Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Psychology

Insomnia [Updated After Some Sleep...]

Updated to add, after more sleep and a chance to backtrack the history in a way I couldn’t stay awake to do at 4 a.m., I’m backing cautiously away from the sympathetic read of the piece as satire. Which is a pity, since replicating standard psychology experimental methods in a way that so successfully draws out the limitations of some common problematic research practices would have been just brilliant – much more brilliant than a “straight” read of the paper… (What can I say – my tendency to look for sarcasm has a wish-fulfilment element: I want more brilliant things in the world – and many things would in fact be more brilliant – if only they were written as satires…) The rebuttal gets it right nevertheless:

Do these results mean that psi can now be considered real, replicable, and reliable?

We think that the answer to this question is negative, and that the take home message of Bem’s research is in fact of a completely different nature. One of the discussants of the Utts review paper made the insightful remark that “Parapsychology is worth serious study. (…) if it is wrong [i.e., psi does not exist], it offers a truly alarming massive case study of how statistics can mislead and be misused.” (Diaconis, 1991, p. 386). And this, we suggest, is precisely what Bem’s research really shows. Instead of revising our beliefs regarding psi, Bem’s research should instead cause us to revise our beliefs on methodology: the field of psychology currently uses methodological and statistical strategies that are too weak, too malleable, and offer far too many opportunities for researchers to befuddle themselves and their peers.


I try to keep this off the blog, but, in my spare time – and sometimes in time that shouldn’t be so spared – I read sort of absurd quantities of research in the “hard” sciences. I’m particularly fond of medical research, but I’ll read more or less anything that I can manage to follow – it’s a sort of indiscriminate, unfocused, random consumption of indifferent scientific research. Often, this reading starts informally enough, trawling through the science sections of newspapers – a quick read usually generates at least one article in an average science section that just doesn’t feel right, and I backtrack from there to the original studies (some easier to find than others…). Sometimes the gratification is just working out what the news account got wrong; sometimes the gratification comes in the form of irritation at a badly designed study that was, unfortunately, pretty accurately reported in the press; sometimes the research will be genuinely interesting and well designed – and then I often end up tracking from the paper where I landed, to other material written on the field. This gives me scattered tidbits of information on all sorts of random stuff, without much expertise in anything in particular. But I enjoy it. It’s how I relax. Read more of this post

Wearing the Juice: A Case Study in Research Implosion

[Ed. 9 September: Now that events are unfolding a bit more slowly, and people have had a chance, for the most part, to learn about the basic facts, I've moved my on-the-fly updates to the bottom of the post, so that the original text is easier to find. I will try to update all the broken links next week.]

Original Post

A couple of people have sent me the link to this debacle of two researchers attempting to study what they call the “Cognitive Neuroscience of Fan Fiction” (further historical background here and here, collated links there, and information about the original research (which somehow doesn’t get around to mentioning that the research is designed – not for academic publication – but for a popular book whose working title is Rule 34: What Netporn Teaches Us About the Brain) in the researchers’ background information).

As someone looking on from outside the fan communities directly involved in this mess, the whole thing unfolds something like a live action version of the phenomenon Justin Kruger and David Dunning discuss in their “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” (1999, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 77, No. 6., p. 1121-1134).

Kruger and Dunning are interested in whether, below a certain level basic competence, it becomes very difficult for people to improve their skills – because they are, in fact, too incompetent to be able to tell the difference between competence and incompetence in the first place. They take as their point of departure the story of hapless bank robber McArthur Wheeler who – some of you will remember from my previous post on this article – robbed two banks in broad daylight without any disguise and, when arrested almost immediately based on the bank security footage, burst out: “But I wore the juice!” Mr. Wheeler was evidently under the impression that, by rubbing lemon juice on his face, he could conceal himself from security cameras (Kruger and Dunning 1999: 1122).

Assuming this mess is not some sort of elaborate research-themed performance art, or the result of a revenge-fuelled identity theft, researchers Ogi Ogas and partner Sai Chaitanya Gaddam are trying their best to demonstrate to the world that they are something like the academic research equivalent to Wheeler. They have blundered into an online community whose members write and read, among other things, erotically-themed fan fiction, and have presented community members with a poorly-designed questionnaire (now taken down, but for a while being modified on the fly as people lined up with complaints about the research design – participants have posted screenshots and a text version of the survey after its initial modifications – note that a number of the final option responses and some other warnings and qualifications seem to have been added in response to criticisms of the survey in its original form – the modifications are often palpably different in style from the original text).

Among many other problems, the questionnaire asks respondents to provide sensitive information about sexual habits, desires and fantasies, in a setting where the questionnaire could be accessed by minors, without – as far as I can tell – having vetted the research design with their university’s IRB (the researchers are currently being hounded across several websites with demands to answer the question of whether they did, in fact, submit the project for ethics review – while answering other questions, they have steadfastly ignored this one: quick suggestion that, if the researchers don’t mean to imply the answer is ‘no’, then they should probably address this question very explicitly, very soon). [Side note: there's a nice critical discussion of the limitations of IRB's that's been sparked by this whole mess: here.]

In the ongoing discussions now sprawled across a number of sites, the authors continue to dig this initial hole deeper by using terms regarded as offensive by members of the community (and, in one case, defending this because these are the terms that are standard in the sex industry – as Marx might say: !!!), by blithely demonstrating their own participation in widely-criticised assumptions about sexuality and presuppositions about gender, by demonstrating ignorance of basic facts about the community that could be gleaned from a quick skim of community sites, and by insisting on knocking back well-reasoned and absolutely on-target critiques by arguing that they are not doing “social research” and are not actually interested in the community anyway, other than as an example of a much more general phenomenon (these last, the researchers seem to believe, get them off the hook on ethical and basic research design requirements).

I’m not going to write my own critique of this mess: the community has already done this, eloquently, thoroughly – and, given the circumstances, with admirable patience. I am always warning my students when I teach research methods that something like this can happen – that this is why I’m so harsh on their research designs. Welcome to my new case study. I’m serious. I’m thinking of assigning parts of this trainwreck when I teach research methods next term.

I’m posting on this mainly because I’m wondering why the researchers have not apologised far more abjectly for having blundered into a community so ill-prepared – and possibly having ignored basic legal requirements and professional ethical standards governing their research. I am wondering if they are simply failing to register how devastating are the critiques being made of their work – perhaps because they are assuming these critiques have arisen defensively, due to strong affective attachments and loyalties within this particular community – or perhaps because they have “othered” this community so much that they aren’t sufficiently open to how badly they are being schooled here. Sai Gaddam’s university website suggests a potential vulnerability in this regard – let me quote from the source (apologies: I owe a poster in the original discussion a hat-tip for drawing attention to this, but unfortunately I’ve lost track of the comment – if you want to make yourself known, I’ll add a link):

My research interests have evolved over the years I have spent in the Ph.D program, but my derision for my subjects remains a constant. Well, not really, but this quote does make me smile.

The individual I chose as my principal subject for the experiments … was an old toothless man, with a thin face, whose features, without being absolutely ugly, approached ordinary triviality, and whose facial expression was in perfect agreement with his inoffensive character and his restricted intelligence.

The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression — Guillaume de Boulogne

So, for what it’s worth: I don’t belong to this community, but the criticisms being made of your ill-conceived research are excellent. Listen to them. You have tried wearing the juice. They’ve seen through it. It wasn’t the disguise you hoped it might be.


[Ed. 7 September: Still no time to update the broken links below, but wanted to point to the discussion at metafilter, for those interested. ETA: and Neuroanthropology weighs in! - Twice!]

[Ed. 4 September: If people aren't aware, Ben Goldacre from Bad Science has referenced SurveyFail on Twitter, linking here and also to Alison Macleod's fantastic overview at The Human Element. Rushing at the moment - apologies for not responding yet to comments.]

[Ed. 4 September: Another day, a few more broken links. Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam seem to have had their websites removed from Boston University - not surprising, given the report that they are not affiliated with the university for purposes of this research project. Gaddam's blog has also been made private. The links I have below off their names therefore no longer point anywhere. Again: my schedule's too hectic to fix this right now, so just noting the problem. Some limited information about Ogas is included in his Wikipedia page, as a backup link... If the old Boston University pages end up being included in any of the screencaps collections currently being collated online, I'll restore links to those once I have time.

For folks interested in legs, this post has been picked up at Josh Jasper's blog at Publisher's Weekly, as well as at Alison Macleod's the human element. Macleod's blog has a very clear overview of how the whole thing unfolded, as well, for folks new to this whole mess and trying to get a sense of what happened.

Broken link clean-ups still days in the future, I'm afraid...]

[Ed. 3 Sept: Folks, just a note that the researchers have taken down their site - after an amazingly offensive final blowup that, honestly, must be seen to be believed... This will break a lot of the links I've posted below. I'll try to clean these up later, but for the time being, there's are a number of good summaries of the whole incident - now christened SurveyFail - see especially Yonmei's post at, as well as a report of a response from the IRB at their university, which has disclaimed any affiliation with the project and asked the researchers not to use their uni emails or web addresses in conjunction with this activity. (My favorite part of the linked IRB discussion was the report that, when the IRB office was contacted directly: "Their exact words 'I had a feeling it would be about that.'") Links cleanup might have to wait a couple of days - schedule is awful at the moment...]

Transmutation vs. Management

In more than a rush today, but was struck by this passage from Keynes, on reasons for retaining private wealth:

There are valuable human activities which require the motive of money-making and the environment of private wealth-ownership for their full fruition. Moreover, dangerous human proclivities can be canalised into comparatively harmless channels by the existence of opportunities for money-making and private wealth, which, if they cannot be satisfied in this way, may find their outlet in cruelty, the reckless pursuit of personal power and authority, and other forms of self-aggrandisement. It is better that a man should tyrannise over his bank balance than over his fellow-citizens; and whilst the former is sometimes denounced as being but a means to the latter, sometimes at least it is an alternative. But it is not necessary for the stimulation of these activities and the satisfaction of these proclivities that the game should be played for such high stakes as at present. Much lower stakes will serve the purpose equally well, as soon as the players are accustomed to them. The task of transmuting human nature must not be confused with the task of managing it. Though in the ideal commonwealth men may have been taught or inspired or bred to take no interest in the stakes, it may still be wise and prudent statesmanship to allow the game to be played, subject to rules and limitations, so long as the average man, or even a significant section of the community, is in fact strongly addicted to the money-making passion.

No time for commentary…

Copping the End

I was having a conversation with a friend earlier today, when discussion turned to the ways in which anger and frustration could transmit themselves through individuals within an institutional context – discussing examples of situations in which someone high up in an institutional structure could direct anger downward to someone who would then re-direct it to their subordinates, and so on – until the transmitted anger either reaches someone who refuses to perpetuate the pattern or, as my friend suggested, is finally grounded in someone who lacks the ability to retransmit to anyone else…

As interesting as all this might be, I found myself far more captivated by the… sociological implications of the metaphor my friend used to describe the final person in such an institutional chain. It opened my eyes to some dimensions of rural Australia that, I’ll admit, I have never previously encountered:

My friend: “It’s like, you know, when you get in a line, and someone touches the electrified fence…”

Me: blank stare

My friend: “You know: when you get in a line, and you all hold hands, and then someone grabs the electrified fence – and all of you get shocked, but the person on the end – well they really cop it!”

Me: “What?!”

My friend (realising that this might not be a practice with which I have personal experience): “oh… maybe ’cause it’s a farm thing – you probably weren’t doing this in Chicago…”

Me: “So… you get together with friends, hold hands, and… shock yourselves on an electrified fence?”

My friend: “Yeah.”

Me: “Not much to do in your hometown?”

My friend: *looking sheepish* “Well, you know… we didn’t do it at the bull paddock or anything. I mean, you’d want it to be somewhere else…”

Me: “How did you get the person to agree to be on the end?!”

My friend: “Oh, you’d swap it ’round – you don’t always cop the end…”

So we have a group of friends, united around a practice that causes pain for all of them, because it doesn’t cause most of them as much pain as it does the poor bastard on the end – and because, even though they sometimes are the poor bastard on the end, most of the time, this role is filled by someone else… Honestly, this is such a perfect metaphor for so many things – I don’t know whether to laugh or cry…

Blogocalypse Watch

Dr Who and Rose contemplate the end of the earth.Posting from me may be a bit quiet for a few days because THE END IS NIGH! Well, actually, because I have to put reading packs together for my courses – but a lot of people apparently believe the end is nigh, which means that, while things are quiet around here, you can all go off and read the latest installments in the cross-blog discussion of why a lot of people believe such things.

Those coming late to this party (it is later than you think…) might want to check out the original pointer to the cross-blog discussion of apocalyptic ideals in contemporary social movements, as well as the update.

Since then, the following links have come to my attention:

First, the ever-thorough High Low & in between is now up to their fifth installment in the apocalyptic sublimity series – this one engaging quite thoroughly with K-Punk’s piece (see below), as well as Sinthome’s conference paper on left and right apocalyptic visions in popular culture – and asking Joseph Kugelmass for more information on the concept of “ideological thin slicing”.

K-Punk has written an excellent analysis of Children of Men.

Gary Sauer-Thompson over at Junk for Code suggests that Leunig might be making witty comments about us, and offers some fresh reflections on apocalyptic sentiments and the experience of the sublime.

Matthew Cheney over at The Mumpsimus likes Joseph Kugelmass’ intervention, but worries that linking the themes of poetry and apocalypticism will drive us back into the old argument about author engagement

And The Constructivist over at Mostly Harmless (love the name of this blog, by the way…) has given our roving apocalyptic voyeurism a formal name – The Blogocalypse – and, having initially proposed a Carnival of the Blogocalypse as a bit of a joke, is now beginning to think it might not be such a bad idea, after all.

Given all this collective effervesence, I’m beginning to think I’ll have to change my mind about Joseph Kugelmass’ protest against the use of apocalyptic narratives to create social bonds: look how many bloggers I’ve met while contemplating our impending doom!

[Note: image @2005 BBC]

Apocalypticism as Mechanical Solidarity

Who knew that there would be such interest in the apocalypse? ;-P

Asking some forbearance for yet another update on how the conversation on apocalypticism continues to percolate across even more blogs, I wanted to post a pointer to Joseph Kugelmass’ thoughtful and provocative reflections, which have been posted to The Valve (as well as to his own site, The Kugelmass Episodes, for those who prefer a cozier venue). Joe’s posts jump off from the earlier cross-blog discussion of how to interpret contemporary apocalypticism, but develop along lines suggested in Joe’s ongoing series of critical reflections on contemporary ethics and aethetics.

Joe’s most recent interventions have been posted in two parts:

“The Poem and the Apocalypse, Part One: Destructive Fantasies” (or, at KE)- which revisits the cross-blog discussion, offers its own analysis of types of apocalyptic fantasy, and draws particular attention to the phenomenon Joe calls “thin slicing” – the instrumental and selective mobilisation of symbolically charged evidence directed to ideological ends, and predicated on the assumption that social connection necessarily requires agreement and sameness; and

“The Poem and the Apocalypse, Part Two: Children of Men and Frank O’Hara’s Personism” (or, at KE) – which moves from an analysis of Cuaron’s Children of Men to an analysis of O’Hara’s Personism, in order to unfold a series of reflections on the potential for a vision of social connection that transcends instrumentalist “thin slicing”.

I’ll apologise to Joe for flattening the content considerably in this synopsis – Joe’s posts, and the subsequent discussion, are worth reading in full to get a proper feel for the points in contention.

Updated 30 January: Yet more apocalypse! High Low & in between has added a fourth installment to the apocalyptic sublimity series of posts on the apocalypticism discussion, with yet another good summary of the cross-blog discussion as well as fresh original observations, while Sinthome has posted the conference presentation inspired by the blog discussion at Larval Subjects.

And now, update-on-the-update, we have our very own carnival… er… sort of: the Unofficial Carnival of the Blogocalypse, assembled by The Constructivist at the group blog Mostly Harmless.

Hope in This World Is Not Optional

Via Fetch me my axe, an extraordinary discussion over at Taking Steps, in which little light discusses the impact of what can sometimes be the smallest acts of decency:

So the final game went something like this: in the stand of woods out back behind the football field, a little wooden platform had been installed about five feet up a pine tree. Everyone took turns climbing up to the platform, one at a time. The one on the platform would face the tree trunk. Ten students would line up in two lines, under the teacher’s direction, facing each other, underneath, their arms outstretched and interlacing. The student on the platform would fall backwards off the platform, be caught by the collective effort of the rest of the class, and be placed safely on the ground.

I was second-to-last to go. I was terrified. I think they knew that. But I decided to take the plunge and try to put faith–if not in my fellow human beings–in the system enforcing their behavior, since everyone else had gotten out okay. I closed my eyes as I fell, but not fast enough to miss seeing, in my peripheral vision, every one of those students, in unison, take a step backward and allow me to fall, some of them laughing.

Except one. One blur of movement: one girl I didn’t really know arresting her backward step and coming back, one pair of hands hitting my back in a futile effort just before I hit the ground, hard.

It was a small injury–some bruises and the wind knocked out of me–but I had a moment, staring at the sky through the treetops, to learn a lesson. There were two immediately available:

1. Given the chance, people will be bastards.

2. No matter how many people unite in cruelty, someone will always try to do the right thing. Even if it isn’t enough, it still matters.

As that one girl asked if I was okay, I decided that that first lesson was not going to make me a better person, and that the second was the one worth learning. That was one of the days I finally got around to joining the human race. It was one of the moments of kindness that taught me that there was something to hope for in this life, something worth sticking around for. It was an opportunity to decide if I would be identified by what was broken, or what was whole; by hate for those who had hurt me, or love for those who refused; by what other people had done to me, or what I believed people could do for each other.

In the discussion that follows, little light elaborates:

If that act of minimal, at-the-time-apparently-ineffectual decency, along with a couple of other tiny things–a “how are you” a year later from another relative stranger, a card from a concerned English teacher–hadn’t happened, nothing good I do in the world today and forever would have been possible. If it weren’t for a collection of tiny decencies amid all the hurt and anger arriving to show me another way was possible, it is extremely likely that there would be nothing here for you to read, because I would not have gotten to high school alive, and the only wild card would have been whether or not I’d done someone else harm in the going. I don’t have illusions about this; I am not a saint, and victimhood does not confer innocence.

You do not, at any moment, have any idea whether or not the two hands reaching out to hold someone else up–even when it looks hopeless or pointless–will be yours. You cannot know that a simple matter of eye contact or genuine concern or refusing to participate in pointless meanness–or the similarly tiny opposites of these things–will mean the difference between life and death for someone. I told the girl in this story, years later, how much her action had meant to me, and she didn’t even remember it.

Our daily, infinitesimal cruelties and compassions matter. If not to us, to someone. Everyone who ever benefits from my being in the world owes an unwitting debt to the people who brought me back from the edge, and in turn, and in turn, in an endless fractal of human connections.

There is always someone resisting wrong and trying to do the right thing. Sometimes they are not there for us–there were many times I could have wished for two hands at my back in support, and found none. Sometimes we have to do the impossible and forgive their absence. Sometimes those hands have to be us, even when it isn’t fair; it’s the only way it will get better. It’s a matter of risk, and of trust, often misplaced, but hope in this world is not optional–it is a matter of basic survival.

I was also struck by the post of the commenter Dead Inside, who asks:

We all have a wide range of experiences. How does that shape and form us?

Is our survival based on mere luck? Or is it some built-in predisposition to see hope where another might not ever see anything hopeful, even in a situation such as was described here. I know, for me personally, I wouldn’t have been comforted by that. I’m sure there were times in my life where someone cared and I just didn’t notice or it just wasn’t enough to overcome the waves and waves of despair and worse.

I’ve often found myself wondering at how much I owe, both to blind luck and to the often inexplicable kindness of strangers – reflecting on the pivotal impact of small and mundane acts, and wondering what it is that sometimes makes us receptive to those dimensions of our environment that reflect hope, rather than despair… The original post and subsequent discussion are quite powerful reflections on these issues – I’d suggest reading them as a whole.

Cliff Notes to the Apocalypse

I had been intending to write something pointing to the various follow-ups to the discussion on apocalyptic social movements that originally started, and has continued, as a kind of conversational flow across various blogs. I discovered this morning, though, that High Low & in between has assembled an extraordinary summary of the discussion – complete with links and annotations of the earlier rounds of the discussion, and a new response to k-punk’s latest post on the subject (which itself takes up points from the discussion between this blog and Larval Subjects). Just wanted to place a pointer to High Low & in between’s overview post here, as it can be difficult to follow a discussion like this, in which a cloud of blogs seems to coalesce around slightly different dimensions of a similar interest.

Updated 28 January: Since we seem to have incoming visitors from The Valve, I just wanted to point, as well, to further thoughts on this topic from Larval Subjects, comments on the original discussion at Smokewriting and philosophical conversations, as well as the conversation still simmering at I Cite. Happy to add other links, if people will make me aware of them.

Meanwhile, for those in a less pessimistic mood, Sinthome from Larval Subjects and I have also continued this discussion along a different fork, exploring potential overlaps between Adorno and Lacan, and continuing our long-term conversation on the project of critical theory. Sinthome’s latest contributions can be found here and here, while my latest is here.

Updated 29 January: Just wanted to post a few more links, first to a post above summarising Joseph Kugelmass’ Valve entries, and then direct links to those entries themselves.

Updated 30 January: Yet more apocalypse! High Low & in between has added a fourth installment to the apocalyptic sublimity series of posts on the apocalypticism discussion, with yet another good summary of the cross-blog discussion as well as fresh original observations, while Sinthome has posted the conference presentation inspired by the blog discussion at Larval Subjects.

And now, update-on-the-update, we have our very own carnival… er… sort of: the Unofficial Carnival of the Blogocalypse, assembled by The Constructivist at the group blog Mostly Harmless.

Sociology and Psychology

Earlier today, I was curious about some aspects of a discussion taking place at I Cite, which itself referred to discussions at K-Punk and Poetix, and which revolves loosely around questions of apocalypticism. Since I’m still easing myself into the thought-space of these blogs, I wasn’t confident that I was understanding the theoretical context for the discussion, and so I drew Sinthome’s attention to the discussion with a few questions, which then led to a very nice post over at Larval Subjects on how we might use a psychoanalytic framework to interpret apocalyptic fantasies manifest in various contexts. I wanted here to pick up a few threads from Sinthome’s post – hoping that it’s not too rude first to draw someone else into a discussion, and only then decide to jump in myself… Perhaps it will minimise my rudeness somewhat, that I intend to write this post at a slight tangent to the original discussion, and to focus, not so much on apocalypticism, as on the importance of psychological theory to the project of critical theory.

In my writings thus far – both on this blog, and in more formal contexts – I have tended to focus heavily on how critical theory can provide an historically immanent and self-reflexive account of the forms of subjectivity it wishes to criticise, as well as the forms of subjectivity expressed in its own critical ideals. I’ve adopted this emphasis because I find that many critical theoretic approaches – including some that would describe themselves as self-reflexive, immanent critiques – seem to struggle to conceptualise critical ideals in a thoroughly historical and immanent way. From my perspective, this failure places such approaches – often quite unintentionally – into a non-reflexive position that, from the standpoint of a more consistent historical theory, can be shown to mystify elements of our social context that are generative of critical ideals. While this criticism may sound somewhat abstract and scholastic, I believe it has some profound implications for critical theory’s ability to connect with social and intellectual movements “on the ground” – a stance that, admittedly, I am far from having grounded adequately in my writings thus far.

As I have focussed on these issues, however, I have remained aware that simply establishing the historicity or the social grounding of critical forms of subjectivity is only part of the task. Such a critical historical analysis can take us to a certain point: it can help us understand the forms of subjectivity – including critical forms of subjectivity – that are historically plausible at specific times and – crucially for political practice – it can help us understand the relationships that connect these forms of subjectivity in specific ways to elements of our social context that we experience and articulate as forms of “objectivity”. From here, though, the path to be followed by critical theory becomes much more complex, because it is from this point that we have to ask ourselves whether we intend just to understand the world, or also to change it.

This question, I should note, is less acute for theoretical approaches that believe that critique speaks with the voice of the future – that critical ideals are simply giving voice to the way in which history would trend in any event. For approaches that reject this position and believe that subjectivity matters – that desired political outcomes will not be achieved through some kind of automatic and “objective” movement of history – some kind of psychological theory is, I suspect, required to complete the project of critical theory. The resultant critical theory would thus deploy both sociological and psychological theory to understand the possible, likely or probable actions of subjects whose actions constitute, and are conditioned by, a particular field of historical potentials.

The most basic kind of psychological theory – a theory whose specifically psychological character is often not recognised as such – is the simple faith that bringing truth to light itself has a transformative power – that if you teach it, or reveal it, they will act. This psychological theory is in some respects quite pervasive – grounded in a (tacit or explicit) belief that wrong acts are the result of error, and the correction of error (or the achievement of self understanding, or similar ideal) will therefore result in correct action. An element of this theory probably underlies most visions of critique, even if most contemporary critical theories would qualify and limit their belief in the power of truth to various degrees.

A number of more explicit psychological theories have been developed to account for those cases in which “truth” has been brought to light – and yet the anticipated transformative effect has not taken place. These theories – of “ideology”, “false conciousness” and the like – are quite varied: at some point, I should go through them more systematically on the blog. For present purposes, since the topic of apocalyptic fantasy started me on this tangent, I will explore only one: Adorno’s proposal for how a critical psychology might complement a critical sociology in making sense of the appeal of social movements that seem oriented specifically to destruction.

Since Sinthome’s post provided the immediate spark for these reflections, I’ll briefly draw attention to some elements of that post to get us underway. Sinthome begins by citing examples of apocalyptic fantasies from a wide range of contexts, and then asks how we should understand this phenomenon. I’ll quote Sinthome’s analysis at some length:

…the psychoanalytic approach suggests that we ask how our desire is imbricated with these particular representations or scenarios and enjoins us to analyze how our thought collectively arrives at these visions to present rather than others. How is it that we are to account for the omnipresence of these scenarios in popular imagination… An omnipresence so great that it even filters down into the most intimate recesses of erotic fantasy as presented in the consulting room? In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud presents an interesting take on how we’re to understand anxiety dreams such as the death of a loved one. There Freud writes that,

Another group of dreams which may be described as typical are those containing the death of some loved relative – for instance, of a parent, of a brother or sister, or of a child. Two classes of such dreams must at once be distinguished: those in which the dreamer is unaffected by grief, so that on awakening he is astonished at his lack of feeling, and those in which the dreamer feels deeply pained by the death and may even weep bitterly in his sleep.

We need not consider dreams of the first of these classes, for they have no claim to be regarded as ‘typical’. If we analyse them, we find that they have some meaning other than their apparent one, and that they are intended to conceal some other wish. Such was the dream of the aunt who saw her sister’s only son lying in his coffin (p. 152). It did not mean that she wished her little nephew dead; as we have seen, it merely concealed a wish to see a particular person of whom she was fond and whom she had not met for a long time – a person whom she had once before met after a similarly long interval beside the coffin of another nephew. This wish, which was the true content of the dream, gave no occasion for grief, and no grief, therefore, was felt in the dream (SE 4, 248).

No doubt this woman experienced some guilt for her desire for this man and therefore preferred to dream her nephew dead as an alibi of seeing him once again, rather than directly facing her desire. Could not a similar phenomenon be at work in apocalyptic scenarios?… In short, Freud’s point is that we should look at horrifying manifest content such as this as enabling the fulfillment of some wish. My thesis here would be that whenever confronted with some horrifying scenario that troubles the analysand’s minds or dreams, the analyst should treat it like a material conditional or “if/then” statement, seeking to determine what repressed wish or desire might become possible for the analysand were the scenario to occur (e.g., being fired would allow the analysand to pursue his true desire, the loss of a limb would allow the analysand to finally escape her father’s desire for her to play violin, etc.).

Here, perhaps, would be the key to apocalyptic fantasies: They represent clothed or disguised utopian longings for a different order of social relations, such that this alternative order would only become possible were all of society to collapse.

It speaks to Sinthome’s gentleness and optimism that the inspiration for this analysis is derived from what Freud labels “atypical” examples of dreams of death. While quoting enough to alert the reader to the existence of another interpretive direction, Sinthome unfolds an interpretation solely from that category of dreams that Freud says “we need not consider”, and elides direct reference to those dreams Freud regarded as more “typical”, namely:

It is otherwise with those dreams in which the death of a beloved relative is imagined, and in which a painful affect is felt. These signify, as their content tells us, the wish that the person in question might die…

Sinthome thus expresses the hope that apocalyptic fantasies manifest a desire for something other than their explicit content – something more than the desire for destruction and death. I raise this point, not to hold up Freud’s text against Sinthome’s appropriation – for we have no obligation for interpretive fidelity to Freud’s work and, in any event, even Freud’s “typical” examples contain permutations that might be amenable to Sinthome’s appropriation (Freud suggests that “typical” dreams can manifest historical content, for example – ephemeral wishes once felt, but long since rejected, etc.) – but because I think it provides a good frame for understanding Adorno’s very different attempt to merge psychoanalytic theory with sociology in the service of critique. If Freud offers two interpretive paths, one of which Sinthome has followed in the hopes that apocalyptic fantasy might signify a nonmanifest content – a longing for transcendence – we can understand Adorno’s work as an attempt to reflect seriously on the second path – on the possibility that certain mass movements might genuinely desire to achieve what their fantasies express: destruction and death.

Adorno’s argument (if I can use this term for someone so committed to avoiding linear, developmental analytical forms) is complex – and not necessarily in ways that are productive for theoretical reflection by those not committed to Adorno’s own framework. For present purposes, I won’t attempt to outline Adorno’s interpretation in any comprehensive way, but will instead comment on just a few elements within a single text: Adorno’s “Sociology and Psychology”, published in the New Left Review in two parts, in Nov-Dec, 1967, and Jan-Feb 1968.

Adorno begins this text with a rejection of the concept of objective historical laws, and suggests – as I have suggested above – that this rejection implies the need to supplement a critical sociological theory with a critical psychology. Much of the article then revolves around two interrelated, aphoristically unfolded, arguments: first, a critique of other attempts to merge sociology and psychology, with particular focus on Talcott Parsons, but with frequent sideswipes at many other theoretical traditions; and second, an often scathing critique of Freud and of various psychoanalytic traditions, in the service of an attempt to appropriate Freudian categories in a more historicised and critical form. Adorno’s arguments are often brilliant and provocative, and I will try to revisit them in appropriate detail in another post. For present purposes, however, I want only to isolate out a couple of points that seem – to me, at least – to have potentially broader relevance for theoretical reflection on the psychological undercurrents of mass movements.

What I find particularly interesting and disturbing in this text is the very simple and, once stated, obvious question that motivates Adorno’s analysis: what might happen, psychologically, to individuals who possess critical sensibilities in circumstances in which those individuals are too frightened or overwhelmed to act?

Adorno unfolds an extraordinarily pessmistic analysis in response to this question, focussing on the strain placed on an ego whose reality testing abilities enable it to discover both the potential for transformation – and thus the non-necessity, the non-doxic character, of sacrifices imposed on the individual within this form of social life – and the isolation and impotence of the individual to bring such a transformation about. Adorno argues – and I won’t elaborate on his analysis here – that much of what Freud took to be innate psychological structure derives, instead, from the violence of socialisation into such a context, from the scars inflicted by the ego on itself when, confronted with its own powerlessness, it responds by repressing conscious awareness of potentials for transformation, and driving emancipatory impulses into the unconscious realm.

Adorno suggests that several consequences follow from this form of socialisation: a brittleness and attenuation of the ego, which renders it easier for the ego itself to be overwhelmed by infantile and irrational impulses; the presence of unusually strong barriers separating the unconscious from other dimensions of psychic life, which has the effect of “freezing” the unconscious in an infantile state, and undermining the ability to sublimate infantile desires; and – because on some level the awareness of transformative potentials persists – an unconscious reservoir of rage at the unnecessary sacrifices imposed by an unjust society. All of these things, Adorno suggests, encourage susceptibility to forms of mass mobilisation that are directed specifically against the realisation of potentials for transformation, and that tap into impulses to destroy others (particularly members of vulnerable minorities whose social exclusion can be misrecognised as unmerited freedom from hated social constraints) as well as desires for self-destruction.

Adorno’s account thus suggests that widespread desires for destruction or self-destruction might be “typical” – particularly in moments when individual powerlessness comes to be experienced as particularly acute. While fuelled in some sense by an experience of transformative potentials, these destructive desires are not, within Adorno’s framework, masks for utopian longing, but blind rage and pain at sacrifices unjustly imposed – a rage and pain that, as I’ve discussed here before, can sometimes try to “rationalise” its own sacrifices through the destructive imposition of equivalent sacrifices on others.

I’ll stop here (it’s getting very late on my end and, in any event, I’ve probably said as much as I can on Adorno without diving into the murky depths…) with just one final point of clarification to avert possible confusion: the structure of this post, ending as it does with Adorno’s account, may suggest that I approve of his interpretation. In reality, I’m actually quite critical of this dimension of Adorno’s work. Specifically (and I can’t fully develop this point here, as I haven’t explored the issue sufficiently above), Adorno uses this appropriation of psychoanalytic theory, among other things, to account for certain qualitative characteristics of forms of subjectivity that I think can be explained far more easily via sociological analysis. As well, there is a certain element to Adorno’s reworking of Freud that – for all its scathing criticisms – is a bit too literal and loyal, such that the analysis at its core likely requires Freud’s psychodynamic structures to be more “material” than I suspect they’re regarded even within most psychoanalytic traditions. Although I’ve outlined a few elements of Adorno’s analysis above in order to give a sense of what he is trying to do, I’m not particularly drawn to the actual contents of his psychological theory.

I am, however, drawn to his question – the question of whether the experience of living in a society that suggests the potential for its own transformation might, under certain historical circumstances, render likely the emergence of abstractly destructive sensibilities.

At the same time, I am cautious of elements in Sinthome’s post – of how quickly the interpretation jumps from the claim (which the Freud quotation already reveals as somewhat contentious) that manifest fantasies of destruction might have some kind of non-destructive latent content, to the even more contentious claim that the specific latent content might be utopian in character. (I want to be very careful here, as I’m aware that Sinthome was writing an off-the-cuff conversational piece – and with some provocation from me, at that – and I don’t want to criticise the post as though it had been intended to represent a fully developed theory.)

I am, however, drawn to way in which Sinthome’s approach captures the intersubjective character of what we generally experience and articulate as individual and subjective experience – avoiding Adorno’s reduction to a materialistically conceived notion of psychological “structures”, and opening the potential to analyse the ways in which our intersubjective interactions can enable us to rearticulate even the forms of trauma to which Adorno calls attention, while opening a way beyond the pessimism intrinsic to Adorno’s approach.

I’m unfortunately not in the position of offering a personal sense of how I would tackle these issues – a side effect of my focus on the sociological side of the equation. I do, though, think the underlying issue of the role of psychological theory within critical theory is an important one, which I should revisit with much greater regularity than I’ve done here thus far… For the moment, though, I’ll give the topic – and myself – a bit of a rest… ;-P

Updated to add: Sinthome has responded over at Larval Subjects, with some important qualifications to my analysis, which then leads me – as a novelty – to try to explain what I actually mean. ;-P I’m not sure I do a better job over there than I did here, but perhaps in all this circling around my point, I’ll eventually uncover what that point might be… ;-P

The First Taste of Freedom

I’ve just been reading a post over at A White Bear’s blog Is there no sin in it? titled “How Do You Measure Sexism?”, analysing, among other things, the process of internalisation of abuse and of gender stereotype. The post is complex, and worth a direct read – I won’t try to summarise it here. Two lines, though, particularly caught my emotions and my thoughts:

It’s not experiencing sexism that hurts. It’s the first taste of freedom from the pressures of sexism that hurts, because suddenly you realize you’ve allowed yourself to be betrayed.

For purposes of comment here, I hope that A White Bear won’t object if I extrapolate from her insight into experiences that extend beyond gender relations. What I want to explore is her notion that the psychological consequence of the first taste of freedom may actually be pain. This point resonates with me, and also reminds me of the dimensions of Adorno’s work I’ve always liked – particularly Adorno’s attempt to demonstrate that transformative political practice was never the inevitable result of the recognition of unfreedom, but that other consequences – including denial and even rage against the prospect of freedom itself – are also psychologically plausible.

Adorno’s work is concerned, among many other things, with understanding why central political expectations of early Marxist theory were never realised. Marxism had predicted a quasi-automatic drive to political emancipation, as the development of technology made possible the conquest of material nature, and as market crises increasingly pushed the development of centralised political institutions for the management of the economy. The Frankfurt School theorists quickly abandoned any faith in such an automatic historical process – the experience of Nazism, Stalinism and “state capitalism” provided, from their standpoint, a fully adequate historical refutation of the notion that centralised economic planning would inevitably be mobilised for political freedom.

This interpretation of historical developments, however, posed some challenges for the Frankfurt School’s early commitment to “critical theory”. Critical theory as a concept relies on the tension between what is possible, and what we actually do. The critical theorist speaks with the voice of this possibility, arguing that a greater range of freedom, of political choice, is possible than our current practice admits. It can be tempting, from this perspective, to treat awareness of the potential for specific kinds of freedom as an unmitigated good – as though this awareness will immediately and automatically result in transformative political practice. The Frankfurt School come to reject the notion that transformative practice results in any automatic way from the knowledge that specific kinds of freedoms are possible. Adorno, however, goes one step farther: he asks whether, under certain historical circumstances, a recognition that certain forms of unfreedom are unncessary, might actually fuel active political mobilisations against emancipatory potentials.

Adorno argues, in effect, that a deep psychological tension can result from the recognition that our actions have involved unnecessary sacrifices – that we can be scarred specifically by our recognition that potentials for greater freedom lie within reach. Adorno argues that this scarring has been constitutive of the “ego”, and offers a multi-faceted critique of Freudian psychoanalytic concepts of the ego in particular, arguing that much psychological theory confuses a psychology scarred by unnecessary sacrifice, with human nature. Adorno suggests that, in the right historical circumstances, this scarring would not prevent transformative political mobilisation. He also argues, however, that, as long as the social and psychological costs of mobilisation remain high, the tension between an awareness of potential freedom, and the reality of sacrifice, can provoke intense rage – rage expressed as a rigid denial of the potential for freedom, and rage directed into mass mobilisations, focussed particularly against those (often marginalised and socially disempowered) groups who seem to have escaped the rigid self-discipline and self-denial required to perpetuate existing forms of unfreedom.

For Adorno, interestingly, it is the intense power of state-mediated forms of capitalism that specifically overwhelms the delicate balancing act required for persons to attain the psychological resources to recognise and tolerate the pain of their recognition that they have engaged in unnecessary self-sacrifice, so that they can then engage in some kind of transformative political practice. His account thus reflects back on the Marxist critique of market capitalism with a sense of painful historical irony – that the institutional organisation of capitalism fought so hard by an earlier generation of Marxist critique, may have held more potential for emancipatory transformation than the institutional organisation of centrally planned production for which Marxists advocated.

At some point soon (it might have to wait for the end of the term), I’ll try to post a draft paper that explores these issues in more detail and provides a clearer grounding in Adorno’s writings.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.