The You-I Event: 3. The You is precluded and forgotten

In this series of blogs, I seek to show that we require the attentions of other people to be aware of our existence, and I want to spell out the implications of that fact. In the first blog, I posed the riddle of self-awareness. In the second, I proposed a solution, which introduced the looplike You-I Event as the basic structure of a baby’s existence. This has led to the present topic: Starting from You-I Events , how do we get to the seemingly independent self-awareness of later life?

The answer concerns something that happens during the acquisition of language. I want to give it in two versions, short and long.

SHORT VERSION: On the evolutionary grounds mentioned in the previous blog, the You-I Event tends to be joyful. But it is also fraught with anxiety, because dependence is absolute: at stake is the sense of one’s existence. Language offers an escape from that dependence. Dreading separation from her carers, a child plays their parts toward herself in speech. For instance, 2-year-old Emily, left alone after the bedtime talk with her father, mimics his intonation when soothing herself with the words he used: “Big kids like Emmy don’t cry” (Katherine Nelson, Narratives from the Crib). By such self-talk, a child usurps the power of bestowing self-awareness. Later in life, when an inner voice says “Don’t forget to buy coffee,” a long-played Other is addressing a self whom it conjures into presence in the act of addressing, as a carer once did. Each of us, post infancy, is a counterfeit, recurring, internalized You-I Event— an inner loop, or what modern philosophy calls the subject (cogito). The flesh-and-blood Others no longer appear in their original power: they are outside the inner loop, objects. Yet a dread-stymied, unconscious yearning for the lost Event finds indirect expression in love, dreams, work, art, religion, and politics (each of which gets a chapter in a book I may have finished called The You-I Event: Radical Humanism in a New Key.)

LONG VERSION: By my 8th month or so, I-the-baby have developed a deep attachment to one or two carers (thanks to what Daniel Stern calls “affect-attunement” in his Interpersonal World of the Infant). I begin, therefore, to exhibit separation-anxiety. Many kinds of occurrences may spark this: your return to work; quarrels; scoldings; my ability to crawl away from you and possibly get lost; the birth of a sibling, toilet training, and more. If the You-I account is correct, losing you is losing awareness of my existence. Separation = death. How then do I cope with this possibility? If I could somehow get possession of you…, get control of you…! But how? Some say, “By eating the carer in fantasy.” Yes, there’s a ton of evidence for this. But such “incorporation” is not a good method, because to eat you would be to destroy you, and then I would have lost you. I want to eat my cake and have it too. A better method is needed.

The better method will be available after the child has acquired a basic proficiency in language. Language acquisition is energized – and motivated – by the need to narrow the gap that has opened between self and carer (Wilson and Weinstein 1990, “Language, thought, and interiorization,” Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 26(1), 24).

As a prerequisite for language, starting early in the 2nd year, baby and carer engage in joint attention. The You-I Event expands and is articulated to include other persons and things. Joint attention is not well described as a shift from dyadic to triadic relations, but better as an “expansion and articulation of the dyad” (Reddy, V., 2009, “Before the ‘third element’” in N. Eilan et al. (Eds.), Joint attention…). Similar but contrasting joint-attentional scenes while the carer speaks enable the acquisition of language. To enlarge the inventory of linguistic constructions, a child must engage in “role-reversal imitation”:

“[S]he must learn to use a symbol toward the adult in the same way the adult used it toward her. ….[T]he child must not only substitute herself for the adult as actor (which occurs in all types of cultural learning) but also substitute the adult for herself as the target of the intentional act ….” (Tomasello 2003, Constructing a language, pp. 25–28; my emphasis).

Role-reversal imitation can also take place when the child is alone. For instance, 2-year-old Emily, left alone in her crib after the bedtime talk with her father, mimics his intonation when repeating to herself what he said when soothing her minutes before: “Big kids like Emmy don’t cry” (see John Dore’s chapter in Katherine Nelson’s Narratives from the Crib, 2006). On hearing Emily’s pre-sleep monologues, Daniel Stern wrote, “[I]t was like watching ‘internalization’ happen right before our eyes and ears” (Interpersonal World…, 1985: 173).

By the time Stern wrote this, internalization, aka “introjection,” had long been an important concept in psychoanalysis. Freud speaks of the “setting up of the object inside the ego” (The Ego and the Id: 28–31). He interprets this act as a defense against the possible loss of the carer or her love. In more tolerable diction, Roy Schafer writes that the introject is “an inner presence with which one feels in a continuous or intermittent dynamic relationship” (Aspects of Internalization 1968, p. 16). Winnicott formulates the process thus: “Gradually, the ego-supportive environment is introjected and built into the individual’s personality, so that there comes about a capacity actually to be alone. Even so, theoretically, there is always someone present, someone who is equated ultimately and unconsciously with the mother.…” (Winnicott, Maturational processes…, 1965, p. 35).

To Stern, though, goes the credit of noting, when he played the Emily tapes, that what he was hearing was internalization in process: “right before our eyes and ears.”

The concept of internalization becomes even more important once the You-I Event is viewed as basic. When I-the-toddler internalize my carer—especially by playing her toward myself in speech—the Event goes inside. That’s how the transition occurs to the kind of self-awareness we adults have. Each of us, after infancy, is a counterfeit version of the Event. I said that the Event hardly ever occurs in adult experience, but now we can understand why this is so: its counterfeit has replaced it.

I am a walking dyad. This was not possible before I had the carer’s language: I couldn’t play her richly enough to convince myself—to make myself an adequate substitute for her in my own eyes—as now I can by talking like her. “At the end of infancy and in early childhood, children duplicate social roles: behaving ‘as if’ they were mommy, acting from a mommy-like perspective, and expressing mommy-like desires and beliefs, even if they are not the child’s own” (Meltzoff and Moore 1994. “Imitation, memory…”; emphasis added).

The playing of the You toward myself in speech is termed self-talk, which develops into inner speech. It can take the form of a significant inner look, as when I feel an internalized other’s gleaming or reproving eye. By the trick of self-talk, I usurp the power of the You to bestow self-awareness.

None of what follows is meant to denigrate the importance of inner speech in individual development or in advancing the human species. Moreover, self-talk is not a thing we can prevent or undo. Yet with all the great gains comes a loss, and the understanding of the loss can clarify much. (One more side note: Self-talk is not the same as insight; inner speech does not “dawn on me” or “occur to me” as an insight does. I hope to analyze the distinction another time.)

By “becoming” a carer toward myself, I cease to depend on others for awareness that I exist. Separation-anxiety typically disappears by the age of 3, perhaps because self-talk has been firmly established.

The You-I Event recurs henceforth in the counterfeit mode. If I-the-adult think, “Don’t forget to buy coffee,” an internalized other is addressing a self whom it conjures into presence in the act of addressing, as once a flesh-and-blood You did. If later I snap my fingers and think, “Damn! Forgot to buy coffee!” I am speaking to an internalized other, who regards that counterfeit self with amused or stern reproof. They are almost always with us. They are the ones for whom we put on the show of snapping our fingers. Thanks to them, the possibility of being abandoned by actual people can no longer threaten us with nothingness. Lift your eyes from the screen and see how long you can go without talking to yourself. That is them.

Someone may remind me of Russell Hurlburt’s research, which shows that people vary greatly in the frequency of inner speech. True. After existence has been restructured by self-talk, certain activities, including work and art, provide derivative modes of the You-I Event, hence alternative modes of self-awareness. We are therefore relieved, temporarily, from the compulsion to talk with ourselves. But these activities occur within an existence which has been restructured by self-talk, to which we always return.

Prior to self-talk, space is spanned distance: you are other and yet, by making me self-aware, you are nearer to me than my I. The counterfeit Event restructures space, which henceforth consists of two parts that are separated by a chasm. One part is the loop that is formed by an internalized You and the self it securely bestows. The second part is a space outside this loop, in which appear persons and things that have ceased to be essential to self-awareness. The inner loop is the phenomenon that we moderns call the subject, while the items outside it are the objects about which the counterfeit interlocutors talk and toward which the subject acts. The original space between us has been sapped of its tension. Whereas the You-I Event was elaborated and articulated to include everything in acts of joint attention, outer objects now seem merely separate from me. Only now does the question arise as to how I am able to cross the divide, pick up knowledge of them, and bring it back into my self-talking head.

Anyone who talks to him- or herself — be it the Trojan Hector fighting for his life (“But his proud thoughts were troubled: ‘Alas, if I retreat through the gate, to the safety of the wall….’”), Descartes by the fire (“Cogito”), or a child who is able to soothe and control herself as daddy did minutes before (“Big kids like Emmy don’t cry”) — experiences the gulf between subject and object. (Because there are no subjects and objects before self-talk, it is misleading to use the term “intersubjective” when referring to this period.)

Furthermore, since I no longer need real others to remain self-aware, I have lost the basis for knowing that they have minds as I have. Internalization begets the problem of other minds.

In the light of this idea, we can see why “at bottom, no one believes in his own death” (Freud, Reflections on War and Death, 1915). I have inherited – like any animal – a horror of death, but most of the time I am deluded by the power I’ve usurped from the You. I seem to have become – in William Ernest Henley’s words – “the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.” By inner speech, I constantly restore my awareness of my existence. If I have such power, it seems impossible—despite my better knowledge—that I shall die. Freud says in the same passage: “It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death, and whenever we attempt to do so, we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators.” True, for when I try to imagine my death, I do so from the standpoint of an internalized other whose part I am accustomed to play.

Self-talk restructures experience. Suppose that you, the flesh-and-blood you, re-enter the room. I no longer need you for my awareness of my existence, so you no longer radiate the absolute importance which you earlier had for me. Indeed, to perceive you in your former power and glory, I would somehow have to wrest myself free from the new structure (that of a subject facing people and things which no longer seem essential), and transport myself back into the ec-static loop (from the Greek ek-stasis, “standing outside” oneself). Not only does dread of the former dependence militate against such wresting, but so does the difference in structures. The difference remains even if I do not happen to be talking to myself when you re-enter the room. What’s important is the option. Inner speech, writes Denise Riley, is “reassuringly or irritatingly there on tap” (“A voice without a mouth” 2004).

The upshot is that the original You is precluded by self-talk from my life. Our post-infancy situation is one of You-oblivion. There are derivative, partial ways, to be sure, by which the You can re-enter, but these do not save us from You-oblivion. A You, for example, cannot be enclosed in a frame (I use the word in its everyday sense). When we enter a frame—say, on being drawn into a painting, film, or novel—we are safe from any potential You as long as we remain inside. Precisely because we feel safe, a derivative You-I Event can occur. In such a case, the artist is the You and I am the reader or audience she creates (see Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction on the “implied author” and the reader she makes). Likewise, we use frames in conversations and therapy sessions (see Robert M. Young, “The analytic frame,” 1998, quoting Marion Milner’s 1952 essay, “The framed gap”). Such frames enable ec-stasy: we are drawn out of our self-talking selves and given back anew, but within the frame. On closing the book, or when the lights go on again at the cinema, or when the therapeutic hour is done, self-talk resumes.     

Some claim that they can quell the inner voice by meditating. While encountering a person, however, can you meditate in such a way that you are not distracted from the encounter? Buber had it right: ““The Thou meets me through grace—it is not found by seeking” (I and Thou, 1958: 11).

Summing up and looking forward:

Once inner speech has been established, the self is no longer consciously experienced as a gift from a flesh-and-blood Other. Instead, self-awareness seems automatic, predictable, secure, and boring. Furthermore, the You no longer appears in her fullness. The joy is lost.

Because of this loss, there persists a yearning for the You of the Event. The yearning is stymied by dread of that You, for who would want to be caught up again in the vortex of absolute dependence? As yearning and dread, the whole ec-static structure remains, but outside awareness: it is masked by the structure created through self-talk. You can see here the basis for what Freud and his successors term the “repressed” or “dynamic” unconscious. What makes the unconscious hard to access is not just the dread, but also the fact that the original structure of existence differs radically from that of everyday conscious life: A self-talking subject faces objects which no longer seem essential to its being, while yearning and dread lock jaws beneath the surface.

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