"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Social Media, Donald Trump, and "Normotic Illness": Notes on Christopher Bollas

Apparently in the 1990s I read at least one book by Christopher Bollas, but I have no recollection of it other than not finding it terribly interesting at the time. But what does one know, let alone understand, in one's early 20s as a callow undergraduate? Not much.

Now, however--in another interesting example of books that find one, or re-find one, when they are apparently needed, thus confirming, in an uncanny way, Bollas's perhaps most famous idea of the "unthought known"--I have returned to him and found many very valuable insights, some of which, described below, seem to fit only too well some of the people of our time, not excluding certain students I have known in this age of Trump and social media.

How and why have I rediscovered psychoanalysis, as it were? To avoid an over-long and tedious genealogy let me say that I fell into this quite unexpectedly three years ago when I began reading ISIS propaganda and lecturing about it. I read it, of course, because it has made an absolutely revealing fetish (especially as Lacan understood it of a tableau vivant) of Eastern Christian history in general, and the Crusades in particular. Struggling to figure out the purpose of what was plainly propaganda, I had a barely conscious sense (the unthought known indeed!) that Freud might be useful here. So I fell backwards into Freud again, starting with his "Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through" and "Mourning and Melancholia."

From there I discovered a vast body of contemporary analytic literature on mourning, trauma, and historiography, with Jeffrey Prager, Charles Strozier, and Vamik Volkan leading the way. All three, and several others, have been absolutely invaluable. From them and there I went back another generation, to those analysts between Freud and now, and thus have had occasion to read, inter alia, Fromm, Erikson, Kohut, Winnicott, and especially Adam Phillips, on whom I have several times written on here. Phillips, in turn, led me back to Bollas.

I begin at the beginning with Bollas, whose 1987 book The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known has just been republished in a 30th-anniversary edition. It reads, as many of his books do, like collections of essays only loosely stitched together usually around one theme. He begins with a chapter on the "transformational object," and those who know psychoanalytic history will at once recognize that Bollas, born and educated in the US but practicing as an analyst in England for many years, is here indebted to the British independent school, especially D.W. Winnicott and his equally famous idea of the "transitional object."

For Bollas, the "object" is not singular. Our life is a collection, largely unconscious, of memories of interactions with myriads and myriads of "objects," most of them human, including, most powerfully, our parents and families. "There is no one unified mental phenomenon that we can term self," Bollas argues, because "the person's self is the history of many internal relations," and those relations to various objects cast a shadow over the rest of our life. Many of those object relations will remain unconscious to us, but nonetheless powerful and directive of other relations. One way, Bollas says, we may discover some of these earlier object relations is by listening to "our own idiom of thinking about and talking to ourselves."

But how many of us do that today? How can we do that today when we drown out the capacity for such thoughts, filling our days with electronic stimuli so much that we cannot part with our phones even at night when sleeping, as a huge majority of us now do? If the cell phone today is not a "transformational object" in every sense then nothing is. So too are social media in their various forms, which at least sometimes seem to collude, as it were, to keep us from deeper, more wide-ranging reflection and insight. Surely one of the main goals of these media is not to encourage genuine criticism of some depth in which the very systems of our time (political and economic) are put to the question, for, as MacIntyre has said (see ch. 9, here), we are all condemned to think and act in the terms of the modern nation-state and its capitalist handmaid. Thus social media largely seek homogenization in the service of advanced capitalism, which requires the production of standardized consumers deemed to be normal, a process of definition, Bollas says, that "is typified by the numbing and eventual erasure of subjectivity in favor of a self that is conceived as a material object among other man-made products in the object world."

Such a self what Bollas calls "normotic," that is,
someone who is abnormally normal. He is too stable, secure, comfortable, and socially extrovert. He is fundamentally disinterested in subjective life and he is inclined to reflect on the thingness of objects, on their material reality, or on 'data' that relates to material phenomena.....Such an individual is alive in a world of meaningless plenty.
(Erich Fromm argued something loosely similar many years ago in his The Pathology of Normalcy.)

The normotic individual "is interested in facts" but not to link them together, still less to see any kind of overarching pattern or to subject them to critical analysis: "facts are collected and stored because this activity is reassuring." (That, alas, describes too many students today, and usually only around exam time.) This person loves being part of a team, thrives in institutions and corporations, enjoys committee work, and is frequently a workaholic who sees no utility at all in having a subjective interior life. This person, who sounds frightfully like Donald Trump--who is, as Jung might say, an archetype of many people today, not least political and business leaders--has managed to convince himself that the "mind itself, in particular the unconscious, is an archaism, a thing to be abandoned in the interests of human progress."

And yet it is my unwavering conviction that the unconscious does exist and does shape all of us, and is therefore a worthy subject of our investigation, not least so that we can be free of at least some of its darker aspects. The unthought known, then, must become at least a little bit more thoughtfully known for our liberation and for the liberation of the world.

Going beyond that, however, I would say that in trying to think the unthought known, we find our liberation in it because ultimately the "unthought known" is a not bad description of God. Here I would speculate a bit on the conclusion to Bollas's book when he says that, in trying to develop a "limited relation to the unthought known in ourselves we can then address the mysteries of our existence, such as the curious fact of existence itself." In thinking the "unthought known," he says, we ponder not simply the kernel of our true self, but elements of our forebears." Translated theologicaly, could one say here that in thinking the unthought known we are trying to think God, and that in thinking God, that is thinking theologically, we do so by drawing on the "elements of our forebears" which we label sacred tradition?

Perhaps speculating a little bit farther, this process of thinking God requires prayer; and thus the question did occur to me, in reading his chapter on the expressive uses of the counter-transference, whether we can conceive of prayer along the lines of the transference-countertranference relationship as Bollas describes it: "I am gradually putting out into that potential space between us those associations that are moving freely within me but are occasioned by the patient, and I am making it possible for the patient to engage meaningfully in this struggle....Part of the analysand's total recognition of this process is his being found through the analyst's registration of him, which the patient gradually values as another feature of the psychoanalytic process." That, it seems to me, is not at all a bad way to think of the changes wrought by the difficult process we call "prayer."

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