Image and the Unconscious

Behind image manipulation of the kind studied by Goffman, there is a more basic act of image manipulation, described by Freud, in which we hide threatening thoughts and feelings from ourselves. We disavow our true motives, not only to others, but to ourselves, and clothe our reasons in rationalizations and excuses. We do so because we are instructed by parents, also in disguised form, that it is okay to have this thought but not that, this desire but not that, and that to have forbidden thoughts and feelings is to risk various dangers. In effect, from the beginning, we are inducted into a charade about who we and others are; a mutual blackmail and extortion society in which everyone secretly knows hidden truths about themselves and others, and everyone conspires to keep it secret.

And so we protect ourselves from a perception of danger. We hide information from both ourselves and others, and the defense mechanisms by which we hide the truth about ourselves from ourselves, and the manipulated appearances by which we hide information from others, are intimately bound together.

Behind and beyond this charade, this urge to hide from ourselves and others, and to disguise ourselves, is a basic psychological urge. It is an expression of human weakness, to a great degree, but also, perhaps, essential to sanity and society.

We thus have a number of layers of image manipulation.

UNCONSCIOUS -- Warded off thoughts, feelings, fears, desires, fantasies and perceptions.

SELF-IMAGE IN CONSCIOUSNESS – Warded off thoughts, etc., come into consciousness in disguise.

IMAGE WE PROJECT TO OTHERS ABOUT OURSELVES -- Warded off thoughts, etc., are expressed in our behavior in disguise, to keep us and others from knowing them. In addition, thoughts we know consciously may be disguised or hidden by behavior, as well.

In practice, most of this is not so easy to separate. We have various degrees of conscious knowledge and avowal of what we are doing, and a maze of motives, actions and disguises, that involve numerous elements. But understanding the relationship between the way we present information about ourselves to ourselves and to others, is a key to understanding human psychology, and the linkage between psychology and the sociology of interaction.

As a general rule, we can say the following: when we are trying to keep some information from ourselves we typically will try to keep it from others, as well. Lets say person A experiences aggressive desires to overthrow and harm authority figures, that is derived from childhood conflicts, and which he or she is keeping from himself or herself, because of the fear that knowing/experiencing it and/or doing it, will evoke retaliation. In addition, he or she fears that to know it is to do it or to desire to do it. We can thus see how the effort to keep this information from the self and others are one and the same effort. To reveal it to oneself or others is to evoke imagined retaliation. To reveal it to others, is to risk having them revealing it to oneself. To reveal it to oneself is to risk acting on it and thus revealing it to others. This constellation, by the way, is fairly common. Far form being a hypothetical, it is about the psychology of power, opposition and aggression. As for how we can repress things without letting ourselves know we are doing so, that’s the great mystery of unconscious thought and action, but it has been amply demonstrated that such psychological processes exist.

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Here are some patterns of communication that involve the way we present images (messages, information, etc.) to ourselves and others:

-- The sender and receiver of a message are both conscious of the message: A is conscious of the message he is sending to B. B is conscious of the same message he is picking up from A.

-- The sender is conscious of the message; the receiver isn’t. A knows what he is communicating to B. B only picks up the message without being aware he is doing so.

The sender isn’t conscious of the message he is sending; the receiver is. A sends a message to B without realizing it consciously. B picks it up consciously. Say a psychotherapy client acts in a dependent manner toward a therapist in a way that sends out the message that the client wants the therapist to act as a parent. The client doesn’t realize it; the therapist does.

-- Neither the sender nor receiver is aware of the message. A sends a message to B. A doesn’t know he sent it; B doesn’t know he picked it up. Much of our communication is this way: from one unconscious to another.

Communications may also be misperceived or perceived partly, rather than being missed altogether, which is another way of saying that a message is disguised, rather than completely blocked out. They may be perceived (invented) when they don’t exist, and the sending and receiving of information can involve various degrees of consciousness avowal and symbolization. Add a third party, with all the possibilities of revealing and concealing information, and things really start to get complicated.

To "simplify", we will divide our hypothetical communicators in two. A is the conscious part of the person, A1 the unconscious part. B is conscious and B1 unconscious. Now imagine a situation with three parties, each of which has a conscious and unconscious part to his or her personality. We thus have 6 players in this communication game: A, A1, B, B1, C, and C1, and any of "them" may be sending and receiving communications to each other. For the sake of the description, the conscious and unconscious parts of personality will be referred to as if they are separate persons or entities.

Let’s say A unconsciously communicates a message to B that C isn’t supposed to pick up. But B doesn’t pick it up; and C picks it up consciously. Thus: A1 sends a message to B and B1. C receives it.

Here are some common combinations:

A1 intends B1 and C1 to receive. This is unconscious communication, from the unconscious of A to that of B and C.

A and A1 intends B1 and C1 to receive, but not B and C. For example, a company, A (or A/A1) consciously creates a television commercial intended to manipulate the unconscious reactions of the audience (B1, C1). The creators in the company know exactly what they are doing. It is a communication from their conscious personality to the unconscious of audience members. This is the instrumental manipulation of psychodynamics. Another example: a therapist says something knowing the client will pick up a certain meaning outside of awareness. Once again A and A1 (the conscious and unconscious of the therapist) sends a message intended to be picked up only by B1 (the unconscious of the client.)

All of this is about one of a number of kinds of hidden players and actions. The other kinds are the whole persons whose actions are consciously concealed. Both kinds need to be described, where possible, in the schematic descriptions of action, involving image, power, harm and help, and opposition and cooperation. Thus, in a case in which A makes a discrediting remark about B that is disguised, and in which A isn’t aware he is making it, but B picks it up, the description might go something like this: A1 discredits B/B1; B and B1 correctly perceive the act of discredit.

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We have to distinguish between:

1. What a depiction claims to be and do

2. What it is intended to be and do

3. What it actually does.

In 1 and 2, we have to distinguish between conscious and unconscious. A communication may make certain avowed claims about itself, while other information about its true purpose leak out of parts of the communication, for those who can interpret the signs. These are part of the communication, as well, and thus are another form of claim.


What is portrayed need not be an accurate indicator for the actual effect that is being sought. There are columnists who mock politicians to please an audience, not to hurt the politicians and there are columnists who write professional appearing, carefully worded exposes without a hint of sadism, that are really intended to destroy a reputation. In fact, both of these are common. Many media organizations routinely depict certain people as villains, not because they are morally outraged but because they know the audience wants villains to hate. They instrumentally manipulate the audience’s values. The concept of instrumental manipulation of values and of psychodynamics will get a full treatment another time.


It is useful to make a distinction between at least three kinds of reasons journalists and others do things, although I’m unclear whether to refer to them as actions or motives or as combinations of action and motive. They will need more elucidation before they make a coherent model. It should also be noted, the three overlap but it is helpful to think of them separately.

They are:

1. Practical reasons: Journalists and other players in the game of life, and public life, have practical reasons for what they do. They calculate in a rough way, and determine how their actions and those of others will result in their own and others profit and loss when it comes to tangible things, like getting a story, getting a raise, and so on.

As in all action, these practical purposes are part of complex sequences and webs of actions and motives. Journalist A may expose politician B to get a promotion, so he can both win the girl and afford to marry her, in part, so he can fulfill the expectations of his parents, and play the powerful and nurturing role with children the way they did with him, and so on.

2. Normative reasons: Journalists also act in certain ways because they are obeying norms or social rules. Here, as noted earlier, there is another pair that forms the ends of a spectrum. They may entirely identify with the norms, and react automatically - negatively to any breach of the rules and approvingly to instances in which the rules are followed. A kind of alarm goes off - the alarm of a perception of danger, and of anxiety, anger, shame, disgust and so on -- when the rule is violated or when the mind thinks of a violation. At the other extreme, is a calculating practical attitude toward a norm or norms. The reporter-player knows the rules and is careful to follow them, avoiding violating taboos and seeking opportunities to appear to support the normative system. In fact, reporters and editors engage in these kinds of calculations on a routine basis, since they must take care in everything they create to minimize the upset they will produce in their intended audience, and in potential pressure groups.

Thus, journalists become experts at equivocation, at not offending, at using just the right word, the most gentle description, and, generally, at anticipating what audiences will do. They play out these scenarios in their minds or in conversations and meetings, and use them as guides, once again relying on cognitive schemas or mental maps of the audience as they know it, based on past experience and information provided by others. If political correctness is the effort to not offend groups with power, then journalists must be, by profession, the most politically correct of them all, even more so than politicians. Of course, this effects journalists who play to mass audiences more than others. Each news organization finds its own balance.

Whether or not a journalist believes in certain norms or values, he knows, consciously or unconsciously, what the values are and he uses that knowledge, whether or not he avows using it, playing on the audience's prejudices and perceptions, their likes and dislikes. He is consciously and unconsciously guided by his mental map of norms, in constructing his stories, because he or she must know what kinds of action can and must be credited and discredited, which are in dispute and so on. A reporter who writes a feature story that discredits a young adult woman for ignoring her father's desires in regard to marriage, may be successful in some countries where many audience members will agree with the sentiment. If a reporter writes the same story virtually anywhere in the United States, he or she will him or herself be subjected to discrediting attacks. Audiences may describe the work as unfair, irrational, sexist and discriminatory. Thus, a good set of cognitive schemas can serve a journalist well, for life, so long as he or she continues to update it.

3. The third set of motives concerns the intertwined issues of our fears and desires, as they are organized in emotionally-invested cognitive schemas about our relationship to the primary caretakers of childhood. The desires here are those well known from psychoanalysis - they are desires to be dominant and fears of dominance which motivate desires to be submissiveness; desires to be independent, autonomous and assertive versus fears of that which motivate desires to be dependent, submissive and nonassertive. They are desires to admire and be admired. They are sexual and aggressive desires, including the full panoply of sexual possibilities and forms of sexual violence. Ultimately, they are desires for wholeness and maturity, versus for regression. These are associated with the various paradigms of psychoanalysis (see the work of Fred Pine for more on this) -- the paradigm of desire and defense, of the self, and of object relations and separation-individuation.

Here, the self reenacts the relationships of childhood, unconsciously perceiving new situations as replays of very old issues.

Actions can combine in any and all possible constellations. Thus, similar actions may have different kinds of reasons. And similar reason may usher forth with different kinds of actions. For example, if journalist A writes a story about politician B the way B wants it written, it might be for any of these reasons:

1. The journalist may submit for practical reasons, for example, because it is the only way to get the politician to release the story or because he knows politician is a friend of the publisher, who has been known to retaliate against reporters in the past.

2. The journalist may do so because the politician has done something that he believes is normatively correct and deserves praise.

3. The journalist may do so because he fears challenging authority.

In practice, these kinds of reasons are melded together.

(It should be noted that in the final version the term "motive" will be reserved for the driving forces of behavior – sexual desire, desire to be admired, survival and so on. An effort will be made in many instances to turn language about motives into descriptions of actions and their reasons or the goal being sought. If a journalist submits to a politician and writes a story the way the politician wants, because the journalist fears challenging authority figures who he sees as his father, the description would go something like this: A credits B as a way of submitting to B, to avoid retaliation from C, his father, who he sees in B. We have thus crafted a description in terms of actions with goals. The language of motives has a place, as well – the journalist has an inborn desire to avoid injury and death; and since he mistakes the politician for his father; he mistakenly believes there is a danger from his father, and so on.

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