Theory, Common Sense, Narcissistic Energy

Nick Tingle

As a long-time teacher of academic writing, I can testify that beginning students do not understand academic theory, graduating students still have not mastered it, and the take-home lesson for most, on the basis of their university experience, is that an “academic question” is synonymous with a useless or pointless question. That such is the case does not seem to me the result of some lack in students’ genetic make-up, in their gray matter, or in their cognitive capacities. Rather, I think the movement into academic theory entails on the part of the individual a difficult and sometimes painful psychological movement, one for which Hegel’s phrase, the labor of the negative, is not entirely inappropriate.

I describe the psychological dimension of this labor of the negative through reference to self-psychology. Briefly and in the grossest term, self-psychological theory holds that individuals seek, in the world, objects (specifically selfobjects) that mirror and empathetically affirm their narcissistically informed and energized ideals and ambitions. If individuals are able to locate such objects, then they experience themselves as ongoing continuous wholes and as independent centers of initiative. If individuals, however, are unable to locate such objects, they may experience self-fragmentation with such attendant affects as anxiety, depression, and rage.

This is my premise: the movement into theory may require of students that they experience a degree of self-fragmentation or narcissistic wounding. In my work as a teacher of writing, I have come to recognize three broad categories of such wounding. These I will detail here. In fact, of course, these three responses are inter-related, and all three may indeed occur in any given student over the course of his development or in response to a single assignment. Roughly, these three responses may be described as a) the rageful, b) the listless or de-energized, and c) as the anxious.

The rageful is perhaps the most obvious. This is the response of the student who experiences the encounter with a theory, whatever it might be, as directly contradicting a belief or throwing it to question a belief. The student is relatively conscious of the belief and holds it rather rigidly. One student for example, in response to an assignment on Freud’s article on infantile sexuality, decorated the cover page of his paper with a cartoon, depicting an infant, with little devil horns protruding from its head, sitting on its potty and sucking its thumb. The caption read: “I want to suck my mother.” The cartoon was quite well done.

The student had of course misinterpreted Freud. He did so, I believe, because he failed utterly to grasp the nature of Freud’s theory as theory. Rather, he read Freud as expressing a belief–one that moreover seemed to call into question his own rather Hallmark card belief, clearly expressed in the paper–of the infant as an innocent bundle of joy. The student’s response does not mean that he had not read Freud, or had not paid attention, or had not tried to understand. Rather, given the intensity of his response, I believe he had tried to understand and had in fact understood. But his narcissistically informed belief in the nature of the infant as innocent had led him to experience self-destabilizing, with the attendant affect of rage.

The rageful response, while disturbing, is frequently energetic. Indeed, under the spell of rage, the writing of some students improves. True, complexity of response is sacrificed, but the paragraphs cohere and the words march quite rigorously across the page. The listless, de-energized, or detached response is far more common, however. The encounter with a theory, whatever it might be, has not, in this case, been experienced by the given student as having come into contradiction with a particular and more consciously retained belief. This response does not produce vividly drawn cartoons. Rather the signal, for me, of the second kind of response is the paper that begins with something like: “Everyone has a right to her own opinion.” Or: “Everything is subjective, isn’t it?”

This response, which has been decried especially by right-wing commentators as a sign of the liberalizing effects of higher education, may for the sake of convenience be called “the relativistic response.” The difficulty with this characterization, while convenient, is that it wholly misses the psychological mark. Rather, this attitudinal stance is better understood as a defensive mechanism by which students attempt to escape the narcissistic wounding attendant upon a movement into theory. This stance is not a sign of open-mindedness or tolerance. More precisely, it is a plea for mercy. It says, “I will not question your beliefs if you will not force me to question mine.” Accordingly, students keep their beliefs in a kind of suspension and characterize “beliefs” that might challenge their own as “just another theory.”

In my attempts to understand this attitude psychoanalytically, I have come to see that the “everything is relative” response is dialectically related to the “I am unique” response. The movement into theory requires that individuals take up the theory as it were unto themselves or, more psychoanalytically, to see themselves in the theory. The problem with theories though, as students remind me, is that they tend to generalize, over-generalize, and be “extreme.” These responses suggest that students have engaged, more unconsciously than not, the theory in question and have experience self-fragmentation. In relation to the theory, they have experienced themselves as “reduced” via “over-generalization.” The I-am-unique response acts as a form of defensive rationalization aimed at re-stabilizing the self.

In my attempt in other words to understand what students mean when they say, “I am unique,” I have come to see that they do not mean unique in the sense of genetically or fingerprint unique (because genetic uniqueness is “reductive” and narcissistically wounding). Nor do they mean either that, because they were born at a particular time and place. They have necessarily experienced things in no way no one else has experienced. Given the failure to locate a referent for their response, I conclude that it is a description rather of an affective state of the kind evoked by Rousseau when he writes, memorably:

I am commencing an undertaking, hitherto without precedent, and which will never find an imitator. I desire to set down before my fellows the likeness of a man in all truth of nature and that man myself.Myself alone! I know the feelings of my heart, and I know men. I am not like any of those that I have seen; I venture to believe I am not made like any of those in existence. If I am not better, I am at least different. Whether Nature has acted rightly or wrongly in destroying the mould in which she cast me can only be decided after I have been read.

This is the rationalization of a self, an attempt at self-stabilization, which having experienced narcissistic wounding, proclaims itself absolutely different, non-reducible, without compare, and perfect unto itself. Incommensurable.

Since I teach undergraduates, the third form of response, the anxious, is not one I have encountered with great frequency. I am unable to describe its specific rhetorical signs, but I believe that at root it underlies the two responses I have just described. As I have suggested, the previous two responses suggest that students have read, they have paid attention, they have in some sense understood, but they have done so at the level of anxiety. Rage and the listless depressed response may be understood as defenses against allowing any penetration of this experience into consciousness.

While Freud argued that his theory, and Darwin’s wounded humanity’s narcissism, its sense of being at the center of a stable universe, Heinz Kohut argues that, historically construed, humanity’s narcissism was not so much wounded, as freed or liberated (57). In other words, as the intellectual selfobjects of one era fall into decay, as signaled by such theories as those of Freud, Marx, Freud, or Nietzsche, the self loses its intellectual moorings, those ideological structures that supported and contained it. Wounding, of course, results, for those of a certain generation; others, however, are freed to experience a dizzying sense of freedom that makes possible creation but also draws upon and taps into more grandiose and less mature forms of narcissism.

Kohut of course is talking history; I am talking students. But I do believe that students may experience the movement into theory as dizzying or anxiety producing. Theory is counter-intuitive and non-commonsensical. To the extent that students experience it as such, it may call into question the shared intersubjective reality of common sense, a massive self-object, formed at the earliest stages of the infant-caretaker exchange.

Berger and Luckman write, “The reality of everyday life is taken for granted as reality. It does not require additional verification over and beyond its simple presence. It is simply there, as self-evident and compelling facticity. I know that it is real. (23)” And further, speaking of the theoretical attitude as evidenced in science, philosophy, and religion: “Compared to the reality of everyday life, other realities appear as finite provinces of meaning, enclaves within the paramount reality marked by circumscribed meanings and modes of experience. (25)”

The epistemology equivalent of everyday reality is “common” or intersubjectively shared sense. It is this knowledge that makes everyday action possible. The movement, however, into those finite provinces of meaning distinguished by theory and marked off by particular forms of discourse may entail, for those who make the move, a degree of self-destabilization. Theory draws its energy from relatively untempered forms of narcissism, ones that would create the world in its own image. The very experience of this energy, in relation to theory, may, depending on the student and her particular course of development, threaten the self in relation to the self-objects, and the sense of living in an intersubjective world, afforded by common sense.

The difficulty with common sense from the perspective of the various enclaves or provinces of theory is that it is incoherent. This perception of common sense is, I believe, reflected in such notions as there being no singular selves, but instead multiple subjectivities, or in Faigley’s phrase, “fragments of rationality.” This, I think, is actually the case; the problem, however, from a psychological point of view is that common sense is not experienced as such, as either fragmented or self-fragmenting. It appears, rather overall, a mysterious agglutination, a jello, as it were, holding in suspension various forms of knowledge in such a way that manifest contradictions between them are not experienced as such.

The German Transcendental philosopher Fichte labored with this problem in his attempt to make a distinction between true philosophy and what he called dogmatism. I can’t refrain from quoting here at some length a passage that has haunted me for some time–not because of the philosophy, I don’t understand that–but because of what it might say about the psychological relation of self to the objects of common sense:

Some [that is to say, for Fichte, almost everybody], who have not yet raised themselves to full consciousness of their freedom and absolute independence, find themselves only in the presentation of things; they have only that dispersed self-consciousness which attaches itself to objects…. Their image is reflected back to them only by things, as by a mirror…. The principle of the dogmatist’s belief in things for the sake of the self: indirect belief, therefore, in their own scattered selves sustained only by objects. (19)For Fichte, common sense is a form of dogmatism. It supplies knowledge, in the form of “ready-mades,” without the self having risen to what he calls the Idea, or full consciousness, to learn, through that labor of the negative, what it knows.

Most students, whether or not they are familiar with the principles of dogmatism, are dogmatists of common sense. They find themselves, narcissistically, in their objects; these objects are scattered and contradictory, but the belief in what Fichte calls the independence of such objects (in their “reality” as defined by Berger and Luckman) is necessary to sustain the self in its relation to the intersubjective reality of everyday life. The movement towards theory (or what Fichte calls the Idea) requires then a massive– and in some sense never completely possible (except in delusion)–uprooting of the self from its everyday objects. What is required is the ability to undergo massive narcissistic wounding, as one journeys however temporality into the province of theory, without lapsing into the defensive formations of rage or listless de-energized boredom.

Additionally, but dialectically related to the wounding itself, the capacity to tolerate the wounding is dependent upon the ability of the individual to tap into and sustain a relationship to that more primal narcissism in which, as Winnicott put it, one feels that one is the creator of the world.

The potentials for anxiety are then, at this level, two-fold, emanating from two directions. First, the movement into theory requires a breaking with the diverse objects of the world of common sense that are frequently called into question by the theory itself. Second, the capacity fully to mobilize the theory, to use it as a tool by which to reconceive the world of common sense, requires that the individual draw upon narcissistic energies that may threaten the stability of the self in relation to more primary self-structures. This is, as I have described it at least, a perilous psychological movement. That most students do not make it seems to me understandable, especially in light of the failure of the institutions of higher education to even recognize, much less provide an understanding of, the affective dimensions and psychological demands of this movement.

By the time they are juniors, the students with whom I work, at least, have undergone a significant transformation. They have learned the game, or more precisely they have learned that learning is a game. Sadly, with respect to the idea of learning as something that might broaden and deepen the person, as something other than a path to career, their attitude seems to me prematurely knowing or world-weary. They are suspicious of the very notion. Even more sadly, I believe, this attitude, in light of the quality of the instruction they have been afforded, one marked by a complete disregard for the psychological dimensions of learning, may well be a tribute to their sanity.

Works Cited

Berger, Peter L. and Luckman, Thomas. The Social Construction of Reality. New York:

Anchor Books, 1989.

Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. Fichte: Science of Knowledge. Trans. Peter Heath and

John Lacks. New York: Appleton Century-Crofts, 1970.

Kohut, Heinz. How Does Analysis Cure?

Kohut, Heinz. How Does Analysis Cure?

Kohut, Heinz. How Does Analysis Cure?

Kohut, Heinz. How Does Analysis Cure?