I’m reading a book called Civilization and Monsters (1999) by Gerald Figal, which is an ethnography of modernization in Meiji Japan (1860s-1930s). It focuses on the rhetoric of fantasy. There were intriguing debates in those days between folklorists and naturalists, which can provide fodder for metaphysical speculations, and insight into current political conditions. The project of cultivating a national spirituality led the Japanese folklorists to produce a sort of patriotic fantasy literature, but that genre ran into conflict with scientific positivism. This sort of dialectic is a variation on the common mythos-logos tension that often runs through modernization discourses. But there was something distinctive about how these debates unfolded in Japan, and this area of discourse is especially relevant for understanding what is happening in east Asia today.
To outline an original path through this impasse between science and spirituality, I will suggest how the (rationalist) psychoanalytic cure can be allegorized with (spiritualist) religious conversion to conceive a hybrid event which is neither psychoanalytic nor religious, but something entirely anomalous. This event involves an original externalization of the superego. This is a theory of the event that can move beyond the mythos-logos impasse. This could have interesting political consequences.
Let’s begin with a simple model of psychopathology. A pathological subject is one who perceives different objects, experiences, loves… but these all share a common essence which is the fundemental fantasy. Thus we can define pathology simply as obstinacy. The fantasy is like a fence that encloses the range of possible experiences, and the problem of psychoanalysis is to help the subject move that fence. This allows for a richer psychic life, because it opens a wider range of possible relationships. I want to consider this fence-moving as an allegory for religious conversion.
The psychoanalytic cure implies a new relation with the instinctual drive, where the drive itself remains the same, but the disposition of subjectivity in relation to it changes. There is some change in how the energy of the drive is represented symbolically. This is a new partitioning of the drive-energy between self and other, and this redistribution is what I conceive as a conversion-cure event. This is where subjectivity is restructured so the drive possesses it otherwise. This event is where the attribution of the drive shifts onto the other, so it becomes the other’s drive.
The event of religious conversion can provide a sense of relief, because the burden of the drive is shifted to the Other. Previously, the drive affected the subject more directly, disrupting their temperment, and binding them to a limited horizon if relationships. But with conversion the drive is attributed to the deity. This way, religious conversion can be understood as an event which establishes a margin of disassociation from the drive-energy. The drive is resymbolized, so that it is attributed to the alterity if the other.
In psychoanalysis, the drive which irritates the subject has been channelled through the super-ego, the hypothetical faculty which deploys the drive as social pressure. This way the force of the drive becomes a pressure rivetted onto the subject. The event of cure provides relief from this rivetting, by externalizing this faculty, so the subject gets some distance from it. The subject finds some new liberty in how they relate to the drive.
In religion, the super-ego gets externalized when it is replaced by God, while in psychoanalysis the externalization takes place through the analyst. What interests me here is whether this externalization might be conceived in a way that is non-clinical, and yet rigorously materialist. I want to conceptualize a conversion-cure that would proceed without analyst and without God. This event would reposition subjectivity within the system of affects. The superego operates affect-identity traps which capture subjects in particular relations with the drive.
Fascism and consumerism offer seductive affects linked with identities. The conversion-cure would contrast with these temptations, as an alternative system of identity and affect. But the concept of this event would remain closely connected to models of how the superego functions in consumerism and fascism.
In this regard, I want to consider the case of the Japanese folklorist Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962). He studied the invisible spirits of the Japanese people and transcribed folktales in a manner reminiscent to how the Grimms brothers had treated the Germanic spirit a few decades earlier. This sort of spirit quest provides a form of enjoyment, where the Thing is this living essence of the nation. There was an event that occured in the middle of Yanagita’s career which provides a model for an event of conversion-cure.
Yanagita’s early writings focused on a certain legendary monster, the tengu. This is a ghostly thing that lives in the mountains and takes different forms. For instance, a tengu can appear in the guise of a wandering monk. Yanagati published volumes of ghost stories about people getting possessed by tengus. He effectively approached this monster as the core of Japanese spirituality. He elaborated the abstract logic if its transformations in legends, and proposed that this was the hidden nuomena of his nation. As this work continued, he gradually became obsessed with these creatures, and apparently even beleived in their actual existence. In this early phase he was also interested in female shamans, who went into the mountains where they conversed with divine beings and underwent initiations. This brought him to the topic of hysteria, which was assiciated with tengu-possession and mountain madness. This aspect of Japanese folk culture that was getting stigmatized and pathologized through modernization, and mountain madness was a fleeting site of resustance against the Meiji enlightenment. Eventually the scientific community ridiculed Yanagita for being superstitious, as if he were succumbing to some effeminizing mountain madness himself.
In the mid-1920s he abandoned this concern with the mountain-tengus which had been at the center of his early work. The focus of his later research shifted onto ancestral cults of Okinawa, and in those patriarchal cults he relocated the spiritual heart of Japan in his later writings. These ancestors were a kind of omnipresent surveillance agency, which perpetually watched over the Japanese people. These ancestral cults were the core institutions of the emerging Japanese fascism. After being ridiculed for his beleif in ghosts, he shifted his work into the service of nationalism.
This shift from tengus to ancestors illustrates how the superego can be refigured. My concern here is that the superego itself could have an underlying invariable existence – a nuomenal Thing – which can be figured according to these different avatars. The ancestors replaced the tengus as a superegoic figure. These figures externalize a communal super-ego, so that a community is possessed by this external agency.
But how could materialists pursue analagous refigurations of the superego? How to conceptualuze the possibilities for how the nuomena could repossess us otherwise?
Let us hypothesize that the superego itself may have an actual material existence however unlocalized. This would be a social physiology that would regulate the circulation of affects, a chemical system of communication within the nervous system. This system continually models our position within society, and modulates the electrochemistry of our drives according to its symbolization of our social behavior. The superego would thus exist concretely, and would perform a symbolic modelling independantly of the psyche. This system would regulate the ammount of drive-energy available for the psyche, along with its emotional disposition.
This way of conceiving the superego is foreign to psychoanalysis, which considers symbols as part of the psyche. So I’m interested in a non-psychic symbolic, a kind of karmatic physiology, that would replace the narrowly psychological conception of the symbolic Other. So this event would break with therapeutic theory or clinical psychology. There is an implicit psychologicism in all clinical theory, which is perhaps part of a Cartesian legacy which translates symbols back into subjective relations.
The event I propose would occur at a point where the subject separates its own identity from this automated karmatic system. This would be a realization that this system is something appart from the psyche, something that perceives and codifies the body from the outside. This Thing would exist seperately as an automatic network for the social regulation of affects. This external faculty would survey the subject’s actions, model their behavior karmatically, and generate the physiological responses which cause their affective dispositions. This material bureaucracy of affects is independant of the psyche.
This way the subject’s affects would no longer be experienced as immediately theirs, but would come to them indirectly, according to how this social system codifies their behavior. And they can only attain limited understanding of this mdchanism. This way they would not actively take their enjoyments, but rather receive them as retribution from this Thing.
The Japanese ancestors provide a model for this Thing, which could be figured according to different avatars. It could be figured as ancestors, gods, heroes, lovers, leaders, parents, children, neighbors, animals or enemies. Beneath all these avatars is the physiological Thing which generates affective disposition towards karmatic others.This Thing can be allegorized with any social relation, yet its actual embodyment is physiological. It’s a kind of blank superego that is open to any figurations. This way the subjects are not affected directly by any real social relations, but only through their physiological codification. This is a biological theory of karma as a neurochemical modelling of social relations.
This materialist subject would be liberated to pass through various avatars of the Thing, which each possess the community differently in turn. This sort of mediated socialization is more satisfying than limited approaches which fix the Thing as an identity relation. Materialism allows for a wider range of affective dispositions, because the Thing can always be refigured otherwise.
However, this infinite range of affective variation can also be a liability. The functioning of this material superego would require a degree of figural composition. The model of society and our orientation in it must be coherently figured. Without figural coherence the materialists risk catatonia. Avoiding catatonia requires an adequite repetoire of symbols and figures that code globally.
Much of this problem concerns the selection of personas, which are figurations of subjectivity disposed under singular conditions. They provide subjective skins or costumes. These could be races, or cults, or just vague sets of traits. A persona can be positioned on the side of the other or on the side of self, which means as either surveyer or surveyed, codifier or codified. The Other is the watcher whose symbolic perception grants the self its share of drive-energy, just as did the ancestors of the japanese.
Fascism and consumerism capture subjectivity into fixed relations with the nuomenal. They fixate the nuomenal as an identity. The materialist event would be a revelation that the superegoic Thing is without figure. This Thing is rather a karmatic function, that can be refigured according to whatever contingencies arrise. It may be hard to predict how it will operate. This way there is a solidarity between logos and mythos, such that our materialist rationality promotes the infinite expression of spirituality.
This implies a dualism between the material base of physiology and the identities of spirituality. Here we are approaching the sort of Platonism that was circulating in Paris during the mid-20th century. This is comparable to the theory Deleuze outlined in Logic of Sense (1969). My proposed event takes a step beyond Deleuze’s “world without others” by positing the Other as a material actuality. This is not a world without others, but one where alterity has been radicalized. I’m interested in an Other that is actual, but which exists on a dimension completely foreign to that of the psyche.
This event would open a critical distance between affects and identities. The superegoic Thing produces affects through the physiology, and we know little about this procezs. Affects just befall us without cause. But perhaps we are free in how we figure them for identity. And this figuration may transform how they are felt.
This theory is geared towards the current conditions in the Chinese world. Development in the People’s Republic has been following Japanese models on many points, and the dialectic of modernization and spirituality has entered a phase where the metaphysics of ancestry is becoming decisive. Xi Jinping speaks of ancestral fabulations like the Spiritual Civilization and the Chinese Dream, while the new Confucianists have proposed a reformed government based on ancestral castes. In this environment, I beleive the superego should be annexed by a conceptual materialism. The point is to ensure that figurations of the nuomenal remain variable. This might be accomplished by separating the origins of affect from the realm of psychological identity.