The human and the relation to the non-human

More reflections prompted by:

Clare Cooper Marcus, House as a mirror of self. Exploring the deeper meaning of home, Lake Worth, Nicolas Hays, 2006 [1995].

Cooper Marcus argues following Jung that:

“In the course of our lives, other people enter, and sometimes leave the field of our psychic awareness. […] What is less obvious is that the same thing happens with the objects and places in our lives. We selectively pay attention and invest them with emotion as it serves the deeper, largely unconscious process of individuation, or becoming who we truly are. […] In our own lives we select the sets and props of different “acts” (or periods of life) in order – often unconsciously – to display images of ourselves and to learn by reflection of the environment around us.” p. 8

Cooper Marcus over the course of the 20 year period of gestation of her book developed a fascinating technique which invited people to visually draw a representation of their home, then to speak to that representation of home as they would to a human person and then invite the home speak back to them. What interests me about this is the recognition of the non-human as a person in its own right and the idea that the human is not the only existent who acts in the world. The human, in fact, exists in relation to a very broad network of the human and non-human. This is of course Bruno Latour’s actor network theory (orginally derived from aspects of Foucault’s work).

But in Jungian fashion, Cooper reads this as the material things simply reflecting back to us our own preoccupations and projections, or alternately our manipulation of those material things. I would perhaps modify the statement I made in my last post and suggest that Jung’s thought was just as colonising as Freud’s in that it appropriates and colonises the other in the interests of the self. The New Age movement which has taken on many aspects of Jungian psychology tends to reduce the external world to the desires, wants and failings of the self. The external is simply a subservient instrument in the expansion and fortification of the self.

I always feel a sense of unease when encountering psychological and existential/phenomenological systems of thought and note my preference for an approach like Foucault’s. In psychology and the systems of Freud and Jung, the starting point is always the self which spreads to occupy every aspect of existence. Everything becomes a reflection or projection of the self and the hard boundaries of the other are eliminated, colonised and assimilated. Jung argues that what we see in the external are projections of our own unconscious. One becomes trapped in a claustrophobic system where there is no outside to the self. The unknown, the unconscious is a substrata of the self which either waits to be discovered or exposed to the light of day (Freud), or are unrecognised projections of the self, both individual and collective which are then open to manipulation (Jung).

Foucault however, begins with the premise that we are born already belonging to a historical, cultural, linguistic and material situation. The human self is born into this complex network and the measure of freedom of the self is the capacity to modify that belonging, even if it is only in the tiniest of ways. Those modifications are networked into the broader outside and we use and modify tools already available in human culture and history to effect changes to ourselves within this broad network. It is not about creating an ever expanding fortress of identity (Jung’s strange Bollingen Tower project might be an example of this), but of understanding our limits and intersections with the network of which we are a part.

The new school of Object Oriented Ontology or Speculative realism also argues for the position that non-human things are not simply screens onto which the human self is projected, but have their own autonomy. These ideas find predecessors in the structuralist movement, including Foucault’s own ideas.

I noted in my book in relation to structuralism:

In the place of research centred around an unchanging and introspective human subject, the structuralists advocated the exploration of the unconscious structures underlying culture, knowledge, society and language – in short the structures underlying all human endeavour. They examined structures of cultural production without linking them back to a central human agency or to individual psyches, to consciousness or to individual lived experiences of existence.
Clare O’Farrell, Michel Foucault, London: Sage, 2005

Going on to quote Foucault

It is humanism that is abstract! It is all these cries from the heart, all these claims concerning the human person and existence that are abstract: that is, cut off from the scientific and technical world which is actually our real world … Well, the current effort being made by people of our generation, is not to set up man against science and against technology, but precisely to show that our thought, our life, our way of being, right down to our most everyday way of being, are a part of the same systematic organization, and thus emerge from the same categories as the scientific and technical world. It is the ‘human heart’ which is abstract, and it is our research which seeks to link man to his science, to his discoveries, to his world, which is concrete.
Foucault, Entretien avec Madeleine Chapsal. In Dits et ecrits, vol I., (Paris: Gallimard), pp.517-18)

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