Black holes, uncanny spaces and radical shifts in awareness
Ladson Hinton, Seattle, USA
Abstract: The ‘black hole’ is a signifier that pervades contemporary experience, conveying the ‘gaps’ and ‘voids’ in Western culture and psyche. Depth psychology stemmed from the growing uncanniness of city and psychic spaces during the 19th century. There was an emerging fascination with the ‘dark Thing’—the ‘It’ of many names.
Like a pandemic, depictions of the ‘black hole’ experience have continually emerged in the tragic events and cultural malaise of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Art, philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, literature, and cultural studies have variously articulated this frighteningly potent, yet endlessly elusive signifier. A many-sided, dialogical process best provides acquaintance with such a complex phenomenon. Multiple examples and perspectives, as well a detailed case study, will delineate some of its dimensions. They will show that such ‘black hole’ encounters are not merely negative, but are often the enigmatic source of new awareness and creation.
Keywords: black hole, consciousness, discourse, embeddedness, panic, signifier, space, uncanniness
The genealogy of the term ‘black hole’
The term ‘Black Hole’ has become a familiar part of our everyday ‘languaging’ of things. It apparently originated in the semi-fictional tale of the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’. In 1756, 150 or so Europeans and others supposedly suffocated when the Nawab of Bengal held them captive in a small room with little ventilation. The expression took root in the collective imagination, evoking a terrifying image of claustrophobia and death.
However, the details of the tale were dubious, and it seems to have been largely an English fantasy. Meetings between cultures often provoke jarring gaps in discourse, along with a sense of the uncanny. A classic example is the terrifying cave in Forster’s (1924) Passage to India. The ‘black hole’ signifier seems to have had its modern origins in the shadows of Western civilization, signifying the ‘unknown other’ that allures, and yet threatens when one approaches the limits of the culturally familiar (Said 1978).
In modern astrophysics the Black Hole refers to the phenomenon in which infinite gravitational forces have compressed the mass of a collapsing star into an infinite density. The potent centre of the Black Hole is called a singularity. Black Holes are only known by their indirect effects on normal stars. In ‘Black Holes’ the laws of physics break down and there is no escape. They seem to stifle new star formation. One could say theoretically that, within this singularity, an entity becomes so densely particular that the usual laws no longer apply. According to the Big Bang model, a singularity is also the point from which the original expansion of the universe began. This phenomenon has provided a rich metaphor for certain troubling psychic states.
The ‘black hole’ as an enigmatic signifier
In contemporary philosophical as well as analytic discourses the ‘black hole’ is used as a signifier for an indescribable ‘nothing’ that, paradoxically, is both the origin of the subject and the immaterial font of creativity and freedom (Daly 2004). Its ‘negativity’ creates a space for renewed consciousness and imagination. ‘Black hole’ conjures other emotionally potent signifiers such as abyss, vortex, void, lack and emptiness. It is a sign that emerges when we are ‘stopped short’ by a failure to ‘language’ experience in our usual language. Appearing in gaps and lacunae in discourse, it may evoke the new events of possible, but as yet unrealized, meaning that we call ‘imagination’ and ‘consciousness’ (Castoriadis 1998, p. 3; Chandler 2003, pp. 74–7; Davis 1989, pp. 8–33). In a similar way, Stanton Marlan (2005, p. 190) describes the Black Sun and the other ‘black spots’ in alchemy as connected to a ‘continuous deconstructive activity . . . necessary for psychological change’.1
1Marlan appropriately cautions against seeing the alchemical blackness as merely a ‘stage’ in a ‘process of transformation’. When viewed within a system such as alchemy, there is always the danger that the particular experience is subsumed to some ‘larger whole’. Although transformations may occur at the edges of experience, stuckness, chronic paranoia, destruction and death are also real possibilities. There is always real risk.
In psychoanalytic discourse, ‘black hole’ imagery has been depicted as pointing towards possibilities for becoming that are not yet represented (Stern 1997), or due to a deficiency of internal self-object relations (Tustin 1990; Green 2001; Hopper 1991; Kinston & Cohen 1986), or ultimately due to the unrepresentable (Barnard 2002, p. 160–81; Dyess 2000; Nobus 1999, p. 171).
The ‘deficiency’ model has many permutations. One of the more common describes ‘holes’ in the psyche that are due to ‘primal repression’ resulting from early trauma. This is different from the ‘secondary’ repression that occurs after psychic structure has developed, leading to the impression of elements as yet unformulated, but relatively accessible. In contrast, ‘Primal repression . . . is the site of catastrophic, unthinkable, past-but-ever-present trauma and associated confusion and terror, hopelessness and loss of self-preservative function; while it can serve as the “frail bud of psychic structure” . . . from which growth occurs’ (Kinston & Cohen 1986, p. 340). All these dimensions often manifest themselves during full analyses (ibid., p. 337).
The evocations of the ‘black hole’ tend to have a spatial significance, but there is no final, essential ‘something’ that they signify. In their various ways, they refer to gaps in experience that cannot be conceived, a lack of ‘somethingness’ (Hauke 2000, pp. 191–222). Therefore they often convey a negation of familiar discourses, accompanied by intense affects and disturbing currents of the uncanny. The sense of terror, loss and grief may open a space for the creation of new signifying elements and an enriched presence in the world (Colman 2006, p. 21; Kristeva 1980, pp. 16–17).
Traumatic and premature exposure to the experience of such ‘black holes’ may cause chronic and severe psychological conditions. One must be aware of the dangers involved in such clinical phenomena. On the other hand, therapies that are mainly ego-and symptom-focused are in danger of cutting off the flow of life. Experiences at the edges of the ‘known’ seem to be at the basis of consciousness and creativity, and intensive suppression or denial of the ‘black hole’ experience in order to treat symptoms may result in ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water’, and result in a way of life that is sterile and contrived.
The ‘black hole’ and embeddedness
Our embeddedness in the sensuous surround of our culture—things such as languages, spaces, social customs, rhythms, rituals, tastes, smells, taboos, economic life, and technologies—comprises an extremely complex, ongoing signifying structure and process that is largely outside of consciousness. It creates us; it is us, so to speak (Muller 1996, pp. 1–60; Hurley & Chater 2005). These signifiers vary greatly from time to time and place to place (Howes 2005). We take them for granted, like the air we breathe. Jung once said:
The spirit of an age gains…uncanny power. It is…a phenomenon of the greatest importance . . . a prejudice so deeply rooted that until we give it proper consideration we cannot even approach the problem of the psyche…It is an ethnopsychological problem, and as such cannot be treated in terms of individual consciousness . . .
(Jung 1931, paras. 653–57)
The experience of the ‘black hole’ disrupts this sense of complacent embedded- ness. It ‘foments’ an opening that can make the emergence of the human subject possible, along with increased dimensions of freedom and creativity. Neumann mentioned the invariable connection between negation and consciousness (1954, p. 121).
The ‘black hole’ is a floating signifier that can be traced through history and culture, varying greatly in the ways it has been ‘languaged’ (Levy 2006). It involves a cluster of experiences involving acute anxiety and terror that has had many names (Hauke 2000, pp. 211–14; Kjellberg & Ivanhoe 1996, pp. xiii-xx). The impact may be dramatic. A sense of reaching some absolute limit, chaos, or a terrifying abyss may evoke rapidly shifting experiences of place and space. Terror and anxiety may be intense along with a powerful sense of the uncanny.
These radical changes may create an opening for the appearance of novel elements of meaning ‘at the edge of the abyss’. Emerging from this penumbra, things may stand forth more fully in their rich particularity. Encountering the ‘black hole’ in its various significations can be at the core of shifts in awareness, the creation of new signifying elements, of new images and metaphors, of radical changes of perspective on individual and culture (Castoriadis 1998). Eric Rhode has colourfully described this process as ‘Hallucination, Intuition, and the Becoming of O’ (Rhode 1998).
A clinical case history
Some years ago an analysand presented several emotion-laden dreams and images that encompassed the black hole, uncanny spaces, and transformation. Because of this person I added the ‘black hole’ to my psychological vocabulary, and I deeply thank him for that.
Todd was in his middle thirties when he entered analysis due to depression and anxiety. He had recently separated from his wife of several years. From his description, she was a very unstable, probably borderline person. He had previously been in intensive analytical therapy for 3–4 years and described it as ‘a waste of time’.
Todd described his family home as ‘the mausoleum’.2 His mother worked fulltime and was rather cold and unavailable. His father, a butcher, was a severe alcoholic who was often emotionally violent. A rigid veneer of conservative Roman Catholic moralism concealed the psychological realities.
2The motif of the ‘mausoleum’ certainly reminds one of the ‘dead mother’. At the beginning of the analysis, some basic representations of selfs and other had been achieved, but Todd’s life energy remained neither dead nor alive (Green 2001). To give it up is to risk losing all familiar orientation to life, however unsatisfactory such a suspension between ‘safe’ deadness and terrifying aliveness may have been. New life requires transit of the terror of the ‘abyss of unknowing’, the ‘black hole’. As will be seen, the reservoir of potential life is connected with the father who is despised and very dangerous in the Oedipal sense. Only if the terror is faced and the ‘black hole’ traversed is there any hope of symbolizing something like the bull-like energy of this father.
From the beginning he was very anxious and critical of me. As a result, I often found it difficult to be with him. It was as if he ‘had no space’ for my words or my presence, and that I was ‘squeezed out’. He was ‘encapsulated’ in his defensive terror (Hopper 1991). I was the ‘alien other’ as well as the secret hope that he dared not consciously entertain.
In our interaction, I referred to this underlying thread of hope in various ways. For instance, I might make some comment about ‘the mausoleum’ and the connection with his mood of anxiety and despair, and he would say, ‘That’s no help at all . . . you’ve told me that stuff before and I feel just the same. I might as well ditch this analysis’.
My responses were generally simple, empathic and observational, such as, ‘I know that you are in a lot of pain and feel discouraged, but I also sense a bit of optimism beneath your protests’.
Or, ‘You haven’t had much reason to trust others in your life, and you need to try me out and see whether I’m trustworthy, and whether I can be of any help’.
After a year or more of constant testing he confided in me in a new way. Gazing intently at me in an almost desperate manner, he burst out with a new revelation. He said he had long been tormented by a ‘black hole’ ‘deep inside’ him, and was terrified as to whether this meant that he was psychotic like his wife. There was a slightly ‘mad’, desperate look in his eyes as he spoke. I sensed a shift that was quite moving at the time, a thread of trust that I had not felt before.
This troubling experience continued as time went on, and I suggested that we sit together with ‘It’—the black hole—during some of our sessions. He agreed, and this led to some very intense meetings. Looking shaky and almost desperate, he sometimes angrily blamed me for his pain. At other times he seemed comforted by my presence. Describing the black hole as something inchoate, devouring and horrifying, Todd often felt that he had no ground under his feet, nothing to hold on to, and was falling into an abyss.
Todd would often say, accusingly, ‘This crazy stuff is just making me worse! Why in hell should we just sit with it?!’
My responses were along the lines of, ‘The black hole is just what’s there. It appeared on its own. If we evade it, it will just come back to haunt you. I don’t know why it’s there or what it is, but I will be with you as we try to understand it’.
Usually such remarks were reassuring to him.
Then he began to have panic reactions during the night. Hardly able t