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 defaut 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 misidentify 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 ❤

About the stream of thought

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.1 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.

1In Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburgh University Press, 2004.