Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Alienable Self

We all have the right to sell ourselves; and it's a buyer's market.  God bless America.

Been cogitating.

About "self."

I like paradoxes.

"All generalizations are false, including this one."

Zeno's arrow.

Achilles and the turtle.

A conscious "self."

Self.  Yourself, or your self?  Self... what?

Self taught.  Self reliant.  Self loathing.  Self Magazine.  Self esteem.  Self satisfaction.  Self deprecating.  Self appraisal.  Self incrimination.  Self actualization.  Self effacing.  Self assurance.  Self confidence.  Self immolation.  Self serving.  Self promotion.  Self denial.  Self referential.  Self obsession.

Surely we are not talking about the same thing in all those different phrases.

Love your neighbor as yourself.  -Jesus

To thine own self be true.  -Shakespeare

Know thyself, know thy enemy.  -Sun Tzu

Friendship with oneself is all important.  -Eleanor Roosevelt

I don't even call it violence when it's self defense.  -Malcolm X

A friend is, as it were, a second self.  -Cicero

The world runs on individuals pursuing their self interest.  -Milton Friedman

Freeing yourself is one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.  -Toni Morrison

I am more afraid of my own heart that of the pope and all his cardinals.  I have within me the great pope, Self.  -Martin Luther

One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. -G. K. Chesterton

The self is hateful.  -Blaise Pascal

I had no idea that being your authentic self would make me as rich as I've become.  -Oprah Winfrey

What wild imaginations one forms where dear self is concerned!  How sure to be mistaken!  -Jane Austin

Not only is the self entwined with society; it owes society its existence in the most literal sense.  -Theodor Adorno

It's the journey of self, I guess.  -Keanu Reaves

What jailer so inexorable as oneself!  -Nathaniel Hawthorne

It's hard to separate oneself from a character.  -Halle Berry

Your real self - the "I am I" - is master of this land; the ruler of this empire.  -Robert Collier

The self is the servant who bears the paintbox, and its inherited contents.  -Annie Dillard

In self defense, anything goes.  -Imelda Marcos

It's in the act of having to do things that you don't want to that you learn something about moving past the self.  Past the ego.  -bell hooks

Be that self that one truly is.  -Soren Kierkegaard

Above all the grace and gifts that Christ gives to his beloved is that of overcoming self.  -St. Francis of Assisi

Surely, these people can't be talking about the same thing; but like us, they use the term "self" frequently, very frequently, which suggests that there is some cultural agreement about what the "self" is exactly, in very numerous contexts, and there seems very little public reflection, at any rate, about what actually constitutes a self, suggesting that we hold the several ways in which we use the term to be axiomatic.

I'm trying to figure out just how a couple of things fit together about self... selves... generic, not about myself.  I'm trying to figure out the relation between a kind of political-economic-ideological "self," that is theoretically disembodied, and a profound cultural self-absorption, that is sustained externally by the endless re-creation of desire.

We seek after self-fulfillment, self-esteem, self-assertion, self-actualization; and we do so with apparently little thought about what comes after, what comes after this constant inflow to self?  Of course, we never find out, because we die still consuming to satisfy the next manufactured need, because we believe in the idea of the infinite expansion of new needs and new things to satisfy them.  Some call it growth.  Some call it progress.  Some call it normal.  It appears infinite, but it is an illusion into which one is, actually... well, absorbed.

Alfred Adler developed a theory of psychology that claimed “personality problems” were based on people feeling inferior, which was caused by failure to assert their “selves.”

Therapists are part of the modern landscape, as Alasdair MacIntyre suggests with his epochal archetypes: bureaucrat, manager, aesthete, and therapist.

[I think solider has to go there somewhere, too, but that is my own addition - someone to stand at the frontier between the land of therapists, managers, aesthetes, and bureaucrats and the perceived and manifold threats to the social body from the outer-darkness.]

The therapist is where you can go to get your self adjusted in the popular imagination; and there is truth in the notion, given that the goal of much therapy is to be re-optimized.  Like an emotional tune-up.  We all have learned to need to learn how to be well-adjusted.  Adjusted to what is a question that seldom gets raised; and adjusted toward what is asked still less frequently.

In addition to MacIntyre, I am going to bring in Carole Pateman, a feminist critic of contract theory.  What Pateman says about self and the social contract - in addition to the hidden but still-operational sexual contract that is concealed inside the more well-known "social contract" - is that this contract depends on a peculiarly modern idea of the self - as property.

The Alienable Body

So I'm going to summarize what Pateman said in 1988 in her explication of the "sexual contract" hidden in the social contract, though I will try to confine myself here to her observations on contract generally.

Very briefly, Pateman begins by revealing that accepted liberal social contract notions are predicated in various ways on origin myths.

In the same way that the Hebrew origin myth of Adam and Eve led male intellectuals of an earlier era to subject women for their ostensible weakness of will, modern liberal philosophers built their models of social relations on highly figurative stories, though there are several of those stories.

The reason this is not immediately apparent to most of us is that we accept the current cultural myth that our society is "secular," and therefore somehow... scientific, or grounded in materiality.  We don't routinely investigate the "scientific origins" of our own beliefs, much less those of others.  But our faith in modern institutions and the modern claim that scientific means secular (read: valid), leads us to believe that they - them -  that if they speak with the same neutralized discourse as scientists, then we can assume that their philosophies of society and of power are based on some modern and material foundation.  Alas, such is not the case.  Not in the case of "the social contract" that underwrites our customs, policies, and laws.
No indeed, each of them is a fabrication, and a white masculine fabrication at that.

Pateman catalogs each of the Grand Poobahs of modernity - Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, Locke, Mill, even Charlie Marx.  In each case, these ushers of progress started with an imaginary metaphysical tale.  Not one any more scientifically or historically valid than the Edenic first couple and their reptilian interlocutor.

[W]e are the only people who think themselves risen from savages; everyone else believes they descend from gods. … [W]e make both a folklore and a science of the idea, sometimes with little to distinguish between them. The development from a Hobbesian state of nature is the the origin myth of Western capitalism. But just as Hobbes did not conceive that the commonwealth abolished the nature of man as wolf to other men, but merely held that it permitted its expression in comparative safety, so we continue to believe in the savage within us—of which we are slightly ashamed.

-Marshal Sahlins

One account of the particular and particularly influential origin myth of Thomas Hobbes, the Leviathan man himself.  In many ways, Hobbes was more direct an unapologetic than other contract philosophers.  He even granted women an original equal status with men in his origin myth, though both man and woman in Hobbes primeval story are the moral equivalent of vampires; and, of course, men subdue women shortly after the story begins.  His real and most embarrassing admission was that contract was an agreement, yes, but one that was secured through domination.  This did not disturb Hobbes in the least, since it was perfectly consistent with his origin myth that humans at some starting point were real dog-eat-dog, egotistical opportunists; but that their self-love in conjunction with calculation sometimes leads them to cooperate to mutual advantage.

In popular culture, this is not an unfamiliar image.  We are all schooled that we are approaching some transcendent epitome now that signifies what utterly horrifying barbarians we were in some imaginary past.  The real evidence is that we have become increasingly unpredictable and destructive to ourselves and others as we have moved further away from our actual origins; but on to our examination of the other stories.
Rousseau told a story of a Noble Savage, in the spirit of his own Romantic era.

On Locke...

The origin myth of America in this broader perspective is origin itself. According to John Locke "In the beginning all the world was America."  America stood for the primordial state of the world and man and was indeed seen, by the first generations of Europeans to learn of it, to be the last remaining remnant of that earlier time.  The newness which was so prominent an attribute of what was called the "new" world was taken not just as newness to its European discoverers and explorers but as newness in some pristine and absolute sense: newness from the hands of God.  That sense of indelible newness, which has been a blessing and a curse throughout our history, has not evaporated even today.  If it gives us a sense that we come from nowhere, that our past is inchoate and our tradition shallow, so that we begin to doubt our own identity and some of the sensitive among us flee to more ancient lands with more structured traditions, it also gives us our openness to the future, our sense of unbounded possibility, our willingness to start again in a new place, a new occupation, a new ideology.  Santayana has spoken of "the moral emptiness of a settlement where men and even houses are easily moved about, and no one, almost, lives where he was born or believes what he has been taught."   Yet other Europeans have envied our capacity to act without being immobilized by ancient institutions.

-Robert N. Bellah

I how I long to digress into the subject of "frontier masculinity," but I will stick to the path.

Here is Pateman on Rawls:

The naturally free and equal (masculine) individuals who people the pages of the social contract theorists are a disparate collection indeed.  They cover the spectrum from Rousseau's social beings to Hobbes entities reduced to matter in motion, or, more recently, James Buchanan's reduction of individual to preference and production functions; John Rawls manages to introduce both ends of the spectrum into his version of the contract story.  Rousseau criticized his fellow social contract theorists for presenting individuals in the state of nature as lacking all social characteristics, and his criticism has been repeated many times.  The attempt to set out the purely natural attributes of individuals is inevitably doomed to fail; all that is left if the attempt is consistent enough is a merely physiological , biological, and reasoning entity, not a human being.  In order to make their natural beings recognizable, social contract theorists smuggle social characteristics into the natural condition, or their readers supply what is missing.  The form of the state of political association that a theorist wishes to justify also influences the 'natural' characteristics that he gives to individuals; as Rawls stated recently, the aim of arguing from an original position, Rawls' equivalent to the state of nature, 'is to get the desired solution.' ...

...Rawls' task is to find a picture of an original position that will confirm 'our' intuitions about existing institutions...
Carole Pateman

We have a cultural memory of these stories, which is exactly why Rawls can unabashedly say that he reasons 'to get the right solution.'  The assumption of our cultural superiority and the intentional confirmation of our 'intuitions' are built in.

Although there are many arguments among many liberal philosophers to this day about many things, what joins them all is the shared belief in a special kind of self.

The self as owner of a transferable body.

Again, you would think that in a society that prides itself as being grounded in science. we would question the idea that there is some entity, apart from one's embodied existence, that owns her or his body.  Yet, the idea that one's body is not alienable is almost incomprehensible to us in modern metropolitan culture.  We believe that each person has the right to dispose of her or his body as she or he sees fit, to a point of course.  Suicide is still against the law; and we are prohibited from legally consuming certain kinds of drugs.  But the commonsense belief among most of us is that we can do as we wish with ourselves.  Here is the paradox.

If you sign an employment contract, as an employee, you are signing away yourself for a period of time; you are promising to obey, in exchange for a sum of money (or protection from ruin).  And if you look at many of the most thankless and low-paid jobs, you quickly realize that you can contract to live little better than a slave.  Yet, as we sign the contract, me the big boss and you the tomato picker, both signatories are recognized by the law as equal.  So, in a real sense, there could theoretically be a "slave contract."  In fact, a good case could be made that we have many slave contracts in operation right now.

So how does this bit of legerdemain work?  It works because of another bit of post-Enlightenment creativity, the idea of a formal separation between two "domains," which are named "public and private."

The Split

[I]n contemporary contractarianism... the boundaries that separate one individual from another are so tightly drawn that an individual is pictured as existing without any relationship with others.  The individual's capacities and attributes owe nothing to any other individual or to any social relationship; they are his alone...

...The individual owns his body and his capacities as pieces of property, just as he owns material property.  According to this view, each individual can and must see the world and other individuals only from the perspective of his subjective assessment of how best to protect his property, or, as it is often put, from the perspective of his self-interest.

-Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract, p.55

Liberalism - or contractarianism - establishes a "civil society."  In this theoretical society, there are two distinct spheres of activity - public and private.  The former is politically relevant; and the latter is to one degree or another immunized against political intervention, and counted as irrelevant to public/political discourse.

Prior to feminist interventions in liberal society, the public was a sphere of activity where men ruled fraternally; and in the private sphere, men ruled individually.  This is one major reason that feminists have produced many of the best analyses of this public-private dichotomy, because feminist critiques and advocacy focus analysis on domination that happens apart from the public, political gaze.

This is interesting in light of the contractarian origin myths, because in those myths, there are no political subjects who are not adult, white men.  The private realm, that of the emblematic patriarchal, nuclear family, is where the women and children can be hidden away, along with all that egalitarianism and those messy and personal alternatives to political strategy and market economics.  Nothing is more subversive to the free-market ideology than the non-market relations of the family, after all.  This begins to hint at how this public-private split actually functions as an ideological article of faith.

Rousseau admitted of prior social relations in his origin myth; but he highlighted the public-private split in an explicitly gendered way.

In this world, which still operates in spite of the incursions of social movements, the example of the marriage contract is highly instructive as an example of how the public-private dichotomy underwrites the alienable body.

Until only recently, the marriage contract, which predates contractarianism by centuries, having been invented by the Medieval church, began with two legally-equal individuals, one male and one female.  But the conditions of the marriage contract, in which the husband to be was named "the principle," meant that upon signing the contract, the female party voluntarily accepted lifelong obedience to this husband, in exchange for his protection (from other men).

Obedience in exchange for protection from danger or want can be seen in a military enlistment contract (protection from want) or in an employment contract, too.

The point is, in this marriage contract, the woman is a "possessive individual," a theoretically-disembodied self that owns her body, which she can then exchange as property.  Her body is alienable.  Its ownership can be transferred.  At the same moment, she is transferred from the public sphere, where her floating ghost self is recognized as a legal equal, and into the private sphere, where the legal gaze no longer can penetrate.

Now while this account draws a good deal of attention to the exploitative nature of this exchange, the focus of this analysis or synthesis or whatever it is, is how this concept operates in the world we routinely think of as more egalitarian.  In particular, we now see "the right to privacy" as a kind of precious patrimony (it is, in fact, passed down from men).

When one begins to reflect on all the common dilemmas we already recognize around this separation of public and private - in family law, for example - we begin to appreciate how ideological this separation actually is.  The shell game between what is public and private serves to conceal the relations of power from the eyes of the law by constructing an ideological wall between them.  This applies to the issue of marital rape, for example, and of freewheeling campaign contributions, and of "intellectual property."  There is something in the social contract that serves to simultaneously conceal and reproduce domination; and that is abstraction.

The first thing that must be abstracted, in order for the law and custom to successfully embody the contractarian order, is the person - wherein however many billions of us there are, the universalizing imperative that maintains the separation between public and private must find a way to count for them all equally.

This is a problem, since equality - at least in the secular sense - can never be anything except a fiction.  Not only are actual individual people not equal, they are in many ways incomparable.  Nonetheless, the matter must be clarified; and that is how we arrive at the disembodied self.  The self that stands before the public - before the law - cannot manifest any attribute that places her or him above or below or aside from any other person.  They can be neither fat nor thin, neither old nor young.  They - like the Hobbesian monstrosities in his origin myth - are without either history or love.

Feminists point out that in this way, the subjection of the woman in a patriarchal home is not counted as an instance of domination in the public sphere, which is the only one that liberalism affirms as politically relevant.  Equality is served.  So is fraternity.

And this observation is applicable to other axes of power in the "private sector" of liberal society, where there has been an exchange of obedience for protection precisely at the dividing wall between public and private.  The transferability of self, of the body, not only ensures that the legal ghost who owns the body has something akin to autonomy (the ideological account), it ensures that the same body can be transferred readily between the public sphere and the private.  We all have the right to sell ourselves.

Wage labor was the alternative to slavery during the American Civil War, free labor they called it.  Free to starve.  This was no an anti-capitalist idea.  On the contrary, the idea of the alienable self was perfected in practice in conjunction with the construction of the self-regulating market described by Karl Polanyi.  Individuals could be shifted, using want as the impetus, from point to point in a meshwork of productive activity, where each contracted to exchange obedience for a prescribed time each day for protection from impoverishment in an ever more enclosed and privatized world.

Self vs Selves

We all have the right to sell ourselves; and it's a buyer's market.  God bless America.

But there is what I will argue is an even greater evil in the liberal schema; and that is the terrible and lonely isolation that it transports from the law into our lives.

Selfhood – which is not a political fiction like the disembodied contractarian self, but a real experience – is not particularly conducive to conceiving one’s life as in any integral way, not at least in our time.  The modern self is chopped up by the partitioning of our lives into discrete and unrelated activities and by the way that partitioning compels us to adopt a different and “appropriate” role for these partitioned situations.  The political fiction of the individual self leads directly to this terrible fragmentation of the experienced self.

It is difficult to hold together the idea of an autonomous self and the lived experience of interdependence; and this contradiction invariably creates contradictions in the psyches of actual people.

Stripped of identity by ideology, in a society that routinely dis-embeds us and re-embeds us, we ourselves are easily reduced to consumers, whereupon we internalize that reduction and attempt to live into it faithfully.  People can pay now for personality makeovers in order to be more successful at job hunting.  Some do.

So we are still attempting to manifest Hobbes.  My autonomous self will manipulate your autonomous self in order to ensure that you do not interfere with my access to my self’s autonomy.  Combine that with a sense of entitlement, and you got a whole lot of trouble.

The deracinated self, even internalized in an actual historically constituted human being, is a self who is inoculated from responsibility for all that exceeds the reach of her or his arm.  This is Homo economicus, a wretched, lonesome creature freighted with choices at every instant, and with no higher authority to tell this creature how to assess those choices, much less how to escape them.

Decontextualization serves to conceal context that is actually there.  But as Pateman points out in her criticism, there is a powerful white man in the story who is normative; and as Charles Mills, author of The Racial Contract, points out, the same powerful white man is above the legally-equal but unemployed, urban African American, the latter's subjection now secured by contract instead of title.  The actual domination is a private matter.

Capitalism, with its faith in unlimited growth and its amoral metaphysics, flourishes among the embodied-disembodied.  We see now, those of us who live in the global metropoles, how we are not free within the private sector, but consigned there.  The entire planet is now at the mercy of bond traders, for God's sake.  You are a commodity whose job is to consume commodities; and if you are in the imperial state, consumer of last instance for the whole world, you learn how to sanctify consumption.  "Acquire, discard, repeat" is your liturgy.

The disembodied self feels vacant, because this self has been vacated.  Compulsive consumption becomes a displacement activity in the face of what can only appear as chaos.  The incoherence of modern culture appears orderly, because this displacement activity is ordering our activity.  And in order to sustain this order, both its orderly displacement behaviors and its myth of infinite growth, what has to created anew, again and again, is desire.  This ghost-robot alliance, alas, is self-referential in every way, entrained to be so by a lifetime of highly sophisticated, electronic propaganda, all aimed at producing a dual idea in each of us:  desire is infinite, and happiness consists in the satisfaction of desires.

In contractarian society, I have a right to my desires, and an uninflected right to seek their satisfaction.  I am a rights-bearing, history-free, abstract individual, and I can buy whatever the hell I want.  It's a free country.
We are theorized into the condition of lab rats that have been over-stimulated into aggression.

Here is what consumerism in the world’s cores (and exterminism  in its peripheries) comes down to.  Entitled selves.  Desire that you have a “right” to quench, even a mandate.  My self has a legal right to get as much as I can for me, to do whatever feels good to me, to base my perceptions of the universe on me.  I am now the perfect political being, the perfect strategic being, the singular redoubt of internality, surrounded by externalities, asserting my self against all those other selves.  I am become the Hobbesian monstrosity.

Link to piece on "redoubts," and this idea's origins in war and masculinity

Emotivism and Bethsaida

My autonomous self will manipulate your autonomous self in order to ensure that you do not interfere with my access to my self’s autonomy.

Of course, we are not that, even when we desperately try to behave as if we are.  If love and belonging are natural aspects of life, and I believe they are, then the self-indulgent consumer society morally injures us.  More than that, it enslaves us.  The late Catholic priest and social critic Ivan Illich said that consumer society makes us "the prisoners of envy and addiction."

What liberal civil society brings into being is a state that is prohibited from looking at any of its actual, embodied citizens, in the interest of preserving order among all its citizens through the application of laws written in the bloodless language of the technocrat.  There are the rules, such as they are, and each citizen will theoretically be measured against the rules themselves with no account of any difference between citizens.  Power is safely concealed behind the Privacy Wall, for good or ill.  We are, by and large, inured to this mode, such that it might seem strange merely to believe that things could be otherwise.
Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath."

-Mark 2:27

Since there are multiple and influential ethical frameworks at work in modern metropolitan society, and since these frameworks are incommensurable, the solution is to refuse any public ethical stance at all (which, it turns out, is not possible).  The great social contract has given rise to a very odd form of denial.  As MacIntyre points out, liberal society has lost the capacity to name the difference between manipulative and non-manipulative relations.

Contemporary moral experience… has a paradoxical nature.  For each of is taught to see himself or herself as an autonomous moral agent; but each of us also becomes engaged by modes of practice, aesthetic or bureaucratic, which involve us in manipulative relationships with others.  Seeking to protect the autonomy that we have learned to prize, we aspire ourselves not to be manipulated by others:  seeking to incarnate our own principles and stand-point in the world of practice, we find no way open to us to do so except by directing toward others those very manipulative modes of relationship which each of us aspires to resist in our own case.  The incoherence of our attitudes and our experience arises from the incoherent conceptual scheme which we have inherited.

-Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

In a morally incoherent society, says MacIntyre, where there are multiple ethical frameworks  operating that are not even comparable on their own terms, public debate devolves into assertion and counter-assertion, because there is no authoritative foundation of shared premises for the assessment of incommensurable truth claims.  The assumption is that truth and ethical action cannot be determined in the public sphere, and that these are private preoccupations.  The public sphere must, therefore, attempt to establish standards, policies, and laws that are impersonal, or transcending the personal.  In fact, there is no transcendence at all, but only a reduction to some theoretical common denominator that confesses the belief that what is moral behavior is totally in the eye of the beholder.

This is obviously an ideal that cannot be realized in actual society, but it retains its ideological force nonetheless, in both custom and law.  This approach to the question of moral action MacIntyre calls "emotivism."

Emotivism is the doctrine that all evaluative judgements and more specifically all moral judgements are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.

-Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 11-12

Watch the domination shift from the public to the private; watch the public sphere go blind.

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

 He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

 Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”

-Mark 8:22-26

What happens to the idea and experience of self in a world where one is almost obliged by custom to objectify others and manipulate them?  Skill at the manipulation of others is actually a handsomely rewarded profession now.  What is the price we pay for this form of "autonomy"?  This is surely a sinful condition, and just as surely a sinful idea - a betrayal of the very essence of agape.  Spiritual impoverishment has come to characterize our social landscape.

It is the antithesis of the Beatitudes.  Self versus selves.

The New Normal

The normative self now is what the broken or deficient self was in the past… the self-centeredness of the venal and the immature transformed into virtue - which is the satisfaction and constant recreation of desire.  Ram tough!  Pantene, because I'm worth it!

Then you die.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

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