'CAN YOU SEE ME?' PSYCHOANALYSIS AND SOUL-BLINDNESS
by Carlos Padrón
Can you see me
I don’t believe you can see me
Can you hear me baby
I don’t believe you can
You can’t see me
– Jimi Hendrix1
In the epigraph, Jimi Hendrix’s poetic alter-ego expresses skepticism in regard to being seen and heard. Does he pose a question: “Can you see me?”; a demand: “Can you see me!”; or perhaps a plea: “Can you see me…please”?
It occurs to me that these three interpretations of “can you see me” share the following common feature: the idea of a field of interaction (psychoanalytic matrix) between two subjects or souls (analyst and analysand) where the relationship between them has become occluded, insecure, or anxiety provoking and that is in need of further psychic interpenetration or clarification. Whether “can you see me” is a question, a demand or a plea, there is an interruption between the two people and a corresponding reaction that brings to light that which separates them.
There are many things that can interrupt a relationship and separate two people: a highly idiosyncratic or idiomatic turn of phrase, or a linguistic intonation; a whole language itself; gender identity; a way of interpreting, or looking at, a specific event in the world; a dressing style; a historical, cultural or personal past; the meaning of a favorite song or dance or bodily gesture; the color or shade of a body and the socio-political history of the construction of the meaning of such color or shade of the body (call it race); a social class and its history of struggles or oppression or of being oppressive; an unbalance of power; a trauma; a ritual; a rite of passage; a religious belief; a different idea of what it means to heal or grow.
The insecurity emerges as a question, a plea, or a demand, towards the Other.
In this case, eyes are being understood in their power to not just see external things but also to acknowledge what is different in the Other. Following Stanley Cavell, such power is literal, not metaphorical; it is part of our lives as embodied beings or souls. I am not talking about eyes and the power to see as a metaphor or symbol of moral insight. Rather, I am talking about the multiple, ordinary, literal, embodied use of eyes to express feeling, to weep, to express awe or curiosity or love or attention or empathy, to recognize and to react to Otherness: an-Other’s separate existence, an-Other’s Being as being human.
Think about slave-owners who did not see (did not have the capacity to see… but: why?) black Africans as humans. Think about the Spanish Conquerors who did not see (did not have the capacity to see…but: why?) so-called New World Indians as humans, as having a soul, a skeptical “problem” that became a famous philosophical discussion in 16th Century Spain (between the Catholic priests Sepúlveda and De Las Casas, in its more iconic expression). Think about the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust. Think about an innocent black man who is choked to death by a white policeman in Staten Island who does not hear, or does not want to hear, the innocent black man yelling “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”. Think about Venezuelans being violently repressed and killed by the State Apparatus just for thinking differently, otherwise. Or simply think about day-to-day, systematic racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia… ferociously intensifying with a vengeance in these ominous times of Trump.
When eyes are used to perceive an external thing in isolation of their capacity to weep, the power of seeing is used as means to becoming inexpressive, unresponsive (or only cruelly responsive), and therefore hidden, to the Other. Better explained: the literal, embodied, power of the eyes to acknowledge Otherness, is inseparable from our capacity to empathically and emotionally respond to such Otherness in its own different terms (of race, gender identity, culture, sexuality, etc.) from the perspective of the Otherness that we also are.
This is how: by hiding the Other through hiding Oneself. When we invisibilize the Other’s humanity we make a part of our own soul inaccessible to ourselves, actively suppressing it, creating a fantasy of self-privacy and of being unknowable to the Other. When the Other calls out for a response, CAN YOU SEE ME, only by actually responding, in doing or revealing something about my-self, therefore acknowledging the state or the history of my relation to him or her, do I acknowledge the Other. The question, demand or plea, even if unheeded, puts me in a position of responsibility to respond. Call this the ethics, or part of the ethics, of psychoanalysis. If the Other expresses her or his anxiety in regard to my not acknowledging their Otherness or Difference, this will have to do with my unwillingness (even if unconscious) to reveal myself as a fellow sentient soul inhabiting a potentially shared world.
In connection to the interruptions triggered by Otherness or Difference, psychoanalysis can be thought as what I would like to call a “discourse and practice on radical Otherness”. I will only briefly discuss three things which, in my mind, this entails: -Psychoanalytic discourse and practice are, and were since their inception, a deviation from the norm, hence An-Other discourse and practice, a discourse and practice on that Other that is the Unconscious: think about psychoanalysis being thought in Europe as the “Jewish Science” (the Jew, that radical and “monstrous” and hence persecuted Other within, or at core of, the Self-Sameness of “normal” Christian Europe: the Jew as an emblem of the Unconscious). Psychoanalytic discourse and practice can be thought of as the scene of radical Otherness within the entrails of the normal or familiar -call it mainstream “consciousness” (but isn’t consciousness always mainstream?) In this sense, a “mainstream psychoanalysis” makes no sense, it is a contradiction in terms. Psychoanalysis, by its very nature and history, is on the side of those who have been excluded, persecuted, invisibilized, marginalized, the “ab-normal”, the “deviants”, the “monstrous”, the “unlovable”, the disenfranchised. Psychoanalysis, as discourse and practice on radical Otherness, is on the side of these silenced Other histories and works on inheriting them and making them visible.
For psychoanalysis, such a concept is unfortunate in that it implies the idea of a Self-Sameness (a One) against which Difference is ontologically and epistemologically measured -and merely tolerated, ethically speaking; that is: the idea of a mainstream Us vs. Them (even if Diverse). That is why, in talking about psychoanalysis, and from a psychoanalytic perspective, it is preferable to talk about Difference or Otherness as an irreducible reality where there is not, or should not be, a Self-Same standard that is originary. Psychoanalysis is, first and foremost, since its beginning, a discourse and practice on Difference or Otherness as originary, and as speaking, and starting, from such Difference or Otherness (of the Unconscious) that always interrupts or problematizes Self-Sameness (call this Consciousness or Ideology or the Status Quo). For psychoanalysis, Self-Sameness is always a derivative and defensive formation against Difference (even under the guise of diversity and tolerance).
Psychoanalysis has to do with this difficult idea of “enoughness”i and with what is enough or not enough in regard to the Other in each singular, different case. Each case can never, for psychoanalysis, be only considered a corroborating example of a previous psychoanalytic theory or category. Psychoanalysis has to think the difficult thought of a case that, in a sense, always inaugurates a new category or theory that therefore is, paradoxically, an example of itself: absolute singularity. This is another way of thinking about the ethics of psychoanalysis but also its specific kind of thinking. –
- 1 I am indebted to Eva Atsalis for finding in Hendrix’s song “Can You See Me” a connection with difference within the psychoanalytic clinical encounter.
- (i) I think here of Winnicot’s constant and highly influential use of the idea of a “good enough mother” or a “good enough environment”, for example. It seems to me that his implied concept of “enoughness” (if it’s a concept, and I think it is not, which, far from diminishing its semantic power, enhances it) has not been sufficiently explored and understood both in itself and in connection to the thinking and ethics of psychoanalysis.
- Carlos Padrón is a licensed psychoanalyst and an advanced candidate at IPTAR’S adult psychoanalytic program. He has written on the intersections between philosophy, psychoanalysis and literature. He hails from Venezuela. Email: email@example.com
- Photo: The American Dream by Violette Bule
- Violette Bule uses photographic and mix-media projects to highlight complex social problems as a means for social change. She has exhibited in contemporary art museums and fairs in Tokyo, Caracas, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Miami, NYC, and Basel. In 2014 she was awarded the Cisneros Foundation grant. Bule won first place in the 18th edition of Jóvenes Con Fia 2015, Caracas, Venezuela. www.violettebule.com
ROOM is entirely dependent upon reader support. Please consider helping ROOM today with a tax deductible donation. Any amount is deeply appreciated.