Saturday, May 23, 2009

I am happy

-I am happy.
-Who is speaking?

A couple of weeks ago I went out with my friend Alan and his friend Owen, who is a philosopher. Trust a philosopher for a beautiful definition – when the conversation came round to the topic of my book, Owen improvised a breathtaking definition of happiness that merged Aristotle and Ricoeur. Unfortunately, my paraphrase won’t be as pretty, but it was something like: happiness is about seeing that one’s life follows a certain purposive narrative, one in which one has been both true to oneself and true to the values one believes in. To achieve this self-fashioning is to be happy. I hope I haven’t deviated too wildly from Owen’s riff.

That riff is, I think, an accurate reflection of how happiness is coded among the cultured level of American, and perhaps simply Western, society in 2009. Happiness, on this reading, is not a patchwork of happy feelings – but it is a judgment. Or, rather, it is an odd hybrid of judgment and intuition, for not only does one judge that this narrative is happy, but that judgment feels happy and reinforces the continuance of the narrative. Finding that I am happy makes me happy, and inclines me to continue in the path I have set out on.

As we saw have noted before, volupté, in the eighteenth century, shed that aspect of itself that was essentially sociable – that agreeableness towards people – and became centered on the self’s pleasure. Happiness, too, seems originally to have been about feeling, that phenomenon in which the self is king and subject. But it moved (in a movement in which one catches a flash of ambivalence) towards being both a feeling and a judgment. As a judgment, it crosses the border from the private to the public. The king is toppled, and – at the same time that politics becomes the science of creating a society in which the pursuit of happiness is maximally possible – one can ask: how do you know you are happy?
Perhaps you are mistaken. You think you are happy. You aren’t happy.

Of course, this is the Freudian moment. If happiness is not simply a private matter, if I don’t have to accept that the statement “I am happy” must be true, because I say so – at that moment we have another problem: the problem of false happiness. The problem that I am happy is not a judgment, but a delusion. An intimate error. An error about our intimacy. And perhaps an error about our access to that narrative, that self fashioning, that self.

Friday, May 22, 2009

the art of projection

"Art of Projection (Projektionskunst) – the exhibition of a proportional extended visible image, which with the help of a magic lantern or of recent projection instruments is thrown as the magnification of certain objects on a white surface" - Meyer’s Conversation Lexicon of 1908

“We get behind the demons, as it were, when we recognize them as projections of hostile feelings, which the survivors cherish against the dead.”

“The process completes itself rather through a particular psychic mechanism, that we are used to calling “projection” in psychoanalysis. The hostility, of which one knows nothing and wants to know nothing, has been thrown out of the inner sphere of perceptions [inneren Wharnehmung] into the outer world, by which one releases its from one’s own person and shoves it off on another person. Not we, the survivors, are glad that we are free of the dead one; no, we mourn him, but he has, curiously enough, become an evil demon, to whom our bad luck is pleasing, and who seeks to bring us into the realm of death. The survivors must now defend themselves against the evil fiend…” – Freud (my translation)

Oh the monsters! Under the opera. Under the pornographic novel. Under the constitutions. And under the monsters, the great grind of life in the old order, on the great estates – taxes and labor duties without end in Hungary, Moldavia, Wallachia, Poland… Slavery in Santo Domingo., famine in Bengal…

Freud takes the term from Bleuler, seizes it in a leonine pounce. For here, on the surface, in the shimmer of everyday life of verbal slips, infantile dirty jokes, the herky jerky motion of trams, office politics and thick, thick drapes, here it is that you find the denials, the “I hate to say this”, the “I don’t mean to criticize” – the I don’t mean in general. The demiurge unconscious stirs. Is it awake or asleep?

For Freud, the demons are a projection-creation, and projection itself is the expression of ambivalence. Here, of course, everything seems clear. Locke’s blank sheet of the mind – that white surface - has now been extruded – a screen - as part of a technical process in which images are thrown against it and exaggerated in size. And if we were living in a world that was simply determined, this would suffice. But we are, always, living in a world that has been overdetermined.

For in that world (and aren’t we working in Nemesis’ wake?) the living live with each other in a whisper of suppressed desires, hostilities, purposes, and purposive inattentions – knowing or suspecting what we claim we never knew or suspected, each about each. While one aspect of projection involves transmuting the satisfaction that one has survived the dead into their hostility, another aspect involves the denial that the formerly living loved one had definite moments of hostility, or definite moments of the wrong kind of love. Those evil eye fugues.

And what do we know about other people anyway? Freud notes that projection, in the narrow psychoanalytic sense, is part of a greater system of projection.

“The Projection of unconscious hostility by the tabu of the dead on the demons is only a single example out of a series of processes, to which must be attributed the greatest influence on the shaping of primitive spiritual life. In the above mentioned cases, projection serves to close a conflict of feelings; it finds a natural application in a number of psychological situations that lead to neurosis. But projection is not created as an instrument of defence, it also comes into play, where there is no conflict. The projection of inner perceptions (Wahrnehmungen) to the outside is a primitive mechanism that, for instance, also underlies our sense perceptions – and that thus, in the normal course of things, has the greates part in the shaping of our outer world. Under not yet satisfactorily fixed conditions, our inner perceptions of feeling and thought processes become sense perceptions projected outside, applied to the shaping of the outer world, while supposedly remaining in the inner world. This may hang together, genetically, with the fact that the function of attention originally was not turned to the inner world, but instead to the stream of stimuli from the outer world, and of endopsychic processes received only reports about the developments of pleasure and pain. Only with the development (Ausbildung) of an abstract thought language, through the tying together of the sense remnants of word ideas with inner processes, did these themselves become perceptible.”

The trope of the abstract being taken from, projecting, the material – that place where we begin the white mythology – is transformed, here, into a relation of the outer and the inner. Although the inner, Freud carefully notes, isn’t some counterprojection of the outer. If it becomes perceptible, it was operating before the moment of perceptibility.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The monster's touch

En montant sur le trône, il entra dans le cercle enchanté et sans issue. – Merezhovsky, writing about Alexander I.

The circle that is without an exit and under a spell – isn’t this the circle of the monster? Monster as father substitute. Monster as noble. Monster as libertine. The Monster who demands the right to the first night.

It is impossible for those who have received at least one extra eye from Freud’s angel to ignore the fact that the Marriage of Figaro, which, according to Danton, “killed the nobility”, contains a strong incestuous subplot – the Count, in the story, wants to break up Figaro’s upcoming marriage, in order to have Susanne, Figaro’s fiancé, to himself. One avenue is already closed, since the Count verbally renounced his right to the proverbial “first night”, Thus, he conspires with Marceline, the governess, to make Figaro pay for another contract - a bond he had made with the governess promising to marry her if he couldn’t pay back a sum he’d borrowed from her at any date she named. This plan is spoiled, however, as Figaro recounts the story of his being stolen by the gypsies with details that confirm, for Marceline, that Figaro is her son.

By all accounts, the nobility howled with laughter at the speeches in the play. King Louis XVI, who is usually depicted as one of history’s fall guys, was, at least in this regard, prescient. He read the play before it was put on. The monarch wasn’t in the habit of being a censor, but Beaumarchais was by long, Figaro like ties a familiar in the royal household, the music teacher of Louis’ sisters, a state spy, etc. He pronounced the play dreadful, and said it should not be put on.

Other royalty was not so sensitive. In Poland, the play was actually staged by Prince Nassau, Beaumarchais’s friend, at the court, with the king and various nobles making up the cast.

All of which I bring forward to convince you that an apparently weak link between the overthrow of the old order and Freud’s account of the revolutionary overthrow of the father – which happened in dreamtime, meaning that it is always happening, in a sense. As I hope I’ve made clear, the dissolution of the human limit, or, to reformulate it, the universal-making of universal historywas, from one point of view, the extension of man to the master of the world; but, within that point of view, one price for that extension was the dissolution of the old, defining character of man. His glassy essence was melted down and sold for scrap to the poets, the alienated, the crabby reactionaries, the fevered revolutionaries.

Having made contact with our context – and contact, contagion, Beruehrung, Ansteckung, are very much part of Freud’s text, one we have to get back to – let us go then, you and I, to the introduction of the notion of projection in Totem and Tabu, which occurs in his second chapter. The first chapter is about the incest phobia. The second chapter is entitled, The Tabu and the ambivalence of the feelings ( Gefühlsregungen - affective reactions), and it is here that we can see, like a strategy emerging in a chess game, that the circle of this text is not bound, as one might expect, to return to the infant’s sexuality – but rather, we are enrolled in a movement towards death. But it is a mistake to think that eros is the opposite of thanatos, here – as is signaled by the very word, ambivalence.

The question that Freud wants to answer is: why are ghosts scary? Or: why are the dead fearful?

Why, I could ask, rephrasing this slightly, do I have to wake up and fall back asleep in order to get rid of the monsters?

“This hostility, which in the unconscious bears a painful trace as satisfaction over their death has, by primitives, another fate: it is parried when they shift it to the object of hostility, to the dead themselves. We call this massive defensive process, in the normal as well as the pathological mental life, a projection.”

To be continued

To be continued

Monday, May 18, 2009

tag the text, flee from the text

First things first. Me, my posts are all feints and fidgets, lately. If you want to read something good instead of my debauched stews - go to Rough Theory, who has been writing about the Grundrisse. As always, Marx, in her hands, begins to seem like a Henry James character - if James had only created a character with his own genius, instead of the subpar strivers from the upper class who never quite live up to the authorial voice in which they are caught. RT's Marx is a man who is hyper-aware of epistemological traps, including the trap of thinking that there are just too many epistemological traps to make broad and monumental generalizations.

More notes in and around Totem and Tabu

1. Lawrence Goldman and Michael Emmison, in a 1995 article on Huli children’s games (the Huli live in New Guinea), lament the paucity of cross cultural studies of children’s games and play. In a brief survey of the field, they find Brian Sutton-Smith’s work, outside of the American-European context, to be too developmentalist. Sutton-Smith, in the seventies, did make some cross-cultural studies of children’s play, but imposed upon these cultures a certain story of upward development – like numerous anthropologists of the sixties, and like Freud – in which a society, as it became more “complex”, showed more complex play patterns among its children. Sutton-Smith was sensitive to the fact that, under the peasant or nomadic order, children were workers in a sense in which they were not in the developed economy. But he was also very attracted to the scale, that totem among comparative ethnographers of the Cold War period. As Goldman and Smith put it, cross cultural studies seem inevitably to quote some archetypal studies of children at play, like LeVine and LeVine’s study of a Gusii community in Kenya, as support for the “low or non-existent status of representational play” in many cultures.

2. Well, these are the marks of universal history. Oh, you might think you won’t fuck with universal history, so it won’t fuck with you. You’d be wrong, little greenie.

Yet, I find in Totem and Tabu, which I have been reading this week, a double movement – on the one hand, the construction of the story of “mankind” since the “first feast of mankind” – that feast in which the sons eat the dead father; on the other hand, the creation of certain concepts, notably ambivalence, projection, and the “omnipotence of thought”, which operate to create a series of counter-correspondences, counter-generalities that put the neurotic at the center of the modern. Our representative neurotic. And that, applied to the ‘scientific’ world view, question its latent layer of narcissism, its own “omnipotence of thought.”

3. I’ve been using Sutton-Smith’s notion of children’s play to shake up our notion of this thing and what it is about. At least Sutton-Smith is coherent – if civilization is the development of more complex forms of life, captured how you will (by modes of production, by levels of science, by some notion of technology), then surely the same process will apply to children.

4. And I’ve been using my own memory of my dreamlife. For I do remember my five year old dreams. I do remember the monsters in those dreams. I do remember the strategies – the hiding in closets and peeping out. The hiding under the bed. The hiding behind a tree. And the need I had, in order to get rid of the monster, to wake up. I had to wake up and decide to kill the monster, and then go back to sleep and do it – although often I didn’t have to. Merely waking up and making that decision allowed me to return to a monsterless sleep. But the difference in modes – dreaming/waking – corresponds to another of Sutton-Smith’s findings: the general inability of children, before the age of 9 or so, to play games of “complex” perspective-taking – that is, games in which defense and attack are mixed. Instead, the attackers correspond absolutely to one side, and the defenders correspond exactly to another. It is always the tagger, and never the tagged.

5. There’s a rich layer of this in farce. Think of Chérubin in Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro. He is always hiding. And by hiding, we know – through a dream logic – that the Count is a monster. But, in farce, the level of a five year old’s thinking (and Cherubin’s androgyny is certainly on the sexual level of the child’s idea of sex) is imposed upon by adult thinking – society’s opinions, which come in the form of a monster. Thus, the Count is continually finding him.

6. It is crucial to Freud’s vision of the first feast of humanity that, in some ways, it is a defeat. Not only do the brothers feel guilty about killing and eating a father that they love, as well as hate, but none of them occupy the father’s place. That place is, as it were, forever banned. It is the ultimate monster place.

7. I must begin with projection. Next post, I will write about projection.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...