Unconscious as the "Other" (Side)

Desire for the Other Side

Desire for the Other Side

THIS BLOG IS A PART OF A SERIES EXPLORING THE “FREUDIAN UNCONSCIOUS” (in anticipation for a new course starting June 3rd: REGISTER NOW).

In many different spiritual and religious traditions we have a notion of the “Other Side”. This “Other Side” is represented in various different forms (typically utopian, or blissful) and always connected to something “afterlife”. The basic logic is straight forward and easy to understand. There is “This Side”, which is our secular earthly realm of physical matter populated by human consciousness that is fundamentally limited (finitude) by laws and mortality. In this way, on “This Side”, our lives are fundamentally at a mismatch with our desires and dreams. We cannot do whatever we want, we must act in conformity with the physical world, with biological principles, social mores, and other limiting factors.

But no worries, there is an “Other Side”. On this “Other Side” we will be able to get everything that you really want (e.g. living forever, unlimited abundance, flying and transcending gravity, 72 virgins, if that is your “Thing”). In this way we don’t have to be too upset if we are at a (horrible) distance from our desires in this world; we don’t have to be insanely frustrated by a world that seems to purposefully keep us at a distance from our true self. We can rest assured that whatever the pain and suffering characterizing our life now, it will in the end be redeemed, there will be a time when we will exist in a world perfectly symmetric with our highest hopes, aspirations and dreams.

Of course, the ideological narrative of this belief in an “Other Side” has been deconstructed, critiqued, and otherwise rejected as a naive superstitious myth by many secular scientific humanists in the modern world. We do not need to go into too much details about this since it is a horse that has already been well beaten to death. I think many people today have an almost intuitive sense that “religion is in decline”, that “we do not really believe like we used to believe”, and that “in the future more and more humans will become atheist” (or at least secular). We can even situate the modern Western tendency to more “secular” forms of spirituality as evidence of this trend. In the 21st century the “Other Side” has been negated and “This Side” is the realm that captures all of our attention.

This is all fair enough but psychoanalysis may here throw in a strange twist. Of course, Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis with his discovery of the unconscious, was himself an atheist, and wrote about religion as a childish fantasy to protect us from our fear of death. Such conjectures were not novel and had been made by various philosophers and scientists throughout the modern world. However, Freud’s object of analysis, the unconscious dream world, is no doubt a strange object. The truths discovered in relationship to this object are difficult for our culture to internalise and process. Why?

The truth of the unconscious dream world is difficult for our culture to internalize because it knows no time, knows no contradiction, knows no difference between fiction and fact, imaginary and real. These are properties that certainly remind us of the “Other Side” in religion, which is “eternal” and possesses many properties that would be considered “contradictory” or “imaginary fictions” in relation to physical law and the “factual real”. In that sense, although Freud was strong in his negation of traditional religion (and an “Other Side”), he nonetheless spent most of his life obsessively thinking about an “Other Side” of the dream in relation to the normal day to day secular world constituted by our egos. We may say that what captured his mind was the intersection between this “Other Side” and what it could tell us about “This Side”. The dream world was a reservoir of important information about the subject, its hopes and fears, its fetishes and phobias.

What can we make of this? On the one hand we have a general scientific mediation of secular modernity which asks of us to focus on this world and not on some hypothetical “Other Side” where we would be redeemed from all of our suffering on “This Side”. The principle reason for this critical attitude is that we have no empirical evidence of this “Other Side”, we have no reason to believe that it exists if we are thinking within the scientific horizon governed by collectively verifiable observations and repeatable experimentation. On the other hand we have a subject of science, Sigmund Freud, who was committed to understanding the nature of the human mind which was pathologized by deep internal struggle with symptoms of aggression, neurosis, hysteria, and other issues of identity. His pathway to helping humans with these deep internal struggles forced him deep into the aspects of our mind that we usually do not pay attention to because they seem so disconnected from “This Side” (our secular world).

The answer to this interpretative paradox requires deep philosophical reflection. We can at first not be too surprised that the scientific world became skeptical and critical of Freud, since his methods for understanding the depths of the human mind challenged conventional understanding of psychology (i.e. ego or object-oriented psychology), and conventional notions of what it meant to be a “normal” human being (i.e. repressing unconscious fantasies with moral scaffolding). However, after Freud there can be no more easy definition of a “normal” human psyche, and neither can there be moral coverings on the “dirty” and “naughty” aspects of our psychical universe. When we moralize what is unconventional about our identities we never get at the core of the issue. Instead we start to repress an important desire that needs to be expressed, and thus we never solve the underlying symptom at work in the subject’s identity. Indeed, psychoanalysis calls for a totally new view of ethical engagement that radically cuts from the traditional religious world. In this precise sense Freud is not calling us back to the religious world, but still identifying a different side of reality.

At the same time Freud himself was a fierce materialist and secular naturalist. Freud never posited a supernatural explanation for the unconscious or the dream world. For Freud, his discovery was well within the realm of a naturalist philosophy of mind and existence. Indeed, it was not so much an “addition” that Freud asks us to consider with the unconscious, but rather a “subtraction”. In other words, Freud is not adding some substantial metaphysical entity, like God or heaven, but rather suggesting that what is at work in the unconscious is a negativity (something missing). This is the principle reason why he first forwarded the idea that the dream content was a form of wish fulfilment.

Thus, one idea we may consider, is that what Freud introduced in psychoanalysis was a way for us to bring together (synthesize) what the traditional metaphysical structure and the modern scientific structure propose. Whereas the traditional metaphysical structure proposes a fully substantial world (“afterlife”) where all of our hopes and dreams are actualized and real; and whereas the modern scientific structure proposes that the natural physical world with all of its suffering and pain is the only actual real; psychoanalysis asks us to think about their intersection (almost like two sides of a Möbius band).

What Freud asks us to think is the way in which the natural physical world is structured by a fundamental negativity (something missing) (no wonder there is all this suffering and pain). Furthermore, the evidence for this fundamental negativity (something missing) can be in-itself studied by focusing on the unconscious dream as a wish fulfilment. In the unconscious we find a virtual world in the void hole of being itself. This virtual world (all of our dreams and fantasies) exert an effect on our subjectivity (even if we do not always have an awareness of this effect). In this sense, whenever a subject engages with the physical world, we are dealing with a subject that is bringing into this physical world all of its virtual unconscious baggage. This virtual unconscious baggage has a real effect and a real consequence in the world, not just for the subject, but for other subjects and the world itself. We project all of our hopes, dreams, fears and phobias onto the world. In this sense, we may say, “This Side” is “pathologized” by an “Other Side” that cannot be “deconstructed” or “critiqued” out of existence. We may even say, in terms of our experience of the world, that it is fundamental. We may even say, in terms of our self-becoming, that we must confront it directly in order to discover the mysteries of what it means to be human.

That is why I want to dedicate my full attention to better understanding the nature of the unconscious, the way in which it intersects with the physical world, and what a deeper knowledge of this realm can tell us about the truth of reality. Want to join? REGISTER NOW.