, if it be a feature, pure aggression.

5. Yet it must seem to the infant to give warmth, or to move, or to have texture, or to do something to show it has vitality or reality of its own.

6. It comes from without from our point of view, but not so from the point of view of the baby. Neither does it come from within; it is not a hallucination.

7. Its fate is to gradually be allowed to be decathected, so that in the course of years it becomes not so much forgotten as relegated to limbo. By this I mean that in health the transitional object does not ‘go inside’ nor does the feeling about it necessarily undergo repression. It is not forgotten and it is not mourned. It loses meaning, and this is because the transitional phenomena have become diffused, have become spread out over the whole intermediate territory between ‘inner psychic reality’ and ‘the external world as perceived by two persons in common’, that is to say, over the whole cultural field.

In interacting with this object, the child makes the transition from regarding it as something subject to his omnipotent control, to being destroyed or banished, to surviving this destruction and coming into its own existence as a distinct entity. The child’s interaction with the transitional object symbolizes his relationship with the “good enough” mother who , in allowing herself to be engaged by the infant while gradually establishing herself as a separate person, enables the child to move gradually into his own subjective agency. Instead of alternately controlling, being controlled by, and destroying the things and people that occupy the space around him, the child learns how to play with them, to use them, and to create with them.

So now I’m thinking about how Winnicott’s ideas jibe with Lacan’s. For Lacan too the separation of the infant from the mother is a crucial developmental phase. In Lacan, however, this separation seems invariably traumatic. Rather than the mother easing the separation process as in Winnicott’s formulation, for Lacan it’s the father who enforces the infant-mother separation. In Winnicott, the transitional object, on which the child lavishes both its affection and its destructive cruelty, represents the mother’s breast. For Lacan, le petit objet a represents that which the child has lost from itself in being separated from the mother and that which the mother seeks to complete herself; namely, the phallus. For Winnicott the transitional object serves a temporary function in ushering the child into appropriate relationships with real people and objects in his surroundings. For Lacan the object persists forever in sublimated form, either as the external object of desire or as oneself embodying the other’s desire.

If the narcissistic infant perceives the mother, and specifically the mother’s breast, as part of himself, then it’s conceivable that he would regard the transitional object as representing that part of himself which has been cut off, or castrated. Is it conceivable that the (Lacanian) phallus = the (Winnicottian) breast? This equation would work, except for Lacan’s insistence that objet a isn’t what the mother has but that which she desires. The infant perceives that his mother has lost her desire for him because of something he has lost. In Winnicott, the lost object isn’t what the mother desires and searches for, but what the infant desires and has now been detached from him.

There’s a reasonably coherent body of empirical evidence supporting Winnicott’s position: children with secure attachments to their mothers are more comfortable exploring strange situations — what Winnicott might call unfamiliar intermediate territories — than are children with insecure or ambivalent maternal attachments. I don’t know what empirical research has been done on transitional objects.

I’ll probably write a second post about Winnicott’s book, focusing specifically on the intermediate territory between subjective and objective realities.

17 September 2008


Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:03 am

Not mine, of course, but our daughter’s. Here’s last year’s version, from her freshman year in high school…

… and now the one she finished just yesterday…

12 September 2008

Sonic Unconscious

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:57 am

“The unconscious is structured like a language,” says Lacan — a loosely-linked array of signifiers decoupled from signifieds, possibly connected on the back end, behind the unconscious, to the primeval Real. On the front end, in the Symbolic Order, the conscious self is spoken by the Big Other. Here’s an excerpt from my novel Prop O’Gandhi, where the eponymous hero (formerly known as Ulrich Daley) is getting in touch with the sonic unconscious and with the Voice of the Other whose Face appears to him in the bathroom mirror…

Only once before had Prop “heard voices,” as they say. At a Jesus-freak commune in North Africa, long before he became Prop, Ulrich had learned to position himself in that realm between wakefulness and sleep where, from the deep past, mystics wait. In the semiconscious twilight he became aware of a physical pressure bearing down on his prone body. Then he discerned the voices: low, muttering, guttural, incomprehensible. “Jesus come into my soul,” Ulrich petitioned within himself. Suddenly the voices stopped, the pressure lifted. Had the voices been the angels of God to whose summons he had at last responded, or had the dark angels tried to take him and failed? Maybe he had been eavesdropping on an internal dispute among supernatural beings without their being aware of it. Never again, except in memory, was he to hear those inhuman grumblings.

Later during that same week Ulrich would receive, by the laying on of hands, the gift of tongues. The phrases he would speak, though possessed of a structure and a rhythm, an apparent grammar and syntax, carried no conscious meaning. The little group of expatriated hippie neo-Christians espoused an explicit theology of tongues-speaking: God could understand what was being said, and that was good enough for them. Words were spoken that the Hearer could understand – this was the important thing. Understanding your own speech isn’t important. When you speak words you can understand, pretty soon you start conforming the words to the understanding, instead of simply saying what God wants you to say. What you need is a gift of speech that bypasses consciousness altogether, that makes connection with the super-consciousness of mystical presence. Surprisingly even now, long after Ulrich had forsaken the faith, he could speak in tongues if he wanted to, whenever he wanted to. He still didn’t know what the words meant.

This new voice, the Voice of the Face, was nothing like those other voices. “For one thing,” Prop thought matter-of-factly, “I can understand the words.” He supposed it was possible that the Voice didn’t understand its own words – “like tongues,” he speculated, “except this time I’m on the receiving end of the line. Maybe when I answer he has no understanding of what I say. But I don’t think that’s true,” Prop concluded, for he and the Voice could carry on a rudimentary conversation. It simply seemed to Prop that the Voice wasn’t much interested in chatting.

Most of the time the Voice issued commands: Go to the grocery store and buy three dozen eggs; open a new checking account and deposit in it a small sum of money; draw with a black marker a particular configuration of arrows and numerals on your right forearm. The Voice didn’t explain why Prop should undertake these seemingly arbitrary actions. If he asked, the Voice ignored him. On the other hand, if Prop asked, say, where the thick black arrow pointing toward his wrist was supposed to intersect with the “9” he had been told to draw onto his right forearm, the Voice would clarify. Surprisingly, when Prop held up his arm for the Face to see whether he had done it correctly, the Voice said nothing. It seemed as though the Face was unable to see. Thinking that perhaps the Face was incapable of redirecting his gaze to the right coordinates, Prop held his right forearm above his left shoulder, where the Face always seemed to be looking. Still the Face showed no recognition; still the Voice made no comment. Within the realm of the spoken word the Voice could instruct and Prop could respond to the instructions; only then could they understand one another. But for Prop O’Gandhi there was no knowing whether he was doing it right.

If you follow the words through the Symbolic order, do you ever reach the other side, touching or even penetrating the sonically Real that surrounds you? Here’s the text of a piece of music, composed in 1969 by Alvin Lucier, entitled “I Am Sitting in a Room”:

I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.

These aren’t the words to the tune; the words become the tune through the recursive process of speaking, recording the speech, playing the recording of the speech, rerecording the recording, etc. Here’s a recording of Lucier’s original performance of this piece. This is a quick version; other performances, in other rooms, with other recording devices, take longer to complete their inevitable transformations. Still, if you’re short on patience, listen to the first couple of rounds then jump ahead to the end.

10 September 2008

Disambiguation: Cognitivism

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:56 am

I feel the need to distinguish between cognitive psychology on the one hand and cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT on the other.

Cognitive psychology is a research paradigm within empirical psychology. Emerging in the sixties, the cognitive paradigm recognizes that human psychology cannot be reduced to the stimulus-response mechanisms of behaviorism, which had previously dominated American academic psychology. Even though it’s impossible for one person to gain direct access to the inner workings of the human mind, it is possible to infer them; e.g., by looking at intermediate steps in solving a complex problem, by identifying and interpreting the types of errors people tend to make, by analyzing how people use language to understand and to communicate, by the systematic analysis of self-report data, by exploring motivations and emotional responses to performance, even by looking at MRI images of brain function while individuals are performing mental tasks. In historical continuity with psychological empiricism, cognitive researchers rely on the usual techniques: defining tasks and variables as precisely as possible, systematically collecting data from individual subjects, analyzing the aggregate via inferential statistics, comparing observed versus hypothesized results. Cognitivists, many of whom draw explicit analogies between human and machine information processing, also like to construct computer simulations of their models of human cognition.

CBT as a therapeutic paradigm also grew out of behaviorism. Like its research counterpart, therapeutic cognitivism acknowledges that humans have internal states and processes which intervene between stimulus and response. In CBT, emotional disorders like depression and anxiety both cause and result from the individual’s inability to do what she really wants to do. Instead of merely trying to change the client’s behaviors, though, the cognitive-behavioral therapist tries to change the attitudes and beliefs that drive behavior. In particular, CBT tries to identify “irrational” cognitions that get in the way of the client doing what she wants to do. CBT the relationship between therapist and client is meant to emulate that between psychological researcher and research subject. The therapist collects data about the client’s symptoms, using the data to assign the client to one or more diagnostic categories. Throughout the course of treatment the therapist and client together identify mismatches between what the client wants to do and what she actually does, between consciously espoused attitudes/beliefs that align with what the client wants and those maladaptive or irrational attitudes/beliefs that keep the client from doing what she wants. Systematic attempts are made to strengthen those cognitions that are most likely to lead to the desired behaviors. Direct attempts to modify behavior are also part of treatment, but always in conjunction with “attitude adjustment.” Success in therapy is evaluated by improvement in psychological disorder (as measured by pre-post changes in symptom checklists) and by client self-reported changes in cognitions and behaviors.

While CBT takes on the language and trappings of cognitive psychological research, it’s not really based on research findings. While it’s possible to identify statistical relationships between attitudes and behaviors, and while it’s possible to build hypothetical causal models linking particular attitudes to particular behaviors, these findings and models apply to very tightly constrained experimental tasks rather than to real-world complexities. Further, there’s precious little compelling research evidence to support CBT’s core contention that systematically tinkering with subjects’ attitudes will result in their becoming more successful in behaving the way they’d like to or in improving their emotional state. In my view, with its performance measurements and goal-setting activities and best practices for achieving goals, CBT has more in common with corporate managerial techniques than with cognitive psychological research.

For most psychological disorders, empirical studies of therapeutic outcomes detect no significant differences between CBT and pretty much any other therapeutic praxis in reducing clients’ symptoms. Even untrained non-professionals who enter into an ongoing supportive relationship with the client get results comparable to the pros. It should be noted, though, any sort of “therapeutic alliance,” whether professional or amateur, CBT or alternative, achieves much better symptom reduction than does “watchful waiting.”

5 September 2008

Kant+Sade = The Lacanian Ethic

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 4:01 pm

There’s one more thing I wanted to note in Subjectivity and Otherness (2007), Chiesa’s book about Lacan. I’d forgotten what it was, but now it’s come back. It has to do with the primeval energy force that for Lacan is the source of creation of everything, including the unconscious: the immanent “sprite of the current” that’s perpetually active behind the scenes, assembling and setting everything in motion, including the unconscious from which human subjectivity emerges. Here Chiesa shears off from Lacan and starts linking him to Kant and Sade in a way that I found intriguing.

I’ll quote at some length from Chiesa (p. 170):

I have repeatedly pointed out that what one finds in the place of the real object that cannot be refound is not just the self-conscious representation of the objects of everyday reality, but also the unconscious Real-of-the-Symbolic (the object a); Seminar VII primarily associates the latter with the superegoic jouissance of the commandment, which is something “intemperate” in itself — since it paradoxically becomes “crueller and crueller as we offend it less and less” — and constitutes the other “obscene” side of the positive moral law. More importantly, Lacan shows how the “inner voice” of the superego which “substitutes itself” for the primordial Real — negatively represented in the Symbolic by the “dumbness” of das Ding — is its “opposite and the reverse,” yet, unexpectedly, taken at its purest, it is also “identical” to it.

(Allow me to pause briefly to let the reader savor not only the density of Chiesa’s language in explaining the already-abstruse Lacanian texts, but also the relative clarity of my own summaries (lol). Though Chiesa seems impatient with his readers’ dull-wittedness (“I have repeatedly pointed out…”), I still find his writing difficult to parse — which of course gives me liberty to rewrite his text as it suits me without anyone being the wiser.)

In his first sentence Chiesa repeats himself but he also seems to contradict himself. Earlier he said that the undead Real as a “hole” in the Symbolic is not the same as the always-already missing objet a, which acquires its meaning inside the Symbolic itself and which represents that which has been cut off (castrated) from the self through socialization (I see my clarity is already getting muddied). My understanding was that the hole in the Symbolic isn’t the lost object that’s always being sought in the Other, but rather the void through which the undead archaic Real occasionally irrupts. The void doesn’t induce the desire to find or to be the lost objet a; rather, it stimulates new creation in the Symbolic, which simultaneously swallows up and makes forever inaccessible another part of the Real. But we move on…

According to Chiesa, Lacan associates objet a with “the superegoic jouissance of the commandment.” To be embedded in the Symbolic order, the self has to be castrated from the primeval Real, a Real that is “killed” by being drained into the Symbolic. But the self derives pleasure from this painful excision, because by it the self is assigned a place the social order, an order that’s “commanded” by language imposed by the Other on the self. The command becomes “crueller and crueller as we offend it less and less,” says Lacan: this is because the more we embed ourselves in the Symbolic the more we’re cut off from the Real. Symbolic castration is a continual trauma to which we voluntarily subject ourselves. So the “law,” defined in the broadest terms as the Symbolic order itself, the “Word,” the psychosocial reality defined by language — the law claims virtue in embedding us in society, but its “obscenity” is its cruelty in leaving us cut off, with some part of us always missing or “holed.”

Chiesa says that, for Lacan, the superego substitutes for the primordial Real, both as the absence of the Real thing in itself and as the opposite of this absence. This absence and its opposite can’t be equated with the positive and negative features of the commandment, which operates within the Symbolic. Is it equated with the pleasure-and-its-opposite nature of jouissance? That doesn’t seem quite right either, since jouissance is the self’s emotional response to the bipolarity of the Symbolic commandment — which means that jouissance has to come after the Real has already been killed by the Symbolic. But “substitute” doesn’t necessarily mean “representation” or “trace”: the superego occupies the empty place that’s been vacated by the Real. So the superego needn’t resemble the Real-as-void any more than the Symbolic description of a thing resembles the thing-in-itself (see preceding post on this lack of correspondence between Real and Symbolic in Lacan).

But then we get the phrase that seems to overturn all that preceded it:

yet, unexpectedly, taken at its purest, it is also “identical” to it.

So here is a seemingly irresolvable paradox: the superego both substitutes for the primordial Real and is identical to it. This identity suggests that the Real possesses the bipolar properties of the superego: it both incorporates and cuts off; it induces both pleasure and pain. We already observed in the prior post that, per Chiesa, Lacan regards the Real as something like the Holy Spirit, an immanent force that’s integral to the world itself. Does this mean that the Holy Spirit manifests this bipolarity of the superego? We move on to Chiesa’s next two paragraphs:

This is where Kant’s philosophy and Sade’s novels come on the scene, and reveal their utmost ethical significance and danger. According to Lacan, both Kant and Sade attempt to force their way to the Real of the Thing — and thus return to the pure jouissance of the primordial Real — precisely by radicalizing the ambivalent nature of the superegoic commandment in opposite ways, by transforming it into a universal maxim to be understood as “pure signifying system.” Indeed, such an (asymptotic) purification of the Symbolic, the complete symbolization of the Real, can eventually achieve a real-ization of the Symbolic, its disappearance…

More specifically, Kant’s ethics and Sade’s “anti-ethics” similarly endeavor to exacerbate and final break with the dialectic between law and desire as inherent transgression which Saint Paul expressed in the following way: “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin [transgression].” The lack of mediation between law and desire in favor of one of the two should hypothetically give rise to either a pure jouissance of the Law, in the case of Kant, or an — ultimately indistinguishable — pure law of Jouissance, in the case of Sade. In other words, the Kantian categorical imperative “Act in such a way that the maxim of your action may be accepted as a universal maxim” is nothing but a reduction of the law to its pure form; the Sadean imperative “Let us take as a universal maxim of our conduct the right to enjoy any other person whatsoever as the instrument of our pleasure” is nothing but the reduction of the law to its object, to the “right to jouissance.”

The idea is this: Kant regards his ethic as intrinsic to the universe, a natural universal law, so it’s natural for a human to act in accord with this ethic. Because the ethic is intrinsic to human nature, following the ethic brings pleasure in its own right — the pleasure of being at one with the universal — regardless of whatever other benefits the person might derive from ethical behavior. The Kantian ethic valorizes the kind of middle way of Aristotle and Confucius, along with the communal Golden Rule — in other words, it’s an ethic that’s familiar and sort of comforting. But Sade, whose ethic is very different indeed, shares something with Kant: he too believes that his ethic is a law of nature. According to Sade, because self-gratification naturally produces pleasure, it must be a natural law and therefore good. The forces of violence and destruction clear the way for new creation, so to act as an agent of these forces is to resonate with the universal spirit of creativity. Inflicting violence on others, or even to have violence inflicted on oneself, would therefore stimulate a natural pleasure of being in tune with the universal forces.

What’s important from Lacan’s perspective is this: the person who subscribes to the Sadean ethic derives pleasure from violating Kant’s ethic, while the follower of Kant is pleasured by violating Sade’s ethic. So what would be the result of combining the Kantian and the Sadean natural ethics, polar opposites of one another but both intrinsic to nature itself? Presumably whoever acts in accord with this bipolar ethic would simultaneously experience both pleasure and its opposite. This pleasure-antipleasure admixture would result from ethical action regardless of whether the actor is following the mandate of the Kantian pole or the Sadean. This for Lacan is the pleasure-pain of jouissance. It arises whether a person follows a law or violates that same law, because violation too operates according to law. The universal law of the real is bipolar, and so is the natural affective response.

So, to summarize (sort of): By being inscribed in the Symbolic order, the individual experiences loss of the Real. The Symbolic order operates according to a Law by which the individual becomes more and more fully incorporated into the Symbolic, more closely connected in communal bonds with others. But another Law is at work: the other who subjects the individual to the Law derives pleasure from exerting power and destroying something in the individual, and the individual derives pleasure from violating Law. To seek one kind of lawful pleasure is, paradoxically, to seek the pain of violating the inverse law. Desire is thus always infused with this ambivalent affect of jouissance. Fully pursuing this bipolar pleasure-pain of desire, becoming more and more fully inscribed in a Symbolic order that simultaneously includes its own opposite, paradoxically brings the person into closer and closer contact with the bipolar Real. Law and jouissance, emerging as replacements for the Real as the Real is progressively killed by the Symbolic, paradoxically transform themselves into a new Real that pushes through the Symbolic. It’s like a Möbius strip: you walk along one surface until eventually you find yourself on the other side.

3 September 2008

The Unconscious God of Lacan

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:29 pm

[This is the third and probably last in a series on Chiesa’s 2007 book Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan.]

In his immensely helpful A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis (1997), Bruce Fink asserts that, for Lacan,

The real… is what has not yet been put into words or formulated… This real, according to Lacan, has to be signified through analysis: it has to be spoken, put into signifiers. As Jacques-Alain Miller has put it, analysis involves the progressive “draining away” of the real into the symbolic. (Fink, p. 49)

By Fink’s account, then, the analysand’s experience while undergoing Lacanian analysis is quite compatible with relational psychoanalyst Donnel Stern’s fine 2003 book Unformulated Experience (see link in prior post). But Stern, whose representational understanding of language is influenced strongly by Gadamer’s hermeneutics, separates himself from Lacan, who disconnects truth from direct human experience of the real.

Truth for Lacan is found in error, misapprehension, nonsense, word-play, and the weird juxtaposition of dreams. (Stern, p. 9)

For Lacan truth need have no connection whatever to the Real, because the Symbolic order “kills the Real.” It’s in these unplanned and unexpected lacunæ within the Symbolic that the Real is able to irrupt, however briefly, before being absorbed in language or repressed again. This is “the Real of the unconscious,” the main focus of Lacanian analysis. (It’s also, I think, the basis for Zizek’s parallax and Badiou’s event.)

But it’s not clear in what way the unconscious contains or connects to the Real, if the unconscious consists of a loosely structured assemblage of linguistic signifiers disconnected from the signifieds to which they are sutured in consciousness and by which they are assigned meaning in the Symbolic order. Signifiers are Real in the trivial, non-linguistic sense of being material entities comprised of physical marks and phonological elements. The more important question is this: are the signifiers of the unconscious connected, on the back end as it were, to the primordial Real, the things-in-themselves, a connection that is severed by crossing the Symbolic threshold into language? Or, to say it another way: The Symbolic order castrates the unconscious subject from the Real in order to embed it in a social reality defined in terms of the Other of language. Is there an “Other of the Other,” by which the Symbolic retains some trace of a connection with the structured order of the Real?

At first Lacan answered in the affirmative. The name of the Father, around which the Symbolic is organized, pointed beyond all those who occupy the role of father in actual families to a primordial Father who validates the Symbolic order. The Symbolic Other of the Symbolic Other is like Descartes’ non-trickster God who assures us that our understanding of things corresponds to God’s understanding. Later, though, Lacan disavowed this idea of a God-the-Father of the Symbolic. But though the Other of the Other was no more to be found in Lacan’s psychological cosmogony, there remained the primal creative energy from which everything springs, a Real and absolute Other. However, the individual cannot know this Other directly; its existence must be inferred only after it has already been “killed” by the Symbolic. All that remains of this primal Real is the hole in the Symbolic where it used to be: the Real as already-dead, as undead, as “not-One.” The pure primal Real remains forever barred to sentient humanity. This undead Real isn’t the always-missing objet a of the Symbolic that results from castration, from the self being cut off from the Real and incorporated into the Symbolic, but rather a hole in the structure of the Symbolic itself, a no-thing rather than a missing thing.

Though the primal Real remains forever inaccessible to humans, it is the engine that generates everything in the world, including humanity. The unconscious, being something like a language but not actually embedded in the Symbolic, maintains contact with this pre-sentient animal Real. Not only that, but this Real generates and energizes the unconscious itself. So if the unconscious is structured like a language, does its structure correspond to or emerge from the primal Real? Apparently so. Chiesa says that, for Lacan, the primal Other is the Holy Spirit, the immanent elan vitale, the “sprite of the current” that creates everything, including the unconscious, ex nihilo.

This Real as primal force isn’t the object of empirical scientific knowledge, which is a Symbolic investigation of the Imaginary appearances of the world rather than of the Real world itself. The only contact with the primal Real occurs outside of and prior to both the Imaginary and the Symbolic, in the unconscious. As Lacan once said, “God is not dead; God is unconscious.” Though the Symbolic in effect kills the Real by absorbing it into itself, the undead Real continues to make itself known through the hole in the Symbolic, a hole that can only be entered through the unconscious. The primal Real thus constitutes a void, a non-thing in the unconscious, that occasionally makes itself evident within the Symbolic. It is from this unconscious void that all new Symbolic knowledge emerges, a creative disjuncture that can only glimpsed after it has already been closed up again within the Symbolic. (This idea of the creative void of the unconscious Real corresponds, I believe, to Badiou’s idea of the void and the event.) What breaks through the void is something like the Holy Spirit, the not-One, the pure multiple of inchoate creation. Says Chiesa:

for Lacan, the creation ex nihilo of the signifier on which human thought depends is truly materialistic; Lacan’s creationism is a form of antihumanist immanentism… the Symbolic emerges as an immanent consequence of the primordial Real. Yet the point of creation ex nihilo is also the point of infinity: what precedes it can only be thought as impossible (to think) — one cannot think the primordial Real, or the point of creation. (p. 137)

Lacan says in Seminar VII that the Symbolic

has been functioning as far back in time as [man’s unconscious] memory extends. Literally, you cannot remember beyond it, I’m talking about the history of mankind as a whole.

Concludes Chiesa on this issue of Lacan’s primal Real:

the points of creation and destruction (of history) are a strict logical “necessity,” but they can be posited only through retroactive or anticipatory mythical speculations. This is how the finitude of man as parlêtre engendered by creation ex nihilo opens a “limited” space of infinity, the “absoluteness of desire” that must be opposed to the eternal immortality of the undead — that is to say, the primordial Real, pre- or postsymbolic “nature” as not-One. (p. 138)

This summative statement clears up some things while muddying others. Briefly, though, with respect to Meillassoux’s agenda, Lacan doesn’t believe it’s possible to touch the Real either before or after human finitude, nor is it possible to assert that what sentient humans understand about the Real has any correspondence with what the Real is like in itself.

[ADDED 4 SEPTEMBER] As I said in my last two posts about Chiesa, Lacan’s inversions and convolutions about the Real seem not just unnecessarily complex but counterintuitive and at odds with empirical research. Lacan and Stern share the underlying psychoanalytic perspective that an individual’s conscious awareness expands by formulating in thought and language what remains unformulated in the unconscious. Stern probably preserves too much of the Real by retaining the representational view of language, whereby the content and structure of the Symbolic order can be directly mapped onto the content and structure of the Real which it formulates. But to contend that conscious formulation kills the Real, which continues to haunt the Symbolic as an undead hole or non-thing, goes too far in the other direction — it’s kind of like saying that flour and eggs and sugar are killed by the cake into which they’ve been baked. Language and thought are essential to human survival in the Real — they are, one could say, integral to the human Real. The perceptual and cognitive tools by which the human mind apprehends and structures information presented to it by the Real need not correspond directly to the thing in itself, but it must, I think, describe characteristics of the thing if it’s to be pragmatically useful — characteristics that exist in the Real independent of human apprehension. But now I’m stepping dangerously into the philosophical territory of speculative realism, about which I know barely enough even to be slightly dangerous to myself.

1 September 2008

Lacan’s Inverted Structuralism

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 4:40 pm

For Saussure, a language is a structured system comprised of signs. A sign consists of two paired elements: the signified, or the concept associated with the sign; and the signifier, or the sound made when the sign is spoken. A sign has no meaning in and of itself; rather, it derives its meaning from all the other signs within the linguistic structure in which it participates. And the connection between any given signified and its signifier is arbitrary: the sound of the word is (with a few exceptions) unrelated to its meaning.

According to Chiesa (Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan, 2007, pp. 48-49), Lacan disrupts Saussurean structuralism in three ways. First, Lacan contends that the signifier “logically precedes and causes the signified.” I suppose technically this is the case: infants make all sorts of vocalizations before they understand what these sounds mean in their language. But this seems like a trivial point. In translation, mapping words from one language to another based on how they sound is a futile undertaking. E.g., the word spelled “pain” in French has nothing to do with its phonological analog in English. Translation operates by focusing on common meaning elements, or signifiers.

Second, Lacan observes that the same signifier can have more than one signified connected to it; i.e., the same word can have multiple meanings. The complement is true also of course: the same concept can be expressed by more than one word. But what interests Lacan is that the particular meaning to which a signifier is pointing can be discerned only through context. Only after the entire sentence has been spoken is it possible for the hearer to decide with relative certainty what the speaker intended to mean by each of the words included in that sentence. In other words, it’s the structure and sequence of signifiers that determines the meaning of an utterance.

Third, the structure of the sequence of signs determines the structure of the subject who speaks them. I think what Lacan means here is that neither the listener nor the speaker knows what the subject means by what she says until after she’s said it. The words are spoken, then the meanings are assigned to the word string, then the intentionality of meaning is assigned to the speaker. Because speech takes place in a social context, the subject who speaks is embedding herself in a Symbolic order the meaning of which is already determined by the Other. Therefore, in speaking to a listener, the subject is in effect being spoken by the Other to another. The subject becomes a structural artifact of language.

It’s in Lacan’s threefold divergence from Saussure that his famous epigram “the unconscious is structured like a language” is to be understood. According to Lacan, the unconscious is made up of signifiers loosely and multiply linked to each other. In speech the unconscious strings together sequences of signifiers and routes them through consciousness, attaching them to signifieds. Signs — signifier-signified pairs — never refer to actual things in the world; they refer only to each other. But it’s in the act of pairing signifier to signified that the subject-as-unconscious is assigned meaning as a self-conscious element within the Symbolic order. The subject in effect becomes a linguistic object.

Now I’m sure there’s a whole lot to be said for looking at subjects and language in this way, but to me the whole scheme strikes me as a kind of Ptolemaic cosmology replete with epicycles and wheels within wheels that add a seemingly sophisticated complexity to phenomena that could be greatly simplified. In this case, though, the simpler understanding is also the more intuitively obvious one. People experience things; people think about the things they experience; people come up with words to describe their experiences to others. It’s not just the signifiers that are unconscious; the signifieds are too — as Donnell Stern said, “all thought is unconscious.” When we speak we consciously and spontaneously call up from the unconscious a sequence of signs in which sound and meaning are already paired up. The hearer might not know which meaning to assign to the word string until it’s been fully spoken, but the speaker can know. The speaker probably doesn’t make a radical and sequential distinction between signifier and signified; i.e., she probably doesn’t formulate a complex thought and then assign the words to those thoughts as a separate conscious act. Thought and language are more closely linked than that: we think linguistically most of the time. And the thought-word sequence is assembled in real time: the barrier between unconscious and consciousness is permeable and flexible.

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