The Embodied Unconscious
Part Two of Three. Part One.
Ulmer’s project — fashioning a heuristic apparatus that brings the social unconscious partly into view — focuses on the semiotic elements of the socially situated self. Yet, this is only one of the unconscious, or pre-cognitive, dimensions of identity and action. In How We Became Posthuman, Katherine Hayles drew attention to the relationship among embodiment, cognition, and subjectivity. The group subject emerges, according to Hayles, not only out of the realm of image, symbol, and language, but also out of the matrix of embodied practice.
Ulmer’s unconscious may be labeled the semiotic (or iconic) unconscious. Adapting Lacan’s psychic schema, Ulmer proposes to map the group subject by recognizing the pattern of recurring signifiers within the four discourses of what Ulmer calls the popcycle (Family, Entertainment, School, Career). The recurring signifier, analogous to the Lacanian symptom, takes on the role of Guattari’s “existential refrain”: “An implication for electrate identity,” according to Ulmer, “is that a unique refrain, a singularity, may be the clasp that holds together a collectivity (that the nation, so to speak, ‘hangs by a thread’).” The emerging apparatus of electracy allows the group subject to be written, and thus to emerge, at least partially, from its blind spot.
Hayles supplements the semiotic unconscious with what may be called the embodied unconscious. The embodied unconscious consists of “bodily practices” which have sedimented
into habitual actions and movements, sinking below conscious awareness. At this level they achieve an inertia that can prove surprisingly resistant to conscious intentions to modify or change them. By their nature, habits do not occupy conscious thought; they are done more or less automatically, as if the knowledge of how to perform the actions resided in ones’ fingers or physical mobility rather than in one’s mind.
In articulating the significance of the embodied unconscious, Hayles draws heavily on the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu arrived at his conceptions of practice and embodied knowledge through his study of a group of Berber tribes known as the Kabyle living in North Africa. Bourdieu observed that the seasonal rituals of the Kabyle conveyed considerable “understanding” about the world, but did so by communicating not “abstractions,” but “patterns of daily life learned by practicing actions until they become habitual.” Habitus, as Bourdieu put it, preserves “a past which survives in the present and tends to perpetuate itself into the future by making itself present in practices structured according to its principles,” and it does so by embedding this knowledge or remembering in the body.
In summarizing Bourdieu’s findings, Hayles concludes that his
work illustrates how embodied knowledge can be structurally elaborate, conceptually coherent, and durably installed without ever having to be cognitively recognized as such . . . The habitus, which is learned, perpetuated, and changed through embodied practices, should not be thought of as a collection of rules but as a series of dispositions and inclinations that are both subject to circumstances and durable enough to pass down through generations. The habitus is conveyed through the orientation and movement of the body as it traverses cultural spaces and experiences temporal rhythms.
This durable knowledge carried in the body and yielding dispositions and inclinations is transmitted through the ritualized practices of a society. Ulmer tends to associate embodied knowledge and its modes of acquisition with oral cultures and religious liturgies, consequently this form of subject formation is unfortunately marginalized in his analysis of literate and post-literate societies. By contrast, Hayles forefronts this form of knowledge and argues for its ongoing significance. She concludes her discussion of Bourdieu by identifying four key elements of embodied knowledge that emerged from his research:
First, incorporated [or, embodied] knowledge retains improvisational elements that make it contextual rather than abstract, that keep it tied to the circumstances of its instantiation. Second, it is deeply sedimented into the body and is highly resistant to change. Third, incorporated knowledge is partly screened from conscious view because it is habitual. Fourth, because it is contextual, resistant to change, and obscure to the cogitating mind, it has the power to define the boundaries within which conscious thought takes place.
The fourth point is particularly significant in relation to ATH or blindness and Arendt’s call to think what we are doing. Hayles explicitly links the obscurity of embodied knowledge with the contours within which conscious thought flows.
Connecting embodied knowledge with blindness is not intended to disparage embodied knowledge. In fact, without offloading certain procedures, interactions, and functions to the embodied unconscious, it would be difficult to function at all. But the benefits of embodied knowledge come at a price. Here it is helpful to recall Ulmer’s discussion of Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “optical unconscious”:
The capacity of the camera to separate itself from the human physical and mental eye, combined with the theories of psychoanalysis, produced the notion of the ‘optical unconscious’ (Benjamin). The attitude toward truth as standpoint in the image apparatus of electracy is that clarity is an effect of repression, blindness (ATH).
“Clarity is an effect of repression” is a dictum that applies not only to the optical unconscious, but also to the embodied unconscious. The benefits of the embodied unconscious come at the cost of installing habitual repression into our experience of the world. Habituated forms of attention are simultaneously habituated forms of inattention. Interestingly, the connection between repression and habituation appears in Rosalind Krauss’ analysis cited by Ulmer in his discussion of the optical unconscious:
As Rosalind Krauss explained, applying the poststructural psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, the ‘extimate’ inside-outside nature of the human subject installs an opaque obstacle “within the very heart of a diagrammatic clarity that is now a model both of vision’s claims and of vision’s failure . . . . The graph of an automatist visuality would show how the vaunted cognitive transparency of the ‘visual as such’ is not an act of consciousness but the effect of what is repressed: the effect, that is, of seriality, repetition, the automation.”
Just as we often see through habituated acts of not seeing, we also often act through habituated acts of not thinking.