Emotion and the Self

Norbert Wiley

This paper will argue that human emotions are bi-level. They are “out there” in our relation to our goals, the environment and other people. And they are also “in here” in response to the inner life of the self. The outer level of emotions assumes a pre-existing self having successes and failures in coping with the world. The inner level concerns that very pre-existing self, which is also coping with its own continued existence and the dangers of dissolution.

It’s like an automobile driving along the road. The external problem is reaching one’s destination without an accident. The internal problem is preventing a breakdown of the car itself. The self, like the car, is always in danger of disrepair. It can run a lot better if fixed properly. But it can also break down if too stressed.

The thinker with the most striking bi-level theory of emotion is Jacques Lacan (1977). His humans are coping in the world all right, but they are also constantly experiencing more fundamental emotions. These are the vicissitudes of the internal self, ranging from the ecstasies of smooth functioning to the terrors of paranoia and implosion.

Another theory with a powerful but less explicit bi-level theory of emotion is symbolic interaction. This theory is based on the pragmatists, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey and George Herbert Mead. And on the near-pragmatists, James Mark Baldwin, Charles Horton Cooley, William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, among others.

The pragmatists are sometimes said to have neglected emotion, although they all had sketchy theories on that topic. And it is true they did not have an explicit vision of inner fragility. But they all had sophisticated theories of the self, and when you take them as a group, they had an extremely powerful self theory. In fact, when examined closely, their self has the same “leaky boat” feature that characterizes Lacan’s approach. The pragmatist self is based on a self fulfilling prophecy, itself highly dependent on belief and confidence. The leak or flaw comes from the tendency of all self fulfilling prophecies to break down if confidence in them weakens. I will be arguing then that the pragmatists too have a bi-level theory of emotion, which is based on their theory of the self.

While Lacan, particularly in his mirror theory of the self, seems quite different from the pragmatists, he has a strain of thinking much like theirs. Lacan has two versions of the looking glass self. His famous one is that the child identifies with his or her mirror reflection, allegedly

seeing more coherence than is really there and suffering from a “misrecognition” that is a permanent weak spot. This makes the self to be image-based or imaginary.

The other version is the familiar idea that the child depends heavily on the reflection he or she gets from intimate others, especially close caretakers such as the mother. The mother’s approval, recognition or “look” is sometimes combined with the misrecognition idea, as though the two were equivalent. But his two looking glass selves are really quite different. The former is a highly original, if debatable, idea. The latter is remarkably similar to the one Cooley saw operating in his children. It should be added that throughout his writings Lacan leans more heavily on the Cooley version, though he seems to think this is the same as his imaginary looking glass self.

In this paper I will explain the pragmatists’ bi-level theory of emotion, itself stemming from their theory of the self. Their self is a social construction, living off a self fulfilling prophecy.

I. The Pragmatist Bi-level Theory of Emotion

The bi-level theory of emotion, then, is the idea that emotions can be experienced by the self in two ways. In the self’s goal-seeking behavior and in the self’s own efforts to simply stay intact.

The two levels tend to be in sync: to occur together and to cause each other. Although they also may operate somewhat independently of each other. I will give some examples of how they may be connected.

Most strong emotions are experienced as bi-level. Take failure. You want something and you go after it. You engage in activities appropriate to the goal. You expend all your effort and you perform well. You deeply desire this success and you can almost taste the victory. Still, even though it looked like you would win, something goes wrong and you fail. Someone else gets the job. You do not win the game. Your body lets you down. A girl or boy dumps you. The contract goes to someone else. The prize excapes your fingers.

At the outer level you experience the disappointment of failure. Sadness and grief enter your field of consciousness. And even if you did your best, you will feel an inner grief as well. At the inner level we think of this sadness as depression. The normal concomitant of outer disappointment is inner sorrow. This depression may have elements of internalized hostility, but it is usually more like a decline in self confidence. For a while everything will seem harder to attain.

If the person has what I will simply call normal mental health, as well as a lack of any genetic tendency toward depression, the inner grief should go away in a limited number of days. This kind of grief usually has a beginning, middle and end. You can cry it out. And you can talk it out. You might remember victories. Or failures that played themselves out. Or if you hang on, something good might happen to lift your spirits. For my example I will keep it as an ordinary case and not mention the person who might get stuck in a lengthy depression. All I want to show is the bi-level quality of the emotion – external disappointment and internal mourning.

Most strong emotions have this double level. External humiliation will coincide with inner shame. Intense fear can cause panic. Culpability will usually be accompanied by guilt. Vague threat by anxiety. And sexual victimization by at least a moment of self blame. The positive emotions are similar. Victory may cause pride. Love will give self confidence. Recognition will give self esteem. And paying for a mistake will give peace of mind.

In Lacan the self is actually a psychiatric symptom, a defense against an underlying meaninglessness. In Garfinkel’s language (l967) the Lacanian self is a hoax by which we ”normalize” an incoherent inner reality. This reality is constantly reasserting itself so that the self is always resisting, to a greater or lesser extent, the tug toward dissolution. Unlike the body, which has a strong, healthy equilibrium and a moderate pull toward sickness and death, the Lacanian self is primarily a disequilibrium, with a thin veneer of coherence papering it over. Lacan’s inner emotions then result from the constant fight between the fragile self and the underlying forces of incoherence. This level is, if anything, the primary arena of human emotion, and the emotions of outer living can usually be reduced to it.

In contrast the examples I gave are not based on a Lacanian tendency toward self implosion. These are common sense examples based on a more ordinary view of the self. Actually the pragmatist self, given that it replaced the earlier eugenic and racist theories in American history, is now the common sense view. It is easy to see from the examples how a bi-level theory of emotion might be compatible with pragmatism. But I want to explain this in more detail and with more precision. What is there about the pragmatist self that produces the flaw? What gives it a tendency toward collapse, similar to, if less powerful than, the mirror misrecognition in Lacan’s theory?

I think it is in the same looking glass self that Lacan was so fascinated by, but in a more pragmatist version of that mirror. Cooley explained his version of the looking glass self as follows:

A self-idea of this sort seems to have three principle elements: the imagination of our appearance to the other person; the imagination of his judgment of that appearance, and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification. The comparison with a looking-glass hardly suggests the second element, the imagined judgment, which is quite essential (1922, p. 184).

Cooley does not mention the fact that we tend to change our behavior to conform to other people’s expectations. But in any case there is an even more fundamental idea of the looking glass in pragmatist thought. This idea, which is a deepening of Cooley’s insight, is more available in Mead (Westby, 1991, p. 446-451.)

Mead described the stages in the socialization of the child as a progression from “play to the game to the generalized other” (1934, pp. 152-164). Before the stage of play, however, there is a point of ontogenesis where the infant acquires a self. Mead does not give a formal name to this stage but he does give a powerful explanation. This explanation is in terms of role-taking and reflexivity, the latter being a more abstract version of Cooley’s looking glass.

I have now distinguished three theories of the looking glass self. For Lacan the looking glass literally became the self, i.e. we identify with the specular copy we see “out there” in the mirror. For Cooley the looking glass was simply the opinions of intimate others. We tend to become what we think our intimate caretakers label us as. For Mead the looking glass was an internalized function or power. When others communicate meanings to us we can reflect these meanings inside of our consciousness in a process which Mead called role-taking. And when we communicate meanings to others we can reflect these meanings, again in our consciousness, in what Mead called the meaningful or significant gesture.

Mead was also interested in phylogenesis, the process by which primates became human. He described this as a transition in which non-significant gestures

become significant ones. The primates who gestured did not originally have a reflexive understanding of their own gestures. They lacked concepts or meaning. When they developed this understanding, the how of which is still unknown (Wiley, 1994) they became human, acquired language and developed into selves. Humans now have this understanding naturally as a characteristic of their species, but each newborn still has to actualize these capacities anew.

In other words the infant also has to transform non-significant gestures into significant ones. When this is accomplished the birth of the infant’s self comes in a bundle with the other, closely related symbolic capacities: reflexivity, thought and language.

The infant is born non-symbolic and without a self, though it does have the preconditions for acquiring one. The parents however -- to view them at their best -- see baby as a self from the beginning, talking as though it can understand them and finding meaning before any is there. Mother and father are off to a running start, which is probably all to the good.

Broadly speaking the parents are saying two things to baby. “We love you” and “You are there”. They are pouring love and also existence into baby. Or in more technical terms they are giving “recognition” and selfhood to the child. For Hegel the human self was born through recognition (1807), which was itself one offshoot of the master-slave fight. The parents are not engaged primarily in a fight with baby during that first year however. Rather they are freely giving love and recognition. Of course they want love back as soon as they can give it, i.e. glowing eyes, smiles, baby talk and body molding hugs. They are not consciously trying to create something out of nothing, or a self in a brute animal. Still their actions have this effect.

For baby the link between recognition and becoming a self is trust. Baby must have the guts to communicate symbolically. Communication for Mead entails the ability to take the point of view of the other, i.e. role-taking. It appears as though the infant first learns role-taking as a communicatee, i.e. as one who receives communications rather than giving them. Then baby learns to role-take as a communicator, i.e. to send symbols to the parents. Meaningful smiles and gurgles probably come well before the “Da Da”s and “Ma Ma”s of early baby talk (Stern, 2000). But to engage in this role-taking, this receiving and giving, is to take a chance on becoming a self.

I do not think this is easy for baby. At least it comes a lot more slowly if the love and recognition are thin, for these are the foundations of baby’s trust. For baby to assert itself into the social world is a risk. It is more peaceful and effortless to remain silent and symbiotic. Once role-taking and communication set in, they become rewarding and explain their own persistence.

The parents are saying “take a shot at it,” “smile,” “be cute,” “make little noises with your mouth” and we’ll love you no matter how you do it. We’ll mirror what you do, possibly with some minor correction or suggestion, but no matter what you do, we’ll applaud you. You can trust us no matter what. Start crawling out of your cute little body and we’re sure you’ll like it. And we’ll reward you beyond your wildest dreams.

When parents act as cheerleaders in this way they are like midwives trying to assist at a birth. Of course baby’s body was born earlier when it entered the world, but its self must also be brought into the world.

Lacan thought that intra-personal recognition, at the mirror, created the self. And Hegel thought that interpersonal recognition created the self. The pragmatist position, especially that of Mead has affinities with both Lacan and Hegel but it is still distinct. In Mead the creation of a self is a self fulfilling prophecy.

II. The Self as a Self Fulfilling Prophecy

For Lacan the creation of the self is based on an error, a misrecognition, and the result can only be called a false self. Accordingly we spend the rest of our life, even after the Oedipal transition, trying to hide this secret from ourselves. For Hegel the self is based on interpersonal struggle for recognition, for what one gets the other loses. This also creates instability in the self, for recognition is never secure and can always be lost.

For Mead the baby’s self comes by way of the parents’ prediction. They are saying trust us and leap into the symbolic world. It may be scary but we will catch you if you fall. The prediction or prophecy here is that if you try you will succeed. You can engage in symbolic flight. You can soar into the semiotic world. Just believe us, and if you do, that very belief will create you as a self.

The result is that the infant does take the leap, little by little of course.

Still baby jumps into free fall, and the aerodynamics of the symbolic atmosphere allow him or her to fly. This is a self fulfilling prophecy because it will come true only if you believe in it.

Actually all of culture is a self fulfilling prophecy (Merton, 1957, Krishna, 1971). William and Dorothy Thomas made this point when they said, “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” (1928, p. 572). What they meant was that reality, especially social reality, is rather flexible and vague. It is subject to a wide variety of interpretations or definitions. If a particular society defines a given socio-cultural element in a certain way, that way will become meaningful and true for them. In other words in the semiotic realm, if you say something is true and the larger community agrees, it is true for all practical consequences.[1]

Of course the emperor has no clothes. We cannot prove these things. In culture we operate on a consensus basis as much as on objective truth. That is why cultures differ so much. The free play in the realm of meaning has allowed many different languages, ideas and value systems.

We can then modify the Thomas Theorem as follows: If people define selves as real, they are real in their consequences. The theorem of W.I. and Dorothy Thomas was a self fulfilling prophecy. If people define things in a certain way, that definition will be true for them. And if Moms and Dads define their babies as selves, this will become true, and the babies will become selves.

But there still is a weakness or flaw in these selves. They are not based on misrecognition, as in Lacan. But they are based on a leap of faith. Self fulfilling prophecies sometimes collapse. And the prophecy about baby becoming a self is based on parents’ love, the infant’s trust and self confidence, and a steady stream of synergy in the child-parent relationship. Something can always go wrong, and this is known by all parties, at least semi-consciously.

Earlier I said I was describing parents at their best, meaning they have strong parenting skills. The average parent has average skills, which means the recognition, love and consequent trust will be more moderate. Baby will find it somewhat harder to make the leap, and the tendency to backslide into a pre-self, brute state may be stronger.

At the other extreme are the parents who are lousy at parenting, usually because they themselves have been psychologically damaged. The recognition, love and trust that flows between baby and these parents will be at an unhealthily low level. These infants may take much longer to become selves, i.e. they become developmentally delayed. And when they do take the plunge, it will be with considerably less self confidence and security than the more lucky babies have.

The flaw then is in the constant possibility of losing trust and self confidence. We are blown-up balloons, and it is always possible for the air to come out. The recognition and love that created baby’s self, moreover, have to keep flowing throughout life. It’s not enough for our parents to get us started as humans. We need continued psychological support to keep developing and going as selves. If recognition dries up, in particular if negative recognition hits the now-grown infant, the air can come out of the balloon. Self trust needs love and recognition to get started and still more love and recognition to keep going.

There is a sense in which this theory does imply a misrecognition, but a different and more general one than Lacan’s. It’s in the “emperor has no clothes” problem. Culture in general and selves in particular are based on “hot air,“ i.e., pure shared belief. As with all self fulfilling prophecies this one is based on a mere possibility although belief can make it true. If the community accepts the belief it will remain solid. But if confidence erodes, the belief will turn sour and lose its validity.

The self system, from a symbolic interactionist’s view, is never completely secure. It is a “wobbler,” with the capacity to go forward or backward. And there are constant modalities and vicissitudes in the life of the self. My earlier examples of mourning, shame, guilt, anxiety and self-blame as well as the positive cases of pride, self confidence, self esteem and peace of mind are all modifications of the self fulfilling prophecy. There are many ways in which the inner self can do well or not do well. These are the inner emotions that I set out to describe in this paper. They are like Lacan’s rising and sinkings of the self, but they are based on a different notion of the misrecognition or flaw.

Pragmatism’s notion of bi-level emotion might be compared to a variety of closely related ideas besides Lacan’s, but I will confine myself to one. Alfred Schutz, the phenomenologist and disciple of Mead spoke of the “fundamental anxiety.” For him this was the fear of death. As he says,

I know that I shall die and I fear to die. This basic experience we suggest calling the fundamental anxiety. It is the primordial anticipation from which all the others originate.(1973, p. 228).

Schutz thought that our conceptualization of the main or everyday world entailed a certain amount of concealment and repression. Cultures exaggerate some things and ignore or deny others. Schutz compared this process to Husserl’s “epoche” or suspension of disbelief (1973, p. 228). And for Schutz the major denial of culture was the denial of death, making it the fundamental anxiety. As Maurice Natanson says in his introduction to Schutz’s Collected Papers

The fear of death is here the fear of my death, and it might be suggested, though Dr. Schutz does not develop this idea, that the epoche of the natural attitude includes within its brackets the awareness that I will die (Natanson, p. XLIV).

Schutz was undoubtedly right in saying that death is denied. But I want to suggest that the flaw in the self is also denied. By definition if the self is a self fulfilling prophecy we cannot admit this. We must conceal and deny; otherwise the leak will get bigger and we risk falling into a swoon.

The Lacanese argument is quite the same at this point. People must protect the (for Lacan, false) unity of the self or they risk losing it. This anxiety and denial, I would argue, is even more fundamental than the denial of death. And it is the glue that holds together the main reality. For symbolic interactionists the denial of the gravitational pull toward psychological collapse, or, to state it in reverse, the assertion of the self fulfilling prophecy, underlies all the other definitions of a culture. The self as self fulfilling prophecy is the foundation of the entire belief system as self fulfilling prophecy.

I have now outlined the pragmatist bi-level theory of emotion. The outer level is our transactions with the world. The inner level is the life of the self, which is a highly vulnerable self fulfilling prophecy. We are always treading water against the briney deep below.

I now want to develop the comparison of pragmatism and Lacan more systematically, given that they are parallel if quite different theories. The points I will touch on will be the (a) mirror as wobbler, (b) the subject, (c) self recognition in the mirror and (d) the other.

a. The Mirror as Wobbler. I have already mentioned that Lacan leans heavily on Cooley’s looking glass self, sometimes even equating this mirror with the physical one he thinks we identify with. At times his mirror identification is asserted as a literal description of what happens, but at other times it’s just a metaphor for any self-defining response we might get from the external world. As he says, “the idea of the mirror should be understood as an object which reflects - not just the visible, but also what is heard, touched and willed by the child” (l949, p. 567 see also Rose, 1982, p. 30). Lacan usually tries to keep his notion of the mirror to the actual physical mirror. But when he makes the mirror metaphorical, with the “heard, touched and willed” reading, the purely specular interpretation loses its edge. In particular with the switch from physical to social mirror, Lacan loses his notion of misrecognition. And as a result his concept of the “imaginary” also loses a lot of its mystique.

The physical mirror, for Lacan, produces its misrecognition because it flatters the way our body looks, picturing it as more coordinated and coherent than it actually is. Whether Lacan is right on this point or not, it simply does not come up with responses based on what we hear, touch or will. Our mother’s voice may flatter us, but it is hardly just a fiction hiding a psychological incoherence below. It does not produce misrecognition. Instead her voice is the self fulfilling prophecy that we use as a ladder to climb into the human world above. What is initially untrue -- the parent’s assertion that we are selves -- gradually comes true. It is a “misrecognition” that becomes recognition and selfhood.

(b). The Subject. For Lacan the fully developed, post-Oedipal self or subject is primarily the subject of the linguistic system. It is the “I” of language and not the I in some extra-linguistic, ontological sense. The child’s self shifts from the imaginary to the symbolic or linguistic as a result of successfully steering through the Oedipal or Electra complexes. This expands the powers of the self.

The pragmatist self is also the subject of language, but in this case the language is that of inner, not outer speech. For Mead, the self was the I, the me and the field of meaning on which they interacted. For Peirce the self was the conversation of the I and the “you,” the latter being the self as it is just coming into being in the flow of time. Neither Mead’s nor Peirce’s self resembled Lacan’s monadic subject. The pragmatist’s subject is located in a different linguistic system, and it is internally divided into two linguistic poles. This makes the pragmatist self a “field,” differing both from the substantive self of Aristotle, Aquinas and Descartes and from the decentered nothingness of the post-structuralists.

I have argued (Wiley, 1994b) that the two pragmatist dialogical models could be integrated into a triadic, I-you-me model. This is still more distant from Lacan’s linguistic self, for now the subject is a full fledged community.

in addition the inner subject does not blink on and off the way the subject of outer language does. The linguistic “I” disappears with the cessation of speech. The personal pronouns of inner speech also disappear at times -- presumably during sleep or thoughtless wakefullness. But the pronomial self of pragmatism is “on” most of the time. It is the subject, not only of inner speech but of consciousness generally. And when it is “off,” it seems more like a pause than a blank in which the subject ceases to exist.

(c). The Mirror Self Recognition. We have looked at Lacan’s theory of mirror self recognition, but there is a theory of mirror self recognition in pragmatism too (Wiley, 1994, pp. 172-175.). On this view the important thing that happens when baby recognized his or her self in the mirror is not physical or specular. There is no flattering misrecognition of the body. Instead what is recognized is the structure of the self as inner speech. Even before the mirror recognition, which usually happens between twelve and eighteen months, baby has been talking to his or her self, albeit with imperfect linguistic tools. Baby has been engaging in early forms of inner speech, but without any clear idea of how this process works. The fact that small children talk out loud when they are thinking suggests that they do not yet have a clear idea that inner speech is silent and therefore private. They don’t yet fully distinguish it from public speech.

And I also think baby is not yet clear about who’s all in the conversation. Baby will often be talking to mother, or even be talking as mother, with a bossy voice. Mother has not yet been kicked out of the inner conversation, not is its privacy fully appreciated.

When the child recognizes his or her self in the mirror the body is discovered all right. And undoubtedly baby is pleased to see it looks more or less normal and like everyone else. But the more important discovery, as I see it, is of the other pole of the inner dialogue. When the viewing self recognized itself, and the two babies, the viewer and viewed, smile, the child is not only smiling out of recognition of its body. It is also smiling out of recognition of its mind, body and mind being discovered in the same eureka.

The mirror experience for the pragmatists does not suggest a misrecognition or flaw. It suggests an internalized verstehen in which the self is first clearly seen as dyadic. The smiling face in the mirror represents the other pole of the inner conversation. In Peirce’s terms the I has discovered the you (or for Mead, the me). The pragmatist mirror reveals the I’s partner in dialogue. The movement is (1) from self (2) to mirror (3) to self recognition (4) to the discovery of the conversational partner (and then reflexively back) (5) to a deeper understanding and control of one’s dialogical self. For Lacan the mirror does not lead back to the self. Instead it becomes the self. We identify with our mirror reflection as external to us.

Instead of being a collapse into the Lacanian flaw, the pragmatist mirror experience is a smashing victory over the pragmatist flaw. For now the self fulfilling prophecy, which we believed from our parents, is becoming a lot more true. Before, we could role-take with others but only confusedly with ourselves. Now we are more able to converse with ourselves, i.e. to take the role of the other in the internal dialogue. This is because we have now seen an icon of the dialogical partner in the mirror.[2] What we were challenged to do, to become selves, we are now doing in a considerably more developed way.

For the pragmatists what Lacan thought was an unwarranted euphoria and misrecognition at the mirror was not actually based on an exaggeration. Nor was it unwarranted. It was an entirely justified glow based on the child’s first accurate grasp of its inner life. Rather than being a misrecognition based on an imaginary self it was a clear eyed recognition based on the discovery of the symbolic self.

The Other. Lacan uses the term “other” in several senses. One’s self is “other,” first because it is based on an external reflection in a mirror, externality indicating otherness. And after the oedipal-electra crisis it is based on the cultural systems, again external, of language, morality and law. The self is always outside or other to us, so to speak, and therefore alienated from us.

From this starting point Lacan tends to call a lot of things the “other.” When he uses the Cooley version of the looking glass self and sees us as being constructed by the intimate other (mainly the mother), this other too is equated with the self. Thus the intimate other, to whom we owe the crucial early love and recognition, is ourselves. We are the mirror, whether in a physical or metaphorical sense. Thus mother (sometimes called the (m)other) is a second meaning of other in Lacan.

He also refers to his idea of the unconscious as the other. Lacan does not have a precise notion of the unconscious, particularly of what’s in it, and his idea also shifts at different stages of his career. But the unconscious as with Freud harbors profound truths about us. It is “other, but like the mirror self and the mother, this “other” is a powerful element of our identity. Lacan also uses the term other in additional senses, but these three give the flavor. The other is something with which we are in intimate but dialectical relation. And this dialectic also harbors a great deal of distance and tension.

The pragmatist other is also a dialectical partner of the self, but in a more ordinary, conscious sense. A person with whom we communicate, in Mead’s terminology, is called a “particular other.” The first particular other is the mother, a person so primordial that she probably precedes awareness of the self. Her importance however is not primarily as someone we identify with, in the sense in which Lacan’s baby identifies with the mirror reflection. Rather she is the one who gives us psychological resources and helps us sprout the human capacities. She midwives our hearts and minds.[3] This is done through role-taking in which we learn to see and feel things as others do, mother being the first other. We role-take her hopes and dreams for us, giving us a model for what we may become and how we might become it. Since mother is the first interactional partner, the first communicative “other,” she becomes a kind of background figure for all subsequent particular others.

Mother’s teaching also contains rules of various kinds, including the general ones by which we think and live. She gives us a microcosm of the culture. We internalize these meanings and rules and they become incorporated into the self. For Mead this taking in of the culture becomes a resource in the inner dialogue by getting lodged into the “me.”[4] Mead’s me has affinities with Freud’s super ego, but it is less exclusively emotional and includes the cognitive and logical rules. Of course I am not suggesting that there is one uniform moral code or set of rules in the United States or any other country. But for this discussion it is convenient to sidestep social conflict and sub-cultural differences and pretend there is a unitary culture.

Mead refers to the culture that we internalize in the me as the “generalized other.” When we communicate and role-take with any particular other we are sharing their meaning system. But when we communicate and role-take with ourselves, with our Meadean me or Peircean you, we share the entire community meaning system. What could have simply been called the “culture” Mead personalized by calling it the generalized other. When Mead makes the culture into a sort of person or self he enables it to be directly confronted in the dialogical process. We may “draw on” our cultures but we actually talk to our generalized other. For the pragmatists subjecthood is an internal dialogue, and the community enters into that dialogue with full voice.

The Lacanian other(s) then is central to Lacan’s notion that the subject is inherently flawed and structured as a symptom. The force of otherhood pervades our psychological landscape, and we must stay in a finely calibrated relation to these others to maintain our coherence. But all of Lacan’s others are psychiatric threats, quick to pull us under if we do not maintain a balanced dialectic with them.

The pragmatist others, both particular and general, are more out in the open and less dangerous. Of course all collapses involve problems with particular and generalized others, but these others are less central than Lacan’s. Pragmatism’s others are rather the crucial resources for maintaining selfhood. The self fulfilling prophecy and its gradual unfolding is primarily the work of the pragmatist others. And when something goes wrong with this prophecy that too is largely the work of the others. But in contrast to the Lacanese others those of pragmatism are primarily shields against our inner flaw, whereas those of Lacan can become the flaw.

The comparison with its theoretical neighbor, Lacan, brings out several features of the pragmatist self. It also helps clarify the flaws in the two selves and the consequent streams of bi-level emotions


I have now shown how and why the pragmatists’ have a bi-level theory of emotion. The pragmatist person or self is coping with the world and thereby generating a set of external emotions. But this same self is also always coping with itself, creating itself and confronting threats to its survival. Since the pragmatist self is based on self confidence, it will wax and wane with fluctuations in confidence. If external coping goes bad the self may experience a tendency toward inner collapse. And if the self begins to weaken, its ability to cope with the environment with get hurt. The two emotional levels affect each other and tend to go up or down together.

If this interpretation of pragmatism is true it should have implications for a variety of situations in which the self is a major actor. I will mention two: mental illness and watching a movie.

There are many symbolic interactionist analyses of mental illness but I will select Thomas Scheff’s labelling theory for my example (Scheff 1966, 1974). Scheff argued that a major cause of mental illness was in the looking glass self. In particular if intimate and powerful others said we were mentally ill, we would tend to conform to their expectations. Scheff also argued that these labels would be given especially if someone were doing something odd or unconventional, even though it might not be illegal or unethical. These unconventionalities, which Scheff called “residual deviance,” would be a pretext rather than an adequate cause for the labelling process.

Scheff’s theory was quite complex, but for my purposes it can be seen as eroding the prophecy that constitutes the self. Labelling too is a prophecy, but it reverses the prophecy on which a healthy self rests. Parents tell their child “you are a self”, and this allows the child to become a self. But the child, now a teenager or older and possibly engaging in somewhat unconventional behavior, is now told “you are not a self.” “You are crazy!” This communication runs on the same tracks as the original one, but backwards, thereby erasing the prophecy. In this way it destroys self confidence and creates the very crazyness it predicts.

Morris Rosenberg challenged Scheff by arguing that mental illness was caused, not by labelling but by the loss of the ability to role-take (Rosenberg, 1984). But Rosenberg’s point actually works with rather than against Scheff’s, for what labelling does is weaken a person’s ability to role-take. If you can role-take you are in communication with others and you are not emotionally disturbed. If you cannot role-take you are, by definition, emotionally disturbed and vulnerable to delusions. The capacity to role-take is what we get for believing our parents’ self fulfilling prophecy and becoming a self. Given the fragility of selfhood, a staunch barrage of communication that challenged our trust in what our parents told us will tend to come true. And we will lose the characteristics of selfhood, such as Rosenberg’s role-taking.

Rosenberg’s point works for internal role-taking as well, i.e.the self communication we do in the internal dialogue. As I see it in the normal, healthy internal dialogue the “I“ communicates directly with the “you” and indirectly or reflexively with the “me.” If this power is damaged the internal “voices” begin to lose their locatedness and we can no longer control them. We start hearing them as though they were outsiders somehow lurking inside our minds. The disturbed person may hear internal voices as frightening hallucinations.

Scheff and Rosenberg together make a powerful theory of emotional disturbance. I am not suggesting that Scheff’s theory explains all cases of mental illness, or that biological factors have no role. But Scheff’s point is nevertheless strongly supportive of the idea that the self is a self fulfilling prophecy.

Film studies also gives support to this theory, particularly the idea that emotion is bi-level. Ordinary people go to the movies largely to experience enjoyable emotions (Platinga and Smith, 1999, Tan, 1996, and Wiley, forthcoming). Unlike real life, however, such negative emotions as fear, sadness and tragedy can also be enjoyed at the movies. This is a clue to how movie emotions hit the inner self.

Lacanese film theory developed a powerful explanation based on the bi-level theory of emotion. As the Lacanese critic, Gary Leonard puts it

In reading or viewing suspense, the subject puts this symptom (the ego) into play. The ego and identity, normally experienced as at the the base of reality, are put into doubt. In a vicarious position, the subject watches as apparent presentions of reality turn out to be illusion.... Suspense begins by offering a symbolic system that appears to be natural, in relation to which readers or viewers are invited to constitute their identity, and then this natural order begins to crumble, galvanizing an identity crisis that is unacknowledged by the subject, but not entirely unknown. (Leonard, 1996. pp. 19-20 footnote).

Leonard is getting at the inner impact of negative emotions, particularly suspense, and how these can be transformed into pleasure. Leonard’s self is intrinsically moved by the narrative. If we identify with the narrative in a way that implicates our flaw and ties it in, then when the narrative starts revealing illusions the self too starts seeming like an illusion. A shaky story makes a shaky self. But the insecurity is experienced as dangerously pleasant, protected as it is by the fictionality of the narrative.

The charm of a movie, for Lacanese theory, is that our inner self can experience emotions that would, in a non-fictional situation, be quite painful and dangerous. In other words the bi-level emotions of art may be different from those of real life. In particular the relation between the outer and inner, in real life, would be one of similarity and causality. The two levels of emotion would tend to have the same qualities. If the narrative were one of failure we would experience inner sorrow. If humiliation, shame. If threat, anxiety, etc.

When viewing a movie however, as Leonard suggests, the two levels can be quite distinct. The outer level or story may be one of fear or failure. But the inner emotions need not be panic, anxiety, depression, etc. These emotions will be there, but they will be tamed. Just above or meta to them will be the emotion of thrill and satisfaction, based, it would seem, on our successful handling of the more dangerous emotions. Leonard’s ideas are rather complex, but all I want is to show how the bi-level emotionality of a movie is different from that of real life.

Turning to pragmatism, their version of bi-level emotion is also resonant in film studies, particularly catharsis theory. This pragmatist theory, as before, runs parallel to Lacan, but still at a distance. In other words both approaches see the movie as giving balm to the inner flaw, but the flaws being different, the role of emotion is different too.

The Lacanese flaw is the misrecognition that constitutes the self. This gets overlaid by the post-oedipal self of the linguistic “I”. And it is much milder with Lacan’s shift to the metaphorical mirror. But still the prevailing Lacanese position is that the mirror “I” always stays in one’s subjectivity, and, given its fictionality, remains a permanent weak spot.

In contrast he pragmatist flaw is not in inaccuracy but in the slippery ontology of the self. It exists, but only as culture exists, and therefore as a socially constructed, self fulfilling prophecy. These do not have the permanence and solidity of, say, an arm or a leg. They may be weak to begin with if the intimate caretakers do a sloppy job. And they may be further weakened by negative communications and labelling.

What Lacanese theory sees in movies is symbolic threats to the self that have no teeth. The self begins to sink, but it soon realizes the feeling is fictional and harmless. This experience is like Freud’s game of “fort da,“ in which a child throws a doll away but then pulls it back by a string. This game lets you have your cake and eat it. And movie emotions do the same. We can toss the self away but pull it back again.

In contrast it seems to me pragmatist film theory sees inner emotion as more purgative and cathartic. The inner emotion of the movie evokes some half-digested emotional memory in the self. Something stuck, repressed, haunting or rankling. The outer emotion of the narrative find resonance in the viewer’s self. And the two emotions, movie and remembered, get into a kind of sympathetic vibration, such that the feeling of the one merges with the feeling of the other. The outer-inner doubling of emotion mentioned earlier -- as failure-depression, humiliation-shame, etc. -- takes an especially strong hold if the inner emotion can home in on some similar emotion in the unfinished self. These emotions are most in need of release if they are hurting one’s confidence in one’s self, i.e. the security of ones self fulfilling prophecy. The movies then, in pragmatist terms, can give comfort to one’s flaw if they soften self-destructive feelings and intensify self-enhancing ones.

I will not look at movie music, but recent musicology (Jourdain, 1997) suggests that music affects primordial layers of the brain. The movie makers try to evoke musical emotions that will deepen those of the film narrative. This makes the inner emotions even more inward.

The two cases of mental illness and movie spectatorship, then, seem to be in reasonable fit with the theses of this paper: that emotions in pragmatism are bi-level and that the underlying self is one of a self fulfilling prophecy. In conclusion it seems that the model put forth in this paper, while quite conjectural, is a viable sketch of how the human self works.


1. Goffmain claimed that the Thomas Theorem had only minor effects. In his words, “Defining situations as real certainly has consequences but these may contribute very marginally to the events in progress” (1974, p. 1). But Goffman’s test was unrealistic. He asked if the Theorem applied to actions by individuals on a day-to-day basis. But the Theorem is not, as Goffman pointed out, a magic wand. Instead it is true only for group acts on a long-term basis, in other words for elements of a culture.

2. The metaphorical mirror also sharpens the infant’s understanding of the inner dialogue. After all people did not always have mirrors. But I will let this analysis of the physical mirror rest as a sharpened version of what must happen before all social mirrors.

3. I do not want to shut out fathers, other adults, siblings, etc. from the socialization of baby. But the mother does tend to be the central person and to have the most influence (Chodorow, 1978).

4. Peirce’s “you,” like Mead’s “me” embodies the community’s standards. His I-you dialogue is a lot like Mead’s of the I-me. Yet there are important differences. I tried to respect these similarities and differences in my I-me-you trialogical model (Wiley, 1994b).


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