‘Selfhood’ and ‘Subjectivity’: (Part 3: Defence of Humanism)

Is Humanism an inherently  conservative method of analysis? Calling my methods ‘humanist’ will probably cause some readers to balk! For this reason, I want to clarify, and defend, my method of analysis. Erich Fromm notes in Beyond the Chains of Illusion (1962) that humanism is “based on the idea of a human nature in which all men share” (see Erich Fromm’s Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud, 1962), an idea that carries with it some rather unfashionable, and problematic, baggage. This is especially so “today” when the:

“…idea of a human nature or of an essence of man has fallen into disrepute, partly because one has become more sceptical about metaphysical and abstract terms like the ‘essence of man’, but partly also because one has lost the experience of humanity which underlay the Buddhist, Judaeo-Christian, Spinozist, and Enlightenment concepts. Contemporary psychologists and sociologists are prone to think of man as a blank sheet of paper on which each culture writes its text. While they do not deny the oneness of the human race, they leave hardly any content and substance to this concept of humanity.” (Fromm)

Like Marxism, the tradition of psychoanalysis that began with Freud stands in contrast to the “contemporary trends” mentioned in the large quote above: these two approaches held that “man’s behaviour is comprehensible precisely because it is the behaviour of man, of a species that can be defined in terms of its psychic and mental character” But let us note, importantly, that the humanism of Marx and Freud is distinctive in that neither understood this species-character as ahistorical, like the Cartestian res-extensia or the Christian soul. It is, in contrast to the res-cogitans/res-extensia, soul/body binaries, imagined for Freud as a ‘drive and its repression’, or Marx as a ‘potential’ that is embedded in the body of material history and the history of the material body. To make this important caveat clear: Marx “differentiated human nature in general from human nature as modified in each historical epoch”; Freud understood each person as being inflected by the drive and its repression in unique ways that have to do with a history of lived conflicts. The humanism that Marx and Freud present is not an otherworldly one, but one that aims to discern the “specific manifestations of human nature in various cultures”.

Here, in the context of psychoanalysis and Marxism as humanist discourses, lies the significance of the ancient Greek figures Epimetheus and Oedipus. Oedipal ‘humanism’ I equate with the tradition of psychoanalysis; Epimetheian ‘humanism’ I equate with Marxism.

Allow me to explain this in greater detail: In his earlier writings, the German Ideology and the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx writes of a “human nature in general”, or “essence of man”. For reasons still unclear, perhaps because he wanted to “avoid giving the impression that he thought the essence of man [was] an unhistorical substance”, Marx parts with terms such as ‘nature’ or ‘essence’. After all, as Fromm suggests, it was surely hard going, conceptually, for Marx. He had to work in the space between two positions he opposed: “the unhistorical one that the nature of man is a substance present from the very beginning of history, and a relativistic position that man’s nature has no inherent quality whatsoever and is nothing but the reflex of social conditions.” But what little we have of Marx’s sense of ‘human nature’ is, I contend, strikingly Epimethean. I will quote Fromm’s clear summary, derived mostly from passages in the Economic Manuscripts:

“For Marx, the nature of man was a given potential, a set of conditions, the human raw material, as it were, which as such cannot be changed, just as the size and structure of the human brain has remained the same since the beginning of civilization. Yet man does change in the course of history. He is the product of history, transforming himself during that history. He becomes what he potentially is. History is the process of man’s creating himself by developing – in the process of work – those potentialities which are given him when he is born. ‘The whole of what is called world history’, says Marx, ‘is nothing but the creation of man by human labor, and the emergence of nature for man; he therefore has the evident and irrefutable proof of his self-creation of his own origins.’ “

Is this “paradoxical formulation – that of a species-being whose nature is to change its nature, and whose only essence is the capacity for transformation” not strikingly similar to the myth of Epimetheus? In that myth, the human’s ‘essence’ is tied to the tools and techniques it uses (See Nick Dyer-Witheford’s article “1844/2004/2044:The Return of Species-Being” and Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus).

Now, Freud’s idea of ‘human nature’ can briefly be, again quoting Fromm,

“…conceived as a machine, driven by a relatively constant amount of sexual energy called ‘libido’, [which] causes painful tension, which is reduced only by the act of physical release; to this liberation from painful tension Freud gave the name ‘pleasure’. After the reduction of tension, libidinal tension increases again due to the chemistry of the body, causing a new need for tension reduction, that is, pleasureful satisfaction. This dynamism, which leads from tension to release of tension to renewed tension, from pain to pleasure to pain, Freud called the ‘pleasure principle. He contrasted it with the ‘reality principle’, which tells man what to seek for and what to avoid in the real world in which he lives, in order to secure his survival. This reality principle often conflicts with the pleasure principle, and a certain equilibrium between the two is the condition for mental health.”

This idea of a ‘pleasure principle’ in conflict with a ‘reality principle’ that continue to conflict throughout our lives obviously is idea that we, as Freud did, associate with the myth of Oedipus.

We now have the Marxist-Epimethian idea that (a) the human is that which self-creates its own origins and transforms through history, and the Psychoanalytic-Oedipal idea that (b) the human is that creature which is bound to principles of both ‘pleasure’ and ‘reality’. Two ‘humanist’ accounts, both telling us different things about ourselves, yet one does not conflict with the other. One deals with an ‘essence’ of what we are, the other deals with the ‘essence’ of how we move through what we are. One symbolizes the contingency of (Epimethian) History, the other the inevitability of (Oedipal) Time: both of which are integral to the ‘human’

Marxism and psychoanalysis derive from a similar basis and neither offers a ‘more preferable’ account of what we are. I want to impress on the reader that I do not believe psychoanalysis to be incommensurate with the often considered oppositional bodies of theory such as Marxism and Post-Structuralism. The two can supplement one another’s method of analysis: we can consider our relationship to dominant techniques and tools as human creatures whose paradoxical ‘essence’ is to be bound in Time, but unbound in History. This is to say, it might be extremely fruitful to investigate the interaction between users and technologies insofar as the user is the subject-of a developmental crisis that unfolds through the subject’s life-Time, and subject-to the contingent conditions and practices that comprise History. Both the psychoanalytic subject (the subject-of) and the post-structuralist subject (the subject-to) can be thought at the same time.

Thus, I hope it is clear that I am not out to use psychoanalysis to advocate a conservative position. I believe technologies like Second Life – for example – do make becoming explicit: Robbie Cooper’s photo essay Alter Ego, for instance, provides a clear sense of bodies and subjectivities that are coherent only against a particular historico-personal horizon. We encounter selfhood expressed in myriad ways that play with the user’s individual psychology and the cultural-historical episteme. We encounter the tendency, following Foucault, for life to emerge outside of any set teleology, but rather in step with personal and historical factors. For example, Alter Ego portrays a MUD text avatar-body called ‘Richard the Arch Wizard’, Xu Wei Qing’s avatar, a computer program that acts as a ‘power leveler’ in the game Legends of Mir, and SL founder Cory Ondrejka’s SL avatar of a giant ‘spaghetti monster’; all of which are instances of life’s contingency, fluidity and unpredictability. Thus, SL is a tool informed by the contemporary regime of practices and engages users whose sense of ‘I’ is the result of a vibrant and contingent temporal movement of history.

For this reason I refuse to reduce history entirely to some story of incompleteness and lack, but neither do I ignore incompleteness and lack. The reduction of history to lack would be akin to stating, with the physicists, that the essence of a thing is discernible by reducing it to its workings on the sub-atomic level, an approach that – while telling us everything about the form of the thing– tells us absolutely nothing about the meaning of the thing. Likewise, the reduction of lack to history would be akin to stating, with the social-constructivists, that the form of a thing is the product of social factors and decisions, an approach that – while telling us absolutely everything about the meaning of the thing – tells us absolutely nothing about the form of the thing. In order to avoid these pitfalls I will simply here acknowledge that lack accompanies human, and post-human, history: Oedipus accompanies Epimetheus, but neither one is primary.


~ by dccohen on January 22, 2010.

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