tag: Philosophy

Dec 2007

Archaeologies of Consciousness

Having failed to give the excellent Dreamflesh Volume One the glowing review it so richly deserved here on The Quiet Road, Gyrus threatened to “burn down your home, and the homes of everyone you’ve ever met!” unless I at least mentioned his latest tome.

Archaeologies of Consciousness

Well, he’s a man of his word. So I shall do more than just mention it. I shall post a big shiny graphic showing the rather striking cover (designed by Andy Hemmingway) and urge y’all to get hold of this fantastic anthology.

Entitled Archaeologies of Consciousness: Essays In Experimental Prehistory, it’s billed as a collection of writing on “ancient monuments, prehistoric rock art, folklore, mythology, and altered states of consciousness”. But don’t let what may sound like a specialist book on a selection of niche subjects put you off. The essays in this book are explorations of consciousness, of what it means to be human, and of the environment and landscapes that shaped our development. It’s a book that drags these “niche subjects” out of the cosy, dusty libraries in which they’ve locked themselves and takes them for a much needed hike across a windswept moor to get their blood flowing again.

But what’s it actually about?

[…] in Freudian language [we say] that the operations of the unconscious are structured in terms of primary process, while the thoughts of consciousness (especially verbalized thoughts) are expressed in secondary process.

Nobody, to my knowledge, knows anything about secondary process. But it is ordinarily assumed that everybody knows all about it, so I shall not attempt to describe secondary process in any detail, assuming that you know as much about it as I.

Gregory Bateson | Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art

In the space of these five extended essays and a few shorter bits and pieces, Gyrus boldly strides where Bateson fears to tread.

To be honest, that last line is hyberbolic to the point of sheer inaccuracy, but it’s a good pull-quote. In actual fact, the writing of Bateson and Gyrus complement one another in interesting ways. Both are examining the unsettling, blurred region where a number of disparate disciplines intersect; archaeology, anthropology, mythology, psychology (along with psychoanalytic theory) and biology. Both are aware that, for a whole bunch of reasons, traditional academia finds it difficult to comfortably accommodate research in this area, but are equally aware that for their work to be influential within these disparate disciplines (as it damn well should be), it must be accessible to them.

But where they differ is the fact that Bateson is writing from within the establishment; emerging from it as it were; while Gyrus is approaching it from outside. Both approaches have their strengths and both have certain limitations. Thankfully there’s nothing stopping us from reading both and allowing them to, as I say, complement one another.

One thing that strikes me though, is that Gyrus generally overcomes the limitations imposed by his position as a “freelance” / “amateur” researcher (a tendency towards flights of fancy, tangents and a perceived lack on intellectual rigour) better than Bateson overcomes the limitations imposed by his own (conservatism, unimaginativeness and a tendency to obscure meaning with over-complex prose and jargon).

Now Bateson can’t be accused either of conservatism or a lack of imagination, but his writing does occasionally become rather dense and opaque. In Archaeologies of Consciousness however, Gyrus presents his readers with clear, flowing prose that is at turns poetic, at turns scientific, but always comprehensible. And it’s not the patronising comprehensibility of “popular science” books that spoonfeed complex ideas to a mass market by simplifying them to the point of meaninglessness. This is the real deal… exactly as complicated as it needs to be, but no less accessible for it.

The collection opens with The Devil & The Goddess which I recall reading when it was first published over a decade ago. It was around that time that I first met Gyrus, and during the intervening years — in private discussions and through reading subsequent articles — I’ve seen how his ideas and research have evolved. So it’s interesting to revisit The Devil & The Goddess; not the start, but certainly an important early milestone, on a unique intellectual journey; and to find it’s still vital, still relevant and is filled with the questions and themes that would dominate his work for the next ten years.

Culture and civilization are inseparable from material technologies, and things are no less confused in the technophile / Luddite debate. The real dichotomy to be tackled here is that of harmonious / unharmonious technology. Do our tools help us achieve our desires, or do they become our desires?


This spiritual poverty, this rigid division of life into the sacred and profane (in their modern senses), has only been the norm of human experience for several hundred years, if that. And in their historical accounts, modern scientists have been projecting this division back in time for far too long. A re-vision of anthropology and archaeology is overdue, necessary and, I feel, imminent.

And concluding with…

For ourselves, living in a culture where the dominant spiritual institutions have insisted not only on separating themselves from everyday life, but directing their spiritual aspirations outside this world, it’s evident that a new vision of spirituality more directly concerned with life, the Earth, our bodies and survival is needed. We cannot live on bread alone, but I don’t want to try to live without it. It’s no coincidence that it took an affluent society like our own, where day-to-day existence is taken for granted, to produce a device capable of utterly destroying the biosphere.

… via a route that takes in Shamanism, Satanism, the Kundalini experience, anal eroticism, the origins of blood sacrifice, the Knights Templar and the landscape of Avebury…

It’s the least focussed of the essays in the collection, certainly, but it provides a perfect opener to the book by setting up many of the themes that are expanded upon in the later pieces.

My personal favourites (if one can be said to have favourites among essays on abstract and esoteric subjects) are probably the final two of the long pieces; Form & Meaning in Altered States & Rock Art and Aeons Past & Present. The former contains my favourite line of the book, where the author is examining some neolithic rock art while under the influence of 2CB (a synthetic phenethylamine which is known to produce, among other things, visual distortions not unlike the geometrical patterns found in much primitive art) and has the multi-layered revelation that “There’s no ‘blank canvas’ in rock art!” While the latter draws together theories about time and evolution from a remarkably wide range of sources and makes all manner of intriguing and insightful connections between them, eventually concluding with a call to action in the face of the seemingly paralysing desires manufactured by modern culture.

From the upbeat and characteristically enthusiastic preface by Julian Cope, to the meticulous indices, Archaeologies of Consciousness succeeds in being a well-researched, informative; indeed illuminating; collection of essays which is also a pleasure to read. This makes it a very rare item indeed; so I recommend you grab a copy.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Book reviews

Dec 2007

Anatomy of an uninspiring essay

Bunch of arse quite frankly.

The essay has been submitted, but I’m not at all satisfied with it. There’s something very interesting to be said about the Schreber case, dear reader, and you’ll not find it in my essay.

In my defence, the reason the essay is so devoid of anything resembling genuine insight or worth is as much down to the restriction on word-count as any deficiency on the part of the writer. Though of course, I would say that.

All the same, just because I failed to do justice to Schreber this time round doesn’t mean I never will. I may well write my thesis on the case, if — and these are big ifs — (a) I can find an approach that appeals to me*; and (b) something else doesn’t capture my imagination before I start work on it.

So what went wrong this time round?

Well firstly, I came to the subject late. Having already mooched around the Existential Critique essay, and for weeks had a fair idea of what I was going to say, I made the decision to write on Schreber based on a single read-through of Freud’s analysis and with only two weeks before the deadline.

That was a big mistake, as I failed to realise that the subject was far bigger than two weeks research would allow. Even if I narrowed the scope radically. Even if I didn’t sleep very much. Which I did. And didn’t.

It’s never a good idea to decide to write to a deadline on a subject whose surface you’ve only scratched. When I started work I simply had no idea that the paper inspired damn-near an entire subgenre of literature. Nor that it would be so bloody interesting.

The second problem, linked to the first, is the simple fact that nothing interesting can be said about Schreber in less than 10,000 words. I’m a verbose writer at the best of times. I know that, and I try to curtail the worst excesses of this tendency. But all the same, it’s just not possible to provide a useful summation just of the basic facts of the case (including the contents of Schreber’s delusions) in less than 5000 words. And then there’s the analysis and observations which, let’s face it, you’d hope would be the bulk of the content.

So there I was three nights ago, 5000 words into a 3000 word essay, and I’d not even got to discussing Freud’s interpretation let alone my own. Twenty pages of scrawled longhand observations as yet untyped.

So I started afresh. I hacked the 5000 word exposition down to 2000, stripping out anything remotely poetic or beautiful, leaving only stunted prose and a sense of missed opportunity. I jettisoned the bulk of the really interesting stuff, concerning the actual content of Schreber’s delusions. Then I pared down the essence of Freud’s analysis to two specific insights; (a) that paranoid psychosis is a result of repressed homosexuality, and (b) that the agents of persecution in the delusions of paranoiacs are projections of childhood relationships.

Let me point out that those are hardly the only two assertions made by Freud, but they are the central ones. And it’s safe to say that they’re not without controversy.

Unfortunately given the limitations of space I was unable to investigate those controversies, nor delve into the numerous other readings of Schreber’s Memoirs, nor examine the implications that Schreber’s construction of a personal mythology has for our understanding of how the rest of us do the same. I didn’t even have space to examine the actual mechanisms by which Freud states the repression and projection take place.

I set the scene, but the plug was pulled before I could shout “action!”

As I say, bunch of arse.

* By this I mean, an approach that provides an opportunity to say something on the case that hasn’t been said before. The Schreber case has had a lot written about it, but far from everything. And I’m convinced there’s still something worthwhile that hasn’t been covered in the existing literature (mind you, I’ve not read it all yet, so perhaps I’m speaking too soon).

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2007

What is psychoanalysis?

As my regular readers will be aware, I’m currently studying for a Masters degree in Psychoanalytic Studies.

But what does that mean exactly? It’s probably fair to say that the popular view of psychoanalysis; both its’ theories and practices; isn’t entirely accurate. This hardly makes it unique amongst academic disciplines of course, and given the anti-intellectualism that currently dominates our culture I doubt there’s a huge amount that can be done about that. We live in a society where academics and intellectuals are often viewed with suspicion and even denigrated for “not doing a real job”. Yet that same society fêtes Z-list celebrities and the participants of vacuous reality* television programmes, while lauding the accomplishments of entrepreneurs whose primary skill is an ability to coax a gullible public into hedonistic acts of meaningless consumerism (often using tools supplied to them by the psychoanalytic community, but that’s another blog post).

[Aside: Speaking of “Reality TV”, a recent episode of “America’s Next Top Model” dedicated itself to producing a series of images that consciously eroticise extreme violence towards women. One hardly needs a psychoanalyst to explain what that says about contemporary western culture.] (link via Smokewriting)

So, in the unlikely event that this piece will be read by someone other than my four regular (and already supremely knowledgeable) readers, allow me to provide a short explanation of psychoanalysis and the aims it pursues.


OK, the first thing that needs to be clarified is that psychoanalysis is not the same as psychotherapy. Which is not to say that psychoanalysis has no therapeutic value. Indeed long-term psychoanalysis can, in fact, be considered a form of psychotherapy. Nonetheless, the term “psychotherapy” is a far broader and more expansive one than “psychoanalysis” and encompasses a whole range of so-called “talking cures”. At the same time, psychoanalysis is not merely a therapy, but is also an attempt to generate a body of knowledge about mental processes, how they work and what function they play.

I should also make it clear from the outset that even within the field itself, psychoanalysis can have both a broad and a narrow definition. Narrowly (arguably “accurately”) psychoanalysis is the specific set of theories and techniques developed by Sigmund Freud to scientifically study the mind — in particular the unconscious mind — and to explain and treat neuroses.

Latterly however, it has been expanded to include a huge subsequent body of work by a whole range of individuals who have built upon — or altered — Freud’s theories and techniques. So the work of Carl Jung, for example, is not psychoanalysis under the strict definition as it bears significant differences to Freud. Jungians are instead known as “analytic psychologists”. Nonetheless, it is not unusual for Jung to be studied under the heading of psychoanalysis. Similarly, Adlerians describe themselves as “individual psychologists”, and there are numerous other subdivisions of the field.

In general, however, I shall use a broader definition of the term on this blog unless otherwise specified. I beg the forgiveness of outraged Jungians, Adlerians and existential psychotherapists everywhere but while unacceptable in an academic thesis, a certain looseness of language is probably appropriate for a weblog that aims to explain the field to those outside it. So when I use the term psychoanalysis, I will be using it to mean…

… 1) the investigation of mental processes which are almost inaccessible in any other way, especially inner experiences such as thoughts, feelings, emotions, fantasies and dreams;

2) a method (based upon that investigation) for the treatment of neurotic disorders;

3) a systematic accumulation of a body of knowledge about the mind, obtained along these lines, which is gradually turning into a new scientific discipline.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Rumblings beneath the surface

The above definitions of psychoanalysis contain at least two words that themselves require further explanation; the first of these I’ll tackle is “neuroses”. What are neuroses?

Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity– Sigmund Freud

Popular culture has absorbed numerous words, phrases and concepts from psychoanalysis. Yet despite their prevalence within our common lexicon, if pressed, many — perhaps most — of us would admit to only a vague understanding of them. So if a person were to describe a friend as “a good bloke, but a bit neurotic”, we’d know roughly what they meant, but in all likelihood would be unable to nail down a precise meaning. Similarly, we know what we mean when we reproach someone with the phrase “stop being so anal”, yet paradoxically would probably admit to having only a vague understanding, strictly speaking, of what “anal retentiveness” actually means.

The word “neurosis” has an interesting history; starting out meaning one thing and later being redefined to mean almost the opposite. It began life in the 18th century when Scottish physician, William Cullen, used the phrase “neurotic illness” to mean “a disease of the nerves”. A little later it was refined to mean “a functional disorder of the nervous system whose organic component cannot be identified”. But it was Sigmund Freud who provided us with the modern definition. As a medical student (studying under Ernst Brücke in Vienna) Freud began research into the condition known as “hysteria” and soon came to the conclusion that it was a personality disorder rather than a nervous one. Since then, the word “neurosis” has come to mean…

… precisely those mental disorders which are not diseases of the nervous system– Charles Rycroft, Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis

There are a number of different types of neurosis — traumatic neurosis, infantile neurosis, anxiety neurosis and so on. Complicating matters, however, is the notion of “psychosis”. Sometimes psychosis is considered an entirely separate phenomenon to neurosis, and sometimes it is considered a form of neurosis (known as “narcissistic neurosis”). Given that certain psychoses — unlike neuroses — can have an organic component (i.e. are created by identifiable organic damage due to disease or physical trauma), and given that psychosis — again unlike neurosis — often involves a demonstrable loss of contact with reality which can render the sufferer mentally incompetent (legally insane) I tend towards considering them entirely separate classifications of disorders. However, this isn’t entirely straight-forward and recent research into “borderline personality disorder” (BPD) would seem to suggest a certain blurred edge between the definitions. But more about BPD in another post.

The important thing to bear in mind regarding the distinction is that, by and large, psychoanalysis can only be used to treat a neurosis and not a psychosis (though some have tried and claim a certain level of success, and while I’m not discounting their work, it is pretty controversial and exists right on the fringes of the discipline). And so we come finally to the definition of neurosis which I’ll be employing. A neurosis is a non-transitory mental disorder which causes suffering and is recognised as problematic by the sufferer, but which involves neither an organic component nor a loss of contact with reality.

The “non-transitory” part of the definition is important. As Freud discusses in one of his most important papers (“Mourning and Melancholia”), it would not be accurate to describe mourning as a neurosis, despite it sharing most of the symptoms and almost all of the behavioural characteristics** of melancholia (more commonly known today as “depression”) which is a neurosis. Indeed he points out that mourning is clearly a natural and healthy reaction to significant loss, and should not be interfered with; an interruption of the mourning process can be damaging in the long term.

It is also well worth notice that, although mourning involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a pathological condition and to refer it to medical treatment. We rely on it being overcome after a certain lapse of time, and we look upon any interference with it as useless or even harmful.

Sigmund Freud | Mourning and Melancholia

Sigmund Freud was arguably the first person in history to approach the subject of mental illness in the same systematic fashion that physical illness had been treated for centuries previously. Difficult though it may be for us to imagine today, this was extremely controversial at the time and it is one of his (several) great contributions to the sphere of human knowledge that he persisted in this work despite the hostility with which he was greeted (hostility compounded in no small part by the anti-semitism he faced).

The Ocean of the Unsayable

In my view, Freud’s greatest contribution of all, however, was his investigation of the unconscious mind. He wasn’t, of course, the first to propose that the mind had both a conscious and an unconscious component. Socrates suggested as much (via Plato) and he was himself elaborating on those who had come before. So it’s an idea that has been around since almost the beginning of history. But Freud is by far the most significant figure in the history of the field, and we have him to thank for liberating the unconscious from the realms of art and philosophy, and bringing it into the mainstream of human knowledge.

Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me– Sigmund Freud

So what is “the unconscious”? And why is it so important?

Simply put, “unconscious” refers to those mental processes of which a person is unaware. This is a straight-forward enough idea and is no longer very controversial. And while there is still some resistance to the idea of unconscious mental processes in certain quarters, I am personally satisfied that there is ample evidence that this resistance is unreasonable. Gregory Bateson in his seminal essay “Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art” has this to say on the subject:

Quantitative Limits of Consciousness

A very brief consideration of the problem shows that it is not conceivably possible for any system to be totally conscious. Suppose that on the screen of consciousness there are reports from many parts of the total mind, and consider the addition to consciousness of those reports necessary to cover what is, at a given stage of evolution, not already covered. This addition will involve a very great increase in the circuit structure of the brain but still will not achieve total coverage. The next step will be to cover the processes and events occurring in the circuit structure we have just added. And so on.

Clearly, the problem is insoluble, and every next step in the approach to total consciousness will involve a great increase in the circuitry required.

It follows that all organisms must be content with rather little consciousness, and that if consciousness has any useful functions whatever (which has never been demonstrated but is probably true), then economy in consciousness will be of the first importance. No organism can afford to be conscious of matters with which it could deal at unconscious levels.

This is the economy achieved by habit formation.

Gregory Bateson | Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art

[The next section of the essay is entitled Qualitative Limits of Consciousness and provides further demonstration of the necessity of unconscious mental processes.]

The kind of unconscious processes being described by Bateson in this essay are what we’d call “descriptively unconscious” (also known as “pre-conscious”). It’s the ability to catch a thrown ball despite being consciously unable to carry out the complex trigonometric calculations required to ascertain where the ball will be at any given moment. It’s the vast store of memories carried around by all of us and which can be called to the conscious mind at will, but which clearly do not reside there permanently. Remember your first kiss? That memory wasn’t part of your consciousness a couple of seconds ago. Now it is. Descriptively unconscious processes are those which can be made conscious with ease.

The other kind of unconscious process, and the one that psychoanalysis is most interested in, is what’s known as a “dynamically unconscious” process. These are processes (memories, phantasies***, wishes) which have become the object of repression and which cannot be easily rendered conscious. One of the primary goals of psychoanalysis is to remove the resistance that the patient has to rendering these processes conscious and thereby freeing them of the repression which is keeping them unconscious.

“I have done that”, says my memory. “I cannot have done that”, says my pride, and remains adamant. At last — memory yields.

Friederich Nietzsche | Beyond Good and Evil (section 68)

The reason psychoanalysis attempts to do this illustrates one of the foundations of Freud’s theory of the unconscious; namely that merely because something is unconscious does not mean it has no influence over us. Indeed, it is Freud’s view that those memories, wishes and phantasies that comprise the dynamic unconscious exert a massive influence over us; far greater in fact than even the influence exerted by our conscious mind. Therefore, until we have removed the resistance which keeps these processes repressed, and cast them onto the screen of consciousness, we will remain forever ignorant of the true motivations behind our own behaviour.

The essential nature of psychoanalysis therefore is twofold. First it seeks a greater (and — as far as possible — a scientific) understanding of mental processes, in particular those of the dynamic unconscious. Second it seeks to use that knowledge, and the techniques with which it was gathered, to treat those who are suffering due to a negative influence being cast on their lives by the contents of their personal dynamic unconscious.

* While I admit to having a far from in-depth knowledge of the genre, can I just point out that the little “reality” television I have seen bears absolutely no similarity to any version of reality I’ve yet encountered (and I’ve encountered a few in my time).

** The distinction I make between symptoms and behavioural characteristics is a vital one to psychoanalysis. Although many of the symptoms of a neurosis will be evident in the behaviour of the sufferer, there will be some symptoms which can only be discovered by listening to the sufferer describe them.

*** “Phantasies” are not synonymous with “fantasies” though they share many of the same characteristics. More on phantasies at a later date.

12 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Oct 2007

Freud reclaimed

Aye, it’s been a fine few weeks and no mistake. The M.Phil is going very well, I’m happy to report. Lots of very interesting reading and discussion. And the people all seem pretty groovy. Actually, the seminars are currently a bit “exposition by tutor with brief comments by the rest of us” as opposed to genuine discussion… but that’ll change as the weeks go on (as indeed it has already begun to). The topics for the first semester are Existentialism & Psychoanalysis, Jung, The Interpretation of Dreams, Klein, and Metapsychology. Initially, if I’m honest, I expected all of them to interest me with the exception of the Klein stuff (though I was still eager to study her work as part of an overall view of the subject). But as I’ve started to learn a bit more about Melanie Klein, I’m beginning to feel my initial fears were unjustified. Whatever one may think about her theories and methods (Klein, for those who are unaware, focussed her psychoanalysis on children and infants), the last word I’d use to describe her is “uninteresting”. Controversial, fascinating, discomforting and puzzling. Those would be better ones.

However having, thus far, only read a solitary paper by Klein (Psychological Principles of Infant Analysis), I’ll hold off on saying much more about her for now. Except that if even half her theory is correct, it’s nigh miraculous that any of us make it through childhood.

One thing that’s struck me most about the course in general is the attitude towards Freud. Or rather, I’ve been struck by how slanted my own attitude is. Though I’m pleased to say I’m overcoming my preconceptions. Merely recognising your own biases is not enough to negate them, but it’s a good first step.

You see, my view of Freud was formed in a rather specific academic environment. Back in the early 90s in the University of North London the philosophy degree was probably amongst the best anywhere. It’s never been recognised as such, of course, but having now gained enough distance to be semi-objective about it, I honestly believe that to be true (and I’ve been known to go on at some length about why that’s the case so I’ll try not to get started on that subject). However, if it had a flaw, it was the radical feminist slant that seeped into certain subjects. Which, as slants go, isn’t as bad as most others incidentally but, it’s probably fair to say that the radical feminist reading of Freud is somewhat less flattering than most.

Over the years I’ve had people tell me that perhaps I wasn’t being altogether fair (most notably Gyrus who convinced me that I probably didn’t have the most balanced view of Freud), but it’s only now that I’ve really gotten round to reading his work (rather than that of commentators) in any depth and I’ve discovered that — just as I’d been told — he’s not the faintly preposterous dogmatist that I’d been led to believe. Far from it.

Rarely, for instance, will you ever read anything like the equivocation expressed in the opening paragraph of Mourning and Melancholia (the text of which I’d like to link to, but can’t*). The second sentence of the text reads “… we must begin by making an admission, as a warning against any over-estimation of the value of our conclusions.” And a little later he informs the reader, “We shall, therefore, from the outset drop all claim to general validity for our conclusions, and we shall console ourselves by reflecting that, with the means of investigation at our disposal today, we could hardly discover anything that was not typical, if not of a whole class of disorders, at least of a small group of them.”

Of course, it’s been pointed out that this equivocation was almost certainly as much an attempt to seduce and disarm the critical reader as it was an attempt to downplay the significance of the work. Freud, after all, is nothing if not a fine writer and has more than enough skill to induce a sympathetic attitude in his readers. Nonetheless, he does seem to have been aware that he was a pioneer in a new and exciting field, and that — as such — some, if not much, of his work would eventually be superseded. After all, Freud was a scientist and was attempting to work in a scientific fashion. So he was obviously aware that from an historical perspective scientific theories constantly evolve and eventually get incorporated into more complete theories (or replaced entirely).

No fairer destiny could be alloted to any […] theory, than that it should of itself point out the way to the introduction of a more comprehensive theory, in which it lives on as a limiting case.

Albert Einstein | Relativity (Chapter XXII, Inferences)

I’ve been told that there’s a great deal of wry humour in the original German, much of which fails to come across in the English translation. Nonetheless, I can only applaud the translators who have rendered what I assume is Freud’s beautifully written German into beautifully written English.

[Aside: while reading Freud I was struck again by something that I’ve noticed in the past. Of the writers I’d say I’ve read fairly extensively, two of them originally wrote in German; Nietzsche and Einstein; and I’ve always perceived a strange similarity in their writing styles which — knowing how radically different in disposition they were — I attributed to some peculiarity in the way German translates into English. Freud goes a little further in confirming this hypothesis.]

Next: What exactly IS psychoanalysis?

* Can I just point out that it’s an absolute outrage that Freud’s papers are not archived online. I’m not interested in getting into the whole “copyright” / “intellectual property” debate here. What I’m talking about is on is a whole ‘nother level, as the man said. There are certain individuals whose writing is simply too damn important not to be freely available to everyone who wants it. Sigmund Freud is one of those individuals. If some philanthropist wants to do the world a real favour, then buy the publishing rights to the works of Freud (and a few others while you’re at it. I’ve got a list…) and bequeath them into the public domain. Set up a website and make them available for download in every format under the sun.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jul 2007

Er… Nietzsche?

Crappity crap crap fuckity fuck!

Well, I’m back from my interview at Trinity. Many thanks for the good luck wishes (in the comments to the last post) Zoe and Lucas… plus the others who emailed or texted. In the end, however, I fear I may have squandered all those positive vibes. Of course, it’s very easy to exaggerate one’s screw-ups in retrospect. And just because things didn’t go 100% perfectly doesn’t mean they were a disaster. All the same…

Q. So which philosophers are you currently interested in?
A. Er… [jim draws a complete blank… can’t even think of a single philosopher’s name, let alone one he’s currently interested in]… er… [the seconds tick by. For feck’s sake, there’s a copy of Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method in my bag not three feet from where I’m sitting! Yet can I think of a single name? No, I can’t.]… er… Nietzsche?

Or how about…
Q. So describe the basics of Freud’s theory of dreams…
A. Wellll… [once again jim draws a total blank. The words “symbolism” and “displacement” refuse to come to mind, as does the phrase “wish-fulfillment”. So instead there’s two minutes of incoherent nonsense as I try to describe Freud’s theories without recourse to those three terms].

Of course, the moment I stepped out of the interview, my brain kicked in… and as I walked down the flights of stairs and out of the building, I was muttering… Freud saw dreams as being of central importance to psychoanalysis. Initially he viewed dreams as a process of wish-fulfillment undertaken by the unconscious mind. However, because dreams often don’t appear that way, he hypothesized that dreams had both a manifest and a latent content. The manifest content — how the dream is recalled by the dreamer — is often a heavily-disguised or censored version of what the dream is really about. And what the dream is really about is the fulfillment of unsatisfied childhood desires. These desires — often shocking to the conscious mind — are rendered safe by two separate but connected processes; displacement (the association of disturbing emotions with apparently innocuous images) and symbolisation (almost always sexual in nature). Later in his life, however, after working with World War One veterans who had suffered from shellshock (what we’d now term Post-Traumatic Stress), Freud was forced to modify his theory of dreams. His ideas that dreams — almost invariably — referred back to childhood was incompatible with the clinical data he was gathering from the war veterans (whose recurrent nightmares of the trenches were clearly neither wish-fulfillment nor related to childhood events). This eventually led Freud to hypothesize the existence of ‘The Death Instinct’ or Thanatos.

Now, why the hell couldn’t I have said that in the interview? Why did I end up muttering it to startled passers-by instead? Goddamn it!

And what makes it all worse is the fact that the interview wasn’t exactly intimidating in any sense. The professor (Dr. RS) is very amiable, easy company. Formality was kept to a minimum and the whole experience was more like a chat than a classic interview. Albeit, a chat where one of the participants has inexplicably forgotten half his vocabularly and about 90% of what he’s read in the past 6 months.

Still, all I can do now is wait and hope that I’m recalling things as worse than they were. I’ll find out “within a month”. Fingers crossed and all.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements

Aug 2006

Basking in Mahmoud's reflected fame

Bloody Mahmoud Ahmadinejad! Guess what he’s gone and done? Only started a blog is what. So suddenly I’m getting hundreds of hits from people typing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blog into google. Which would be nice if it weren’t so disheartening. Hundreds of people arriving at my site, taking a two second glance, and thinking “ugh, this definitely ain’t what I was searching for” before hitting ‘Back’ on their browser in the hope of finding something to better suit their disposition.

Mind you, I guess I should take heart in my failure to capture the large audience that google and its ilk can theoretically provide. One’s popularity is – with a few noteworthy exceptions – a direct indication of one’s general wrongness. Don’t believe me? Take a glance at who wins elections, who tops the charts, what has the exclamation ‘Bestseller!’ on the cover, and what sort of regurgitated drekk is putting bums on seats in cinemas this summer. The Sun is not only the most widely read newspaper in the UK, but The Irish Sun is the most widely read rag on this side of the water. And don’t even talk to me about reality television and just how far up the collective arse humanity can shove that.

Yes, yes, there’s exceptions. You don’t need to tell me about The Beatles or Gandhi. But for every Beatles there’s a Jason Donovan, a Cliff Richard, a Simple Minds and an Oasis. For every Gandhi there’s a Stalin, a Blair, a Nixon and a Hitler. So yes, I’m more than prepared to accept that once in a while they get it right, but I’m also firmly convinced that as a general rule, the judgment of The People is fundamentally faulty.

Which is usually OK. We’re just bloody monkeys after all, so it doesn’t really matter, in the grand scheme of things, how we make our decisions. Let everyone have a turn at the wheel whether they’re drunk or not. Where’s the harm?

Except… and here’s the problem… when I say “we’re monkeys so it doesn’t matter”, I don’t actually believe that. Well, I believe we’re monkeys of course (don’t get all fricking pedantic and insisting on using the word “ape”. I prefer “monkey”, OK? Purely on the basis that it sounds funnier). But I don’t believe that our decisions – and even how we make those decisions – don’t matter. Because, and this is where we move from the solid to the ethical, I am not a moral relativist.

In fact, I’m an absolutist of the Old School… harking right back to the Greeks no less; though I’d obviously like to throw the odd “neo” around to get rid of some of the more wildly superstitious stuff. I believe that each of us is born with rights and obligations. And I take what I call an “Einsteinean” view of the source of these rights and obligations. Einstein himself would cite The Buddha and Spinoza.

But source and justification is a tangent I’m not going off on today. Instead it’s the ramifications for sociopolitical organisation and decision-making that interest me. Because clearly, unless your moral system specifically enshrines the right of every individual to have an equal say in decision making (and mine doesn’t… moral codes derived from pantheistic belief systems are rarely so explicit) then moral absolutism implies a curtailment of democracy.

1) For democracy.

We are committed to democratic norms, procedures and structures — freedom of opinion and assembly, free elections, the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, and the separation of state and religion. We value the traditions and institutions, the legacy of good governance, of those countries in which liberal, pluralist democracies have taken hold.

You see, it’s difficult to square all those beliefs. “[D]emocratic norms, procedures and structures”… that means elections and stuff, right? But what if the people vote for closer ties between religion and state for example? Does that mean you stop believing in “the separation of state and religion”. Well, clearly not… but it is saying that where The People vote for closer ties between religion and state, that in such a situation it is right to implement such a policy. Right?

Which isn’t very absolutist. In fact it’s waaaay at the far end of the relativist crowd. It’s almost saying that morality can be mandated by popular whim. Which it can’t. And because social policy must reflect our collective rights and obligations, it follows that social policy (in relevant areas) cannot be decided by democratic mandate.

The most basic one…

… we each have an obligation to live our life in such a way that it does not prevent others from living theirs.

Without that obligation, our own corresponding right to live full lives is meaningless. And although we each bear that obligation as individuals, it also translates upwards as a collective obligation to organise our society sustainably. Because it doesn’t matter whether those we prevent living full lives are separated from us by distance or time; our obligation to them remains.

And because this obligation cannot be removed by popular vote, so it follows that decisions which impact the longterm sustainability of society and the ability of future generations to live full lives must be made based upon our unchanging obligation and not the current desires of the people (“full lives”, incidentally isn’t a crass gauge of life expectancy but a phrase that implies a life without being forced to bear unreasonable burdens created by your grandparents and their friends).

Luckily though, as well as containing the wet western wank of The Euston Manifesto, the internet also hosts some far wiser and more coherent voices. Voices such as Harry Hutton, who wonders…

Whose idea was it to have elections, anyway? If MPs were selected by competitive examination we wouldn’t be in this hole. We don’t elect airline pilots or heart surgeons, so why Prime Ministers? The idea that Mr Average Briton, walking around Tesco with his mouth hanging open, should be allowed to choose the government is superstitious nonsense.

Who the hell needs my oh-so-knowingly-dry pseudo-academic toss when we’ve got Mr. Hutton? That’s what I want to know.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Aug 2006

Where once we learnt, now we park

On a recent jaunt to London I happened to wander through Camden and up Kentish Town Road. I passed the building where I attended university for four years. Most of it has been gutted and turned into a multi-storey carpark. As a final insult though, the front section has been converted into a big-franchise pizza place.

Sadly I wasn’t carrying a petrol-bomb that day.

It struck me as I walked past, that although many of my beliefs have evolved since my time there – some beyond recognition – that it was nonetheless in that building I learnt the way of looking at the world that I still use to this day.

It was the early nineties and I was studying philosophy in what was – then – one of the most politically radical universities in Britain. It hadn’t been my first choice uni, but nor was it my last resort, and I chose it over a couple of more prestigious (but conservative) places. During my first year it was called The Polytechnic of North London, but it had become The University of North London by my second.

Not saying I had anything to do with that…

The department was heavy on Critical Theory, Deconstruction and all that jazz. And even though that wasn’t where my head was at just then, it was a great environment to study philosophy in… whether it was political philosophy, theology, epistemology, or whatever. There was a sense that – intellectually speaking – everything was up for grabs. Philosophy was an activity, not an archive, and looking back on it I feel genuinely privileged to have spent part of my life in that environment.

In fact, I’m half-convinced that anyone who didn’t study Theories of Rationality at PNL / UNL between 1986 and 1996 is going through life half-blind. Seriously. The number of people who never ask the question, “does what I believe actually make sense?” staggers me. But even among those who do ask the question, there are so few of us who understand that there’s a process that can be learnt for establishing the answer. It’s like this big open secret, hidden in plain sight on the dusty shelves of the philosophy departments.

Of course, while courses like “Discourse”, “Language and Logic”, “Truth, Meaning and Metaphor”, and “The Philosophy of Psychoanalysis” have helped me better understand the world, I’m also certain they’ve helped alienate me from much of it. So it’s been a double-edged sword.

One I’ve been happy to wield, mind.

Nothing is eternal though, and by the time I left university the humanities campus in Kentish Town was already scheduled to close (though I never in my wildest nightmares imagined it becoming a Pizza Fricking Express / Car Park). Recently UNL in its entirety has been amalgamated into London Metropolitan University.

I’ve heard much of the radicalism of the humanities department has disappeared. Where once it occupied its own dark, imposing stone and redbrick bunker, it now lives alongside the business and accountancy faculties in a shiny glass office block on Holloway Road. This has changed the culture of the place apparently. Who’d have thunk it?

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Aug 2006

Steps to an Ecology of Mind

We may joke about the way misplaced concreteness abounds in every word of psychoanalytic writing – but in spite of all the muddled thinking that Freud started, psychoanalysis remains as the outstanding contribution, almost the only contribution to our understanding of the family – a monument to the importance and value of loose thinking.

Experiments in Thinking About Observed Ethnological Material | Gregory Bateson

There’s a collection of Bateson’s papers and essays which I’ve already mentioned a couple of times on this blog. It’s called Steps to an Ecology of Mind and I recommend you track it down with all haste, dear reader. It ranks up there with Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions as one of the most important collections of writings of the 20th century.

Like Ideas and Opinions, Bateson’s papers are sometimes far from the cutting edge of the subject they address (the earliest being over 70 years old now). But he writes with a similar piercing clarity and wisdom to Einstein and so provides a deep yet rounded understanding of his subject. He demonstrates methodologies and ways of thinking, rather than merely providing information.

For instance, the article Cybernetic Explanation cleared up a rather abstract area of confusion that had bugged me since university – but that I’d never been able to elucidate – regarding proof by reductio ad absurdum. And while his essay Style, Grace, and Information in Primitive Art may not contain the most up-to-date theories on primitive art (being almost 40 years old), it nonetheless forced me to re-evaluate some of my beliefs about the nature of consciousness and of human psychology.

No mean feat for an essay about cave paintings.

Steps to an Ecology of Mind

And it’s fair to say that it’s my views on psychology that have been most influenced by Bateson. Probably the most mind-blowing essay – for me – is Morale and National Character. In it Bateson very clearly presents the reasons why it’s not only legitimate to view and analyse nations using the tools of psychology, but why those tools are actually far better suited to that task than they are to the task of analysing the individual.

This was like an explosion going off in my mind. For years I’ve been of the opinion that what cognitive theorist Douglas Hostadter (dunno if he coined the phrase, but he’s where I first read it) calls “emergent intelligence” plays a far more significant role in the behaviour of corporations, institutions and nations… any large, organised group of people in fact… than is acknowledged.

Not only that, but I’ve always felt that although the tools of modern psychoanalysis are often too blunt to deal with the absurd complexity of individual human consciousness, that they actually have great relevance when examining the motivations and behaviour of the infintely simpler consciousnesses of groups of people.

Incidentally, there may be those who are a little puzzled by the idea that an individual human consciousness would be significantly more complex than a consciousness consisting of multiples of those individuals. It seems vaguely counter-intuitive. But actually the complexity of a consciousness is primarily (though not entirely) a factor of the number of constituent members (or “neurons”). The internal complexity of each individual neuron is a far smaller factor, though conversely it is a far larger factor in the likelihood of systemic failure (mental illness).

All of this seemed to make perfect sense to me… and whenever I applied my theory to the world, it appeared to work. The larger the organisation, the more prone to irrationality and dysfunction it becomes as the collective instabilities in the constituent members get amplified. Two perfect examples being, of course, globalised capitalism and modern China which have both descended into extreme psychosis… in the sense that they are unable to function sustainably in the environment in which they find themselves; the real world.

However, I’ve long become suspicious of assuming that just because something made perfect sense to me, that it did – in fact – make perfect sense. Too often have I been greeted with blank incomprehension as I explained why something obviously had to be a certain way. So it’s a joy to read an essay like Morale and National Character and discover that not only is someone thinking about the world in exactly the same way as you (albeit drawing different conclusions on occasion), but they can explain succinctly just why this way of thinking about the world is so very informative and so very valuable.

Anyways, I didn’t want to write a traditional review of this book as it’s far from a traditional book. I thought instead I’d explain just why it’s so important to me, and why I think anyone interested in anthropology, psychiatry, psychology, evolution, the history and function of art, epistemology or what it means to be human should read this important collection.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Book reviews

May 2006

The Euston Manifesto (critique #1)

I’ve recently been thinking about my time as a philosophy undergraduate. Mostly this has been inspired by the fact that I’m considering a return to academia in the not-too-distant future… becoming a fulltime philosopher again for a spell. It’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it. And frankly, I’m not sure I trust anyone else to do it properly.

The second reason for my undergraduate reminiscing was The Euston Manifesto. For those of you who are unaware of this document, it’s a recently published political manifesto (so recent it hasn’t happened yet… the official launch date is May 25th). It has as a preamble…

We are democrats and progressives. We propose here a fresh political alignment. Many of us belong to the Left, but the principles that we set out are not exclusive. We reach out, rather, beyond the socialist Left towards egalitarian liberals and others of unambiguous democratic commitment. Indeed, the reconfiguration of progressive opinion that we aim for involves drawing a line between the forces of the Left that remain true to its authentic values, and currents that have lately shown themselves rather too flexible about these values. It involves making common cause with genuine democrats, whether socialist or not.

Upon reading this, I was instantly transported back to first year political philosophy seminars. I had a lecturer who would have used the phrase “wet western wanker” when referring to the author of such a paragraph. In fact it’s precisely the sort of thing he’d have written himself as a parody of “wet western wank”. And I guarantee he would have met the first sentence, We are democrats and progressives, with a cynical, “well who the fuck isn’t?” I’m not condoning his attitude… I’m just saying…

I Won’t Be Signing Up

And not just because it’s full of wet western wank. In fact, what I find most objectionable about this document is the other stuff… the pro-globalisation stance that almost gets obscured by the meaningless platitudes. But before I get into the detail of the manifesto, I’d like to point out that the first time I visited its website, my PC informed me “The website bloggers4labour.org would like to set a cookie. Will you allow it?” Then, the very first name that caught my eye when glancing at the signatories was ‘Oliver Kamm’.

So it got off to a bad start. Though the actual content of the document merely compounds the badness.

The Euston Manifesto is comprised of a preamble, 15 statements of principle, a bunch of elaborations and a short conclusion. It can be read in full on this webpage. I’m not going to analyse it line by line, or even principle by principle. There’s much that’s bland and uninteresting but which I wouldn’t have a major problem signing if it featured in a manifesto alongside some genuinely good ideas. Instead I’m just going to highlight what I see as the serious problems with it… the inherent self-contradictions and the dodgy wrong-headedness.

Where better to start, then, than Principle 5? It’s the worst offender, and alone makes for a flawed and deeply objectionable manifesto, the signing of which puts a person on very much the wrong side of the barbed-wire fence.

5) Development for freedom.

We stand for global economic development-as-freedom and against structural economic oppression and environmental degradation. The current expansion of global markets and free trade must not be allowed to serve the narrow interests of a small corporate elite in the developed world and their associates in developing countries. The benefits of large-scale development through the expansion of global trade ought to be distributed as widely as possible in order to serve the social and economic interests of workers, farmers and consumers in all countries. Globalization must mean global social integration and a commitment to social justice. We support radical reform of the major institutions of global economic governance (World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank) to achieve these goals, and we support fair trade, more aid, debt cancellation and the campaign to Make Poverty History. Development can bring growth in life-expectancy and in the enjoyment of life, easing burdensome labour and shortening the working day. It can bring freedom to youth, possibilities of exploration to those of middle years, and security to old age. It enlarges horizons and the opportunities for travel, and helps make strangers into friends. Global development must be pursued in a manner consistent with environmentally sustainable growth.


OK. First off. If you talk about “environmentally sustainable growth” you are (knowingly or not) peddling a dangerous lie. There is a widely-held misconception that the findings of The Club of Rome and their famous report; The Limits to Growth (download an abstract in RTF format); have somehow been discredited. That there are in fact, no limits to growth and that growth can carry on “sustainably” (i.e. indefinitely). This is simply not the case.*

I’d go further and say that the philosophy of sustainable growth is a powerfully regressive one which ranks alongside fascism in its potential to generate human suffering. But it’s not just the last line of Principle 5 that’s problematic. I find the opening statement little short of mind-blowing. “We stand for global economic development-as-freedom…” Are they serious? And if they are, then it’s perhaps no accident that they decided to use the rhetoric of totalitarianism to express it.

I’m sorry, but no matter how many empty platitudes you pad it with (against environmental degradation… once again; “well who the fuck isn’t?”) the decision to equate freedom and economic development proves that The Euston Manifesto is little more than an attempt to recast rapacious capitalism as “the friendly, cuddly” planet-despoiling philosophy.

6) Opposing anti-Americanism.

We reject without qualification the anti-Americanism now infecting so much left-liberal (and some conservative) thinking. This is not a case of seeing the US as a model society. We are aware of its problems and failings. But these are shared in some degree with all of the developed world. The United States of America is a great country and nation. It is the home of a strong democracy with a noble tradition behind it and lasting constitutional and social achievements to its name. Its peoples have produced a vibrant culture that is the pleasure, the source-book and the envy of millions. That US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones does not justify generalized prejudice against either the country or its people.


Can someone say “straw man”? Look, there are clearly people who have a “generalized prejudice” against American people or against America as a country. But that’s not anti-American in the political sense. Those people are bigots and are no different from the numerous English people who feel antipathy towards the French or the numerous French people who feel antipathy towards the non-French.

However, given that Principle 8 is entitled ‘Against Racism’, I would have thought that a specific principle attacking anti-American bigotry would be unnecessary. So obviously that’s not what Opposing anti-Americanism means in the context of The Euston Manifesto.

Instead, what we have here is yet another transparent and irritating attempt to conflate legitimate political anti-Americanism with bigotry. It’s a tactic beloved of dishonest rightwing newspaper columnists and mirrors the tactic of equating opposition to Israeli government policy with anti-semitism. I find it impossible to trust people who resort to this tactic. It’s a deep-seated dishonesty and it casts a dark shadow over their motivations.

I am – politically speaking – anti-American. I disagree profoundly not merely with the political aims and policies of the current United States government, but also with the aggressive global marketing of US culture and economic philosophy. And yet I have American friends and family (like many Irish families we have a branch in the States). I lived there for a year. New York is my favourite city. I adore American film, literature and music. There is no contradiction.

Principle 6 of The Euston Manifesto is not about being “against anti-Americanism”; it’s about being in favour of pro-Americanism. It is the active support of US foreign policy and the embrace of corporate capitalism. It stands hand-in-hand with Principle 5. A pledge of allegiance to the Land of The Free(dom-as-economic development). Why else the need to dishonestly paint those who consider themselves politically anti-American as bigots?

And there’s more

But not right now. You’ll have to wait for ‘critique #2’. I want to address the subject of “democracy” and that deserves an essay to itself… Principle 1 of The Euston Manifesto (the ‘We Heart Democracy’ bit) provides an interesting context in which to do that. Also I believe that there may even be a ‘critique #3’ as I’d like to highlight a particularly glaring self-contradiction in the manifesto (the “No apology for Tyranny” yet active “political pro-Americanism” paradox), elaborate a little on the implications of the pro-globalisation stance and analyse the language used when discussing terrorism, internationalism, heritage and freedom. So until then.

* I will gladly defend The Limits to Growth in the comments should anyone wish to challenge it – so long as they provide a reference. I’m sick of hearing lines like “Well The Limits to Growth said we’d run out of oil by the year 2000. So why should we believe anything else they say?” I feel like forcing them to sit down with a copy of the book and demanding, “Show me. Show me where it says that. Because it bloody well doesn’t!” See, what happened was this… the book was published and became a surprise bestseller. Sold millions of copies. And just like A Brief History of Time, roughly 1% of the people who bought it had either the requisite education to understand much of it, or the time / inclination to gain that education. But nobody liked to admit that of course. Having struggled in bafflement to the middle of chapter two, they gave up. As a result they end up confidentally repeating every misconception that gets passed around as though they’d read it themselves. I’m not claiming that the report is flawless in every detail (it isn’t); merely that the general conclusions, methodology and philosophy outlined within it are incontravertible.

33 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2006

Technology to the rescue

A pernicious white fungus has spread “like snow” in the caves of Lascaux in France, where the fabulous rock art has been described as the Sistine Chapel of prehistory. The fungus is believed to have been introduced after contractors began to install a new air-conditioning system that was meant to preserve the precious 17,000-year-old cave paintings from heat and humidity.
Irish Independent

It’s possible that the above link may require (free) registration to the Indo, so I’ll give you the jist of the story…

An artist, or group of artists, produced a series of paintings on the walls of a cave system in Lascaux, France. Seventeen thousand years later, authorities decided that the paintings needed to be protected from heat and humidity and installed an air conditioning system.

The air-conditioning system altered the environment of the caves – which had remained fairly stable for 17 millennia – and within weeks the ground was infested with a white fungus. The authorities who installed the air conditioning claimed that the fungus wouldn’t spread to the paintings. They claimed that it would remain on the ground.

It didn’t.

Now the fungus has begun to encroach upon the paintings and the authorities who installed the new technology are employing people to very carefully remove strands of the fungus from the paintings by hand in order to protect them from their first serious threat in 17,000 years.

A news story and a parable.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion