How unconscious forces control our actions

Revolutionary: James Joyce changed the way we think about the mind. Randal Huiskens, 2017

Are we controlled by unconscious forces? Today is Bloomsday, when people celebrate the life of James Joyce, modernist author and pioneer of the radical ‘stream of consciousness’.

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” So begins one of the most famous, and most difficult works ever written in the English language.

When Irish author James Joyce published his dense 750-page novel Ulysses in 1922, it revolutionised literature. It was also notoriously hard to finish. Even famed authors Philip Roth and Jorge Luis Borges admitted that they had never made it to the end.

Still, almost 100 years later, it remains extremely influential. And today hundreds of thousands of people will take to the streets around the world in celebration of the novel for Bloomsday, named after the novel’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom.

In Ireland, the UK and the USA as well as across Europe in Italy, Hungary and Latvia, fans of the author will dress up as characters from Ulysses and stage dramatic readings.

Joyce is best known as a pioneer of a unique style of writing known as stream of consciousness. Most writing describes a character’s actions and thoughts from the perspective of an outside observer. But stream of consciousness works differently: it depicts a character’s thought process as a kind of internal monologue, often rejecting ordinary grammar to create the sensation of ideas flowing from one topic to another.

By writing in this way, Joyce helped transform our way of thinking about thinking. Partly through his work, people came to a new understanding of the human mind.

Most people used to believe that conscious thought defined what it meant to be human. Unlike any other animal, we have the ability to perceive the world and order it rationally.

But by Joyce’s time, this idea had come under attack from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Freud argued that most of what appears in our conscious minds is really a reflection of unseen forces in the unconscious, where our desires, animal instincts and childhood experiences are all secretly imprinted.

Joyce expressed this idea in his writing, showing how the apparent order and discipline of the conscious mind was in reality a chaotic coming together of thoughts, feelings and instincts. It was these impulses that drove his characters – not their rational consciousness.

Today, this same idea is held by devotees of the so-called nudge theory. It holds that human beings are susceptible to unconscious manipulation. The theory argues that by making tiny, imperceptible changes in our environment, we can act on the unconscious mind and radically change people’s behaviour.

Others think this is wrong. Philosopher Jürgen Habermas believes that what separates human beings from all other animals is that we can use our consciousness to change our condition. He claims that we do not act according to unconscious rules. Instead, we consciously change the rules to live free lives based on our own will.

Are we controlled by unconscious forces?

Self-conscious

Yes, say some. Human beings cannot possibly process everything we encounter in the conscious mind, so most of our thinking has to be done unconsciously. That means it is very easy to influence our behaviour just by changing things in our environment that we do not realise we observe, but that our unconscious picks up. As such, much of what we do in our lives is defined by habit and bias.

Not at all, say others. Nudge theorists have consistently got things wrong. For example, during the pandemic, they argued that people would not accept lengthy lockdowns because their conscious minds would reject long-term restrictions on their freedom. Instead, they wanted to focus on small-scale measures like handwashing. But in reality, people proved willing to accept months-long lockdowns.

You Decide

  1. Are you conscious of everything you do? Come up with three examples of things you do every day without thinking, purely out of habit.
  2. Does it matter whether human beings are primarily driven by their conscious or unconscious minds?

Activities

  1. Pick up a pen and a piece of paper, and spend two minutes just writing down every thought you have. Then show it to the person next to you and compare your responses.
  2. Divide the class in two and conduct a debate on the motion: “This house believes that nudge theory is an offence to human freedom.”

Some People Say...

“In the past, bad literature was made with high-flown sentiment; today, it is made with the unconscious.”

Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007), French philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that literary modernism was partly a response to the upheaval of World War One. The war left many people in Europe disillusioned with their political leaders and the moral values that underpinned their society, and they sought to use their writing to show that the world they lived in was fundamentally irrational. They thought they could change society by rejecting all the old social and literary conventions.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether or not what we call consciousness really exists. The idea has its origins in the ancient Greek belief that all human beings have a soul that outlives the body. Much later, the French philosopher Descartes argued that the conscious mind is separate from the body. However, in recent years this idea has been challenged by philosophers and psychologists who believe that consciousness is part of the body, and it works like a kind of interface with the brain.

Word Watch

James Joyce
Joyce is closely linked to Modernism, a movement characterised by monologues, multiple perspectives and unreliable narrators.
Ulysses
A parody of Homer’s The Odyssey: instead of following its protagonist through 10 years of voyaging, it focuses on what he does in a single day.
Philip Roth
An American author who often focuses on the Jewish experience in the modern USA.
Jorge Luis Borges
An Argentinian writer and pioneer of magical realism.
Psychoanalyst
Practitioners of psychoanalysis believe that dreams and other conscious phenomena can be used to “read” the unconscious mind and resolve traumas.
Sigmund Freud
Known as the father of psychoanalysis, Freud believed that he had achieved a new scientific revolution akin to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
Nudge theory
A school of behavioural psychology whose most famous advocates are behavioral economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein.
Susceptible
Likely to be influenced or harmed by another thing.
Jürgen Habermas
A German philosopher who has written extensively about politics, psychoanalysis and human emancipation.

Subjects

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