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Greek Art and Psychoanalysis - PPS

(Part of the Philosophy Papers Series)



Word Association Worksheet

At the beginning of my presentation, I presented the audience with a worksheet with fourteen words (presented words) and gave them the instruction to write down the first word that came to their mind (associated words) for each of the presented words. They were then asked to rate the pair of words based on how strong they believed the presented words related to each of their associated words on a scale from one to ten, with one signifying a weak association and ten signifying a strong one. They were then told to fold the worksheet so that their rating was no longer visible. After the worksheets were collected, each worksheet was then given to another participant so that they could rate the same word pairs again in a different column. The hypothesis for the outcome of this activity was that the difference between the ratings given by the initial participants and the ratings given by the subsequent participants would be significantly lower than if the numbers were chosen by chance. The results were measured using a single-sample t-test, and the differences were found to be significant, t(7) = -3.8482, p < .01. This indicates that participants were more likely to choose a similar association rating based on the same pair of words than if they had both chosen a random number. The results also found that out of the 98 responses, there were only eleven times where two participants wrote down the same associated word and a single time where three participants wrote down the same associated word. The purpose of this activity was to highlight that while the associated words written down were mostly different, we still shared a general intuition of some words being more strongly associated with each other than others.


Language and Culture

When we begin to look at other cultures and languages, we start to see that this general intuition doesn’t work universally. There are words in other languages that have distinct associations attached to their meanings that we don’t have in our own language. An example of this is the Spanish word pluma. Translated literally, pluma means feather, but it also can be defined as being a writer by occupation. It also has a cultural association with effeminate characteristics in men. While a native English speaker may be able to see the link between these meanings, it is not as apparent as it is in Spanish. If you ask someone in Spanish ‘¿Tienes pluma?’ you’ll encounter a very different response compared to asking someone in English ‘Do you have feathers?’. For a Spaniard, the term ‘feather’ is associated with Italian fascist units fighting with the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil war. The soldiers in these units wore feathers as part of their uniform and often smelled of strong perfume. They were seen as effeminate and the term ‘having feathers’ was then associated with this idea of effeminacy.

An example we can find in our own language is the word ripper. For Australians saying that something is a ripper is to indicate that it is particularly good. However, it can also refer to a tool used to tear or break something, a violent murderer who mutilates his victims (Jack the ripper), or even a good snowboarder. These are fairly distinct meanings for the same word, but we still associate these concepts together with the word ripper. This is best illustrated with the following pun, ‘I knew a guy called Jack back in England. He was a real ripper.’ This joke would be non-sensical to someone who didn’t speak English because the associations in their language wouldn’t be there. This explains why we don’t really find the following Spanish pun funny, ‘¿Qué hace el pez perezoso? ¡Nada!’ (What does the lazy fish do? Nothing/it swims!). We don’t have a word in English that can be used for both ‘nothing’ and ‘it swims’. The association between these two concepts is just not as strong for us as it is for Spanish speaking people, which is why we can’t really get it the same way we can for the ripper pun.

This difference makes it extremely difficult for us to know what people mean when they use different words. While a word may have a shared meaning across languages or even within languages, that doesn’t mean we are able to grasp the totality of associations that an individual may be making with that word. So, while there is a cultural mindset about associations, there is also the individual mindset that will share similarities with others but still remain unique. It is these differences in associations that can help us understand more about our unconscious.


The Unconscious

The unconscious is structured like a language – Jacques Lacan. [1]

The unconscious has four main parts: the symbolic structure, the habitus, schemata, and the objet petit a.[2] The symbolic structure refers to this web of associations we have in our minds, similar to a semantic network. The habitus is the dispositions we have within ourselves to act in certain ways.[3] Schemata are thought processes we use that help us organise information. Finally, the objet petit a is the object cause of desire or the lack we have within us that causes us to fill that lack with desirous things.[4] While it’s not in the scope of this paper to go into detail about these different concepts, it’s important to know that these exist and express themselves in an important way through transference and countertransference.

In Psychoanalysis, transference is when an individual transfers unconscious feelings and ideas about one person to another. In the context of psychotherapy, the analyst may be wearing glasses that remind the analysand of their mother. The analysand may then project certain feelings and beliefs about their mother onto the analyst. We can see how this works through the unconscious as the appearance of glasses creates a focus in the symbolic structure on the different associations connected to glasses. One of those associations is the analysand’s mother, which will have a habitus associated with it that will predispose the analysand to act and think in a certain way through schemata.

Countertransference is how an individual responds to being the object of another’s transference. Using the same example, the analyst observing that analysand is projecting a certain mindset onto them will then produce thoughts and sentiments towards the analysand in response to their transference. This countertransference will also reflect on the analyst’s unconscious and how it is structured.


The Greek Agalma (άγαλμα)

It is with this framework of psychoanalysis that we can start to approach Greek art, specifically through the concept of the Greek agalma. The agalma was a statue or image of a god that was produced for public veneration for a certain period of time and then later buried as a votive offering. The agalma wasn’t just a part of the public culture or mindset but was also said to reside within individuals. Plato mentions this idea within The Symposium, where he writes,

My claim is that he’s (Socrates) just like those statues of Silenus you see sitting in sculptors’ shops. The Figures are produced holding shepherd’s pipes or flutes; when they are opened up, you find they’ve got statues of the gods (ἀγάλματα) inside [...] If you’re prepared to listen to Socrates’ discussions, they seem absolutely ridiculous at first [...] but if you can open them up and see inside, you’ll find they’re the only ones that make any sense. You’ll also find they’re the most divine and contain the most images of virtue (ἀγάλματ᾽ ἀρετῆς).[5]

How then should we understand this interior agalma? One answer comes from Jung, who would describe such an agalma as archetypal. As the collective unconscious is essentially made up of archetypes, to see the agalma in another person is to see a certain primordial personality manifesting.[6] For Lacan, the agalma is the partial object of desire, or the objet petit a.[7] This agalma is fetishised into holding a greater significance, to the point of divinity, to where one’s desire is drawn towards others. However, these both refer in part to the symbolic structure and a certain method of transference/countertransference.[8] [9] Using this understanding, I will now move on to understanding the agalma Piraeus Athena.


Piraeus Athena

When presented with the (Piraeus) Athena, we must understand that what the contemporary mind sees is going to be vastly different to what the mind of someone living in Classical Greece saw. The structure of the unconscious in these vastly different times means it is almost impossible for us to see the Athena the same way they used to. To explain this, I will look at how the Athena may fit into our cultural mindset.

The Athena appears as both militant and welcoming showing similarities to Joan of Arc, Wonder woman, or the Celtic Scáthach. However, knowledge of her being the patron goddess of Athens may also conjure similarities to France’s Marianne, America’s Columbia, or England’s Britannia. The Corinthian helmet appears similar to the Spartan helmets worn in Zack Snyder’s movie ‘300’ or the helmets worn in Wolfgang Peterson’s ‘Troy’. Athena’s facial expression and stance may also appear maternal, despite the goddess never bearing any children herself. While these elements may point towards different cultural associations, there also lies the personal associations an individual may have from their own unconscious. We have to ask ourselves then if this agalma was buried within my own unconscious, what would it be saying to me? What sort of transference is this agalma projecting within my psyche? Myself, I feel that the Athena presents the ideal of a strong mother or older sister. Someone who is strong enough to ignore me but is still willing to reach out and help. I feel a strong association between the Athena and this idealised picture of Ancient Greek life. Specifically, I picture Raphael’s School of Athens with Plato and Aristotle walking through the Academy.

So, what about the countertransference I have to my initial reaction? Well, the sense of Athena presenting as a maternal figure, maybe that I see elements of my own mother in the agalma or that I have an idealised version of what I’d like a mother to be like. Picturing the School of Athens fresco is interesting because the painting does contain a statue of Athena within it. It also reflects my own interest in philosophy and admiration for Plato and Aristotle as being tied to this idealised concept of Ancient Greece.

It is clear, though, that my unconscious will present me with a unique place where this agalma will fit into the rest of my symbolic structure. It will conjure certain affections and schemata that will determine how I approach my interpretation of it. Yet, in realising all of this, I can recognise these limitations and allow myself to explore new associations that don’t fit within this mindset. As the therapist uses psychoanalysis to uncover the unconscious for therapeutic reasons, the artist can likewise use it for hermeneutic reasons.

[1] Jacques Lacan, The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, trans. By Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998) p.149 [2] However, it can be argued that the objet petit a is just a part of the formation of the symbolic structure. [3] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. By Richard Nice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977) pp. 72-73 [4] Bruce Fink, Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007) p. 269 [5] Plato, The Symposium, trans. by Christopher Gill (London: Penguin Books, 1999) 215b, 221e-22a; emphasis mine [6] Carl Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, trans. by R. F. C. Hull (New York: Princeton University Press, 1990) p. 42-43 [7] Jacques Lacan, Transference, trans. by Bruce Fink (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017) pp. 139-43, 47 [8] Carl Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, pp. 59-61 [9] Jacques Lacan, Transference, pp. 192-193

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