Will THE COUNCIL OF DISSOCIATIONS OF CONSCIOUSNESS INCORPORATED please convene.
Of course I’m being playful. “Dissociation” is a word that needs a little word play. One friend of mine thought "dissociation" was a disease, like measles, and certainly it gets treated like that. (“PAY ATTENTION!” shouts the teacher.) We aren’t really very sure how it works. It’s just a brain function that can be very helpful or can interfere with getting business done. The word has been associated (!) with PTSD, multiple personalities, childhood abuse, borderline personality, schizophrenia, and whatever other salad makings are around. You can have a fine time on YouTube watching dramatic re-enactments. None of them explain much. The truth is that most of the human consciousness (not “mind” which I take to be the conscious “rational” part of brain function) is simply not available to introspection. Sometimes you can “trick” it into becoming apparent in art or psychotherapy, but mostly -- Paul in the New Testament -- we just do things, sometimes things we don’t want to do.
When I google the word “dissociation” I get all sorts of stuff, like how to make sure that in vitro fertilizations are implanted back in the right people, to the “grieving” of the auto industry when the market changes, to Marines suffering trauma, to how salt dissolved in water. Not much is said about the constant shifts of human consciousness as managed by the human brain in response to environment and intentions. But this is what I want to know about. How does a person stay him or her self ? How much can the streambed of awareness vary without being in danger of drying up or maybe drowning others? How does the fuel in the environment make the flame of mind burn high or low, blue hot or yellow smoky.
Friends prevent friends from changing too much. Get a fancy education. Lose a lot of weight. Grieve a little too much. Jump up and down on Oprah’s sofa, and everyone will be upset. Too much to process. Too much surprise. It interferes with THEIR sense of self. They are the chalice for the flame, the banks of the stream. Sometimes they are much too small and rigid.
Shrinks and therapists are coming at dissociation from the wrong side -- their whole premise is that it should be confined, controlled or even eliminated. So now I’m going to a field --acting -- whose interest is in deliberately separating aspects of identity, creating new identities, maintaining multiple identities -- all while maintaining a relationship with two contexts at once, an exterior reality and an interior world in which a play is happening. Maybe there are TWO interior contexts -- one that is the play and one that is from the actor’s own actual previous life. As well, there may be a THIRD internal monitoring “mind” that is watching the artistic and practical elements: timing, loudness, movement,
This sounds risky, as though a person might shatter, and maybe sometimes they do. Mostly they don’t, partly because of two conditions that I’ll pull out of religion and anthropology. One is that “holding community,” which in the case of an actor is the theatre company, including all the actors and staff, and the other is the "liminal space" that is the physical stage, well-defined and protected. Both of these are far more problematic when a film is being made because there may be only piecework for the actors -- a scene here and a scene there -- that is shot out of order in terms of the story so that the natural awareness of continuity is distorted. There is no consistent liminal space. Shooting may be anywhere in ordinary daily places. Maybe fantasy shots where some of the characters only exist in CGI are in MORE of a controlled liminal space because the actors working against blue screens in a studio are in a highly imaginary protected space -- REALLY over the threshold from quotidian reality, and yet highly technical and defined.
As I retype my notes from Alvina Krause’s acting classes in 1957, which are maybe not quite “method” but closely related, I find all sorts of clues about managing one’s inner identity. Part of it is a well-developed and managed body. Part of it is a deep awareness of pattern in thought, music, history, human interactions, and anything else you could think of. This patterning gives drama a timelessness that thinking in terms of objects or labels or (yes, Tim) BOXES will not allow. I suggest that the popularity of a show like “Game of Thrones” is that it IS a synthesis of historical patterns and cultures that gets at the universals.
If there is a pattern, it can be varied without losing it. If you are acting a box (a defined, confined and labeled role) and go out of the box, all form is lost. Origins, goal, growing edges, residual forces -- all are lost. And this loses the play, because the plot of the action, the meaning of the dialogue come out of the interacting patterns of the actors. Otherwise, the play becomes a ritual enactment of some kind. (Not that such a thing can’t be worthy and absorbing.) Or maybe a madness.
A “holding environment” is almost as good as a “holding community.” To be a cowboy on a ranch with work to do with cows means to be in a web of sounds, shapes, duties, demands for performance that can keep a person pretty confident about who they are. I’ve always been impressed by a study of nuns’ brains, looking for evidence of Alzheimers (a loss of identity), which, on autopsy, found many damaged brains in women who had seemed to function well through their days in a cloistered convent. Their duties, the environmental cues, the reminders from the prompting community, kept them functioning as well as their bodies were able through their many repetitious duties.
At the other extreme might be young boys ripped out of their previous environment and either thrown into streets with no reliable structure or possibly confined in destructive situations that tear them apart. They will try to form relationships, if necessary even with their tormenters, in an attempt to preserve some kind of identity. Their other choice is madness.
Sometimes I think about the strong grip virtual (invented but coherent) gameboy environments have on people. They do present a dependable “holding”, even one that allows achievement, rewards, a way to develop control strategies. A person can assume an avatar, become a kind of holograph, and enact events. But so do narrative movies, especially the kind that allow the watcher to become absorbed into the characters (immersive). This is the opposite of the actor becoming the character while continuing to maintain an “outside” monitoring control of the reality drawn on by the camera. The consumer conflates his own identity with this “Other” who is not really there.
So dissociation is a function of association and down at the root is the “social,” the other people who are imposing, calling out, objecting to, praising, the persona that is our focus. Yet it seems to be something the individual brain does. Is it something about the prefrontal forebrain? Do pre-human mammals dissociate? Do they act? Call the Council to order!