The Primacy of the Rational ‘Unconscious’
[Essay on the political dangers of denigrating the ‘irrational’by progressive intellectuals. Image by Banksy.]
The Primacy of the Rational ‘Unconscious’ over the Conscious and Rational
At least since the introduction of Calvinist capitalism and Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum, the rationalist faith of the new bourgeois male individual, most progressively minded people have also tended to be rationalists in the tradition of the bourgeois Enlightenment, believing in the primacy of the rational intellect and the left brain (the ‘cogito’) over the allegedly murky world of the body/right brain and its instincts, feelings, dreams and desires. The latter was indiscriminately labelled ‘irrational’ and left to the conquered world of the pre-modern ‘primitives’, women, witches, religious superstition, ‘nature’, the lower classes. Enlightenment and Progress became synonymous with rationalism and reductionist science (or scientism).
The 19th century Romantic reaction to this dominant hierarchical binary then sought to defend the excluded and repressed and, later at its right-wing and even fascist worst, glorified the unconscious and ‘nature’ into a cult of the irrational which sought to reject the rational as ‘shallow’, ‘mechanical’ or ‘destructive of organic (hierarchical) community’. The Romantic reaction (cf. today’s deep green ‘primitivists’) in turn has tended to reinforce the rationalism and scientism of most progressively thinking people up to this day.
A pox on both your houses.
I would argue that neither the common people nor artists have ever fully come round to the rationalist viewpoint despite its dominance of the capitalist education system. This is because it is a one-sided, and thus false and potentially oppressive, view of how humans work. Most common people still, for better or for worse, rely more on ‘gut feelings’ for basic decisions than on abstract rationality or cost-benefit analysis. Despite the many attempts since Calvinism, the Catholic Counter-reformation, the Jacobins, Victorian utilitarians, communist bureaucrats and other earnest wowsers and fundamentalists to stamp it out, they also have a continuing and stubborn interest in the ‘irrationalities’ and collective joys of the festive and carnivalesque.
Artists and poets, unless wedded to the bourgeois strictures of shallow realism, have never allowed this artificial and oppressive binary of ‘rationality’ versus ‘irrationality to interfere with the reality of their creative work. This is because, by definition, this work relies heavily upon all that condemned by shallow rationalism and scientism: the unconscious, the right brain, dreams, the communication between the intellectual neo-cortex and the older mammalian and brain-stem parts of the brain and body. All this can also be framed using less scientific notions such as mystery, magic, phantasy and the imagination. Anybody involved in creative work, including scholarly or scientific creativity, knows that both the unconscious and the conscious, right and left brain are needed, that most innovative ideas come from the former while the latter tidies up, analyses, consciously relates and connects, pushes forward into and beyond the boundaries of new cognitive territory.
My political argument is that rationalist and scientistic progressives denigrate and ignore the so-called ‘irrational’ at their own peril. This leaves this whole primary area of human experience to the manipulations of the right and the advertising industry. It could be argued (as Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch did in the thirties) that one reason for fascism’s defeat of the working class movements was its superior connection with, and manipulation of, the so-called ‘irrational’, albeit in the form of highly regimented, hierarchical arranged and designed spectacles that precluded participation and creativity.
The great thing about modern science and rationality is how it tends to constantly reach the boundaries of its own reductionism and discover that reality works in ways that question that very reductionism. What happened in the world of quantum physics may now be happening in neuroscience and cognitive psychology.
It could be ironically argued that modern neuroscience and cognitive science have now even empirically shown that the so-called ‘irrational’ would actually be the unconscious source of rationalist progressives’ very own ideas, morality and rationality. In an apparent blow to naïve theories of rational education, science has now confirmed what most people probably already know: we accept certain ideas or values or even people over others not primarily because of their ‘rational cohesion’ or ‘rational persuasiveness’ (the latter possibly an oxymoron). The latter may come afterwards. Before an idea hits our intellects we have already accepted or rejected it on the basis of our ‘gut feeling’, i.e. our ‘adaptive unconscious’, our ‘intuition’. (Now even reductionist science has provided empirical physical evidence of the truth of ‘gut feeling’: the digestive system actually does have a separate brain or ‘enteric nervous system’ with its own neuronal system; cf. appendix below.) Thus much rational thought may be little but a post-factum rationalisation of ‘gut feelings’. It may be worth trying to occasionally tune into those gut feelings before engaging in rational debate…
I would thus argue that teachers primarily make an impact by their personalities, passions and ways of being, and any intellectual persuasion comes because and top of that primary relationship. It is well known that at job interviews decisions are usually made about applicants not after long ‘rational decision-making’ but in the first few seconds of their entering and speaking. Neuroscience has verified that we acquire much more information ‘by osmosis’, ‘intuitively’, ‘unconsciously’ than we do consciously through our intellects as ‘pure thoughts’. Thus the ‘irrational’, or what we might also call our ‘whole-body knowledge’, is our primary way of being in the world. It is a product of our evolutionary experience: faced by the strange, the unexpected, the new, we have to decide immediately whether to flee or fight, not first sit down and engage in abstract, rational, utilitarian thinking about it.
The logical consequence of all this for any radical activism is that we should not exclusively focus on rational argument. We should be spending at least as much time and energy thinking about our ‘intuitive’ or ‘unconscious’ attractiveness, our ‘vibe’, our aesthetics, our art and poetry and music and symbols, our energy, drive, gestures, postures and rituals, the warmth and fun of our communities etc than we should be about our rational arguments, our pamphlets and tracts. Simply, we should be seeking no privileging of one or the other but rather a creative interplay of left and right brain, the rational and the unconscious. In the political reality of contemporary mass movements this is in fact already the case, for
whatever its shortcomings as a means of social change, protest movements keep reinventing carnival. […] The media often deride the carnival spirit of such protests, as if it were a self-indulgent distraction from the serious political point. But seasoned organizers know that gratification cannot be deferred until after ‘the revolution’. […] People must find, in their movement, the immediate joy of solidarity, if only because, in the face of overwhelming state and corporate power, solidarity is their sole source of strength. (Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets, 259)
I have appended passages form Wikipedia about the neuroscience of the unconscious.
(Wikipedia, Neuroscience of Free Will):
Relevant findings include the pioneering study by Benjamin Libet and its subsequent redesigns; these studies were able to detect activity related to a decision to move, and the activity appears to be occurring briefly before people become conscious of it. Other studies try to predict a human action several seconds early. Taken together, these various findings show that at least some actions – like moving a finger – are initiated unconsciously at first, and enter consciousness afterward. The role of consciousness in decision making is also being clarified: some thinkers have suggested that it mostly serves to cancel certain actions initiated by the unconscious. […]
One significant finding of modern studies is that a person’s brain seems to commit to certain decisions before the person becomes aware of having made them. Researchers have found delays of about half a second (discussed in sections below). With contemporary brain scanning technology, other scientists in 2008 were able to predict with 60% accuracy whether subjects would press a button with their left or right hand up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made that choice. These and other findings have led some scientists, like Patrick Haggard, to reject some forms of “free will”. To be clear, no single study would disprove all forms of free will. This is because the term “free will” can encapsulate different hypotheses, each of which must be considered in light of existing empirical evidence.
(Wikipedia, The Unconscious Mind):
Cognitive research has revealed that automatically, and clearly outside of conscious awareness, individuals register and acquire more information than what they can experience through their conscious thoughts. (See Augusto, 2010, for a recent comprehensive survey.)
(Wikipedia, The Adaptive Unconscious):
The adaptive unconscious is a set of mental processes influencing judgment and decision making, in a way that is inaccessible to introspective awareness. This conception of the unconscious mind has emerged in cognitive psychology. It was influenced by, but different from, other views on the unconscious mind such as Sigmund Freud’s.
The adaptive unconscious is distinguished from conscious processing in a number of ways, including being faster, effortless, more focused on the present, and less flexible.
In other theories of the mind, the unconscious is limited to “low-level” activity, such as carrying out goals which have been decided consciously. In contrast, the adaptive unconscious is thought to be involved in “high-level” cognition such as goal-setting as well.
According to Freud, the unconscious mind stored a lot of mental content which needs to be repressed. The term adaptive unconscious reflects the idea that much of what the unconscious does is beneficial to the organism; that its various processes have been streamlined by evolution to quickly evaluate and respond to patterns in an organism’s environment.
Although research suggests that much of our preferences, attitudes and ideas come from the adaptive unconscious, subjects themselves do not realise this: they are “unaware of their own unawareness”. They give verbal explanations of their own mental processes—for example why they chose one thing rather than another—as if they could directly introspect the causes of their ideas and choices
(Wikipedia, The Enteric Nervous System):
The enteric nervous system (ENS) or intrinsic nervous system is one of the main divisions of the autonomic nervous system and consists of a mesh-like system of neurons that governs the function of the gastrointestinal system.
The ENS is capable of autonomous functions such as the coordination of reflexes; although it receives considerable innervation from the autonomic nervous system, it can and does operate independently of the brain and the spinal cord.
The enteric nervous system consists of some one hundred million neurons, one thousandth of the number of neurons in the brain, and essentially equal to the one hundred million neurons in the spinal cord.  The enteric nervous system is embedded in the lining of the gastrointestinal system, beginning in the esophagus and extending down to the anus.
~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on January 8, 2014.
Posted in art, critical theory, essays, poetry, social change, social theory
Tags: activism, adaptive unconscious, carnivalesque, collective joy, enlightenment, ENS, gut feelings, intuition, irrational, left brain right brain, rationalism, romanticism, scientism, unconscious