Crisis of Representation and Autonomy of Self

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By Nozomi Hayase:

The Empty Self and Representation As a New Authority

How have the American people lost touch with reality? What made them so vulnerable to manipulation and political and media misinformation? No doubt the corporate media played a large role in the controlling of perception, yet there is something deeper at work. The root causes of the passivity and apathy of the populace can be better understood by looking into a particular configuration of self that has emerged in Western history.

In Constructing the Self, Constructing America, psychoanalyst Phillip Cushman analyzed how in the post-WWII United States, modern industrialization broke down the traditional social bonds and restructured the reality of community. Out of this, he argues, a specific configuration of self emerged. Cushman called it “the empty self” — “the bounded, masterful self” — and described how this empty self “has specific psychological boundaries, a sense of personal agency that is located within, and a wish to manipulate the external world for its own personal ends”. Cushman further characterized this empty self as one that “experiences a significant absence of community, tradition and shared meaning — a self that experiences these social absences and their consequences ‘interiority’ as a lack of personal conviction and worth; a self that embodies the absences, loneliness, and disappointments of life as a chronic, undifferentiated emotional hunger.”

Cushman argued how this new configuration of self and its emotional hunger was indispensable to the development of US consumer culture. Stuart Ewen, in his classic, Captains of Consciousness, explored how modern advertising was used as a direct response to the needs of industrial capitalism through its functioning as an instrument for the “the creation of desires and habits”: “The vision of freedom which was being offered to Americans was one which continually relegated people to consumption, passivity and spectatorship.” Ewen saw this in the economic shift from production to consumption and in the personal identity shift from citizens to consumers.

It did not take long for this covert manipulation of desires to be widely used for advancing certain economic or political agendas. Through unpacking his uncle Freud’s study of the unconscious, the father of modern corporate advertising — Edward Bernays — gained insight into the power of subterranean desires as a tool for manipulation. In Propaganda, Bernays put forth the idea that “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” This deliberate work of controlling perception came to be understood as propaganda, and has been identified as “the executive arm of the invisible government.”

How does this invisible force of governance work? How is such an effective manipulation of desires on such a mass scale accomplished? It has to do with mechanisms of the unconscious; desires and drives that most people don’t even know exist. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung took Freud’s discovery of the unconscious and examined the phenomena he identified as projection. Jung described how one meets one’s repressed materials in the form of projections outside and that this projecting is carried out unconsciously.

The marketing and PR industries channel our psychological needs, then convert them into specific desires for certain products or political candidates. This manipulation of desires relies on the ability to craft effective images of products that would induce the involuntary process of projection from the individual. Whether it is images of elected officials or celebrities, the latest laundry soap or high definition TV screens, images outside present themselves as something that speaks to internal desires. They quickly appear before us as desirable objects and the representation of unconscious desires. Representation thus becomes simply an externalization of those unconscious and internal desires and emotions that are mostly unknown to us.

The manipulation of desires in a form of representation squashes our capacity to create images. Instead, images are imposed upon us from the outside. We lose connection with our own desires and, not knowing the real roots of our emotions and drives, we are cheated in the act of determining our own actions. Activity of imagining is interrupted and short-circuited to a finished product as multiple ways of manifesting our desires are narrowed down to the simple act of consuming. We become passive and end up carrying out the will of others.

Representation places the source of legitimacy outside of oneself. Whether it is a corporate brand name, political party, an ideology or slogan, one looks for objects of representation through which something inside can be projected out onto the world. A good example is seen in the US political system, in the so-called representative form of government: the system of electing officials to whom power is delegated to enact changes on behalf of the people. Another example can be found in the operation of corporations, where individuals, through the purchase of company stock, become shareholders and supposedly indirectly influence the direction of the corporation. The theory is that the corporation as an entity could represent their economic interests.

Many began to regard these outer forms as possessing intrinsic authority, giving them power to govern and influence their own lives, when in reality what underlies both cases is simply something that represents what lives in us unconsciously. The mechanism of representation harvests a mindset that makes people believe real solutions to problems can only come from somewhere outside, often from those very people who are divorced from and not really affected by any of those problems.

With the advent of consumer culture and the apparatus of image manufacturing that further reinforced the conditions of the empty self, the notion of representation has come to form a new authority. Unlike the traditional authority of churches and the nuclear family, in representation an authority is internalized and its force of control becomes more unrecognizable to those under its governance. Cushman noted that “Tte only way corporate capitalism and the state could influence and control the population was by making their control invisible, that is, by making it appear as though various feelings and opinions originate solely from within the individual.”

This is seen most clearly in electoral politics, where candidates are pre-approved and outcomes are manipulated, yet we are made to believe we are actually making rational, independent and individual decisions about who best represents our common interest — when in reality there is no real choice and we often end up voting against our own self-interest.

Beneath the universally celebrated idea of freedom lies the false freedom of an illusion of choice. We no longer connect with the source of our desires. Our human needs have become intermediated and manipulated by corporate interests. What is engineered in the guise of individualism is actually a new form of conformity. When the forces of control became invisible through the merging with the self, it became much more difficult for us to challenge the legitimacy of unequal power relations, or even to recognize them for what they are.

Crisis of Representation and Autonomy of Self

The centralized control and coercive power of the state and corporations lies in their ability to sustain the image of representation through careful manipulation, by creating a strong emotional bond within individuals. This bond of representation gives those in power access to unconscious desires. Those who control the image of representation can then generate motives and impulses and govern the will of a mass of people seemingly without exercising direct control over them. The media have played a crucial role in the control and distortion of these images of representation, hiding the real actions of those who claim to represent us. TV commercials allure us with images of perfect products and suitable political candidates — products and politicians are sold as a solution to everyday problems.

Yet some signs of deep change are arising. Images of representation are no longer so easily held. Many who use social media and who are used to sharing information are suddenly beginning to challenge the monopolized image and single-message echo chamber of the consolidated media. When one is surrounded by a multiplicity of images that are not produced by or mediated through outside powers, the projection that once mesmerized us can no longer exercise its traditional power. As a result, the legitimacy of these external forms of authority is now being challenged. Waves of whistleblowing have emerged in recent years, from Chelsea Manning to Edward Snowden, combined with the power of social media and courageous journalist like those at WikiLeaks, who continue to counteract the propaganda.

Recent protest movements around the world have been challenging the perception of authority of the nation state and its governance models as well. The year 2011 marked the beginning of worldwide uprisings. Movements from abroad found resonance in North America. Inspired by people’s struggles overseas, the disfranchised American rose up, taking to the streets at the centers of wealth and corruption. Occupy Wall Street, which began in the fall of 2011, captured the imagination of the public. From Brazil to Turkey, Egypt to Bosnia and Bulgaria, new insurgencies are still rolling in, challenging the legitimacy of “representative” governments worldwide. What these movements from below reveal is how in virtually every corner of the globe, democracy — as we have known it so far — is in crisis.

Jerome Roos, a PhD researcher at the European University Institute, synthesized the waves of revolutions since the Arab Spring of 2011 and sees them as a symptom of the global legitimation crisis of representative institutions. Pointing out a number of characteristics commonly shared in those seemingly isolated events — such as disengagement from the existing power structures and the end of political parties — he suggests that “only radical autonomy from the state can take the revolution forward.”

People are moving more and more outside of electoral politics. A call is arising for a new type of governance, for a real democracy where each person participates directly and manifests their own voice. This is a political act, but it is also much more. The current crisis of democracy is a crisis of representation. Images that perpetuate illusions about ourselves can no longer sustain our humanity. From Mubarak to Morsi, from Bush to Obama, the false images and masks of leadership are beginning to fall away as people begin to disengage with the charlatan faces of recycled puppet leaders. The mirror that has for too long reflected back false promises is now being shattered. What happens when people’s faith in institutions crumble? We are seeing chaos and destruction as never before.

In this crisis of representation, for the first time we are left with ourselves, empty and hollow, yet truly with ourselves. In this nakedness lies the possibility for true freedom. Only when our emptiness is fully confronted and accepted can we find our true autonomy. Only with emotions and desires that are truly our own can we guide the world into a future that springs from the depth of our imagination. Who am I? Who are we? What do we want? The rejection of false representation is a rejection of artificially imposed identity. Around the world, the message is loud and clear. People are saying we are no longer to be mere consumers, passively accepting the commercialized visions of a future handed down to us, with corporate values and political candidates sold to us like many brands of toothpaste. This is a voice resonating in all these movements around the world and calling for deep systemic change.

The thirst for real democracy is a thirst to be free. It is the spirit that drives us to find our true aspirations within. Our self is empty. When society loses its grip and leaders become devoid of morals and compassion for humanity, we need to declare autonomy from all those outside who try to allure us and who promise to fulfill our dreams. By connecting back with our own desires and passions we can fulfill the void of the empty self and transform empty slogans into real action. Only then will it be possible for us to become the authors of our own lives, transform history and take charge of our common destiny." (