the ability to split

I am thinking a lot at present about the process of dissociation and splitting. This seems to go to the heart of our current dilemmas and struggles to get our minds, language and hearts around the urgent (yes, urgent) ecological situation we are in. I was going to write, ‘we find ourselves in’ out of habit, but then this seems to reinforce once again the sense that it’s something that has happened-to us, rather than something we are part of, embedded in, and participating in all the time, as I type on the keyboard, drink my coffee and so on.

Splitting and dissociation seem to be at the heart of the industrial phenomenon. I am sure this has been written about, perhaps in different language, e.g. the Marxist critique of production of goods and labor is a form of splitting. It is the core dissociation at the center of our  way of life, our way of being. Picking up an item at the shop is part of the dissociation. The beginnings of commerce, of goods and products to sell. As we have refined our practices and techniques, the web of services, goods and relations has become nigh invisible. Hence, the move towards locality, meeting your growers at the farmer’s market… attempts to heal this rift. Part of us wants to connect. And when we do connect, sometimes the experience is shattering and traumatic, as demonstrated with BBC Three’s series “Blood, Sweat and Take-Aways” (a variation on the sweatshop series last year). Or the equally strange and radical series, “Kill It, Cook it, Eat It” in which a studio audience is treated to a demonstration of a slaughter (yes, purpose built at the studio), processing and the eventual culinary treatment (and consumption but not by all, needless to say). What is most fascinating about these programs is the very fact that there are always a percentage of people who refuse to consume the goods, once they have seen it’s source. The bits of fashion found at cheap high street shops no longer have their allure once you’ve seen the workers sleeping on the floor under their worktable, or have had to do this yourself for a harrowing 24 hours. The take-away curry is not as appetising once you see the way the prawns are processed in Indonesia, or have had to shovel the mud yourself in the hot sun. The intensively farmed chicken is not so tasty once you have seen or even visited one of these pens full of fat and lame chickens.

I am convinced that this tells us something vital about how we dissociate in order to enjoy the fruits of a cheap global market economy. The process of dissociation is something Freud wrote about over a hundred years ago; despite the immense sophistication and accuracy of some of his work, we continue to find reasons to deride Freud. However he wrote about this fundamental splitting and ability to “disavow”, to both know and not-know threatening information in order to function. This basic insight has since been refined and remains at the heart of most psychotherapeutic approaches and treatment (with the notable exception of cognitive behavioral therapy, which can’t really be bothered with such messy and complicated stuff). That is, that we split off “good” and “bad” sensations, experiences, thoughts and memories in order to proceed “as if.” Or as Lifton noted, we become numb when confronted with circumstances too painful or overwhelming to mentally or emotionally process. It’s as if we are all to some degree partially awake, partially conscious, sleepwalking through the shops, malls, highways, sidewalks. This makes total sense, of course. We cannot, by necessity be aware or conscious of everything all the time. It’s an inbuilt survival mechanism, one that works exceedingly well for most. And yet, Freud wrote about this “rift” in consciousness, that comes at a cost. There is a price, he says, for splitting off our consciousness. This price, it is suggested, is a lack of authenticity, of agency. We become cut off from a vital part of ourselves.

So the question then is what can be done. My thinking about this follows along the lines of the gifted psychotherapists I’ve been fortunate to have known or read over the years, which often combines compassion with a healthy dose of realism. It does no use to berate ourselves, but to seek understanding. This doesn’t mean saying, ‘there, there, it’s OK to enjoy your cheap, sweat-shop produced T-shirt/shoes/computer/stereo/camera” but rather to say, Yep, I’m part of this system and to some degree I have very limited control over what I can do. But I also have some control over what I can do. It means noticing the splitting and dissociation and having curiosity about it, and dedicating onself to compassionately seek to ‘associate’ rather than dis-associate.

I am tired of reading people who only deride, chastise and berate. I am tired of anything that suggests berating ourselves is in any way acceptable. Is it ever OK for a parent to berate a child for misbehaving? Having known adults who were raised in such environments, my answer is no. Such individuals are plagued with a chronic sense of disempowerment, insecurity and self loathing. Most insidious is the caustic effects of guilt, which can literally eat away at an individual’s sense of worth, value and capacity to make a difference. Persecutory guilt plagues many newcomers to our current ecological mess, is reinforced by environmental media campaigns, tapping right into our sense of worthlessness (e.g. original sinners that we are), and has been shown to rarely translate into good acts. Nothing good can come from this.
Understanding our way through dissociation does not mean being a pansy and accepting it. It is not a wimpy approach. It’s a powerful assertion of what is really happening, and a loving ability to face this straight on. It’s what Hanna Segal wrote about with regard to reparation. We need to face our losses and griefs and disappointments, so we can then move on towards position and “repairing” activities. We will be angry and frustrated and irritated, but it’s not a place to dwell in.

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