As I drive back from analysis several times a week I pass a billboard advertising plastic surgery. “The Six-Pack Redefined” it proclaims, and shows a ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture of a man who has been given a sexy “six-pack body”. Even at the darkest moments of my analysis I have not been tempted. I think the ‘before’ picture looks more like my cup of tea so to speak, apart from not being able to afford what I imagine is expensive surgery. But I am very curious about the red slash across one corner of the billboard which says “As seen on TV”.
The red slash ‘As seen on TV’ seems to be some sort of recommendation or validation of the procedure. I don’t have a television myself and willingly miss out on this important aspect of popular culture. I prefer to listen to the radio (the pictures are better I find) and I am an avid collector of podcasts. So I have no idea how this procedure can be seen on tv, but I imagine perhaps as a commercial, or docuvert I think they are called. What interests me is how it seems to imply if something is ‘seen on TV’ it is more credible, or somehow more ‘real’.
Many years ago I read a book I remember as “The Private Future”. I have not been able to find this book since, but I recall a chapter on television and culture. The author suggested one of the difficulties with television is it brings the most public of arenas into our most private realm. Where once families would gather around the hearth or its equivalent, increasingly we sit around a television. This turns the private inside out, blurring the distinction between public and private in ways that reality tv shows have further exploited. In addition the distinction between what is ‘significant’ and what is less ‘significant’ is further blurred: Thus we watch a news item about a human disaster somewhere in the world in the same breath as we watch an advertisement for underarm deodorant or the latest washing powder. Even worse to my mind news has become ‘entertainment’ and the newsreaders have become celebrities.
This reminds me of Donald Meltzer’s paper on Adhesive Identification (1975) where he writes of research he participated in with autistic children. They noticed there was no inside or outside in these childrens’ minds, no interior and exterior. They would draw a picture of a house and turn it over and draw another house on the other side of the page but the two doors lined up exactly, as if stepping into the house meant stepping out at one and the same time. I wonder if we are encountering a form of cultural autism where there is no distinction between inside and outside, public and private, friends on Facebook and actual intimacy.
But I digress, I was wanting to think about neuroscience. This ‘As seen on TV’ slash on the six-pack plastic surgery advertisement reminds me of the impact of contemporary neuroscience on psychoanalysis. I think ‘As seen on functional MRI’ has become somewhat equivalent in the field of the mind to ‘As seen on TV’ in the field of cosmetic surgery. Whilst increasingly the discoveries of modern technology confirm much that Freud observed, started us thinking about, and we now observe ourselves in our practice, ‘As seen on MRI’ seems to make these observations and thoughts more credible, as if we could never quite believe ourselves. At times neuroscience’s almost obsessive attempts to explain who we are through functional MRI scanning and the anatomy of the brain is reminiscent of the craze for phrenology that occupied the 18th century where it was thought we could tell something useful about a person by mapping the bumps on their head.
I am not suggesting that we should reject the technology to help us understand ourselves or that we ought to dismiss the findings of technology – that would be silly – but I do think there is something disturbing in the way something is not quite ‘real’ until a machine tells us so! Perhaps we are more willing to believe in Higgs Boson than the the existence of an unconscious because the former is mathematical, and because it does not seem to shape our lives in the same way! We may only ‘know’ the Higgs boson directly through a very big machine, the Large Hadron Collider, currently looking for it. I wonder if the best device for detecting the traces of the unconscious is a mind that is attuned, or a machine.
The unconscious is more awkward than the Higgs boson in an everyday kind of way for most of us and that has always made it unpopular. I believe Freud who began as a neurologist would have been delighted with the abilities of neuroscience to further investigate the mind, but I don’t think he would have stopped observing how people behaved, what they said and dreamed! He was anxious to ensure psychoanalysis was accepted as a scientific endeavour because science gave it some measure of acceptability. As Heidegger has suggested, science has become the arbiter of what is real and has replaced religion as the arbiter of ‘human-beingness’.
There is some connection (I am not sure what yet) to a conversation I listened to as a podcast on “All In The Mind’ (Australian Broadcasting Corporation with Natasha Mitchell) where the topic under discussion was the amount of culpability that can be attached to criminal acts committed by someone subject to an addictive substance. This had me thinking about the chain of events leading to the act committed under the influence. Assuming the addiction usually starts with a decision to try the addictive substance, could one work back up the line from the offence to the decision to become addicted and make an inference of responsibility?
However that in turn had me thinking about ‘community’ and how some people seem doomed to become addicts by virtue of the environment they grow up in. Are we all ultimately responsible for a criminal act committed by someone? When we lived in villages perhaps this link would have been easier to make. Now we are faced with global warming we are having to revisit the interconnectedness of things in a way that may force us to rethink everything.