Friday, April 17, 2015

Part 27: (Coupling; does the individual exist only in relation to something else?): Dialogues on a Philosophy for the Individual

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2015)

With this post Flora Sapio and I (and friends from time to time) continue an experiment in collaborative dialogue. The object is to approach the issue of philosophical inquiry from another, and perhaps more fundamentally ancient, manner. We begin, with this post, to develop a philosophy for the individual that itself is grounded on the negation of the isolated self as a basis for thought, and for elaboration. This conversation, like many of its kind, will develop naturally, in fits and starts. Your participation is encouraged. For ease of reading Flora Sapio is identified as (FS), and Larry Catá Backer as (LCB).

The friends continue their discussion, in which Larry Catá Backer considers what follows from the problem of the natural slave in the project of the individual, her self-love and the monstrosity of her liberation--what he calls coupling; does the individual exist only in relation to something else?; and Flora Sapio responds to a number of points raised by the friends. 

Contents: HERE

(LCB) Our conversations to date have been quite interesting, and especially so for the way that they have been developing the complex inter relations between interiority and exteriority--that is, the way that the simple question, can the individual be liberated, becomes  a complex semiotic question in which the self, intermeshed with the community of selves, and the self as the self appointed guardian of the communal expressions of the self, is fractured and reconstituted, and in which the self, unconstrained by the community from out of which the self is constituted through others, becomes a monstrous construct.

But this is too hard a description and still not hard enough. Acknowledging the limitations of the self produces either bathos, a detached idealism, or an excruciating pragmatism.  On the one hand the self is the semiotic product of communal interpretation projected inward, as if the self is an iteration of an aggregated communal sense of the self. This permits the notion of hierarchy, and of the natural slave, and of the premises that produce both religious and ethnic solidarity.  Asaiyyah is a more elegant way of describing what Foucault later references as the mass that is understood only as statistic. On the other there may be a self beyond the triadic relation projecting inward, that is it may exist as an outward projection of an unconstrained self. At its most facile, this is the portrait of the rugged individual (but even that is false since that notion of the rugged individual is closely tied to social expectations of the moral behaviors of the individuals still acting within communal behavior parameters).

But if the self exists beyond the collectivities of the self, then how can that self exist except within the self.  But that self,  the individual liberated onto herself, is incomprehensible and unbounded--not so much Übermensch as Narcissus.  If the individual does not exist coupled, even in her individuality, does she lose her humanity.  But if humanity is possible only within a societal collective, and disciplined by these collectives, then does the collectivity--does humanity--make the individual incomprehensible, impossible, except as a deviant, as someone "over" or "beyond" humanity, or within herself to the point where she neither recognizes nor is recognized (drowning in herself, the fate of Narcssus).  Between Nemesis and  polis there appears to be no alternative space.

(FS) Language is a system of symbols, and words are signs. Each word means something, each word points us to an object: the word “invoice” points us to the document that relates to a sales transaction. This very document, the actual piece of paper on which the transaction is recorded, is called fattura by the Italians, Rechnung by the Germans, and facture by the French. Why do we use different words to name the same thing? The connection between a word and an object is entirely arbitrary, and this is something each one of us knows very well: small children, who have not yet learned language, often make up their own words to name familiar objects. Arbitrary as it may be, the connection between a word and an object, or a word and an idea, is exceptionally strong. If we invent new words to name familiar objects, or to talk about familiar ideas people will not understand us. But, sometimes, old words and sayings can be used to stimulate reflection, which is what I will do in this post.

The saying I have picked up is an old Latin saying:
Quodlibet ens est unum verum bonum seu perfectum
Any being is one, true, good OR perfect
Compassion is unconditional self-acceptance (=self-love) that leads to the unconditional acceptance of any other person outside of one's own group (outside the assabiyah = outside the family, the clan, the city, the nation = love of others). Accepting those who are outside of our own group is a step we make at the same time we accept ourselves.

Self-love cannot be taught, because it is a life-long practical exercise we have to perform if we want to enjoy our lives. ...but, what is the self? The self is not the empty vessel of Jacques Lacan – the self can be compared to a forest. The forest supports a wide range of mineral, plants, animal species and human beings, and many pathways run through it. While we walk along the paths and trails running through a forest, we encounter an abundance of beautiful wildlife but, as everybody who has walked through a forest knows, the forest is inhabited by spiders too. Spiders are not inherently dangerous, and even venomous spiders will bite only to defend themselves, but spiders can be scary. So what do we do when we encounter a spider? If we were scared by it and refused to look at it, the spider would still be there. If we removed it to hide it somewhere else in the forest, sooner or later the spider would come back. We have to acknowledge that the existence of spiders is entirely normal, they are just one of the many species that inhabit the forest. The best way to do it is to stop along the path for a moment, look at the spider and try to see it for what it is: a spider is just a spider. A perfect forest without spiders, a forest inhabited only by beautiful animals, would be an artificial forest made of plastic plants, and such a forest would be unsuited to support life.

Likewise, the perfect self does not exist. Admiring one's strengths is easy, but real courage and selflessness are shown in looking at one's hidden weaknesses – those we would never want to show to ourselves or others out of fear of their negative judgement. Weakness is part of the self in the same way as spiders are part of a forest. A self that refused to embrace its weakness would be a self split into many different parts, a self unable to live with itself for its entire life, a self at war with itself and therefore well embarked upon the road to self-destruction. (Any being is one)

No one can force us to take a journey through a forest. Taking a journey through a forest – getting to know the self for what the self truly is - is a choice we make ourselves. Neither a duty nor an obligation, this is a form of life we choose for ourselves. Our form of life is the new skin we keep growing to replace the old skin we keep shedding throughout our lives. As such, it is inseparable from us, because we cannot live in the skin of another.

To truly and unconditionally accept ourselves we have to become aware of what our needs are and how our needs should be best met. As I have tried to make clear earlier in this discussion, I believe the self possesses multiple facets and dimensions, each one of which dictates a different need. Each individual is unique, therefore there is no fixed recipe to respond to the needs of the self. Each and every need will require a different kind of response. Sometimes, these needs can be met in ordinary ways. Given that the self is unique, there are also times when the best and most beneficial response to the needs of the self can only be given in ways which are unique and extraordinary. Meeting the needs of one's self in unique, original and extraordinary ways is something that has to be done if one wants to be true to oneself, and to be true towards the other. “Unique, original and extraordinary” can mean different things to different people: any response is deeply individual and often unfathomable to those whose needs are different from ours. Again, the decision to meet the needs of the self is an entirely free and natural decision to make, a decision that springs from the very core of the self and that testifies to the truth of the self to itself. There are many different stages in our lives, stages in which we may make different and contrasting decisions, which may relate to different sides of ourselves. As difficult as making this kind of decisions may be, as controversial and incomprehensible as they may look to others, a decision of this kind is a decision we have to make if we want to remain true to ourselves. (Any being is true)

Meeting the needs of the self means taking care of the self, and being responsible for the self. Any life-long process is difficult, and the process whereby we take care of our selves is no exception. We may experience setbacks and failures, or suddenly discover that we were embarked upon a journey that was not beneficial for us. “Being good OR being perfect” means that the qualities of being good and being perfect are mutually exclusive: we can choose one of them but not both of them. We can choose to be good to the self here and now, or to strive for a state of self-perfection we will never attain. Exactly as a forest made of plastic trees is not a forest (any being is one), but a scattered collection of fake plants, and as a forest without spiders is not a true forest (any being is true), a self that is good to the self is a self that has developed the capability to accept each and every setback and unsuccess, and regard them not as failures of the self, but as necessary parts of one's own journey. Walking down the wrong trail, slipping on wet rocks, and tripping over tree roots are part of the journey. A good hiker is not a hiker who never gets lost, or a hiker who never trips over, falls down or gets wounded, but a hiker that knows how to walk back to the main path, and treat a wound in the wild. (Any being is good or perfect)

Being one with one's self, being true to one's self and being good to one's self is a lifestyle or, as I prefer to say, a form of life.

The self is unique and individual, but lives in the world here and now. The diversity of human attributes may be infinite but the world is populated by many other selves who have needs and demands very similar to the ones that we have, or to the ones we would have if we had lived the same lives as them. Self-love is experienced in the self and outside of the self. It is indeed possible to identify oneself with the other, to empathize with and “become” the other, without losing one's own identity. A few days ago, somewhere in Italy, a policeman - whom in his entire career may have beaten tens and tens of criminal suspects - found a baby who had been left in a trash can, and chose to adopt him. Recently, holidaymakers in Sicily formed a human chain to rescue boat migrants. Both the policeman and the holidaymakers knew the language of the self, therefore they could transcend the borders of family, clan and national solidarity, go against the most basic social norms, test the very limit of the law and still be applauded for what they did.

The language of the self is a language without words, a language that therefore cannot be spoken, but only listened to, and in this respect it very similar to the language of the other, because the language of the other is a language without vocabulary, grammar or syntax, a foreign language that makes no sense to us. We are unique, but we are not alone: “any being”, with its manifold of attributes and freely chosen duties and responsibilities is “ourselves as we independently coexist with any other person” therefore, there is a shared code of communication we can use to express and act upon our duties and responsibilities towards the other. . .


Unknown said...

The question involved here is that of the inclusion of otherness. No self without the non-self, the other. In the end that is a necessity, otherness is a necessity. The sociologist and philosopher Niklas Luhmann working on the issue of self-reference and hetero-referentility quotes Nicholas of Cusa, a Roman Catholic theologist from the Middle-Ages, who tried to explain why God created the Devil. Interpreting Nicholas of Cusa, Luhmann tells that God needed hetero-referentiality to observe in Devil his own Goodness.No reflexiveness, no self-consciousness without the other (the hetero-referential OTHER).

Otherness or hetero-refentiality is the only key to self-observation and reflexiveness. In other words, we need different forms of life, ways of thinking and of viewing the World to think about our own perceptions and to question them, in an enriching and complex experience. Adding complexity to our own self-experience.

Sometimes we come to the conclusion that "Hell is the others" (Jean-Paul Sartre), but, as I think, experiencing otherness (individual or social otherness) is an opportunity to have a moment of reflexion on our own "hell".

No change without otherness, pure self-reference is always only circularity and 'recursiveness'.

Otherness is the chance of stimulating the "cognitive openness" of the self. Hetero-referentiality not only to change but also to find happiness in what you are.

Flora Sapio said...

Those of Narcissus and the Shaytan are two very powerful myths - they illuminate two different ways in which hetero-referentiality can be interpreted, and the different consequences of each one of them. Openness of the self allows for knowledge of oneself and others, and involves a process of mutual change, adaptation, and evolution.

Closure of the self makes knowledge of oneself and others impossible, it is a refusal to change, and as observation of the natural world proves, an organism that does not change and evolve becomes extinct.

As cultural mediators and all those who operate in intercultural contexts know, to know the Other we have to speak the language of the Other. Speaking the language of the Other is what Echo does in the myth of Narcissus. In fact, she responds to Narcissus' shouting “who's there?” by shouting back the same question (as migrants do when our coast guard hails their boats) but Narcissus eventually turns a blind eye to her (...the 1,000 persons who've just died at sea...). Narcissus refusal to know Echo prompts Nemesis' decision to entice him to the pool, where he drowns while admiring his own beauty. Narcissus' arch-enemy was not Nemesis or Echo, but his rejection of hetero-referentiality and otherness, his refusal to listen to otherness. Knowledge of the Self does not take place in a void, but by and through the Other. Knowing the Other would have meant finding out that the Other was just a different mode of the Self, and such knowledge would have caused a change in the Self and in the Other. The refusal to try and know the Other instead closed any space that may have existed between Nemesis and polis.

The Self can only treat the Other as it treats itself...and Narcissus didn't really know who he was, until the moment when he saw his reflection in the pool. Could it be that Narcissus saw the possibility of hetero-referentiality as a threat, that he believed he could not withstand Otherness? If so, the refusal to communicate with the Other can be read as a sign of a deep structural weakness of the Self...

The Shaytan (Satan) is another archetypal Other. Shaytan (Satan) means adversary: he is an opponent – he who is so different from the Self as to be its opposite. An opponent is also someone who insinuates doubt in our mind as to our beliefs – as an adversary in a debate or a participant in a conversation or a casual chat. The story of Job as it is narrated by Christianity, Judaism and Islam is well-known, so I will not rehearse it here. In all three accounts, the Shaytan tests the solidity of Job's belief system, by insinuating doubt in Job's mind, and he does so by depriving Job of what is valuable to most people: Job loses his social status (wealth), his most immediate social circle (the family) and his body and self-image undergo a radical change (the plagues). Differently from Narcissus, who fled away from Echo, Job faces the confrontation with the Other (the Shaytan). Job is aware that his confrontation with the Other will likely shatter his beliefs about what is truly valuable to the Self, and expose him to the criticism and ill-advice of his three friends (a mild social censure). Job, however, accepts the challenge of doubt because his belief system (God) allows communication with the Other. Not only can Job stand the test posed by Otherness, he becomes a richer man through it.