Once more into the breach, dear friends… [aka: more theory]

14 05 2009

Wow, it has been quite some time since my previous blog… Then again, doing your Honours in English can keep you quite busy… But, at the end of the first semester, with classes wrapping up – and myself ahead of schedule, with only one more essay to do – I think I’d like to look at more theory.

So, first off: Derrida. Derrida questions the metaphysical presuppositions of the West, and is sided against those schools or movements that believe in an ‘ultimate truth’, something with transcendental meaning. He believes that the signified (concept) can also be known through its relationships and differences with regards to other signifieds, which means that the meaning of the signifier cannot be fixed/determined. [The relationship is conventional and arbitrary]. According to Derrida, there is no one closed, shut, perfectly formed self. Instead, he looks at binary/conceptual opposites, and in this set-up, the one is privileged above the other. It is important to note that this is an unstable relationship, as well, as it is constantly changing, or the meaning understood differently by different people – also, writing supplements speech, and which is more true?

What I like about deconstruction is that it is a reading strategy which allows a wide variety of interpretations, a strategy which makes this possible. The existence and working of binary opposites is recognized, and then turned around, in able to examine/investigate its values (worth) and its attitudes of mind or points of view – thus the original hierarchy can be put aside to make way for a new one.

An important aspect of Derrida is certainly the concept of difference, from the French différer, which means (1) to defer/delay or (2) to differ (note the minute difference in spelling and pronunciation, ‘defer’ and ‘differ’). Other things to look at are archi-écriture (arche-writing) and traces. Arche-writing supposes that, without language, there can be no consciousness, because consciousness presupposes language. Trances, on the other hand, refer to intertextuality – something I am sure we all are tired hearing of at this level of tuition – which shows that each text (supposedly) contains traces of other texts…

Next up, Foucault and his notion of the Panopticon. The panopticon really made me think about how life is but a performance, an ‘acting experience’. You play a role in society, governed by norms, rules and regulations – individualization becomes the ideal, but how can anyone be an individual? Life is not a (dress) rehearsal, this is the real thing, and you have no idea who is watching you, so you play/perform it at your best, always aware of a gaze. You find it in schools, institutions (like the university) and even social groups. Think about it: usually, when you get dressed, you are dressing not for yourself but for an external gaze. You wonder about what others will think (according to yourself), even if they aren’t actually looking – you are predicting and presupposing ‘judgement’ on yourself. Could one say that your relationship with people becomes like the relationship with the mirror? i.e. that understanding, meaning, is found/mediated through an external influence, always coming from outside? The gaze (tower room) can belong to and be employed by anyone, even yourself…after all, it is all about visibility, and you make yourself visible not only bodily, but through language as well…I like to think of the various cells in the panoptic prison, the individual cells for individual inmates, as containing various (individual) components of yourself, allowing you to stand back and look at yourself… Be that as it may, it is true that we have indeed become the Big Brother Culture. It is as if we have this firm, rooted belief that there is constantly a gaze, someone watching us, and this becomes part of a person’s make-up – for we cannot image that there is no gaze/surveillance; it has been internalized so far that we ‘perform’ for a gaze unconsciously, not realizing what we are doing. It moderates how we think, act, speak, behave…in essence, thus, it IS self-producing, and our ‘culture’ passes it on along the line…and, if you think about it, you can become so rigid with yourself, that it is almost militaristic – thus making you (metaphorically) part of the state apparatus…Pawns! Pawns, I tell you…

I would really like to know how, or whether, anyone can be an individual. Especially since such a project breeds conformity. And, in ‘real’ life and society, everyone strives to be an individual, wanting to be unique and to find meaning. But, if everyone is doing this, it is but again universal, and thus a conformity. I’m not sure if there is such a thing as individuality. True, each person is an individual in his or her own right, since there is only one ‘you’, physically. But that’s pretty much where it ends… Who said that we as humans do not have any original thoughts, ideas, ideals, etc.? Because it is true, to a certain extent, for our ideas are based on other set down notions which at one point were idea.

One of my favourite theorists must be Lacan. I love the way that, in literature, when you look at novels/ short stories, the writer – read here the Self – is projecting onto the page the Other, and also becoming the other; because, as we know, the Self is defined by the Other – that which the Self is, the Other is not…although, in a sense the writer becomes the Other, recognizes the Self as Other…it goes back to the idea of the dual nature of the writer, for he/ she is immersed in the world of fiction and thus accordingly language and its various codes. After all, the whole concept of the Other is that you are ‘making’ someone inside you who starts off being you, but that you then reverse it, simply – you are a projection board; I project unto you what is other. And still, the suspicion remains that the Self is the Other. If the Other is that against which the Self is defined (the Other usually negative and the Self positive, upholding certain standards/morals), one must remember that your Self is the Other to someone else’s Self. Referring to theorists’ question whether the mirror phase seem possible/ plausible, I should think so – it makes sense. Think of children, if you will: a child is still able to believe in the fantastic, in monsters, et cetera, and imagination allows belief – their “mirror” of the self is still very open, not closed off yet, and as their boundaries are not completely set, they are ‘untainted’, still learning about life. It is our adult life which to a certain extent smothers the imagination…and, as Lacan believes, the Imaginary goes with the mirror phase (and the Ideal Ego).

I liked that Lacan gives us the ‘escape route’ (may I call it that?) to drowning in what he calls the Primary Narcissism of the Imaginary, and that the Symbolic is – conveniently – set in language. After all, language, can be said to give us privileged access to what we have denied or repressed from the imaginary (those unregulated impulses, in Freudian terms the “id”, arguably); it allows us to see the Ego Ideal, to realize that anyone can usurp the I, and that it is constantly ‘changing’ – you can represent yourself in language, and others can represent you as well (as the other, at times, as well), creating an ongoing process of interpretation – you objectify yourself, and you are an object in other people’s speech as well; it is thus a complicated system based on formal differences, and because you are part of an inter-subjective network of subjectivities, the symbolic allows you not to ‘drown’, as it were, in the imaginary. Whereas the imaginary looks at the self in space, the fraught relationship between the Self and the Other, the symbolic rather looks at the relationship between the Self and culture, and how culture governs it. Because we make ourselves visible in speech to an other, there is not only recognition (as in the mirror-phase), but the possibility of response, a promise of a future presence… Language allows absence and fluidity – as the process of interpretation is ongoing – and gives us access to the unconscious, proving that we are not in control of language or our representation in it; we do not always say what we want to say, using linguistic devices such as metaphor, linguistic slippages, et cetera, and the signifying change is that which brings to the surface and discloses parts of us we do not want to bring to consciousness, letting stuff we have left out back in.

Can’t the Other be seen as a sort of vampire, in contrast with the Self? Or rather, if it is a part of the Self, representing those drives and primal instincts that constitute the Id, which has to be repressed? The vampire embodies the energies we do not allow, those we exclude from the ego (i.e. instincts, drives)… Vampires feed off of the life-blood and vitality of others – quite a parasitic thing to do, yet showing that they are still DEPENDANT on someone else, for if they do not get blood…well, it’s all folklore, of course, but still. The Self can get so overwhelmed by the Other, consumed in the binary, trying to set up the difference and keeping up the standard, thus the Self ‘feeds’ the Other, which cannot come into being without this ‘recognition’, if you will… Otto Rank says that the double (or Other) is the “emissary of death for the Self”…it shows how fraught and dangerous the relationship with the Other (that is, really, a part of you) can be. The Other, that which is repressed and kept beneath the surface in the unconscious, can be seen as the id, comprised – as I have mentioned – of those drives and instincts that we have to repress and ‘banish’ to the unconscious as it works to destabilize the ego. The id, something very primitive/primal, is something we are unaware of or do not want to recognize, yet it is still a very basic part of human identity, something we are born with. As it is the ‘negative’ part of the self, and relates to instinct, it carries with it the notion that, if the ego is good and the id/Other encompasses evil, all humans have the capacity for evil, for that which is other/bad/evil is bound within oneself; thus, we destroy ourselves, and the id/Other is man’s ‘shadow-side’. Because we, as humans, all have the capacity for evil and actually lead to our own downfall through our actions, we have to suffer the consequences of our conduct. This makes me wonder: if we are born with it, if it is such an integral, inseparable part of the Self, how can we be ‘blamed’, then, for ‘our actions’…?

One of my lecturers, the amazing Dr Daniel Roux, said in an online class discussion that the notion arises that identity is entirely acquired from outside, I suppose it goes back to Lacan and the whole idea of the mirror phase – that misrecognition of the self as other in the mirror, becoming the image you see outside yourself, which means that the sense of self is always confirmed from outside. Social context, one might argue, mediates the relationship with the mirror, in this instance… Still, I do not believe one could say that we are born with blank slates, for some things we understand so quickly and easily when we are younger (infants) cannot be understood by something entirely blank. It goes back to the debate whether things depend on Nature or Nurture. Skinner believes that language acquisition takes place via the process of operant conditioning, where linguistic behaviour can be explained and predicted by identifying controlling variables (external events/stimuli) – no special mental devices are needed to acquire language. Chomsky, on the other hand, believes there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of language, and that Skinner failed to look at structure-dependent operations and creativity/productivity in language. Successful language acquisition is not measurable in terms of response strength, and linguistic behaviour is also unpredictable. I suppose, then, that this can not only be said of language, but of basic skills and functions as well, which to a certain extent are encoded in language. It is true that the mind is a cultural product – one cannot help how one has been brought up, what kind of society it is, et cetera. Yet all these things play a significant role, for one is expected to conform to the norm (generally)… Perhaps the slate is not entirely blank, but some things have been written on it in invisible ink, and we have to bring it to light/the surface…some things are even etched in, one might say, though it does beg the question, if we have evolved, and language itself has evolved, why do we not question or try to change certain “ideologically invested cultural products”, as Daniel [my lecturer] says? I think what makes the Humanities interesting is our capacity to BE interdisciplinary – to look at psychology, sociology, linguistics, science, and many others to gain an understanding of the world and how certain things have evolved. Conservative-ism (to awfully coin a term) is a resort for those in a stifled mental cocoon, not wanting to escape it but rather suffocating instead of breaking free and accepting new ideas. They fear what they do not understand, or what contradicts who and what they are, in the sense that that is how they grew up, and that is what they understand.

Next, Sinfield: Where Foucault sees the individual as a product, and also as important, Sinfield rather believes that the individual is not that important, as he is never going to be the motor of change. As the panopticon proves, conformity rather than individuality is created. This is why Sinfield believes in the notion of cultural materialism. A person’s voice and identity is subject to material relationships in reality, and also constructed or mediated through ideology. Ideology is controlled by the material dominant class, those in power, which is why Sinfield states: “It is not individuals but power structures that produce the system within which we live and think” (Cultural Materialism, 37). The problem which arises is whether the individual can be a source of dissidence and resistance, as Alice hopes to be. She is consciously and constantly running away from the people in her company’s “cool”, and is worried about the state of individuality as she wonders whether such a thing is even possible within such a superstructure that, indeed, governs one’s life, actions and beliefs. According to Sinfield, the individual is but a construct or ideological mask. Resistance against the system can only be possible once one recognizes the underlying collective part of oneself first – id est, the moment one starts to identify with a group, a subculture. Sinfield states that “the inter-involvement of resistance and control is systemic: it derives from the way language and culture get articulated” (Cultural Materialism, 47). In essence, the one needs the other: the system needs to be there in order to set up a ‘standard’, and against which groups can show their resistance and create their own standards. Society has more than one ideology, the one influencing the other; they have to find ways of living together, and thus we get the ‘faultlines’ Sinfield talks about – that blurring of the distinction between them.

Wow…what a mouthful…and there is still so much more that one could say! But I think I’ve exhausted myself enough now, so I’ll leave Žižek and Butler out at this stage.