In a previous text, we highlighted some of the issues that we might encounter with a certain use of the concept of the unconscious in psychoanalysis. In this additional note, we will precise something that could be analysed about the stream of thought and the role that it plays in controlling and repressing what might be framed as unconscious – as not expressed directly and openly to oneself, but also contained by something else, keeping the mind busy elsewhere from primary wounds, with thoughts and mental representations creating a diverting noise. (Further more, we will remind what we can take from the theory of the sensorimotor paradox, that is that the very action of thinking would be itself a defence mechanism and an imaginary resort to body disruption.)
Notably, what our daily mental activity and stream of thought teaches us about how we learn to think is that most of the commentaries that might come up, say, when we see somebody in the street, is often composed of the usual sorts of speech that we hear around us when it comes to certain apparent caracteristics of people and how we learnt to identify them according to some formalised system of association (the way that their body shows, the way that they dress, speak and behave and that we associate with desirable or undesirable traits, something different or alike from us, …). It is often less of a personal point of view that we might have about our actual encounter with such people, but an anticipation of what may be said about them according to discriminatory and reactionary perspectives from an enclosed world of meaning (might it be about notions of gender, race, social class, sexuality, disability, …).
When we learn how to speak, understand others and think, we learn it in a great part from situations of interaction with people situated in their experience, their traumas and their dependence on their own cultural and social situation. We learn to be situated as a function of other people’s reactions to us, how they objectify us or not and their conduct. When we learn to think and think ourselves, if we follow psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s proposition of the mirror phase, we learn that we are defined in our symbolic position amongst others by the commentaries that are made about us and others, as a world of contrast, and that how we define others in a way protects us from being pointed and commented at ourselves. Naming objects and people, as an intermediary space to run from our own inertia, would be, in that understanding, a reaction to the strangeness of being commented at. It is also a founding paradox that we can’t symbolically tell anything about ourselves without stepping out of ourselves, resorting to conventional means like a language system and external designation, even though we try to make ourselves special to ourselves and those closest to us (to borrow from Ellen Dissanyake’s artification theory in neuroaesthetics). Analysing our stream of thought then mostly tells us more about our insecurities about living and trying to situate ourselves in a world where certain body attributes might expose us to social stigma and rejection and others to care (even excessive care or objectification), than a reflection on who those people other than us (and potentially exposed to social stigma) might actually be beyond those compulsory and external identifications, but enriched by a foundation of acceptance and dialogue.
Really, we learn a great deal of how we should think and behave in our daily lives, according to that kind of compulsive control, by mentally repeating speech and assertions that we think might come up in certain situations as in the stories that we witnessed, those kinds of commentaries and phantasies of assertiveness and reclaimed agency that may release for a moment the tension of being around people in an open space without really knowing what to do about it, for most of us are so immature on so many affective levels. Most of us haven’t learnt to establish common ground with strangers without resorting to any prescribed and pre-established order and frame of meaning, and whether people other than us might conform to it or not. If it were completely open as a shared space, we could simply be around them and not mind that they share the same space as us, save the relations of power that keep us in the urgency of our constraint. (What is precious about Black American scholar bell hooks’ expression of an ‘Imperialist White-Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy’ in intersectional studies, though incomplete, is how compact it all feels within one same body of experience.)
In fact, we are mostly educated and formed into the fear of being judged non-conformed to a set of norms according to which one would belong to the group or not. The fear of exclusion works against the safety of any open space, and that is why some healing and political spaces are held in non-mixity within concerned communities. The tension between sharing a common given space and the difficulty to create safe meeting areas would likely trigger that kind of fear of rejection and a reflex of targeting back at others as a response born from fear, arguing over why they should likely be rejected by the same logic of conformity to the group – something that philosopher Sara Ahmed analysed as to the way oppressed subjects might intuitively internalise, potentialise and have to adapt to a general climate of violence against them within their own body reaction. In a compulsive fashion, the apparent liberty of others to be in their own different way in the same space as us can make us very uncomfortable if this way is alien to the one that we were trained and are training ourselves to be fitting, because it exposes a space of freedom that maybe we internalised as dangerous. We are still trying to find some stability between what we are spontaneously prone to do and what we have come to forbid and repress ourselves from doing and even representing to ourselves as possible. Our world of meaning comes to shrink, as well as the scope of what we know and are open to, as to our own intuitive and bodily experience.
Whatever is, most of our compulsive daily thinking resorts on that reflex to use formalised and repeated speech in order to divert our attention from our deeper insecurities and the difficulty to be and feel safe in social spaces as bodies, that are always interpreted by others and thus, never neutral. ‘The intimate is political’, as it is said in feminist, intersectional and crip theory. If we are commented upon since our early age, of course, those commentaries stick to our skin and form our identity, along with more material issues that they are connected to (access to any resources that we need to grow and live in a sustainable way). Maybe, we feel attacked when anything evades the possibility to be commented at and then objectified and controlled – especially when it comes to something as uncontrollable and contradictory as desire –, as we learnt to navigate inside of such a dense network of designations and meanings, covering up the very sense of our own bodily experience that doesn’t seem to belong to us to decide and situate in our own terms. Only that experience, sensory and emotional, is and should be inalienable. The rest is noise, at least very much of it. It is the noise of having to deal with an environment of interpretation where we are the interpreting or the interpreted, where we objectify others but are first objectified ourselves since we were infants (in most cases).
Some practices, like the practice of Buddhism, help us disidentify from those commentaries that we make or that are made about ourselves, but that is no mean feat. Thoughts are memory, a self-generating and simulated sensorimotor memory. It is not logical at all. Those mental images come from our experience as a body and first defined by the limits of what our body experienced and is capable of experiencing. Our indecision as a body generates those kinds of neural loops, where neural and motor responses are ‘delayed or lagged’ into abstracted mental images (to borrow from neurobiologist Gerald M. Edelman), creating new memories that only happened in our own head that would loop again. And maybe, we cling on to that capacity to enclose our own mind and protect ourselves, stay in control of what happens by that very mean, especially as we are socially, morally and affectively trained to do that. Social norms have nothing to do with the diversity of modalities of experience and living, but most of the time with the violence of perpetuated structures of domination and conditioning. This is the frame of the world that we were made able to comprehend. So, it is important to take that note whenever we consider ourselves as thinking beings, that any of our abstraction is rooting out of a protecting screen of noise, that often leaves as us stranger to ourselves – and that under that screen, what we fear and cannot be said remains unseen.
In Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburgh University Press, 2004.