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Negative Capability: a Force for Change?

Photo by Sodanie Chea | CC BY 2.0

Picasso learned to paint in the ways of the old masters towards the end of his second decade, but it took a further three to learn to paint like a child. His journey towards childlikeness via self-forgetfulness, a process of becoming through undoing, was fruitful but arduous. Arduous because it is the hardest thing to go against the grain of socialisation, group norms and societal expectations – those powerful social influences that shape identity and self-perception. It is the problem of how to know oneself beyond group boundaries when the conditions for knowing lie within them. The situation is analogous to looking for a wristwatch under a streetlight because it is too dark to search in the area where it was lost. It may sound equally ludicrous, but we might improve the search by not looking: lost things often materialise when we shut them from our mind. In fact we are not closing our mind but opening it, waiting for the unconscious, that great unknown, to solve the riddle. And quite often it does. We do more with thoughts than just think them, and occasionally when we switch off they come looking for us.

The locus of transformation is now

The unconscious may perform astonishing feats of memory, but it can also play a remarkable role in creativity: sudden insights, solutions and life-enhancing ideas sometimes surface unbidden when our mind is adrift in unconscious reverie. If such chance awakenings are possible, what prevents us from replicating those conditions right now in order to become more the author, and less the narrator, of our own meaningful life story? Now must be part of the answer, should we be inclined to find it, since the locus of change, the focus of personal transformation, could hardly occur at a time other than that which fleetingly exists between past and future: now is the moment of true, lived experience.

But being in the moment, developing an awareness of now, implies having control over our thoughts and the unconscious patterning of memory, that powerful interplay between experience and the influence of a multiplicity of minds. This interplay has something of the character of a master-slave relationship – there is truth in the old aphorism, ‘the mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master.’ To overcome this complex bind, we must identify what it is that puts us in constraint. Our preoccupations with the past, the attachment to intrusive memories, and our preoccupations with the future, our attachment to continual desires, are by definition incompatible with being in the moment – with writing our own script. Following this logic, only once we begin to offload the excess baggage will we be able to glimpsewhat we are and might become.

On losing memory and finding truth

From the psychoanalytical perspective of Wilfred Bion, one discovers truth on the cusp of knowing and not knowing – truth being the ingredient essential to psychic growth. On the cerebral map, not knowing is located somewhere at the edge of the world, and Bion demands we stretch ourselves to the precipice and face it unflinchingly. In developing this line of thought, Bion declares a debt to the poet Keats and to his concept of ‘negative capability’. Far from taking preconceived notions of nature as the starting point, or vainly attempting to gain absolute knowledge of all life’s mysteries, negative capability requires the poet to be receptive to artistic beauty, even if it comes at the cost of philosophical uncertainty. In a letter to his brothers in 1817, Keats wrote about some of the key qualities that he believed form human achievement, particularly those that Shakespeare possessed in abundance, and by way of explanation came up with the concept of negative capability; this refers to situations in which we feel “…capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” He concludes, “…with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration”.

A dynamic tension exists at the edge of knowing and not knowing, and its resolution is truth: insight into the true nature of one’s identity, or sense of self, and the character of social reality. But just as some long-term prisoners attach to their place of confinement and fear freedom at the point of release, just as the abused become willingly yet helplessly bound to their abusers, captives to their captors, for many the sudden prospect of truth is perceived as a threat and provokes resistance. Individuals may express anger or anxiety, or delve into their psychological defence armoury: denying, deflecting, redirecting and rationalising – opting for the sort of security that being stuck in a tub of treacle provides. As outlined in lectures delivered in New York and Sao Paulo in the mid-seventies, it was this situation that Bion set out to address; following Keats, Bion wanted the individual to feel capable of being in uncertainties, to be open to the prospect of thoughts in search of a thinker: “Discard your memory; discard the future tense of your desire; forget them both, both what you know and what you want, to leave space for a new idea. A thought, an idea unclaimed, may be floating around the room searching for a home.” Once more, we widen the boundaries of our search by not looking.

Within the therapeutic context, negative capability requires the individual to develop a radically different kind of attitude towards the concept of self, one feature of which is trust in the unconscious without memory or desire, but Bion believes it is also a way of being, a way of achieving a greater unity with life. On one level, therefore, negative capability helps us to manage the emotional challenges associated with uncertainty, but on another it reveals the unconscious as a reservoir of possibility and hope, and reference might be made here to the bond forged in the unconscious between intuition and creativity – a link that is supported by a growing body of research evidence. In essence, then, both Bion and Keats see negative capability as an added dimension to the logic of reality – one that relies on intuition and sensation – and an alternative to the incessant search within ambiguous circumstances for rational, empirically-based narratives. It is a point to which T.S. Eliot alludes throughout his Four Quartets, here exemplified in Burnt Norton with regard to the ever-changing moment in which we live: 

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering, Always assail them.

The apophatic way – knowledge by negation

Bion sets some major challenges, and not just for the individual. He wants to restrict memory and desire – psychic growth is defined in the therapeutic context by their relative absence – yet he operates within the exigences of psychoanalysis, a profession that in fact rests on the twin pillars of memory and desire. It is a paradox, but one characterised by a unity of opposites: a contradiction that embodies its resolution. And in this respect one might argue that it is hardly new, bearing a close similarity to the paradox that medieval mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich, among others, came to know well; it is also a paradox that was very much at the heart of the anonymous 14th century text, The Cloud of Unknowing: a work that asks us to immerse our thoughts and desires under a cloud of forgetting, to surrender our ego to the realm of unknowing, in order to find some measure of reality.

Following the practice of via negativa, medieval mystics found revelation, or ultimate truth, in the ordinary and in the now. This is an intensely meditative and contemplative approach that sometimes focuses on a single object, or on a monosyllabic word – ‘God’ or ‘love’ is suggested in The Cloud of Unknowing. The practice has its beginnings in the apophatic references of Plato, later amended by the Neoplatonists and Gnostics, and a theological thread thus runs through from medieval mysticism to its source. They maintained the apophatic way of negation or denial, upheld the dual and contradictory concept of immanence and transcendence, and contemplated the divine as something that was at once knowable and unknowable: knowable by way of all-pervasive beauty and perfection in the universe, and unknowable by way of rational intellect.

The divine, in the apophatic approach, is a mystery beyond all imagination, unavailable to the senses, to logic, reason or argument; we can no more understand God than could a bug, perched on a roof aerial, understand satellite communication systems. We can, however, see beauty in art, in the idea of the common good, and in wonder itself. In fact, we are more open to beauty the less we subject it to cognitive analysis. This ‘way of denial’ bears close resemblance to Bion’s understanding of the concept of negative capability, and to his idea of ultimate truth, but it also carries a close relationship with the thoughts of Keats; when he wrote, “What imagination seizes as beauty must be truth”, Keats framed a way of seeing the world that was congruent with the revelations of Julian of Norwich:

“In this vision he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought What may this be? And it was generally answered thus: ‘It is all that is made.’ I marvelled how it might last, for it seemed it might suddenly have sunk into nothing because of its littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: ‘It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it.’”

This form of focusedcontemplationis precisely the same as that practiced in Buddhist meditation. The concept of negative capability consequently has equivalences in both realms, though it is important to note that Bion’s bid for ultimate truth would constitute a milestone on the Zen path towards enlightenment rather than the destination itself. This notwithstanding, the object in Zen philosophy, as in Bion’s psychoanalysis, is a heightened awareness of meaningful existence through sudden insight into reality, a situation that only becomes visible through the lens of the moment. This is achieved by uncoupling self-identity from the train of memories and chain of desires, and by developing intuition as a counterbalance to cognitive analysis and the endless striving for facts. Through the effort of distancing ourselves from memory and desire, by standing back, we gain some perspective of what it is we are struggling to free ourselves from.

Finding humanity by becoming godlike

Negative capability is a force for change at a personal level precisely because it is about denying the necessity of many elements of social reality – the layered accretions of knowledge, norms and narratives that saturate us in infancy and shroud us in adulthood. In emptying our mind, albeit in brief bursts, one might consider the parallel of attempting to prise oneself free from the clutches of a cult. But if Bion offers us negative capability as a radical road to the unconscious, one that leads ultimately to truth and psychic growth, the political philosopher Roberto Unger offers the concept as the means to democratic empowerment. In Unger’s political philosophy, the concept is articulated within a revolutionary dynamic, though it is not explicitly Marxist or liberal. It aims to reveal through negation the false necessity of capitalist exploitation, social division and hierarchy – indeed, it aims to negate the false historical necessity of any given or ‘predetermined’ context. There are no historical laws of social development, and there is nothing necessary or causal about the liberal hegemon that both characterises and circumscribes our social milieu. Negative capability for Unger revealsthat the capacity for creativity on the part of the individual is boundless, and in politics it is limitless.

In Unger’s application of the concept, the line of causality  between knowing and not knowing, or perhaps truth andtranscendence, is denial, and to this extent his method appears to be coterminous with both Bion’s brand of psychoanalysis, and the practice of via negativa– as adopted within Zen and Christian mysticism. And there seem to be other points of convergence: in both his Religion of the Future, and The Self Awakened, he sets us the task of becoming more human by becoming more godlike. As Unger puts it: “The aim is less to humanise society than it is to divinise humanity: to bring us to ourselves by making ourselves more godlike…To divinise humanity is the effort to equip our constructive energy, diminishing the contrast between the intensity of our longings and the paltriness in which we waste our lives.” Unger’s proposal resonates profoundly with Bion’s insistence on restricting desires or ‘longings’ to find truth or meaning, and clearly there are implications arising from his schema for psychic growth.

Ultimately Unger’s concern is with social change through democratic empowerment: in what amounts to a cultural revolution, Unger argues the transformation of personal relations is inextricably bound up with institutional change, and negative capability is pivotal to this consciousness-raising campaign. For Perry Anderson, Unger applies Keats’s key concept in unique ways at the level of the individual: “What it denotes” says Anderson, “is active will and restless imagination pitted against all circumstance or convention, a constitutive human capacity to transcend every given context by negating it in thought or deed.” At first glance it may seem dramatically different, but the method of negation here illustrated, of denying our given reality in order to reach an understanding of it – and not just to interpret it, but to change it – is essentially in keeping with Keats’s original thinking. Anderson continues to usefully elucidate Unger’s use of the concept in the sphere of politics, and notes that the goal for Unger is to “increase the space of that negative capability, by creating institutional contexts permanently open to their own revision—so diminishing the gap between structures and routines, and ‘disentrenching’ social life as a whole.”

Mobilising democratic energies

Negative capability in Unger’s hands becomes a working tool for unworking political, social and institutional constructs – ones commonly accepted as rational and necessary. In language not dissimilar to the psychoanalytical perspective of Bion, the concept is for Unger a means to understand and resist social conditioning and institutional constraints, a way to deny the inevitability of exploitation and rigid social hierarchies, and a way to awaken to the reality of capitalist oppression and the possibilities for rebellion. The emphasis on awakening evokes some similarities with the thesis put forward by Walter Benjamin on surrealism as a politicised art form, where he argued it should disrupt the common assumptions of capitalist culture as part of a rationalised evolving history. But it is also about challenges in other ways; Tom Nairn states that Unger echoes what was once (and now rarely) the characteristic trait of humanists – one summed up by Wittgenstein’s pupil, Georg Henrik Von Wright: “The real advances have always been marked by challenge and defiance…by disturbers of the peace.”

And clearly Unger does want to disturb the peace, but from the grassroots, not by top down strategies – the latter being the antithesis of negative capability. He sees negative capability as a device for individuals to awaken from the slumber of materialist mass culture, and from those dream desires for life-fulfilment that are born of meaningless consumerism. To the extent that it is key to explaining reality, and to realising our imaginative and creative energies, negative capability is personal; but in Unger’s eyes it is also political. Social change, after all, begins not with the group, but with the individual – and quite often the individual swimming against the current. How else might we realise Unger’s key goal: to reinvent social democracy?

In one interview, Unger stated that US and European politics, left and right, lack any real progressive project; this is shown by the tendency to sugarcoat reality, and by efforts to humanise the inevitable. “This has to change. There has to be a struggle. And before there can be a struggle in politics, there has to be a struggle in ideas.” Whilst he does not supply blueprints – his politics are speculative and polemical – Unger wants us to challenge the existing forms of technological production, concomitant hierarchies, and forms of social organisation, and to question both the meaning of value and the purpose of money. Above all, he wants us to think the unthinkable, to reimagine the future, and to reshape reality. What is the point in generating vast amounts of wealth if it is merely translated into private profits, accumulated in the hands of a wasteful minority? Institutions, he argues, financial and otherwise, must be created or altered in ways that enable them to internalise the impulse to change. “With the way things are organised, transformation continues to depend on crisis. Throughout the 20th century the only way nations have been able to change is by slaughtering one another. When they’re at peace they go to sleep and drown their sorrows in consumption, in a depressive materialism.”

All power to the imagination

Transformative politics will not emerge simply on the basis of a conflict over state power; they may be manifest in party politics, but they must be informed and inspired through a struggle waged over thought, culture, and forms of consciousness in every sphere of life. But whilst the change needed to make life worth living is undoubtedly political,it must first be psychological. Notwithstanding the inherent interdependence between the individual and the group, by practicing the art of being in the moment, putting trust in the quiet depths of our unconscious, we embrace the challenges of uncertainty and open the way to psychic growth – or as Bion sometimes prefers, ultimate truth. Such a path might alternatively be described as strengthening our internal locus of control, a concept within psychology that refers, amongst other things, to increased power in personal decision-making. In this context it would suggest the development of a way of seeing that not only enables us to consider social influences, memories and desires for what they are, but to control our attitude towards them.

It may fall short of a complete psychological reboot – we are each subject to the influence of our biology, social class and environment to varying degrees – but learning to restrict desires and memories means learning to find and filter factors that shape our sense of self, and even a glimpse may be enough to reveal our potential to reshape thinking – to gain control over the course and navigation of our lives. But if negative capability is about gaining greater personal control, it is also a challenge to the wisdom of living passively in a distorted reality: one that mainly serves the interests of a powerful and privileged minority at the expense of the overwhelming majority – perhaps at the expense of the planet itself. Seen from this angle, negative capability is a tool for activists: it is not only a means of self-realisation, a key to awakening the imagination, but a means to resist and provide radical alternatives to imagined realities – to hierarchies, exploitation, and the all-pervasive commodified form.

A journey of self-discovery

Picasso’s determination to discover truth through art, by way of the imaginative eyes of a child, was a journey to discover his true self. He once said art is the lie that reveals truth, a remark thatperhaps reveals his breakthrough. His personal trajectory might easily have been inspired by the counsel of that otherwise hard-line empiricist, Thomas Huxley: “Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.” Huxley’s advice fits comfortably with the principle of negative capability, and with Picasso’s path: one that serves to illustrate that we are free to unthink our given reality, to ponder parallel truths, to see our blindness, to feel our unfeelingness, to fathom Milton’s ‘formless infinite’ – to break through the barriers of knowing.

Whether our starting point is poetry, political philosophy, or the process of psychoanalysis, negative capability is about personal discovery, and precisely because the self is necessarily social – existing in a relationship of dynamic reciprocity with others – personal discoveries can have profound social consequences. Imagine what we might achieve if that discovery was unconditional love for all sentient life.

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