First and Second Persons / by Bryce Hidysmith

Not to be Reproduced - Rene Magritte, 1937

Not to be Reproduced - Rene Magritte, 1937

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Freud took a pretty defensible position that people were driven internally. While those drives interfaced with the lives of others and an individual might be compelled to interact with others in a certain manner, this did not imply that the individual in question would only “feel as though they were themselves” when they were engaged in a specific practice with other persons. The characteristics of the individual were assumed to be influenced by their personal history which, if containing social elements, would be partially socially determined. However, while focusing on the ways that identity was socially formed, Freud did not treat identity as dependent on recognition by an eternal party. Most obviously, Freud’s idea of Sublimation—the notion that internal drives that are not socially acceptable are remapped onto socially acceptable actions—suggests that there may be drives that are not constructed out of social relation. The alternative is that the drives that are sublimated are always those that were formatted in a previous state of social relation, and that by immigrating to a new social system, drives must be sublimated in order to achieve acceptance.

Lacan, in contrast, seems to assume that human identity is dependent on social relation. This is evidenced by his idea of the “Mirror Phase,” where an infant looks at itself in the mirror and identifies itself, identifying that its physical presence is stable, while its internal experience may be polymorphic and, more importantly, non-commital and non-specific. Lacan believed that this self-recognition was alienating, in that the act of comparison revealed apparent asymmetries between the self and the self-image. He extended this idea to a general philosophy that the informational asymmetries between organisms were always unbridgeable. Here’s a quote from The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function. I’m sorry that it’s borderline unreadable, but I think it’s right to support this part with the text:

It establishes a genetic order in ego defenses, in accordance with the wish formulated by Anna Freud in the first part of her major book, and situates (as against a frequently established prejudice) hysterical repression and its returns at a more archaic stage than obsessive inversion and its isolating processes, situating the latter as prior to the paranoiac alienation that dates back to the time at which the specular I turns into the social I
     This moment at which the mirror stage comes to an end inaugurates, through identification with the imago of one’s semblable and the drama of primordial jealousy (…) the dialectic that will henceforth link the I to socially elaborated situations. 
     It is this moment that decisively tips the whole of human knowledge into being mediated by the other’s desire, constitutes its objects in an abstract equivalence due to the competition from other people, and turns the I into an apparatus to which every instinctual pressure constitutes a danger, even if it corresponds to a natural maturation process. The very normalization of this maturation is henceforth dependent in man n cultural intervention, as is exemplified by the fact that sexual object choice is dependent upon the Oedipus complex. 

Excuse my forcing you to experience Lacan’s prose. The core idea here that needs to be expressed is, of course, “it is in this moment that decisively tips the whole of human knowledge into being mediated by the other’s desire, constitutes its objects in an abstract equivalence due to the competition from other people, and turns the I into an apparatus to which every instinctual pressure constitutes a danger, even if it corresponds to a natural maturation process.” If I am to take the liberty of imposing meaning on this sentence, I interpret it to mean that everything that an individual can know, about himself or otherwise, is fundamentally socially mediated. That is to say, Lacan is suggesting that the act of being conscious is the act of being observed and contextualized by an external agent.

I must disclaim that these ideas are largely conjecture, as I find Lacan almost entirely unreadable and have only read sections and commentaries outside of the essay quoted above, and I’ve only made it through Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, Totem and Taboo, The Ego and the Id, and part of Moses and Monotheism, and have not exhaustively searched any of those texts for description of identities that are only identities when engaged in a social practice. However, even if the above paragraphs are scholarly indefensible based on further readings from Lacan and Freud, they suggest an interesting idea about how the self is experienced by an individual.

We can look at two opposing ideas of what it means to be a conscious human: Freud’s, where the self is composed of drives authored by the self, and Lacan’s, where the only drives that are authored by the self exist post-Mirror Phase, and thus are social. We might then note that this implies that there are two drastically different ideas of what it means to be “a self” in psychology. There is the internally-produced, independent, first-person model of Freud, and the relationally-produced, dependent, second-person model of Lacan. While empirical claims as to the nature of humanity in a non-socially influenced state are of course impossible to gain—I have never met a feral or fully wild human, separate from social influence, and I have not thus far found reputable information as to the psychology of reputable documented cases—there is something to be gained by comparing the two models of selfhood rationally without experimental evidence.

Mainly, the first-person self is a limited sovereign, able to take action on its own terms, and set up terms of engagement with other persons. This is akin to what one might naturally assume that a human is, if one assumes that a human is an animal with some unique characteristics, but none that violate the basic assumptions of animal-nature. While the first-person is always subject to the Byzantine Generals Problem, it is able to commit to action internally and arbitrarily, as it is able to self-authorize action as a best guess. Under conditions of uncertainty, which is to say all conditions in the material world, there is nothing better that one could hope for. Some of this population may have an ego or “self-image” that they use to inform their decisions, but it is not actually necessary for them to exist unless they need to be worried about others shaming them for the characteristics of their externally witnessed self-image.

In contrast, the second-person self is not able to come to terms with other individuals as it always is attempting to abide by implicit terms that it assumes to already be present. When it contends with the Byzantine problem, it runs up against a basic inability to self-authorize action as it does not have an internal feedback loop to justify a best guess. This likely produces an effect where the second-person self reliably launders its own desires by pretending they were the desires of another, as if the individual is still alive, it must have maintained enough basic biological drives to maintain its own body. This is an extreme reading of what Lacan wrote—he did say only that the whole of human knowledge is mediated by the other’s desires. Even if one assumes that it is only social desire and social knowledge that is immersed in this “paranoiac alienation,” one must understand that the relational self is never able to internalize the idea that something could be fully socially condoned, as it lacks the ability to hold onto its best guess without further validation from external social sources. The core failure of the relational-self is its inability to decide, from its internal felt-sense of aesthetics, that something is valid. Thus, it is never able to build foundations of trust, decency, or any other kind of benevolent precedence. The second-persons are always hungry, and no matter how much they eat they are never full.

To take another term from Lacan, the second-person self is a “Master-Signifier” which is his term for an object that must be treated as a justification even though it has no internal content, or the internal content that its external appearance would imply is somehow irrelevant to how it is used in practice. For instance, democracy, humanity, and art are typical master signifiers in West Coast American culture. Under the rules of behavior described by Lacan, individuals take action according to the direction of their self-image, but the self-image is disconnected from any reality of internal experience of the self.

Lacan was likely being empirical. While I believe he frequently lied in his work and was something of a con artist—the “variable length session” comes to mind—I do not think that he could have devoted his life to an entirely inaccurate model of the world unless he was intending to shift the world to that model. This leaves one with the question as to why he would do it, as the life of second-persons seems to never achieve satisfaction, and Lacan described a psychology of persons who never feel rewarded in any meaningful way, nor ever feel as though they are really understood by anyone, perhaps even by themselves. Thus, one must assume that Lacan did indeed witness persons with relational senses of self, and did indeed believe that it was necessary to contend with their existence. His opinions on the strategy of contending with such a population are unclear, and after some an examination I have found his analysis lacking and am convinced that myself and any reader interested in attempting to find solutions to such political problems is better off starting over than searching the Lacanian archives.

In conclusion, it seems necessary to slightly validate Lacan’s observation while wholeheartedly taking Freud’s position as to the basic nature of humanity, viewing the second-person self as an unfortunate permutation of human behavior that comes out of traumatic experiences and low trust environments. Empirically, I have also conversed and even worked with these hollow men and women, and I would expect that some number of my readers are among their ranks. However, I have also met many more first-person individuals who are able to reliably take their own perspective, and while their existence is disincentivized by a great number of institutions in the modern world—compulsive schooling, corporate culture, authoritarian and democratic politics—it is within them that I believe the vast majority of hedonic human experience and human ingenuity exists.

Some thanks must be given to C. J. and E. S, for demonstrating aspects of this dichotomy through example of Lacanianism and immunity to Lacanianism respectively.