Who is Dreaming

Dan Holdsworth, photography.

“As awareness starts to move beyond the boundaries of the conditioned personality structure, this expansion inevitably challenges that structure, flushing out old, subconscious, reactive patterns that often emerge with a vengeance. Traditional religions used to describe these obstacles and attacks along the path in terms of demons or devils.”
John Welwood. (Toward a Psychology of Awakening)

“But disease is not simply disequilibrium or discordance; it is, and perhaps most important, an effort on the part of nature to effect a new equilibrium in man. Disease is a generalized reaction designed to bring about a cure; the organism develops a disease in order to get well.”
Georges Canguilhem (The Normal and the Pathological)

“Everyone has wishes that he would prefer not to disclose to other people, and wishes that he will not admit even to himself.”
Sigmund Freud (The Interpretation of Dreams)

“It is so difficult to find the beginning. Or, better: it is difficult to begin at the beginning. And not try to go further back.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein (On Certainty)

This week an American missile mistakenly (sic) hit a group of Afghan farmers and killed ten children, two women and several old men. It was only the most recent of a seemingly endless list of such civilian deaths. I was interviewed briefly on Press TV and wondered aloud what was the importance of this particular mission that the collateral damage of ten children could be made into any kind of rational calculus. And what of a society that more or less simply ignores such events? What is the calculus employed to bury the guilt and horror of this news?

I was also thinking this week that most western Buddhists I know are the very least Buddhist of all the people I know. For there is something in John Welwood’s idea of ‘spiritual bypass’ that is built into Eastern practices when they travel to the West. Capitalist Buddhism. It becomes very lethal, not just to those around the practitioner but to the practitioners themselves. I am sort of jumping around here, but my point is something that Gabor Mate mentions a lot — and that is just how sick Western Capitalist society is — not metaphorically (well, that too) but literally and concretely. Half the people in the United States have a chronic illness. Three million children are treated for ADHD. And of course millions are children in the U.S. also go to bed hungry.

Sandra Vasquez de la Horra

One in four adults takes prescribed anti-depressants. There has been a fourfold increase in autism over the last twenty five years. Over thirty percent of adults are clinically obese. Twelve million children are obese. Alcohol related deaths rose forty percent since 2002. One could continue on with such statistics. Poverty and sickness. And a sickness of the soul.

“The background therapeutic noise is audible virtually everywhere, from the music used to facilitate shopping, to 24-hour rolling news coverage, to the world of public relations and advertising – to create, manufacture and satisfy desire. Needs are identified, isolated, promoted and then provided for, by the Market. To help us cope with choice there are myriads of personal trainers, counsellors, gurus, coaches and so on, essential to negotiate each day. The therapeutic rule, which has become an absolute for our time, there must be no lack. The success of this therapeutic logic has trounced all opposition coming from the old Left and the old Right.”
Rob Weatherill (Forgetting Freud)

The therapeutic belief system is found even in those who completely reject the therapeutic. It is there, in some form, in those who turn to Eastern meditation disciplines, just as it is there in the paleoconservative nativist and racist. In fact, over the last twenty years it has gained a kind of hidden traction in far right communities and groups, the sorts of places that ostensively renounce ideas such as counseling or psychoanalysis or organic diets. The therapeutic exists in those who carry out missile strikes in eastern Afghanistan.

Elmgreen & Dragset

And it is important to note that there are excellent therapists out there, and excellent psychiatrists. The problem is more to do with the wider framing of what can be called an ideology of the therapeutic. And the manner in which capitalism, a profit driven system of control, mediates and neutralizes the therapies that are actually of value. The influx of a commercialized and trivialized culture of therapy has worked in conjunction with a propaganda system, and with education and economic coercions of this system, to manufacture representations of normalcy that are in fact their very opposite. In the West today what passes for health, both psychological and physical, are actually sickness. And often, though hardly always, much of what is seen as abnormal or sick is quintessentially healthy.

As Weatherill notes, as the climate heats up, the interpersonal relations of people, at least in the West, has cooled down — in that such relations are increasingly marginal, digitally mediated, automated, and alienated. The spoken word is broken, somehow, and speech has been handed over gratefully (by most) to computer generated voices.

Viviane Sassen

Baudrillard noted “a culture that produces everything, makes everything speak, everything babble, everything climax” was one that was in a broad sense hysterical. I have noted recently that children’s toys all make sounds now. Most have taped conservations or orders or micro narratives. The child is increasingly deprived of the pleasure of inventing his own voices and mimetic sounds.

And worth considering (which Weatherill elaborates on) is the evolution of how the Freudian ego was viewed. From inhibitory function with a permanent cathexis to censor of latent dream content to, by the 1920s, an agency unto itself, in a sense. Somewhere in the post 1920s theorizing about the ego came an understanding, I think, that desire (via Lacan) came to be the ‘desire to be a subject’ (Borch Jacobson). The self was being stripped of a certain pretension to solidity. Since then, there has been an unavoidable awareness of how the idea of ego corresponds to the also unavoidable awareness that the ego is shrinking or mutating. Or rather, there seems to be a shrinking of the *psychical* — that which, as Borch-Jacobson puts it — overflows consciousness. All those things that, in a sense, *think us*. The dream dreaming the dreamer idea in another sense.

Todd Hido, photography.

“But the difficulties begin here as well. For once it has been established that “it”-or the id-thinks without my knowing, without the ego’s knowing, anything about it, then we have to ask: Who is It? Who is thinking, in this instance (who, then,is thinking me)? Is this unconscious thinking therefore a thinking attributable to no subject?”
Mikkel Borch-Jacobson (The Freudian Subject)

But I feel the other factor in this idea of Capitalist sickness is the far ranging and powerful authority apparatus. And the myriad ways in which people are conditioned to suspect and distrust intellectualism, to see intellectual projects as inauthentic. There has been a massive delegitimizing of seriousness and of poetics — the only intellectually credible activity is either computer programming or cyber sciences, or some form of very practical science overall. Everything else is tacitly ridiculed and certainly anything theoretical (if not science) is dismissed. Not just dismissed, either, but openly ridiculed. And the coercive aspect economically has to do with a presentation of self (per Goffman) that college graduates or those of college age, must create to fit into an evaporating job market. There is a decided fear that cuts across the entire society, and the first tier of that fear is economic. And so today anything that smacks of idleness or is suggestive of laziness or lack of hard work is going to be attacked. And both on the right and left alike, there is an almost cottage industry in articles that invalidate thinkers or philosophers. There are very few, VERY FEW pieces that praise philosophy or anything theoretical unless scientific. And again, the left is as guilty as the right. There is a sort of psychological spillage that comes out of this very fearful and surveilled public where sniping at people, alive and dead alike, is practiced…almost unconsciously I think. A default setting that is self protective.

The desire to be a subject, is then today the desire to be a subject within an anonymous crowd.

Barry Le Va

“The classical developmental notion of the ego being built up and strengthened by ever wider and wider secondary identifications has collapsed. First, because key identification figures have disappeared or are simply less available; secondly, because the sum total of these identifications, character as it used to be called, has become radically critiqued in favour of autonomy, adaptability, flexibility, mobility, spontaneity and the whole gamut of so-called “relating skills”.These chimeras or masquerades can only rest unconformably on the primitive ego’s core in auto -affectivity increasingly removed from reality, caught in a mad disaffection, unsupported against the real of death. This ego of pathos, deserving of pity, has assumed increasingly malignant forms in its compensatory love of cruelty and its readiness to surrender blindly, or in terror, to paramilitary leaders and its facility for engaging in crimes against humanity.”
Rob Weatherill (Forgetting Freud)

The class element here is clear, I think. A system of class hierarchies allows those controlling the propaganda apparatus to encourage and reiterate a direction for dreaming. And to manufacture the conditions that mediate maturation, that cripple parenting and intensify this feeling of being a non-identity, a mere semblance. And this atrophied ego is replaced (in a sense), in Borch-Jacobson’s term, by an abyssal narcissistic passion, or rage, that is a subjectless identification with desire itself. The desire to be a subject is the desire to-be-the-subject. But this is only a structural chimera, a mirage, a lack or absence that occupies this space, this link in a mental processural chain.

Juliana Cerqueira Leite

“They are on the same side, as one like the other, prior to that opposition, which is representational ob-position as such, and they resist it tenaciously, obstinately. What Freud, under the names of the transference and repetition, desperately struggled to think of as a resistance of consciousness to the unconscious was nothing other than their common resistance to that very ob-position, to the becoming-conscious in the sense of being-represented.”
Mikkel Borch-Jacobson (The Freudian Subject)

Another side effect of this collapsed ego is (well, besides the terminal loss of language skills) is an identification with what I have to come call *the shrieking ego*. The display of a hyper inflation of self love, a over representation of narcissism, and the most obvious examples are celebrities. And this seems to cut across race and gender and almost everything. The Serena Williams blow up at the referee during her loss to Naomi Osaka in which Williams, a black woman, spoke to the ref as if he were her chattel. She was mostly defended in the press. For some she was wildly defended and it was not so much her anger, which many star athletes display, but the manner in which she spoke and the way she acted. Even her apologies to Osaka were a part of this narcissistic rage. But such inflated ego displays are hugely attractive today. Sean Penn, the lord viceroy of Haiti, in his new show (created by former Clinton intern Beau Wilmon) was an exercise in narcissism. Never have so many reaction shots of such duration been edited into a TV drama. But I read not a single bad review of his performance. For it was the performance not of a character but of an inflated shrieking ego.

Ralph Humphrey

“Following closely Freud’s observations in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, he notes that all subjectivity and individuality disappears in the crowd as each is bonded together in love for the leader (fuhrer). Here, Freud is describing the death of the subject in the primordial social tie via the primacy of an absolute subject, an absolutely narcissistic Father…”
Rob Weatherill (Forgetting Freud)

But this not quite completely correct. The identification is now with the display of absolute narcissism, and it is the late capitalist consummation, assimilation, and oral sadistic incorporation and devouring of an empty representation — the hyper Father, an effective identification on non subjectal grounds. This is an area of necessary obscurity in a sense, for it lies beyond language.

“The whole question turns around the notion of whether or not it is possible simply to install oneself outside language, outside of human culture. Language has no outside, it is the outside. It creates this lost paradise mirage of a “beyond the mirror”, of a “before” representation. Ensnared by the signifier with no escape we imagine a lost Real, the lost object, to support an intolerable vacancy which is subject. What in fact we “return” to, is ground zero. Dreaming of another world outside representation, beyond the barbed-wire, an unsullied world, leads to a pure fanaticism and fundamentalism. “
Rob Weatherill (Forgetting Freud)

Dianetics seminar, 1950.

It is not Serena, it is the voice of narcissistic rage. All of these celebrity hyper ‘Fathers’ are place holders in that vacancy of subjectivity — as if the loss of self, means an identification with a hyperreal self. And these place holders are — among other things– symbols of Capital. They are Capital representing itself. The shrieking vacancy of self. And it is a way of expressing the dynamics of a history of slavery and domination that is constantly being erased. For at its heart Capitalism is exploitation, but it is today an exploitation that has evolved in the West, by virtue of its durability and duration, into a system that manufactures madness, madness and sickness. A sickness both physical and spiritual.

And the psychological part is, as discussed here, linked to a dissolving of thought. The hyper narcissist is also the post literate.

“Medical thinking usually sees stress as highly disturbing but isolated events such as, for example, sudden unemployment, a marriage breakup or the death of a loved one. These major events are potent sources of stress for many, but there are chronic daily stresses in people’s lives that are more insidious and more harmful in their long-term biological consequences.”
Gabor Mate (When the Body Says No)

Mate has said ‘capitalism makes you sick’. And it does so on several levels. And on by-product of post literacy is the frustration of never being able to articulate what one is feeling. And I see this every day.

Julia Fish

“Even the capitalist enjoying the profits deriving from the appropriation of surplus value remains caught within the spell of repression. The factory owners who can buy whatever they want nonetheless suffer under a system that prohibits any proper satisfaction of desire. The problem with capitalist success is not so much the inequality it produces as its intractable emptiness.”
Todd McGowan (Capitalism and Desire)

And this is the other aspect of this sickness of the soul. Those controlling the apparatus are now as afflicted as those they target and seek to control. And McGowan would argue that the durability of capital is because it mimics desire itself. And this sleight of hand in how the system represents itself, or how it has been marketed by those who benefit the most, is also actually correct. Adorno noted that the task for change begins with remembering those things the system of Capital has encouraged be forgotten. Capitalism, says McGowan, functions on the promise. Invest with the promise of a greater return. One is promised that hard work will result in a greater reward, etc. And this idea infects critics of capital, too. The desire for change is dangerously close to, and implicit with, the promise. Just as one cannot step outside language, so one cannot step outside Capital, not without extraordinary effort and skill. Hence the constant mantras against serious thought. Stupidity is not only acceptable now, it is desirable. The sense of a system that mimics all complaints and then turns them into their opposite has long been noted.

The evolution of how the ego was presented in Freud is key here. The late Freud began to focus on loss. Both Weatherill and McGowan, and Lacan certainly, recognized the importance of this. Repetition of the experience of loss, in its simplest terms, provides satisfaction.

“Freud concludes that the satisfaction of subjects depends on a disturbance to their psychic equilibrium, on the absence of what they desire rather than its presence. The presence of an object reveals its inadequacy, while its absence allows the subject to find it satisfying. This creates a world in which subjects subvert their own happiness in order to sustain their satisfaction.”
Todd McGowan (Capitalism and Desire)

Vintage album cover.

And this also touches on why authenticity, as an idea, is both so marketed and such a target of ridicule. As McGowan observes, in the realm of culture (as opposed to the market, to labor, and politics) the promise is one of authentic relations. Often, perhaps usually, this is romantic love or some form of community relation. It is the promise of belonging. But running up against this is the shrieking ego, the inflated narcissism of ownership and the growing satisfactions of degrading others. Serena was also the target of the most vicious racist caricatures and slurs earlier in her career. Capitalism has no memory. And one figure can be both an agent of sadistic pleasure, and a target of Other’s sadistic pleasure. But however these things become overdetermined, the engine of this increasingly hysterical post literate collapse of the human, is loss.

And here is where Lacan is important. The lost object is constitutively lost. It is not really meant to be found. For even if found, it would be lost again, immediately. For the search is predicated on it being lost.

And I am struck when thinking about this, as I seem to continue to be, by Kafka and, then perhaps Dostoyevsky. For these seem the two authors who expressed the reality of absence and lack that now party drives the capitalist sickness of the soul. On another level I would add Melville, but for the purposes of this post I want to stay with Kafka.

Hazem Harb

“He knows there’s something out in that emptiness: the Castle. He’s never seen it before. He might never set foot in it. ( ) Thus is it became necessary to limit oneself to what lay close at hand to circumscribe the zone of the nameable.”
Roberto Calasso (K)

Kafka was the oracle of the lost object. And as such, his is the voice of the post post modern, the malignant state of contemporary capitalism. In the last scene of The Castle (which was left unfinished) K is speaking with the landlady of the Inn. She reproaches him for his forwardness in commenting on her dress during their first encounter. K says, but I was not looking at you, but only at your dress. There is no more explanation as to what the dresses represent, or why the landlady has importance. But as Calasso notes, there is hidden ‘feeling’ that something more is going on. K even says, you are more than just a landlady. Now, the novels are full of such scenes. And as simple as they seem, they are never so. For Kafka is never not alert to what is missed, to those feelings the psyche has buried very deep.

Heba Y. Amin, ‘The Observation Pillar – Nouadhibou, Mauritania’

“We don’t need more desire, but rather the recognition that the barrier is what we desire. It is this recognition that provides the key for divesting ourselves from the appeal of capitalism.”
Todd McGowan (Capitalism and Desire)

The barrier or obstacle is the key to repetition. And repetition, at its now acute intensity, is the engine for the vast spectacle of degradation and sadism. It is there to allow for the spectatorship of the shrieking ego, for the constant tantrum and the gratuitous cruelty of the system. Trump is, in this sense, the ultimate US president. He has stopped pretending anything makes sense (it clearly doesn’t for him) but his narcissistic rage is so excessive that only arbitrary acts of sadism serve to momentarily quench his madness. And of course John Bolton is now right at the top levels of power, for Bolton is exactly the same personality as Trump, only with cheaper attire. If he claims Iran invented cancer, it would not surprise anyone. They are the face of spiritual sickness, freed from disguise. In that sense, Obama, Clinton, and in a strange way Bush, too, never provided the spectacle with the right vehicle for this surplus rage.

In Kafka, the barrier is always recognized. They are novels about the barriers. They are interrogations on why we fixate on such barriers.

“The death instinct is the core of the human neurosis. It begins with the human infant’s incapacity to accept separation from the mother, that separation which confers individual life on all living organisms and which in all living organisms at the same time leads to death.”
Norman O. Brown (Life Against Death)

Robert Mangold

“The ahistorical thinking that predominates under capitalism blinds individuals to their social dependence, and this blindness acts as an insurmountable barrier to proletarian class consciousness and the overthrow of capitalism.”
Todd McGowan (Enjoying What We Don’t Have)

The bourgeoisie today spend their money, among other things, on physical perfection. But it is a representation, an image, that mimics high gloss magazines. The hard smooth shiny self is also one that is sterile and cold. And the figure of the personal trainer is now a sort of high priest of self commodification. And the shrieking ego is silenced only by this borderline masochism of individuality; an exaggerated caricature of health and power, the better to mask a growing sense of powerlessness, and of death. A death that is tied to the unreproductive fetish body. But in these special individualized workout sessions the haute bourgeois worker, or manager, mimics the monastery. Such social deformations are the endgame of capital. Everything recoils from looking seriously at the repetitive qualities of all daily life. The new workout regime is only a repetitive rite of self flagellation, the gym as the site of self mortification. One can site countless examples of always very acute rapid repetitive activity meant to quell doubt and anxiety. And the ruling elite who manage Capital are sucked under and into their own creation.

“When I woke up it seemed to me that some snatch of a tune I had known for a long time, I had heard somewhere before but had forgotten, a melody of great sweetness, was coming back to me now. It seemed to me that it had been trying to emerge from my soul all my life, and only now…”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (White Nights)

There is, I continue to return to, an importance in art and culture. In redeeming it from the fear the West has of it, and the hatred now openly expressed toward all culture. The Other is always, as paranoia grows, hiding another behind itself — and this supplemental Other is the figure of Culture. Of Art. Perhaps it was once religion, but I have some doubts. And art is always in dialogue with the death instinct, and must rehearse and repeat its imaginary creation. But religion came after and out of art and creativity. The repetition of rehearsal is a primal activity and it gradually developed a language, and narrative. Throughout Dostoyevsky there is this awareness of something lost. Something perhaps forgotten. Dostoyevsky is the great writer of lost or discarded dreams. For he is also the great writer of death. Of fatality, of inevitability.

Jacob Agnesius, 17th century. Ivory.

“The death drive achieves its satisfaction by not achieving its aim. Moreover, the inhibition that prevents the drive from achieving its aim is not understood within Freudian theory to be due to an extrinsic or exterior obstacle, but rather as part of the very activity of the drive itself. ”
Joan Copjec (Imagine There’s No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation)

I forget who quoted Gentlemen Prefer Blonds (Hawks 1953) but the line is Marilyn Monroe’s, and she says it to Jane Russell : “I want you to find happiness and stop having fun”.

The mass public can no longer construct logical arguments. World leaders make up imaginary countries or cities — Netanyahu did it just yesterday when he claimed Iran had a secret nuclear sit in a town called “Turquzabad” – except there is no such town. It translates in Persian to ‘nowhere’. Trump referred to Nambia. No such place. And on and on. Few notice.

The post literate society of repetition and compulsion has worn down the ego, leaving it a kind of huge idealized caricature. Shrieking ego as the body builder of mental topography.

Larry Achiampong

Capitalism makes you sick. It is difficult to even find an adequate description for just how sick the capitalist west is today. The spiritual sickness began long before this current phase of Capitalism, though. It’s only gotten worse, however. And more indelible.

“…eternity asks you and every one of these millions of millions, just one thing: whether you have lived in despair or not, whether so in despair that you did not know that you were in despair, or in such a way that you bore this sickness concealed deep inside you as your gnawing secret, under your heart like the fruit of a sinful love, or in such a way that, a terror to others, you raged in despair. If then, if you have lived in despair, then whatever else you won or lost, for you everything is lost, eternity does not acknowledge you, it never knew you, or, still more dreadful, it knows you as you are known, it manacles you to yourself in despair!”
Soren Kierkegaard ( The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening)

Gabriele Basilico, photography.

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  1. Christopher Black says:

    Very good and one could add Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf also as a work that explores the sickness produced in humanity by the bourgeois existence and the suffering caused, the search for a cure, a reinvention of self to survive it.

  2. Dennis Riches says:

    In addition to Hesse, I would add Cervantes. He was very good, and maybe the first, to satirize the pathology of the nobility and the nouveau riche. They needed Don Quixote more than Don Quixote needed them.

  3. John Steppling says:

    kafka had a fascinating and curious and insightful take on Cervantes, or rather, really, on Sancho Panza. its worth looking up.

  4. I’m reminded of a therapist I saw in NYC for many years who I respect and love. But he avoided deeper discussion about the effect that contemporary society has on the soul. We just touched on it. But it’s impact is so blatant. Thank you John. Your writing always speaks to me. And encourages me to investigate artists, writers, playwrights, philosophers.

  5. This is something I have been thinking about a lot. Touching on the personal trainer bit I read this recently from an essay called Auto Body on ultra-com:
    “Crossfit reverses the traditional relation of labor to the body in that the bodies appearing to have labored the most now reflect the highest material conditions of leisure. ”
    I get so excited when you make new posts I really like.. researching more into specific things you touch on and then having a discussion abt them.

  6. John Steppling says:

    great quote, thanks.

  7. Wow! After all I got a webpage from where I be
    capable of in fact take useful data concerning my study and knowledge.

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