17757 words
@simpolism

A Dialogue on Evangelion

A: So you finished watching Evangelion, yes?

I: Yes, I finished watching the entire TV series earlier this evening.

A: Ah, so we don't need to worry about revealing any spoilers, then. What did you think?

I: Honestly, I felt dissatisfied. Almost cheated. I feel like the show gave many hints to plot elements which were never resolved. A lot was never explained.

A: Oh? Like what?

I: Well, for example, the role of SEELE in the plot was never explained. What did they want, or why did they want to cause the third impact? And what exactly is Adam? What about Lilith? It just felt like, even though the show ended, there was a lot I didn't understand about the world.

A: And that's what left you dissatisfied? A lack of understanding about the show's world?

I: Yes.

A: Why?

I: I'm not sure. In a way, I felt cheated, like if the show's going to bring up all these plot elements, why wont it explain them? I was expecting them to be explained, but they never were.

A: Is it a show's responsibility to explain itself?

I: I think it is.

A: Why?

I: Otherwise it would be unsatisfying, like how I felt the ending of Evangelion was.

A: Is it the show's responsibility to satisfy you?

I: Well, I guess not. But why would I bother watching if I didn't expect to get some sort of satisfaction through the show?

A: That's a fair point, which might be worth addressing later. But let's keep going, assuming that it is indeed the responsibility of the show to satisfy its audience. What I want to ask is, why is it that that the show revealing more of its plot elements and world would satisfy you, as opposed to how it actually ended?

I: Well, I want to know! When you reveal something in the world, I read that as asking me to pay attention to it, so that I might later understand how it all fits together.

A: So that's what brings you satisfaction? Having all the elements of the world snap into place?

I: Yes. I want the plot and world to make sense to me by the end.

A: Why? Or, what exactly makes that feeling of "the show makes sense" so satisfying?

I: Well, it's a like a relief. I put in all this effort to watch a show, and to follow its plot and the inner logic of its world. So of course I would want it to fit together into a "whole" by the end. Otherwise I'm left with this feeling of "something missing", why did I even bother watching if it doesn't snap into place?

A: So, to be clear, what you mean when you say you want the show to "make sense", is that you want know an explanation for each of the events occurring in the world? So that it fits into a nice causal arc, leaving no threads hanging.

I: Yes. I want to know all about it, so that nothing is "missing".

A: But what's so satisfying about that?

I: I feel like when I pick up a show, I want to enter into its world, and undergo this process of discovery, where each of the show's elements appear and then can be explained later by reasons, like solving a puzzle. And then, once the show ends, I want to feel like the puzzle is solved, so that I can exit the show's world and feel like the events transpired as a coherent unity.

A: If I understand correctly, what you want is for the show to present you with some experience as an observer, such that, through knowledge gained from what the show presents to you, the show is demonstrated to abide by some logic you find legible? And Evangelion failed at that, because certain events in the show were not provided with logical explanations?

I: Yes.

A: I see. So, in other words, you want the show to relate to you as an observer in a particular way -- you want the God's Eye View. So that you can understand the ultimate reason for all events that transpire.

I: Well, I'm not sure I'd put it that way. But yes, that sounds accurate. It's like why I enjoy history and science, I want all the pieces that I can see to fit together. I don't want any lingering "why?"s.

A: Now we can return to an earlier point. Is a show obligated to provide this to you? That all the pieces of the universe fit together from the perspective of an observer?

I: Well, I guess it's not obligated to do that, but I don't understand why a show would do anything else. It's just not satisfying to me otherwise.

A: Perhaps the show was not made for you. What if it were made for someone else?

I: What do you mean? Who else could a show be made for if not its audience?

A: Well, what if the show were made for the benefit of its director? What could he get out of it?

I: That doesn't make sense. How could a director make a show for himself? Isn't he supposed to work for his audience?

A: To some extent, yes, as something needs to fund the show's development, and who else if not the viewing public? But all the same, we can still wonder what a director gets out of making a show. Perhaps they're aiming for their own satisfaction. And some directors are satisfied by pleasing their viewers, but for what other reason might they create a show?

I: I dunno. Maybe for some sort of personal reason?

A: I agree. Let's say Evangelion was made not to appease the viewers, but to entertain something personal about the director. What could this be?

I: Shinji seems like the most richly developed character in the show, so maybe the director was writing themselves as Shinji?

A: That makes the most sense to me as well. The director writing themselves as Shinji, trying to work through some of the problems they face in their life. And isn't it interesting how all these questions line up? Shinji asks himself "why do I pilot Eva? [is it so people like me?]" The director may well be asking himself "why do I create anime? [is it so my viewers like me?]" And even the viewer, after watching, asks himself "why do I watch anime? [is it so the show can satisfy me?]"

I: I guess that makes sense. But it still doesn't answer my question of what can a show do except try to satisfy me?

A: What does Evangelion do if not provoke these questions? You were dissatisfied by the form of the show, that it failed to follow your narrative expectations. What if that was precisely the point, to ask you to look at your own motivations for watching, just as Shinji looks at his own motivations for piloting?

I: What's the point in that? Seems dumb.

A: What's the point in asking questions? It seems to me that all understanding starts with a question, of why? And was discovering the answer to "why?" not exactly what makes a narrative arc satisfying to you? The only difference here is that the director of the show refuses to answer the particular "why?" question for you: he can solve for you the puzzle of "why do the show's elements exist in this particular arrangement?", but he can't tell you "why do you, the viewer watch anime?"

I: Ugh, that's so annoying. Seems like a lot of extra effort. I watch TV so I can relax after a long day, not to raise questions about myself requiring further thought.

A: Yes, I agree to an extent: it's a lot of extra effort, to deal with a piece of art that forces you to ask yourself questions, rather than containing the question and the answer within its form. And that's exactly why I think Evangelion is a far deeper work of art than most anime in existence: it's one of the few shows that the viewer must grapple with to understand, even after the show concludes itself. But the show does contain a hint to solving the puzzle. Specifically, how does Shinji answer his own "why?" question at the end of the show?

I: Weird question. I'm not used to seeing characters like that. I mean, the ending felt redundant, like it just repeated what we already knew about Shinji. How do you figure?

A: Right, well, that's another facet of Evangelion that makes it complex, is that you're forced to deal with the characters' own knowledge being different from your own. But what if you tried anyway, to understand what Shinji was thinking?

I: I guess I can try. It's like, Shinji asked himself a bunch of questions and tried to dig into things he thought he knew, but actually had no evidence for; he just assumed those things and then believed them. And those questions, in undermining his beliefs, opened up new avenues of understanding.

A: Yes! So can we not do the same approach? Why do you watch anime? You said earlier that it's supposed to be satisfying, or relaxing, and also that this satisfaction comes from the show fully explaining itself to you as the viewer. What is it about this full explanation that feels so satisfying? Or, what exactly is the unmet need within yourself that the shows you like meet?

I: If I were to own up to it, I'd call it "escapism". I want the show to feel like a different world of its own, where things make sense. And I guess that's because, to some extent, the rest of my life might not make sense.

A: What does it mean when you say that the rest of your life doesn't make sense?

I: Oh, it's just that, I deal with a lot of unexpected events at work, and the world seems like it's in such a crazy place right now, with all sorts of political and cultural events happening every day. It feels like a relief to enter into a world where things do make sense, and I think that's what I expect to receive from TV when I watch it.

A: I buy that. It's admirable you own up to it. I can understand why you would be upset that a show doesn't deliver such an experience.

I: Thanks. I guess we each get something different out of our experiences with art, eh? I can also see the other side now. Maybe some people do want to be challenged by what they watch, in a way that makes them reflect on their own lives. But I guess it's just not for me.

A: I'm glad we agree. You might enjoy Evangelion more at another point in your life. I recommend giving it another shot when you feel ready.

I: Thanks! I might do just that! Anyway I just got a page from work, I need to figure out why our website just went down.

A: Good luck! Talk to you later!

On Introspection

I.

Imagine you are tasked on a journey across the waters, for which you must build a boat. You are faced then with the decision: which sort of boat shall I build? Innumerable concerns appear before you: what designs should I trust, and how will I get my hands on them? How much will it cost, and how much effort will it take to construct? What length of journey might any particular vessel accomplish: do I need to cruise across a lake, or traverse a vast ocean? And what capacities does any particular design possess? Will I have the tools I need to navigate a storm?

All of these choices lead you in particular directions. Perhaps you use a simple and common boat given to you by your parents. Perhaps you select a high tech cruise ship, or a vintage galleon. Perhaps you're content with a mere raft, or desire a motorboat to feel the wind in your hair. Or perhaps a classic sailboat appeals most, with its tenure and technique. All this you must take into consideration.

But ultimately all boats must float. The form of a ship is defined by this constraint alone. And so too with the psyche, that dark mass lapping at our crystalline image of self. What boat will you use to navigate the vicissitudes of life? Upon which tools will you rely to guide and support your journey?

If we take Freud seriously--not Freud the shipbuilder, but Freud the physicist, the Darwinian--the life of an organism involves a never-ending increase of tension, derived from needs within the organism itself. It is not so much that "one must eat to live," but that hunger gnaws upon the soul and demands satisfaction. Yet between the insistence of hunger and the pleasure of eating lies a great gulf, where the hunger must be traversed, understood, transformed into action.

So too with "the emotions". Just as a child must learn to speak, to express the demand "I am hungry", we of our culture also teach them a few other basic terms--"I am sad", "I am angry", "I am happy"--that provide some basic knowledge with which to navigate their inner life. If the journey is easy and these terms are up to the task, then so be it. But for many, if not most, the complexity of life demands more support.

It is in the recognition of this need for support that a certain sort of language began to permeate the schools, the television shows, the counselor's rooms and the courtrooms. I am referring to the language of "mental illness", which elaborates upon the mind as described in a sort of sacred text, the DSM, whose principles are taken to be true and are used throughout the life of many men and within the institutions they engage with. One might find oneself "depressed", "anxious", "manic", terms whose expression demands a corresponding response from the other. Curiously, this approach limits itself to the language of pathology, the deviation. Where within the DSM might one find joy, contentment, satisfaction?

But I digress. The point is, within at least American culture, culture being our set of common symbols, there exists a sort of blueprint for navigating the mind. It is justified through all sorts of arbiters of truth: the school counselor, the scientists, the state. And it is with this strange sort of vessel that millions sail the waters of the psyche in all its terror and splendor.

II.

These ideas become most important when we turn against the ever-flowing stream of temporal experience, bracing ourselves against the oncoming waters, and attempt to travel upstream, backtracking so that we might reflect upon what has transpired. It is this act of "turning against the stream" that we might call "introspection", and its purpose is to provide us with knowledge that may prove of use throughout the rest of our voyage.

It is also in this act of introspection that we discover the strengths and the weaknesses of our chosen or inherited system. We might discover that our boat was not what we thought, that it lacks what we need to accomplish our journey. To put the situation more precisely, if the psyche begins as a relatively undifferentiated space, it is through symbols, language, that we begin to notice patterns and make distinctions regarding our mental status. These distinctions serve as the foundation of self-knowledge; they guide us to act against harm and maintain our direction, aiming at the satisfaction of our desire. And perhaps another system might serve us just as well, or better.

But the construction of a new vessel means breaking from the common wisdom, relying on distinctions and tools that may be viewed by others as illegitimate, false, or even illegal. And this is the price of learning: the dusty tome in the ancient bookstore may guide one better than the official sacred texts, but one runs the risk of becoming a heretic, impious before those who deign to judge the lives of men.

Despite this, some choose to cast their lot with psychoanalysis, with Kabbalah, with astrology and other esoteric systems, which provide a new space of differences and delimitations within which one can perform the introspective act. Even the ancient religious systems, such as that of the Greeks, abide by this logic. Although each system depends on a different set of supports--psychology on the observation of others, psychoanalysis on an individual genealogy, Kabbalah on the virtues of the angels, astrology on the powers of the planetary bodies, religion upon the whims of the Gods--each ultimately is of the same form, that of internal distinctions through which one might introspect and gain knowledge of the self. All else aside, any system must still ground itself in those Freudian, biological drives; a boat must float.

Whether these systems perform better or worse is for each particular individual to decide; I alone cannot convince you. And yet, some say self-knowledge is the ultimate goal of philosophy, and the knowledge you create always depends on your frame of reference. So if you find yourself trapped within the endless spiral of mental illness, identifying and pathologizing about pieces of yourself that deviate from the norm, then perhaps gaining a new perspective is the first step toward change.

On Introspection

I.

Imagine you are tasked on a journey across the waters, for which you must build a boat. You are faced then with the decision: which sort of boat shall I build? Innumerable concerns appear before you: what designs should I trust, and how will I get my hands on them? How much will it cost, and how much effort will it take to construct? What length of journey might any particular vessel accomplish: do I need to cruise across a lake, or traverse a vast ocean? And what capacities does any particular design possess? Will I have the tools I need to navigate a storm?

All of these choices lead you in particular directions. Perhaps you use a simple and common boat given to you by your parents. Perhaps you select a high tech cruise ship, or a vintage galleon. Perhaps you're content with a mere raft, or desire a motorboat to feel the wind in your hair. Or perhaps a classic sailboat appeals most, with its tenure and technique. All this you must take into consideration.

But ultimately all boats must float. The form of a ship is defined by this constraint alone. And so too with the psyche, that dark mass lapping at our crystalline image of self. What boat will you use to navigate the vicissitudes of life? Upon which tools will you rely to guide and support your journey?

If we take Freud seriously--not Freud the shipbuilder, but Freud the physicist, the Darwinian--the life of an organism involves a never-ending increase of tension, derived from needs within the organism itself. It is not so much that "one must eat to live," but that hunger gnaws upon the soul and demands satisfaction. Yet between the insistence of hunger and the pleasure of eating lies a great gulf, where the hunger must be traversed, understood, transformed into action.

So too with "the emotions". Just as a child must learn to speak, to express the demand "I am hungry", we of our culture also teach them a few other basic terms--"I am sad", "I am angry", "I am happy"--that provide some basic knowledge with which to navigate their inner life. If the journey is easy and these terms are up to the task, then so be it. But for many, if not most, the complexity of life demands more support.

It is in the recognition of this need for support that a certain sort of language began to permeate the schools, the television shows, the counselor's rooms and the courtrooms. I am referring to the language of "mental illness", which elaborates upon the mind as described in a sort of sacred text, the DSM, whose principles are taken to be true and are used throughout the life of many men and within the institutions they engage with. One might find oneself "depressed", "anxious", "manic", terms whose expression demands a corresponding response from the other. Curiously, this approach limits itself to the language of pathology, the deviation. Where within the DSM might one find joy, contentment, satisfaction?

But I digress. The point is, within at least American culture, culture being our set of common symbols, there exists a sort of blueprint for navigating the mind. It is justified through all sorts of arbiters of truth: the school counselor, the scientists, the state. And it is with this strange sort of vessel that millions sail the waters of the psyche in all its terror and splendor.

II.

These ideas become most important when we turn against the ever-flowing stream of temporal experience, bracing ourselves against the oncoming waters, and attempt to travel upstream, backtracking so that we might reflect upon what has transpired. It is this act of "turning against the stream" that we might call "introspection", and its purpose is to provide us with knowledge that may prove of use throughout the rest of our voyage.

It is also in this act of introspection that we discover the strengths and the weaknesses of our chosen or inherited system. We might discover that our boat was not what we thought, that it lacks what we need to accomplish our journey. To put the situation more precisely, if the psyche begins as a relatively undifferentiated space, it is through symbols, language, that we begin to notice patterns and make distinctions regarding our mental status. These distinctions serve as the foundation of self-knowledge; they guide us to act against harm and maintain our direction, aiming at the satisfaction of our desire. And perhaps another system might serve us just as well, or better.

But the construction of a new vessel means breaking from the common wisdom, relying on distinctions and tools that may be viewed by others as illegitimate, false, or even illegal. And this is the price of learning: the dusty tome in the ancient bookstore may guide one better than the official sacred texts, but one runs the risk of becoming a heretic, impious before those who deign to judge the lives of men.

Despite this, some choose to cast their lot with psychoanalysis, with Kabbalah, with astrology and other esoteric systems, which provide a new space of differences and delimitations within which one can perform the introspective act. Even the ancient religious systems, such as that of the Greeks, abide by this logic. Although each system depends on a different set of supports--psychology on the observation of others, psychoanalysis on an individual genealogy, Kabbalah on the virtues of the angels, astrology on the powers of the planetary bodies, religion upon the whims of the Gods--each ultimately is of the same form, that of internal distinctions through which one might introspect and gain knowledge of the self. All else aside, any system must still ground itself in those Freudian, biological drives; a boat must float.

Whether these systems perform better or worse is for each particular individual to decide; I alone cannot convince you. And yet, some say self-knowledge is the ultimate goal of philosophy, and the knowledge you create always depends on your frame of reference. So if you find yourself trapped within the endless spiral of mental illness, identifying and pathologizing about pieces of yourself that deviate from the norm, then perhaps gaining a new perspective is the first step toward change.

Notes on Inferiority

Inferiority is (a) a belief, about (b) a property of my self that (c) is relative to other people, and (d) found wanting or lacking in comparison.

(a): Belief implies the level of knowledge. Inferiority is something you know to be true. But just because it's knowledge doesn't mean it's conscious. You may disavow that knowledge and say "I am not inferior... [but still, I believe I am]". As with any belief, the trick isn't to "replace" it with a new belief, but to undermine its grounding, to unsettle your knowledge.

(b) Inferiority is always about Me. It's a belief (knowledge) about my self. But what is "knowledge of the self"? It seems like a set of patterns that can be used for predicting your future behavior. "I am an inferior basketball player" implies "if I play basketball against most people, I will lose". So in this sense, beliefs about the self are useful. They help you avoid bad situations and know when to dive into good ones, a little bit of future-predicting magic.

But two different things can happen: (1) your self-knowledge can become dated if no longer tested, and (2) your self-knowledge can become outright wrong as your self changes. (2) without (1) is easy to fix: you simply continue testing your self-knowledge against the reality, proving the belief wrong, and eventually your belief corrects itself. But (1) is hard. How do you know whether your belief accurately predicts if you don't have a chance to test it out? This is the challenge of "unsettling your knowledge". You can only do so by producing new knowledge that conflicts with the old knowledge and forces a reconciliation. So if you have a dated belief, you need to exercise it every so often, to see if it's still true.

There is a deeper problem, though. Sometimes even conflicting knowledge fails to upend a belief. Instead, it becomes rejected, or turned into an "example that proves the rule". In this case, there is usually a deeper reason why the belief is maintained rather than rejected. And the ultimate reason for this sort of mental phenomenon is always that, on some level, you enjoy (or "need", as one might also put it) the belief. Seems paradoxical at first, for something like "inferiority", but this happens if the fact that you believe yourself to be inferior also permits you some other "gain". Like if you believe you're an inferior basketball player, then you might choose to sit out, and no longer have to face the (pure emotional) threat of losing (or even the exertion of effort required to play). As you sit in the bleachers, you may think "wow, I'm so glad I didn't have to play that. It wouldn't have been fun." And so, you've gained something from the belief.

You've also done something potentially bad, though: created a negative feedback loop. Since improvement occurs through practice, and the belief lets you avoid practice, the belief "reinforces itself", becomes stronger as a direct result of actions taken on its behalf. Even if you choose to test the belief again, it will remain true: as a result of your own actions (the refusal to practice), you've made it so. The only way to avoid this trap is to look the "gain" in the eye, and say "no, even though it will hurt, I choose to play today." If "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results," then some things take a little bit of insanity to overcome.

(c): Inferiority is "a belief about the self relative to other people," hence inferiority is always context dependent. But this is a paradox: there is only one "you", but there's a multiplicity of groups available for comparison! This is where something strange shows up: it's not just a belief about yourself, but a belief about others. So who are these "others" you're comparing against? "Society"? No, there is always some concrete group of people to compare with, whether they're grade school friends or professionals on TV. This furnishes another path to overcoming "inferiority": what if you could, rather than unsettling the piece of belief about yourself, change who you're comparing against?

Hard to do. Feels degrading to take a step down like that. However, in certain situations that are less explicitly competitive, this could be the right move. Like in dating: perhaps you don't need to be as "hot" as you think you do to achieve the goal (getting a date), you're just comparing yourself to TV actors. And even in competitive games, if you keep getting demolished, sometimes it's worth stepping down to a more equal opponent until you can improve your abilities. But in both cases, the original group will remain "sticky", impossible to forget about, because that's where the "fantasy" that's "beneath" the belief originated (the fantasy of being superior, rather than inferior). It's almost as if the group itself is an inherent part of the overall belief, smuggled in through the conduit of imagination. What other beliefs might contain secret groups like this? Food for thought.

(d): The final step of feeling inferior is comparing yourself to those others. This is crucial; it's where the deepest nature of the belief shows itself. How? In the "basis for comparison", or "criterion". Consider feeling inferior at basketball. "I lose every game to them" might be one version. But what about "I lose every game to them, even though my ball handling is better, because they're so much better at free throws." So now here's a particular basis for comparison: their skill at free throws. The thought emerges "I wish I were as good as they were at free throws" and suddenly you feel inferior. Every feeling of inferiority is like this. Identifying what precisely you're comparing is the key that unlocks the mystery.

But this key can also be buried beneath easy access. It can be something you may not want to admit. Something embarrassing. And it can easily be misdirected: "my free throws are worse because I'm short." No, it's because you didn't practice them as much. And the object of the inferiority can escape one's expectations: maybe your feeling of inferiority about dating ("everyone gets more dates than I do") is rooted in proving yourself to your peers ("everyone" meaning "my friends" meaning "I want to measure up to my friends!"). Many such cases! This is why the incels want "sex". Not because they're imminently horny, but because that's their basis for comparison, that's the criterion of value, the coin they want to spend to prove themselves in comparison to other men.

Once you've connected the dots here, it's easier to see paths of action. If the comparison group make you feel inferior, you can choose to see different people, or you can reflect on activities where you're not at all inferior with those same people (i.e. select a new criterion), or reflect on the times when you actually felt supported by them, even despite your alleged "failure" (i.e. attempt to directly satisfy the underlying need). And if that group no longer even exists, like beliefs originating from peers in grade school, then you can ask yourself honestly "why do I still care about what these people from a decade ago think?" Usually there's a reason, something like "because if I wasn't still trying to prove myself to them, I would be doing pretty different stuff with the rest of my life"And if that's true, then maybe consider... doing that different stuff (of course it's not always so easy, because you still need a new desire to replace that old desire, of proving something to your past peers. But that "how do I obtain a new desire?" is an entirely separate question, to be answered somewhere else).

To sum it up: Inferiority is (a) a belief, or piece of knowledge, about (b) a property of your self, or a predictive pattern of experience, that (c) is relative to a specific group of others, embedded into the knowledge, and (d) found wanting or lacking in comparison, by some specific metric or characteristic that dominates the feeling, and that also represents the key to dismantling the entire complex.

MDMA & Instinct

How would I describe the experience of MDMA? First, my shoulders relax. Then, I feel a shift in my social perception, others no longer "worry" me in quite the same way. I feel as if I could say whatever I wanted to anyone, and their response wouldn't bother me at all. I find it easy to fall deeply into conversations with others, maintaining direct eye contact and enjoying the interaction, without worrying about any sort of rejection. If they do start to shy away, I could shrug and move on, no harm no foul. But if they're open, I could reveal my darkest secrets without feeling any fear. What is going on here?

I would like to interpret the effects of MDMA using a Freudian lens, specifically through his concept of instinct, as elaborated in "Instincts and their Vicissitudes" (1915). A brief summary: instincts are stimuli arising from within the organism itself, that exert a continuous pressure on the organism. We may describe them as "needs", and they press for satisfaction. The goal of nervous system is to "master" stimuli, including instincts, to reduce their pressure to the lowest possible level. "Pleasure" broadly corresponds with a decrease in the overall level of stimulus acting on the organism, and "unpleasure" with an increase. Freud describes the instinct as "on the frontier between the mental and the somatic... the psychical representative of the stimuli originating from within the organism and reaching the mind, as a measure of the demand made upon the mind for work in consequence of its connection with the body."

Freud further divides instincts into two groups: "ego" or "self-preservative" instincts, and "sexual" instincts. The sexual instincts, he asserts, aim at the attainment of "organ-pleasure", which may include but is not limited to genital stimulation. In this sense, the act of eating a favorite food could be considered to satisfy a sexual instinct. Freud seems less certain about the unifying factor behind the ego instincts, but Lacan would later attempt to resolve this, by arguing the ego provides an attempt to create an image of self as a coherent unity. And hence, the "self-preservative" or "ego" instincts would involve fending off those stimuli which threaten the ego's status as a "whole".

Finally, Freud describes the relationships between "love" and "hate" and the instincts. He argues that, originally, objects which are sources of pleasure are "incorporated into the ego" or loved, whereas the ego "hates, abhors, and pursues with intent to destroy all objects which are a source of unpleasurable feeling", out of its instinct toward self-preservation. Thus, Freud argues that "the true prototypes for the relation of hate are derived not from sexual life, but from the ego's struggle to preserve and maintain itself", whereas "love" derives originally from a connection to "organ-pleasure", i.e. the sexual needs. The result of this split is the Freud does not treat "love" and "hate" as antitheses, but rather as originating from separate psychic needs, and thus both can coexist in one's relation to the same object. This echoes Spinoza's idea of "vacillation" toward an object both loved and hated.

With all of this background, I can put forth my thesis: that the effect of the substance of MDMA is to produce a temporary state of complete satisfaction of the self-preservation instincts. The results of this could appear as follows:

  • One might find it easier to express the instincts relating to "organ-pleasure", as they are no longer felt as "blocked" by having an ambivalent relation to the object. This expresses itself as the characteristic "enjoyment of touch" many experience on MDMA.

  • One might find it difficult to feel "hate" on MDMA. This is because, as argued above, "hate" originates from the self-preservation instincts. However, one might certainly feel "indifference" while on MDMA, which is how the sexual instinct "feels" about that which is not pleasurable. This relates to the experience of "no longer fearing rejection": if one no longer feels a need to guard their ego from experiences which conflict from their unified image of themselves, a rejection can no longer act to destabilize that common desire of "I want to be liked". Instead, the "inner feeling" of being on MDMA is a perfect stability and unity of self that no other person can touch. Hence, love or indifference, but no hate. This also permits great potential for deepening existing relationships, as certain social barriers within the relationship, erected to avoid potential rejection, are now of no concern.

  • There is a "problem" some users have on MDMA involving sex: they claim they are unable to achieve orgasm or maintain their potency while under its influence. My guess in this case is that sex, for many, involves some sort of ambivalence about the object. As both Freud and Spinoza note, love and hate do not "counteract" within the same object, but instead are "additive", in that one feels more strongly, with more intensity overall, about the object they simultaneously love and hate than they would about an object simply loved or hated. Thus if someone requires a certain threshold of stimulus in order to maintain their sexual potency, perhaps they rely to some extent on the addition of "hate" for their partner to love. This seems to align with common metaphors of seeing a sexual object as "prey", and also of the purpose of flirting and the dance of courtship: like fussy toddlers, we both love our desired object for what it promises to give us, but we also hate it for evading our grasp. Hence the sense of ambivalence surrounding sex, and without the "boost in intensity" due to hate, I would expect many would be unable to sustain the level of tension needed for a satisfying sexual encounter.

    But this doesn't preclude sex entirely, as many also have stories of perfectly satisfying (or perhaps even more satisfying) sexual encounters on MDMA. For Freud, "love" exists on multiple levels: the oral level, of incorporating or devouring; the anal level, of "mastery" or annihilation; and the genital level, of union. These first two stages are fundamentally "ambivalent", in the sense that the distinction between "love" and "hate" is not yet clear in terms of the instinct's relation to its object. Regarding these stages, Freud claims that "in both cases, therefore, the admixed hate [which increases the intensity of desire] has as its source the self-preservative instincts" (which he also notes may persist after the love-relationship is broken off, leading one to "hate" their former partners). This supports my argument above that a full satisfaction or loss of pressure within the self-preservative instincts would possibly decrease one's "sexual potency". But interestingly, at the genital stage, the "love" and "hate" are no longer fused within the object, meaning a loss of self-preservative instincts would have no impact on sexual function.

As for a causal argument, "why?", I cannot say, besides there must be some relationship between serotonin and the self-preservation instinct. All I can do is draw this tentative connection between Freud's investigation and MDMA experiences I've either had first-hand or had related to me. More research is surely needed to demonstrate the correctness or falsity of my primarily speculative claims above.

Playing Games: Notes on Culture of Narcissism

The central causal argument of Cultural of Narcissism: lack of felt historical continuity leads to an abandonment of pro-social endeavors, leading to a "turning inward" toward the self, aka narcissism.

This is not necessarily wrong, but vague. What caused the lack of felt historical continuity? Why didn't something else replace it, and instead we ended up with "narcissism"? How can we treat "society" as a totality in this sense without missing a lot?

Using Lyotard's frame: we can think of "society" as a network through which language games are transmitted. Language games have functions for the individual playing them: creating, maintaining, and satisfying desires.

"Historical continuity" as Lasch uses it is really a set of language games. They are historical in the sense that they were inherited from prior generations, but also historical in the sense that they involve a historical fantasy as "part" of the game, i.e. the image of future generations and legacy as a motivating factor in one's present behaviors, or really a driving force behind present desire.

Language games require communication media, which shapes the "form" of society, and also rules, which determine "how to play". But a game only persists insofar as it is able to create, maintain, and satisfy desire.

So we can look at the "historical" language games in two directions: we can see the change in media, which takes place fully on a material level: economic and technological. Suburbanization was a material change in media (especially coupled with "mass media"), and games carried over from small towns and older urban regions cannot manifest desire in the same way. In this case, the social "fabric" became much "looser", fewer social interactions means fewer opportunities to transmit messages (although this has a different effect on teenagers), so the nature of the game must shift.

And further, employment culture itself represents a significant language game, and as the parameters of employment have changed due to economic constraints (in Lasch's time: the growth of MBA culture, but more recently startup and gig economy cultures), the nature of the employment game shifts and it becomes more or less satisfying, more or less able to effectively sustain a route for one's psychic energy (in these cases, almost unilaterally less able, as a result of the "de-socialization" of the workplace; you can view the movie Office Space as a Zombie version of the "social workplace", dying... but isn't it interesting that the job found by the main character once he quits his white collar gig is at a construction site, within a culture where the "social workplace" still lives on, to some extent? The story is ultimately reactionary rather than radical, in that sense: a "return to tradition" rather than a reinvention).

We can use a classic dichotomy here to orient ourselves a little: Player vs Environment (PvE) vs Player vs Player (PvP) games. The former type of game involves the agent acting on some "world" to satisfy a goal, whereas the latter type of game involves agents acting on other agents to satisfy a goal. Both have group and solo forms, but require different strategies and mindsets.

A common mistake here made by e.g. "trads" is to assume that "Environment" must be the result of some "nature" or "God". This is not true: PvE games simply mean that the "enemy" is in some way "other" from the player. So, a game played against an "institution" is just as PvE as a farming game (at least, until the final boss battle where you go head-to-head with the Evil Chairman, but even then, they are still "othered" in a sense because they are playing an entirely different game; there is no social bond, no shared language game going on between you and the Chairman. They might as well be an NPC to you, which in this context we can say means something closer to a "Non-Participating Character").

On the other hand, what characterizes a PvP game is that both sides are playing a common game, but against each other. Standard "sporting" games qualify, but (lately) so do games like college acceptance, job hiring, stock trading. So a PvP game is still a shared language game, and both sides still share in the same "society" as defined by game, but they also might take on an adversarial relationship, depending on the strategic constraints and their goals within the game. This leads to a different set of "values" than in a PvE game (more temptation to act Machiavellian, perhaps?), but both can still function to maintain "society".

If we take a "standard" viewpoint and consider the last 50 years as a major shift from PvE to PvP games, then we might see different "values" emerge across culture, as a result of the shifting nature of the social bond. In general, PvP games encourage self-orientation, because many are "paranoid" games: you don't know who your friends or enemies are, they can shift at any time. Whereas PvE games encourage a group-orientation, because the enemy is always some "other", and the other "human" players all share in the results of the achievement.

Within the process of playing a game, even before "winning" outright, there is a sense of "partial satisfaction" at the knowledge of your ability to win, of your position in the game, etc. And if this involves preparing oneself, then we hit a situation where one achieves a partial satisfaction merely at the image of themselves, before the actual "PvP gameplay" occurs. This relationship, of a desire that is satisfied by one's own image, is precisely how Freud defined "Narcissism" (an instinct or drive whose object is one's own body or self)[1]. Hence the emergence of a "Culture of Narcissism".

But we should not take this "shift from PvE to PvP" for granted: what happened? Following Lasch's Marxist frame, we could argue that novel resource constraints created competition for once scarce goods. But we have to go further. If we consider something like "college", really what happened was (1) a huge wave of students went to college as a result of the GI Bill, which (2) created a newly large demand within later young people to attend college, which then (3) made it more difficult to get jobs without a college degree, further raising the demand of college education. If we think about step (2) here, the main change that occurred was ideological, even though it had a source in material changes (the ideological change was not necessary as a result of the material changes: speaking counterfactually, a state and media program could plausibly have prevented the increase in desire even after the degrees were granted).

Now we're in a position to evoke the Zizek meme: "everything is just ideology". We want to avoid falling into another "conspiracy" trap, where we assume a "coordination" among institutions, when in fact what we actually have is a dynamic equilibrium as a result of many institutions all acting at the same time toward their own goals.

We can see the divide that ideology creates right within our own politics: certain factions want to maintain PvP games (while perhaps gesturing at a PvE game for ideological support), others want to create a new "other" in order to restart PvE games. Some PvP factions find "othering" harmful and hateful across a broad "humanistic" (in the sense of "shared nature") social bond (which it is, to the extent that the group being "othered" didn't elect to join that group), whereas some PvE factions find PvP exclusionary and harmful toward other players involved within the same "cultural" (in the sense of "shared symbolism") social bond. At least, this is how our contemporary political games position themselves within the shared framework of liberalism: both still invoke the dyad of individual vs. institution, exhorting the individual to act on behalf of a group goal.

How to respond to this? A new PvE game would be a huge cultural boon, and Marxism comes with one written into its DNA (everyone against the bourgeoisie). But it's important that the "other" in the PvE game be a target toward which we can legitimately justify opposition, ideally on material grounds. Racial and national ideologies therefore cannot apply, the arguments are too tenuous, implicate too many "neutral observers" as potential casualties. So the question becomes one of identifying institutions worth "othering", as opponents in a shared PvE game, and then getting other players to join (aka the "minigame" that Marxists are well aware of), by making sure the game creates and then satisfies desires.

Beyond that, perhaps the adversarial framing of liberalism itself, of a single player engaging in PvP or PvE, is worth questioning, the style of voluntary participation in endeavors and attending to one's own stat sheet. The "solution" may well be to ask players to join into the game of pursuing a common narrative together, in a way that transcends both PvP and PvE. Perhaps the ideal politics might be found in the JRPG.


Thanks to @unplaceableface for his invaluable contributions to this theory of gamer philosophy.

Freud's "Instincts and their Vicissitudes" (1915) Summary

Original PDF (for those interested)

"One Page" Outline

Freud's goal: to tentatively define some basic scientific concepts within the field of psychology.

  1. What is an instinct (Trieb)?

    • An instinct is a stimulus applied to the mind, that originates from within the organism itself.
    • The stimulus is called a "need" and getting rid of it is "satisfaction".
    • Has a pressure or force, an aim, an object, and an underlying source.
    • We assume that the goal of the organism is to remove the pressure imposed on it by stimuli.
  2. What kinds of Instincts are there and what transformations ("vicissitudes") can they undergo?

    • "Ego aka self-preservative" or "sexual", the latter aiming at "organ-pleasure".
    • Instincts can: reverse into their opposites, turn round upon the subject's self, and become repressed or sublimated.
    • Sadism-Masochism and Voyeurism-Exhibitionism (Scopophilia) are pairs of "reversals".
    • Love-Hate can also be considered a "reversal", but it is special.
  3. Love and the three mental polarities.

    • Our mental life is governed by polarities:
      • Subject (ego)---Object (external world) ("real" polarity)
      • Pleasure---Unpleasure ("economic" polarity)
      • Active---Passive ("biological" polarity).
    • The nature of these polarities develops over time, from infant to adult.
    • Love originally comes from sexual instincts, but Hate from self-preservative instincts. The two are not the same.
    • We can only see Love as a reversal of Hate once the the subject reaches a fully "adult" form of mental organization.

Full Summary

What is an instinct (Trieb)?

Basic Definitions

  • What is a stimulus and a reflex arc? A stimulus is some change in environment, coming "from the outside", and a reflex arc is the pattern where a stimulus is "discharged by action to the outside".
  • What is an instinct? A stimulus applied to the mind, with one caveat: it does not come from "the external world but from within the organism itself".
  • "A better term for an instinctual stimulus is a 'need'. What does away with a need is 'satisfaction'." Instinctual stimuli are "the signs of an internal world".
  • "The nervous system is an apparatus which has the function of getting rid of the stimuli that reach it... [it has] the task of mastering stimuli."
  • What is "the pleasure principle"? A system of regulation within the "mental apparatus" by which "unpleasurable feelings are connected with an increase and pleasurable feelings with a decrease of stimulus."

What are the parts of an instinct?

  • "Pressure": "its motor force... the measure of demand for work which it represents".
  • "Aim": always "satisfaction, which can only be obtained by removing the state of stimulation at the source of the instinct." This can happen in parts, with "intermediate aims" that may involve "partial satisfaction."
  • "Object": "the thing in regard to which or through which the instinct is able to achieve its aim."
  • "Source": "the [underlying] somatic [bodily] process which occurs in an organ or part of the body and whose stimulus is represented in mental life by an instinct." In terms of our mental life, we generally can't identify the source very easily; "we know [instincts] only by their aims."

What kinds of Instincts are there and what transformations ("vicissitudes") can they undergo?

Types of Instincts

  • Instincts are either ego aka self-preservative or sexual.
  • There are many sexual instincts but "the aim which each of them strives for is the attainment of 'organ-pleasure'."
  • Sexual instincts began as linked with the self-preservative instincts, but gradually became separated (think: the infant's pleasure of breastfeeding, which combines the two aims: self-preservation and organ-pleasure).
  • Sexual instincts are distinguished in that they are "able to change their objects readily". "They are capable of functions which are far removed from their original purposive actions--capable, that is, of 'sublimation'."

Instinct Transformations

  • Instincts can undergo:
    • "Reversal into its opposite."
    • "Turning round upon the subject's own self."
    • "Repression."
    • "Sublimation."
  • Sublimation and repression are discussed elsewhere, only "reversal" and "turning round upon the subject's own self" will be discussed here.
  • These transformations can be seen as "defenses", when their satisfaction is blocked by other "motive forces" (cf. neurosis).
  • Three examples of reversals that will be studied: Sadism-Masochism, Voyeurism-Exhibitionism, and Love-Hate.

Example: Sadism-Masochism

  • "Masochism is actually sadism turned round upon the subject's own ego, and... the masochist shares in the enjoyment of the assault upon himself."
  • "The essence of the process is thus the change of the object without changing the aim". The object changes from the other to the self, and the activity also changes from active to passive.
  • Analysis of the emergence of masochism, as a transformation from a "primary" sadism:

    (a) Sadism consists in the exercise of violence or power upon some other person as object.
    (b) This object is given up and replaced by the subject's self. With the turning round upon the self the change from an active to a passive instinctual aim is also effected.
    (c) An extraneous person is once more sought as object; this person, in consequence of the alteration which has taken place in the instinctual aim, has to take over the role of the subject [person who plays the active, agentic role in the relationship].

  • Case (b) is interesting because "the desire to torture has turned into self-torture and self-punishment, not into masochism. The active voice is changed, not into the passive, but into the reflexive, middle voice."

  • Side note on pain: the sadist does not initially aim to inflict pain, but the masochist enjoys pain because the sensation involved produces a "pleasurable condition". But, once the masochist begins to aim at experiencing pain, "the sadistic aim of causing pains can arise also, retrogressively; for while these pains are being inflicted on other people, they are enjoyed masochistically by the subject through his identification of himself with the suffering object. In both cases, of course, it is not the pain itself which is enjoyed, but the accompanying sexual excitation."

Example: Voyeurism-Exhibitionism (Scopophilia)

  • "Exhibitionism includes looking at [one's] own body... the exhibitionist shares in the enjoyment of [the sight of] his exposure."
  • Unlike sadism: "for the beginning of its activity the scopophilic instinct is auto-erotic: it has indeed an object, but that object is part of the subject's own body. It is only later that the instinct is led, by a process of comparison, to exchange this object for an analogous part of someone else's body."
  • Diagram of scopophilic instinct:

    (a) oneself looking at a       =     A sexual organ being looked
        sexual organ                     at by oneself
              |                                    |
    (b) oneself looking at an           (c) An object which is oneself
        extraneous object                   or part of oneself being looked
          (active scopophilia)              at by an _extraneous person_
                                             (exhibitionism)
    
  • Narcissism is when "sexual instincts find auto-erotic satisfaction", so this "beginning" stage, where the subject's own body satisfies its instinct, is considered "narcissistic."

  • "The active scopophilic instinct develops from this, by leaving narcissism behind. The passive scopophilic instinct, on the contrary, holds fast to the narcissistic object. Similarly, the transformation of sadism into masochism implies a return to the narcissistic object."

  • But, each "earlier stage" persists beneath the one that followed it, in a layered manner: each transformation does not "erase" the older form, it adds onto it. So the transformation into "passive" does not negate the older, "active" form, they can be enjoyed simultaneously.

Love and The Three Mental Polarities

What is Love?

  • "Loving admits not merely of one, but of three opposites. In addition to the antithesis ‘loving--hating’, there is the other one of ‘loving--being loved’; and, in addition to these, loving and hating taken together are the opposite of the condition of unconcern or indifference."
  • The "loving--being loved" axis has the same "transformation from activity to passivity" as in the other examples, and can similarly result in "loving oneself, which we regard as the characteristic feature of narcissism."
  • But this doesn't answer "what is love?" To answer this, we will "reflect that our mental life as a whole is governed by three polarities or antitheses:
    • Subject (ego)---Object (external world)
    • Pleasure---Unpleasure
    • Active---Passive

The Polarities or Antitheses and Development

  • In infants, the "ego-subject coincides with what is pleasurable and the external world with what is indifferent... In so far as the objects which are presented to [the infant] are sources of pleasure, it takes them into itself, 'introjects' them; and, on the other hand, it expels whatever within itself becomes a cause of unpleasure".
  • This furnishes for the infant a "pleasure-ego" in which "the external world is divided into a part that is pleasurable, which it has incorporated into itself, and a remaineder that is extraneous to it. It has separated off a part of its own self, which it projects into the external world and feels as hostile." So, the two polarities now coincide: "ego = pleasure---object = unpleasure". This state is called "primary narcissism."
  • This "primary narcissism" progresses to an "object-stage", where these polarities divide again, and "pleasure and unpleasure signify relations of the ego to the object."

    "If the object becomes a source of pleasurable feelings, a motor urge is set up which seeks to bring the object closer to the ego and to incorporate it into the ego. We then speak of the ‘attraction’ exercised by the pleasure-giving object, and say that we ‘love’ that object. Conversely, if the object is a source of unpleasurable feelings, there is an urge which endeavours to increase the distance between the object and the ego and to repeat in relation to the object the original attempt at flight from the external world with its emission of stimuli. We feel the ‘repulsion’ of the object, and hate it; this hate can afterwards be intensified to the point of an aggressive inclination against the object—an intention to destroy it."

On Love and Hate

  • A further note on "love" and its relation to the types of instincts:

    "We do not say of objects which serve the interests of self-preservation that we love them; we emphasize the fact that we need them, and perhaps express an additional, different kind of relation to them by using words that denote a much reduced degree of love—such as, for example, ‘being fond of’, ‘liking’ or ‘finding agreeable’. Thus the word ‘to love’ moves further and further into the sphere of the pure pleasure-relation of the ego to the object and finally becomes fixed to sexual objects in the narrower sense and to those which satisfy the needs of sublimated sexual instincts."

  • And on the relation between love and hate:

    "It is noteworthy that in the use of the word ‘hate’ no such intimate connection with sexual pleasure and the sexual function appears. The relation of unpleasure seems to be the sole decisive one. The ego hates, abhors and pursues with intent to destroy all objects which are a source of unpleasurable feeling for it, without taking into account whether they mean a frustration of sexual satisfaction or of the satisfaction of self-preservative needs. Indeed, it may be asserted that the true prototypes of the relation of hate are derived not from sexual life, but from the ego's struggle to preserve and maintain itself.

    "So we see that love and hate, which present themselves to us as complete opposites in their content, do not after all stand in any simple relation to each other. They did not arise from the cleavage of any originally common entity, but sprang from different sources, and had each its own development before the influence of the pleasure—unpleasure relation made them into opposites."

  • Putting it together:

    "Love is derived from the capacity of the ego to satisfy some of its instinctual impulses auto-erotically by obtaining organ-pleasure. It is originally narcissistic, then passes over on to objects, which have been incorporated into the extended ego, and expresses the motor efforts of the ego towards these objects as sources of pleasure. It becomes intimately linked with the activity of the later sexual instincts and, when these have been completely synthesized, coincides with the sexual impulsion as a whole. Preliminary stages of love emerge as provisional sexual aims while the sexual instincts are passing through their complicated development.

    As the first of these aims we recognize the phase of incorporating or devouring—a type of love which is consistent with abolishing the object's separate existence and which may therefore be described as ambivalent. At the higher stage of the pregenital sadistic-anal organization, the striving for the object appears in the form of an urge for mastery, to which injury or annihilation of the object is a matter of indifference. Love in this form and at this preliminary stage is hardly to be distinguished from hate in its attitude towards the object. Not until the genital organization is established does love become the opposite of hate."

Final Note

"We may sum up by saying that the essential feature in the vicissitudes undergone by instincts lies in the subjection of the instinctual impulses to the influences of the three great polarities that dominate mental life. Of these three polarities we might describe that of activity---passivity as the biological, that of ego---external world as the real, and finally that of pleasure---unpleasure as the economic polarity."

On Some Forms of Knowing

In this essay, I will discuss knowledge. We tend to speak of knowledge as a "body" that exists somewhere in the ether, but for the purposes of this essay, I'd like to restrict the subject of that knowledge to a single individual, who acts as the "knower"1. Knowledge is a broader topic than simple true or false statements, it "includes notions of 'know-how,' 'knowing how to live,' 'how to listen'"2. I intend to focus on symbolic knowledge, that we can create and access consciously through language, as to avoid the complications when discussing "unconscious knowledge".

The intent of this post is to distinguish between several forms of knowledge, based on their method of production and their context, highlighting their strengths, weaknesses, and uses. In particular, I'd like to comment on "scientific knowledge" and the role it plays in shaping our thought.

A Non-Exhaustive Taxonomy

When we think of knowledge as existing in a body, it begs the question of "what body is it, exactly, that contains this knowledge, and how is it transmitted?" All "bodies of knowledge" fundamentally exist as statements accepted as true within a group. An individual receives this knowledge through their position in a language game3, which regulates the mechanisms that depict this knowledge's form and content. Knowledge transmitted through a language game is received by a potential knower, "from without", who uses it as an interpretive lens "on top of" their experience. Thus, all bodies of knowledge, when received in this way, are "top-down": used to generate predictions about the world4, "above" the knower's immediate experience5.

In what follows, I would like to detail several forms of top-down knowledge, and their general role in our lives.

Top-Down Forms of Knowledge

(1) "Casual Intersubjective" knowledge is the most basic and flexible form of top-down knowledge. It relies on transmissions within casual and nebulous groups of individuals, lacking clear formal constraints or boundaries on admissible statements within its particular language game.

As an example, consider the "simple" form of a friend telling you "shorts are cool", and then you make a judgement about the context in which that statement's true. Perhaps that friend is a close friend, and you take it merely as their own expression of taste. But, more often, we associate our friends with specific social groups, in which case the statement can be interpreted as a metonymy: the friend speaking for the group, saying, "with us, shorts are cool". It may also be modified, if they say, "oh, THOSE shorts are SO cool ...", in which case you might interpret the sarcasm as a negation, gaining knowledge that "with us, or me, shorts are not cool".

Most take this form of knowledge seriously, but it's also of little use when discussing with a broader range of individuals. It relies on one's understanding of their particular group's situation, which isn't accessible to an outside observer. So, if one wants to make statements that anyone might consider true, one needs to rely on another, more restrictive, but also more accessible form of knowledge-production.

(2) Formal Institutional knowledge is an attempt to formalize, and thus provide broader accessibility to intersubjective knowledge. The "trick" is that institutional claims to knowledge have some strings attached. Each individual accepts the legitimacy of a particular set of institutions, and takes their utterences as true. For most institutions, this knowledge is contingent: we accept formal claims of government bureaucracies such as the FDA as true, but we also are well aware that the FDA makes its own rules, and that "the FDA does not consider this a food product" doesn't mean you can't eat it.

One particular institution, however, does claim to embody "the laws of nature" themselves. We call this institution Science. In the formal language game which constitutes science, any admissible "fact" needs to be both verifiable and falsifiable6. If we trust a scientific fact, this means accepting that it was subject to these criteria of verifiability and falsifiability, and thus can be "taken for granted" without one needing to reproduce it on their own. Of course, this has led to some problems7, but many still see scientific statements as the "most true" form of knowledge.

But certain truths that claim to be science are actually not scientific, in this strict sense of verifiable and falsifiable. Consider the field of "evolutionary" science: some of their claims rely on something "extra", a particular "story" about time beyond falsifiability8. I claim these represent an entirely separate form of knowledge, despite their claim to science. But what?

(3) Narrative knowledge is a form of knowledge that depends on the listener's relationship to a story9. The simplest form of narrative knowledge emerges from "folk tales", or "children's stories", which set forth a cultural path along which an individual can place themselves. Much cultural "how-to-live" knowledge depends on narratives. "Life imitates fiction"; we imitate the TV shows we watch, the novels we read, drawing knowledge from them about the "proper" ways to conduct ourselves and evaluate our achievements and goals.

"Scientific" narratives10 form a special cluster within narrative knowledge, as they snag science's implied claims to legitimacy, by pretending to exist within the language game of verifiability and falsifiability. In other words, every scientific narrative is really a story about nature, and not a formal utterence. This is an equivalent story-telling mode to "religious narratives" (which are "about nature," but grounded in "the supernatural" rather than in a fictitious claim of formal status), which is why we see accusations of "Scientism", the religion of science. Put differently, evolution is scientific if confined to a falsifiable scale, but religious if it attempts to explain something "human-sized"11, like "how evolution caused your depression."

I will note that just because a form of knowledge is narrative, does not mean that it is inherently "false" or "fake". It generally depends on real events: even fairy tales. Despite their supernatural settings, the human characters tend to have quite real and relatable experiences. The supernatural elements are merely a means to contextualize the human truths. It is this sense of "relating to my own life" that leads into the last form of knowledge I want to discuss.

Bottom-Up Forms of Knowledge

Not all knowledge "comes from without". Some knowledge arises as a result of our own particular sensory experiences. This knowledge may still guide us in a "top-down" sense once crystallized as truth, but it's of a different origin. The main distinction is that "bottom-up" knowledge emerges from experiences inherently detached from the social world, until communicated to others. What might this look like?

(4) Phenomenological knowledge is the form of knowledge that depends on "one's own relationship to their experience". As a simple example, you're on a walk and you see a rock. Your immediate sensory experience is of immersion; you are seeing, but you have no knowledge of what you're seeing. A moment later, you realize "I am looking at a rock"12. You have created phenomenological knowledge, by introducing a piece of your experience into the world of symbols. The dependency on the social world is partly removed: sure, you need to know the term "rock", but even if you didn't, you could call that heavy, gray thing a "thorg", and you'd still be able to recognize it and use it as an object for thought.

The main place where phenomenological knowledge lives is in those experiences which only the knower has access to, such as emotions. Others can witness one's face and words and claim "you are feeling angry", and they might be right, but ultimately the knowledge of one's own anger must arise from a witnessing and symbolizing of some experience, and one's feelings of anger are only partly accessible to others, mediated by bodily positions13.

A more clear example is when one's feeling a particular way, but "puts on the role" anyway, such as going to work despite feeling sad. Nobody around might recognize the sadness (although hopefully they recognize that "something is off"). It's up to the "feeler" to create that knowledge for themselves.

And so entire domains of phenomenology exist, which cannot "tell you what to believe" as with institutional knowledge, but instead guide readers through the steps to eventually arrive at the "best carving" of their own experience. This is how Heidegger discusses boredom: he sets up successive experiences which might be described as "boredom", and slowly reveals the inessential elements by relating them to other experiences, leaving behind only the core of the emotion14. Readers aren't supposed to take his word for it, they can try it themselves. And similarly, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit attempts to evoke the sense of dialectic within the reader as they read, so they can observe themselves grappling with the ideas expressed by the text while reading the text, and understand what it is he's describing.

A counterpoint might arise, at this point: "but we do not need this form of knowledge, we have Psychology, which is a science, and can tell us about our experiences in an verifiable, falsifiable way." My counterargument is that some experiences aren't subject to these constraints, or, put differently, some true facts aren't admissible as science. Put into practice, the more philosophical "self-knowledge" domains realize this fundamental inequity between "raw" experiences and received knowledge. Their solution is to teach subjective tools, so that an individual can access their experiential landscape and develop self-understanding, which creates the possibility of change. In comparison, the practice of psychology often looks like some other with imperfect knowledge trying to "fix" an individual for that individual's own sake. This is why psychology as a medical practice is seen as "coercive", because psychology tries to "fix you for you", against your own will. But perhaps we would rather have someone else fix us, than address the defenses we've set up against fixing ourselves.

A Brief Note on the Word "Science"

Prior to the emergence of science as an institution, i.e. as a specific, stable language game, phenomenological knowledge was itself known as "science". But as the body of scientific knowledge grew larger, especially once specialized tools such as the telescope and microscope entered into science, the idea that a single unaided knower could verify scientific claims through their own experience became unreasonable. Thus began the split between scientific claims "taken on faith", but "phenomenological to someone" (as I use the term in this essay), vs. scientific claims which one can observe with their own eyes15. However, the heritage of popular phenomenological science lives on, mostly in the guise of erowid.org trip reports.

Some Applications

At a certain point a few years ago, I found myself involved in a particular set of communities, which avowed various beliefs about race, IQ, etc. The scientific results seemed sound, but something still felt "off" about what they were saying. I kept trying to figure out what it was that made me feel "off", and it wasn't until I began thinking in terms of "forms of knowledge" that I realized what it was.

Consider the notion of, say, "dopamine". I might have some experience, a tingle of pleasure at listening to a certain song. The first leap of knowledge is phenomenological, "I'm feeling a tingle of pleasure"! But what happens next is important: I find myself asking "why?". This question produces the next leap of knowledge, away from phenomenology and into institutional knowledge: "because my brain released some dopamine which caused me to feel pleasure." But, now I've made an extra leap of faith, and moved from depending on my own experience to depending on someone else's research. I've essentially imposed some new knowledge, originating "from without", "on top of" my direct experience, thus removing myself from the immediate world and placing myself "into a discourse".

I could imagine taking a different leap: at that crucial moment of "why?" I could proclaim ignorance: "who knows?" and ignore the question. But that would leave me with some doubt, the question would nag at me. So I could instead answer "because the song is beautiful, in some way." Now, rather than shifting my concern into the realm of science, where I might want to go read neuroscience papers and try to understand myself through the "universal mind of Man", my concern remains subjective, "what did I find beautiful about this song? Where else can I find beauty in the world?"

Institutional knowledge is often useful, and many domains of science have produced rich insights. But the flip side, especially when dealing with issues like "society" and "the world", is falling into "doomscrolling", consuming news claiming to represent Science and opening up new wells of concern, which often have very little to do with your day-to-day perceptions. It's as if the news media generates a world for you much larger than the one in which you live, and then screws it up, so you keep worrying and reading more news and feel consumed by a desire to Take Action somehow in that much larger world. And so now, our sense of "ethics" has become something like "donating money" or "supporting federal politics", which depends on a particular narrative, which competes with the narrative that the most "Good" can be done within our immediate world of perceptions and people.

This "narrative stance" of taking "a universal view" was present before the Internet, though, when it was known as the "Archimedean point", the imagined point from which one can view the entirety of the world in a single frame16. A major sort of ethical narrative that proceeds from the Archimedean framing is to pick a privileged idea as an "ultimate measure", such as "suffering" or "pleasure", and then use scientific knowledge to "optimize" this measure across the entirety of the world (often generalized to a plea for donations). What this stance misses is that, in assuming a hypothetical "gods-eye" view, the actor lacks any phenomenological knowledge about their experiences. All knowledge in this ethics is mediate, coming from someone or somewhere else; it lacks any direct knowledge that comes from seeing one's actions help someone before them. In other words, one must take the narrative on faith.

If one can sensitize themselves to the difference between immediate and mediate knowledge, the distinction between what one reads online and what one experiences immanently, without the veil of a Weltanschauung17 or ideology to problematize its banality, if one can do this, they might realize the absolute strangeness of these mediate forms of knowledge in terms of how they dictate our lives. And yet, the grass grows without knowing its family is "Poaceae", so too much of one's day-to-day life remains rather unaffected by whatever one hears on the news.

Critique

The entire supposition of a "phenomenological knowledge" rests on a set of assumptions about our relation to the world. One could argue that phenomenological knowledge itself is grounded in a form of narrative, and I would counter that nobody needs to introduce you into the "technique" of phenomenology, you've been doing it already, since you were a child. The narrative here is at a meta-level: making one conscious of the differences within their knowledge.

Surely these differences in knowledge can be rejected as arbitrary, as a consequence of a "false" dualism between mind and the world, mind and society, etc. But I argue that there's a particular psychological state which leads one to create this difference, that of "hysteria". According to Freud, a "hysterical" psychic state occurs when one is confronted by a split between two parts of their own psyche18, often exposing the question of "who am I really?" And it's at the behest of this question that one might realize there exist fundamental differences between forms of top-down knowledge, and that phenomenology may be a useful tool for determining what's "real" about oneself. But I can't prove it, you'll have to experience it yourself.

Freud himself understood it intuitively; he was a famous hypochondriac, who'd get stomachaches every Sunday when he had to visit his mother19. Hypochondria in particular can be seen a hysterical state, where one's psyche is split between one's "normal" psychic state, and a paranoid state induced through one's medical knowledge, focused on discovering an aetiology, or causal diagnosis. So, one falls into the mental realm of medicine and "discovers the cause" through Reason, often a very severe condition, when in fact the cause was a migraine headache and not brain damage. This phenomenon is so well-known among medical students that it's colloquially called "med student's disease".

My point in discussing hysteria is that one does not need to abandon a physicalist viewpoint and assume some sort of ontological dualism to see that phenomenological techniques have value. If one can observe their own moments of hysteria, their own "splits in the psyche", one can realize the extent to which "ideas from without" dictate how one judges their own lives and experiences. Ultimately the point of the phenomenological method is to produce a form of freedom, in which the "naive knower" becomes aware of all the different places from which they produce knowledge, and can select the appropriate form for the task at hand.

Although I focused my criticism on institutional knowledge, particularly within science, I only do this as a corrective to what I see as an excess of faith in received knowledge, to the detriment of the individual. Hopefully I made it clear that my intent in this essay was to lead the reader in this direction, through drawing distinctions between these forms of knowledge--casual intersubjective, formal institutional, narrative, and phenomenological--and revealing some lines of tension that they produce in practice.

Many thanks to my proofreaders for humoring me, @gundwyn, @suspendedreason, @erin_nerung, and @Childermass4.


  1. We could imagine a different "knower" than an individual, for example some sort of Hegelian "spirit" of a discourse, but this would cause confusion within the context of this piece, for little benefit. 

  2. Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition, p. 18. 

  3. For a brief exposition, see ibid. pp. 9-11. 

  4. I draw the terms "top-down" and "bottom-up" from the contemporary work of neuropsychologist Karl Friston on "predictive processing," although the concepts themselves precede his work. For an overview and an interesting application of Friston's work to the serotonin system, see: Carhart-Harris, R. L. and Friston, K. J. "REBUS and the Anarchic Brain: Toward a Unified Model of the Brain Action of Psychedelics" (2019). doi:10.1124/pr.118.017160

  5. Hence when Hegel calls the "realm of laws" that govern nature and constitute "Reason" the "supersensible world" (Phenomenology of Spirit §§ 144-165), we might imagine these laws as imposing interpretations on us, from "above", from the top-down. 

  6. This originally read "observable and reproducible", but I chose to instead use Lyotard's original definition of the scientific "research" game. Original definition as follows, from Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition, p. 24: "The first [rule]: the referent is that which is susceptible to proof and can be used as evidence in a debate. Not: I can prove something because reality is the way I say it is. But: as long as I can produce proof, it is permissible to think that reality is the way I say it is. The second rule is metaphysical; the same referent cannot supply a plurality of contradictory or inconsistent proofs. Or stated differently: 'God' is not deceptive. These two rules underlie what nineteenth-century science calls verification and twentieth-century science, falsification." 

  7. Think "replication crisis", but perhaps we should take a moment to consider whether the "replication crisis" is a mere methodology error, or a more fundamental issue with the entire affected domains. 

  8. Evolutionary knowledge is, however, verifiable, by Lyotard's definition as "that for which I can produce proof." In fact, the entire body of "evolutionary science" rests on its claim to verifiability, despite contextual problems with falsifiability. 

  9. In terms of language games, narrative knowledge is quite loose. Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition, p. 20: "The narrative form, unlike the developed forms of the discourse of knowledge, lends itself to a great variety of language games. Denotative statements concerning, for example, the state of the sky and the flora and fauna easily slip in; so do deontic statements prescribing what should be done with respect to these same referents, or with respect to kinship, the difference between the sexes, children, neighbors, foreigners, etc. Interrogative statements are implied, for example, in episodes involving challenges (respond to a question, choose one from a number of things); evaluative statements also enter in, etc." 

  10. I would like to be clear that I'm referring to "naive" or "pop science" accounts of scientific positions. Scientific publications themselves tend to avoid grand narratives, but their conclusions are often taken and extended into unscientific shapes in communications with the mass public. 

  11. For a discussion of "evolutionary-size" vs. "human-size" events and their respective falsifiability or lack of, see: Williams, M. B. (1973). Falsifiable Predictions of Evolutionary Theory. Philosophy of Science, 40(4), 518-537. doi:10.1086/288562

  12. cf. Hegel's "dialectic of sense-certainty", Phenomenology of Spirit, §§ 90-110. 

  13. Some might argue that, no, there's no "internal experience" apart from bodily position, and I'm sympathetic, but it also misses the fact that each individual has an internal symbolic world, which means that there's always a missing link, between one's perception of another's anger and its cause. 

  14. In The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, Heidegger leads from the form of boredom one experiences at a train station, to the boredom of going to a party and later realizing that one was bored the whole time, and finally to a profound, existential boredom as the "fundamental attunement of Man", which runs quite close to the Buddhist notion of "dukkha". 

  15. cf. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, pp. 257-275. 

  16. For a much richer discussion of the emergence and impact of the Archimedean point, see ibid. 

  17. cf. https://twitter.com/KBULTRA0/status/1288202553147232256 

  18. For details, see Freud & Breuer's theoretical discussions in Studies on Hysteria

  19. See https://www.pbs.org/youngdrfreud/pages/family_mother.htm: "[Freud] saw his mother weekly for Sunday lunch, but he had stomach aches every time. ... [he] was continually worried about his poor health, feared that he would die before his mother." 

"The Unconscious is Structured like a Language"

Thanks to @4Q248 for proof-reading this post and providing clarifying suggestions.

Lacan gives a formulation, "the unconscious structured like a language" (Seminar XX, p. 21), which has always felt mysterious to me. Known as the foundational text of "structuralism", Saussure's "Course on General Linguistics" has helped clarify this formulation by providing Lacan's working definition of a language.

Before I approach Saussure's definition, I want to set the boundaries of this post. I'm interested in interpreting Lacan's analogical claim that "the unconscious is structured like a language", and I want to bracket the question of "in what ways is the unconscious constituted by or through language?" Classic psychoanalysis only has access to the speech of the analysand, meaning that much interpretation within analysis goes on through the medium of language. But I do not want to attempt to define the essence of the unconscious as such; I will attempt to limit this discussion to the ways in which Saussure's definition of language functions as a metaphor or structural analogy for the unconscious.

Saussure believed that any single language has the following properties:

  1. A language is a cloud of "signs", which are pairings between sound-images (signifiers) and concepts (signifieds). Saussure believed the primary space of language was speaking, with writing as a secondary but highly significant effect that develops from speaking. Here is Saussure's diagram of the linguistic sign (i.e. the entire oval containing the signifier and signified): the linguistic sign

  2. A language is individualized within each person (we each have our vocabularies), but exists within a larger "community of speakers" which informally (or formally, in some cases) determines the proper "value" of each sign.

  3. A language must be analyzed along both "synchronic" and "diachronic" lines, each analysis to be performed separately.

  4. "Synchronic" linguistics interprets the "state" of a language in the present, in the sense of grammar, accepted word usage, relationships between signs, etc. It is concerned with language as it exists and is used within a body of individuals right now. This is the "horizontal" axis of interpretation.1

  5. "Diachronic" linguistics concerns the evolution of language states over time, e.g. etymology, as it evolves and morphs in a historical sense. This is the "vertical" axis of interpretation.

I will thus attempt to unwrap this metaphor, to draw parallels that shed light on Lacan's formulation of the unconscious:

  1. The unconscious is a cloud of "signs", pairings between signifiers and signifieds2.

  2. The unconscious is individualized within each person ("my" unconscious), but exists as a result of a larger communal unconscious (if viewed as a topology, its locus is the "big Other", the reification of a communal unconscious---contrast this with Marx). This move ties together the Freudian ideas of a "personal unconscious" with Jungian and later ideas of a "collective unconscious".

  3. The unconscious must be interpreted along both "synchronic" and "diachronic" lines, each analysis to be performed separately.

  4. A "synchronic" state of the unconscious refers to its existence in the present moment. A synchronic analysis must proceed by understanding the present contents of the unconscious, as they are presented to the analyst. This means listening and constructing an effective "mapping" of the grammar of the analysand's present set of affective value relations, as it flows linearly (transmitted via spoken sentences) and associatively (through "free" relationships between signs). The nature of analysis admits both of these forms simultaneously: the analysand cannot help but speak in a linear fashion, but the "free associative" nature of their discourse allows for the interpretation of linkages between related or associated ideas. The psychoanalytic idea of "transference" (interpreting how the analysand thinks and feels about the analyst and how the analyst responds and feels in relation to that) lives within this domain of synchronic analysis.

    Synchronic analysis may also concern itself with the present methods used by the analysand to satisfy their drives, which are tied to their personality and which are "coping" behaviors (in a non-judgmental sense), that can be substituted for other behaviors as a result of reflection. Lacan takes this deeper throughout his lectures, analyzing the relationship of Saussure's "spoken chain" with his notion of the "master signifier", and relating Saussure's idea of the "linguistic circuit"3, which binds together two speaking subjects, to the basic drives.

  5. A "diachronic" analysis of the unconscious concerns the development of the present state over time. Notions such as "trauma" concern themselves with diachronic events whose effects provide material for a historical, quasi-causal interpretation of the analysand's present state. The diachronic mode also permits analysis of the internalization process, through which the "collective unconscious" is "deposited" within, i.e. individualized by the speaker, who learns to navigate this "cloud" of ideas in order to satisfy their needs.4

Despite its usefulness, this metaphor shows some seams, as I mentioned earlier, where the metaphrand and the metaphier, unconscious and language itself, butt up against each other, tarnishing the purity of the analogy. This appears to be what Lacan addresses in Seminar XX (p. 15), starting with his idea of "linguistricks" (linguisterie, as opposed to linguistique or "linguistics") and moving forward from there. I plan to reread the seminar given this new backbone, and may write a follow-up post that dives deeper!


  1. Saussure distinguishes further two classes of synchronic relations, the "syntagmatic relation", i.e. the successive relationship in the spoken chain, and the "associative relation", the space of "similar" terms that each given term calls to mind. The following image is used to explain the latter relation: the associative relation 

  2. In language, signifiers are sound-images and signifieds are concepts. But the nature of the unconscious renders this direct comparison problematic: we need to ask, what in the unconscious is analagous to the sound-image and to the concept? Arguably, any conscious image will work as an unconscious signifier, and concepts can refer to any memory or affective charge. This is subject to debate among the different schools of psychoanalysis; the exact substance of the unconscious remains somewhat elusive. But so long as we assume that the unconscious consists of a set of relationships between some sort of image and some sort of effect, the metaphor remains consistent. 

  3. The following is Saussure's diagram of the spoken chain: the spoken chain

    And the following is Saussure's diagram of the linguistic circuit: the linguistic circuit

  4. Similar to the set of synchronic relations, Saussure breaks down three forms of diachronic shift (ways that terms change over time): agglutination, analogy, and phonetic change. Whether the metaphor holds in terms of the exact mechanism of unconscious shifts is something I haven't determined. 

Flight Journal Excerpt: Irony, Meaning, and Certainty

(Excerpted from a longer journal entry written on an overnight flight from NYC to Dusseldorf, August 15, 2019. No significant edits from original entry. Footnotes added later, to contextualize references.)

+2:22
Ate a sandwich and some peanut M&Ms, but I had to pay for them. Apparently in-flight meals are a luxury now. I was thinking about meaning issues, lack of ability to start or feel motivated. In college I felt a state of certainty, total unambiguity, that allowed me to single-mindedly pursue my work with pleasure. Truth-seeking as a behavior inherently produces ambiguity alongside its twin, ambivalence. Thinking representationally, seeking the full picture1, results in multiplied perspective, such that a certainly loved thing becomes both loved and hated. Hence knowledge produces hatred and ambivalence2. The more you learn, the less any of it seems meaningful besides the experience of insight itself.

It all snaps into focus: "I think therefore I doubt." If we want certainty (which Lacan described as Freud's primary question3), umambiguous meaning, we therefore must eliminate thought, or at least the form of thought that seeks to generate truth and therefore ambivalence. The stopper of thought is flow, ritual practice, etc. But there is the impasse: one feels ambivalent and cannot enter a flow state, but one's only freedom from ambivalence is through that flow state. Pascal's secret--the secret of faith--is to persist through the ritual despite one's contemptuous knowledge, and eventually the illusions that knowledge is predicated on will shatter and be replaced with certainty4. For it is only experience that allows for certainty. Without experience, "absolute truths" are mere words on a page.

But what force can compel someone to "fake it until they make it", how can one overcome the initial barrier of refusal? Since the contempt exists at the level of the ideal ego, a solution is to perform the ritual in a space separated from one's self-image, such that there's no threat to the individual's identity. This sort of space is produced by what we call a "game" (in fact, one could define "games" as whatever situation produces such an effect). Games have rules and masks and provide a "suspended" space where one can try something for which they have contempt5. Irony culture is a game in this sense, but the formal structure of the game is highly abstract, as it revolves around a claim to identity rather than an "activity". But perhaps identity games are social media's equivalent of sport. Each team's fans are certainly as vicious.

Irony culture is bolstered by an inherent perversity. Upon donning one's ironic Carhartt hat, one might thing "hah, I know that Carhartt is a brand for Republican farmers and doesn't represent my identity, but still I love it even more." That is the formal structure of perversion: the gain of additional pleasure through performing an action that one knows is wrong6 (in this case, the actor perceives it as wrong to wear clothing that reflects an identity opposed to their own). But as each ironic shift becomes normalized, the ironist's perception of the signifiers shift from "wrong" to "right", as more people adopt the ironic trend. The sense of perversion lessons along with the pleasure, and a new "wrong" signifier must be selected and consumed.


  1. Leif Weatherby, "Irony and Redundancy": I'm referencing "...what Hegel called “representational thinking,” in which the goal is to capture a picture of the world that is adequate to it." This is in opposition to "...conceptual thinking, which in Hegel’s terms is that thought that is embedded in, constituted by, and substantially active within the causal chain of substance, expression, and history." 

  2. Robert Pfaller, On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions Without Owners, pp. 69-71.: 

    Ambivalence is due to a conflict of aspirations of which one remains unconscious (or, at least, for the most part)... the popular opposition between belief and knowledge (‘We believe what we do not know’) must, at least in terms of belief, be reversed to its exact opposite: better knowledge forms a necessary prerequisite of each and every belief; we believe precisely what we know better. And this paradox now seems explicable: better knowledge nourishes contempt of the belief [in this case, whichever naive belief is undermined by truth-seeking] and keeps it alive – and does so apparently in spite of all better knowledge and all enlightenment. Therefore, superstitious believers must always be viewed as bearers of a ‘cynical awareness’ that elevates them above matters – and they must also view themselves in this way. There is an ‘I know’ here that must be able to accompany all illusions of this kind.

  3. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 35.: 

    The major term, in fact, is not truth. It is Gewissheit, certainty. Freud's method is Cartesian—in the sense that he sets out from the basis of the subject of certainty. The question is—of what can one be certain? With this aim, the first thing to be done is to overcome that which connotes anything to do with the content of the unconscious —especially when it is a question of extracting it from the experience of the dream—to overcome that which floats everywhere, that which marks, stains, spots, the text of any dream communication—I am not sure, I doubt.

    Now—and it is here that Freud lays all his stress—doubt is the support of his certainty.

    He goes on to explain why—this is precisely the sign, he says, that there is something to preserve. Doubt, then, is a sign of resistance.

  4. Pfaller, On the Pleasure Principle in Culture, p. 141.: 

    You want to find faith and do not know the way? You want to cure yourself of unbelief and you ask for the remedies? Learn from those who have been bound like you … Follow the way by which they began; by behaving just as if they believed, taking holy water, having masses said, etc. That will make you believe quite naturally, and will humiliate your understanding. (Pascal, Pensées, pp. 155–6.)

    Rather than suggesting a deepening of theological intensification, he suggests an exercise in superficiality. The candidate should simply act ‘as though’ he believes, and the problem – more precisely, his problem – will thereby be solved. A small, playful, theatrical performance of religious conviction will help to precipitate this conviction – whereas, on the contrary, convincing oneself by means of proof is seen as an impediment. Belief must be acted out for some undetermined other...

  5. Ibid., pp. 53-4.: 

    Huizinga describes the increased intensity of affect that play generates as ‘sacred seriousness’. This sacred seriousness – the fascination, the extreme involvement and celebratory affect that is initiated by play – is at work in all forms of culture, including religion, art and sport. Huizinga thus concludes that play presents the origin of all culture. Huizinga even sees religious cults as especially a consequence of the ‘sacred seriousness’ yielded from play. ‘Sacred seriousness’ communicates one of play’s fundamental operations in establishing spatial and temporal borders –between the playing field and its environment, between the length of the game and the time beyond it. This demarcation establishes the decidedly celebratory atmosphere, and the greater involvement of participants as well as spectators – which also applies among religious cults. The particular affective conditions of religions are also the result of such spatial and temporal demarcations. Huizinga therefore concludes: ‘The hallowed spot [is essentially] a playground.’ (Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 20.)

  6. Ibid., p. 93.: 

    In contradiction with classical psychoanalytical theory, perversion can no longer be diagnosed based on ‘deviations’ with regard to the sexual object or goal. Rather than attempting such a material determination, I have carried out a formal, topical determination... If actors have contempt for their practices, and thereby for themselves, this means that their gain in pleasure is organized around avoiding a reference to an ideal ego. The ‘topicality’ of their pleasure gain is different than for those practices that allow their practitioners to triumph by corresponding to an ideal. At the same time, there is also a difference at the level of the economy of the libido and the dynamic level: when the gain in pleasure is achieved by means of self-contempt, then ambivalence exists. The joyful overload of affect is due to an unconscious conflict of opposing forces.

The Year of the Paypig

the year of the paypig

As pointed out by preeminent Neoreactionary pastor "Zero HP Lovecraft", 2019 is the year of the paypig. And yet, many still cannot fathom the nature of this position. They read, and wonder: what must be going on in the mind of the paypig, to subject themselves to such a thing? To understand this, I turn to Lacan's insights into the phenomenology of the pervert. Briefly, from nosubject, the Lacan wiki:

The pervert assumes the position of the object-instrument of the "will-to-enjoy" (volonté-de-jouissance), which is not his own will but that of the big Other.

The pervert does not pursue his activity for his own pleasure, but for the enjoyment of the big Other. He finds enjoyment precisely in this instrumentalization, in working for the enjoyment of the Other.

The paypig seems an archetypal example of this, with the pervert assuming a submissive stance in the practice of findom. But what does this mean? Let us dig a bit deeper.

The paypig first, as in all submissive perversions, elevates the dominatrix to the position of the big Other1. Which is to say, the dominatrix is not herself as a subject--a thinking human being--in relation to the paypig. To him, she represents the Other2: the paypig's internalized perception of the codes governing society. He elevates her not into a symbol of these codes but into the manifestation of the codes themselves. This is why Hassidic submissive relates BSDM to worship: God is not a symbol3, God simply is4.

His next step, then, is to reduce himself to the object-instrument of the Other, in relation to one of its drives. To do this, he must develop some idea of what the Other wants. We must recall that the Other is a phenomenological structure within the pervert; the Other is not "out there" but exists inside the pervert himself, constructed through his interactions with little others (other people). The Other's desire is likely something that the pervert is aware "society" desires on some level (he may even desire it himself: "man's desire is the Other's desire"). So, in the case of the paypig, we might guess that this desire is money.

Once he has established the desire of the Other, the paypig's final step is to position himself as an instrument, an object through which the Other can satisfy this desire. His enjoyment comes from acting on the Other's account. So, the paypig enjoys giving away his money. Right?

This is not the complete story. We must ask, in response to exactly what does the paypig enjoy himself? It is not simply the transfer of money, or else the paypig could give a donation to some cause and be done. No, the pleasure involves some action on account of the dominatrix, through which the Other's fundamental drive manifests, and which permits the paypig to transform into its instrument5. If we pay attention, we can see that the paypig feels they are satisfying the Other's invocatory drive: the desire to hear and be heard. It is not to the transaction, nor to the dominatrix as a physical object that the paypig responds, but to her voice, her command, her invocation: "you are nothing to me, send Venmo". And so we might classify findom as BDSM, the practice of invocatory perversions. BDSM stands in contrast to exhibitionism-voyeurism, a set of perversions in which the pervert acts as an instrument of the Other's scopic drive, the desire to see and be seen6.

Why might 2019 be the year of the paypig? Perhaps as authorities become more abstract, less human7, fewer have access to direct invocation. And yet there is still a part of us who wants to act in response to a command. Who will we obey? The dominatrix fills this gap, with the distinction that her fee is tightly coupled with the paypig's act of submission. Compared with other forms of BDSM, findom has lower transaction costs, meaning reduced waste, and increased surplus value. It is a highly efficient and incentive-aligned activity, a brilliant market-based solution to a fundamental human need. Isn't that what neoliberalism is all about?


  1. Lacan's big Other is one of his most foundational yet challenging concepts. From nosubject

    The big Other designates radical alterity, an otherness which transcends the illusory otherness of the imaginary because it cannot be assimilated through identification. Lacan equates the big Other with language and the law, and hence the big Other is inscribed in the symbolic order. Indeed, the big Other is the symbolic insofar as it is particularized for each subject. Thus, the Other is both another subject in its radical alterity and unassimilable uniqueness and also the symbolic order which mediates the relationship with that subject.

    Note the duality of the Other: it is "both another subject... and also the symbolic order." This refers to our relationship with the Other: it appears as a mass of known-or-felt laws that sometimes has a mind or will of its own.

  2. It is easier for an attractive woman to embody the position of the Other, as she is already seen as commanding social power. To quote Žižek: "[an] exceptional particular then immediately gives body to the universal." 

  3. Although, in Judaic thought, the name of God expressed as a word is a signifier, one with exceptional power. Consider the set of Judaic practices involving the use of His name

  4. For a fascinating discussion of God's relationship with Lacan's big Other, check out this post over at Larval Subjects, one of my favorite Lacanian resources. 

  5. Perceptive readers will note that there is still a link missing here between will-to-jouissance and drives. Lacan's notion of jouissance is also challenging. Wikipedia describes it as follows: 

    "there is a jouissance beyond the pleasure principle" linked to the partial drive; a jouissance which compels the subject to constantly attempt to transgress the prohibitions imposed on his enjoyment, to go beyond the pleasure principle.

    The brief version is that pleasure releases tension, while jouissance involves "enjoyable" behavior done on account of a drive. Pleasure is the result of satisfying needs, jouissance is the result of satisfying wants. Jouissance does not necessarily relieve tension; it might instead create it. An example: eating a meal while hungry gives pleasure, because it releases the tension of hunger. Eating and eating simply for the taste begets jouissance, because it is behavior you find somehow "enjoyable". Thus, satisfying the Other's "will-to-jouissance" involves providing it with something that, for it, creates this experience of jouissance.

  6. Two other "partial" drives exist beyond invocatory and scopic: the oral drive, and the anal drive (see: nosubject). The associated perversions are left as an exercise to the reader. 

  7. For an excellent, if dated, Marxist-Freudian discussion on the topic of authority, consider Christopher Lasch's Haven in a Heartless World (1977) (pp: 184-189): 

    Since authority no longer commands respect, the authorities have to impose their will through psychological manipulation... Authorities no longer appeal to objective standards of right and wrong, which might serve to clothe power in a higher morality but might also justify resistance to it... The new mode of social control avoids conflicts and direct confrontations between authorities and the people on whom they seek to impose their will... Society itself has taken over socialization or subjected family socialization to increasingly effective control. Having thereby weakened the capacity for self-direction and self-control, it has undermined one of the principal sources of social cohesion, only to create new ones more constricting than the old, and ultimately more devastating in their impact on personal and political freedom.

    Perhaps, if the desire for findom emerges from the same place as the desire for a more expansive state apparatus, a 70% tax rate truly is findom after all?