Thursday, May 13, 2010

Prologomenon on the notion of a self having multiple sheaths:

If you read across a range of religion esoteric and psychological sources, you will find a range of explications that set out self in relation to a series of topoi often associated with particular mind/body constellations. For instance, quotidian self (sense perception, mundane mind), astral self (body/mind that exists on the “astral” or etheric plane), cosmic self or self as God, and so on. The difference between topoi is often conceived of in energetic or elemental terms—physical body, emotional body, mental body, for instance—and yogic traditions, for instance, attempt to map these levels in relation to a subtle body that is tied to physical material body at certain points or knots that function like rheostats to both “step down” and re-synthesize/sublime some primary energy that occurs as body/self.

This type of thinking is a genre of thought—it is a way of thinking of self found in a wide range of contexts and using a wide set of, generally culturally derived, terms for the topoi. Indeed, in some cultures introducing specialized language for the topoi, or adding a new topoi between a prior pair is part of the ongoing process of trying to think of self in these terms.

For me, generic patterns are a sign of a difference that needs to be said. Hence, I take the broad distribution of this genre not as an indication of an infectious thought or idea, but rather as a sign that an extant difference, however poorly understood or inadequately expressed by speaking in terms of soul or astral or angel, that is given (or in which we are thrown) in our experience. My thought here is parallel to a move I make with respect to thinking about the classical assertion that phenomena are composed of four (or five) basic elements (generally earth, air, fire, and water). With respect to the latter, while we currently have a richer account of the dynamics by which phenomena are composed, the basic intuition expressed in terms of the elements is not bad—things can be differentiated by way of being solid, liquid, gaseous, and, there appears to be a catalytic means by which changes of state occur. That is, speaking in terms of basic elements is not ignorant or superstitious, it is simply rudimentary—and not all that bad a start.

Over the past five years, I have been teaching a class on interdisciplinary approaches to the human sciences. A focus of one part of the class has been to identify strengths and weaknesses of the different disciplines with respect to human phenomena. The approach guiding my thought has been to put aside the question of which discipline best accounts for human phenomena and instead, build up a notion of the human using the disciplines as a series of necessary lens by which specific topoi related to the human can be observed. That is, the variety of the disciplines actually reflects the fact that human phenomena can be meaningfully observed from a variety of lens (psychological, social, and so on).

The great tendency, alas, has been to assume a la Neo-Platonic thought that the real activity is led at one or another of the levels—that is, that relations between topoi (individual, social, and so on) are homologous, that one level corresponds to another, and so on. [In a curious way, literary theory gives us a catalog of possible ways to think of the correspondences between topoi as analogy, allegorical, and so on. But, even here, the tendency has been to think of the relation as one that heals the difference, a means of correlating the topoi.] Hence biological reductionism or flattening, or Platonic projections, or Marxist materialism, etc. The real work goes on here and, if we want to change things, if we want to realize self, we do so from that vantage.

Merleau-Ponty’s epistemology lends an important clue to thinking about difference by way of another tack, one that more rigorously sustains the relations between the topoi in terms of difference—a thing we have to take seriously given Derrida’s critique of language and being. Merleau-Ponty presciently observed that the different senses—sight, hearing, smell, etc—composed worlds that were not structurally analogous to each other. By this I understand him to say that the object relation between self and sensed object is structurally different according to the sense organ involved, and that, however much we privilege sight when we think about sense-relations, in fact, the range of senses present us with a set of “slices” from which we compose a sensed life-world. Merleau-Ponty asserts that the differences between these slices persist as facts in our experience, as gaps or chiasmic relations that are never overcome or resolved in any synthetic process, precisely because, in the end, the differences matter and are not reducible.

So, however much we usefully compose a single sense world, as creatures structured by way of meaningful, “factual” object relations, we are also aware of and depend on the differences between the senses. That is, those differences are recognized as tacit facts even where we deny such differences for ideological purposes or to say some hope, and so on.

Back to the several selves then—social, individual, astral, etc. My thought is that, in some way not yet said well, we actually exist in several terms, and that these terms are not, strictly speaking, reducible to one or the other. The easiest to get at is, for instance, the difference between self as individual and self as social creature. It seems to me that thinking in the way I’ve outlined here means that we should understand ourselves to exist both as individuals with specific affect located by having a particular physical body/mind complex with a particular material history (the “I” that was born in Oak Ridge TN in 1958, moved to Cleveland in 1960 etc, the you with your specific track of perception, thought, and material place) and as part of a social process (flock movement) whose processes are not the individual’s and are, strictly speaking, exogenous to any individual will. That is, the structure of the social self is meaningfully alien to the individual—different from and not reducible to the self.

[I have taken this last as the reason for the endless fascination with “machine” consciousness, with androids and cyborgs, and notions of the mechanical. All of these attempt to imagine the social self taken as radical other in personal terms; that is, these are tropes by which a relation to the social can be imagined. My thought is that the difference between individual and social self is abyssal, chiasmic, and that, however much we might want to have our individual will/purpose be reflected by or dictate the social, however much we might want to establish a relation between individual and social by speaking in terms of hybridity, in fact, the relation between individual and social self is as different as that between seeing and hearing and is necessary.]

***

Wesley Kort’s work on self in relation to autobiography identifies three topoi—individual, social, and mythic—and argues that literature can largely be sorted by differentiating between texts concerned with the conflict between individual and social, individual and mythic, social and mythic, and so on. That is, conflict in narrative is in relation to an extant difference that the story aims to elucidate and/or heal. I suspect we could tinker with Kort’s analysis of self in terms of three topoi but I am actually more interested in the thought that the terms of any one narrative conflict are never comprehensive; in this sense, the problem faced in being by a person is never comprehensively addressed by any given story and, instead, leaks out.

Hegelian dialectics may be no better a move because of the assumption that difference is swallowed in synthesis, and thus, we might be suspicious of accounts that depend on a move to pure synthesis as somehow “higher” than other modes of expression/energetics. That is, we may exist as light and as the specific different prism body that is not actually light, but is, rather, something else [what Rilke at the end of the Sixth Elegy may be getting at by speaking of the hero as, at the end of all striving, simply anders (somewhere else]. Hence the problem is not to become light but rather to be both light and dark—Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a difficult marriage that is not a union, but, like all marriages, a being one and different.

***

One thought I have had with respect to this is that people may differ with respect to their ability to perceive in individual, social, or mythic terms. I read today that there is an envelope of warm air around a person, and I would argue that we “see” this envelope, the difference, in the same way that we see variations in air over water, and so on. It might also be the case that some people “see” the social dynamic. Even if they do not have a language for it or only partly understand it, they may see it or sense it, and, by this, have some tacit, provisional awareness that there is some “beast” in the room, some energy, a dynamic that matters. And, perhaps there can be a similar way of sensing other dimensions of the self as well, for which we have as yet only the religious/gnostic languages by which that fact has been said.

***

The difference then between Freud and Jung as a differences of which lens is used—Freud looking at the individual and his or her desires, Jung looking at and intuiting a social dimension or perhaps mythic dimension of self that as of yet cannot be said any other way than as collective and so on. Not a conflict, but an inevitable difference based on the fact that we exist both as individual and as social/collective beings.

My thought is that rather than choosing one or the other as accurate, we might better assume—along the lines laid out with respect to the disciplines—that each needs to be said, and that healing has to be pursued in each of these dimensions or scapes.

I found this to be true when working with my back problem. It was not talk therapy that healed me, or physical therapy, but a parallel pursuit of both in their own terms.

***

I see Merleau-Ponty’s notion of chiasmus as a best critical stance to assume vis-à-vis the relationship between topoi. That is, with respect to differentiation and synthesis, the best assumption is that these are occurring at the same time and that the difference is real. We are not just social mask or private self, we are both, however incongruous and discontinuous and paradoxical it might be to say this. We are composed somehow across this difference anyway, and nothing has ever stopped us from being ourselves in such terms except the horror of discovering the inconsistency.

***

Difference then not simply in terms of the visual sign that covers meaning, but, more radically, a difference as suggested by the difference between sight and hearing, where sight assumes it is not at stake in what it sees, while hearing always locates us in relation to the “cliffs” that echo back our cries.

***

So too a difference between individual and social and perhaps mythic or whatever we mean by mythic—a difference first said perhaps in terms of gender—hence the importance of gender as a clue or lead to thinking through what we might otherwise hope to say as homology or allegory, that a critique of gender shows to be inadequate.

31 Comments:

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