Response to David’s talk (from Charlene Spretnak)

First of all, thank you, Taney, for inviting the visuals today! Greatly appreciated.


During David’s talk – always such a catalyst to seeing more! -- and our discussion afterward, one of the things that came to mind was an observation by the late great cultural historian Theodore Roszak, commenting on an essential premise in Freud’s thinking (the foundation of modern psychology, till the relational turn lately), which, oddly, Freud mentioned only in passing. These two paragraphs from Ted’s seminal/ovular essay “Where Psyche Meets Gaia” in the anthology Ecopsychology (1995), which founded a subfield, are cited on p. 77 in my The Resurgence of the Real. Note: Ted used italics at the beginning of the second paragraph, but they get dropped out in posting here. I’m going to type all this out as a labor of love, Thinglies; I have greatly enjoyed and learned from you all during Taney’s symposium. Bonus: you’ll get to enjoy Ted’s elegant prose style. Here ‘tis:


            The preecological science of Freud’s day that became embedded in modern psychological thought preferred hard edges, clear boundaries, and atomistic particularities. It was predicated on the astonishing assumption that the structure of the universe had simply fallen into place by accident in the course of eternity. Accordingly, the psychology of the early twentieth century based its image of sanity on that model. The normally functioning ego was an isolated atom of self-regarding consciousness that had no relational continuity with the physical world around it. As late as 1930, well after the Newtonian worldview had been significantly modified and the very concept of atomic matter had been radically revised, Freud, still a respected figure, could write in one of his most influential theoretical pieces: “Normally, there is nothing of which we are more certain than the feeling of our self, of our own ego. This ego appears as something autonomous and unitary, marked off distinctly from everything else. . . . One comes to learn a procedure by which, through a deliberate direction of one’s sensory activities and through suitable muscular action, one can differentiate between what is internal – what belongs to the ego – and what is external – what emanates from the outer world. In this way one takes the first step towards the introduction of the reality principle which is to dominate future development.” [from Civilization and Its Discontents, Norton, 1961, p. 14]


            One comes to learn a procedure. . . .” These are among the most fateful words that Freud ever wrote. Whatever else has changed in mainstream psychological thought, the role Freud assigned to psychotherapy, that of patrolling the “boundary lines between the ego and the external world,” remained unquestioned in the psychiatric mainstream until the last generation. Moreover, his conviction that the “external world” begins at the surface of the skin continues to pass as common sense in every major school of modern psychology. The “procedure” we teach children for seeing the world this way is the permissible repression of cosmic empathy, a psychic numbing we have labeled “normal.” Even schools of psychotherapy as divergent as humanistic psychology could only think of “self-actualization” as a breakthrough to nothing more than heightened personal awareness. As for the existential therapists, they were prepared to make alienation from the universe the very core of our authentic being.


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CS:  It seems to me that the posthumanist turn we’ve been exploring in this symposium necessarily requires that we critically revisit – in our own childhood and in modern socialization in general – that repressive “coming to learn a procedure” by which “we differentiate” our inner reality from the world out there. Our healing, corrective, and compassionate reexamination of that dominate frame of reference opens into a grand liberatory effort, a coming home to the world, from which countless possibilities arise in the arts and all areas.







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