Social psycho-physionomy : a hypothesis ?

Beyond the questionable elaboration of any kind of ‘morphopsychology’ aimed at finding any absolute correspondence between physical traits and individual psychology, it remains interesting and maybe important to observe one other hypothesis : that the way that we are perceived by others according to conventional categories affects the reactions that they would have to our presence and thus, our possible interactions with them, up to the point that it would encourage or inhibit our agency and its expression in a shared world of meaning.

That means that what we act and think doesn’t exist as an absolute, but only as the expression of possibilities according to what our bodies allow us to express and to the ways that we learn to control that expression so to seek gratification or avoid social and moral sanction. In any case, any intention of ours that we would express will be interpreted by others to the extent of what they see and project onto our bodies in the first place. Any prejudice and defence mechanism attached to certain body traits and/or conduct (in terms of gender associations, race or culture, social class markers, visible abilities or disabilities, alleged sexuality, …) will taint the value granted to our actions or the expression of our personality, whether in a positive, negative or rather neutral way.

As most of those prejudices are socially conditioned and generate some constants, from our first family environment to our social ones and the whole mythological ensemble that composes and ties together the values of our societies into our main narrative structures, we rapidly internalise them as prescriptions in order to avoid exclusion and hostility. There would be then indeed some kind of social psycho-physionomy, because our perception of our own identity as a composition of what it is possible for us to express or not in a world of others is conditioned by the way that other people are likely to perceive us and define in our place that identity, based on what they see from the outside. Some social elements of identification take part of such default identity prescriptions, according to some enforced social norms that any individual has to take position to. They are indeed enforced and internalised symbolically as the consequences of stepping out of them can be very material and impact our access to the resources vital to our survival, hence the violence that they can convey. It even becomes part of the compulsive activity of our stream of thought that works at maintaining a form of stability to the world around us while preserving as well as possible our capacity to respond to what is expected from our own physical and external attributes, as they are supposed to carry some meaning and lead to a certain outcome assiociated with those traits.

Therefore, maybe, the opposition between the symbolic and the imaginary, for instance as developed in lacanian theory, comes from the capacity or not to elaborate a correspondence between those attributes and any agreed meaning between parts, that would form a symbolic field for our agency that we could invest with a clear mind, given that its proper meaning would be understood, received and responded to without conflict. On the contrary, the imaginary would always fill the lack of a common understanding over the interpretation that we are to give to the external expression of a body’s capacity, personality and even sole presence in a shared world.

In a way, our imaginary is always in a struggle and resistance to that eventuality that our presence in the world would be misunderstood and mistaken for something that we have no inclination for. We are forced into a symbolic world that tends to polarise what is most difficult to admit into something that could be more easily assimilated into the practices of the group. As those compulsive identificatory mechanisms are embedded within a history of violence and systemic oppression, most of our instantaneous and mental responses to the presence of others may be based on fear, to which can also respond a misplacing of desire. For instance, in cispatriarcal and sexist societies, the fear of most cisgender men to be misidentified as potentially homosexual or overly feminine as they try to confirm their socially marked virility based on emotion control, may tend to disrupt desire into objectifying women or people identified as such into mere sexual attributes (that can assimilate people from groups assigned to minority as ‘weak’, inferior and whose intolerable and guilty presence should be resolved into destruction). As the violence of any desire would become opportunistic to self-reassurance, having to absolutely contradict the assumption of non-standard cisheterosexuality in order to keep conforming to the group’s line of conduct, it shows us one possible continuity within most sexist and sexual violence altogether, where self-inflicted violence is turned back against groups already assigned to minority (up to people under age for what concerns pedocriminal actions). The expression of certain emotions being likely to be identified as something that it may or may not be, in the panic of a social sanction and outcast, anything must come to compensate that fear of rejection and stigma.

Part of it is symbolic, in that case because it would have something to do with a problematic inscription of homosexual desire in the education of cisgender men, and part of it is imaginary, because the first event that comes to the mind and causes the panic is something that is merely coming to existence and has not specific determination yet : an outburst of sensorimotor projection as a response to a situation of tension to other bodies. Hence, somewhat, the partial nature of the way that pulsion, in freudian terms, would be displaced into sanctioned and problematic objects, to the subject’s suffering of an intolerable misunderstanding of their own feelings and sensations – such object as the idea of the penis of another cisgender man, that tells us something about how the classic oedipal structure may have itself seen erected the father’s ‘phallus’ into a silent taboo, while deriving the sexual drive to the mythical and convenient mother. In a way, maybe gay and queer sex in a large sense may show a way that a typical cisgender man’s penis could be disinvested from the archetypical father’s authority exercising necessarily a form of violence prescribed onto the subject. It is no wonder that the idea of freudian’s super-ego would be associated with the drive to morality (when not excessive) and that some analysts would see gay and queer identity as a lack of it, without analysing the dimension of constraint into the prescription of morality within a history of violence and oppression – in its confiscation of vital resources and its excruciating call to conformity onto those who can’t while asking for nothing else than to be able to live with peace and dignity.

Credit : « Moth », by La Fille Renne ❤

Re-learning trauma

As we may have seen earlier, memory being constantly re-generated, re-created and re-directed through sensorimotricity, the uses of symbolic memory select those patterns and structures which it maintains. Those are useful, notably, to social interactions and protection. Moreover, trauma helps or forces us to occupy spaces of interaction that would be likely to keep us safe, or safer than other ways. But one thing that we can learn from the scales in which short-, middle- and long-term memory generate and sustain useful patterns to sensorimotricity and imagination, is that we never learn anything once. What we learn is constantly re-learnt, because memory is never fixed, it is either sustained directly or it is indirectly.

The indirect way is the one of trauma, that builds up around the memory of pain – either slight or large – others ways of interacting with what surrounds us. As we are invited to learn and sustain what is presented to us as viable ways to do so, first by our parent-s or caretaker-s, we all have our own ways of measuring the distance between anticipated and unanticipated trauma. That is, between one that is explained in a way or another by the teaching of social patterns and meaning, and the other that is not and then fully in the charge of the individual themselves – often kept secret.

What we mean to address here is that hopefully, either the one or the other has to constantly be re-learnt and redefined. We constantly have the choice to do so, unless the trauma built around the memory of the wound is too deeply rooted to the ways that we had to find to keep ourselves safe. The way that trauma is anticipated, for example when we teach children to mind danger, can create and elude another kind of trauma that isn’t cleared out to be heard. That is the case in rape culture, when we notably teach little and young girls to mind their behaviour and appearance so not to attract sexual aggressors – the responsability becomes theirs to make aggression not happen. That is also the case with racialised people teaching their kids to mind their conduct so it would not raise racist interpretation, tainting their behaviour with prejudice due to the colour of their skin, more likely to be dehumanised and disposable – the responsability becomes theirs to bear the charge of anticipating racism. The same goes on with other kinds of discrimination based on class, race, gender, sexuality or ability.

But the world of memory is more mobile than we think and the relation to aggression, its memory and the persistance of potential re-enactment can also be redefined. Trauma builds up around the wound, that leaves the mark of the object that is the source of the aggression, which we would try to avoid further on. What is important to understand, to all people who experienced trauma, is that the source of the aggression, the aggressor-s cast aggression on you. The aggression and its contact is the object that makes the memory. Even the face of one aggressor becomes an abstract image and situations of domination are ones where the person-s that cast it use it as a mean of torture – as they can use it again and wield the power on you to do so. But, the object of aggression doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to you, for you create a memory. You can, hopefully, untie it from the person-s that believe they can cast it and submit your identity to this tie. Yet, ultimately, that is you that have the power to situate this memory in your body and not theirs.

The most difficult thing is to abstract the object of the wound from the threat of its re-enactment. As you re-learn everything that you do and know at every moment, for you are one body based on sensorimotricity, you can re-learn and re-direct this object as something that is fully yours to remember, to situate in your life, your past, your present, and define. No one else can define it for you feel it, and the other should be powerless to own that, unless you let them.

That is my call to you : once the thorn is out of your skin, it is no longer what sustains the pain that it might have provoked. This pain belongs to you and you only. And you might want to choose where it will take you.