Thursday, December 8, 2016

Mimetic formation, intersubjectivity, and the construction of desire

This is not a post on René Girard or the 'founding murder.' It is about gender, a system of power which Girard pretends does not exist.

Recently, I posted a comparison of the criticisms of liberal philosophy by post-marxist Thomist, Alasdair MacIntyre and post-marxist feminist, Carole Pateman, and how each gave a similar account of liberalism, although each had weaknesses - or gaps, if you will - that could be corrected by the other. I'm back with MacIntyre again, since this is one of my intellectual hobby horses - but this time with a whiff of Girard and Freud (and even Lacan).

Only a whiff, because I'm not as interested here in mimetic desire and violence in the anthropological sense of Girard, but mimetic learning as an aspect of the formation by practice-apprenticeship which does preoccupy the Thomist, MacIntyre.

I want to forego the notion of 'learning' for this account, which has pedagogical echoes, in favor of the twinned notions of internalization and practice. We do not 'teach' children to walk, and even in the absence of active 'teaching,' children learn to talk. Just as essentially, we can merge 'mimetic learning' (mimetic formation) with psychoanalytic theory that is inter-subjective (as opposed to intra-subjective, referencing Freud and others).

Everything is controversial these impressionistic and sometimes solipsistic days, but we can begin with a comparatively non-controversial basis: the formation of persons (or development, if you insist on a more modern idiom) is socio-genetic (that should satisfy modern lingusitics). The genesis, the origin, of our formation - as desiring beings - is always in a social context. We'll leave aside the tail-chasing here about nature and nurture which pretends the two can be separated.

The relationship between, say, desire and will and rationality, are covered by MacIntyre in great detail and with many helpful examples. St. Thomas, after all, was not just an Aristotelian, but an Augustinian. And while MacIntyre does acknowledge in his signature work, After Virtue, that Freud achieved something - that exposing what was arbitrary in others might be projection - he says little about Freud's underlying thesis until Whose Justice, Which Rationality, where he at least acknowledges that will and desire are confused by the individual person due to "repressed schisms and conflicts" in that person's mind.

While an Aristotelian schema is helpful in unpacking the contradictions in liberal philosophy's moral incoherence, and while as a Thomist-Aristotelian, MacIntyre places an appropriate focus on practice, informal apprenticeship (role models, if the reader is more comfortable with terminology of social learning theory), and habituation, he has little to say about the actual dynamic of psychic lived experience - of the drama 'inside' one's mind that storms around those behaviors that are visible from without. While we can disagree with Freud's particular and very bourgeois European male intra-psychic account, Freud's (broadly accurate) intuition that this storm of psychological lived experience can make the 'source of desire' and the 'aim of the will' a matter that at the very least complicates the Aristotelian account of reason and will and virtue.

Girard did point out pretty clearly that desire is learned from the master-model(s) just as significantly as carpentry is learned by the assistant who becomes the apprentice then journeyman and master. We learn how to desire from others. The Lacanian Marxist Žižek (Lacan being a kind of intellectual offspring of Freud) put this very well in reference to a young child observing adults:

The desire staged in fantasy is not the subject's own, but the other's desire, the desire of those around me with whom I interact: fantasy is an answer to "You're saying this, but what is it effectively that you want by saying it?" The original question of desire is not directly, "What do I want?," but "What do others want from me?" What do they see in me? What am I for the others?"

This tells the story of desire acquired through imitation (more than that, mimesis is far more than imitation), but it does not dig down into that region Freud tried to study - consciousness inflected by desires (within paradigms) that remain a kind of shadowed mystery to the person herself or himself, and which operate prior to the kinds of calculations described by the Aristotelian. What Žižek does go on to say, however, is that children reside within a constellation of others which become "a catalyst and battlefield for the desires of those around" them.

Girard emphasizes the mimetic violence that results when learned desire puts the model and apprentice, so to speak, into conflict over what is now a shared object of desire; but Christophe Wulf points out that mimesis does not begin as conflict, it begins nonviolently as encounter. There is no inhering reason, then, that the ballet master and her student cannot seek the same forms of excellence within that practice (Aristotelian terms here) without coming into conflict, as one does in the violent Oedipal drama favored by Freud and transmuted by Lacan.

All I really mean here by mimetic formation is that there is comparatively little of what we assimilate through abstract pedagogy, like literacy and numeracy, e.g., compared to what we learn in practice and through various forms of mimesis. Anyone who has spent any time among populations that have little to no formal education can attest that the lives - personal and social - of people who lack formal education are still extremely complex and lively. What we are, socially speaking, is overwhelmingly based on a mimetic foundation. Out conceptual organization of experience might be altered by formal, abstract, and-or symbolic pedagogy, and in the absence of that pedagogy, by those structures intuited (and partly described by Aristotelians) in one's community, by various rituals (and dare I say liturgies), and significantly by narratives - stories. Even Freud, in trying to develop a scientific account of irrationality came to rely on an old Greek story.

Every parent I know, myself included, has seen mimesis in action— imitation, habituation, and, finally, understanding. At two, a child will imitate a parent sweeping the floor. At ten, she has incorporated this into her routine chores. At fifteen, she knows when a floor needs sweeping and has an appreciation for the value of the before-and-after difference. In Haiti, where I have spent a good deal of time, children in the countryside begin performing adult tasks as soon as they are big enough because the performance of these tasks—carrying water, washing clothes, gathering wood, repairing structures, animal husbandry, hoeing and harvesting, etc. - qualifies them as fuller members of their society. They begin imitating adults early; and they learn very quickly, because they are not put into age-segregated schools for “formal,” abstract learning.

So where is the bridge between mimetic formation, Aristotelian-conceived practice, the encounter-character of mimesis prior to rivalries, and the dramas in our heads that storm around our outwardly visible behaviors - those "repressed schisms and conflicts" in our minds? This is a kind of Cartesian dilemma, one reinforced by the Freudian/post-Freudian emphasis on intra-psychic psychoanalysis, and its 'object-relations' theories. Is there a thickly fortified wall between me-in-here, or you-in-there, and everything else outside the here or there? Are we captives of "where ego is, object must be"?

It is true, I think, that once we have conceived this boundary, we have to struggle against it. The existentialists describe this, a kind of inescapable alone-ness with mere sensory transmissions coming in from the outside. But it also seems apparent, once you let go of that particular cognitive earworm for a moment, that our encounters with each other stand for something that transcends and even effaces that scary Cartesian nightmare. The encounter is real, something that jumps across the synapse, that makes that quantum leap across the empirical discontinuity. The thickly fortified wall is exposed as a kind of immaterial hologram. We can't talk about love, certainly, as long as we hold onto it.

What gets us across the discontinuity between the psychic storms and the (beloved?) community, or if you like, the family, tribe, polis, where we can again connect virtue and practice and 'the good'? We've already given a hint. With that annoying Žižek no less. Psychoanalysis and its 'object relations' theories have to be re-situated. It cannot stand alone in the howling cranial vault of the intra-psychic. It only makes sense inter-subjectively, in the encounter. (Every story is an encounter!)

This is where I come to rely on Jessica Benjamin, a feminist psychoanalyst, and author of the canonical Bonds of Love. As an inter-subjective psychologist, she cuts the power to the Cartesian hologram by focusing on the encounter.

I refer to the two categories of experience as the intrapsychic and the intersubjective dimension. The idea of intersubjectivity, which has been brought into psychoanalysis from philosophy, is useful because it specifically addresses the problem of defining the other as object. Intersubjectivity was formulated in deliberate contrast to the logic of subject and object, which predominates in Western philosophy and science. It refers to that zone of experience or theory in which the other is not merely the object of the ego's need/drive or cognition/perception but has a separate and equivalent center of self. (Benjamin, Recognition and Destruction)

The encounter, however, is then echoed through the encrypted spaces of the pre-conscious and unconscious, she begins to clarify how desire translates in some cases into what she clinically calls attunement (may I call it a species of love?) and in other cases into domination, subjugation, even violence. And this is at its very core a gender drama.

 To overcome this discontinuity between Aristotelian relations and the psycho-drama, we cannot escape an account of gender. Gender as a system that divides power is also most people's first personal encounter with a social division of power. It is the archetype of all social power, establishing the conceptual coordinates for other forms of power. It is likely the original form of systemic social power. Gender, therefore, is the most intractable form of social power.

Benjamin shares, with Pateman and MacIntyre, a powerful suspicion of liberalism, in particular the disappearance of the embodied (which means sexed!) person into a hypothetically disembodied 'individual.' Benjamin writes that “the idea of the individual in modern liberal thought is tacitly defined as masculine even when women are included. Identifying the gender content of what is considered to be gender-neutral can be as difficult as undoing the assumption of essential gender differences.”

We've seen this elsewhere. The legal 'individual' is also historically white, literate, and bourgeois. The whole notion was written into existence by white, literate, bourgeois males, with themselves foremost in their minds. But with concrete and situated persons eliminated from the legal and philosophical language, when the non-white, the illiterate, the lower-class, the female, are counted as legal equals.

"The law," as I have quoted Anatole France before, "in its majestic equality forbids rich as well as poor from sleeping under bridges, begging in the street, and stealing bread."

Benjamin begins with a description of the difference between intra-psychic and inter-subjective psychology:

The intersubjective view, as distinguished from the intrapsychic, refers to what happens in the field of self and other. Whereas the intrapsychic perspective conceives of the person as a discrete unit with a complex internal structure, intersubjective theory describes capacities that emerge in the interaction between self and others. Thus intersubjective theory, even when describing the self alone, sees its aloneness as a particular point in the spectrum of relationships rather than as the original, “natural state” of the individual. (Benjamin, Bonds of Love, p. 20)

The term intersubjectivity was coined by Jürgen Habermas. Benjamin’s thesis begins with the human need for recognition. Human beings have a need to belong. They need to be with other people, and they need to be recognized by them as well as granting recognition. Synonyms for recognition in common speech include acceptance, affirmation, validation, and love. Recognition is mutual. Both of us need to do it at once. For you to recognize me, I need to acknowledge you as a subject like myself, and vice versa. Research with mothers and infants shows that this mutuality begins very early. Unlike the object-relations approach of intra-psychic analysis, the child is not merely an appetite aimed at a breast or seeking warmth. The child and mother actually recognize one another. They have an encounter. An infant in short order knows the sight, smell, and sound of his or her mother and takes pleasure in her presence beyond the mere satisfaction of appetites.

But there is a paradox. The encounter itself is a paradox. In this mutuality of the encounter, psychic boundaries are necessarily permeable; therefore there is an element of vulnerability. But there is also an element of self-assertion. There are two desires - mutuality and self-assertion - that exist in tension with one another.

Part of this tension is the fact that the other person is held in my mind in a way that never completely accords with the other person’s own experience of existence. This produces expectations, the frustration of expectations, even misunderstandings.

In a sense, the other person must continually be destroyed in my mind, then observed to have survived that destruction in order for me to reassure myself of her existence, an existence that makes recognition possible.

Her independence is necessary for her to recognize me, subject to subject. Yet the way I know she is independent is by challenging her independence through my own self-assertion. We have all experienced this tension with our children, our friends, our lovers, our spouses, or our parents.

If one asserts his will, 'destroying' the other in his mind, and the other survives without becoming combative, without pitting the two egos against one another, then rapprochement is possible so long as mutuality is not sacrificed to domination, so long as he who asserts is then prepared to withdraw that assertion and 're-make' the other in his mind. When this dynamic involves a ready state of 'forgiveness,' that is, of starting over, power is negotiated and mutuality is retained. When one ego has to prevail and another submit, however, mutuality is lost and a domination-submission dynamic replaces it.

The dominator, in turn, loses genuine recognition, because his objectification of the other out of a desire for omnipotence (also the original sin) has erased the subjectivity necessary for mutual recognition. In gangster films, we see how fear is mobilized to engender 'respect,' but we know - because without the fear there is no 'respect' - that this is counterfeit respect. What is lost, then, even to the winner, is any chance of authentic 'attunement,' that is, love. This is how love is sacrificed in the encounter that flips from lateral to vertical, which eliminates the tension between mutuality and self-assertion in favor of power - of domination.

The submissive is simultaneously provoked into a desire for revenge.

Serial experiences of rapprochement lead to attunement, on the other hand, and the earliest experiences of attunement—usually between mother and child, but now a little more often including the father—are bound to the development and experience of the erotic, that psychosomatic sense of deep attachment. The erotic here does not mean simply sexual feeling, but the experience of oneness (here is that leap across the discontinuity), which presupposes the permeability of boundaries.

Children who are raised in a zero-sum atmosphere of parental omnipotence form powerful defensive psychic boundaries early, which can lead to abject submission accompanied by feelings of vengefulness and resentment. They often have difficulty later in life forming relationships characterized by mutuality. On the other hand, children who experience attunement, which is a balance of self-assertion and recognition (not permissiveness), are habituated to the practices of mutuality. Erotic attachments later in life, which can include sexual attraction, are likely to reflect these early experiences of attachment; and some will tend toward attunement, while others will tend toward the domination-submission dynamic. While this is not a perfectly predictable pattern, the sons of men who abused the boys’ mothers are more likely to abuse their partners, and the daughters of men who abused the girls’ mothers are more likely to neglect or abuse their children.

Re-summarizing: the desire for self-assertion exists in tension with the desire for mutuality when we simultaneously recognize another and want something from him or her. When that tension, or balance, is broken by the polarization of self-assertion and vulnerability between two people, the love that is constituted in mutuality gives itself over to a dynamic of domination. Benjamin emphasizes this dynamic in her study of sadomasochistic relations, when “the inability to sustain paradox . . . convert[s] the exchange of recognition into domination and submission.”

How does this dynamic play out in the earliest stages of formation? How is it different for boys and for girls?

We know that erotic attachments later in life, which can include sexual attraction, are likely to reflect these early experiences of attachment; and some will tend toward attunement, while others will tend toward the domination-submission dynamic. While this is not a perfectly predictable pattern, the sons of men who abused the boys’ mothers are more likely to abuse their partners, and the daughters of men who abused the girls’ mothers are more likely to neglect or abuse their children, and even themselves experience attraction to abusive male partners later in life.

Now we have to look at the experiences of parents and children with some specificity. The parent-child relation is necessarily hierarchical, but there are many variations of this hierarchy. Moreover, both mothers and fathers are themselves to a substantial degree formed by their surrounding culture, so they will transmit what they have learned (a great deal of it mimetically, from theri own parents) to children; and they also 'socialize' their own children, consciously or not, into various gender norms (other norms, too, but we'll focus here on gender norms - expectations that are projected onto biological male and female children). In most cases, the principle parent, especially in the earliest phases of formation, is a child's mother. And in almost all cases, infants identify with that principle parent. So we have identification as well as control in early childhood. In good situations, we also have attunement, or love.

We said at the beginning that formation is socio-genetic. The practices and beliefs of parents are received from culture, but there is more to it than mere transmission. People develop powerful emotional attachments not only to other people, but through and with other people, to various practices and beliefs. Valuations like patriotism or faith tradition or beliefs and attitudes toward certain groups are accompanied by profound feelings, favorable and unfavorable. The feeling of the sacred for one thing, of disgust for another, of contempt for another, of sentimentality, and so forth. These are learned, largely mimetically, and from people to whom we develop powerful emotional attachments well before we develop anything resembling a 'critical' or 'rational' capacity. Few beliefs, valuations, and accompanying emotional resonance are as powerful as those associated with gender.

For boys, this creates a particular difficulty. Early identification with his mother will eventually be accompanied by two other phenomena: (1) Mother is the early authority (however that authority is exercised), and (2) gender norms (sometimes policed by Mother herself and nearly always by Father and other males) will demand that he break his identification with Mother in order to become a Man (that is, to acquire characteristics, attitudes, and desires that are masculine). Masculinity encompasses those norms that are culturally imposed on biological males by gender as a system that divides many things, but especially power.

This is inevitably a painful process for boys, because they are pressured to break their identification with the Mother, even as Mother may still be the predominant authority. Eventually, the pressure will include cultural censure and devaluation if he does not refuse 'feminine' authority. And so the original pre-sexual erotic attachment to Mother is thrown into confusion. His very gendered identity, the one into which he is being relentlessly entrained, depends on his dis-identification with the earliest and most powerful attachment he knows. At some point, he is likely derided, or sees another boy derided, with the put-down "Mama's boy." Let's return for a moment to Benjamin:

Intersubjective theory postulates that the other must be recognized as another subject in order for the self to fully experience his or her subjectivity in the other's presence. This means that we have a need for recognition and that we have a capacity to recognize others in return, thus making mutual recognition possible. But recognition is a capacity of individual development that is only unevenly realized--in a sense, the point of a relational psychoanalysis is to explain this fact. In Freudian metapsychology the process of recognizing the other "with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling" would appear, at best, as a background effect of the relationship between ego and external reality. Feminist critics of psychoanalysis have suggested that the conceptualization of the first other, the mother, as an object underlies this theoretical lacuna. The cultural antithesis between male subject and female object contributed much to the failure to take into account the subjectivity of the other. Denial of the mother's subjectivity, in theory and in practice, profoundly impedes our ability to see the world as inhabited by equal subjects. My purpose is to show that, in fact, the capacity to recognize the mother as a subject is an important part of early development, and to bring the process of recognition into the foreground of our thinking.

What happens to a boy when he is confronted with the pressure to dis-identify with the very person with whom he likely exchanged his first smile? How does this assimilation by the boy of "the cultural antithesis between the male subject and female object" cripple that capacity for "reciprocal recognition" between him and - in many cases - all women? And what is the psychic price paid, when this assimilation begins with the most powerful and painful "separation-individuation" of all, which involves a kind of culturally enforced rejection of the first, closest, and most primal of all human attachments?

I believe this is comparable to the experience in the military of undergoing Basic Training or Boot Camp, which serve as a time-concentrated model for male development within "the cultural antithesis between the male subject and female object." Formation, or re-formation, begins with an enforced rupture with the 'softer' world of one origins and the enforced redirection from home to the military unit and authority. There is a driving-out of 'feminine characteristics,' especially empathy. There is a re-configuration of identity around the polarity of ally-enemy, and the concomitant redirection of desire - aimed at acceptance and reputation within the military organization (and esteem from the outside which is a function of social militarization and the veneration of soldiery). There are multiple analogs here, between this concentrated enculturation and the gender enculturation of boys. Hierarchy, empathy-minimization, polarities of domination and obedience, willingness to engage in violence, boundary enforcement, flight from vulnerability, and so forth. The prime directive of the solider is to be not-like those 'pussy' civilians, just as the prime directive of gender is for males to be not-like women. Just as the boy is pressured to be not-like Mother, and no longer with Mother, the solider is told repeatedly, "Your mama's not here."

Benjamin, channeling Winnicott, says that "internal fantasy is always eating up reality." In turn, of course, reality constantly impinges on fantasy. Somewhere in this interplay, culture intervenes with its various conventions, particularly stories. It is not overly surprising, then, that Freud, for example, chose the story of a tragic warrior king who disrupted the polis in a mimetic rivalry with his father via a disordered desire for Mother; or that Freud's preoccupations were also the European male preoccupations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, heavily influenced by Hobbes and the idea of the necessity of powerful centralized control to combat our savage natures (ergo, Freud's 'drive' theories).

Nor is it surprising, following this line of inquiry, that the stories and archetypes of our own culture reinforce a gender regime in which male formation and constructions of masculinity are associated with the flight from 'femininity', or flight from vulnerability, or (as Susan Bordo also suggests) the "flight to objectivity." The male-equals-subject/female-equals-object paradigm maps directly onto male conquest of OBJECTified (1) woman, (2) nature understood as woman, and (3) feminized lesser males and colonial subjects (civilizaton standing for male self-control and barbarism standing for a 'feminine' lack of self-control). Nor is it surprising that the male subject's only recourse to reintegrate the Mother (or wife or sister, et al) back into this paradigm is as MY mother, sister, wife, for whom I am a protector/defender. (Lynching campaigns against African American men in the United States were fueled by discourse about the protection of 'white womanhood.')

Anyone still with us here is likely familiar with the whore-Madonna complex that separates our women from their women, good women from bad women, women who are de-sexualized from women who are hyper-sexualized, etc. Men's projections like these can ball be traced back psychologically, and pre-critically, to this masculine 'separation-individuation' dynamic, in which the dis-indentification with the mother inevitably translates into hostility to being-like-mother, the hostility to mother, and finally a generalized hostility toward women who are not (possessively or in association with family 'honor') 'our women' or 'my woman.'

It is yet another post-marxist feminist, the late Nancy C. M. Hartsock, who turns us back to the question of the erotic. Whereas we earlier noted that the erotic (more generally than a sexualized eros) is a sense of deep attachment to that which is outside oneself, with aspects of 'the world.' The erotic is a sense of one-ness. But what Hartsock points out is how domination, which we can now understand in the light of Benjamin as a "crisis of recognition," in which the desire for omnipotence converts the other into an object to resolve the tension between mutuality and self-assertion then destroys the possibility of recognition (because it destroys the subject who can recognize), perverts the erotic.

Citing studies by the late Robert Stoller, she describes a dynamic in which the "flight from vulnerability" and the feelings of revenge that are directed at Mother and women generally as an outcome of masculine separation narrow down and twist this deep psychic attachment to the world and sexually-objectify women as objects of control. This is psychologically accomplished by what Stoller calls perversion.

Stoller made the uncontroversial assertion that threats to one’s core “gender identity” (like a man’s sense of masculinity) are experienced as threats to one’s very being. This is why you would not go into a bar, for example, and tell a strange man that he is a 'pussy.' He is likely to assault you. (Don't try this at home.) If you told the same strange man, “You are an electrician,” he might tell you that you are confusing him with someone else, but he is far less likely to feel compelled to defend his identity by force.

Stoller said that people, men in particular, psychically defend their sexual identities in their sexual lives through perversion. By this he did not mean our colloquial meaning of deviance from the norm or sexual crime, but the transformation of the sex act into something different than mutuality or attunement, because that permeability of boundaries is experienced as a threat (to male autonomy achieved in the process of the dis-identification with Mother/women). In Latin, the term pervertere means 'to turn away from.' This perversion can take the form of hostility, revenge, degradation, dehumanization, fetishization, or any number of strategies that create a bulwark against mutuality and vulnerability. It is that boundary permeability which is to be feared. Hartsock points out how "pornography substitutes control for intimacy," for example. And in fact, ot os easy now, with the proliferation of internet pornography, to see how "hostility, revenge, degradation, dehumanization, and fetishization" are actually popular pornography conventions. The humiliation of women is - if the popularity of certain categories is any indication - very sexually stimulating to many men. These categries are catalogued now as a list of fetishes - just Google "porn categories" and you'll get many many lists that specifically objectify and fetishize race, age, body type, body parts, clothing, etc.
Audre Lorde spoke of this perversion of the erotic bitterly and poetically:

We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused, and devalued within western society. On the one hand, the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence.

It is a short step from there to the false belief that only by the suppression of the erotic within our lives and consciousness can women be truly strong. But that strength is illusory, for it is fashioned within the context of male models of power.

As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge. We have been warned against it all our lives by the male world, which values this depth of feeling enough to keep women around in order to exercise it in the service of men, but which fears this same depth too much to examine the possibilities of it within themselves. So women are maintained at a distant/inferior position to be psychically milked, much the same way ants maintain colonies of aphids to provide a life-giving substance for their masters. (from Uses of the Erotic)

Hartsock disclaims any suggestion that Stoller’s analysis relieves men of moral agency or accountability for their actions by medically pathologizing the association of sex and hostility; it simply provides an insight into male formation during which autonomy and omnipotence (separation and domination) are drilled into boys in ways that a inescapably misogynistic. Hostility and violence are eroticized (in the sexual sense); and the erotic (sexual) lives of men can become dependent upon these perversions. Men come to be sexually stimulated by hostility and by women's humiliation, fear, pain, and fetishization even when we know better. The form of their desire has been mimetically encoded into our very bodies, and everything from our mannerisms to our clothing to our ideologies is interwoven with this perversion of the erotic which almost defines our sexual identities (which can be true in many regards even for some non-heterosexual men).

If we accept, then, that mimetic formation, the intersubjective dynamics described by Benjamin, and the construction of desire are a requisite bridge to join Thomist-Aristotelian observations on virtue, practice, and community with that stormier virtual space of the psyche, then can these reference points be synthesized; and if so, what questions does this synthesis raise about many of the assumptions that are carried forward by Thomists, who have frankly paid scant attention to questions of gender? I'll leave it at that.


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