Not being myself

11/10/2012 § 5 Comments

Andrew Dickson over at posted a brief reaction to some questions in the media about whether people are in denial over their weight. I posted a comment over there, but it started me down a track I want to pick up here. Yes, this is a Lacanian post. Skip to the next if you aren’t interested.

Dickson listed the comments from some expert quoted in the media. I commented (in part):

My favourite of those questions is:
– Does my body reflect who I really am?
The hard kernel that I take from Lacan is the split subject. The way I understand — which may be entirely wrong, but it is my wrongness — is that we are never who we ‘really’ are. In the process of becoming members of a human culture, we feel we have lost something of our true essence. Moreover, that feeling is an illusion of language, a figment of our imaginations, an ego conceit.

The more I read of Lacan and the more I am in the world, the more I find this foot-stamping, hold-breath-till-blue ‘I am myself’ fascinating. It seems to be behind so much of our trying to impose our preferences on other people, trying to impose our view of the world on other people. By trying to make the world bend to our wills, we are trying to assert our I-ness (I-nesses?).

(And then we can get into Lacanian language games, in which my I-ness wants to be my highness, and we are all little highnesses. Also, ‘I am myself’ takes us nearly to ‘I am who am’, and we get all Old Testament on ourselves.)

Economists can come off looking rather well-adjusted in all this. Some of them, at least, accept that other people have different preferences that lead to different choices that are equally valid. And they also accept that my choices create problems for your choices, that externalities are mutual, and this creates actual inter-individual (inter-subject?) conflicts that have to be resolved through some process or mechanism.

Here my big personal news: we bought a dog. A cute, fluffy, bichon frise of a dog. I’m really, really more of cat person. They look after themselves, give you a ‘hey, what up’ look in the morning, accept the occasional skritch when it’s on offer. Dogs, well, dogs are needy. And smelly.

But here’s the thing: my daughter loves dogs. Her face lights up when she gets to play with one. She’s been asking for one for years (and been pretty understanding about not getting one).

Even though I wouldn’t get a dog in my ‘I am myself’ world, we now have a dog in this world. And I’m okay with that. I even feel like it’s alright to have her preferences imposed on me, because my I-ness is just an illusion, anyway, and my we-ness (or wee-ness) is much closer to the Real of the matter.

So, no, my body doesn’t reflect who I am, any more than our new dog reflects who I am. But that’s a philosophical triviality. Next question?

Obligatory cute photo:

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§ 5 Responses to Not being myself

  • I’m a bit confused. Why do we need multiple warring internal selves (or scraps over what the self means, etc) to have a utility function where the indirect happiness from a dog via daughter beats the direct unhappiness from the dog?

    Probably just me being thick…

    • Bill says:

      Good question and I don’t have an answer. I’ve been trying to figure it out. I can generate both economic and psychoanalytical analysis, but don’t fully understand how to resolve them.

      One possibility: economics suggests that consumption leads to satisfaction but psychoanalysis says it can create anxiety.

      Another possibility: while it is possible in theory to have the sort of nested preferences you describe, with interdependent utilities, in practice our field research does not account for them. Psychoanalysis provides a reason for recognising more complex preferences.

      Where the psychoanalytical critique is more basic, and harder to reconcile, is with the question of what preferences are being satisfied — the conscious or unconscious. But, of course, I’m starting with the idea that Freudian and Lacanian theory has something to say. I know that not everyone agrees.

    • Bill says:

      Having pondered (weak and weary) even more, there’s another, simpler explanation. Economics takes the position that preference formation is outside the discipline. They are the purview of psychology or other social sciences, not economics. By looking at both psychoanalysis and economics (and, by extension, philosophy), I’m exploring whether considering preference formation adds anything to economics. From your comment, you seem to come down on the ‘no’ side. I’m not convinced either way, but it’s fun to think about.

      • Andrew says:

        The issue as I see it in reply to both you Bill and to Eric resides in what I would call the fantasy of preference formation as held by the majority of (neo-classical?) economists and indeed the clinical psychologists and mainstream social scientists.

        Psychoanalysis, via Freud (and by extension Lacan), would understand the process of preference formation as a contest, fought at the ‘site’ that is a person. This means that when people form a preference and act on it they do this not just for satisfaction, but also for punishment. I buy inulin-infused whey protein for the first time because of jouissance, not because of preference.

        Consumers act in an attempt to re-claim their place in the Symbolic, in an attempt to banish the unbearable, in an attempt to wipe the stain of castration from what society tells them is their stable identity. This contest is what marketing aims for and what economics measures. Consumer spending doesn’t trend up because people are satisfying themselves, consumer spending trends up because consumers are increasingly alienated from the fantasy of stable identity imposed by society. They seek jouissance high and low in an attempt to control the vastness that is consumer anxiety. This anxiety is a like a black-hole to the consumer, sucking them into the vortex.

        The usefulness of the psychoanalytic approach to analysing preference lies in the uselessness of many extant models of consumer behaviour (here I include, carte blanch, those of neo-classical economics, at my own peril). If instead we think ‘jouissance’, rather than ‘préférence’ (excuse the French) it leads us somewhere else, a place that might better predict the fallout from austerity for instance?

        PS – thanks for the plug Bill… have you seen my school’s blog?:

  • Andrew says:

    Reblogged this on othersideofweightloss and commented:
    Thanks to my friend and colleague Bill for these really interesting comments… A really interesting Lacanian analysis.

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