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

Filed under:Sin your Way to Heaven and get Slaughtered — posted by Schizostroller on March 18, 2018 @ 9:55 pm

“sometimes we see a cloud that is dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world,
And mock our eyes with air…” Shakespeare (Anthony and Cleopatra)

In the book ‘Art and Illusion’ the art historian E.H Gombrich refers to the Pythagorean sage Appollonius of Tyana who travelled to India with his disciple, Damis, and found himself gazing on some reliefs left from the time of Alexander the Great. Waiting for audience with whatever aristocrat he was visiting he had the time to pontificate Socratically with his disciple on the nature of art, asking him questions on the nature of painting. He asked ‘is there such a thing as painting’ to which Damis replied in the affirmative. Apollonius then asked what it then consisted of to which Damis responded that it was the mixing of colours. ‘why do that?’ asked Apollonious, to which Damis replied, ‘For the sake of imitation. To get a likeness of a dog or a horse or a man, a ship or anything else under the sun.’ To which Apollonius responded, ‘So then painting is imitation, mimesis?’ To which, again, Damis replied in the affirmative. So asked Apollonius, what about the images we see in the clouds, the faces, the giants, gods and monsters, the mountains and ships? Are they works of imitation Does God make them for his amusement? Both Apollonius and Damis agree this can’t be the case, they shapes arise by chance. Does this then mean, asks Apollonius, ‘that the art of imitation is two-fold? One aspect of it is the use of hands and mind in producing imitations, another aspect the producing of likeness with the mind alone?’ As Gombrich states “The mind of the beholder also has its share in the imitation.” In this series of articles I want to argue that with voice hearing, not only do we have such a share in the ‘imitation’, that is an ‘imitation’ of the ‘world’ in the form of the Other’ that speaks back to us, but that as Gombrich intimates that share requires a historical knowledge or ‘lebensweld’ (lifeworld), that has an ideological relation to the economy, one that has consequences for the chances of recovery but also relates to a problem of governmentality for ‘techniques’ such as CBT. This is particularly relevant for voice hearing as the experience is closely related to language (it being voices that are ‘heard’.

First, though, I want to look at emotions and consciousness. I want to start from an embodied perspective and so that requires starting with the body (as a disclaimer I want to say this is not a medical model argument, so for those who immediately balk at ‘science’ or ‘medicine’, please bear with me. For those more open, I hope this is a balanced view and therefore a successful challenge to the essentialism of the medical model).

Now I am writing from the standpoint of a voice hearer myself, but if (as I shall argue) our experience as voice hearers is based on our directly lived experience then although the experience ‘of’ hearing voices is not unique, there is still a solitude to the particular individual mental health experience. So for this to be yet another voice hearing experience that argues a relation of embodied phenomenology to social structures would fail as it would be an anecdotal fallacy. I will say that I am strongly supportive of narrative not only from the psychology perspective of sufficient case studies to create falsifiable hypotheses, but also from a mad studies perspective they are stories that speak our experience into the world. I also respect the importance of voice hearing groups and their help with dealing with this isolation in that no matter how personal the experience there will always be similarities with others, one’s that get us to click and get that there is something more social to this experience than a lonely descent into madness, and from there a way back. So it is in this sense, where the theory of embodiment respects that we share similar physiologies, we live on the same planet, and we can communicate, so there is a sense where we can contemplate the validity of this shared experience that is also so, so personal. To this end I will start with the work of the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio whose work on consciousness and emotions has been elucidating for me. I stated that I was a voice hearer, and an experience I have is of telepathy. For my part I am an atheist, philosophically speaking I am a materialist (that is I am neither dualist (mind/body split), nor idealist (just mind/ideas)), for me the basis of most knowledge is the body, the senses and the material world. However I experience other voices, phantasms if you will, speaking to me (I will be exploring this in later articles, including with regards the famous phrase that Ron Coleman made popular ‘the voices are real’, but that has roots back to 1961 and RD Laing’s book Self and Others where he quotes the psychiatrist Isaacs who states ‘the phantasms are real’). For me they cannot be spirits or angels, they are not aliens (I am comfortable with the Fermi Paradox – and they are rarely ‘that’ intelligent!) so they are (memories/ representations of) other people. So with that experience, that can be very vivid and intense, it was of great interest and (due to the distress of the experience) comfort to me that in the opening chapter of his book “The Feeling of What Happens”, Damasio writes “Consciousness is an entirely private, first person phenomenon which occurs as part of the private, first person process we call mind.” (p.12). So what on earth am I feeling when I experience ‘telepathy’? Damasio argues that feelings are to help us be aware of our emotions, so evolutionarily speaking it can “be argued that emotions without feelings would be a sufficient mechanism to regulate life and promote survival” (p.284) so feelings are the stepping stone for the next development of consciousness ‘the feeling of knowing we have feelings’. They allow us to plan and strategise in advance in ways that are adaptive to different environments. Are we to suggest that these alienated phantasms are merely my own emotions? It can’t be that simple? And even were it just that simple and reductionist, alone with just that knowledge does that help? No, they are still there. So? Now what?

Tell you what, let’s go to Uncle Sigmund Freud that bête noire of serious, proper scientific behavioural psychology, I mean we are talking evolutionary neuroscience here! Freud argues that anxiety is an affective state “that is to say, a combination of certain feelings in the pleasure-unpleasure series with the corresponding innervations of discharge and a perception of them” (p.113). He distinguishes realistic anxiety from neurotic anxiety. In realistic anxiety we have an increase in sensory attention and motor tension and a sense of preparedness for flight or flight that will can be limited to a signal (triggered by repetitions of old traumas) allowing the remainder to adapt itself to the situation. There are three types of neurotic anxiety, the first a free floating general apprehensiveness; secondly ‘phobias’; the third that can emerge independently as an attack or more persistent state, “but always without any visible basis in an external danger” (p.114). In an article in the journal Psychosis, Dirk Corstens, Eleanor Longden and Rufus May discuss their therapy of ‘talking with voices’. They discuss one of the problems with voice hearing as seeing these voices as hostile. If we are to question the ‘feeling of knowing we have feelings’ what is occurring with the intrusion of hostile alienated spectres? Freud puts this question into words “From what part of [the] mind does an unconscious resistance like this arise?” (p.100). He goes on to say that we must “attribute to the repressed a strong upward drive, an impulsion to break through into consciousness. The resistance can only be a manifestation of the ego, which originally put the repression into place and wishes to maintain it… Since we have come to maintain a special agency in the ego, the super ego, which represents a demands of a restrictive and rejecting character, we may say that repression is the work of this superego and that is carried out either by itself or by the ego and that it is carried out either by itself or by the ego in obedience to its orders.” (p.100-101).

Enough, you say, what is this doing in Asylum? We have all been here before, we know this! “yeah, yeah, the voices are projections of unrealistic anxieties, possibly from past trauma that I am repeating, and need to work through, there is neuroscience to back it up, but I am supposedly repressing and refusing to acknowledge my own responsibility in my individual recovery. Whoop de do! Give me my pills and CBT! Take me to your leader.”
But what if I was to say that the problem of ‘non-compliance’ may reside, not in personal responsibility, but in the fact that ideologically there may well be a realistic underlying anxiety that us ‘sensitive snowflakes’ are just too tuned in to, and we need to explore this issue further?

So please hold on for my further articles where I would like to return to the views of Gombrich by looking at another bête noire of serious science, Raudive, and his belief that ‘voices’ could be recorded in tape, often dismissed as ‘ideas of reference’ to look at how projection works in the voice hearing experience. From there I will be looking at ‘talking with voices’ therapies, based on voice dialogue, used by Rufus May, Eleanor Longden, Dirk Corstens and others. From there I will be returning to psychoanalytic ideas of transference, I will look taking RD Laing’s criticism of Isaacs, as too individualistic, further. I will look at communication and systems theory, venturing into coding and cybernetics, I will then return toi trauma and the body where I look at the relation of language to ideology and biopolitics, then I will use this directly lived reality to look at strategies I call ‘unrecovery’ that draw not from psychological techniques but from the practice of everyday life of theorists such as Michel De Certeau and Henri Lefebvre, and from the history of signifying used in Black American literature, jazz but also punk. And look for an activist strategy, especially for those who feel left out in the cold by cuts and austerity.

Corstens, Dirk; Longden, Eleanor; May, Rufus – Talking with voices: Exploring what it is expressed by the voices people hear – (2011) Psychosis 1-10 iFirst Article
Damasio, Antonio – The Feeling of What Happens (2000) Vintage books
Freud, Sigmund – 2: New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1975) Pelican
Gombrich, E.H. – Art and Illusion (1986) Phaidon Press

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image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace