Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Part 32: (Narcissus and Talismans): 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 from Part 31, in which Flora Sapio confronts the talisman quality of the self.

Contents: HERE.  

(FS): Vox significat rem mediantibus conceptibus

The object-sign-interpretant chain is similar to a musical score: the message of music, that is the musical symbols printed on paper can be read, interpreted and played only by those who can read them. In the absence of a person who can read musical notation, a musical score cannot be brought to life. The most important element in the chain is neither the object nor the sign, but the interpreter. As free as he may be, a musician will always be inspired by all the composers whose music have made a lasting impression on him. While each one of his compositions will bear his personal touch, the influence previous composers have had on him will always be visible in his work. The difference between a skilled musician and a boy band lies in that the skilled musician has acquired the ability to continuously reinterpret and reconceptualize himself and his work, while the boy band keeps playing the same music.

The same logic applies to the differentiated self, and the ways in which the differentiated self maintains porous and flexible but solid boundaries between the Self and the Individual or Aggregated Other. But, reflecting on how the differentiated Self does reinterpret objects and signs is easier if I recount a strange story I was told by a Finnish woman I once met in London. 

As we talked over coffee, she told me she had a vivid memory of the day when she stood before the door to her first office, staring at the nameplate. The inexplicable reaction she had, the same unexplainable reaction she would have for the next fifteen years to come was thinking “This is not who I am. This is not me. This is just a name plate.” She bore her long and unpronounceable last name with pride – once, when someone suggested she change her last name in return for better job opportunities, she replied by standing up and leaving the room. She was used to being addressed by several different diminutives and nicknames, therefore she knew that she was and she was not the name printed on that plate.  Whenever she was called “Doctor” her mind started performing a free association in which she saw many, many images. The only image she could not see was an image of herself clad in academic gown. Hearing or seeing the word “Professor” evoked a certain old chant, which worked as a mantra in that it could in part neutralize the power the word “Professor” had over her.

The woman told me she had an ancient and secret name, that only she knew. If that name were pronounced, her self could be summoned. If a spell was instead cast on her by uttering the words “Doctor” or “Professor”, then Doctor Unpronounceable or Professor U. would manifest themselves,  and talk to the invoker. These spirits would then vanish, and their place would be taken by other characters. The woman explained to me that, in reality, she had never wanted to be a Doctor, a Professor, or a Dean. One of the things that were important to her was investigating problems and looking for the evidence she needed to solve them. The academia offered opportunities to investigate problems but, it was not the only locus of creative thinking or problem-solving.

The day when she saw one of her names printed on the nameplate, she not only knew that the name did not refer to who she really was but to one of her attributes – a limited part of her personality. She also knew that the name plate was a dangerous talisman, because she'd seen scores of Academics look at the nameplate while muttering to themselves “This is who I am”, and vaunt their ability to merge with their job title – and the institution – as a marker of personal success rather than as a sign of a weak personal identity. U. however knew how to neutralize talismans: every morning she would stick a sticky note reading “will be back soon” next to the nameplate, and sit in her office as if the talisman did not exist.

Her troubles, she told me, began when in an attempt to make her become the name written on her nameplate four magicians made a poweful talisman, and hid it in very close proximity to her person...

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