Knowing in a systematic stress context
Upgrading a bad discourse situation should call into play a
capacity to be forthright and direct, otherwise there is liable
to be poor communication. Shotter (1994: 68-72) points out that
'help' is not a complete re-connection so much as getting in
touch with the issues of connection, what he calls
'internalization'. "There are always further 'connections'
between elements of our past that future projects will reveal as
unknown to us. But it is how people re-collect their past due to
their need to act 'into' an interest in the future, thus to
'reshape' what has been - not how they must act 'out of' a fixed
past - that is crucial."
In a word, there is 'empowerment' and there is 'brainwash'.
Empowerment liberates the way of involvement in Being, brainwash
confines the way of involvement to a certain 'calculus of
beings'. As Shotter has it, the capacity to operate at the level
of power and personal connection is challenged "not just in
personal psychotherapy, but .. [challenges us to cure] what
Wittgenstein saw as a sickness of our time. Where, as he saw it,
an aspect of that sickness lies in our incapacity for wonder, our
incapacity to recognize that the strange, the unique, the novel,
the unknown and the extraordinary lies hidden within our everyday
mundane activity" (Shotter, 1994: 72).
When we don't have empowerment - as commonly we do not - we
have a condition of poor functioning. The 'novel circumstance'
where 'new and unique meanings' are made become degraded by
stress. In the modern era we have social institutions like the
Soviet 'Gulag' (Shalamov, 1981) or the Western psychiatric
control system which promote various sorts of radical adaptive
behaviors to systematic stress. The people who are the subjects
of these systems are metaphorically the 'proletariat' of the
disempowerment experience, who 'have nothing to lose but their
[mental] chains' (Marx and Engels, 1848/1954). I shall exemplify
these people by borrowing the mental health jargon term of 'low-
functioning' clients. Where is the 'boundary' - where learning
and communication is pregnant - for such folks?
The "focus on the individual diverts attention away from
those moments occurring between people, in which, because they
must be responsive to each other's rights in their actions, they
struggle in creating various kinds of relationships" (Shotter,
1995b). Following this advice, we will step out boldly and
consider how Cushman's 'hollowness of self' or, on the contrary,
Shotter's (1994: 72) sense of wonder or 'negative capacity' of
Being (following Keats) is socially reflected in classes of
individuals who are accommodating habitual conditions of
degradation. 'Low-functioning' mental health clients, who are
directly involved in accommodating systems of behavioral control,
have a pervasive and omnipotent sense of 'hollowness of self'.
This they politely under-sell to their controllers as a 'self-
esteem problem'. And the 'negative capacity' of wondrous
involvement lies inside these people masked by or buried in the
degrading situation. In short, the 'boundary' where philosophy
and 'psychotherapy' come into play is remote and inaccessible to
While individuals deal with this degradation experience
differently, to people in such a condition it is so graphic that
it rarely fails to be evident. And it is to be remarked, in a
related vein, that those who evade or challenge the degradation
are more or less beholden to the mechanisms of their evasion.
For expression of their sense of 'hollowness of self' and
suppression of 'negative capacity' marks them to other people as
unsettling. They present themselves as the messengers of a
message that the social condition is like them, and this is an
unwelcome message. We must look at the discourse situation for
such people, who appear as the fools in the sottie. And we must
assess the role of 'internalization' - as a social as well as
individual phenomenon - in the helping process.
The brainwash genre
Finally, I come to a problem of interpretation.
Wittgenstein (1980) said, "if in life we are surrounded by death,
so too in the health of our intellect we are surrounded by
madness." I will approach this comment as a statement about
dialogue. For Bakhtin (1986), the units of dialogue are
utterances and these are made up of 'speech genres'. The speech
genre is a "sphere of communication" with "its own relatively
stable types of .. utterances," that is, "thematic,
compositional, and stylistic" stability. Key to understanding
speech genres is the issue of 'speech position', relating to
those for which we are answerable, and again, those of others
whose addressivity permits us as speakers to aim our speech at
them (Shotter, 1980). I shall treat the 'surrounding by madness'
of the 'healthy intellect' as a socially situated condition.
We have a social environment which metaphorically we shall
look at as built around a chocolate factory. The owners and the
workers and the customers are parties to the economic
transactions that govern its operation. The owners can see
chocolate as a metaphor for the 'good life' of aesthetics and
philosophy. The workers, as a metaphor for the substance and
activity of life. The customers, a metaphor for 'something
sweet'. Those outside this transactional process are in
excruciating pain due to the irrationality of distribution.
Chocolate is like respect, they don't get any. Their
conversations with 'regular' persons are mediated by their common
relationship of appetitive reaction. Their 'joint action'
connects at the level of this common appetitive interest and
reflects their different stations. Thus the 'positions' of the
utterances are addressed to the role relation and answerable for
it. A prototypical conversation runs, "I will perform better and
improve my adaptability," and "perform better, improve your
The focus is on an abstract and exaggerated 'personal
responsibility', rather than on a responsivity to involvement.
Respect for the individuals is not well regarded in these
communications. The 'regular' persons, as befits the dominant
role, get the illusory results of demanding and forcing respect
as much as they wish. What they earn is only respectful
utterances, not necessarily respect. The reason cited for the
topic of role relations is the 'maintenance of social order'
because chaos would be the alternative. At a role level, 'chaos'
means 'behavioral dysfunction' and is an explanation for madness.
"It would be mad" if things were allowed to be different. Hence
there is also a topic of 'corrigibility' and a subtext of the
discourse related to proper treatment of the 'madness'.
The 'low-functioning' individual is self-reflexively
involved in functioning to an external behavior standard, having
internalized the brainwashing. One consequence of this is a
discourse where most topics are filtered through the genre and
their import hardly gets through at all. The filtering does
allow for the possibility of percolation, with there perhaps
being a way things could get through in some 'dissolved' way.
The brainwash genre takes on special significance in the context
of an originary alien experiment. In this case communication is
subverted by the irrationality of the situation and at the same
time the possibility of talking about it is inaccessible. This
genre does not readily sustain the fools' play, because there is
too much behavioral regulation going on. The sottie genre must
walk in from the 'outside' and may indeed start to displace the
brainwash genre, as it were, spontaneously.
The issue here has turned from skating on the edge of
'mental illness' to a perspective of involvement. Involvement
brings with it an imperative to internalize madness, the 'other'
of rationality. This can be done relatively safely and
efficiently only by doing it in small 'chunks', with the fool's
humor. Brainwashing supplants reasoning as the mode of
absorption, as the will to know gets replaced by the obligation
to know. The people act low-functioning when the economic
process, from which they are totally removed, obliges them to
this appetitive dialogue. And they are made to feel worthless on
that account. Here I submit is the tension that Wittgenstein
seems to have failed to internalize, the anxiety of anticipated
How then is it possible to consider restoring the dialogue
with the 'low-functioning' people who are socialized to the
brainwash genre? Here are the true 'margins' of society that
need 'working' (Hooks, 1990). The communicative amenities of
civil society are degraded by the tasty 'profit motive'. In fact,
the norm is accommodation and the language of the people who are
the subjects of this genre is stubbornly designed to 'pass' as
under-class talk, to be dismissed indeed as the expression and
'symptom' of 'low-functioning'.
In other words, the social condition works to defeat the
process of 'knowing of the third kind' by involvement. High
prices tend to be exacted for actualizing knowledge. Involvement
by 'low-functioning' people teaches them that avoiding the
knowledge of the obvious is organic to the prevailing discourse.
In Shotter's terms (1994: 69) the "aim" of the helping process is
"ontological not epistemological."
The emotional, cognitive and physical poverty of our
problematic social situation amounts to a severe impediment for
intellectuals who 'work margins'. But it is also a challenge to
them as critics, a challenge to the caliber of their
comprehension of society. One thing should be clear, however, and
that is that the dyad of the client and therapist who 'create
between them' a 'new way of talking' (1994: 72) is too limited of
a vision. If the "therapy consists in our gaining access to a
language within which we can account to ourselves for ourselves"
(1994: 71), then in some way helping the 'low-functioning'
clients brings us to a logic where we must rebuild the dialogue
Thus finally it comes down to a question of how to fix the
immanent involvement puzzles of 'knowing from', which we have
identified in the alien experiment, and in what follows, as
generic. The genre of 'low-functioning humanity' is an artifact
of this frustrating and confusing social reality, yet it is the
underlying social condition that supports the abuse of civility
which degrades our lives. To the extent that the alien experiment
is a relevant metaphor, 'making sense' involves having very
specific handles (like what Vico calls 'divination') on the
disciplines enabling us to know by involvement with reality as it
is 'providentially' given. For instance, one line of thinking
towards this end is given by the work of Zinchenko (1990) on
bodily awareness during involvement, but that is material for
When we talk of "making sense on the boundaries", the
'boundaries' that we normally intuit are in fact impacted by a
maddening, degraded reality. The 15th century verse quoted from
Hoccleve at the head of this article shows too well the immanent
difficulty of this reality for those personally impacted by
madness. Hoccleve, a protege of Chaucer and an older
contemporary of 'Prince Hal' and 'Falstaff', first learned to
misrepresent himself with a 'cover' story. He goes on to say,
however, that he figured out that he was better off telling the
truth of his situation, despite the attendant difficulties. Can
we overlook the fact that for our poet, too, the problematic was
in gauging the nature of the 'boundaries'?
The technical brilliance of Wittgenstein in taking apart
the Cartesian illusion of rationality and bringing us back to a
discourse standard should be valued very highly. We have seen
how the very reasoning of today's 'schizophrenic' can be
articulated in Wittgenstein's philosophical system. I have
however argued that 'moving between philosophy and psychotherapy'
requires work at the level of the social institution and not just
at the level of the individual. As it were, the philosophical
discussion must be enjoined with the systems that provide mental
health services. Hopefully my images will direct attention to
some of the topics that must be addressed in such a discussion.
And what about 'psychotherapy'? Plainly, the helping
process as Shotter affirms it can be fashioned into a tool with
strength and value. In terms of the general improvement of civil
society, however, it is a limited value prosthetic. The required
agenda seems to involve valuing invention, creativity, and vision
more, learning more about internalizing madness in 'chunks', more
innovative developmental work 'on the margins', and socializing
more with 'low-functioning' people.