True contact between beings is established only by mute presence, by apparent non-communication, by that mysterious and wordless exchange which resembles inward prayer. – E. M. Cioran, The Trouble With Being Born
If I give form to a life through narrative it can only be one which is given to an audience. When I narrate, when anyone narrates, it is always in relation to someone. In general, we narrate ourselves to friends, to lovers, to policemen, judges, employers, colleagues, teachers and students, to parents. A striking lack of the plural in this; I never narrate myself to a mass or collective. I always narrate to someone in particular. Except here; on the internet I address myself to no one. Much could be made of the narcissism of this except that the writer always imagines his audience, even if his actual audience is not many people at all. The no one in particular is any one at all, an equality of responding to an unheard call. Yet who is it I imagine reading this? You could say I imagine a multitude but I can never imagine that (what would it mean to imagine a faceless plurality?)
No; I imagine you are reading this, and I know that you are reading this. I don’t have the actual details and what I imagine of you may be widely off the mark; but it is a you which I think of reading this. ‘You’ lack concreteness but remain a ‘you’.
What is curious is that I can write about an unheard call. You haven’t asked me to narrate, to try and give form to a life; you haven’t accused me of a crime or prompted me with curious questions. So why narrate in this way? In part, I suspect, it is in order to assemble the you to which I respond. That is, it is in order to pre-empt the demand that I give myself a structure to an other, to crystallise and reduce the complexity of this psychic system into the stereotypic image of a person, an individual human being.
In assembling the you to which I respond, in order to assemble the ‘I’ which I am now elaborating, enacting, performing through writing, I reveal to myself something fundamental: the demand to narrate is autonomous of the narrating agent and the audience.
The story I tell you and the one who tells it never coincide; the one who is addressed and the one I imagine I am addressing never coincide, for all I can have access to is a story about you assembled from the concrete interactions I might have in the visceral domain and the imagined ones in this virtual domain.
The I and the you, behind the various permutations of narrative construction that you and I both design of our other (the process occurring in you as much as in me), never come finally in to contact. I remain withdrawn somewhere, if I exist at all, behind my story of myself and you behind my story of yours, a visa versa. What we have in common is this simultaneous withdrawal and exposure. I can’t help but think once more of the metaxu; that which connects as it separates (Simone Weil gives the example of a prison cell wall that although separating two prisoners from one another nonetheless allows them to communicate in Morse code by tapping on its surface).
What is more, although there is certainly some ontological system that remains in place, the narrative ‘I’ obliterates its previous incarnations again and again but in doing so it also obliterates the previous relation, the previous way of accessing the withdrawing exposure, between itself and ‘you’. Each self-narrative is a mixture of fact and fabulation, a marginally to absolutely imperfect representation, that cannot help but contain within itself the representation of the ‘you’ which it addresses, even where that ‘I’ knows very well the ontological autonomy of the system it is representing.
This is especially visible in the case of disruptions in, I suppose, the I-Thou relationship, such as in relationship phase transitions. The friend becomes the lover and so the I and Thou must be reformulated in light of this new fact, while a new independent system is produced in which the actual subsystems of the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ (as lovers) are nested. I have to tell a new story about myself and about you; the story of two friends becomes the story of coming into being of the newly produced system. ‘There was always a chemistry between us’; ‘you always looked at me in a certain way’; new and mystical knowledge may even appear in the form of the ‘I always knew…’.
A constant flux of revisions then. A ceaseless epistemology of becoming layered thick upon our ontological being. The neurophilosophy of Thomas Metzinger  has a language for this: the self, which does not exist, is transparent to itself. Transparency here fundamentally means that it cannot appear to itself so that what it is is necessarily mistaken. It is this transparency that always haunts the ‘I’ and the ‘you’, and so which haunts their relation, that produces the possibility of ethics.
For Judith Butler  this ethics arises from the failure to know oneself and the failure to know the other; ethics arising from a failure in the ethical relation. In a minimal sense, although Butler goes on to say much more, one of her contentions is simply that this failure in knowledge in regards to the self and other is what sustains ethical engagement. After all, every time we address one another in a manner approaching ethics, every time I judge you for instance, there is a gap in what I am judging, what you actually are and how I understand these things as well as a gap in and from myself; there is a splitting, the opening up of something aporetic.
Although she does not say it, I suspect that Butler is talking about something akin to the undecidable- that condition of the decision that confronts the decision with its own impossibility . How can I judge you when I know you only partially, and via that same mixture of fact and fabulation? A judgement can only be one that is aware of it’s own partiality and the relationship between judged and judge must be one that knows the arbitrary and inauthentic nature of this division. Similarly, it has to take account of what lies in common with ‘us’; that we both are simply making ourselves up, within the bounds of the limits set upon narration (biology, history, social relations, neurology, the laws of phsyics and all the rest of what constitutes our facticity).
Of particular interest to me is the implication these reflections might have in therapeutic contexts such as counselling and psychotherapy. In Butler’s text she responds to the common idea that the goal of psychoanalytic interventions is to provide the analysand with the opportunity to produce for themselves a coherent story of who they are and how they came to be here (even acknowledging the necessary exclusion of facticity which, having occurred prior to the emergence of the subject in question, can never be accounted for in narrative). Butler refutes this by drawing attention to the relational dyad of analyst and analysand where the analyst, via transference, is a kind of holding place of the analysand; where his ego should be we find the other. As such the other, the analysand’s ‘you’, interrupts his ‘narrative reconstruction’ or the attempt to construct a coherent form of a life. The life and the narrating of the life become contingent upon this interruption. Interestingly this places the idea of ‘biographical interruption’ at the very heart of biographisation rather than leaving it as an intruding and traumatic effect of some break in the story (such as is affected by major phase transitions such as the death of a lover). All this is a long-winded way of reaffirming the ‘cut-up’ nature of the stories we tell ourselves which can only be assembled from the fragmented, directionless day-to-day of living (now we turn on the TV, now I am on the phone, now I have several internet browser tabs open which I skip between, now music plays, now I am eating).
Butler tells us that the narrating ‘I’ does not, first of all, narrate but prior to this has to be brought into and assent to the norms of narrativisation; to learn to speak in this way rather than that. Butler goes on to construct a developmental history that begins with my being brought into the fold of language by the other through mimesis (the infant learns to speak by copying the parent’s speech) and thereby being brought into the scene of the address. I can be addressed and I can address others (and myself?) only by and through language. This all happens because I am addressed by another and as such my being brought into the fold of language is always done in response to that address, in an attempted response to an address made to me in a language that is the language of that other. For Butler this address also occurs in nonlinguistic forms: injury and trauma demand that we respond to them.
Via a meditation on the psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious (which it now occurs to me might be reformulated simply as ‘that which cannot be narrated/that which grammar has no access to’) Butler locates the analysand’s speech as an attempt to bring possess what it can never posses. For Butler the unconscious is formed as a kind of faulty protective mechanism that is required ‘as a way of managing- and failing to manage- that excess [of the other]’ (p.54). As such the role transference plays is the reconstruction of the original excessiveness of the other; to activate what cannot be narrated because it is not mine, the unconscious.
Drawing on other psychoanalytic thinkers Butler formulates this in a manner that explicitly formulates the analyst as being ‘recruited’ by the analysand who, although she cannot own her unconscious, can nonetheless incorporate the analyst into her schema- she can use the analyst, who must let herself be used, in order to have them stand-in for the primordial excessive other. It is worth noting that in this Butler’s concept of psychoanalysis takes on the inauthentic air of the simulation, the distorted repetition of some original event. Particularly drawing on an analytic theorist called Bollas, Butler cites the role of the analyst as having to allow herself to become ‘situationally ill’ and ‘to become lost in the patient’s world’. The analyst then is to become an object of abjection-for the analysand.
In my understanding of this, the analyst’s role is to enact an abjection-for the analysand. In one example provided Bollas reveals how a patient of his who had been abandoned by his father and left feeling deeply alone had recreated this feeling in Bollas himself by becoming wilfully silent during analytic sessions. I get the sense that this expressive idea of therapeutic work, which demands a willingness to self-dispossession on the therapists side of things, is more dramatological and simulation based than Butler suggests. I could easily see in this a model to understand the notoriously difficult to treat patient who has a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, a diagnosis that more or less names this resistance to be treated. Therapists, nurses and counsellors who work in close contact with those who have BPD frequently suffer burn-out and disillusionment, becoming depressed, frustrated, angry and sensing that the other just doesn’t care, is a lying, manipulative attention seeker. Disregarding the attention-seeker accusation (who in therapy isn’t therapeutic seeking attention?) the Butler-Bollas notion of psychoanalytic work is one that might understand the BDP client as attempting to re-enact in the mental health worker his own experience of the world, or at least some primal, formative experience. The BPD client is manipulative in the sense that he is attempting to , the sense in which all of us manipulate others, reproduce in us his own condition. When the worker turns from compassion to loathing of someone with an illness like BPD might it not be because we are experiencing the excess of that other that they cannot otherwise express? (An obvious limit to this would be the case of the psychoses).
Butler states that Bollas calls this kind of working one that aims at ‘articulation’, and she reminds us that not all articulations are narrative or even linguistic. Butler’s intentions exceed my own and it is here that I part with her. At root I must agree with what she has been saying which amounts to this:
within the narrative there is always something resistant to narrativisation.
the narrating ‘I’ can never speak about its facticity in anything like an authoritative manner; it is always groundless.
there always remain those things that might be articulated but cannot be spoken.
For Butler, and I am powerless to disagree, this means that a self-narrative, the narrativised form of a life, is always from the outset, maybe even at the moment of that initial mimesis of the infant, a failure. The narrative ‘I’ obliterates not only its forerunners, those ‘I’s I once was, but also itself at the moment it leaves my mouth. The narrative ‘I’ is itself a necessary breakdown. As such, such procedures as narrative therapy, whilst useful and successful with some clients (let’s not forget the Dodo effect), meets its immanent limit. The narrative does not necessarily give a form to a life but it is always a dramatically failed attempt at doing so, no matter how ‘thick’ or ‘thin’ those narrative might be. It is also congruent with the seductive provocation written by Nikolas Luhrmann that ‘Humans cannot communicate; not even their brains can communicate; not even their conscious minds can communicate. Only communication can communicate’ .
In the end the ‘I’ speaks and nothing much is said but this shouldn’t tempt us into abandoning narrative, merely a recognition of its necessary limits. Likewise this doesn’t imply that other forms of ‘articulation’ are more authentic.
What does this means for my ‘you’ in these narrations, these attempts at living? In effect it doesn’t much matter who my imagined audience is and what your actual singularity is or is not. In reading you are an abjection-for me. I make you into this abject just as the client makes the therapist abject. I suppose a consequence of this is also that any listener can also made into an abjection-for, perhaps hence why it is that in everyday conversation we so rarely truly listen. Therapeutic work, and let’s not pretend that writing is usually a kind of therapeutic practice, is thus not simply the co-production of a narrative between, by and for, the one who addresses and the one who is addressed, which are constantly shifting positions in the back and forth of visceral conversation but become hypostatised in writing, is a system in which a simulated abjection might remain as the fundamental side-effect. I am thinking of the side-effect not as merely an undesired consequence like the drowsiness that comes with antidepressants or the risk of agranulocytosis that comes with the antipsychotic drug clozapine.
Instead this side-effect is closer to a Virilian ‘accident’ ; it is the accident that is produced coextensively with the product- the possibility of a car crash that comes into being the moment the first car was assembled. Even stronger though is the sense in which abjection-for is the disavowed goal of both therapeutic work, writing and, to go too far, an ethics built on the neurobiology of empathy. In producing a broken performance of selfhood I also inflict that broken performance of selfhood on ‘you’. Maybe this is also the reason why I have previous spoken of how we inflict ourselves on others, in a reversal of Sartre’s ‘hell is other people’ slogan; and likewise, perhaps this explains why it is that today, in a society of exponentially intimate connections that lack all intimacy, brought about by the abolition of privacy through everyone’s ability to be telepresent to anyone, we withdraw from one another more and more. No one wants to talk intimately any longer because no one wants to risk following into this state of abjection; no one wants to carry the burden of the excess that the other cannot quite cope with or express.
If life today makes us all into addicts, if it is only though the metaphors of addiction and resilience that I can conceive of having a reason to live at all in this world now, then this labour of abjection is not so surprising. What is surprising is that it is still possible to make affective attachments at all; to develop mutually enriching friendships and love relationships. There again this is only surprising from within the overriding affirmationist ethos wherein any negativity, any pessimism, any abjection cannot be admitted to occur, let alone be desirable. First, ‘I’ reduce myself. Then ‘I’ reduce you so ‘I’ may produce myself in my address to you. Finally, as I come undone before you, I have brought you into my interiority as witness and as tool while you remain forever outside me. I have lost the ability to tell you who I am, what this life is, which previously I had been so sure of. In our interaction neither of us is who we are. We are ourselves undecidable, aporetic, abject together, equal to one another in our dissolution as soon as we open our mouths to speak. This explains why I chose to use Cioran’s quote at the opening of this post; if there is something like genuinely authentic relating between us they are only those of silence…and anyone who has been with others in silence for any period of time will know just how unbearable that is.
Thank you for letting me fall apart, I hope you fell apart too. Of course, there is always the temptation, the invitation, and the expectation of reply. You are on the internet; comment, cross-blog, link, ‘follow’, ‘like’, and so on: accuse me of something, accelerate decomposition.