A Eulogy for the Unconscious (1895 – 2012)

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day I: It’s not that sexists are more stupid, only that they aim their stupidity in a less intelligent direction.

Aphorism of the Day II: Feminists are primates too.


So I’ve been reading Guy Claxton’s The Wayward Mind, an interesting (but curiously out-of-date–but then everything strikes me that way since reading Boyer and Attran) historical account of the Unconscious. At the same time I’ve been thinking about the debate we’ve been having the past few weeks, and all the times the unconscious/subconscious has been referenced as an accusation or argumentative tool. And I realized that I had, quite ‘unconsciously,’ stopped believing in the Unconscious.

I no longer think there’s any such thing.

Just as a reminder, lest people read too much into my claims, for me, ‘no longer thinking there’s any such thing,’ simply means, ‘I think I’ve found a better cartoon.’

Claxton is a fantastic writer, and for this reason I heartily recommend the opening chapters of The Wayward Mind to anyone interested in secondary world-building: he does a great job evoking the ancient mindset, the way our ancestors, lacking our sophisticated nomenclature for interiority, had no choice but to turn to the external world. Post Boyer’s Religion Explained, his accounts seem inadequate and even romantic (he actually relies quite heavily on Julian Jaynes), but the vividness of his writing makes these worlds come alive. And his master narrative could very well be true: that the Unconscious finds its historical origins beyond the horizon of the outer, objective world, then gradually migrates to its present locus beyond the horizon of our inner, subjective world.

The Unconscious, in other words, is of a piece with gods and underworlds, a way of comprehending What We Are Not in terms of What We Are. It’s literally what happens when we rebuild Mount Olympus into our skull. This explains why it’s such a curious double gesture, why, in the course of disempowering us, it allows us to own our abjection. My skull, after all, remains my skull, and if What We Are Not resides inside my skull, then ‘I own it.’ We bitch about our Unconscious to be sure, but we cluck and joke about it as well, the same way we do when our children are obstinate or wilful. ‘A Freudian Slip’ is almost always an occasion for smiles, if not laughter.

And now I want to argue there probably isn’t any such thing. Why?

Well, as critics in the past have noted (most famously, Descartes), it seems incoherent to talk about ‘having’ experiences, memories, beliefs, desires, and so on that you don’t have. The rejoinder, of course, is that we simply have to have these things if we’re to make any sense of the fact that we can make implicit things explicit. Humans act out all the time: short of the Unconscious, how are we going to make sense of that?

One way to redescribe this dilemma is to say that we have this powerful intuition of sufficiency, that consciousness is something whole. But we find ourselves continually confronted with indirect evidence of insufficiency, ways that compel us to conclude that consciousness is incomplete.

The ‘Unconscious,’ I now think, is simply another way for us to have our cake and eat it to, to acknowledge insufficiency while endorsing a kind of orthogonal, crypto-sufficiency.

One of the things I find the most embarrassing about my old post-structuralism turns on precisely this point: I literally cannot count the number of times I’ve referred to the ‘post-modern subject,’ decentred, fragmented, and so on and so forth. I now see that this was little more than dogmatic window-dressing: surrendering the Cartesian subject is pretty damn cheap. You acknowledge that the sufficiency of the Self is illusory, and yet you blithely assume that all its constituents are quite sufficient, or at least sufficient enough to keep all the traditional discourses afloat–which is what you have to do to rationalize the institutions that make them possible (so much of the discourse you find in the humanities, if you think about it, is given over to justifying the institutional importance of the humanities).

It strikes me as laughable that I literally thought I was radical, that I had defected from the traditional game of giving and asking for reasons in any meaningful way. It seems little more than fashion, now, a product of an old ingroup self-identification. There is certainly nothing ‘radical’ about it, and even less that is courageous. If you buy into the ‘decentred post-modern subject’ you’re cringing in the trenches with everyone else, bragging because at least you fired your rifle into the air. But you’re as much an intellectual coward as those you critique–or at least far from the hero you think you are (but then, we’re pretty much all cowards here in the post-industrial West, or any place where sales and the consensus of ingroup peers worry you more than the Mob or the Censors.)

Why? Because the Question of Sufficiency pertains to everything. Why should we suppose, for instance, that norms are sufficient? Or purpose or even intentionality more generally? What does it mean to yield the house when you leave the walls, floor, and roof intact?–except that you think you’re cooler because your interior designer decorates in French.

The Unconscious is yet another concession to sufficiency. The prospect of Radical Insufficiency, the possibility that we’re wrong not only about the subject, but everything subjective as well, suggests that very little might separate the projection of psychologies (gods, demons, spirits) beyond the rim of the world and the projection of intentionalities (beliefs, desires, memories) beyond the rim of consciousness. In other words, it suggests there’s just no such thing as the Unconscious.

So what is there? I mean, there has to be something that explains all our neuroses…

And there is: the mad, biomechanical complexities that comprise the brain.

Note how dramatically this transforms the old landscape. Gone is the bipartite geography of consciousness and Unconscious, the strangely reassuring sense of some Cold War stand-off between antithetical rivals. If we see ‘the mad, biomechanical complexities that comprise the brain’ as a substitute for the Unconscious, then in a sense you would have to say that everything is ‘unconscious,’ insofar as those mad, biomechanical complexities exhaust the brain.

But if everything is ‘unconscious,’ what does it mean to be conscious?

This absurdity suggests that what we’re actually talking about are different levels of description, one psychological, the other neural. The fact is, once we concede the possibility that the projection of the traditional/intuitive categories of consciousness to explain the insufficiencies of consciousness (the ways our actions exceed our awareness) is not quite coherent insofar as we’re assuming the sufficiency of intentionality to explain its insufficiency, then the whole game changes. We can take what Dennett calls the ‘intentional stance’–a psychological perspective–to get a grip on causal complexities that would boggle us otherwise, certainly, but as with taking the ‘design stance’ with reference to evolution, we always have to be ready to retreat, to acknowledge the gross, cartoonish nature of this heuristic way of speaking, and be ready to concede the biomechanical where necessary. In a sense, we would be talking about an ‘As-if-unconscious,’ one that, paradoxically, is completely coextensive with consciousness–leaving us with the suggestion that consciousness is itself, somehow, unconscious.

And this just goes to show that consciousness itself is every bit as much up for grabs as the Unconscious here–that perhaps we need to reserve a family plot.

But that’s another fucking twisted story.