11 December 2019

Freud -- The Pschopathology of Everyday Life (i) -- Know Thyself

"In this and similar incidents, I have concluded that actions unintentionally performed are bound to be a source of misunderstanding in human intercourse. The perpetrator, who has no idea that there is any intention linked to them, does not credit himself with one, nor does he consider himself responsible for them. The second person concerned, however, since he regularly draws conclusions about the intentions and attitudes of the first from such actions, knows more about that first person's psychic processes than he is ready to admit himself or thinks he has imparted. He will be indignant if faced with any such conclusions made on the basis of his symptomatic actions, declaring them groundless, since he was unaware of having any intention to carry them out, and he will complain that the second person misunderstands him. Such misunderstandings, strictly speaking, actually arise from too great and too subtle a process of understanding. The more 'edgy' two people are, the more likely they are to give each other occasion for disagreements, each denying his own responsibility for them while taking it as proven for the other party. This may well be the penalty we pay for our inner dishonesty in allowing ourselves to express certain ideas only through the devices of forgetfulness, inadvertent and unintentional actions, ideas that, even if we cannot control them, we would do better to admit to ourselves and to others. In general, it may be said that everyone is always psychoanalysing his fellow men, and as a consequence learns to know them better than they know themselves. The way to carrying out the famous injunction to know thyself is through studying our own apparently fortuitous actions and admissions." (Ch. IX, trans. Anthea Bell)

On one hand, this is a powerful admonition towards a radical honesty which is deeper and more utilitarian than that of simply blurting out whatever comes to mind. The latter merely sows the seeds of diversionary conflict, revealing much to the recipient and little to the issuer, thereby perpetuating a particularly volatile inequity of understanding. Rather, it is actually "our own apparently fortuitous actions" rather than those quite conscious and summary blurtings out which afford the greatest opportunities to build self-knowledge, and the barrier to working through them ourselves is not public but private inhibition.

On the other hand, this is a deeply presumptuous theory whose full implications are rather bleak. How is dialogue possible at all when alter, as a rule, is accorded a privileged status vis-a-vis ego's own internal operations? Is this not precisely the leap which leads inexorably to radical empiricism, denialism and gridlock? Is this not a how-to manual for diversion into endless litigation of personal motives and biases instead of debating ideas on their merit?

The implied subordination of ego's self-knowledge to alter's gathered observations is very much of a piece with the wider questioning of individual subjectivity. Those inclined toward such questioning can wiggle out of some very tough rhetorical spots by deploying this tactic; how to constitute ourselves as subjects, after all, when we cannot even prove to others around us that we mean what we say? Infinite regress is a constant danger here, and so ultimately we tend not to push each other or ourselves too hard. We suspend the armchair psychoanalyzing when something fundamental has to get done, because it would never get done if we litigated every slip of everyone involved. (By "we," of course I mean "non-politicians.") While Freud indeed presages the parallactic era here, he was not actually living in it yet, and neither, I hasten to add, are very many of us now actually living in such a milieu; that is, not if we can imagine any non-oppressive social utility for experthood and authority, including self-knowledge. And so while I do think this passage should knock more than a few heedless extroverts off of their self-constituted high horses, the ultimate admonition here is not to close ourselves off to those who might judge us but rather to open ourselves up to ourselves; to smooth out disparities of understanding not by withholding but by releasing, first and foremost within, at which point subsequent release to our social surroundings is no longer conditioned (or at least not so severely) by self-repressions.

Of course the Professor has not, yet, furnished us with a means of distinguishing "those paranoiacs who draw conclusions from the trivial signs they observe in other people" from "those healthy people who, correctly, judge character by the fortuitous and unintentional actions of their fellow men." Do such means exist? Here is a chicken-and-egg question if there ever was one. And yet with so little honesty and directness to go around in the post-industrial, post-positivist, post-individual-subjectivity, post-purpose social world we presently inhabit, it is not a question any of us can afford to simply ignore. Neither self- nor common-interest is served that way. For Freud here, we telegraph to others the things we're unable or unwilling to face up to within ourselves. But even if we can't control the outflow of information, let alone the manner in which it is subsequently interpreted by external social agents, we can at least cultivate an internal environment of ruthless introspection, self-analysis, self-therapy, and self-evaluation; and only then, having earned the privilege, we might check our work simply by asking around strictly among those who have done the same for themselves. (Writing is my outlet of choice for the introspective phase of this process, whether or not anyone reads. But thanks for reading.)

1 comment:

Stefan Kac said...

“That’s the thing about me, I don’t lie. I’ll tell you the truth whether it’s true or not.”
Some Guy on the Bus, to his Girlfriend
29 December, 2019