18 July 2005

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - June 15 – Donald Carveth – Psychoanalysis

This week, we were treated to a rather bleak polemic on the Medium of Psychoanalysis and the Message of Pain, Suffering, Bleeding and Death. And, when you think about it, good ol’ Sigmund Freud wasn’t all sweetness and light.

Challenging McLuhan’s assertion that language is a medium, and hence, an extension of our self, Carveth suggested that language cannot be regarded as an extension of self, but rather a constitutive of self, that is, that which defines and shapes the self. All distinctions that enable one to recognize self from not-self (I am me; I am not my chair, desk or computer) are distinctions created by, and of, the mind. Hence, language – whether it be verbal of non-verbal – is the means whereby the mind creates the self as a distinct entity.

Realizing that Carveth is, admittedly, not a McLuhan scholar, he is, of course, left with the literal, early-McLuhan reading of the medium is the message, and the notion that medium is an extension, as separate from a constitutive. Regular readers will undoubtedly know that as Carveth described the relationship between language and the self, language is very definitely a medium (in the late-McLuhan, Laws of Media, sense), since it, in no uncertain terms, shapes us even as we shape it.

Psychoanalysis, according to Carveth, is a dialectic process that helps us discover the self as a distinct entity from all that we experience, including, as he puts it, the “pre-verbal self.” It is interesting to observe that this specific characterization – the non-integral, distinct separation of self from the world, and the fragmentation – are all characteristic effects of a hot medium. This should not be surprising, since the discipline of psychoanalysis was invented at the height of the dominance of the Gutenberg era (i.e. just before it began to head into reversal under electric conditions), characterized by industrialization and mechanization that exploded what was integral into fragmented, distinct bits. Carveth used allusions to the separation of the knower from the known, and words being used to distinguish among objects and an objectified self, somehow apart from our experience of self. Of course, to more modern and (I would prejudicially say, enlightened) thinkers, this conception is hugely problematic, and entirely characteristic of a chauvinistic, Eurocentric worldview. Little wonder, then, that Carveth’s remarks headed, from this point, towards oblivion and, well, obsolescence.

Carveth’s riff followed the path of Steiner, noting that we are “language animals,” and as such, able to create both the context of our life (the conceived world), as well as the context and conception of our own demise. Language allows us to transcend our animal nature to sociality, to become human. Through our language, we celebrate death “at the right time,” while death through “psychotic explosion” – violence and whatnot – is the reversal to animality.

Anyone with any knowledge of the social life of “animals” (not to mention their communicative abilities – viz. elephants, dolphins, primates, birds) would know that this line of reasoning is, quite simply, a crock of animal dung.

But Carveth persists: Psychoanalysis emphasizes the “wounds” (the gaps in our language-conceived self) from which emotion arises and flows, that Carveth likens to bleeding. The psychoanalytic process of dis-identification – a form of meditation that negates or sublimates the self – is necessary to understand these flows. He asks, can psychoanalysis and language be compatible? Psychoanalysis requires non-symbolic discourse (hence a variety of therapies have emerged) to break through our language-constructed self. What emerges – the “desymbolized” material – is converted to speech, and thence to self-realization, thereby reconstructing the self, now healed. Psychoanalysis must allow the wounds in the psyche to bleed and not to close, in order to permit the inevitable nihilism of psychosis to move from “death in life” to a life that learns to bear the “death-creating” functions of what is inevitably a slow process of assimilating negative emotions in the inexorable death march of our existence.

Psychoanalysis therefore teaches us how to live and how to die, and how to prepare for it, to bear our wounds (and our “crosses,” with many allusions to the relationship between the Judeo-Christian tradition of imposed and assumed guilt and the psychoanalytic process), and to ultimately accept suffering and death. To truly live, one must truly suffer.

No wonder psychoanalysts all see shrinks...


Anonymous said...

Dear Mark,
The thought that comes to me when I read your blog is that the lecture might have addressed parts of painful experience, like cuts in your skin which have healed with scabs or scars. Fortunately for you , you are not in touch with these wounds in your life nor have you chosen to abrade yourself in your analysis, which is also the reason maybe you are unable to experience the truth behind this understanding of pain and painfullness. Hope you never experience it too.
Best Wishes from India

Mark Federman said...

No, anonymous, you're quite wrong. I find psychoanalysis as described by Carveth quite problematic on its face, and somewhat nihilistic in its intent. There are better approaches, especially to a McLuhan-themed examination of the topic. One of the best is the new short documentary film, "Out of the Fishbowl," done by Len Choptiany, that looks at psychological problems and solutions as artefacts of the cultural ground informed by the dominant mode of communication.

For dealing with my own painful life experiences, these I have managed to make sense of through my research on Role*.

Anonymous said...

Better late than never to the discussion, I suppose. I was also at the lecture By Don Carveth at U.of T., and have studied with him at York. First, I confess that while I know far more about psychoanalysis than media studies, I find McLuhan much more interesting and inspiring.
I came away from the talk with
the sense that neither side (if there were sides) really grasped the other. I found the discussion around McLuhan 's delivering talks and conversations from a couch somewhat annoying in that I seriously doubt that there was any quality of "tribute" to Freud in the act. If one were to read into it, McLuhan would probably have been saying that the couch is where he has come from and that his work has rendered Freud's work obsolete. I, however, don't believe that either. I think Prof. Carveth's time would have been better served if he had spoken even more of the "signifier/signified" equation of the European school of psychoanalysis, speaking to "medium and message" of McLuhan.
Anyway, Marshall would have been a hell of a lot more fun at parties, I'm sure.