A death in the family (and a ghost in the room)


The Nuclear Family
Image by jessi.bryan via Flickr

(An extract from “One” the first essay from an unpublished collection entitled “Essays on nameless ghosts“)

Ronald Laing once said that ‘the family as a system is internalised. Relations and operations between elements and sets of elements are internalised, not elements in isolation.’ And, I rather think (pro Laing) that there is something quite interesting to unpack from within this thought. Something which might be quite a constant companion during gathering for festivals, holidays, birthdays and the like. It seems that there might be a ghost in the room during these times. However, all present can definitely agree upon one thing where this ghost is concerned at least, it would be extremely unwise to mention the presence which all agreed upon. One does not ever dare mention the ghost in the room. Now, let us imagine we can close our eyes and think about what it might actually be like to mention the fact, quite casually, perhaps, that whenever two or more of the clan is gathered, the spectre is not only spotted but actually exerts some extraordinary, seemingly preternatural force over the lives of those most beloved as if the very souls of those around were at stake.

Let us begin to approach this most taboo phantasm with all good courage summoned. For in distinguishing the object of our stated concern, we are in fact locating ourselves within the situation of the family, the family as our place of origin. This object, the family, of which we are now able to speak, albeit in a whisper, suggests itself to be a temporal network of people bound together over time; who have material bindings of marriage, biology or otherwise strongly forged matrices of relational attachments with one another. The family, thus conceived, appears to be both temporal and material. And yet, the closer one looks at families and their dynamics, the more the task of distinguishing the ways in which the observed dynamics of families differ from other groups which are not families. Simply put, the dynamics and structures found in those groups which are called families may not be evident in those groups called families in other places and at other times. Families are cultures for themselves. That is, they come to form reified totalisations of experiences which began as the imaginings of and for identity but result in the family history. But is this one authorised version of the family history to be believed at any cost and under all conditions?

The relevance of the dynamics and structure of the family to the formation of selfhood (which we call personality) is unlikely to be constant in different societies or even in our own.  Thus, the object of our morbid concern – the family – would appear to be the internalised, imaginary family; the representation, image or idea of the identification made with the observable family, which is then projected back into parts of the body of the observable family in our waking life as an ideal.  The family ought, therefore, to be held as both imaginary and real, coextensively; one ought to introduce some doubt into the absoluteness of ideals and values, and carry over those doubting thoughts into other everyday uses of language where an imaginary/imago family and a real/everyday family are held up as the same thing.

One may now perhaps more fully distinguish what the intended object of concern might be on the death of the family – specifically, that the family as a reified grouping with a universal structure; an entity with constant dynamic properties and design, the monolithic, the fetishistic totem of modern concern, the so-called nuclear family, is indeed quite dead.  The family as our place of origin is our prize here; whatever it is or will become in future, it cannot sustain a use for us whilst its most profoundly shaping influence over us remains hidden from rational consideration; one idea obscured from view by another set firmly to the fore in our outward gaze.

But what, one might ask, of the inward looking gaze? What of the different perspective afforded to us through an openness to introspection?  Why would so many thinkers since Freud appeal to our sensibilities to take the implications of the internalised family seriously?  In order to address these complex issues one might begin such a quest by first seeking a simple clarity of the terminology being held under investigation. Internalisation can be initially viewed as the binary opposite to externalisation by projection.  Here, internalisation of the worldly objects of ‘external reality’ can be considered as mapped directly into (not onto) our own ‘internal reality;’ that is, from sensory perception into the ideas and images of the imagination and memory.  For example, the notion of the family becomes mapped directly as one of my family.  Where internalisation refers to sets or groups of objects, the not dissimilar term introjection (see also Ferenczi, 1909; Freud, 1917, 1921, 1923) refers more or less explicitly to a singular element or object ‘taken in’, so to speak; for example, the notion of the introjected mother becomes one of my mother.  Thus one can remember the difference between the two terms quite simply; internalisation involves ‘taking in’ sets or groups of objects where introjection involves ‘taking in’ a single object.  Projection on the other hand involves the mapping of an object or group of objects from our ‘internal world’ into (not onto) the ‘external world.’  For example, in projection the notion of my family becomes the dominant prototypical outline for one where the family ought to be – simply put, my view is superimposed into the Other as if it were their own.  In this way one can clearly see that through projection ones own imaginary objects are then falsely attributed to belong to the Other.  Freud (1895) used the term projection to attribute certain states of mind to someone else, however one may also speak of projection in other modalities (Abraham, 1924, Klein, 1946): as the projection of internal objects, as a deflection of instinctual aggression, as the externalisation of internal conflict, and as a projection of parts (part-objects) of the self.

That said, what, if anything, ought one to do in response to a theoretical possibility that one’s self appears to have awoken to find that the order-of-things is not quite as straightforward as one might have previously assumed?  What if we are part of a continuity of cycles (projective-introjective) of input and output, where imaginary objects are the currency of exchange within the binding of a real and a symbolic waking life?  Perhaps what can be said in response to this decentring thought is that the first objective suggests itself as a reflection on the proposal at hand as not belonging to the realm of impossibility, and then to a way forward which points to the use of doubt to inform further movement toward the implications, abstract thoughts of self-knowledge, of another side of ourselves.

The real does exist, yet it is other to us; for, as we are all well aware, the nature of water is not same as the nature of H2O. So too, the order of the signifier is not the order of the signified. Here one may then rightly rely upon some transitional object as appearing to offer the most practical utility in bridging the connexion between self and the other.  And it is doubt which, for itself, can be productive for us in this regard, as the use of doubt, as an open process for adaptation, informs us to a large degree. Under other names the precious commodity we called doubt (whether or not clothed in the contextualising fashion of scepticism, fallibilism or falsification) provides for a lasting and consistent rational basis from which one can begin to speak with certainty, with knowledge, with authority.  Indeed one might go as far to say that even such curious bedfellows as the scientist suffering from chronic ‘brainism’ (read Darwinitus) and the philosopher with chronic ‘mindism’ (read epiphenomenalism), alike, can be discerned to share this most methodical of instruments in their respective toolbags, that is, the use of scepticism. Nonetheless, the actuality duly noted (where one finds doubt so readily acceptable even to the most radical different of methodical approaches), the same cannot be said of those who wish to entertain the same clarity in the proximity of the family as a system.

For Cooper (1971) the family system rarely, if ever, accepts doubt of ‘the efficacy of its healing function’ or, indeed, the legitimacy of its attributions or justifications. As such, the family requires of us nothing less than our compliance with regard to the perpetuation of its own mythologies. Following Cooper’s interesting line of thought one finds the suggestion that all-too often the price of doubt the ‘family myths’ in these cases is quite often an aggressive cleave or geographical removal – either way resulting in some form of in-group and out-group style of alienation. Though here it would be wrong to presume however that doubt holds no use for the isolated self who faces the ire of the family entity, which threatens to annihilate the notion of doubt within the minds of each of the group to secure its existence at all costs. Rather the opposite may be the case, where effective use of doubt is a liberating and generous act toward the self; not toward ego, it is an act which accepts the past without requiring the past to repeat itself, and it ought also be a relational act (without a necessarily formal therapeutic intervention). Which is to say that doubt, if it is to become effective (as if marked as liberating and/or generous) rather than depriving or alienating (as if marked with aggression and/or relocation), accepts that the past cannot be changed, whilst taking responsibility for finding better choices in the moment of the present and the future as it unfolds.  Furthermore, that the nature of effective doubt ought always to be firmly based on open dialogue and reflection (not necessarily formal therapeutic).

Thus, here we have pressed language so that its use upon itself might allow for a glimpse at a removal of the absoluteness of imaginary ideals to make a space for a return.  It is here that the site of the real/everyday family is allowed to step up and perhaps flourish once more in an accommodation knowingly composed of both (real and imaginary objects).  It is through this retotalising lens that a mutuality of difference becomes clearer for the family (it is a dialectical system composed of difference).  Which is to say, the notion of a totalisation for the family only reifies its false history, and subsequent reflection on its detotalisation leaves one with a somewhat paradoxical sounding totalisation (as ideal) and detotalisation (as real) which together form the continuity of the family as a place of origin; an ecology of the family, so to speak (and it is this notion which is suggested here to hold use for us).  It simply occurs that for all the sublime uniqueness of our individual experiences we are bound by a single point of entry (the relation with family) into majestic repeating patterns of relations within groups and cultures – each supervening upon the next in a succession of new totalisations.  In this imaginary sense we are able to believe that the sum total of our desires can be fashioned into the stuff of cultures who style the furniture of the world with all the colours of language.  Nonetheless, reflections such as these on the outline, and relief, of the family invite the temptation to imagine a mutuality of our difference as a unitary connection for our identifications, significations and communications (as iterative interpretants, not merely final interpretations). The alienated self cannot identify fully with the myth of the family (imago) because it itself (the family entity) cannot do otherwise; the alienated self overcomes its alienation from the family (with a renewed sense of worth and place) when one comes to hold the view that the myth (imago) is an important imaginary object with many uses within a site which is a transitional place of origin and not a fixed totality of fetishistic myth.

So, there, the ghost has been mentioned and no-one, so far, was or has been unduly harmed or psychologically violated. Now can we, yes all of us from time to time, bear the concomitant uncertainties in allowing enough psychological space for our own autonomy and the existence of the mythic spectre in coincidence? I’m not at all sure, but maybe I will try to honour myself, and the dead, more often than has become usual on such occasions.

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