Once one encounters a theory of the Unconscious, once one recognizes oneself as internally divided, how does one integrate this knowledge, how does one reconstitute a sense of Self? The Surrealists arrived at one solution, the Althusserians another. Fredric Jameson absorbs the best of both of those solutions, synthesizing the insights of the whole of the Western Marxist tradition in his theory of the “political unconscious.” Once Marxism undergoes an encounter with psychedelics, however, its understanding of ideology changes, as does its relationship to language, other people, everything. Consciousness regains a degree of semi-autonomy, having pierced the veil, having escaped for a time, returning only to save the others. Capitalist economies as rendered by number-crunchers like Doug Henwood are still just a bunch of reality tunnels — and paltry ones at that. Why disabuse people of their ideologies if all one can offer in place of these is the anger and perpetual dissatisfaction of struggle against what has thus far been an unbeatable foe? I’d rather think about allegory and its relationship to the art of memory. “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts,” wrote Walter Benjamin, “what ruins are in the realm of things.” Who put the Hermes in hermeneutics? That which is Unconscious, that which escapes knowability: the complex system, the totality. By developing new allegories to represent these, Jameson argues, one can participate again in the production of reality, or the coining of the realm. This thing around us, Jameson says, this vast social construct, “needs to be converted and refunctioned into a new and as yet undreamed of global communism” (Allegory and Ideology, p. 37). Jameson’s approach strikes me as a bit reckless, however. It makes the accelerationist wager, refusing to grant nature any kind of prior or autonomous being, viewing it rather as a thing always-already mixed with human labor and thus fit to be terraformed, transformed — humanized through collective effort.
Freud imagined an inner class war of sorts between two competing principles, Reality and Pleasure. The bourgeois subject arises in the midst of this war and constitutes for itself a set of properties, the ownership and worth of which it then endlessly renegotiates through politically adjustable, rule-based, contract-bound transactions with fellow subjects. As such, this subject emerges compromised in its commitments from the start. Unlike Freud, however, the humanistic psychologists who succeeded him in the 1960s operated in a postwar context; for them, a settlement had been reached. The future was to be divided into time for Reality and time for Pleasure, each given their due, with reconciliation achieved through individual and collective quests to self-actualize. For someone like me, of course, living after the 1960s, during an era of global neoliberal domination, neither of these conceptions fits. I am neither the Freudian subject nor the humanistic subject. As a debtor, I live in a present of ongoing precarity, opportunities both for pleasure and self-actualization severely limited. Others share my predicament, the “scandal” of Debt. Yet what are we to do? Aside, that is, from sitting around listening to Ella Fitzgerald sing the Jerome Kern Songbook. I’d put word to the experience if I could. Horns with a bit of sass. Shimmering bells.
There’s so much still to learn, I think to myself. Let’s begin by reading a history of Mexican philosophy. Study the works of Emilio Uranga, Leopoldo Zea, and Luis Villoro. Seek information about the latter’s correspondence with Subcomandante Marcos, a book called La Alternativa. Or, maybe just focus on housing. Rethink Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” Why, in the mid-20th century, does Maslow wish to reintroduce a naturalized hierarchy into the “science of the human”? What were his fears? The hierarchy of needs is one we’re disciplined into by capitalism — so here I am, fretting about how to finance food, shelter, education, transportation. What Marxists call “social reproduction.” What good is a “hierarchy of needs” to a worker? The only truly humanistic psychology is one able to free workers to self-actualize: one that grants them relief from external structures of domination like debt. Is there a psychology of Being that can grant that relief?
I read Frances A. Yates’s famous study The Art of Memory with the same enthusiasm that moved me when reading Nancy Drew mysteries as a child. “The Case of the Ancient Memory Palace.” Are there practitioners of this art today? Many people claim so, providing how-tos and demonstrations of various kinds on YouTube, as in Dean Peterson’s video for Vox about memorizing an entire chapter from Moby Dick.
Peterson takes for granted neuro-reductionist assumptions, consciousness translated into a two-dimensional illustrated map of a brain, bisected and divided into named components, like territories in a game of Risk. Birds interject, sending chirps from tree to tree. Fredric Jameson’s new book Allegory and Ideology has also been on my mind of late, causing me to think of allegory not as a two-fold but as a four-fold system of meaning, implying movement between an individual and a collective as well as a surface and a depth. Jason Louv’s book on John Dee approaches that level of complexity at times — as does the course I’m teaching on literature and consciousness. For late classical thinkers like Origen and the Christians of the early medieval period, the fourfold allegory’s levels of meaning consisted of the ANAGOGICAL (the fate of the human race), the MORAL (the fate of the individual soul), the ALLEGORICAL or MYSTICAL (the life of Christ), and the LITERAL. What would be the equivalent of these levels today?
My imagination roves, like a cursor directed by an unseen, other-dimensional stylus. The one—an abstract, digitally mediated, floating point of view—sits across from and mirrors the other, the active ongoing envisioning of Being. About which, we somehow wish to write. Thus the following. To “project,” in the Freudian sense, is to turn reality into a metaphor. Parts of the object-world are substituted, refashioned, reimagined. And these actions are performed by a subject. Indeed—projective doings are not just done by accident. In the Freudian universe, everything is significant, everything has meaning. Yet the “I” who projects, Freud says, is still largely unconscious of its being, occulted from itself, its thoughts and feelings forgotten as they happen, buried, submerged, stored outside conscious awareness. The party responsible for projection is that preconscious part of us that wishes and dreams, Freud says, not the part of us that remembers afterwards having done so. Freud likened the mind to a landscape, a topography, a surface and a depth, as did precursors like Plato and Coleridge, the former in the Allegory of the Cave, the latter in “Kublai Khan.” What happens, though, when the unconscious arrives into consciousness as a thing? Both are transformed, are they not? Assumption of the unconscious is necessary, Freud says, to explain acts presupposed: acts of dreaming, acts of spontaneous self-governance that happen without any remembered, conscious deliberation. “Our most personal daily experience acquaints us,” he wrote, “with ideas that come into our head we do not know from where, and with intellectual conclusions arrived at we do not know how” (“The Unconscious,” 573). The happenings of the mind exceed what is known to consciousness—so, upon that excess, we bestow the title “Unconscious.” Energetic, creative, erotic, Dionysian: these are its attributes, this original portion of ourselves, deepest and most essential, guided by what Freud calls “The Pleasure Principle.” The Unconscious is the home of the Id: the pre-socialized self, the “Self in its infancy,” motivated only to seek pleasure and fear pain. This early self is later shackled by the “mind-forg’d manacles” of the Ego and the Superego; but the Pleasure Principle remains operative throughout our lives, in all subsequent stages of psychological development. The Ego and the Superego enter onto the stage of the psyche through our interactions with our parents. The Ego is the conscious portion of the individual, the part that thinks itself the star of the show, whereas the Superego is the culturing force, the Law of the Father, parental authority as it becomes internalized.
There, sing the birds. There, there. Let us materialize and mobilize, let us get up on our feet and go for a walk. Things click: memory palaces are what we’ve built for ourselves, only we’ve externalized them, turned them into digital media devices, software and hardware, computer beings co-evolving alongside an “us” that includes gourds, birds, gardens, neighborhoods, communities — an “us,” in other words, that is both Psyche and Cosmos. Speaking of which: perhaps I should read Richard Tarnas’s Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View, with its proposed “participatory epistemology,” in which Nature is a self-unfolding reality, a “living, sensuous and ensouled matrix in which we fully participate and belong.” Up to now, astrology has never made much sense to me. But I have found that outer events meaningfully coincide, both with one another and, more importantly, with inner states of consciousness. Bringing the planets into it and assigning them characteristics, however, just seems a bit messy. Though the “fortune,” I suppose, is the genre that allows us to interact with astrology, playing with it as one would a language game or a narrative system. I’m not yet ready to ascribe to it any more meaning than that.
The verb I’m searching for to name the act I wish to practice is close to, but not quite synonymous with, “to occupy” or “to establish,” but it entails as well something like “settling in,” allowing oneself time to sit, lean back, hold space, find comfort. Of course, even this is sometimes more than our powers permit — in which case, look around, take note. Writing can occur anywhere, as long as we relax and let it. Close eyes, listen. Where do we go: figures stretching? Lying on one’s back watching TV as a child? Or maybe sitting at a computer playing a videogame, one’s avatar moving through an imaginary neighborhood on one’s Commodore 64. Computers entered my life offering generationally-novel, semi-private play space: bulletin boards, text adventures, programs stored on floppy disks. My parents weren’t able to keep up with my forays into virtual environments; they were busy working, cooking, cleaning. I could wander off unsupervised, sometimes for several hours at a time, playing peculiarities like Ghetto Blaster, where I’d speed along a maze of streets collecting cassette tapes while dodging psycho killers and junkies.
(It’s a remarkable game, well worth a walkthrough, even if just to hear chiptune originals like “Macrobiotic Brown Rice Lentil Blues,” or the moment when, like a forlorn Werner Herzog, the player narrating the walkthrough mutters, “Don’t know where to go. Ah, that’s the trouble with time. Give 25 years and you don’t remember what you’re supposed to be doing.”) Why do moments of uncensored thought lead me here? Why do images of this sort arise into consciousness when I seek to enter an enlightened state? Perhaps these images are ones I need to consult when learning to face my shadows. Simons and Chabris awaken me with their Selective Attention Test. Back to the task at hand.
For the past few days, I’ve felt an urge to “do things around the house” after smoking. This is somewhat out of character for me. I’m not a “messy” person, per se — at least not in a way that ever bothered me. But I’ve over-corrected, maybe, steered closer to messy than was necessary. It’s long been known among my family and siblings that my father is a bit of a “clean” freak, cleaning his house daily as if by ritual. As a teenager, this ritual seemed to be an absurd or at least wildly exasperating “event” always going on around me — and never with any tasks that I could perform sufficiently, in light of his exacting, idiosyncratic standards. We used to get in each other’s way a bit as a result. I’d be watching TV with friends after school and he’d force us all out of the room so he could vacuum. Once I moved out and we were no longer living under the same roof, we were able to laugh and joke about it. But when I was a teenager, it drove me nuts. A friend’s parents had a sign hanging in the living room of their home stating, “A clean house is a sign of a life misspent.” Something of that sentiment was agreed to by Sarah and I, and as a modus operandi, it’s worked well for us. As I prepare to become a father myself, however, I find myself asking the old questions anew.
What happens when, as an experiment, we treat moments of our lives as “encounters”? What were people doing when they joined T-groups, encounter groups, and consciousness-raising groups in the 60s and 70s at places like Esalen? How were these groups organized? Did facilitators exercise claims to authority in these groups? Were they like teachers? Workshop leaders? Pastors? Counselors? Therapists? Gurus? A bit of all of the above, I suppose. Groups fulfill needs of an emotional, psychological, and spiritual sort among people who have come free of traditional affiliations: disaffected subjects seeking re-enchantment, players in search of new games. Such people arrive at these groups and games as they wander markets, festivals, circuits, and arcades. The encounter groups of the 60s and 70s were sites where “role-playing” got its start. Games like Dungeons & Dragons emerged in roughly the same moment and milieu. What’s interesting about encounter groups is that participants trust their feelings to “a bunch of strangers,” rather than to uniformed technocrats, “experts,” priests, and elites. The encounter group is also interesting in that it births group consciousness through use of cybernetic feedback mechanisms. Group members are observed by facilitators. The facilitator reports these observations back to the group. The latter then react to the reports and the cycle begins anew, in much the same way “rounds” occur in D&D. Thomas R. Verney describes two favorite techniques of role-play used by Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls during the latter’s time at Esalen in the 60s and 70s: the “two chair” technique and another called “play the projection.” Could techniques of that sort have a place, I wonder, in one of my courses? Verny’s book Inside Groups: A Practical Guide to Encounter Groups & Group Therapy answers many of my questions. The least authoritarian of the leaders he describes are those he calls “T-group trainers.” The T-group trainer, he writes, “is usually described as a facilitator and a catalyst” (28). Leadership of this sort involves paraphrasing what is said by the group, acting as a mirroring instrument so that members can know themselves and the group can self-actualize. Encounter group leaders are a bit more unpredictable, their methods and techniques less subject to professionalization and external supervision. As for the techniques themselves, Verny writes, these are primarily “verbal and nonverbal confrontation, psychodrama, Gestalt, and sensory awareness,” as well as “fantasy, meditation, and transactional analysis” (34-35).
How might the insights of West Coast humanistic psychologists of the 60s and 70s inform our work today as educators? How do we grow together? How do we help each other self-actualize? By that term, the humanists of the 60s and 70s meant a variety of things: realizing hopes and aspirations, exercising full potential, living joyfully, gratefully, lovingly, practicing therapy, repairing the traumas we carry with us as personal and collective bodies, finding happiness, living well. Those who report having achieved peak-experiences, those who seem to have begun to self-actualize, don’t shrivel up into themselves, claimed theorists like Maslow. Rather, they become better adjusted, less begrudging comrades. They join together with companions, forming co-evolving communities committed to giving and receiving care. Look at the support networks that form among mothers. Friends and acquaintances near and far have come to our aid of late, passing along boxloads of hand-me-downs: maternity wear, baby gear, short-sleeve onesies, long-sleeve onesies, pajamas, burp cloths, the works. We feel like characters from the Equals song, “Michael and the Slipper Tree,” or Olu Dara’s “Okra.”
Let us hold this experience near to us as we return to our classrooms. Carl Rogers suggested one model for applying the principles of humanistic psychology to education in his 1969 essay “Freedom to Learn.” And some of these principles informed experiments with encounter groups and sensitivity training sessions at places like Kresge College at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I sit on the top step of my front stoop after dark, diffusing momentarily into imaginative union with the sounds of the night, a lush chorus of locusts and crickets. Afterwards I feel recharged, replenished, senses open, receptive. I thumb through Ali Smith’s introduction to Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet astounded. Hardt and Negri’s Assembly takes shape soon thereafter, pages propped open, their words released into consciousness with another sturdy thumbs up.