Reconceiving the unconscious

Reading Schutz, and examining the structure of lived experience I am suspecting more and more that what we call “unconscious” and habitually conceptualize spatially as submerged beneath our awareness has been misconceived — or, to put it in more designerly language, is a conceptualization that introduces tradeoffs which might not be optimal for our purposes. And what is this purpose, I’d like to optimize for? I’ll try to pin it down: I think in popular thought (which is the thought that creates, re-creates and shapes society, through ethnomethods) we radically misunderstand the relationship between language and lived experience. We have a tendency to conflate consciousness and speech. If something resists language, and we find ourselves unable to capture it our memory with the help of words, that wordless memory of images, sounds, feelings, etc. seems to sink faster into oblivion, and to be harder to retrieve. My hunch is that words are nonverbal memory aids that condense experience from the mental environment. When we have words for what happens to us we are able to “objectify” what is going on, whether what is going on is “out there” in the world or “in here” in my memory. With language we produce sharper objectifications that go into our memories and we have mnemonic objects that will condense the sensory recollections when we wish to recall the experience later.

So in my model, the unconscious is just those mental activities that we have not articulated for objective knowing. But these are not autonomous demon-like beings who slip in the shadows and depths, who move us against our will when we ease our vigilance, hiding our under-selves from what our minds will tolerate. I see this as a nasty vestige of medieval religiosity — one that keeps popping up among people who fancy themselves secular, but whose minds still move in superstitious ruts.

I prefer to understand what we call the unconscious as that vast set of tacit perceptual, kinetic, feeling realities hiding in plain sight, but inaccessible to linguistic thought. They are there, real, tangible, important but we don’t have words for them so they evaporate like dreams after we experience them unless something happens to us that causes the vapor to condense again. One of the great benefits of words is they are reliable memory condensers.

Folks who “think visually” or who take their intuitions and mind motions seriously as real and significant prior to any ability to articulate or conceptualize or demonstrate or argue them have a capacity to create thoughts outside the dominant language games of the culture. I want to articulate some of these realities and make them more thinkable. But also, I want to banish the latter-day demons of the Freudish “unconscious” that seems to have reemerge to haunt our social and political anxieties.

I also find our beliefs about the role of language in our everyday behavior to mislead designers. If we believe users verbalize instructions to themselves that their bodies obey when using software, we stop trying to directly engage our hands. If we understand that language itself is an interface that we use to help us make sense of experience when other means fail, we create two layers of interface between users and their tools. A great user interface minimizes the requirement to verbalize, so tools become invisible, ready-to-hand extensions of the user’s will.

Try these ideas on with this line of thought. The political crisis we are in now, with deep roots in the American tradition, can be seen as starting with the rise of social media. Much of our social lives, and our lives in general, became heavily word-mediated. Normally, when people gather it is around experiences. Things are enjoyed together — food drink, music, art, laughter — and experiences unfold over the course of hours. Social media is fast language. TL;DR, scan, scroll, start, stop, scroll. Not only are people’s blah-blah flipped through like TV channels, but engagement is sporadic and flitting. Written literature has time to evoke, conjure, hint, suggest and condense memories and knowings. Fast language only recalls or refers. It is spastic and explicit. Expastic language could be a good word for fast language, dittos and hashtags. But things got worse when Covid put everyone in social isolation. Then the entire world had to be strained through screens. The realm of shared tacit realities constricted and the word-world expanded explosively. I think what we are seeing now is the opposite of an eruption of the unconscious. I think the sensible wisdom our tacit understandings were removed from the public setting, and brainless verbal logic took over and is running itself to its logical extremes inside s frictionless, gravityless vacuum of collective solipsism.

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