Friday, 11 March 2022

Depth Psychology and Computation

One of my favourite books, which I've known but not fully understood for nearly 30 years, is Anton Ehrenzweig's "The Hidden order of Art". It is a Freudian analysis of creativity, drawing on Frazer's Golden Bough, and inspired by Ernst Gombrich and Marion Milner. Ehrenzweig was interested in creativity through the lens of psychodynamic processes which connect the deep "oceanic" layer of the unconscious through processes of "projection", "fragmentation" and "dedifferentiation" where the ego and superego steer action into creative expression. With its Freudian lens, Ehrenzweig talks a lot about the experiences of early childhood and its influence on adult behaviour - particularly anal processes and the ways that the superego seeks to contain defecation, when deeper processes might seek (to put it crudely) to "scatter" shit everywhere. There is a parallel between these psychoanalytic terms and physiology - indeed, "dedifferentiation" has a specific cellular meaning where cells revert to their original states, which I think is clearly related to the Freudian view. 

I am aware of both modes in my technical creativity and in musical creativity - both relate directly to what Ehrenzweig sees as the dynamic between "containment" and "expansion". Death is an important driver for creativity. Ehrenzweig refers to Frazer's "Dying God", and in technical creativity, death is breakdown: the falling-away of established ways of being in the world, where the world as it really is is revealed once more, prompting our psychodynamic processes to reorganise themselves in response to it. Breakdown is one way in which one can descend into the oceanic undifferentiated world. Artists enter this world more willingly, being able to instigate their own breakdowns. But perhaps the sequence of processes which result is the same.

In technical creativity, the role of the superego is most dominant in ensuring that the organisation of the creative forces is socially acceptable and useful. It drives our intervention with software frameworks and established patterns. But not everyone wants to play this kind of game, and hackers are most interesting in getting at the underlying dynamics of established systems and looking for ways of disrupting them. I found myself hacking into the structure of programming documents in Jupyter notebooks the other day. The unconscious fantasy of self-expression and social transformation leads to fragmentation of the world. Moreover, the fragmentation of established systems can lead to fragmentation of the world for others. This is their intent. 

In these technical processes of creativity, there is energy - even when the superego has a tight grip. Fragmentation always brings new perspectives and the generation of possibilities. Even when I hacked the Jupyter notebooks, I was thinking, "wow - what could I do with this?". But at those moments of expansion of possibility, the superego still steps in and finds conventional exploitation of possibilities - usually within the existing social expectations of the society or business. But there is no reason why we could not create something purposeless - something which disturbs the surface of expectation. 

If there is a difference between technical creativity and artistic creativity it is that the dedifferentiation stage in artistic creativity, which finds a new unity and coherence among the scattered and fragmented components of the unconscious, is often missing in technical work. Instead, in technical work, the superego suppresses the unconscious drive to fragment and pull-apart - sometimes for good reason because technical things which are disassembled are difficult to reassemble. So what we have is a forced coherence and suppression which is often felt by those who use the results of this kind of technology. Indeed, Ehrenzweig goes so far as to suggest that there is a fear of dedifferentiation - of reintegration into the depths of the psyche: the psychodynamics is in some way broken.

It may be that the broken psychodynamic processes of technical invention are one of the reasons why we struggle to engage students in deep technical work or inquiry. Effectively we are teaching a kind of madness. But in those most creative periods of industrial creativity in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this was almost certainly not the case. There was dedifferentiation to some extent - and to some extent the rise of psychoanalysis was part of this process. 

In the wake of the terrible events that the world is experiencing at the moment, we may need to revisit a deep perspective on the technical imagination and its connection to the functioning of viable societies. Trauma and death have always been the seed for these healing processes. 

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Another great post. This bit stopped me in my tracks:

"It may be that the broken psychodynamic processes of technical invention are one of the reasons why we struggle to engage students in deep technical work or inquiry. Effectively we are teaching a kind of madness."