First there was the problem of reification – Gregory Bateson
Thus it came about that in this ... I arrived at a procedure which I later developed into a regular method and employed deliberately. This procedure was one of clearing away the pathogenic psychical material layer by layer, and we liked to compare it with the technique of excavating a buried city.
Preface to Studies on Hysteria, Freud 1895
Double binds are an afflictive response within subjects to contradictory hierarchical pressures. Double binds are located within the subject’s response to commands rather than within the commands themselves.In order not to have to invent the wheel every day upon waking, Gregory Bateson claims, individual subjects are ‘hard programmed’ to adapt to learnt and condensed procedures... necessarily, the human system orders those learnt behaviours and habits according to their effectiveness, ‘It follows therefore that adaptive change must always be hierarchic.’ One is most ‘programmed’ to follow the commands which have become habits, one is least programmed to follow the commands which are unproved in experience. At the level of commands: the most familiar is the least opposable by the individual subject, the least familiar is the most refusable.
The double bind occurs as a blind spot in the cognitive operations of the individual subject, and expresses a quandary in his response to two or more competing commands of either equal or incompatible status which cannot both be obeyed. Because the most commanding commands of our existence have become habits, i.e. unconscious pressures, it is impossible for the individual subject to assess their claims. A double bind is thus a situation in which the urgent contents of competing commands cannot be evaluated.
The double bind is not in the world, and nor is it to be found in the mind of the individual subject.
The human being learns by means of exceptions to rules; one cannot or must not, or one can or must, do this except under those conditions where it is permissible. One cannot, except under the circumstances when one can, one can, except under those conditions when one cannot.
Human communication, human society, human behaviour is always perversely complex (even the simplest statement requires an almost unimaginably complex armature both at the level of language and that of social relations); each of us learns a multiplicity of context-based rules for messages and behaviours, many of which overlap and even contradict each other.
This weaving of contexts and of messages which propose context-but which, like all messages whatsoever, have ‘meaning’ only by virtue of context-is the subject matter of the so-called double bind theory. – Bateson
In psychoanalysis the double bind occurs as a particular outcome of the process of over-determination:
a multiplicity of unconscious elements which may be organised in different meaningful sequences, each having its own specific coherence at a particular level of interpretation –
Laplanche and Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis
The double bind is a stopped process, a congestion of acquired hard programmed commands which appears within subjective decision making. The double bind manifests as an affect in the individual subject’s capacity to make decisions, in his capacity to distinguish and to prioritise messages. Typically, the double bind is hard programmed within the formation of the subject at that juncture where the relayed commands of an authority are defining its position as an authority to deny its role as an authority.
Authority commands its subjects to ‘choose’. The subjects are programmed to follow the form of this command, and yet also record the dissonance between the command and its content.
The authority’s position remains unaffected by its own message because the reproduction of its relation with the subject position, which is invited to not obey its commands, is not founded at the level of such messages but by the pressures of a wider environment... a subjective crisis is later induced where the reality of the relation contradicts the content of the message (democracy: the ‘voice of the people’ making itself heard in relation to the unresponsive capitalist productive relation is an example of this).
Although the subject is commanded not to comply with commands, it remains embedded within a relationship which has arranged its very formation in terms of compliance (the definition of interpellation). And yet, the subject is also conflicted by the content of the ambivalent messages which express this relationship. Psychological disorders such as OCD and ADHD (as well as Bateson’s original focus on schizophrenia and alcoholism) can be understood as the result of ambivalence and incoherence inherent in all command structures.
If the subject obeys, it does not obey which it must not, if it does not obey, it obeys, which it must.
The individual subject is always commanded by ‘over-determining’ elements which seek to establish within him sets of behaviours, habits, sensitisations which will eventually become the dominant and consistently reproducible states of habit. In ordinary circumstances this random generation of commands/decision-making/behaviour complexes produce the ordinary working-out of context-based interactions.
Bafflement is the reverse of this process, I think here of James Stewart’s character in the film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, as he lurches from one double bind event to another. At each point his access to context, and the behaviours/decisions appropriate to context are disrupted: he eats with his left hand in a Middle Eastern restaurant; he must apologise for his son tearing the veil from a woman’s face; he must both inform his wife and sedate her after his son is kidnapped; he must keep a secret to preserve the life of his son; he must tell the secret to save another’s life; he must let things be and yet must also act. At every juncture of decision, his orientation to context is dislocated – at every juncture he must bring into play a set of learnt behaviours which he is also forbidden to use.
Thus double bind appears in the form of Freud’s over-determination but at a juncture where analysis becomes impossible because, for some external reason, the individual subject is unable to access objective prompts and cues for the making of the decision. He is unable to follow any command at this juncture because all commands appear at the same place at the same moment with equal emphasis. The individual subject is most subject to double bind situations where command hierarchies and their processes are most obscured from him. This inability to follow habits may then produce displacing type (OCD or ADHD) behaviours.
Peculiarly, the capitalist social relation is ideally structured to create double bind effects within its subject formations. This is largely because for many subjects the force that sustains the relation seems to have become absent from much of everyday life... relations of force, command messages, underlying but ever-present pressures, are displaced, mystified and separated from the overt messages of freedom, desire, personal achievement and so on which are distributed as the entirety of the sphere of everyday life.
The capitalised individual is unable to identify the process which has brought him to this pass; he consistently mislocates the significance of messages in his relations with the world as mediated by movements within populations, membership structures which are tied to the development of forces of production and the advances in administrative structures through cybernetics. He is unable to evaluate either the purpose of the commands he is subject to, except as they are permitted to appear to him. He is also not well-placed to access the contexts from which the commands are generated other than in his role as an intepellated subject individual (i.e. as one moulded by that context to behave in the designed manner).
[The] analytic work of construction, or, if it is preferred, of reconstruction [of the patients forgotten years], resembles to a great extent an archaeologist's excavation of some dwelling place that has been destroyed and buried or of some ancient edifice... Just as the archaeologist builds up the walls of a building from the foundations that have remained standing, determines the number and position of the columns from depressions in the floor, and reconstructs the mural decorations and paintings from the remains found in the debris, so does the analyst proceed when he draws his inferences from fragments of memories, from the associations and from the behaviour of the subject of the analysis. Both of them have an undisputed right to reconstruct by means of supplementing and combining the surviving remains. Both of them, moreover, are subject to many of the same difficulties and sources of error". – Freud Constructions in Analysis 1937.
Similarly, Bateson, in Towards A Theory Of Schizophrenia sketches out the possibility of ‘positive’ or therapeutic double binds, in which the analyst invites the subject to establish feedback loops in which the commands of hidden, mystified gods are recontextualised and the subject individual regains the capacity to evaluate the hierarchies and different register of messages. In the example he gives, a therapist makes it clear to the subject individual that she does not believe in the godlike voices in his head but that she wishes to hear the god’s opinion of her offer to help the subject get free of the misery the god has inflicted on him. The positive double bind is thus imposed in these terms: the reality of the god is denied but its power is acknowledged...
By implication, similar ‘reverse’ double binds may be applied to work organisations, that is to say, the binds of capital may be relaxed within any pre-existing organisation – binds being deployed against binds. Communistic therapeutisation of relations may begin at any point in society; it is not required that there be a special organ of ‘communisation’, a party, or union. This therapeutic rebinding of structure to an externally imposed repurposing (i.e. a purpose perhaps diametrically opposed, or entirely unrelated to the organisation’s existing hard-progamme) would take the form of decommissioning, dismantling, demolition – in other words, a soft luddism.
It is easy to picture Kafka’s Leopards when thinking about the concept of double bind, particularly in relation to the process of over-determination; predictability, the product of analysis, relaxes the bind into open evaluable relations. In his version of this parable, Kafka does not state that at the point of inclusion the leopards cease to appear, and thereafter the ceremony falls out of favour:
Leopards break into a temple and drink the sacrificial vessels dry; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance and it becomes part of the ceremony.
Another version of this text is published in Letters Journal 4