the myth of the unconscious?

Why might we think of the unconscious as a myth? One reason would be that contra Freud it is not best understood as an empirical postulate, as something which must be posited in order to best explain independently assayable human thought and action. And one reason to think that such an inferential explanation is unhelpful is that we can only really get a good grip of what the psychoanalytic explananda are if we already see them in terms of this explanans, or to put it in an epistemic mode, if we’ve already got our eye in to discern just this unconscious-motivational dimension of human life. In my view, to talk of the unconscious as justified by its explanatory potency is as unwarranted as talking of happiness as being justified as a concept in virtue of the explanatory work it can do for us regarding smiling and skipping.

Today however I want to suggest another reason, less positive, less obliging, that we ought to think of it as a myth. This reason depends upon our accepting that there is something essential to the capacity for human avowal that makes for mentality (I will call this 'avowalism'). That is, to get this reason to work for us we mustn't be content to ascribe a feeling on the basis of behaviour and expression in the absence of corroborative avowal. I think this might be asking rather a lot of us by way of acceptance - and if you think it is asking far too much then, well, do what you will but, probably, stop reading now.

From an avowalist perspective, an attribution to us of a feeling we just can’t own is misguided. Yet then again, from the point of view of an observer, someone interacting with the protagonist, the attribution may appear likely. The clinical situation can be hugely frustrating, and involves the patient in something of a trap: the therapist is saying (on the basis of the patient’s behaviour) ‘but you do seem to feel X towards me’ and the patient is saying ’sod off I don’t - and moreover your insinuation that I feel this is just corroboration for what I think of you right now - that you are intrusive, etc. etc. which is the real reason I’m pissed at you.’ We’ve all been like this in our own therapy, and we therapists all encounter it in our patients too. There is no unconscious emotion beyond what can be acknowledged (cf Wittgenstein’s notion that a patient’s acknowledgement of the truth of an interpretation was criterial of its truth - a notion I’ve tended to imagine was suspect but which yet fits with the tenor of this post) is the basic idea of avowalism. (But how do we understand the 'can'?)

One advantage of avowalism is it helps us not simply take for granted that we know what ‘unconscious’ means - certainly not know this by imagining some kind of inner blindness - as if some kind of sight was the way we normally are able to be in touch with our feelings and speak from our intentions. (That idea of an inner eye trips off our theory-of-ideas-infected-tongues, but is clearly revealed as phenomenologically bizarre as soon as we stop to think for a second about it.) One way that Finkelstein, for example, solves the problem is, if I remember him right, by saying that unconscious desires are those which are expressed in deeds but not in words. Well, ok, but imagine that one is more attracted by avowalism - by the idea of a much tighter connection between words and thoughts - than that makes room for. What then of the unconscious?

One way to understand dynamic unconsciousness now would be as follows: Talk of ‘unconscious emotions’ is confused and relies on a back-projection of feeling to a time when feeling was, strikingly, not being born. Someone is anxious, in an inner bind. We think of this as a conflict between two extant feelings. But what if, really, the problem is here that the feelings can’t take shape? What if there is a feeling generator in our soul which is how the soul births itself anew, digests experience, reconfigures and makes sense in relationships, all of this through the creation of feelings and intentions - and what if, when there is conflict, the feelings themselves can’t be birthed? That feelings need to be birthed for us to be freed, anew, oiled and able to unfurl as we need to do? That the psyche is a lump of clay that normally shapes itself in this or that formation, but that when there are two opposing possible formation spaces, it gets jammed and so can’t form. That an interpretation in analysis or by ourselves or elsewhere makes possible two separate formations, makes the space for this finally, allows ambivalence to be, resolves through complexification. ‘Isn’t it like this: on the one had you X, but on the other you Y?’ And, ahh, the feeling of relief that follows. ‘Now I can go on!’, to quote Wittgenstein (PI 179).

Rather than imagine that the feelings were there all along before our avowal, which is what the idea of unconscious feelings rather invites us to believe, maybe we’d do better to think of the unconscious as at best the potential - the ‘unconscious feeling’ as nothing other than a potential feeling, something the arising of which which would resolve a pre-feeling tension - and at worst as an intrusive projection from analyser into analysed, an unwarranted back-projection of structure into the shimmering tenseness of the void.

Having said all of that, there are it seems to me good reasons yet to resist the idea of the unconscious as a myth, and these relate not to feelings but to meanings. Whilst the fact of my feeling something or other may not intelligibly be thought of as beyond avowal, and I may well be rightly affronted if someone were to continue to insist on my having a feeling that I cannot own, the fact is that the meaning or cause of such a feeling may continue to be opaque to me. I may not understand why I feel what I feel. This, then, can provide one reason for talking non-mythically of unconscious emotion: the unconsciousness has to do with the meaning and not the fact of the feeling.


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