What is the self? The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation which accounts for it that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but consists in the fact that the relation relates itself to its own self. - Sören Kierkegaard.


I don’t pretend to understand neuroscience. This puts me a step ahead of neuroscientists who pretend to understand Culture. The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat? He was just putting her on…

Until I heard a lecture by a neuroscientist, Mark Solms, who understands culture very well, and understands how neuroscience frames and finds new answers for cultural, philosophical, ideological issues that have been at the center of thought since the Enlightenment. That old problem going back almost three hundred years, that a blind person can “see” objects she’s never seen before? Easy, but in the process neuroscience upends the rationale behind the philosophical disputes of the eighteenth century—disputes whose influence is still felt in late 20th century philosophy and aesthetics.

Even Wikipedia gets it right:

Solms's aspiration is to develop a valid method for relating the clinical findings of psychoanalysis with knowledge generated by the neurological sciences (what Freud attempted to accomplish more than 100 years ago), an undertaking known today as the scientific field of neuro-psychoanalysis.

Solms isn’t interested in “proving” or “disproving” Freud, “scientifically.” In an exchange at the end of his lecture he responded to a story that Freud at one time was approached by a scientist who claimed he could “prove” that Freud’s theories were scientifically correct. Freud was not interested. I suspect the scientist who approached Freud was his own follower Wilhelm Reich, who was attempting to validate Freud’s insights by means of Dialectical Materialism. As Solms put it, the newspapers are full of bogus discoveries “proving” this and that every day. Between science as understood by Izvestia and science as understood by the New York Times, there is no settling the point of precedency.

Freud was not opposed to neuroscience, he'd started out as a neurologist himself; rather, Freud was too sophisticated to believe the problems of human behavior could be solved through empirical observation, let alone by quickie pop-editorialists; more accurately, Freud didn't believe neuroscience was ready to rejoin with psychoanalytic practice; Solms believes it is, at last.


At the same time that Freud was distancing himself from empiricism and positivism, the Vienna Circle of philosophers centered around the absent Ludwig Wittgenstein was moving in a similar direction. Meanwhile Karl Popper, a junior scholar who was barely tolerated in the Circle, was attempting to save positivism for Democracy, because if you can’t prove there is a free market how can you philosophically defend capitalism?

Solms' lecture was held at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute; the response was overwhelmingly negative, at least from the professionals in the audience who were allowed to speak. Then again, Freud’s own background in the post-Kantian, Social-Democratic philosophies of Red Vienna has been thoroughly suppressed in America. Solms is presently involved in publishing Freud’s early scientific writings and retranslating his collected works, which in the present approved translation come across with all of the warmth of a medical prescription. Scopophiliac for "likes to look at stuff?" Hello?


And this, as best I can figure it out, is what Solms was saying:

We have located two major areas in the brain in which identifiable behavior is located: one such area is exteroreceptive, meaning its activities and forms are primarily structured by the external world. It’s the area upon which the data collected by the body are mapped – in a sense it has the shape of the body. The other area isn’t an area in the same sense, it isn’t “topical” because its functions don’t mirror anything at all. It's a collection point for those chemical upsurges of energy that Freud calls libido or primary process. These urges are themselves responses to external stimuli (or on occasion responses to stimuli on the exteroreceptive map), and they are affects. In other terms, if I see Mommy a reaction is automatically registered in the brain, and this reaction can be generally defined in terms of affects (“sexy,” or “fear,”) which in turn are mediated by the cortex (the “upper functions”) into “here’s Mommy, she looks angry,” etc. This is why a blind person can still see an object simply by feeling it: as long as the topological area that maps sight remains intact it will allow motor reflexes to translate into what, for the blind person, amounts to “vision.”


This is shattering for bourgeois philosophies and bourgeois philosophies of Art. And first, philosophy: Immanuel Kant founded much of his belief (and much of the practices of bourgeois thought) on the suggestion that maybe it’s good to help out the starving widow in the abstract, but since we can’t be sure this corresponds to the eternal notions of what is Good, it’s best to think this through ‘till we have understood the meaning of Justice, and Widows, and Who Knows What. But if thinking is affect (that is, if we’re unable to identify the Starving Widow except as affect), then postponing affect instead of mediating it through the “rational” part of the mind means being blind to all the widows in the world, which of course is what Kant and his bourgeois followers intended all along. The mind, then (the so-called rational mind), is anhedonic. It has no feelings; as stated by Descartes and later assserted by Kant, the mind is autononous, emotionally and metaphysically: monadic: its highest calling is to free itself from mere feelings, so that it can cheerfully evict the widow from her apartment, or throw ten thousand farmers off their land. The mind that works on Wall Street works for Wall Street.

Solms is of another tradition: so is the neurobiologist Jaak Panksepp. It's a tradition trace from Schopenhauer's criticism of Kant, which was picked up by the Viennese physician Karl Rokitansky and passed on to Freud, who tackles the topic at the beginning of Civilization and its Discontent. The gist, for Schopenhauer, Rokitansky, Freud and Solms and Panksepp is, that we’re not hard-wired to be detached from the world, we’re wired to be involved in it. Of course there's always plenty of grant money, prizes and in the New York Times interviews for anyone willing to argue the opposite: Auguste Comte, the founder of Positivism, the Official Ideology of the Capitalist Party, famously stated that you can't look out the window and see yourself. Truth is, you can't avoid seeing yourself. Or rather: you can't avoid your own awareness of yourself seeing the starving widow, except by an effort of repression. It must be exhausting to be a Republican.

Solms reminds us of the very narrow limits of the capitalist concept of vision as mere mechanics. Most of Medieval thought, European and otherwise, followed Al-Kindi's theory of optics according to which the eye "chooses" that which it will see; even Descartes had to construct a curious theory of vision, something about invisible atoms who hook up to to bring the image to the eye. Diderot, the French Enlightenment philosopher and art critic, concludes his moving essay, the Letter concerning the Blind for the Use of Those Who See, with a description of a very competent, very aware, very knowing, blind young woman. Then he opens his classic tale, Rameau’s Nephew, with a portrait of himself sitting on a bench in the Palais Royal, a witness to the young men following a courtesan, “leaving her for another, broaching them all and attached to none. My thoughts – those are my whores.” Solms' argument inverts the common assumption since Kant that Consciousness is Reason and Reason is noumenal, its origins and processes exist independent of the body and the body's responses. Here is a passage by Alain, a popular French philosopher of the early twentieth century and one of the best-loved exponents of Kantian-Liberal philosophy:

When I recognize the visual appearance of a cube in a perception that certainly does not appear cubic, then I admit the cube as Appearance...Contrarywise, what is beautiful is pure Appearance, meaning that which is present to Consciousness… Therefore no object can be beautiful in itself; only Appearance in itself can be beautiful.., If the Beautiful is to be the object of entirely disinterested satisfaction then no one can desire it, or wish to own it.

First Prize to whoever figures out the greatest number of ways in which Solms' argument directly contradicts Alain's reading of Kant.


So consciousness is affect – sexual longing, for instance; but consciousness, like sexual choices, must be selective unless you’re Daniel Strauss-Kahn or a schizophrenic for whom the normal flow from perception to affect to selection is awry: “All the views that’s fit to have a fit about.” The initial instruments of selection are the “mirror neurons,” those tiny flashes that mirror what we see or smell or hear on the surface of the brain. Those reflections in turn are mediated by the ego – by unconscious choices we make as to what to mirror. As Beatrice Beebee shows, even tiny babies play the game of mirror to Mommy’s facial expressions, and they associate Mommy’s expressions to her affect with remarkable ease, so that even a split-second glimpse of Mommy showing resentment is almost instantly, and unconsciously, reflected by the infant showing fear. Judgment, what Kant calls Vernunft, is not an a posteriori function of the conscious mind over sensations already present to the mind; Judgment is the unconscious act of selecting those sensations. At this point all hell broke loose in the lecture hall, because to say that certain acts of judgment are unconscious – certain acts of discrimination among sensations – is to suggest that the ego itself is unconscious, and therefore Freud was WRONG. Since I don’t have a Hidden God in this fight I’ll simply say that a) it all depends on how you, or Freud himself, might define ego, and specifically the functions of the ego as a mediator between external or internal impulses; and b) that in the long run the next problem remains to define the place of the superego, which no-one, not even Solms, cared to tackle then and there. Here Reich returns, that part of Wilhelm Reich that in 1937 or so complained that the various theories of society - Freudian, Marxist and others - "operated with no knowledge at all of the central biosexual problem of the human animal." So maybe Freud was RIGHT in telling Reich he was pushing in the right direction (the suggestion that there was a physiological basis to social phenomena like Fascism), and RIGHT also in trying to tell Reich he was looking for Führer-love in all the wrong places.


At least I know Art: The French Impressionists and Symbolists were for the most part familiar with Kant (the Prolegomena was required to graduate the Lycée – tellingly titled Prolegomena to any future Metaphysics that will be able to pass for Science). The Impressionists liked to believe they were scientifically duplicating the sensations that the mind (Vernunft) would then organize out of the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of raw data and brushstrokes. (The expression is William James'.) Then the Symbolists argued that since affects (or “ideas”) were inherent in raw data one could “speak” to the viewer through colors or lines or images alone: What the beaver shot does to the dirty old man could be multiplied ad infinitum, except when you look closer it’s a false analogy: the dirty old man might spontaneously generate sexual excitement from the vision on his laptop; his subsequent activities are ego functions: deliberate, if unconscious, decisions to deal, not with the original shot, but with the perception of the shot which, as Hegel put it, is "born of the Spirit and born again," minus the Spirit part according to Marx. As I understand it the original non-topological “drive” that originates outside the cortex is of a fairly straightforward nature: hunger, sex, fear, etc. The Symbolists were particularly fond of Synaesthesia: fond, that is, of assigning a transcendental, noumenal function and form to what, after all, is a fairly straightforward discharge of energy: The perception (real or internalized) that provokes the upsurge of drive is immediately mediated by the ego functions – given a specific meaning, or even two, say, "color red" and "sound of a trumpet." Here Freud’s idea of the secondary functions of the ego comes into play. “This is a tit” is all a newborn needs to know. “This is Mommy’s tit” could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on whether you’re an infant or a teenager, or a bit of both at once, and the confusion between the two is as common in our culture as a teenager working through his Inner Oedipus.

So the operations of the mind are dialectical after all, and they're dialectical because they mediate between two physiological functions, not between a perception and an anti-dialectical a-priori. The dominant theory of European Art in its social function has been constructed around that second interpretation ever since Friedrich Schiller took up Kant’s ideas and ran with them. Art, to Schiller, could spontaneously generate human progress (“Freedom”) the way a dirty picture generates a hard-on, or the way a Gehry building generates Freedom and Democracy according to the New York Times – I’ve written about this elsewhere. This, most likely, was what Marx had in mind when he accused Hegel of “schillern,” meaning a) to do like Schiller, and b) to pretend that cause and effect, subject and object, are not a cycle within a social formation, but instead that the initial cause, the drive, the thing that makes the world go ‘round, is immanent. You see, says Hegel, there’s this thing called the Spirit, that’s the real motor of History; you see, says the hack psychologist, there’s this greedy gene that creates greedy impulses that the ego cannot satisfy, mitigate, or mediate or sublimate because they're a-prioris, noumena: “You can no more chose whether or not to like a work of art than you choose to have sugar taste sweet or lemons sour,” says Clement Greenberg, the ultimate apologist for free-market art. Wrong on both counts: you choose both, but the choices are radically different in the levels of determination involved. It’s one thing to find a picture of heroic Soviet workers sexy, and quite another to spontaneously go out and build tractors for Uncle Joe after seeing the picture.


There are a couple of letters from Sigmund Freud to Ludwig von Mises, now missing. I can’t help wondering if Mises was trying to get Freud to admit that “greed” was noumenal: not the form a sensation like “hunger” or “sexual need” takes when mediated by the ego, but an immanent aspect of the ego itself. Ever since Sir Philip Sidney the Courtier-Poet, the European artist has been assigned the task of returning human culture to its natural form, to create a “Second Nature” to nature, Nature with Privileges; phylogeny in ontogeny-drag. In the nineteen-seventies, for instance, it was common for art critics to take up Lacan’s then-fashionable developmental theory of the Mirror Stage and “naturalize it.” It's as if one had taken the concept of the Oedipal Complex and considered it, not the sexual drive, as a kind of universal, physiological function as naturally provoked as a hard-on. (One classmate of mine wrote a dissertation proposal arguing that Melanie Klein’s psychoanalytic concept of the “part object” could be applied to the partially completed art objects of Louise Bourgeois. She now teaches at a prestigious art institute in Britain.) Critics and artists back then liked to conflate the Mirror Stage (in which the infant ego presumably applies itself to disciplining the previously spontaneous activity of mirroring) with the mirroring itself, so that the conscious, ego-oriented (and narcissistic) activity of creating images could be made to pass for the unmediated provocation of spontaneous mirroring activities in the viewer. The artist Barbara Kruger, who conscientiously borrowed these arguments and misapplied them, has an image at the Museum of Modern Art:


It's a masterpiece of double-talk, because it’s not at all clear if it’s descriptive, hortatory, or coercive or, as seems likely, all three at once. Either “You happen to invest in the divinity of the masterpiece,” or/and “You should invest in the divinity of the masterpiece,” or/and “You have no choice but to invest in the divinity of the masterpiece.” Artists (at least successful artists in the Western sense) position themselves in their relationship to capital like the little boy who tells his tormentors, “You hit me because I secretly wanted you to.” At least there was an explanation for whatever Kruger thought she was doing, inadequate as it might be. Kruger was on the wane about the time I started lecturing at the Guggenheim Museum, and by the time I moved on there was no explanation necessary, none given, except for the usual, pseudo-descriptive art-critical gobbledygook. That art was art because it was a valuable commodity, and that it was a valuable commodity because it was art, no longer needed saying: it was Human Nature.


A few years back I wrote: “Economics is all in the eye of the beholder. And as surely as laissez-faire economics dreams up goods moving unfettered through a system, so, too, the laissez-faire museum imagines artworks spontaneously moving through the perceptual equipment of the public.” Not so. The task now is to understand how art proceeds on all planes: the economic, the sensational, the psychological, so that adapting one means adapting them all. The task, then, is what it was in Freud’s time and in Freud’s town, when Red Vienna, the most important socialist experiment then and the most original socialist experiment ever, was a rich blend of investigations on all levels, and in all disciplines. I asked Solms about the parallels: Freud, Wittgenstein, Loos, Alban Berg and others pushing towards a unified theory of action in society. He answered that he’s had a lot of positive response from people in the Humanities; and that today, for perhaps the first time in almost a hundred years, there is hope for a unified theory of knowledge and action, just as there had been then. Would that theory of action have the same economic, ideological and political impact on practical life that it ever so briefly had in Vienna? You never know…

- PW.