FOUR. The articulated space of social unconsciousness

Although Foulkes (e.g., 1973-1974) proposed a concept of the social unconscious, traversing an individual, "dynamic unconscious", it was not developed in theory. Exploring textual tensions within the corpus of Foulkes' work, Dalal (1998) argues that Foulkes ultimately collapses a potentially radical concept of the social unconscious into a more biologically derived, relatively static, "foundation matrix"; a foundation matrix where, in the minimal description of Foulkes (1971), group members, "have the same qualities as a species, the same anatomy and physiology, and also perhaps archaic traces of ancient experiences" (p. 212). As all theories are developed in response to that which is missing, Dalal (2001) reminds us that "the notion of the social unconscious seeks to compensate for . the absence of the social in much psychoanalytic discourse. Thus at the very least, the phrase brings some notion of the social into the discursive frame" (p. 539). However, in Dalal's judgment, Foulkes' concept of the social unconscious remained "weak".

Dalal (1998, 2001-2002) joins a host of other group analysts (e.g., Brown, 2001; Hopper 2003; Hopper & Weinberg, 2011) who have developed the theory of the social unconscious. This chapter will not review these approaches, but, given the premise of intertextuality, my ideas are enriched and made possible by them; however, the focus and most of my terms are different. I draw upon sources of philosophy and social theory rarely used in the group-analytic literature; the question as to whether the ideas presented here are different in kind or emphasis to that of other group analysts is one I leave to readers to judge.

It is suggested that social unconsciousness is an inherently elusive, "empty signifier", to use a term of Laclau's (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985). With this fluidity in mind, I use the verb form, social unconsciousness, rather than the noun form (Weegmann, forthcoming).[1] Social unconsciousness is always already "there", all around and yet nowhere in particular; it is not an indicative phenomenon that one can simply "point to", capture in "an" influence or regard, as Foulkes implied, as a discrete "level" of explanation to be added to other levels.[2] We can never "know" it as evident, transparent object simply because we are part of it and, whenever we try to speak of it, we are in positions, involvements, and a language provided by it. As Heidegger's (1962) work makes abundantly clear, humans have a primordial involvement, a readiness-to-hand, whereby we live in a world already drenched in meaning. His term to capture human existence as being-in-the world was Dasein.

Consider an analogy: How does one describe a landscape, without already being part of it? The position one occupies—for example, farmer, prospecting geophysicist, painter, or subsistence nomad—influences what one sees, its meaning, as we look at things in different ways. The landscape is perceived relative to particular projects and activities, what Heidegger calls equipment, such as survival, potential for exploitation, passing on to the next generation, poetic inspiration, and so on, and as the observer stands on the earth described, indeed is part of it, it is impossible to adopt a non-perspectival view; Orange (1995) makes the Gadamer-inspired point that "our present understanding of anything or anyone is only a perspective within a horizon inevitably limited by the historicity of our own organised and organising experience" (p. 89). At the same time no one can dispute that rocks, fields, trees, distant hills, etc. exist, except that even here some, if not all, of these features are already the product of human cultivation and construct (e.g., Turner and other Romantic painters "opened up" mountains to vision in a way that had not been "seen" before and which reflected changes in human activity, e.g., changed leisure time, physical and engineering conquest, etc.). We cannot avoid our particular "background", since it is the background that conditions our (under-) standing and influences our ways of noticing. Dasein and world are not separate entities, but are coexistents and complementary.

Hence then, we are all products of social unconsciousness, and can never "get back" far enough, so to speak, to apprehend its full range or fully know its constituent makeup. As discursive, meaningful beings, we are "pre-constructed" (Pecheux, 1982), "thrown" into a world already made.

Helping us conceptualise this realm of the discursive is Derrida's work (1976, 1981) and what he has to say on the concept of identity. As is well known, Derrida problematises any idea of identity as presence or self-sufficient meaning, on the grounds that any identity involves terms other than itself, yet this very "outside" or "elsewhere" is part of what it means to assert or to be someone. Centres of civilisation, such as the city state, or "Christian lands", presuppose other regions, such as "wilderness" or "Barbarous lands"; but each signifier is over determined, so that, for example, the American Puritan settlements connoted civilisation, redemption, and light (as in Wintrop's "city on a hill"), the outside of which was not only wilderness, but spiritual darkness and nakedness and hardships of survival, refracted with Biblical images, such as Cannan (Bercovitch, 1975). A complex and elusive concept, Derrida refers to "difference" spelled with an "a". This notion is an emblem, containing three other moments which "difference" suggests: "differing", "deferring", and "detour". The other is always different, nonidentical by virtue of identity-in-difference, so identity does not have the character of a substance. One result is that identities are never complete or final, but surface as contingent products in continual evolution and struggle. There is no agent able to gather up meaning as if it were independent of it; "There is no subject who is agent, author and master of difference ..." (Derrida, 1981, p. 28).

Derrida shows how the constitution of an identity entails an exclusion of something else. Traditional polarities, philosophic and otherwise, do not meet each other on neutral ground, but are set up in terms of what Derrida calls a "violent hierarchy" (Cousins, 1978; Derrida, 1976), terms such as: matter/form, essence/accident, reality/image, philosopher/ordinary citizen, or, of particular interest to Derrida, speech/writing. One of these terms is privileged in a particular way. Outside the dualisms of philosophy, we could include oppositions such as white/black or man/woman (Dalal, 2002; Hall, 1996). In any violent hierarchy, one term is superior, while the "other" term is subsumed in some way, although in historical struggle a great deal of change can occur, including a sudden attempt to invert the hierarchy, as in the idea of revolutionary mutation or overthrow. The "world" can be turned upside down, along with its defining words and metaphors; revolutions deploy meanings as much as weapons. Hegemonic meanings are dominant versions of "standard lives", versions that repress and occlude alternatives, with social unconsciousness similar to "a discourse that hierarchically orders other discourses" (Dalal, 1998, p. 212). The "outside", or "other", of meaning is thus an integral part of this continual process of definition, a "constitutive outside", naturalised by the dominant vision.

Consider the signifier "East". Said (1978) offers a detailed analysis of how a particular politico-cultural horizon came about: how western powers, artists, and writers constructed a vision of the "East" or Orient, acting as its adjacent other. Orientalism, that study of the East, denoted not only a geographical region but also supposed moral, cultural, and intellectual attributes, such as "benighted", "primitive", "threatening", "exotic"; to be oriental was to be "overcome by intellectual or moral darkness", a view informed by the dominant discourses, such as, but not exclusively, western Christianity. The project of orientalism was part of a discourse and operation of power and domination, and so, in this way, a certain category of familiarity, or of strangeness within familiarity, the "essence of the orient", was constructed. The "East" was represented and regulated—administratively, militarily, textually, and visually. Drawing on Gramsci (1985), Said uses the notion of "hegemony" to describe the process by which particular views become dominant, articulating organising principles based upon an ensemble of social relations and practices. The silent relational power expressed within this particular cultural and political horizon was formidable; as Terdiman (1984, p. 29) expresses it, "Some see, some are seen". Significantly, the European countries that ran empires were called "the Powers", acutely protective of their interests in the Middle and Far East, and elsewhere.

In other words, West is the master, unmarked term, with East as its marked, constitutive outside; Laclau (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985) argues, "Deconstructing an identity means showing that the 'constitutive outside' that inhabits it—that is, an 'outside' that constitutes that identity, and, at the same time, questions it. But this is nothing other than asserting its contingency—that is its radical historicity" (p. 189). Hegemony and violent hierarchy are only one way in which meanings are constructed; more basic still is the notion of "articulations".

Articulation can be thought of as like a "hinge", in which different elements of meaning are brought together, meaningfully connected. Elements do not pre-exist the relational matrix, but are constituted by it. So, rather than consisting of positive terms, self-present or atom-like, meaning is relational and undecidable, being both relatively fixed, but also the product of, and itself productive of, dislocation. Articulations occur all the time, but do not necessarily take on hegemonic, hierarchical form; neither are they necessarily the product of violent dislocations or traumatic disruption.[3] Individuals, groups, and other agents are continually defining the world and making sense of their situations. Importantly, whilst the relationship of signifier and signified might logically be "arbitrary", in social terms it is not, otherwise it would be impossible to see life as organised or meaningful at all. This does not mean that given articulations are necessary, as this would be the mirror reverse of arbitrary; "world-making" cannot be an indifferent assignment of symbols or elements, any more than a carpenter could throw random pieces of wood together and call it "furniture" (Goodman, 1978). Meanings, then, are neither simply chance designations (nomina), nor natural footprints, with all given societies acquiring a recognisable shape and self-image.

The concept of the discursive, or the meaningful, exceeds the linguistic, in other words, is not confined to speech or writing. There are important qualifications here; the first is that language itself does not exist independently of its realms of use and action; as Heidegger puts it, "words and language are not wrappings in which things are packed for the commerce of those who write and speak. It is in words and language that things first come into being and are" (Heidegger, 1961, p. 11). Second, discourses or discursive formations do not hover, as pale reflections or mere rationalisations of another, more solid reality somewhere else. Discursive products do not have a second-rate existence, suspended as if mere commentaries "about" human practices, because they are part of those very practices (Cousins & Hussein, 1984). Albeit a rarefied word, "discourses" are part of wider beliefs, conventions, roles, and institutions. For example, a generalised expression such as "medieval monastic discourse", is inscribed in a whole materiality of sermons, devotional guides, the ethos of different monastic orders, everyday codes and rules of devotional living, images in books, walls, and windows, and in all the designs of architectural space (Gilchirst, 2000). From walls to veils, books to behaviour, discourse forms and informs the fibres of life, as much as, and even more than, any grand visions of theology (Salih, 2001). At the same time, it would be foolish to deny facts of singularity and the scope of individual or group "self-fashioning", reducing a given nun or monk, in this example, to mere "container" of discourse (Roper, 1994).

Laclau's (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985; Laclau, 2005) concept of contingency attempts to transcend the polarities arbitrary/natural, accidental/integral, nominal/essential. This is because contingency is the expression of an outcome that involves competing and surrounding discourses, resulting in a relative stabilisation of meaning. History is up for grabs; in the words of Gramsci (1985, p. 31), "In history, in social life, nothing is fixed, rigid or definitive". When agents resist established meanings, by overturning previous interpretations and practices, inventing new names, fighting for different causes, and so on, they do so (partially) within terms already established by the former, whose shadow remains.

The idea of an empty signifier points to a social unconsciousness "filled" or fleshed out by, but impossible to complete and exhaust, different "contents" that are the result of struggle, succession, and mutation. In this conception, there is no plentitude of meaning and there are always dominant/subjugated elements, as well as coexisting elements. If meaning is predicated on difference, rather than substance, then that which is signified is a question of articulation, rearticulation, and contingency. Incompletion and failure to articulate full, "once-and-for-all" meaning characterises social unconsciousness, and it follows that "identification" cannot amount to a final or definite "identity". Although writing as philosopher not social theorist, what William James (1909) says, with great flourish, could apply: "Things are 'with' one another in many ways, but nothing includes everything, or dominates over everything. The word 'and' trails along after every sentence. Something always escapes" (p. 321).

  • [1] It is impossible to begin to do justice to the value that other sociological theories can have in bearing upon the notion of social unconsciousness, a fact that Hopper (2003), himself a sociologist, has acknowledged. Another sociologist deserves mention—in his theory of "structuration", Giddens (Giddens & Peirson, 1998) places emphasis on the ongoing nature and flow of social life, to the point that "change and constancy are somehow directly bound up with one another" (p. 89).
  • [2] According to Earl Hopper (personal communication), Eric Fromm was the first to use the phrase "social unconscious", as a cultural surround tantamount to the air people breathed.
  • [3] The role of the "traumatic" in the social unconscious is theorized at length by Hopper (e.g., 2003) and by others. I have no quibble with this emphasis, but it is not the whole story, anymore than is regarding hegemonic meaning as the only type of meaning. To be fair, he does acknowledge this other side. Clealry, the ordinary, non-traumatic, non-dramatic, taken-for-granted features of common sense need equal treatment, that sense that people have that "things have always been this way". Only when someone or some group "steps outside", trouble might start. In this way, societies have integrative, preservative myths as much as those which posit alternatives and ruptures (Ricouer, 2004a).

    A further missing emphasis, but not one addressed in this book, is the realm of social consciousness, first addressed by the sociologist, Charles Horton Cooley (1907, p. 98) in his far seeing paper, which, analysing the "social mind", claimed that "most of our reflective consciousness ... is social consciousness". In many ways, the phenomena that group analysts cover in the "social" area, including my own speculations, hover around undecidable edges of social conscious and social unconscious.

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