forgottenboy's version of my feelings about Gladwell's Blink sounds overly sanguine to these ears. Wilson's Strangers to Ourselves may lack the narrative drive of Gladwell's books, but it is a far better introduction to the field. His narrative may stutter through the disciplinary history case-study-by-case-study, but even a shot transmission can push the needle above 55 on occasion. But I want to talk argument, not ornament. Wilson cites the articles being summarized or criticized, and his assessments are responsible and generous. Perhaps too generous. So far, I've found Wilson to be a serial under-exaggerator (even in reference to his own work) who steps delicately to avoid tripping any bullshit detectors. Still, he compels readers to connect the dots he lines up. (In Blink, those debates are obscured by the litany of experts he interviews, none of whom think it's a bad idea to present radical positions as if they were the disciplinary norm.)
The most salient and alluring undotted line suggests, forcefully if not persuasively, that a person can acquire a Freudian or Lacanian unconscious by sheer force of belief. Not an actual one, mind you, since it would still reside "above" the adaptive unconscious; and not a truly "unconscious" unconscious, since it would be the product of conscious deliberation; but it could be there.
In chapter four, he delves into the research into constitution of "personality," and presents the consensus opinion that people's conscious beliefs and unconscious behavior are at odds. He cites numerous studies which demonstrate, for example, that when a person and all her friends are asked to rate her on character traits like "conscientiousness" and "temper," there is almost no correlation between the person's self-evaluation and her friends' evaluations; however, there's a significant correlation, damn near a consensus, among her friends. What this speaks to, Wilson argues, is the fact that the adaptive unconscious manifests its "personality" more forcefully in social situations, in moments when reactions are instant, or almost so, and thus rely not on conscious deliberation but on the unconscious modules. Their contours are clearly visible to everyone except the person who must infer the disposition of implicit processes they can only access indirectly. We can't control those processes despite the fact that they constitute the bulk of our personality. We are what we do, not how we rationalize it. (On its face, this is a familiar model. Keep in mind, however, that the processes involved work in no way like their psychoanalytic counterparts. No family romance and all it entails.)
How does Wilson know this? Like anyone interested in human cognition, he studies people with unique and/or extensive brain damage. He cites the Gazzaniga and LeDoux's famous study of the lobotomized patient whose right hemisphere (controlling the left side of his body) is flashed a picture of a snow scene on it and asked to pick the card which corresponds to it: a shovel, a can opener, a screwdriver and a saw. With his left hand he picks the shovel every time; with his left-hemisphere controlled right hand, he did no better than chance. Then they flashed different pictures at the same time:
[I]n one trial they flashed the snow scene to [the patient's] right hemisphere and a picture of a chicken claw to his left hemisphere. Hepicked the card with a shovel with his left hand (because that was the one most related to the snow scene seen by his right hemisphere) and a card with a chicken with his right hand (because that was most related to the chicken claw seen by his left hemisphere.
The researchers then asked [the patient] why had picked the cards he did. Like most people, [the patient's] speech center was in his left hemisphere, which knew why he had picked the chicken with his right hand (because he had seen the chicken claw) but had no idea why he had picked the shovel with his left hand (because the snow scene was viewed only by the right hemisphere). No problem; the left hemipshere quickly made up an answer: "I saw a claw and picked a chicken, and you have to clean out the chicken shed with a shovel. (96)
A basic example of "mind-blindness," I know, but a powerful indication of what the deliberative consciousness constantly does; namely, it confabulates rational—typically narrative—explanations when confronted with any situation. It acts as if it possesses all the facts, understands all the motives, and produces an plausible explanation. The superficial resemblance to psychoanalytic theory reappears, but in this case, the distinction is definitive: there is no repression involved, no psychic defense mechanism at work here; the conscious mind is merely as ignorant of these unconscious modules as the distribution of liver enzymes. Our tiny, perhaps even epiphenomenal, conscious mind lies because that is all it knows how to do.
I prefer the modified "executive model" of consciousness. In the unmodified version, the legislative and judicial branches and the executive staffers work for—albeit not at the behest of—the President. He issues directives, sets "the course" which everyone else follows. Wilson, himself following Owen Flanagan, thinks the consciousness-as-President model grants it too much power; he prefers what Flanagan calls the consciousness-as-Reagan model, because
Reagan was the entertaining and eloquent spokesperson for a cadre of smart and hardworking powers (actually layers of power), some known to outsiders, and some unknown. This is not to deny that Reagan felt as if he were in charge in his role as "The Great Communicator" ... The point is that one can feel presidential, and indeed be presidential, but still be less in control than it seems from either the inside or outside. (7)
Obviously, the narratives we use to rationalize our behavior are interdependent with the processes they obscure. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves can alter our disposition to our environment and our reactions to it. Short of a neurological event, we are more plastic than the interminable cure would have us believe; we are so plastic, in fact, that we can create a working model a Freudian, Jungian, Kleinian, Lacanian, Zizekian &c. "unconscious" where none previously existed. We can alter our social situation such that we relate to people as our preferred psychoanalytic model predicts, which forces the adaptive unconscious to behave in accordance with the altered social environment. We can slip a conscious psychoanalytic "unconscious" between our Inner Reagan and actual unconscious.
What this means for the study of literature is that the already strong argument in favor of teasing psychoanalytic models from works authored by writers of the psychoanalytic persuasion contains more explanatory power than I initially apportioned it. Even better—or worse, if you've taken a hardline anti-psychoanalytic stance like some people I am—to the extent that psychoanalysis is literary theory, the superstructural relations it identifies are, if they appear with the frequency with which scholars claim, of extreme, perhaps central, importance. There's a catch:
Advocacy criticism is fundamentally, perhaps fatally, flawed. Any theory which considers fundamental a psychoanalytic account of human cognition finds itself with a literary trope in the place their theory of mind resided. They have unwittingly confused a highly sophisticated, literary manifestation of deliberate thought for the basic workings of the human mind. The mind is not a work of art, and cannot be treated as such. I will track this line of thought further tomorrow, but I think you can see the general direction I'm headed.