GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

April 25, 2014

Mimetic Culture, Liminal Culture

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:39 am

There are two kinds of moral innovations: one, upward, in which more distance is created between desire and appropriation; and the other, downward, in which that distance is shrunken by the violation of some prohibition with impunity (the innovation lies in the intimation of unlimited possibility, which mimics the generation of human possibility by the originary act of deferral). The great “axial age” moral innovations upward took place during the period of manuscript culture, where writing (and alphabetic writing, in particular, at least in the West) had been invented and was in use among a scribal elite and/or a small reading public sharing rare texts—manuscript culture was still deeply embedded in orality (texts were used to facilitate oration, or memorization), while making it possible to memorialize oral scenes and confer upon them the prestige and permanence of the written word—it is telling that the figures of Moses and the Hebrew prophets, Socrates, Confucius, Jesus and the Buddha are all very often situated within “quiet” scenes, dialogues with a few participants, or God, bordering on and often entering a silent inner dialogue with(in) the self. Words are inscribed in one’s heart, and can be recited exactly as they were originally said as many times as desired, enhancing the sacrality of those particular words, enabling the construction of communities devoted to their preservation and effectuation.

Print culture (McLuhan’s “Gutenberg Galaxy”) spreads the results of manuscript culture far more widely, while introducing the capacity and compulsion to fragment and reassemble, and therefore criticize, parody, and re-contextualize those results. Manuscript culture strives to approximate writing not just to speech, but to speech between co-participants in discussions over what is worthy to be preserved; print culture strives to make speech more like writing—normative, widely intelligible, uniform. (Part of the prodigious fertility of the Renaissance period lies in the interplay of the norms of manuscript and print culture, and of expanding literacy and the more varied layers of orality brought within the orbit of the written word.) Certainty, rather than proximity to the origin, becomes the primary value of reason, actions start to seek out widespread publicity rather than recognition as an enduring model, and thought aims at material transformation rather than contemplation. This transformation involves significant moral innovations, in particular those associated with rigors of life in the modern marketplace: punctuality, frugality, patience, politeness, respect for rules, large scale coordination, etc., along with a much less widely shared, but at least generally valued, fearlessness before the unknown and untried. It has also abetted new and unprecedentedly brutal forms of violence and empire, as control from the center was eased considerably, and made difficult to resist by the increasing specialization at the margins.

What about our emerging electronic and, especially, transparent and algorithmic culture? The intensified culture of celebrity and publicity thereby generated most obviously privileges the transgressive over the continent, the brash and boastful over the modest—the invisibility of the virtues of manuscript culture is intensified by the demand that everything be made visible, literal and blatant. The brazenness and self-exemption from morality print made available to the inventors and adventurers of the modern period are now available to anyone, and it is hard to see any reason why one should display even the most minimal patience. Most people, whether they realize it or not, assume that every individual is a god unto him (or her) self. At the same time, practical learning and participation are strongly encouraged, and can curb the excesses of self-idolatry. I will return to the question of the actual and possible upward innovations native to our now native culture.

Let’s imagine, as a conceptual baseline, a near absolute mimeticism. That is, imagine that every desire is immediately and comprehensively expressed in posture, gesture and word, and every posture, gesture and word is in turn immediately and comprehensively responded to by whomever it is directed towards, and whoever witnesses it. Such an order would involve constant mimetic contagion and hence aggression and violence; it could build no institutions and have no learning. Not exactly none, though, because insofar as it is a human community, the mimeticism could only be near absolute—our barely human community is at least able to restore if not maintain order through the emergence of spontaneous forms of unanimity, in which mimeticism is transformed momentarily into a stabilizing force, directed at more or less arbitrarily chosen targets of discipline and punishment (a very Girardian model, but I don’t assume that actual scapegoating, in the sense of human sacrifice, is necessarily the primary institution).

Something of this absolute mimeticism still resides in every human, and we still respond automatically to a smile or frown, a hint of aggression, a subtle offer of reconciliation, etc. But, of course, these spontaneous reactions are already highly mediated, as there would be no “hints” or “subtle offers” in the originary human community I have hypothesized—everything would be directly out in the open. The point of the originary barely human model is to provide us with a way of measuring moral innovation. The first step beyond near absolute mimeticism would have to be someone not responding immediately, repeating the originary hesitation, allowing an aggressor to have his way, while signaling (and having that signal received) that he will not continue to have his way indefinitely. Upward moral innovations are always of this kind: a new hesitation, but one that organizes posture, gesture and word together in a new way so as to present an imitable mode of hesitation. And downward moral innovations recognize the fragility of such ascents, and recover and display against them the sheer power of a more direct action-reaction cycle. We could see human history as the fluctuation and dueling of upward and downward innovations.

So, what replaces, in the upward moral innovation, the direct, automatic, spontaneous, full and commensurate response to an other’s expression of desire or resentment? It would be trivial to say, “an indirect response,” as that would beg the question—we must imagine, then, an equally direct, automatic, spontaneous, full and commensurate response, but to the other’s expression of desire or resentment as a sign, rather than appropriative act. A sign is, in the first instance, a truncated act; to treat the other’s act as a sign is to treat it as a truncated version of a larger act, an act that entails consequences signified even if not materialized in the act itself. Treating an act as such an exemplary sign involves an audience other than the actor himself—the third person we now assume on the scene is part of the shaping of the act, one that the potential respondent, but not the actor, accounts for in his response. The act would set in motion a chain of consequences that would require for its closure the intervention of the third and perhaps other parties; that future closure is what makes it possible to treat the act as a sign. Treating the act as a sign is an attempt to obtain the closure without the consequences. And in turn, the respondent becomes an exemplary sign.

To paraphrase Aime Ceasire, Western men and women speak all the time of freedom but never cease to stamp out freedom wherever they find it. The current rampage of the victimocracy is no accident—demands for freedom on the liberal and democratic models are really demands for revenge against those who one imagines have expropriated one’s freedom. But the first freedom is the freedom from one’s own desires and resentments, and only in the most extreme instances is the acquisition of such freedom not within one’s own grasp (one just has to stop grasping at something else); at the same time, such freedom is always provisional, always suffused with doubts, always needs to be recovered, and can have no external guarantees. Demands for economic and political freedom are only sustainable insofar as they aim at the space needed to practice and exemplify that first freedom. Has a single modern political theorist ever said that? Maybe—I haven’t read them all—but it’s certainly not any part of our liberal democratic commonsense—even the awareness one finds in thinkers like de Tocqueville and the American founders to the effect that moral responsibility must attend the individual freedom democracy unleashes see such responsibility as a concession to reality by enlightened self-interest—in other words, a more effective way of getting what one wants (or, in more theological terms, of imposing one’s own law on reality). (Only high manuscript culture, forged in self-adopted or embraced exilic relation to monstrous imperial orders and broader social decadence [by prophets, monks, small communities of teachers and disciples, self-lacerating disaffected elites], has ever understood this first freedom—which is no doubt the source of its continuing power today.)

Environmentalism admonishes us to shrink our “footprint”—they mean carbon, a trivial matter, but the metaphor is a nice one for thinking through the possible moral innovations enabled by the transparent and algorithmic. It does seem to me that a highly moral way of passing through this life is to leave only the slightest traces of footprints, i.e., identifying markers that can be definitively traced back to ones own intentions and efforts. Rather than clearly demarcated and strategically located footprints, better to do something to reveal the world as a world of signs, and oneself as just another one of the signs, one that has lowered the threshold of significance for yet to be revealed signs. Revealing the world to be a world of signs is to reveal the world as composed of truncated, fractured, fragmented actions unmoored from the desires and resentments that originally motivated them (a radical de-mimeticization) and arriving far away from their intended destinations. Even those bits and pieces of actions can be broken down further—excessive exposure to them would restore their wholeness and render them sentimental and sensationalistic, assimilating them to one or another “classical” model—as can the very act of breaking them down. This is not just a contemplative position within our transparent and algorithmic reality, in which everything already tends to get reduced to a gesture to everything else—it is always possible to withhold the mimetic response and represent the other’s act as an incomplete one and hence a sign, a sign of which one tacitly pledges to be the bearer. The algorithm makes it possible to project hypothetical transformations across unlimited, virtual fields—the fall of a sparrow can be aligned with various possible initial conditions to produce mappings far into the future and across vastly divergent causal chains, the point being to facilitate the reduction of any act to a fluctuating data point, and hence radically uncertain in its effects but maximally significant in its articulations with other signs. This moral innovation would install, there where mimetic culture presently is, liminal culture, a culture that continuously lowers the threshold at which we perceive, feel, and intuit emergent meanings. Old cultural forms like the maxim and the epigram might make a comeback, as such literary forms can be put on a t-shirt, a web page, or tattooed on one’s skin—but maxims and epigrams that subvert and invert some vapid or bullying slogan or public imperative.

Such a moral innovation would follow in the footprints of the print revolution, with its privileging of what Walter Benjamin called “mechanical reproduction”; but, well beyond that, it reaches back to the originary scene, where the sign was created through the truncation of an act, rendering it available for reproduction, segmentation and new articulations. Remembering forward, further de-mimeticization requires further specializations, specializations that lead, not to the mutilation of the individual but to participation in a culture of overlapping disciplinary spaces. Take, for example, the operative imperative for “Seinfeld,” “no hugging, no learning,” a slogan Eric Gans discusses in one of his Chronicles on the show. “Seinfeld” is often taken as accelerating a shift towards a more thoroughgoing irony in American popular culture, marking the point at which nothing is free from irony, i.e., the point of “cynicism.” And it is true that if you watch pre-Seinfeld sitcoms, even the “boundary pushing” ones like “All in the Family,” there is always some sentimental, preachy substratum to the humor—in the end, some things remain off-limits to laughter. To see this as a shift toward a general cultural cynicism is to miss the point, I think—it would make more sense to see this development as a form of social specialization. The point of a TV comedy is to make you laugh—it should be judged according to some measure of quality laughs per 23 minutes, not the “lessons” it teaches. Why would anyone turn on a TV show to learn about life or morality? If we really did so, that would be an alarming sign of cultural decay. You turn on a TV show (at least a comedy) to get something you couldn’t have otherwise: pieces of the world turned around so that situations that are not ordinarily funny become so. Once you realize that, attempts by the entertainment industry to tend to your character become ludicrous and insulting, and, anyway, the point of gesturing to moral pieties was always to avoid professional death by “controversy,” and was therefore always cynical itself—and, indeed, despite “Seinfeld” and all its would-be imitators, earnestness abounds in American culture. And specializing in comedy is very different than specializing in one stage in the production of pins, as it relies upon anthropological, historical and sociological intuitions—what is funny today is not what was funny 5 years ago, or, often, 5 days ago.

A similar development in higher education would be welcome, particularly in the humanities—rather than going to a literature or philosophy class in order to (at its best) enter the ongoing conversation over which works and ideas should be preserved, wouldn’t it be better for your literature or philosophy professor to provide you with a form of literacy, a way of working with language so as to generate new meanings out of existing ones that you could only with significantly greater labor and a lot of luck acquire for yourself? As with the specialist in generating laughter, the algorithmic (or what I coming to be called “digital”) humanities would enable the student to reveal new fields of signs as mutations of more familiar ones. On the level of scholarship, while mimetic theories ask what is “literature,” or “reason,” or “meaning,” or “humanity,” or “society,” and so on, liminal theories would ask, where is the boundary between all of these categories and whatever their “others” might be at a given moment—this kind of inquiry would also involve learning new modes of literacy, insofar as the boundaries are always shifting, in part as a result of the inquiries themselves. (In a sense, this would make all pedagogy and even all scholarship “remedial”—part of the problem with the traditional humanities, or at least an increasingly unavoidable part of the problem, is that students can’t really “read” Plato, Shakespeare, Joyce or any of the other “great books”—they can, at best, mimic their teacher’s reading of the texts as already read, which they must be insofar as they have already been designated “great.” Providing students with reading practices that would reveal these texts to them in their otherness, with all the messiness and stupidity that is sure to follow, might lead to something interesting, even if it’s not likely that many instructors will know what to do with it.)

I suppose this would mean that originary thinking is itself a new specialization, a discipline focused on revealing the consequences and implications of the maxim “representation is the deferral of violence.” Our project would be to show what difference this maxim makes in all of the disciplines with which ours does or could overlap. What does the originary hypothesis enable us to see that we wouldn’t otherwise? Does that mean that one doesn’t claim that the originary hypothesis is true, or gets us closer to the truth of human being than other ways of thinking? Well, to the extent that we are invested in or converted to originary thinking we have concluded that it is more revelatory than other ways of thinking available to us, which is pretty much synonymous with “truer”; but insofar as there is no neutral set of intellectual standards by which the relative truth of theories in the human sciences can be determined authoritatively, I would say we let the “long run” settle the question of truth and attend to our business of lowering the threshold of human things we can make new sense of.

To return to the concepts examined in my previous post (“Selfy”), it seems to me that the kind of disciplinary inquiry I am proposing as a moral innovation requires self-control, self-abolition and self-creation: the disciplinary self is a creation of the inquiry itself, much like the “narrator” of a novel, who is neither the author or a character (and where the narrator is a character, most obviously in first person narration, the reader posits another narrator behind the “I”), who exists only so long as the novel does, and is obliged to follow the rules of coherence and consistency constitutive of the narrative. Likewise, the disciplinary self is created by some boundary question or anomaly, and must remain the “same” insofar as questions raised must be answered or questioned in turn, and rigorous controls must be in place to ensure that the “real self” external to the inquiry, with its resentments and desires, does not interfere—even if those resentments and desires might (again, like the relation between author and narrator), properly treated, inform the disciplinary self. And into what does the disciplinary self inquire: well, among other things, the slippages within and between “identities,” a central cause of “threshold” questions in the modern world; and “personhood,” perhaps first of all the boundary between the constitutive fantasy of personhood (one’s own absolute erotic centrality) and its never completed reality of shared erotic centrality. (I refer, again, to my previous post, and in particular my reading of Andrew Bartlett’s originary analysis of personhood.)

April 14, 2014


Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:55 pm

Everyone is taking selfies, but does that mean that no one is selfy, that is, self-like, anymore? It’s a serious question, even if it is prompted by the hilarious new song (I suppose that’s what it is) titled “Selfie,” which features a young woman, with an attention span of approximately 3 seconds whose only anchor in a stable reality seems to be the compulsion to take a selfie (and announce that she is doing so) every 10 seconds or so. The song, which, like so many other products of contemporary culture is a parody so immersive in its object as to blur the boundary between parody and celebration, seems to suggest a direct correspondence between ubiquity of the external and ultra-literally named marker of “selfiness” and the absence of any inner experience of the same.

Freud’s “Copernican turn” was his claim that human consciousness was on the margin, not at the center—the margin, more specifically, of immense and obscure unconscious processes that we could only ever know very imperfectly, and only affect minimally. Freud used the term “Ego,” which is not necessarily a close synonym for “self,” but we have already introduced the term “consciousness,” and cultural Marxists following in Freud’s footsteps (Lacanianly mediated) introduced the term “subjectivity,” to cover conceptual territory aimed at including and usurping that covered by “Ego,” “self,” “consciousness,” and others, like “individual,” “person” and “identity” (not to mention “soul”). The notion of “subjectivity” aims at greater precision, drawing on phenomenology to conceptualize the subject “constitutively” embedded in a world of objects and inter-subjectively mediated intentions, but also contains an implicit taunt in its allusion to subjection. No theorist of subjectivity will admit to being only a subject herself. All these terms, except for subjectivity, are used so widely and have been used for so long that it would be ridiculous to dismiss them as “mystifications” (and not only would I not dismiss “subjectivity,” either, but I will further explore the term’s implicit argument that modern society has progressively marginalized, impaired, diminished and even shattered what was once taken to be the human center). The task for originary thinking is explore the overlapping terrains covered by this sprawling vocabulary, and make sense of them as so many ways of being signifying beings.

Andrew Bartlett gets us off to a very good start in his “Originary Human Personhood” in the Fall 2011 issue of Anthropoetics. I will be more interested in the “self” than the person in this discussion, but Bartlett’s originary analysis of personhood, and the distinction he draws between “person” and “self,” suggests a way of starting to see these concepts in relation to each other. Starting from Eric Gans’s contention that the originary “person” was God, Bartlett proposes that the appropriation of a kind of derived divinity in the constitution of the human “person” takes place through the mediation of the private, erotic center. To be a person is to be lovable and to love (to confirm the lovability of another)—to be an inexhaustible source of desire for another who is in turn such a source for oneself; to be aligned with another as reciprocally orbiting centers of meaning and concern capable of shutting out the world. Meanwhile, Bartlett distinguishes the “person” from the “self” as follows:

To be a self is not quite yet to be a person. The self designates rather a denuded, anesthetic entity lacking both the concrete bodily vulnerability and the power to create meaning that belongs to the person. “He is a wonderful person” sounds fine; “he is a wonderful self,” awkward. “She is a giving person” makes sense; “she is a giving self” rings oxymoronic. The undesirability of the reputation of “selfish person” tells all: the self is not the person. To have achieved personhood and to have personality, to be personable, to have personal relationships–those are goods. But to have a self–well, we all have one of those, it takes no work to have one of those; having a self makes no distinction–what can one do with oneself? The erotic self–especially–knows that what it can do with itself is limited. (The erotic person, however, may seem limitlessly beautiful.) In the originary event, the moment of consciousness of self is the moment of resentment. In resenting the sacred center, we first experience ourselves as violently dispossessed by it. Originary selfhood would thus be resentfully but not interpersonally human. In naming the sacred Object only as object of resentment, we are not yet naming God as a person: the sacred Other whom we selfishly name in resentment is not the divine Person whom we name in love. By contrast, to love God as originary Person is to love something of the way the sacred central Object has moved and moves us. Likewise in human exchange, the self-dispossession of resentment opposes love. We cannot have true love for the one against whom we feel real resentment. These contrasting associations of the self with resentment and the person with love, it seems to me, are worth preserving.
And yet there is value in owning the mere originary self as a kernel of sign-using consciousness prerequisite to personhood. Individual agency, free will, moral responsibility: several founding texts of Generative Anthropology affirm the value of the contributions made by these categories to the project of our self-understanding. Acclamations of even a resentful free will are a valuable counterweight to the post-structuralist denials of agency that would sever the connection between our internal scenes of representation (i.e., our imaginations), and the many external worlds, local and global, where exchanges of signs and things produce concrete results and where ethical performances have often incalculable consequences for good and evil. Anybody who uses language is a self endowed with free will; to use the sign on the scene of representation is to be a human self. My first qualification aims simply to spotlight the fact that a self consumed by resentment militates self-defeatingly against the openness to exchange of others’ personhood, and therefore against its own. Resentfulness is parasitic on love. The totally resentful self is not yet a person because such a self must abolish without loving the otherness of the center, and the desire to abolish the center makes exchange with others as centers, as persons, impossible. Distinguishing between selfhood and personhood may, therefore, illuminate the boundaries between originary resentment and originary love. If I am consumed by resentment of the other, I have not stepped back from myself to recognize the otherness in myself. I have not learned to imitate the sacred central Other withdrawing itself in the founding move of erotic activity from which human personhood is derived.

Bartlett’s analysis explains (to follow in the tracks of his own linguistic observations) why “selflessness” is praised, and why the extinguishing of the self (as in Buddhism) can be transcendent project—none of which would apply to “personhood.” If the self is a “prerequisite” of personhood, then the purely resentful, self-protecting self must be a kind of “skeleton” supporting the fully “embodied” person. Implicit in this argument seems to me a couple of other consequences: first, that the self can survive the obliteration of the “person” (Bartlett does not say, but how could we deny, that one’s erotic centrality could be demolished under certain conditions); and that as long as the self persists, the reconstitution of the person remains possible, while the pulverizing of the self, if we imagine that to be possible, would make any such restoration impossible.

This identification of the self with resentment also provides insight into the grammar of “self,” in particular its use in reflexive pronouns, which itself derives from the ancient identity of meaning of “self” with “same”—when we say “itself,” we mean the same “it” that was just referred to. In that case, the self is sheer sameness of the individual, that whatever it is that makes the individual that individual from moment to moment, year to year, decade to decade. Originary resentment is what makes us our“selves,” while I suppose the originary love of the person is ecstatic, taking us outside of the continuous flow of the self-same. Would that then mean that feelings of guilt and shame (i.e., conscience) are attributes of the self, insofar as those emotions are experienced when we have not been self-same, have broken the line of continuity (maintained through promises to self and others) that makes commitment possible? And the “sovereign subjectivity” so despised by post-humanist theories would, then, also reside in the self, or would rather be the self which, like an ever-vigilant government is constantly policing its own borders, keeping out intruders and keeping intact the needed defense mechanisms. Paranoia would also be an attribute of the self, and schizophrenia its breakdown.

More interesting even than all of that is the light shed by Bartlett’s analysis on the particular vulnerabilities of both person and self in a decentered, centripetal modern world. I have wondered for a while why the sexual revolution has been such an obsession of liberatory movements (political and artistic) from the Romantic period on, and why modern means of mass manipulation target the erotic so relentlessly. In other words, if Bartlett is right, then a possible strategy of assault and domination becomes visible. The specific articulation of self and person Bartlett outlines would be the basis for an individual who can think for him/herself, resist illegitimate demands, live within his/her means, recognize human limitations, and so on. If the erotic can be plugged into broader circuits of desire driven by commodity production, then personhood can be kept under constant pressure—the fantasy Bartlett outlines in his essay as the basis of the erotic imaginary (“You find yourself surrounded and alone in the center and you notice that all the people on the periphery–who knew? — suddenly “want” you erotically. They all want consummation with you, the person…”) only to dismiss as unrealistic and undesirable would be the source of one’s vulnerability to mass produced erotic fantasies, only in this case without any place to withdraw to (such withdrawal being, in Bartlett’s model, the way one transitions to a more mature eroticism).

Another prong of this assault would target the self. We could see all the normalization processes of modern societies, in which disciplines like medicine, psychiatry, sociology, economics and so on become disciplinary practices aimed at homogenizing and regulating millions of individuals circulating through modern institutions (first of all teaching them reading, writing and arithmetic) as directed at the self first of all. All these practices can be reduced to devising and enforcing the procedures needed to maintain “sameness” across a bewildering array of institutions, situations, obligations, norms, etc. We could see the early modern period studied by Michel Foucault in which these institutions were set up and given their legal and political foundations as excessive, often brutal, ad hoc and easily exploited by charlatans and power-hungry psychopaths and yet, for all that, necessary and largely successful. But with the myriad tentacles of the marketplace (most obviously, the massive explosion of pornography in recent years) undoing the erotic foundations of personhood, the processes of self-regulation may be getting more desperate and haphazard, drawing upon the new bio-political disciplines (drug therapies, gene research, etc.). It may be that more and more selves can only remain the same insofar as they adhere to increasingly arbitrary and rigid regimes of regulation.

Obviously, it would be impossible to quantify or be certain about any of these claims—what would it mean to say fewer people are less completely persons or selves now than was the case, say, half a century ago? Maybe what looks (inevitably) as disintegration to those embedded in a particular meditated mode of being is simply a transformation to terms of personhood or selfhood we are not able to recognize. Maybe, more radically, the entire vocabulary of human self-reference is being remade, to the point that somewhere down the road people won’t really understand what we once meant by things like persons and selves. To take just one example, the fact that the genre of romantic comedy in the movies is just about defunct suggests that certain key elements of erotically mediated personhood are no longer operative—the movie critic James Bowman associates the esthetic power of the genre to the belief on the part of the couple (and the audience) that the two people were “made for each other,” were “destined to be together.” Such a belief seems to me a “necessary appearance” (to use Arendt’s term for beliefs about reality that survive all attempts at demystification) for the closed erotic circle Bartlett identifies as the source of personhood—if such a belief is becoming as alien to our sensibilities as tragedy has long been, then we are indeed witnessing a sea-change in the self-person configuration.

At this point I don’t want to pursue this analysis further; I just want to suggest that originary thinking should pursue such questions as the contemporary state (or states) or the “person,” the “self,” and other originary elements of the human; and we should do in a way that is as divested from, or defers any desire for, any particular outcome as possible. That is, no apotropaic invocations of the preferability of market society to other forms, or of the superiority or inevitability of liberal democracy—or, for that matter, any denunciations of the market or prophecies of doom regarding liberal democracy. I would recommend refusing the use of a particular historical form of personhood or selfhood as an invariant model against which we find contemporary forms to be degraded versions; or using an idealized model of the self or person in order to condemn contemporary institutions for “distorting” that model. Of course we must be interested in the outcome of any moment in the unending process of hominization; but the clarity of analysis will benefit from our keeping that interest as minimal as possible, at simply identifying the threshold at which new modes of signifying emerge. What are the new modes of attentionality; how are we seeing and giving ourselves to be seen (and heard and felt and imagined) in new ways?

OK, I’ll pursue it just a little further. It seems to me that what is central to modernity is something that Marshall McLuhan associated with print culture—the capacity and compulsion to analyze phenomena into to ever smaller fragments that can in turn be recombined and disseminated in new ways that bear less and less trace of their origins. To the extent the person and the self can be reduced to a set of fragmented, stereotyped gestures that can be turned into esthetic formulas and models of imitation aimed at directing the “subject’s” attention in pre-programmed ways (what Judith Butler, following Derrida, once called “citationality,” referring to the fact that we are always citing and quoting others, even or especially when we believe we are most “ourselves”), the less we are persons and selves. Restoring, re-imagining or instituting new forms of personhood and selfhood, or imagining forms of individuality or “agency” irreducible to those terms (we could just become indeterminate processes of semiosis, for example) would then depend upon entering, interfering with and commandeering when possible that process of analysis and composition of the elements. The skeptical, suspicious resentment of the self would be needed here, as would the ecstatic, even if fleeting, enthusiasms of the person. The problem would be to acknowledge that one is always taking on others’ words, down to one’s most inmost being, while remembering that they are, even when most our own, in the end still others’ words.

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