Thursday, April 16, 2009

Reading Notes on Society and Psyche

I finally found an author who proposes a synthesis of key approaches about the social unconscious. This book has been written about 15 years ago, and has not made a big splash, but it contains a number of very interesting analyses that were thought provoking in the context of parasociology. The full citation is:

Leledakis, Kanakis. (1995). Society and Psyche: Social theory and the unconscious dimension of the social. Oxford: Berg.

Defining the social unconscious

Before discussing Leledakis book, I think it would be useful to introduce a definition of the social unconscious. The best one I have found so far is the one proposed by Haim Weinberg, a group psychoanalyst:

“The social unconscious is the co-constructed shared unconscious of members of a certain social system such as community, society, nation or culture. It includes shared anxieties, fantasies, defences, myths, and memories. Its building bricks are made of chosen traumas and chosen glories”.

(From Weinberg H., Nuttman-Shwartz O., & Gilmore, M. 2005. “Trauma Groups: an overview”. Group Analysis 38(2): 189-204.)

The social unconscious and the Marxist tradition

It is important to underline that social scientists and psychologists have a different perspective when they are discussing the notion of unconscious. Although social scientists are using the works of psychoanalysts like Freud and Jung as a starting point, they clearly go beyond the original ideas. Yet, in many ways they also arrive to the same ultimate destination. Leladakis identifies one key source of inspiration for both the social sciences and psychoanalysis that actually predates the emergence of psychoanalysis: Karl Marx.

One of the important ideas in Marx’s social theory is that people who are in a socially inferior position (namely the factory workers of the 19th century) can only remain in such a situation if they have accepted it. Otherwise, as they constitute the majority of the population, they could rebel and overthrow their capitalist masters. It is in this context that Marx introduced the notion of “false consciousness,” where workers internalized their inferior status and become supporters of the very system that maintains them into an inferior position (i.e., capitalism). This notion of shared false consciousness can be clearly linked to the notion social unconscious. There is something hidden and repressed away from social consciousness that is operating.

Later on, in the 20th century, some scholars affiliated with the neo-Marxist “Frankfurt School” of thought, married this notion of false consciousness with the psychoanalytical theories of Freud about repressed drives. The best known scholars of this school of thought are Louis Althusser and Herbert Marcuse. For them, the true liberation of oppressed social classes could only come from liberating individuals from their socially shared unconscious chains.

Marxism and neo-Marxism are now not as fashionable as they use to be (although the excesses of unregulated capitalism leading to the sub-prime fiasco might reignite some of it), it is clear that the notion of helping others has permeated both psychoanalysis and Marxists approaches about the unconscious. However legitimate such approaches may be, it is also important to underline that they are also prescriptive in that they imply there is something wrong in the unconscious that needs to be liberated (either at the individual or social level). Such focus on what is wrong (like in any prescriptive approach) opens the door to neglecting what is “right”, “functional”, “useful”, etc. Hence, the best way to approach the question of the social unconscious for parasociology remains one that attempts to understand the deep underlying dynamics of the social unconscious, be they applied for the better or the worst.

The social unconscious and Cornelius Castoriadis

Leledakis considers that one of the most significant contributions to understanding of the social unconscious is the one of Cornelius Castoriadis, already introduced in a previous post. Castoriadis was very much interested in understanding how social change occurs, and why it was not something that can be predetermined. It is in this context that Castoriadis developed the concept of social imaginary significations, which can be described as having the characteristics of magma. What this means is that at the unconscious level, shared significations in a given society tend to mutate and evolved but in an unpredictable way, as it occurs at an unconscious level where imaginary and symbolic significations are permutated, recombined, and innovate according to a dynamic specific to symbolism (i.e., outside the realm of the rational). This situation explains why social change can occur as new meanings about society are created, and why it is so hard to predict the direction it will take.

Castoriadis also shares the notion that the individual and the social unconscious are closely related, but are reducible to another. Leledakis, in quoting Castoriadis emphasizes that “the constitution of the social individual does not and cannot abolish the psyche’s creativity, its perpetual alteration, the representative flux as the continuous emergence of other representations. Thus, while the social imaginary significations—and the social in general—are irreducible to their effects on the individual, the individual psyche is also irreducible to its social determination.” (p. 113).

It is also interesting to note that for Castoriadis, quoted in Lelekadis, “the tools and instruments of a society are significations; they are the ‘materialization’ of the imaginary significations of that society in the identitary and functional dimension. An assembly line is (and can only exist as) the ‘materialization’ of a host of imaginary significations central to capitalism” (p. 110). If one changes assembly line for UFOs, and capitalism for science fiction, and accepts the parapsychological notion of psi as something emerging from the unconscious but bypassing both the consciousness and the biological body to create an effect, then an interesting framework emerges. Furthermore, if one accepts that the social and the individual unconscious intersect, but cannot be reduced to one another, then the framework can also accommodate the notion that UFOs are the product of the social unconscious while the witnesses’ own individual unconscious dynamics may have only a limited role in the event. In other words, the UFO phenomenon can be construed as the social psi and individual psi intersecting while not being reducible to one another.

From that point of view, when François Favre states that UFO witnesses are psi subjects he is only partly right, while his critique of Méheust that only considers the social dimension is also only partly right. If this hypothesis is correct, then it can explain one of the core issue in ufology: there is both strong commonality in the UFO experience (from the social psi) while accompanied by an almost infinite number of variations found in UFO reports (individual psi), usually ascribed to the inherent problems of human perception.

Investigating the magma

I agree with Leledakis that Castoriadis made a very substantial contribution to integrating the notion social unconscious into social theory. But I agree also with Leledakis that we need to dig deeper into the key internal dynamics of the magma. One interesting contribution is the one of Jacques Lacan. Lacan introduced a distinction between the imaginary and the symbolic. The imaginary is the original and constitutive element of the unconscious, which exists also among animals. The imaginary is the part of the unconscious that can be described as the original “I” as distinct from the rest of the world by the way of imagery. It is deep intuition that there is a difference between me and the rest of the universe, because I can see images that are different from me. The symbolic, on the other hand, is something that is formed through the acquisition of language, and therefore it is built on learning and internalizing social norms, values, and rules. The symbolic, however, is not the language itself, but it is rather evoking symbols that are then translated into language. The symbolic is therefore a much more sophisticated part of the unconscious. The social unconscious resides there on the symbolic layer of the unconscious rather than on the imaginary layer. However, the symbolic layer draws from the imaginary layer primary images and distinctions which are translated into symbolic representations. As one can see, the link between the unconscious and consciousness is constituted by two series of translation, one entirely internal to the unconscious: (a) primary imagery from the imaginary into symbolic representations, and (b) symbolic representations into spoken or written language.

One thing that Lacan and Leledakis never touch upon is the locus of psi dynamics. Starting with Rhine, most parapsychologists consider that psi abilities are to be found in the unconscious processes of the human mind. But where? Some argue that it is in the most primitive part of the mind. One possibility is that psi abilities are to be found in a layer below the imaginary, where the mind does not make any distinction between the “I” and the rest of the universe. This third, deeper, layer could be called the mystical layer. This notion of “being one and everything in sameness” is at the core of the phenomenology of the mystical experience. As well, it is important to note that the mystical character of PK has been identified as a key characteristic of the PK experience by Heath (2005) (as discussed in a previous post). I think it is also what Jungian psychoanalysts mean by the notion of Absolute Knowledge in their study of synchronicity. Then, psi would occur through yet a translation process between the mystical layer and the imaginary one where somehow sameness is preserved while being applied to distinct images. Hence, psi could be further defined as an act of creation that survives its own contradiction between sameness and distinction. It must be postulated that psi can, yet, still survive through another translation process into symbolic representations, because in many instances psi is meaningful.

From this incremental translation process, it is possible to identify where there are different forms of psi. Micro psi effects that do not have symbolic representations because they can only found through statistical analysis (i.e. valid deviation from chance) are perhaps psi effects that occur only when there is only one translation process (from the mystical to the imaginary), while most macro effects have a symbolic dimension which implies that the second translation occurred (from the imaginary to the symbolic). Psi “on demand” (i.e. none spontaneous psi), which works very rarely, occurs when the third translation is effected (from the symbolic to realm of the language and consciousness). Clearly, the continuum micro psi, macro psi, and psi on demand are on a scale of declining frequency. This approach provides an explanation as to why we have this declining frequency curve, as each translation step represents a major hurdle to overcome.

The UFO phenomenon is in the middle category, macro psi, and thus the two first steps of the psi translation process should be sufficient to investigate UFOs. Yet, if science fiction is a key enabler to the UFO phenomenon, it is clear that the translation process is not a one-way process. The series “reading sci fi” (conscious level of the mind through language) to symbolic representations of spaceships and aliens, to saucer and “big head” imagery to sameness where materialization is no more impossible is thus required under this hypothesis. Then, the same series, in the reverse order needs to occur, but ending with a UFO report (instead of a sci fi novel). Once this circuit is established, the UFO reports can replace the sci fi novel to maintain the phenomenon active.

Leledakis discusses also the notion of translation between the unconscious in general and consciousness (p. 135 and ff.). Concretely, when one has an intuition, a gut feeling, or a new idea, this is translation between the unconscious and consciousness. The same can be said about dreaming. Yet, the unconscious can also bypass the consciousness and affect the body directly through compulsive behavior, psycho-somatic diseases, and automated actions such as walking or ride a bike. Psi, then, could also be considered as the unconscious bypassing both consciousness and the body to acquire information (ESP) or to alter matter (PK).

In the case of social psi, this process would still be present, but it can also occur in a disjointed way where many individual unconscious are sharing something that together bypasses their individual and collective consciousness and physical bodies without producing necessarily a direct retroaction towards them. Oftentimes in the case of social psi, someone else would experience the psi phenomenon, but adding their own individual “coloration” to the event.

Hence, it could be postulated that there are two distinct processes at play in social psi phenomena (such as UFOs). The first one is about the double loop of socially activating the mystical layer of the unconscious, and the second one is about the social unconscious bypassing consciousness and physical bodies to reach out what we call reality.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

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