Primary Process

"The heart has its reasons which the reason does not at all perceive." Among Anglo-Saxons, it is rather usual to think of the "reasons" of the heart or of the unconscious as inchoate forces or pushes or heavings — what Freud called Trieben. To Pascal, a Frenchman, the matter was rather different, and he no doubt thought of the reasons of the heart as a body of logic or computation as precise and complex as the reasons of consciousness.

(I have noticed that Anglo-Saxon anthropologists some-times misunderstand the writings of Claude Levi-Strauss for precisely this reason. They say he emphasizes too much the intellect and ignores the "feelings." The truth is that he assumes that the heart has precise algorithms.)

These algorithms of the heart, or, as they say, of the unconscious, are, however, coded and organized in a manner totally different from the algorithms of language. And since a great deal of conscious thought is structured in terms of the logics of language, the algorithms of the unconscious are doubly inaccessible. It is not only that the conscious mind has poor access to this material, but also the fact that when such access is achieved, e.g., in dreams, art, poetry, religion, intoxication, and the like, there is still a formidable problem of translation.

This is usually expressed in Freudian language by saying that the operations of the unconscious are structured in terms of primary process, while the thoughts of consciousness (especially verbalized thoughts) are expressed in secondary process.

Nobody, to my knowledge, knows anything about secondary process. But it is ordinarily assumed that everybody knows all about it, so I shall not attempt to describe secondary process in any detail, assuming that you know as much about it as I.

Primary process is characterized (e.g., by Fenichel) as lacking negatives, lacking tense, lacking in any identification of linguistic mood (i.e., no identification of indicative, subjunctive, optative, etc.) and metaphoric. These characterizations are based upon the experience of psychoanalysts, who must interpret dreams and the patterns of free association.

It is also true that the subject matter of primary-process discourse is different from the subject matter of language and consciousness. Consciousness talks about things or persons, and attaches predicates to the specific things or persons which have been mentioned. In primary process the things or persons are usually not identified, and the focus of the discourse is upon the relationships which are asserted to obtain between them. This is really only another way of saying that the discourse of primary process is metaphoric. A metaphor retains unchanged the relationship which it "illustrates" while substituting other things or persons for the relata. In a simile, the fact that a metaphor is being used is marked by the insertion of the words "as if" or "like." In primary process (as in art) there are no markers to indicate to the conscious mind that the message material is metaphoric.

(For a schizophrenic, it is a major step towards a more conventional sanity when he can frame his schizophrenic utterances or the comments of his voices in an "as if" terminology.)

The focus of "relationship" is, however, somewhat more narrow than would be indicated merely by saying that primary-process material is metaphoric and does not identify the specific relata. The subject matter of dream and other primary-process material is, in fact, relationship in the more narrow sense of relationship between self and other persons or between self and the environment.

Anglo-Saxons who are uncomfortable with the idea that feelings and emotions are the outward signs of precise and complex algorithms usually have to be told that these matters, the relationship between self and others, and the relationship between self and environment, are, in fact, the subject matter of what are called "feelings"— love, hate, fear, confidence, anxiety, hostility, etc. It is unfortunate that these abstractions referring to patterns of relationship have received names, which are usually handled in ways that assume that the "feelings" are mainly characterized by quantity rather than by precise pattern. This is one of the nonsensical contributions of psychology to a distorted epistemology.

Be all that as it may, for our present purposes it is important to note that the characteristics of primary process as described above are the inevitable characteristics of any communicational system between organisms who must use only iconic communication. This same limitation is characteristic of the artist and of the dreamer and of the prehuman mammal or bird. (The communication of insects is, perhaps, another matter.)

In iconic communication, there is no tense, no simple negative, no modal marker.

The absence of simple negatives is of especial interest be-cause it often forces organisms into saying the opposite of what they mean in order to get across the proposition. that they mean the opposite of what they say.

Two dogs approach each other and need to exchange the message: "We are not going to fight." But the only way in which fight can be mentioned in iconic communication is by the showing of fangs. It is then necessary for the dogs to discover that this mention of fight was, in fact, only exploratory. They must, therefore, explore what the showing of fangs means. They therefore engage in a brawl; discover that neither ultimately intends to kill the other; and, after that, they can be friends.

(Consider the peace-making ceremonials of the Andaman Islanders. Consider also the functions of inverted statement or sarcasm, and other sorts of humor in dream, art, and mythology.)

In general, the discourse of animals is concerned with relationship either between self and other or self and environment. In neither case is it necessary to identify the relata. Animal A tells B about his relationship with B and he tells C about his relationship with C. Animal A does not have to tell animal C about his relationship with B. Always the relata are perceptibly present to illustrate the discourse, and always the discourse is iconic in the sense of being composed of part actions ("intention movements") which mention the whole action which is being mentioned. Even when the cat asks you for milk, she cannot mention the object which she wants (unless it be perceptibly present). She says, "Mama, mama," and you are supposed from this invocation of de-pendency to guess that it is milk that she requires.

All this indicates that primary-process thoughts and the communication of such thoughts to others are, in an evolutionary sense, more archaic than the more conscious operations of language, etc. This has implications for the whole economics and dynamic structure of the mind. Samuel Butler was perhaps first to point out that that which we know best is that of which we are least conscious, i.e., that the process of habit formation is a sinking of knowledge down to less conscious and more archaic levels. The unconscious contains not only the painful matters which consciousness prefers to not inspect, but also many matters which are so familiar that we do not need to inspect them. Habit, therefore, is a major economy of conscious thought. We can do things without consciously thinking about them. The skill of an artist, or rather his demonstration of a skill, becomes a message about these parts of his unconsciousness. (But not perhaps a message from the unconscious.)

But the matter is not quite so simple. Some types of knowledge can conveniently be sunk to unconscious levels, but other types must be kept on the surface. Broadly, we can afford to sink those sorts of knowledge which continue to be true regardless of changes in the environment, but we must maintain in an accessible place all those controls of behavior which must be modified for every instance. The lion can sink into his unconscious the proposition that zebras are his natural prey, but in dealing with any particular zebra he must be able to modify the movements of his attack to fit with the particular terrain and the particular evasive tactics of the particular zebra.

The economics of the system, in fact, pushes organisms toward sinking into the unconscious those generalities of relationship which remain permanently true and toward keeping within the conscious the pragmatics of particular instances.

The premises may, economically, be sunk, but particular conclusions must be conscious. But the "sinking," though economical, is still done at a price—the price of inaccessibility. Since the level to which things are sunk is characterized by iconic algorithms and metaphor, it becomes difficult for the organism to examine the matrix out or which his conscious conclusions spring. Conversely, we may note that what is common to a particular statement and a corresponding metaphor is of a generality appropriate for sinking.

Supreme Sobriety

Supreme Sobriety

How to Maintain Your Resolution to Be Sober. Get All The Support And Guidance You Need To Be A Success At Sobriety. This Book Is One Of The Most Valuable Resources In The World When It Comes To Turning Your Love For Cooking Into A Money Maker.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment