Towards a Networked Unconscious: Lacan, Deleuze, and Fairbairn, from Film Theory to Contemporary Cognitive Science

Winnicott and Play-Therapy: A Network of Raw Materials for Neural Network Construction

Recently I was asked by a reader to say more about how I was planning to bring Deleuze and Lacan together in the manuscript I’m working on called The Networked Image: Lacan, Deleuze, Film, and Beyond, so I’m going to sketch this out here, and show what networks have to do with this. In the process, I’ll outline why I think the notion of a networked unconscious can bring together film theory and various models of the mind proposed by contemporary cognitive science, with ramifications for therapeutic practice and visual studies in the process.

For those looking for the core of the argument in this blog post, skip ahead to the section below called “Lacan, Deleuze, Cinema, Subjectivity.” For those who need a little historical context of this all, particularly any students of mine, just keep reading.

To give a sense of where I’m coming from on all this, the first two parts of this upcoming book will be based on a popular course I teach at Pratt called Advanced Film Theory: Lacan, Deleuze, and Film. This year I’m expanding this into a full course on each, the first called Psychoanalysis and Film (Spring 2012), the second Deleuze and Cinema (Fall 2012), and I’ll be using this as an opportunity to expand those aspects of these I normally teach, and structure the writing process. For those curious on my intro to Deleuze, see the full online guide to reading Deleuze’s Cinema books on the sidebar to the lower right of this website. For those curious to see how I tend to use Lacan in relation to film, check out the mini-articles on Audition, Pandorum, Spartacus, and more under the Film and Visual Culture heading on the lower right.

Lacan Versus Deleuze: Some Historical Context

It’s hardly a secret that Lacan and Deleuze were rivals, and for those new to this, a bit of history may be helpful. My favorite detail in all this is that Deleuze used to send his wife to Lacan’s seminars to take notes for him. Early on, Lacan was a clear admirer of Deleuze’s work on psychoanalysis. In Coldness and Cruelty, Deleuze exploded Freud’s theorizations of sadism and masochism from within, much like Lacan was doing with other Freudian notions. And in The Logic of Sense, Deleuze quotes Lacan with great admiration, even building upon his insights in crucial ways, and Lacan has nothing but high praise for Deleuze’s book. And The Logic of Sense is truly a masterful, wild book. Deleuze’s project is to rethink the Freudian notion of the limits of sanity, namely, psychosis and schizophrenia, by means of examining the non-sense works of Lewis Caroll, the radically experimental writings of Antonin Artaud, who struggled with schizophrenia for most of his life, and develop a new, expanded notion of subjectivity and language by means of philosophical models drawn from ancient philosophy.

So even though Lacan was a practicing analyst intimately involved with training other analysts, and Deleuze had experience neither as analyst or as patient, their work increasingly had much in common in the late 1960’s. That is, Deleuze’s project of expanding psychoanlaysis from without had quite a bit in common with Lacan’s attempt to pluralize it and transform it from within. It’s natural that soon they would have to get to know more about each other, and develop a rivalry in their often competing attempts to rework the Freudian legacy.

The real shift came about with a defection. Lacan’s young protege Felix Guattari, who many saw as a possible heir apparent to Lacan’s legacy, began to stray to far from Lacan’s teachings, and question many of his teacher’s prized theories, though he was concerned about being explicit with Lacan about how radical his ideas were getting. So after reading The Logic of Sense, he met with Deleuze, showed him some of his notes, and they developed an immediate partnership which is now the stuff of legend, and which produced the incredible books they wrote together. By the time they co-wrote Anti-Oedipus in 1972, the break with Lacan was complete, Guattari was disowned by Lacan, and his radical approach to group therapy at his own clinic, as well as his activities with various activist organizations, provided more inspiration for his psychoanalytic theories than Lacan. While Deleuze and Guattari praised Lacan in Anti-Oedipus, they also criticized him, and Lacan did not take that well, and Deleuze and Guattari continued to develop a model much more radical than Lacan, the rift growing stronger each year (for more on Guattari, and Deleuze’s relation with him, see Roudinesco’s excellent biography Intersection Lives: Deleuze and Guattari).

When all this came to the United States, the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari were presented as radically distinct from that of Lacan, and very few were able to do both of these theorists well. In my own personal trajectory of study, I spent years working on Lacan, and even spent two years training as a clinical psychoanalytic psychotherapist, spending one year seeing patients in a low-fee clinic as part of my training. While this wasn’t a Lacanian psychoanalytic program, it was certainly inspired by the Freudian tradition, and it gave me a direct and intuitive sense of how therapy works from both sides. All the while, Lacan became an obsession for me, and understanding Lacan, as well as his resurrection by Slavoj Zizek, really occupied several years of my life.

It was only after this that Deleuze came to displace him. I’d read Deleuze sporadically over the years, and enjoyed him, but always saw him as too disorganized and light. It wasn’t until later that I got a sense of the fact that Deleuze as a philosopher was much deeper than the surface level manifestations that made so many people find his works interesting. After spending years on Lacan, I found myself drawn to what seemed like potentially a deeper truth, one that could explode many of the limitations of the Lacanian project, and which seemed a natural extension of the paths that the later Lacan was himself pursuing. And so I spent years diving into Deleuze and things Deleuzian, using his sources as a guide to expanding my own knowledge of this history of philosophy. If Lacan was my first ‘master,’ then Deleuze was certainly the second.

Hiding behind all of this, of course, was Hegel. Lacan was openly enamored of Hegel, but Deleuze saw Hegel as the source of much of what was wrong with the philosophy of his day. And as Zizek brought Lacan into the present day, it was by means of Hegel, such that today, Lacan/Zizek and Deleuze are often seen as divided precisely by Hegel. But many use these Lacan/Zizek in tandem with Deleuze, and increasingly, the old disagreements are falling aside as folks are looking to get beyond the old conflicts, and build new things. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think Deleuze’s hatred of Hegel is often misunderstood, and in many ways, Deleuze is much more Hegelian than he likes to admit. And many forget that Lacan’s first love was Spinoza (see Roudinesco’s biography Jacques Lacan), even as Spinoza  was a crucial inspiration for both Hegel and Deleuze. All of which is why I’ve argued that the time has come to try to think these theorists together, and see what can be built from the insights all of them bring.

Lacan and Deleuze? From Transvidual Subjectivity to Film and Beyond 

How might it be possible to bring Deleuze and Lacan productively together? One place to start would clearly be cinema. It seems pretty clear to me that the two most important theoretical approaches to film today are those presented by Lacanian versions of psychoanalytic film theory, and the counter models proposed by Deleuze. Many film theorists draw upon both of these theorists, even if for radically opposed purposes.

And this is because these two models are divided by a radically different approach to subjectivity. While many would see this as reason to keep these approaches separate, I feel they are in fact complementary, precisely because they differ on this point, even as they decompose subjectivity, Lacan from within and Deleuze from without, in ways which sync nicely with various reworkings of subjectivity occuring in our post-modern times, and with many potential links to networked forms of subjectivity.

That is, if Lacanian/Zizekian theory explodes subjectivity from within, Deleuzian models shatter it from without, and they meet in the middle at cinema. Ultimately I believe these can all be knit together by means of networked models, and the bridge I see helping us do this is the work of the relatively obscure psychoanalytic theorist W.R.Fairbairn. By means of Fairbairn, I think we can begin to weave together a model which can help synthesize the insights of both Lacan and Deleuze, bringing together both film theory and contemporary cognitive science within a networked model of mind, world, and experience.

But who was W.R. Fairbairn, and why haven’t most people working in film theory, philosophy, or therapy heard of him? Ronald Fairbairn was a Scottish psychoanalyst, most of whose works were written in the early 1950’s, the time during which Lacan was just starting to formulate his work in his public seminars. Working within the object-relations tradition which grew from the work of Melanie Klein after she moved to London to avoid Nazism, Fairbairn was a contemporary of D.W. Winnicott, someone whose work was crucially influential on Lacan, particularly in his development of the concept of the object a out of Winnicott’s notion of transitional objects. Lacan was also in close dialogue with the work of Melanie Klein, and in many ways, his notion of a subject occupying the registers of the symbolic and imaginary, as stages of development and also psychic positions, is developed from Klein’s notion of the depressive and paranoid positions, respectively.

Not too many pictures of Fairbairn, but here's one in middle age.

There’s no evidence that Fairbairn knew anything of Lacan. Most of Fairbairn’s key texts were  written between 1940-5, after Lacan had delivered fragments of his mirror stage essay to the IPA conference of 1939, but before he presented his famous Rome discourse in 1953, or began his weekly seminars in Paris. While Fairbairn’s work impacted object-relations theorists after him (particularly theorists like Harry Guntrip, Michael Balint, or Christopher Bolas), unlike Winnicott and Klein, few outside the object-relations traditions seem to know of his work. While the object-relations tradition is often the dominant mode of treatment in some South American countries in which Melanie Klein’s work seems to have found its most fervent admirers, in much of the therapeutic community beyond this, objects-relations practitioners tends to be a visible minority but no more, and amongst those, only those with a philosophical bent seem to be attracted to Fairbairn’s often baroque models of the mind. I would’ve never heard of him myself, had I not spent time studying clinical psychoanalysis, in which his works were briefly discussed. Unlike many of my peers, I found his work utterly fascinating. And as I found out, this is likely because in addition to the influence of Winnicott, Klein, and Freud on his theories, he was crucially influenced by the writings of Hegel, most likely from the British Idealist tradition that indirectly influenced folks as varied as John Dewey and T.S. Eliot, before he trained as a psychoanalyst.

While most of Fairbairn’s work was written before that of Lacan and Deleuze, there’s no evidence that either of these theorists had heard of Fairbairn’s work. For much of his professional life, Fairbairn had a relatively quiet psychoanalytic private practice in Edinburgh, commuting by train down to London for conferences and to deliver his papers. He didn’t like traveling, and found the journeys to London difficult, because he had an anxiety disorder relating to urinating that made this difficult. In addition, he was a relatively shy, reserved man, and he only published a handful of papers, most of which are collected in the unassumingly titled volume Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality.

Fairbairn as a younger man.

For those wanting to know more, much of the details of what follows can be found in two crucial, lengthy papers published in this volume. The first is “A Revised Psychopathology of the Psychoses and Psychoneuroses” (1941), in which Fairbairn attempts to systematize the Kleinian model of subject-object pairs, as well as the accompanying splittings of these into good and bad aspects, into a fourfold pattern which can help account for hysterical, obsessional, paranoid, and phobic modes of defense. The manner in which he does so anticipates many of the ways in which Lacan built upon Winnicott to formulate the ways in which subjects develop defenses in regard to their positioning in fantasy in relation to the object a. The most interesting paper, however, is 1945’s “Endopsychic Structure Considered in Terms of Object Relations.” This is the paper in which Fairbairn advances perhaps the most important concept for our purposes, and which can help provide a link between Lacan and Deleuze, namely, his theory of multiple egos.

Deleuzo-Lacanianism: The Networked Ego Model of W.R. Fairbairn

Fairbairn's Diagram for Endopsychic Structure: My description simplifies a bit, getting rid of the terms 'Internal Sabateur' (as he later did) and 'Exciting Ego' (using 'Stimulating Ego' for a more common contemporary psychoanalytic term), but the structure is the same

According to Melanie Klein, subjects deal with traumatic experiences in their lives by splitting the ambivalent contents of these experiences into their acceptable, ‘good’ parts, which are integrated into the ego, and their unintegrable, ‘bad’ parts which are repressed into the unconscious. Because these aspects of a subject’s world are ‘objects’ to it, even if these are people or aspects of people, Klein refers to them as objects (building on the Freudian split between the ways subjects relate to partial-objects of their drives as well as the ‘full-objects’ which are complete people), hence the term ‘object-relations theory’ which has come to be applied to this entire school of psychoanalysis.While some later schools have reworked the notion of objects described here to call them ‘self-objects’ (particularly the ‘self-psychology’ of Heinz Kohut), in traditional object-relations theory, any object or desire or fear, which is to say, both objects and people, are referred to as objects, no matter how strange this may be to those trained in other schools of thought.

For Klein, when subjects are in what she calls the paranoid-schizoid position (a precursor of Lacan’s notion of the imaginary), they compose their egos of only good objects which are ‘contained’ in the ego, while they continually ward off attacks from the ‘bad objects’ lurking in the unconscious, and often brought to the surface by unsettling experiences in the outside world in the present. Often these experiences occur when a person who ‘contains’ bad objects in fantasy interacts with the subject, activating the bad objects lurking in their own unconscious to attack them. The subject defends by splitting things, creating ‘schizzes’, walling themselves off from the sum of the attacking bad objects by means of a large wall which is defended in full paranoid fashion, whether the subject uses what Freud would have called psychotic or neurotic modes of defense.

In Klein’s model, both good and bad objects exist between the subject and their world, and here we see how the subject is really ‘outside itself,’ for the ego of the subject is nothing more than the ‘precipitate’ of its object-relations. Lacan crucially built upon these notions in his own work. For Klein, the only way to proceed to psychic health is to try to integrate one’s bad objects, but in order for this to happen, the subject needs to leave the paranoid position, and enter the depressive position. This position is called this because often the subject can only begin to heal when they realize that in order to heal, they need to not only accept the bad objects they have been defending against, but relinquish the good objects, in order to build their ego from whole objects which aren’t split, but rather, formed of ambivalence. The defense against ambivalence is what drives the paranoid position, while the depressive position requires an understanding of the extent to which the subject itself was partially at fault for that which attacks it. Only by giving up on the fantasy that dad was an angelic presence is it possible to integrate his bad sides which contradict this, and only by integrating these aspects of one’s past does it become possible to stop being haunted by a split dynamic in the present when people reactivate this old object-relation. The role of the therapist is to incarnate the troubling object-relation via the transference, and this helps the subject to work through this object relation, and work towards integration. The only way to do this, however, is to have a depressive realization that they must give up on a crucial, ‘good’ fantasy in their past in order to stop the ‘bad’ attacks in the present. We see here precursors of Lacan’s notion of the way subjects in analysis can only move past imaginary fixations when they ‘traverse the fantasy’ that binds them to troubling relations with the object a which haunt their present, allowing a transition to a more symbolic relation to the object a, one less plagued by the aggressivity of mirror-dynamics.

Who's Afraid of Melanie Klein? Lacan sure was, I can tell you that! Just read his account of her case studies, the phallic mother really gave that anal father the creeps . . .

Fairbairn saw Klein’s model as a starting point in need of structure. In his “Psychopathology” paper, he argues that there are four primary psychic positions of defense, all of which are variations on Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position. He calls these the hysterical, obsessional, paranoid, and phobic position, and each of these has a particular relation to good and bad objects. For Fairbairn, a subject with a phobic mode of defense has internalized a good object (ie: “I’m mommy’s favorite”), yet fears an attack from an external bad object (ie: “spiders are terrifying!.” Like phobic subjects, paranoid subjects fear attacks of a bad object coming from without. But they also often have fantasies of good things coming their way, devising elaborate delusions of grandeur, dreams of saving the world, if only those evil schemers don’t get in the way! Thus, while feared objects are without, so are the good objects trying to get in.

Hysterical subjects focus on themselves, and as such, feel continually attacked by bad objects from within (ie: psychosomatic pains), but also feel they are the site of everyone’s attentions, and hence have internalized good objects that they feel everyone is after (the stress of which may then lead to the psychosomatic pains). Obsessionals, on the contrary, are fixated on things outside of them, in that they fear attack from the outside (ie: contamination fears), but desire outside stimulus even as they are frigtened of it (ie: spending large amounts of time making plans for a voyage to see the world they are too scared to do because of these very fears of contamination).

Fairbairn radicalizes this all in his 1945 paper on “Endopsychic Structure.” This is the paper in which Fairbairn moves beyond the notion that there is one subject with many object-relations, and simply says that for each object, there is also a subject or ego that relates to it. That is, there are multiple egos, and what’s more, these form a network like structure. Fairbairn shifts in this essay from talking about good and bad objects, and moves fully to a fourfold terminology of accepted/rejected, stimulating/rejecting.

For example, when a young child deals with an inconsistent parent, who is generally preoccupied but occasionally showers attention on the child, the child may accept the stimulating parent that showers attention on them, while reject the preoccupied side of the parent that seems to reject them. Later in life, they may then tend to reactivate the object relation with the stimulating object by finding a partner that showers attention on them, but very often, those who shower tons of attention in short bursts just can’t keep it up all the time, and it is very likely this will lead this person to recreate the old object-relation in the present life, by finding a person who has a similar dichotomy as their parent. Therapy would then consist of realizing that the ‘stimulating object’ of the fantasy of someone who would shower attention on them is ghost of the past which haunts the future, creating unrealistic expectations in the present, which set the subject up for a repeat of the return of the rejecting object in the same partner. Only by finding partners that are more balanced will the subject be able to have healthy relationships, and this means giving up the attempt to reincarnate the fantasy of the (over)stimulating parent in present relationships. The therapist works to incarnate this relation, and by being more balanced, helps the subject to integrate their ambivalences, in the hope that this will transfer to the wider world.

For Fairbairn, as we go through life, we are showered by experiences, and these provide raw materials from which we build our egos. At first, there are only ego-nuclei, but eventually, two major nuclei form, a stimulating nucleus and a rejecting nucleus, and these are united by a central nucleus, each of which eventually forms full egos which then do war with each other. The central ego is mostly conscious, and is composed of non-split, fully-developed object relations. But it is full of links to the two primary subsidiary egos. The stimulating ego is formed from the integrated aspects of the primary ego which are connected to unconscious, repressed stimulating aspects which often ‘supercharge’ (a modern term often used in object-relations literature to describe this sensation) our relation to a conscious aspect of an object. If a patient comes to date someone, and stays with them even though they treat them poorly, they may start to wonder if there are unconscious attractions which keep them with this person despite themselves.  To an object-relations therapist, the goal of treatment is often trying to figure out which ‘stimulating object’ unconsciously keeps this person bound to someone who treats them poorly,  thereby bringing to consciousness the attacking objects the subject often wants to keep unconscious. And here we see the other ego, namely, the attacking ego, which has not only the objects which attack the subject, which are often conscious, but also the unconscious parts of the subject that relate to this. And here we see that for Fairbairn, wherever there is an object, there is a subject, we always have an object-relation, and any aspect of such a pairing can be conscious or repressed. These fragments form the components of the central, stimulating, and rejecting ego, each of which, though primarilly the final two, have unconscious aspects whose integration form the work of therapy.

These egos, composed of various selves and objects, some conscious and some unconscious, them form the agencies which, to use Fairbairn’s terms, ‘metabolize’ incoming experiences. That is, any new experiences are shattered into terms of subject-object relations that already exist, and these shattered fragements are used to bolster, repair, and reconstruct already existing parts of these egos. Because subjects tend to operate out of fear, particularly when stressed, there is a fundamentally conservative, defensive cast to ego formations, and they often only change when they feel everything is already. Analysis is an attempt to get the subject to the point at which they can rework their own egos in ways that satisfy the conscious, central ego, rather than have the conscious, central ego obey the dictates of the often unconscious aspects of either their stimulating/seducing ego or rejecting/attacking ones.

Cognitive Science and Networked Egos

Embodied Cognition Studies: A Hierarchical Artificial Neural Network

What Fairbairn is describing here is oddly supported by advances in contemporary cognitive science. Many theorists have argued that what we call consciousness is simply synced firing between groups of neurons in the networks of our brain. Things which sync together attempt to increase the cascade of sync, and when a synced part of the brain gets big enough, it may eventually come into sync with the largest synced firing group at work in the brain at any given moment. This group of pulsating neurons in sync, continually shifting in membership yet forming a shifting core, is the part of our mind which we call conscious awareness. As the membership of the core changes, and parts of our brain go in and out of sync with the largest group, these parts go on or off line, producing the sensation of thoughts coming in and out of awareness. This notion, called the ‘dynamic core’ hypothesis, has many adherents, and is described at length in books as diverse as Randy Cotterill’s Enchanted Looms: Conscious Networks in Brains and Computers (2000) or Christoph Koch’s The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach (2004), or Sync: How Order Emerges from Chaos in the Universe, by Steven Strogatz (2004).

One aspect of all this that’s quite interesting is that if consciousness is a dynamic shifting network, more like the membership of an online web-community or of protest movements like Occupy Wall Street than traditional notions of a stable, fixed ego, then not only is the ego continually shifting, but its various parts are always in contact with parts of our brain, which are outside of conscious awareness. For the way the brain is wired, according to a general model called ‘spreading activation,’ is that all neurons are connected to many others, so that when one neuron fires, it immediately sends messages to excite or inhibit the firing of other neurons. These connections strengthen with use. So if a particular neuron fires in sync with the dynamic core of conscious awareness, this is only because all of these in sync are linked by firing patterns which loop out of this and are out of sync with the general pattern. That is, there are contradictory firing patterns which in many ways cancel each other out, thereby allowing those which become conscious to fire without those around them inhibiting this.

What this means is that each neuron that fires is tied to an unconscious network that loops into and out of that which is not conscious at each moment. These unconscious networks support the conscious self. And since the conscious self is continually mutating in its parts, we can say it is in many senses multiple, just like the unconscious is. There are many selves, and though they have much in common, for there are patterns in the activation of the mind that are built into its wiring structures, the patterns of mutual excitation and inhibition, there is no question that Rimbaud had it right when he said “I is another.” Each of us is multiple and fragmented, as well as built out of the fragments of experience, and much of this is unconscious, with the various fragements of which we are composed connected to various unconsicous fragments.

And clearly, there are centers within these, dense transfer points, nodules which function as common modes of processing our experience. We can think of these as subsidiary egos, patterns of reading stimuli and reacting to them, subject-object pairs. And much of these structures may involve loops into other parts of the brain that cancel each other out, but whose cycles are necessary additional processes, and which may trigger others that operate outside of awareness.

Thus, it is perhaps not surprising when we say things like, “when I’m around that person, I just term into a person I don’t like, it’s like I’m someone else.” Because in fact, you are someone else, which is to say, a subsidiary ego has been activated, and this is often supported by object-relations which remain unconscious.

A Networked Cognitive Unconscious

Let’s now put this all in network terms. All parts of the brain are composed of neurons and their various nertworks, each of which can function as a hub linking others. Since the brain increases the connections between areas that fire together (a notion known as ‘long term potentiation’ or LTP, often described as a form of ‘neural Darwinism’ by figures like Gerald Edelman), these nodes and hubs not only form structures, but dynamic structures which serve as nodes within the networks between subjects and aspects of the world they encounter. And because aspects of the brain are continually trying to predict what others are going to ‘say’ to them (Jeff Hawkins calls this ‘memory-prediction,’ which he describes as the primary task of the neocortex, a process which others describe by means of notions of efference/afference copies), what we experience is in many ways shaped and filtered by our previous experiences.

The result is that there is a ‘planetary’ aspect of the way the mind seems to function. We can imagine these processing networks as planets of sorts, and new experiences as bits of space debris that get sucked to these centers of gravity that warp the spacetime around them the more mass they have. In neural terms, those processing modes with more neurons and interconnections (the dual result of LTP) tend to dominate our modes of processing, and weaving new ways of processing from underutilized networks can change this. This is often actively inhibited by networks of connections which are outside of our general awareness, and which may be difficult to hold in consciousness at the same time as others because inhibitory firings of various sorts may make this difficult. But this is why it often literally feels like our world is becomes warped, its spacetime curved, when we approach certain things in our experience that scare us, attract us, etc.

And because many of these networks are tied into parts of the body which release more globally modulating chemicals, from limbic system neuromodulators like serotonin (the ‘happy chemical’) to cortisol (the ‘stress’ chemical) and adrenaline (the ‘flight or fight’ chemical which is linked to cortisol), it may feel like our very bodies are resisting the attempt to activate certain underutilized networks in the brain. Hence, what we generally refer to as un or semi-conscious phenomenon, experiences of resistance, defense, etc. For when simply thinking a thought, even unconsciously, makes your body release chemicals that make you feel uncomfortable, even below the threshold of conscious awareness, might it not make sense to try to avoid these unconscious networks, even if one is unconscious of these very processes? And since the brain is a pattern recognizing machine, and since narrative is one of the most encompassing types of patterns we use, might we not them come up with all sorts of elaborate justifications for why we did these sorts of things, so as to protect ourselves from having to think it may have been done by parts of ourselves outside of our control? For in fact, anyone who studies the brain speaks extensively of parts of the brain that operate below conscious awareness (think of the systems that recognize the letters you’re reading, such that you don’t have to consciously recognize each letter). While therapists speak of unconscious entities, and these notions are quite useful for therapeutic purposes, this is increasingly finding support in the very findings of cognitive science, even though it is unlikely that therapists and cognitive scientists will speak in similar language about these issues any time soon, mostly because their goals are often radically distinct.

Networked Subjectivity and Film Theory

All of which brings us back to film theory. If Lacan’s model of subjectivity describes the experience of subjects in cinematic terms, as a product of fantasies that subjects continually engage with as if they were playing an interactive video-game of sorts, Deleuze describes the entire world, in and beyond human awareness, as cinematic in nature. Human experience is only one type of experience, and since Deleuze argues that all entities in the universe, following Bergson, can be thought of as various forms of refraction, absorption, transmission, and reflection of light, then bodies and their various modes of experiencing are simply complex intertwinings and foldings of light and its various impediments, refractions, transmissions, and reflections. When images absorb light rather than pass it on, the absorb sliced sections of the this light, called images, and they themselves become images for others to experience in the process. When these absorbing images keep aspects of images they absorb within them we speak of memory, and when memory links up with various new incoming images, we have the basic components of consciousness, self-consciousness, etc. For Deleuze, not only is experience cinematic, the world is cinematic.

All of which can be linked with networked models of the world, inspired by complex systems studied, particularly when combined with aspects of quantum physics which literally argue that the various aspects of our world of experience can be thought of as modulations of various vibrations of various rays and waves of the stuff of what is, of which light is a major component. Spacetime then becomes a function of these vibrational patterns, and the networks formed within these are the basic stuff of all that is. Consciousness is simply the folding of this basic stuff onto itself, such a network compares past modifications with present ones, and self-consciousness is the comparison of past comparisons with present ones.

If all the world can be thought of as networks of patterns within vibrational waves, there is no reason to split mind and body, for experience is simply what all the world does, even if it does it more intensely when networks of this vibrational stuff are more complexly intertwined. This notion, that all matter has the potential for more developed forms of awareness, is known as ‘panpsychism,’ and is increasingly finding adherents within cognitive studies from researchers who find the mind-body dualism increasingly unable to explain various aspects of mental phenomenon, due to evidence from the study of organic minds or in artificial intelligence. Panpsychism has nothing to do with psychics or new-age phenomenon, on the contrary, it is increasingly the position of serious and respected scientists and philosophers. Often describing themselves by means of the less ‘out there’ sounding term ’emergent cognition theory,’ mainstream theorists from Antonio Damasio, Andy Clarke, and David Chalmers have been powerful advocates for such an approach.

A lot of work remains to be done if this scientific set of models, which embrace everything from complex systems science to research on artificial neural networks and experimental mobotics, can productively come together with fields in the humanities like film theory and various philosophies, but one of the tasks of the networkological project is start doing this.

Building on Fairbairn, it becomes possible to begin discussing the various self-object pairs which link subjects and their world, which operate in the space between them, extimate formations which can occur in the world of external ‘physical’ experience, inner ‘mental’ experience, and/or ‘virtual’ filmic experience. These self-object pairs, often parts of scenes and narratives which comprise what psychoanalysis calls ‘fantasy,’ which film often works to stage, or the fragmented and shattered parts thereof, are really the ways our brain attempts to organize its own self-perception of its dynamic processes in relation to the world beyond it. And these self-object pairs, which are really multi-pole networks which represent temporary stable patterns within the dynamic networks of the world, exist in various degrees and types of complexity so as to compose the world beyond us, the world within us, and the experience which encompasses all and in between.

I plan to develop these models more in future works, but the basic outlines are here. It’s likely that I’ll want to integrate this more with the work of Felix Guattarri’s account of sub-subjective processes of parts of signs and various assemblages and abstract-machines, as well as unformed matter, in his fascinating text Machinic Unconscious (1978). There’s also Hjelmslev’s fascinating notion of purport, and how this relates to sign production via expression and content, a model employed extensively by Deleuze and Guattari in Thousand Plateaus (1981). There’s also a lot by Russian semioticians that I think is useful for think about the ways signs circulate within masses of people. In particular, the work of Yuri Lotman is great for thinking about economies of signs and their fragments, and I also like the world of Valentin Voloshinov and Pavel Medvedev, two early members of the Bakhtin circle. For all these theorists, subjects are the effects and products of networks, as are the which they use to communicate and form themselves, all from microfragments.

And it is at the level of microfragments that cognitive science once again comes into the picture. For if there is one thing that artificial neural networks have shown us, it’s how figures like letters are composed of microfeatures which are reconstructed on the fly by the brain from dynamic mappings of their shards. In fact, we never remember any scene in memory, we always reconstruct it from the tiniest of fragments of experience, and in this manner, the brain manages to be radically distributed as well as radically efficient. Bergson was right when he argued that memories were nowhere in particular in the brain, but as if ‘everywhere’ in the brain. For in fact, they are. While the instructions for assembling their aspects are often localized in various ways, the parts and the instructions are always in radically different parts of the brain, and often with multiple slightly different copies of each. No wonder we feel like a teeming mass of people inside of each of us – we are!


~ by chris on December 29, 2011.

10 Responses to “Towards a Networked Unconscious: Lacan, Deleuze, and Fairbairn, from Film Theory to Contemporary Cognitive Science”

  1. […] from within (for more, see how I propose to do this in my post on the networked unconscious here), with Deleuze doing this from without (for more, see my posts on Deleuze and the Cinema books on […]

  2. The issue in bringing Lacan and Deleuze together in the way suggested is that it runs the risk of doing so at the expense of one or the other. I’d suggest that Deleuze is the one potentially shortchanged in the proposed synthesis. Deleuze (wearing Bergson’s hat) questions whether recollection need be stored anywhere, let alone in the brain (be it somewhere in particular or everywhere within such). In the Cinema Books Deleuze elevates the term “image” to an almost objective status, “reversing platonism” as he foreshadows in The Logic of Sense. It is to take sense out of Subjectivity, take sense out of the Unconscious and give it it’s own name: Sense (or nonsense). To then put it back within Subjectivity (or the World, or God for that matter) would be to “reverse Deleuzianism”.

    • The Cinema books are def the place to go on this, because its here that we have an account of how subjectivity can be on a continuum with objectivity. But I don’t think this means Lacan’s insights on ‘traditional’ forms of subjectivity need be discarded. Deleuze’s doesn’t spend much time in the cinema books talking about traditional characters and plots in films, and Lacan’s emphasis on subjects and narratives in relatively traditional forms is still relevant to our lives. This is why I think Lacan is useful to help deconstruct traditional forms of subjectivity from within, and Deleuze from without.

      • Yeah for sure, it’s a good way of putting it: Deleuze doing his thing from the outside, Lacan from the inside. One can see both meeting in some sort of quasi-middle, a joint surface, a Lacanian mirror on the one hand or a Deluzian plane on the other perhaps. To make sense of this (rather than to find sense in this) as Deleuze might put it. cheers Carl

  3. But I like the idea. What’s required is to ensure that the difference between Lacan and Deleuze is maintained rather than reinforcing similarities and discarding or worse, transforming those aspects which differ into quasi-similar ideas. Certainly a good meeting place is the cinema. But how to project each? What is the resulting interference pattern? Is Deleuze really suggesting the world is like a cinema? Is it not the “organic” cinema (which Deleuze recognises) that embarked on a project of doing the reverse – creating a cinema that would be like the world? And when we eventually get to the “crystalline” cinema, what aspect of “the world” behaves anything like Last Year At Marienbad? This film dismantles the world and substitutes something else with it’s own logic and sensibilities.

  4. One of the interesting aspects of a film like Last Year At Marienbad is it’s networked (interconnected (non-Leibzian) multiverse) structure. But at the same time, it remains trapped within the logic of cinema, while able to anticipate or imagine (or represent) the Interactive-Image it isn’t able to become, in itself, interactive. It can only point to it. Suggest it. The bullet time effects of The Matrix echo a similar drama – pushing hard on that boundary (and falling back) but both exploiting that for all the drama it creates, ie. relishing the fact that they are not interactive (whether they could have been or not). The interactive remains virtual. While Deleuze anticipates the numeric image he doesn’t quite anticipate the actualisation of interactive images. An interesting side note is Greenaway who was going to make Prospero’s Books as an interactive DVD but went cold on it and put it back in cinema (he now actually does interactive installations!).

    Greenaway films misunderstand (for the most part) the cinema. It’s as if cinema/pho/tography was simply no more than the perfection of Renaissance/Baroque painting (in essence no different from painting) rather than something quite different.

  5. Honestly, I’m a huge greenaway fan. I don’t think he so much misunderstands the cinema as painting, but rather, uses painting to transform cinema into something baroquely strange, not a repetition of painting, but becoming-painting.

    As to whether or not cinema ‘should’ be interactive, certainly there’s a lot to say for interactivity, but that’s also not what the medium of cinema does. I’m not sure interactivity is the only way to release the virtualities present in cinema as a singular formation. Rather than wish cinema were more like video-games, I still think cinema itself has much to teach us about what the world can do. And sometimes that involves going radically backwards in new ways, like Greenaway does, rather than ‘forwards’, no?

    • Yes the cinema, as non-interactive, has it’s own directions and possibilities which continue to be productive alongside the emergence of the interactive image. The ‘cinema’ which eventually does become interactive no longer (or never adopts) the name: Cinema. The interactive-image is still in it’s infancy of course (infantile games) – Greenaway interactives (amongst others) being the obvious exceptions.

      The interactive-image constitutes a break which cinema is unable to cross without becoming something other than cinema, requiring another name (“video game” being a somewhat loaded candidate). Or one can multiply out the narrative so that it’s not a case of some destiny that cinema is somehow unable to meet – in much the same way that Bazin multiplies out photography from painting, so that both can continue becoming in their own way, in different ways.


  6. What is a problem in Greenaway cinema is that it doesn’t belong in cinema. This is not necessarily a criticism but aims to become such. Duchamp’s urinal does not belong in a gallery. It is the act of putting it there which then redefines or otherwise deconstructs the proposition “it doesn’t belong”. It doesn’t belong therefore it belongs. Of such Deluzian sense or Derridean differance can also be wrought. If Greenaway films misunderstand cinema then they can also propositionally understand cinema. One presupposes the other. A Greenaway film can provoke some aspect of cinema by emptying cinema of that aspect. It is the absence which could be notable by it’s absence.

    The absence of paint in a painting is a blank canvas. Even numeric images start off initialised as something, all zeros. Or preloved memory (now called random) about to be reformatted. But the photographic image starts off as something undefined, or not well defined. One could speak of the blank photographic film, yet it is not possible to look at it without it becoming not blank. At what point was it blank? There is much that is peculiar about the photographic, a ghost or spectre that can’t be exorcised, as Derrida might say. A phantasm in the centre of sense as Deleuze might intuit.

  7. Prosperos Books is not a case of a something that didn’t belong in the cinema being put there for that reason. It is a case of cinema being used as a rubbish bin for a work whose time had not yet arrived. Prospero’s Books is an unfinished artwork dumped on a cinema screen. It is this abuse of cinema (as a rubbish bin) that starts to echo across the films leading up to Propsero’s Books and those that follow.

    Something like this would be how I’d put it.


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