lunedì 26 settembre 2011

Why the unconscious was not “discovered” in China? Other and Desire in Hong Kong.

I find relevant and interesting that the Chinese thought has never encountered, that has never theorized the question of the Other, the unconscious. A rather radical question could be: would it be possible to “discover” the unconscious out of the Western discourse?
One possible starting point is that the Chinese thought has never theorized anything similar to the unconscious because it has never developed a conception of the subject similar to the western one: only supposing a subject of free will one could see its limitation and inconsistency. Only assuming the (specious) idea of a subject fully master of his actions, one could discover the Other. But I wonder if in the so called “collectivistic” societies (a misleading term for indicating the Asia cultures, opposite to the “individualistic” western societies) the theorization of a subject could have ever been possible. From my understanding, the Chinese thought maintained a focus on society and against the individual, orienting attention far from the subject, which most likely was considered as something negative. The same notion of self has rather opposite meanings: while in the West it indicates someone who differentiates from others, in Asia it refers to someone who become like the community he belongs to, meaning not being distinct by the rest (someone, from a westerner perspective spoke of selfless, which is quite arguable in my opinion).

Furthermore, Chinese thought has never made a distinction between body and mind. The West did it, and this has represented at the same time a limit and a chance for further elaborations. Probably it is only assuming the separation between something like a mind and a body, and locating the subject in the mind, that it has been possible to theorize the unconscious. Not that I am neglecting the theoretical and societal relevance of the concept of subject. On the contrary, it should deserve further attention. It has had some fundamental consequences, for example at a societal and political level (becoming autonomous subjects means that there are no longer masters and slaves, but individual with same rights and dignity); but the subject, as theorized within the western discourse, is in my opinion one of the greatest source of confusion and origin of problems; and I argue that most of the clinical manifestations that we can observe, and most of the symptoms, are related to a precise idea and representation of the so called subject (also the notion of personality descent by the subject, and it is not a case that Chinese thought has never developed any theory of personality).

I believe that the Chinese thought has never had the chance to thinking anything really radical on this regard. The Chinese tradition has always put at the first place the society, the community, and doing so it has always had a clear (because physically present, countable) other to the individual. This is not, as some might say, the main difference between Chinese and western societies; it is not simply that in the West individual and self-realization come first. The most important point is another, as Chad Hansen wrote: “the difference between China and the West is that the first put the subject in the world, and the second in the mind”. What does this implies? In Chinese tradition the individual has to face the rules and the law of the humans; on the contrary, in the West the person is not in relation to many others, he can even forget the others. What really matters is something radical, absolute, something “inward”. 
Putting aside for a while the society, the others, western philosophy had (the chance) to face something more radical. And I don’t refer to religion, which is something interesting but still represents in my opinion a tentative (too anthropomorphic) to localize, to give a place and a name to such otherness. When we mention the question of the Other, of the unconscious, in background is always the question of the word. If we didn’t consider that is the word to be originary, we would reduce everything to ontology. What is really radically Other, what cannot be localized, or quantified is only the language (the mind is another invention for identifying a site of the language): all humans, as people speaking, we all are born within the language and structured by the language. We all were born within something bigger than us, something that makes at the same time all the humans equals and subjected to a law they cannot escape, the law of the language. All humans are subject to the law of language, and it has nothing to do with any moral code, or expected norms of behavior. It is structural, radical, not depending by any human will; it is experience of the limit. The West could experience the limit, and what was beyond the subject; on the contrary the Chinese thought located this otherness outside, finding many small others, instead of the (big) Other discovered by psychoanalysis .[1]

Where lodges the desire

Precisely, further elaboration of the desire is what Chinese thought lacks more (to be clear, for us the desire is unconscious, then out of the sphere of morality; neglecting the desire it is difficult to theorize the unconscious, and vice versa). The desire plays in the background, I would say; it is neglected, or most likely removed. But of course, when something is meant to be removed it plays even a greater pressure.
Is it really possible to simply avoid the matters of the desire and the unconscious? What does it mean, and what consequences can have to theorize or not the subject (divided), recognize or neglect the question of the desire, consider or not the unconscious, etc…? How does it reflect on everyday life? And what way the unconscious finds for giving expression to the desire? And how, for example, does it shape the expression of symptoms?
So I read the Hongkongese society: there is a very low habit (consequently a low ability) in listening the own desire. Desire is often repressed, it cannot be named (I argue it is both a social norm and a general difficulty in expressing it), but of course this doesn’t mean that it doesn't have a weight.
Failing to articulating the desire, many people try to find satisfaction collecting the “goods of desires” (this is also the name of a famous chain store in Hong Kong), so that the shopping became the national sport, and in many cases it became a sort of tentative of auto-therapy, a substitution, even a symptom. By this point of view the people pursue what they perceive as a fulfillment of desire not less than elsewhere. But we know that the unconscious desire has not a specific object. And for what concern the expression and the articulation of the own desire, Hong Kong people often demonstrate some difficulties.

We use to say that the desire is the desire of the Other. We could read this in at least two ways. But interestingly, here in Hong Kong one meaning seems to prevail, as if was the only acceptable: the desire “which belongs to” the Other. The other possible meaning (desiring the Other) is apparently removed, as if socially improper. And in fact in Hong Kong (and in Chinese society in general) it is not good being seen by others as "desiring"; there is a great decency in front of others, a great sense of shame covers any expression of desire. And at the same time great attention is given to the desire coming from the Other. Whatever finds in position of Other has to be desiring, and his desire has to be strong, continuous, reliable, without uncertainties or intermittences.
It looks like as only the Other is called to define what is desirable; as if it could only be possible to desire what the Other desires, where his desire is oriented. So I read the fascination that I often perceive for the West, or for Japan, those countries that more easily occupy the position of the Other. The Other can be extremely fascinating, everything that comes from the Other (from the West?) is good and attractive, while formally the individual cannot show to be desiring, cannot show to be oriented by his own desire, this dimension still lacks completely.
As a consequence, the more the question of the Other is neglected, the more it emerges, and the desire is represented and projected all over objects, goods, and idealized lifestyles.

[1] Yes, also in Chinese thought there is something above the humans, the Tian, the sky, or heaven. But I read the Tian as a tentative to representing the Other. The Tian is something the individual has to deal with; surely, also in Chinese tradition the man is not fully master of his acts; he doesn’t simply do what he feels or want to do; the sky lies above the individuals, and it is tied to him in a one-way (top-down) relation. For example, Confucius claimed that "Heaven has given birth to virtues that are in me"; and Mozi said that the Heaven has its will, which humans must follow. But the Heaven, which is not only the origin of the world but probably the world itself, is more the site of the natural and moral order, expression of the good and the bad, kind of a code the individuals should respect. Morality then, rather than ethics.
On the other side the Xin (the heart) is at the same time the organ for thinking and the seat for thought and emotions. The heart, and not the brain. No division between affects and cognitions: the xin guides action, but not via beliefs and desires. It takes input from the world and guides action in light of it (Chad Hansen). There are not (personal) beliefs, because the path should be clear to everyone, as indicated by the sky, by societal norms, by conventions. And there are not desires, because in Chinese thought the desire is generally evil, as something to avoid in any case. So the action should be in accordance with what is good, what is right, then with morality.

sabato 17 settembre 2011

Talking as traveling. The attitude of Hong Kong toward the word.

The word or the relation: what comes first

Since I moved to Hong Kong I felt something different in the people's attitude to talking; people were making me a lot of questions, and as westerner I could have interpreted this attitude as being particularly curious. Many westerners, indeed, simply read the local habits through their western eyes, which is something that obviously does not lead to any understanding (quite on the opposite, this lead to conduct separate lives, and meet only with other expats). But I suspected that there was a complete different ground for such attitude, and I have thought that only questioning the very grounds of my discourse I could probably overcome such limit. The limit could indeed become an opportunity.
I would say that generally in western societies speaking serves to establish a relation, which is not fixed in advance. At the beginning the relation is fair (in English and some other languages we even approach the other by “you”), both people are quite on the same level, and the conversation can improve and change the power of participants in the relation. But in Asian societies, and in Hong Kong as well, I have experienced that speaking is driven by the relation between people, as the relation is somehow pre-determined by a sort of hierarchy. Everyone has a precise weight and relevance in the relation, before we even begin talking, and the talk should somehow respect, maintain the hierarchy. But then, if the relation is already determined, there are things which can be said, and others which don’t. Then, the word has to adapt to the relation, and not the contrary.

Why Hong Kong people find so hard to start a telling?

In the west we use to talk for the pleasure of the conversation itself, because the boundaries are not so strict and defined. The same etymology of the word refers to the act of "living together, having dealings with others", "to live with, keep company with", meaning that goal of the conversation is not merely the content, but the very act of talking, telling, and doing it together. But this happens rarely in Hong Kong, where indeed is quite difficult to move from a “questions and answers” level to some sort of conversation. As to say, many times the speech does not evolve into anything more complex, where the participants may initiate a telling, a story; there is often dialogue, but not conversation. Why? What hinders this passage, why people find it so difficult to simply “talking”, instead of “talking of something”? Why this difficulty in beginning a telling? Why this resistance to the word?

The triumph of communication

The word in Hong Kong has a radically other relevance than in places like Europe or America. It is nothing more than a tool for communicating here, where communication has to be quick and efficient, and serves to exchange information, not for developing a critical thinking, or sharing emotions and feelings. The use of the word tend to be rather utilitarian, instrumental (the massive use of “sms” is a good example of how communication should be short and effective). A quality, a virtue of Hong Kong people is their being so practical in life, so concrete, and action oriented. And as Confucius has prescribed, in most of the cases actions do follow their words. Or even substitute them, because this is a culture of doing rather than talking; this is a place where people prefer action rather than thinking.
In the West, especially in the southern countries, we might spend lots of words and apparently conclude nothing. We can meet and talk for hours, without a precise purpose. But in Hong Kong people is primarily concerned of not wasting time. And talking with no specific purpose is considered a waste of time. Thus people will most likely say what they consider necessary, but no one single word more: "a few is already much". Talking, what for? This is the general attitude of the people in Hong Kong. And this is probably one of the reasons why talking has often the form of the request, as it suppose an answer, a solution, something that comes back as result.

A politic of time

It is a politic of time; we usually consider talking the best way for taking care of relations, for knowing us, and discovering something of us, because talking we can say something that we never imagined before; talking is a way for having access to the Other, to the unconscious. We might feel that just talking something will happen, that it might have produce some consequences (thus, talking is not a waste of time; the difference is that we trust the word, we feel that it might lead us somewhere). And we generally enjoy the process. But this is not the same in Hong Kong, where the word is just a surplus, something which is useful only if can have direct and measurable effects. The consequence is that much remains unsaid, and the silence can be extremely loud and meaningful. "What should we speak for? It's useless", or even “less talk, less wrong”: these are some slogans typical in Hong Kong. So the conversation not always starts. Obviously, if you don’t trust the word, if you don’t think that the word can show you the way, you will consider the journey (the talk, the speech) nothing more than a waste of time, nothing more than the time who stays in between you and your goal. And so people often neglect pleasures and pleasantries for efficiency, because the most important is to arrive, is to reach the goal, the destination.

Boats made of words. Traveling cannot avoid the question of the word
Our journey

I might be wrong, but I have the impression that most of Hong Kong people know very little about other countries, and they generally travel very little, if compared to westerners. Is it a pure coincidence this parallel between talking and traveling? I believe not.
Speaking is a journey, and as for any good journey you make a plan, which later you can only forget. It is important to have a plan; it is important for starting, and eventually meet the Other, not for respecting the plan! Trying to force the way represents a politic of time, it’s the ideal of the time management. There are things which simply cannot undergo any time management, and in fact they regularly fail (how many people in Hong Kong too get married just because they feel it's time to, because they feel they are getting old? No, the time is not for all the same, we are wrong if we refer to the time of the clock). There are steps in life which only can come when the times are ready, meaning when (and if) our speech has lead us. It is not a matter of will, never. In the west the ideology is represented by the will, by the ideal of freedom: “I do what I want”. In Hong Kong it is represented by the code and the social norms, which often set the standards. But these are just two coins of the same medal. And in Hong Kong speaking become a waste of time, it’s “time consuming”, because everybody should know already (according to Confucianism) how a person should think and behave, in order to be a good person.

mercoledì 7 settembre 2011

Three ways for translating "counseling" in Chinese

From my experience the words “psychoanalysis” and “psychotherapy” are unknown to most of Hong Kong people. At the beginning this was a bit surprising for me, unexpected. I could have never imagined that in a big city like Hong Kong, people simply have never heard of psychoanalysis or Sigmund Freud; In Italy, in Europe, in North and South America most of the people have a general understanding of psycho-analysis/therapy/logy, whatever they may think about it. Also thanks to literature and cinema, most of the people are familiar with the figure of the psychoanalyst, even though they might not know the difference between psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, psychology and psychiatry, or they may have no interest to any of these. 

Sigmund Freud well entered the collective imaginary
If we analyze well, also psychoanalysis was a product of its time; the “invention” of psychoanalysis was probably possible as evolution of a discourse, and because the society already cultivated similar figures before. One hundred or more years ago, before any form of psycho-technique was invented, people used to have some other kind of referrals: the shaman or the magician in the ancient time. Or more recently the medical doctor (the man of science, the person who held the knowledge), the priest (the spiritual confessor, the one deputed not only to listen but also in charge of absolving), and the teacher (educated and respected, possessed the knowledge and was able to suggest how to relate with others, wise). As to say that modern analysts or therapists only fill a role which belonged to some others before, a position in a discourse determined by a specific cultural tradition.

The dispositive of confession share some interesting similarity with psychotherapy

But I have been wondering: in Chinese culture, and in Hong Kong, is there anything similar? Who could fill this role? Who are the referrals for people in need of some support, is there anyone external to the family?
Apparently Hong Kong has not yet developed such culture; counselors, psychologists and therapists are not many, and only few of them lead a private practice. The general opinion among people is that counseling is for those people who have “mental problems”, meaning something severe; on the other side even many professionals such as social workers find hard to understand a practice that is based only on the speech. Hong Kong people apparently do not believe on the efficacy of word, and in most cases they do not share our need to talk. What is surprising to me is that I haven’t found in Hong Kong any other traditional figure (not even teachers) that might replace or even recall the figure of the counselor. Hong Kong people really show a radically different attitude toward the word, with all the consequences of the case.
Apparently, the only term that met some fortune is counseling, which is quite interesting in my opinion. I believe it is not a case that such definition met more consensus than other, as it probably matches something of the local culture. What exactly? Is it maybe because in Chinese culture the two most prominent figures are the wise and the master? And what do the wise and the master do? They possess the knowledge, they are “arrived”, they have learnt how to deal with their desires, with their symptoms; they have (apparently) eliminated or controlled the unconscious, and are now ready to teach. Teaching to good scholars, who never question what they say. This is more or less the ideal supporting the conception of counseling, and the symbolic position (within the discourse) that the counselor is expected to maintain.

despite their name, confucian "Dialogues" seem more one way monologues

And how is “counseling” translated in Chinese? In Italian and in English counseling is quite a broad definition, referring to general advices, counsels, deliberations, thoughts. It comes from the Latin consilium, meaning "plan, opinion". A counselor, or a consultant, can be any professional giving advice in different fields, particularly in law. Someone “who knows”, someone who has a knowledge, and from whose position should provide precise answers and advices.
Interestingly for Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan three different translations of counseling are being used:

咨询 Zīxún

Mainly used in Mainland China, it refers to the idea of “asking, making questions” to some expert. It may refer to different kind of consultations, not only within the psychological field

辅导 Fǔdǎo

Commonly used in Hong Kong it expresses the attitude of “giving guidelines, advices”. It also implies a discipline master, someone who can indicate the way; in a broader meaning, can be a counselor for students in an academic context.

咨商 Zī shāng

Used in Taiwan, it refers more generally to a discussion, for example to a business discussion. Differently from the first two terms, this definition seems to recall a more fair relation, in which no one is the master.

three wise men

Then, not only we see that the meanings associated to counseling are quite broad and can apply to different fields; interestingly we also see that the one more popular in Mainland China clearly refers to the act of making questions to someone, to a master; and we know that when a question is addressed to someone, there we have a dialogue rather a conversation. Indeed a dialogue implies question and answer, and it’s finalized to exchange information, while a conversation not necessarily has a clear and explicit goal. For what concern Hong Kong, here the term chosen expresses even more clearly what the outcomes of the process should be and who should provide them. Counseling is not just the process of making questions; here in Hong Kong counseling becomes precisely producing advices, guidelines, instructions, and answers.
A linguistic analysis like this can tell us something about the premises founding one discourse; not surprisingly the same difference that we find between the three translations also reflect the different grade of reception of psychoanalysis in the three places. Given these premises (which deserve further investigation, and we will come back later) it is quite understandable why psychoanalysis has found some opening in Taiwan, why it is attracting some interest in Mainland China, and why it is still foreigner to the Hong Kong culture.