Debate Magazine

Slavish Conscience

By Cris

Over at the London Review of Books, Adam Phillips criticizes self-criticism in an essay that includes this brilliant bit:

We are never as good as we should be; and neither, it seems, are other people. A life without a so-called critical faculty would seem an idiocy: what are we, after all, but our powers of discrimination, our taste, the violence of our preferences? Self-criticism, and the self as critical, are essential to our sense, our picture, of our so-called selves. Nothing makes us more critical – more suspicious or appalled or even mildly amused – than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism, that we should be less impressed by it and start really loving ourselves. But the self-critical part of ourselves, the part that Freud calls the super-ego, has some striking deficiencies: it is remarkably narrow-minded; it has an unusually impoverished vocabulary; and it is, like all propagandists, relentlessly repetitive. It is cruelly intimidating…and it never brings us any news about ourselves. There are only ever two or three things we endlessly accuse ourselves of, and they are all too familiar; a stuck record, as we say, but in both senses – the super-ego is reiterative. It is the stuck record of the past…and it insists on diminishing us. It is, in short, unimaginative; both about morality, and about ourselves. Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him, that he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout, of some catastrophe. And we would be right.

Phillips is right: there is something seriously wrong with the homunculi in our heads. With Freud as his theory-master and Hamlet as ego-actor, Phillips engages with conscience, that most intractable and culturally inflected aspect of ourselves. Though Michel Foucault merits no mention in his essay, Phillips is also talking about discipline: that resolve, sometimes steely but always nagging, which seemingly arises from within but which is implanted from without. In near modernity, or in Abrahamic times and places, this conscience or discipline is the voice of God, whose state-serving accoutrements present as morals. In modernity, or in consumer-capitalist times and places, this conscience or discipline is the voice of the Market, whose state-serving accoutrements present as desires. These are the shaming and punishing voices of masters, in which case we are slaves.

— Cris


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