‘Sin your way to heaven and get slaughtered: A byzantine general problem of the self’ (part five)

Filed under:Sin your Way to Heaven and get Slaughtered — posted by Schizostroller on March 29, 2018 @ 1:51 pm

In the seminar of Jacques Lacan known as Freud’s Papers on Techniques, Lacan discusses schizophrenia and the libido. For Freud, Lacan argues “The register of desire is… an extension of the concrete manifestations of the sexuality, an essential relation maintained by the animal being with the Umwelt, its world”. However he also suggests that “if one generalises excessively the notion of libido, because, in so doing, one neutralises it”. The idea of the libido is meaningless if it functions in the same way as the Real, “on the contrary, the libido takes on its meaning by being distinguished from the real, or realisable relations, from all the functions which have nothing to do with the function of desire, from everything touching on the relations of the ego and of the external world.” (p113-114). Lacan then argues that in schizophrenia “something happens which completely disturbs the relations of the subject to the real, swamping the foundation with form.” Lacan charges that Jung’s understanding of psychosis that culminates in the observation that for the psychotic to find a cure, “what the subject must do is realise himself as an individual in possession of genital functions,” (p.114) leaves psychoanalytic theory vulnerable to a neutralisation of the libido. Thus Freud distinguishes between sexual libido and egoistical libido. Lacan’s argument is that the Urbild ‘which is a unity comparable to the ego, is constituted at a specific moment in the history of the subject, at which point the ego begins to take on its functions.” This means that the human ego is founded on the basis of the imaginary relation.” (p. 115).
According to Lacan, for Jung, “psychic interest comes and goes, goes out, comes back, colours etc. It drowns the libido in the universal magma which will be the basis of the world’s constitution… Psychic interest is nothing other than an alternating spotlight, which can come and go, be projected, be withdrawn from reality, at the whim of the pulsation of the psyche of the subject.” (p.115). there are limits to this metaphor though, “it does not allow one to grasp the differences that there might be between a directed, sublimated retreat of interest in the world which the anchorite may achieve, and that of the schizophrenic, whose result however structurally quite distinct, since the subject discovers he is completely stuck.” (p.115-116). Lacan suggests that here Freud moves on from Jung’s distinction between religious ascetism and schizophrenia, to a distinction between neurosis and psychosis, a distinction that Lacan argues lies “in the refusal to recognise, in the refusal, in the barrier opposed to a reality by the neurotic, we note a recourse to fancy.” This is a function that in Freud’s terminology refers to the imaginary. However Freud argues that when “it comes to the psychotic subject, if he loses the realisation of the real, he doesn’t find any imaginary substitute.” This is the distinction from the neurotic.
Lacan talks of the idea of the psychotic being caught up in waking dreams, but he argues the imaginary cannot be the function of unreal, it must be more than this. If the argument is that the psychotic is denied access to the imaginary (the neurotic’s ‘fancy’, the foundation of the ego), when the psychotic reconstructs his world the function involved must therefore be the category of the symbolic. Lacan wonders whether it may be that the specific structure of the psychosis may be a symbolic unreal “or in a symbolic umarked by the unreal” (p. 117). There is a relation here to the sieged fortress of the psychotic, that he/she is ‘stuck’ in, has withdrawn to, may have elective affinities with the iron cage of instrumental rationality that Max Weber spoke of, much criticised on Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. But the question remains where, then, is the imaginary?
In her book Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici describes the two differing projects of Descartes and Hobbes with regards the burgeoning focus on the mechanisms of the body in 17th century Western thought, “in Descartes, the reduction of the body to mechanical matter allows for the development of mechanisms of self-management that make the body the subject of the will. In Hobbes, by contrast, the mechanization of the body justifies the total submission of the individual to the power of the State. In both, however, the outcome is a redefinition of bodily attributes that makes the body, ideally, at least, suited for the regularity and automatism demanded by capitalist work-discipline” (p.140). Federici argues that what died with this type of project “was the body as receptacle of magical powers that had prevailed in the mediaeval world. In reality it was destroyed.” The irrational became a crime. “This state intervention was the necessary ‘subtext’ of Mechanical Philosophy. ‘Knowledge’ can only become ‘Power’ if it cannot enforce its prescriptions… This is why, at the peak of the ‘Age of Reason’ – the age of scepticism and methodical doubt – we have a ferocious attack on the body.” (p.141).
“Eradicating magical practices was a necessary condition for the capitalist rationalization of work, since magic appeared as an illicit form of power and an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work, that is a refusal of work in action. ‘Magic kills industry,’ lamented Francis Bacon, admitting that nothing repelled him so much as the assumption that one could obtain results with a few idle expedients, rather than with the sweat of one’s brow… Magic, moreover, rested upon a qualitative conception of space and time that precluded a regularization of the labour process.” (p.142). Federici notes that the ‘revival of magical beliefs is possible today because it no longer constitutes a social threat. The mechanization of the body is so constitutive of the individual that, at least in industrialized countries, giving space to the belief in occult forces does not jeopardize the regularity of social behaviour… however this was not an option for the 17th century ruling class which, in this initial phase of capitalist development, had not yet achieved the social control necessary to neutralise magic, nor could they functionally integrate magic into the organisation of social life. From their viewpoint it hardly whether the powers that people claimed to have, or aspired to have, were real or not, for the very existence of magical beliefs was a source of social insubordination.” (p.143).
Federici notes that with regards the refusal of work implied by magical beliefs “particularly important… was the attack on the ‘imagination’ (‘vis imaginativa’) which in the 16th which in 16th and 17th century Natural Magic was considered a powerful force… Hobbes devoted a chapter of the Leviathan to demonstrating that the imagination is only a ‘decaying sense’, no different from memory, only gradually weakened by the removal of the objects of our perception.” (n.16, p.157).
We have looked at the libido’s relation to ego formation, and looked at the historical relation of the body to magical thinking and the suppression of the imaginary, and the importance of this to the work-ethic, especially that of the exploited subject. So to understand the contemporary condition, rather than using psychoanalysis I want to look at modern cognitive psychology, especially the idea of purposive thought (or selective attention) and divided attention, then I will return to the earlier points I made about anxiety and voice hearing. One of the experiments on selective attention utilises ‘shadowing’, this is where subjects echo back the speech of another (say radio or TV) whilst listening to it. However, in the experiment, the listener wears stereo headphones, with one channel containing the ‘to be followed’ speech (attended channel) whilst the other channel (the unattended channel) plays a different message. This is known as dichotic listening. Certain observations are made from this; the first is that it is relatively easy to follow the attended channel; another is that very little is noticed from the unattended channel. This does not mean however that the subject is deaf to it, in fact whilst testing on semantic content (even when limited to seven words) the scores are little more than random, on attributes (whether human speech, high or low voice, male or female) the subjects scored highly. However, sometimes, the inputs from the unattended channel do leak into the subjects’ awareness, for example if a series of names are embedded into the semantic content of the unattended channel, including the subject’s own name, then whilst the subjects are still for the most part oblivious, a third heard their own name. Other content can also be noticed for example the last movie seen, the name of the subject’s most frequently attended and favourite restaurant. The same is the case for words with personal importance.
William Burroughs famously devised a thought experiment designed to ruin a café he had had bad business with. Conversations occurring in the cafe would be recorded and played back at a delayed interval, thus causing discordant, anxious and uncomfortable feelings amongst the clientele, driving them away. This is also the uncomfortable feelings low-level voice hearing can cause (where high-level voice hearing includes descriptions of the subject’s behaviour when alone – leading to paranoid beliefs about being bugged or hacked etc. Think of Philip K Dick’s Through a Glass Darkly).
So whilst for the most part there is a general insensitivity to the unattended channel, it is clear that some content ‘leaks through’. There are several explanations for the general insensitivity, but one of them is the ability to ignore, to ‘tune out’ the unattended channel. It seems that given sufficient practice subjects can teach themselves to tune out even severe distractors (an issue for Burroughs’ experiment). Such techniques are called ‘active ignoring’. However there seems to be a two-part theory of attention: not only do we block the processing of distractors, we are able to promote the processing of desired stimuli.

Federici, Silvia – Caliban and the Witch (2009) Autonomedia
Lacan, Jacques – Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953-1954: The seminar of Jacques Lacan Book 1 (1991) Norton
Reisberg, Daniel – Cognition (1997) Norton.

image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace