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Friday, February 19, 2016

What, Where, When, How, Why is a Psyche?

There are ideas and entities that are so broad, so grandiose, that they slip into the realm of the arcane. Psyche, Soul, Mind, Self… Where on earth do we start when venturing into these terrains? How do we begin to even answer a question of the “What is an X?” variety when the X in question is so exhaustive? The group of women who came together last Thursday to kick off our new series, “…And if we went to the philosopher instead?” seemed anything but daunted by the ambitious task we had set ourselves for the evening. On the contrary, we tackled the A to Z of Psyche in much the same way that London cabbies make use of The Knowledge. If we couldn’t find our way into Freud’s Ego, Id and Superego through the traditional psychoanalytical route, we took a U-Turn back to Plato’s tripartite understanding of the Soul with its magisterial voice of Reason, its unruly workaday Appetite, and its law-enforcing Spirit. When we still found our Selves caught up in a gridlock (and indeed, 2000+ years might separate the ‘father’ of Western philosophy from the ‘father’ of psychotherapy, but both saw the female Self as essentially defective when it came to the make-up of her soul or psyche, and as deviating from the male ‘norm’ when it came to how it functioned) we tried alternative routes. 

Veering off the beaten track into the affective arrondisement of the poetic, for example, gave us Mary Oliver’s poem, Bone. Here, we glimpsed a basically unknowable soul or psyche – one that not only resists organization, assessment, and hierarchies à la Freud and Plato, but that is (like us) all the richer for it. Another creative detour landed the more artistic among us with the equivalent of a Monopoly Board ‘Get out of Jail’ card. Exchanging words for images, we drew our way in and out of psychically pertinent concepts both concrete and abstract. Even Thinking itself was subjected to our artist’s eye as we attempted to manoeuvre around yet another one of those impossibly vague-because-of-its-vastness questions: “What are we doing when we are thinking?” This question, which came to us courtesy of Hannah Arendt’s theorizing around the dialogic two-in-one in her The Life of the Mind (1978) and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s inspired discussion of Arendt in her Mind and the Body Politic (1989), provided much grist for the mill: our graphic representations of the thoughtful two-in-one (“me” and “myself” engaged in a passionate conversation in which “thinking and aliveness become one”) offering up GPS-like suggestions for circumnavigating the mental road block that had arisen the moment we tried to pin down just what thinking felt like and was; our positing of thinking as a potential cornerstone of any philosophy-based therapeutic or self-help program signalling a departure from the tree-lined streets of the city and our entry into the bigger picture of the forest.

For we had sallied forth and rallied our collective energies to embark on a project: that of testing out philosophy’s ability to give psychology a run for her money when it comes to alleviating our sorrows and feeling good about our Selves. True, those early Hellenistic philosophers had felt pretty confident about their youthful discipline's ability to furnish folks with "medicine for the soul" (Martha Nussbaum). But by the mid-19th century, philosophy was seen by many to have more or less run its course in this respect. Too much contemplation of how many angels might be squeezed onto a pinhead, not enough practical advice as to how to better oneself and improve one's prospects. Enter Scottish politician turned newspaper editor turned motivational speaker turned author, Samuel Smiles (1812-1904). Convinced that political reform had also run its course in terms of addressing the concerns of the masses, Smiles was an early advocate of the change-your-attitude-change-your-circumstances school of thought. A self-made man himself, Smiles would go on to self-publish the first self-help manual in 1859. Appropriately called, Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct, the book was a runaway best-seller and Smiles became an overnight sensation: our first self-help guru.

His timing, in true guru fashion, is fortuitous. We've come a long way since those ancient Pre-Socratics stared up at the big unknown skies and wondered what secrets the sun, the moon, and the stars might hold as regards the nature of human existence. Centuries of philosophical problem-solving have led us closer to home in our questioning, to the point that the experiencing human body is now the focus and our gaze is set firmly on what we cannot even see. Deeply concealed within that body is a psyche: a psyche so complex that only an expert trained in psycho-dynamics is equipped to guide us into its depths and help us fish out its secrets. The rich and well-connected have access to these kingfishers - to the early psychoanalysts who are spawned by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and who, in turn, develop their own methods for excavating the catacombs of the unconscious. But for the rest of the population there is Samuel Smiles: buy the book, and fix yourself. And call it what you will - fixing yourself, improving yourself, or (75 years and 50 million copies later) How to win friends and influence people (Dale Carnegie, 1936) - the fact is that self-help is soon big business. By the end of the 20th Century, it comprises books, seminars, audio and video products, and personal coaching, and it's a $2 billion a year industry in the US alone. By 2008, the scope of self-help has expanded (it now includes infomercials, holistic institutes and stress management programs) and the US figure has risen to $11 billion. 

Small wonder that critics like Micki McGee (Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life, 2007) see the self-help industry as "a new sort of enslavement" and the self that results of this literary cotton field as "endlessly belaboured." And small wonder that alarm bells were starting to ring for us as we took on McGee's contention that the 21st Century preoccupation with "psychologizing the personal" and re-inventing the self has acted as a "tool of social control" - serving to "sooth" political unrest. Was it any coincidence, we asked ourselves, that psychology began its steady rise to prominence around the same time that the first wave of Western feminists were taking to the streets and committing acts of sabotage in the name of suffrage? Was it any coincidence, we asked ourselves, that women fast became psychology's primary target - the gender most in need of fixing - if not the gender authoring the actual fix? Was it any coincidence, we asked ourselves, that in an era where women were finally breaking out of the private sphere and entering the public sphere on some semblance of equal footing, a sphere even more private than the home - that of the inner Self - was being eagerly proffered to them in every self-help book and psycho-therapeutic form imaginable? 

In engaging with these questions, we brought Freud's "dark continent" that is the female Self into dialogue with abolitionist and suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton's (1815-1902) insistence that  "every woman exercise governance over her own inviolable self" (Vivian Gornick, The Solitude of Self: Thinking about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 2005). We also grazed the surface of Existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir's (1908-1986) argument that women must cease to be Other and become the central actor in their own lives. This, in order to begin our dismantling of some of developmental psychology's more troubling assertions about the adolescent girl's journey towards forging a "coherent self": the "empty and lonely" waiting game that is part and parcel of her acquisition of an identity, for instance; the "rescue" that comes in the form of a man "by whose name she will be known, by whose status she will be defined" (Eric Erikson, 1968...That's right, 1968!). Next time we meet, we will be turning our philosophical gaze towards the matter of self-esteem. When I say that we've only just begun with our dismantling, I mean it!