Sunday, January 15, 2012

On Semiology, Psychoanalysis, and Phenomenology: Remembering What We Once Knew

Photo 1978 by Sophie Bassouls.
Since childhood, since the earliest memories of youth, we have been aware of an implicit, nonverbal, unarticulated aspect of experience.

This experience, contrary to what education insisted, was not primarily contemplative, but rather, emotive. Beneath the rational cognition, quite plunging and undulating, pushing and pulling, was the fundamental essence of visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory, and tactile phenomenal experience. Meaning is identical in the senses, it is absent from a thing itself, only emerging in relational context to something else. Meaning is not of some thing, rather it is between, or in relation with some things.

The relationship, never simply a dyad, but a severely complex contextual system, forms signification of experience. Knowing is something we feel, not something we think. We can think something, yet it does not take hold of us, when we know something we feel it somatically. It finally hits us, it sinks in, and we experience the "a-ha" moment of knowing. It is a physical sensation of the body, this knowing that I speak of.

Auditory and visual symbols hold significance with each other in the perceiver. Perception is an intentional act, not a passive experience. Roland Barthes examined this phenomenon that we have known (have felt) since childhood. Whereas Barthes described it in image and music, Sigmund Freud was a semiologist of the psyche. We do not mean the bastardized, Enlightenment use of the word, but rather its seminal meaning: soul. Having soul requires that you feel.

Film, photograph, architecture, fashion, advertising, painting, poetry, music -these are all symbolic structures that act, as do words, to signify all that we come to call "reality". Barthes tells us that through indoctrination and repetition we become captivated by a reality effect. Husserl described this as a captivation-in-an-acceptedness -the reality that we have no recollection of actively fabricating reality. It never occurs to us to question it.

The photograph is not a sign it is a reality in itself -it is really a photograph. The signifier (iconic or echoic sensory trace) was arbitrarily associated with the signified (the concept). This is where science is confined, in the language games of the signifiers, predetermined by the grammar system from which it emerges. But there is something beneath this, something more that is felt rather than thought -the referent. Jacques Lacan called this referent -L'imaginaire- the place of the symbolic order. The ego ideal, according to Lacan, is the place, from within the symbolic order, that I seem myself from.

But how do sounds and images come to mean things? How does a referent come to be signified by a signifier? Charles Sanders Pierce tells us that this happens in three different ways: iconically, indexically, and symbolically. All signification can be described (unwritten) with one, or a combination of all three, of these functions. The icon resembles the signified. The symbol refers merely through tradition, and the index is presumed to cause the signifier.

We used to know, before we were educated, this relationship between signs (symbols). We were closer to the validity of our own experience. Ferdinand de Saussure reminded us of this experience which Barthes unfolds. The experiential, similar to the analytic methods of dream interpretation, is applied to the conscious as well as unconscious experience. In Carl Jung's development of the signs of the psyche (the archetypes) we come closer to what Maurice Merleau-Ponty described as existential communication. This move, from linguistics, to psychoanalysis, to phenomenology is a formidable path to which we see Martin Heidegger as the thread of thought.

Saussure would hold that convention is the mother of meaning. If we set images (signs) in relation to each other (parole) we have an act that communicates something. However, in the organization of the signs themselves we have yet a deeper level of meaning that is communicating to us, the code (langue).

Freud taught us to distinguish between manifest and latent content of a dream. Although we become fascinated in talking about the manifest content with others, it is the latent content of the dream that holds its greatest significance for us. The code of the dream is always written in the non-rational, that is, in the emotional. Dream meaning can be found by going through the manifest (parole), and experiencing the latent (langue) in which phenomenological experience informs us. This is something we all knew and then lost through civilization. The poet regains it and reminds us of what we once knew.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Theodor Reik Part 5: Ashamed of Ourselves

In Chapter VII of Listening With The Third Ear, Theodor Reik's self-analysis, three sensitive and significant thoughts are sketched out: The significance of embarrassment, the necessity of looking inward, and the privileged position of emotion over intellect.

It is common, in everyday experience, to look outward for the cause of our emotional state. What in our circumstances is it that is making us unhappy, content, sad, jealous, or insecure? Oftentimes searching the external (a particular obsession of American culture) is a defense against the threat of seeing ourselves in a way that does not sit-well with a coveted view of ourselves. The effort of human social life, at least since civil-ization, is to shore up what we want (and what we want others) to believe about ourselves, with what we really know about ourselves. Psychoanalysis has shown us, and there is little room for debate in this, that the desired ideal self is so important that it becomes the distraction or preoccupation that diverts us from and veils the aspects of ourself that are not consistent with it. In other words, we work very hard at keeping ourselves and others under the opinion that our ideal self is true. One of the ways of dealing with the inconsistencies that constantly arise is to point the finger towards externally changing environment, rather than the real self being exposed by the fiction itself.

Reik discusses what he calls "the Jewish problem," although we will see that there is nothing uniquely "Jewish" about this problem. The problem that Reik describes is the stunting effect that the embarrassment of one's biological and cultural father has on the self. Reik claims that there is an inhibition common to all Jewish people that is expressed in an embarrassment, specifically, towards the father. Reik reveals that this embarrassment becomes an ego sensitivity that colors all interactions and interpretations with the world.

I leave the "Jewish problem" for Reik to work out. I do not feel that this is a uniquely Jewish phenomenon. Instead, I say that this is a tendency that has been described, by Alfred Adler, as a human universal -namely the fundamental experience of inferiority.

Inferiority is the phenomenon that occurs when our adopted, cultural, beliefs shape the idea of what we should be (described by Freud as the ego ideal) comes into conflict with reality. For Adler all emotion, thinking, and action is, fundamentally, a result of this feeling of inferiority. Our personality, largely a conglomeration of defenses against coming into contact with the discrepancy between what we want to believe about ourselves and what we are. In Reik's "Jewish problem" the issue is the culturally contextualized position of the Jewish people. But this can be said to be true of any contextualized physical, psychological, or cultural quality. A sense of inferiority (embarrassment) is an essential part of all human experience, whether that be a sense of physical inferiority (consider body image or physical features today) or nonphysical inferiority such as national, religious, or ethnic group. Oftentimes the physical and nonphysical grouping correlates. Either way, the sense of inferiority, that is to say the embarrassment that one experiences, will be directed towards their own self-belief as they directly experience it. For the individual who is not thoroughly convinced that his height is ideal, any ambiguous glance from another will be interpreted as a prejudicial act. The source of the inferiority, be it intelligence, education, wealth, power, social status, sex appeal, attractiveness, body image, sexuality, religious belief, philosophy, or politics -shapes entirely the experience we have with the world.

Reik challenges us to pause and consider how our sense of inferiority, the conflict between the ideal and real self, shapes our experiences, and how interpretations of the actions of others are at the least shaded, and at the most formed, by our feelings (appraisals) of ourselves. In this way, via Alder, we can refer to the human problem. The question we must first come to terms with, and always consult when interpreting our experience in the world is: how does my reaction defend me against my feelings of inferiority and shame for being ________.