We don't know that we know
interactive site-specific installation
objects, drawings on glass windows and paper
huntkastner in Prague in collaboration with Ivan Gallery
photo: Michal Czanderle
Between art, mind and nature, ecopsychoanalytic reflections on Jaro Varga’s ‘We don't know that we know’.
Joseph Dodds, PhD.
‘Nature is like a text into which generations of all beings write their vision’, writes Varga, in a sentence that helps to frame the entire work. Varga’s process is deeply personal, reflecting his own struggle with the fragility of nature and an ecological vision of the web of connectivity, ’morphic resonsonances’ through complex ‘morphogenetic fields’. The attempt to record the passage of experiences, an intuitive connection to the floating pulses of nature, and the mental restrictions imposed by education and upbringing are all here. The art here also touches a chord with a much wider world, the collectives’ fears, desires, hopes and anxieties for the future for the humanity, and to wider connections into the other than human web of life intimating at a new ecological vision. The futures we face float in front of us, morphing in and out of focus, both terrifying and beautiful. Shadows on the mind intimate a terrible horizon on the edge of our awareness. Or perhaps the catastrophe has already occurred, for Winnicott (1974) the fear of breakdown is a fear of a breakdown that has already occurred (“dread is just memory in the future tense”).
The phrase ‘we don’t know that we know’ is used by Zizek to define the unconscious. There is a knowledge we both seek and fear, that we we don’t realise we already have. Freud compared psychoanalysis to archeology, sifting through layers of psychic structures to reconstruct a past and a truth we both know and don’t know. Our unconscious resonances with the ‘pain of a dying world’ shows up in our individual psychopathologies and in collective madnesses from Trump to Brexit. We are witnessing a period of psychosocial disintegration and what Bion (1961) called ‘mad oscillations’. Art is needed here as a place to feel the feeling we don’t want to feel, or don’t know that we feel. Our fear, guilt, rage, loss, mourning, mourning for the loss of a world.
Carving into wood, recording a trace from mind to hand to wood, recalls Freud’s ‘A Note upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad’ ‘ (1925). The mystic pad was "a slab of dark brown resin or wax" on which was laid a translucent wax paper covered by celluloid. When written on the dark resin became visible through the wax paper, but it could be erased by lifting the paper. This embodied two requirements of human memory, the possibility of recording a trace and at the same time it’s continual renewal to allow new impressions to form and be recorded, while additionally,"The permanent trace of what was written is retained upon the wax slab itself and is legible in suitable lights." Therefore, ”the celluloid and waxed paper cover” was compared with the system of Perception-Consciousness and its protective shield, while “the wax slab with the unconscious behind them, and the appearance and disappearance of the writing with the flickering-up and passing-away of consciousness in the process of perception.” Unlike the technology of pen and paper, whose writing surface is quickly exhausted, the mind, like the the mystic writing pad is always available for new traces to be recorded. Like the Mystic Pad, "the perceptive apparatus of our mind consists of two layers," he observed, "of an external protective shield against stimuli whose task it is to diminish the strength of excitations coming in, and of a surface behind it which receives the stimuli." Devices such as these, and others, extend the dynamics of the human mind into wider arcs beyond the human. Derrida in his ‘Archive Fever’ (1994) explored comparable emerging technologies of self in the new digital media. This exhibition is another piece of technology, extended to all who see it and record there own book in the process. The tables and book is another kind of technology, a technology of fusion of self and world in natural objects, carved in wood.
The passage of mind through various regimes of signs, human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic means relates to Bateson’s ‘ecology of mind’, and through the science of ecology and nonlinear dynamics. Self-organization is a process in which pattern at the global level of a system emerges solely from numerous interactions among the lower-level components. Such that the global level structure is an emergent property of the system, rather than a property imposed on the system by an external ordering influence. These loops of interactions occur both within and without the human mind, and and clear boundaries we might draw are inherently unstable and to some extent arbitrary, and embody a fractal nature. Larval subjects and partial objects (`wild thoughts without a thinker’ (Bion) self-organize into larger assemblages with emergent properties, which Varela calls a `society of mind’, with emergent assemblages below (larval subjects) and above (social machines) the traditionally conceived human subject (Deleuze and Guattari).
By tracing the mind into wood, and by visitors to the gallery tracing their own forms from the carved structures with each uniquely produced book, morphogenetic fields are constructed, as Varga puts it, establishing ‘morphic resonances’. In biology stigmergy (Dodds 2011) helps to connect the theme of self-organisation in nature to the idea of the archive, the mnemonic trace in wood, wax resin and digital machine. Stigmergy was first developed to understand indirect communication in social insects through the environment, where for example, termite nest-building is coordinated, not by individual workers, but by the nest itself. Each action performed by a termite modifies the stimulating configuration of the nest, triggering further actions by other termites. Stigmergy is relevant to Deleuze and Guattari's (2003a: 68) emphasis on a-signifying communication and signalling and Bateson's (2000) understanding of the environment as part of mind, which he sees as immanent to the feedback arcs which don't necessarily start and finish within our skin. Skin is also a memory, a mystic writing pad recording experiences of engagements with the world, keeping inside and outside separate yet interrelated.
Varga explores how we seek in merger with technology a fantasied escape from the terror of destruction of the natural world. Both technology and nature are potential places for merger, desire and fear. Harold Searles (1972, 368-70) showed us how our techno-world has become “so alien, so complex, so awesome, and so overwhelming that we”, we regress “to a degraded state of nondifferentiation from it…this 'outer' reality is psychologically as much a part of us as its poisonous waste products are part of our physical selves.” The inner conflict between our human and nonhuman selves, our animal (Dodds 2012) and technological natures, is projected onto the environment, further rupturing the relationship leading to a spiral of destructiveness. At an unconscious level “we powerfully identify with what we perceive as omnipotent and immortal technology, as a defense against intolerable feelings of insignificance, of deprivation, of guilt, of fear of death” while simultaneously giving oneself “over to secret fantasies of omnipotent destructiveness, in identification with the forces that threaten to destroy the world”.
In our increasingly unstable, split social reality we find ourselves in today, our technology can represent the location of fear, the acquisition of the trophy, the omnipotent object to be fused with and worshipped, and where sadistic-destructive fantasies of annihilation can run rampant. Consuming and collecting, technology and trophy, omnipotence and helplessness, the wolfman and the cyborg, submission and rebellion, autonomy and merger, all come together in our relation to both technology and the Earth while simultaneously denying the hybrid reality of our constructed, assembled natures (Dodds 2019).
There is a difficulty moving, feel stuck, try to move forward but an eruption from nature (the barking dog) freezes again. Like a puppet in a frozen instability. We need art such Varga’s work on display today. An art that can help us reach towards the other than human world, organic and inorganic. Psychoanalytic approaches to symbiosis and liminality (Searles 1960, Milner 2010, Winnicott 2004) show they can be sources of terror, that we will lose ourselves as we re/merge with mother and the nonhuman environment, leading to frantic defences to shore up psychological boundaries, separate ourselves from a nature we fear to lose ourselves within. But such liminal experiences, that Varga seems more than open to, even actively seeking, can be transformational, as we follow the ebb and flow of subjectivity-through-connectedness/merger followed by a separation and re-emergence of the self. Art can help us to process and come to terms with the awesome scale of life and death we now confront, a yearning to hide in hobbit like holes, or fly into the astral plane. The link between psyche and nature is not only from the inside out (projecting onto nature as a screen, evacuating our beta elements and psychic and material waste). It goes from the outside in. How can we face the end of the world, without denial or being overwhelmed by persecutory or depressive anxieties?
This artwork links to our past, the childhoods we both seek to overcome but are always rediscovering and seeking new. The knowledge we don’t know that we know. Art can provide a way of imagining other futures, psychic resonances on the ‘morphogenetic field’. It can help plant the seeds of another future, and trace the one that is already here through the lines and carvings, and shadows on the wood. Future visions feedback to iterations of out connection to nature. Floating over the future into an abyss or a new world.
Joseph Dodds PhD is a psychoanalyst in private practice (IPA) based in Prague, a Chartered Psychologist (CPsychol) and Associate Fellow (AFBPsS) of the British Psychological Society, a psychotherapist (UKCP, Czech Association for Psychotherapy), and a university lecturer in psychology and psychoanalysis (University of New York in Prague, AAU). He is the author of the 2011 book Psychoanalysis and Ecology at the Edge of Chaos: Complexity Theory, Deleuze|Guattari, and Psychoanalysis for a Climate in Crisis and of several other book chapters and articles on the application of psychological and psychoanalytic insight into the domains of culture, society, art, film, neuroscience, ecology, and climate change. www.psychotherapy.cz
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