Monday, 4 December 2017

The Computer Programmer's Superego and Mental Illness

The second book of Ehrenzweig's Hidden Order of Art makes reference to imagery in Frazer's Golden Bough and relates it to Freudian interpretation. It's a move of some brilliance because it presents the primeval mythological forces that all art draws on and relates them to an understanding of therapy and conscious life. He begins chapter 13 by making a bold statement about the role of the superego over the ego:
The exact role of the superego's aggression in creative work will probably be fully understood only when we have found out more about its role in causing mental illness. In many ways creativity and mental illness are opposite sides of the same coin. The blocking of creativity through ego rigidity is apt to unleash the self-destructive fury of the superego, which is otherwise absorbed and neutralized by the periodic decomposition of the ego during creativity. An increased measure of the superego's oral and anal aggression against the ego is utilized for deepening the normally shallow oscillation of the ego as it swings down to less differentiated levels. 
When Ehrenzweig uses Freudian terminology like "oral" and "anal" aggression, he is referring to processes of attenuation and assertion of distinctions. Sometimes the superego breaks down the distinctions of the ego and drives them into the unconscious: Ehrenzweig calls this "anal scattering", after the anal stage of development where the child doesn't control their bowel movements. Alternatively, the superego can cause rigidity in the ego by becoming authoritarian in the distinctions that are made: Ehrenzweig calls this "containment". Deeper delving into the unconscious "undifferentiated levels" (the primary process) occurs through a process of generating and enforcing new distinctions: scattering melts things down, containment gathers things up. New distinctions drill deeper into the undifferentiated levels, drawing up new material for the conscious mind to work on. He continues:
The superego's anal scattering attacks drive the ego inexorably towards an extreme oceanic depth until the process of dedifferentiation even suspends the distinction between ego and superego. Then the ego can shake itself free from the superego's aggression. 

This is the creative struggle which all artists and scientists must deal with. Insanity, Ehrenzweig argues, "may be creativity gone wrong" (Ch.15, p257).

Since I've been doing a lot of computer programming recently, I'm asking myself where computer programming sits in this creative process. Is it creative in the same way that Picasso was creative? Does it probe the oceanic depths of consciousness and bring forth new distinctions? In much recent writing about creativity, the consensus seems to be that creativity in software is the same as creativity in art; the designs of Apple Corp are creative in the same way that Jackson Pollock was. Coupled with this question is a question about why I personally have found it so difficult to compose music using technology (which I will write about in a later post, inspired by Marion Milner's "On being unable to Paint").

The deep question in this stuff is "where do distinctions come from?". In forms of activity like computer programming, distinctions are normatively defined: the syntax of a langauge, the right way of doing something, the threats of doing it wrong, and so on. Are the normative distinctions of code the same as the affordances of paint, or the properties of sound?

I don't think they are. The difference, I believe, has to do with singularity and multiplicity of distinction. A sound comprises many distinctions (many frequencies, for example); paint has many properties including viscosity, colour, luminosity, and so on. In the logic of code, syntax is syntax - formally defined in the rulebook of the language: there is not multiplicity at a deep level, and there is not flexibility for redefining it. All great painting redefines paint at some level or other. In Ehrenzweig's language, the material is scattered, dedifferentiated, and then contained and reconstructed.

It is possible to code like this, but it is not what most people would take to be computer programming. It is the difference between the sculptor working with metal girders to create some new edifice, and the architect working with girders to create a bridge which won't fall down.

The superego of the computer programmer is the compiler + the expectation of the customer. Both of these are containing forces, and their pressure causes a rigidity of the ego. I find myself, when I am subject to these forces and writing code, that my creative spirit dries up. It's interesting to reflect that much of education - even creative education - has this same dessicating effect. The result is mental anxiety and stress which we've learnt to put down to modern life, but which is really a symptom of ego dissociation and madness.

Could we escape this? Could our manipulation of symbols be a scattering as well as a containing? I'm beginning to see this as a very important question regard the human relationship with technology. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great observation. I am a computer programmer and musician as well, and have experienced the same issues with creativity and questioning of my own sanity. Can't wait for your thoughts and experiences on creating with technology. I embraced it at one time, now I feels its a distraction and hinders my true creativity.