My hours-long fall down the mountainside was abetted greatly by the discovery of two spruce sticks, barked and polished, found off the trail a ways and behind a tree, as if left by some thoughtful wood fae. In combination with sticks, I also made liberal use of trunks lining the way, which provided ample handholds to slow still further my descent. Upon pausing for a breather, I examined the trunk and bark and found that the miniscule ridges of hands like mine had over time polished to the bough to such a sheen that I fancied that I might find my face reflected therein.
Our night post-Katahdin was spent at a strange hotel bearing its name. To one side of its cavernous lobby stands a pool. Given the scale, I could only guess at its previous function, perhaps an outer courtyard at a later date walled and roofed so that balconies and French doors now opened into the humid interior rather than the Maine chill. I took something not unlike pleasure in considering the ceiling decaying three stories overhead, in which one can follow the progress of decay by measuring the distance of white ceiling tiles from the pool and hot tub, in reality more lukewarm than boiling.
Over breakfast, my companion took to that morning’s subject with relish, be it in response to my incomprehension of the finer plot points of Gilligan’s Island or an elaboration, on his own undertaking, of the family conditions into which he had been born. Of the first, he sketched the characters and their respective roles yet saw little reason why I should be so perturbed by the professor, by this man who could bring something from the nothing but was otherwise unable to devise a way to leave the place. As to the latter, he went to great lengths to illustrate instances, from the first memories of his childhood, of his mother’s attempts to destroy him, of his older sister’s determination to break him for life, and of how these efforts were ongoing, having never truly ended, such that they still sought to that day to turn his every action about on itself and, in general, make him other than he was. Never before had I heard a living human so nearly approximate a Thomas Bernhard narrator.
One of the structural oddities that I came across, from the passenger seat, with some regularity in Northern New England was a large house, perhaps Edwardian era, typically several stories in height and seated on square foundations, with jutting bay windows at the corners. From the center of the house’s lower levels, in the fashion of a plinth from a wider base, a short, one-story tower rises, windowed on all sides and thus, as best I could guess, giving a commanding view of the surrounding lands, but to what end I could only conjecture. Was this a room for the melancholic to expel their black bile, as it were, to pace and stare and fixate on passing life? Or for the lord of the manor? What is one to make of this colonial, domestic panopticon looking not in but out?
With regards to Thoreau’s claims about insects, I found them rather more in line with reality than his talk of spruces. Mosquitoes and gnats mobbed my face, hair, neck, and so on whenever my forward, upward or downward progress slowed, which fact led to large intervals opening up between myself and my companion on both the way up and down and only closing at greater heights. At one rocky clearing, I stepped to one side to await him. I had in turn been awaited by an insect, which settled on my earlobe, passed from there to the inner ear, and I found the tinny voice most welcome.
My companion caught up, I resumed my clambering ways up the rockface, all the while trying to pick out white lines from lichens encrusting the stone. In a way, I was grateful for the distance. I have before commented on my companion’s propensity for repetition; the same topics eternally recur, the nature of time, family issues, both in greater cycles and the lesser declined. After followed talk of lessons learned on this hike, current events and memories of previous holidays, such as when he recalled a desert mango that I, a great many years earlier, had gleefully consumed at Black Mesa.
He also demonstrated great capacity for boundless speculation, particularly as concerns people and their history and the relation to their identity, national character, or ethnicity, and wished that I engaged in willful guesswork as well, for which I have expressed great distaste. To his proddings, I responded in clipped phrases and hoped thereby to turn his statements on their head. Yet he seemed impervious to this rhetorical device and persisted, at length extracting from me one nation or other. He simply could not help himself, be his speculation directed towards climbers attempting the Cathedral without proper climbing gear or a hotel clerk who had been rather accommodating.
While cresting the first ridge, I had taken note of a person ascending rather more slowly than our party. Above her a man extended a hand as she inched on her stomach up a large rockface. At the moment, I could make no sense of her slow progress but, on the way down, I thought to make of her an agoraphobe bravely trying to overcome her fear, even if it entailed crawling on her stomach for large stretches. I did later see her standing between boulders and again in the tablelands, so perhaps her difficulty owed to fear of heights or an altogether more obscure sorrow.
The tablelands in particular bear note for their uniformity as well as the uncanny green hue of the stones and outcroppings, only lichen and dwarf grass alive at this elevation and barely so at that. A general green haze pervades the heights, and, once loosed from path’s bounds, the lost are swallowed up therein. To this disorienting effect added our inability to narrow Thoreau Spring down to one of the surrounding rivulets disappearing beneath sand and loose rock, whatever aid the metal plaque might afford.
After reaching Baxter Peak and posing, my companion and I made our way to the Knife Edge, a surprisingly thin ridge linking other of Katahdin’s peaks, a notion which I had considerable difficulty explaining to my fellow traveller, a plainsman otherwise unfamiliar with mountain morphology. As to the Knife Edge, our attitudes toward the trail, if it can so be called, given its treacherous rock scrambles bounded by sheer drops, displayed again that remarkable inversion on which I have earlier remarked. For, in painting an image of the peak for him, I had touted the qualities of the Knife Edge, about which he had expressed some apprehension. Now faced with the ridge in the flesh, stone-cased as it were, it was not he who was cowed but myself and wished to turn around.
In vain, I recalled the importance of fixing a turnabout time, in this as in all things, that point beyond which, no matter one’s efforts, one is unlikely to progress. But my companion bounded off, and I scurried after, his short leaps and determined scrambling soon leaving me behind, some fifteen or twenty meters. Yet, when turning back and faced with the downhill return, our positions again reversed. Now, his heart drummed against his chest, or so he assured me, but not my own as we leaned into a wall opposite the empty air. I have wondered at this for some time, unable to puzzle out just how our affects might be so inversely tied, forever to mirror one another.
As has been remarked by others, the descent is significantly harder than the ascent. For the entirety of the slope comes into view, and handholds for climbing a rockface disappear with the change in perspective. Perhaps Heraclitus had it wrong: the way up is (not) the way down. Fatigue and apprehension gesture indirectly at the main problem behind it all, namely that descending is a matter of controlling how swiftly one falls down the mountain. This knowledge, far from facilitating the task, renders it rather more difficult. To the reign of gravity are all beholden, regardless of their knowledge or willing or unwilling ignorance. Mountains were no simpler before Newton than after.
The night before Katahdin a disagreement over accomodations broke out, and there played out a perfect inversion of positions as per a Thomas Bernhard novel. My companion had wanted to sleep in the carpark before the hotel, to rise early, and to take breakfast in a gas station. I, on the contrary, wanted a room in the hotel, to sleep later, and find provisions in the neighboring grocery store. Following the expression of our disagreements, my companion shifted to my position and I to his, such that we now raised voices in favor of that which we had vehemently opposed to begin with. Fatigued, we let things lapse as they were and awoke to the grey light of the predawn hours. Although my limbs had grown stiff with the chill, my mind ran over the inversion of the night before, unaware that this was to be just the first of such instances surrounding our climb.
The ascent began early as parking on-site is limited. Under time pressure, we took the narrow pavement somewhat faster than advised by passing road signs and cleared Baxter State Park’s series of ranger checkpoints. Once parked and underway, I resumed old hiking habits, which attest either to my considerable inexperience on the trails or the distillation of long walks over the years: conjugating the points of my body so as to pad over obtruding stones rather than to tread the earth between. Though beginning late, we made the ascent in short order and overtook other hikers through first the flat wooded path parallel to the gently sloping stream; the stepped limestone and the trickling rivulet running over it; the winding stairs, vertical slabs, and boulders; the final approach to the first peark and entry into the tablelands; the main peak and subsequent rock scrambles along the ridges.
In the course of our travels, I made note of diverse thoughts and sight: perception proves as much, if not more, an affair of environment than of the object; the hanging shadow of a contrail which, given our elevation, extends a solid bar of shade from sky to valley floor; the artificial look of the islands as seen from above and as if in model miniature; the matter of will as regards walking and getting ahead and the limits of such a view; numerous misquotations of Henry David Thoreau, misquotations revealing more about the intended audience than the speaker in that the speaker misquotes with the aim of intriguing a given listener.
I spoke of Thoreau’s cloud factory and our luck, for its workers seemed on strike for the day, clear as the air about the peak was. I alluded to his views on the unfinished quality of the lord’s work with the rocks of Katahdin’s peak and all else for which they might eventually serve. To my companion’s amusement, I tried as well to illustrate Thoreau’s tales of the windbent spruce lain over one another and of which the branches were so interlaced that he had been able to reach the summit via the treetop carpet. As for myself, I failed to corroborate the tale, due to the passing of time, changes in gravitational constants, or other.
What comes out of the polarization of discourse in the end? The picture, which Heath paints, finds little redeeming in the resultant state of discourse.
I don’t know how many talks I’ve been to where the question period goes this way. Someone presents a view that a solid majority of people in the room think is totally wrong-headed. But no one is willing to say things like: “I don’t think that what you are saying makes any sense” or “you have no evidence to support this contention” or “the policies you are promoting are excessively self-serving.”
In the absence of median positions, which might further discourse, the polarizing positions leave the discussion with no way forwards. In addition, the social dynamic hinders these median positions from coming out until well after they would have served a discursive purpose. Consider Heath’s portrayal of the post-talk discussion:
Then of course, out in the hallway after the talk, people say what they really thought of the presentation – at this point, a whole bunch of entirely reasonable criticisms will get made, points that probably would have been really helpful to the presenter had they been communicated. The end result is a perfect example of what Timur Kuran refers to as belief falsification […].
In the end, the victim finds himself in a philosophical echoing chamber or feedback loop, if you will, where falling short of emancipatory social praxis and enduring ad hominem attacks leave the victim with only one seemingly viable path: double down on radical praxis. With this comes the danger of tailoring a position to a group which is, practically speaking, in no need of convincing. Yet if discourse is to accomplish anything, it should concern itself precisely with those participants or groups in need of convincing. As the term’s etymology suggests, the “discourser” cannot content herself with closing herself off and remaining in place but, instead, must run about and make herself available to other “discoursers”.
There may be further joined to this an alteration in the victim’s perception of reactions falling between the poles. This owes entirely to the divisions structuring the victim’s ordinary experience of discourse and interaction with participants:
Since the only people willing to speak up on the right-hand side, so to speak, of the presenter are people who have views that are morally offensive to the presenter, it can easily lead to the perception that anyone who disagrees with you is, for that very reason, morally suspect. In other words, over time the “me” studies practitioner notices a strong correlation between “people who disagree with me” and “people who have moral views that I find reprehensible.” As a result, it is easy to lose sight of the possibility of reasonable disagreement – in particular, the possibility that people might broadly speaking share your moral convictions, and yet disagree with you about what should be done about them, or what justice requires in terms of redress, or even just about some entirely empirical or pragmatic question.
In fact, the problem is precisely that of dismissing the category of reasonable disagreement or, more simply, to see dissent as “unreasoned”. For disagreement has become strongly associated with one of the poles, namely, that with which reason-giving cannot take place due to a lack of sincerity and epistemic responsibility. As a result, dissent itself seems likewise a matter of insincerity and irresponsibly held positions (if for no other reason than human patterns of association).
Once perception is altered, the victim reacts in a manner befitting the perceived lack of sincerity and epistemic responsibility. This most often takes the form of moralizing, punishing, shunning, etc., in either individual or group form, which seems just as detrimental to securing fruitful discourse as those attitudes behind the victimizing.
This dynamic may help to explain why the reaction that so many “me” studies practitioners have to criticism becomes so highly moralized. They begin to think that all criticism of their views arises from some morally suspect motive. This is what then gets referred to as “political correctness,” namely, the tendency to moralize all disagreement, so that, instead of engaging with intellectual criticism intellectually, they respond to it punitively.
Heath judges the discursive situation largely unsalvageable at this juncture. Presumably, this holds so long as the structures and expectations underlying discourse remain unaltered. Whatever their discomfort, participants from median positions owe it to victims, discourse and themselves to elicit reaction and targeted reformulation from victims. Inversely, victims owe it to participants, discourse and themselves to make their case in such a way as to reach the broadest audience possible. As long as those structures and expectations remain in their current state, they exclude the possibility for criticism and genuine development of any participant’s position relative to the issue qua “discourser”.
The danger that this trend poses to an account like our own makes itself felt with the subtitle alone: “In search of self: Crafting a grammar of identity”. The unavoidable reference to identity brings with it all the baggage with which the term itself is loaded. This accounts in part for the care we have taken in setting out, crudely put, “good” senses of identity from the “bad”. Indeed, this has proven and will continue to prove the most difficult task before us: rescuing a meaning of identity secure from semantic overload.
At its simplest, this effort boils down to the following: set aside all references to identity which bring discourse to a close; promote all references to identity which allow discourse to continue. Put another way, we are to promote instances in which the reference to individual (qua personal history of the organism) and identity (more or less self-conscious image projected by person) can render explicit relevant features of the participant’s conceptual background, i.e. make clearer the reason(s) for the participant’s position and demonstrate epistemic responsibility on her part. Once made clear, other participants can identify those features in need of change if the participant is to come to consensus (and vice versa). So long as the precise reasons for disagreement remain unclear, discourse cannot meaningfully move forward.
It is for this reason that our account both recognizes and takes on the challenge posed by identity politics and “me studies” and, ultimately, comes out the stronger for it. Indeed, it anticipates precisely such difficulties and suggests, in broad strokes, where to go from there.
To return to the second of the lines of objection that we earlier evoked, recall that certain theorists may find objectionable the very emphasis that the present account lays on “self” or “identity”. For it gives further invitation to strands of identity politics which can otherwise block political discourse and exchange. So, were we able to establish a plausible account of selfhood, the kind of discourse to which it would give rise would be reason enough to leave the account by the wayside. Again, the difficulty lies in addressing without dismissing, doing justice without diminishing. How might we confront, mediate and integrate these concerns?
Before all else, we must first more clearly illustrate the problematic strand(s) of identity politics which this account may foment. One strand of this comes out in contemporary discussion of political correctness and so-called language policing. Bearing on education, a recent publication from Joseph Heath (via) suggests that broader cultural norms have, for the most part, consigned such linguistic practices to obsolescence:
This sort of verbal policing is the academic equivalent of a stupid pet trick – one that everyone knows how to do, and most people get over by end of undergraduate. In mixed company, using a term like “ableist” provokes a lot of eyeball-rolling, and is generally recognized as a good way of ensuring that no one outside your own very small circle will take you seriously.
In short, group self-policing has found little that these tactics contribute to (political) discourse and so has redrawn the lines of acceptable reason-giving appropriately. Although Heath could get across his point in more elaborate fashion, his point stands. In the larger discursive community, reason-giving which draws upon reasons and distinctions like those above has largely proven a non-starter. It does not move discourse along but, rather, brings it to a halt.
Accordingly, Heath finds this strand of identity politics, if not innocuous, at least toothless. It seems unlikely to gain further ground Yet there is a more growing trend within theoretical studies and to which he wishes to call greater attention:
This is the phenomenon that we refer to as “me” studies. We’re always telling graduate students that, in order to succeed in the long run, they have to choose a topic that they’re really passionate about, something that concerns them deeply. But of course, what could be more interesting, or an object of more passionate concern than… your very own self! Indeed, there is an overwhelming and perfectly understandable tendency among all persons to think that one’s own life is the most interesting thing happening on the planet right now – that’s because to you it is!
Heath first points to a “harmless” example to show how shortsighted “me” studies prove. An anthropological study on family dynamics between distinct cultures in a neighborhood can yield worthwhile findings. When the object of study covers, however, the anthropologist’s own family as a case in point and, seemingly, may have risen from this direct connection, the incestuous nature of the inquiry runs contrary to the character of humanistic undertakings: mindopening, mindbroadening. Indeed, Heath laments precisely the insularity of “me” studies to the variety of cultural instantiations and configurations in the world.
Yet this example, as suggested above, proves fairly harmless. While unlikely to advance discourse, it seems just as unlikely to hinder it. On the contrary, for Heath, “me” studies bearing on oppression stand as another matter entirely:
Now of course oppression, in its various forms, is a perfectly legitimate topic of inquiry. Indeed, many of the forms of social inequality that we tried to eliminate, over the course of the 20th century, have proven remarkably recalcitrant in the face of our efforts. Just figuring out why they are so hard to get rid of can be a surprisingly challenging endeavour.
Where “me” studies on oppression prove wanting is precisely in their inability to help participants in discourse make sense of such phenomenon. This owes to two distinct factors: a.) the positioning of victims of oppression relative to that oppression; b.) the reactions provoked in discourse by the victims’ formulation of the experience of oppression.
What do we mean more precisely by the positioning problem? This concerns more generally the possibility for (self-)monitoring of any given experience. For his part, Heath ties it more closely to the restriction of the field of participants:
[…] we all live in the same world that we are studying. So who is best positioned – those who suffer from it, or those who do not? The inevitable conclusion is that neither are particularly well-positioned, since both will be biased in the direction of producing theories that are, at some level, self-serving, or self-exculpatory. Thus the best arrangement will be one in which lots of different people study these questions, then challenge one another to robust debate, which will tend to correct the various biases. This is, unfortunately, not how things usually play out. Instead, the field of study tends to attract, sometimes overwhelmingly, people who suffer from the relevant form of oppression – partly just for the obvious “me” studies reason, that the issue is greater interest to them, because it speaks to their personal ambitions and frustrations. But it can also set in motion a dynamic that can crowd out everyone who does not suffer from that particular form of oppression.
Insofar as self-monitoring and self-reporting steadily overtakes outside monitoring and outside reporting, as it were, moralizing overtakes criticism and, perhaps, more importantly self-criticism. Without the give-and-take of outside viewpoints, the impulse to criticism and self-criticism is stamped out by the worry of making one’s case in convincing, albeit uncritical, fashion. In short, without challenge, there can be no correction of biases.
Moreover, the composition of one’s audience and the structure of contemporary discourse make it such that challenges capable of furthering a position’s critical appraisal prove few and far between. Heath diagnoses the problem as follows:
The problem is that, when you’re studying your own oppression, and you’re obviously a member of the oppressed group in question, people who are basically sympathetic to your situation, but who disagree with your specific claims, are going to be extremely hesitant to challenge you, because they don’t want to appear unsympathetic. Even a lot of people who are actually unsympathetic will say nothing, because they still don’t want to appear unsympathetic. So you are only going to hear from two types of people – those who are sympathetic but want to take a more radical stance, and those who we might label, for convenience, “jerks,” which is to say, people who are both unsympathetic and who are, for one reason or another, immune to any consideration of what others think of them.
Even when allowing that the sympathetic largely outnumber the unsympathetic, critical engagement with a position is rendered difficult due to the variation in the presentation’s tone and reaction thereto. A schematic breakdown of the audience, as sketched by Heath, shows just how the listener’s disposition or reaction can overwhelm her otherwise sympathetic character.
Imagine the population being partitioned first into two groups, those who think that the relevant form of oppression is bad, and those who don’t. Let’s be charitable to humanity and assume that, with most major dimensions of inequality, the former is a larger group. Now take those who are sympathetic, and consider attitudes that people might have towards the relevant form of oppression. Some will have very radical or extreme views (e.g. wanting to overturn the entire social order in order to remedy it), others more moderate, others rather conservative (e.g. thinking that there is not much that can be done about it, and that attempts to improve things might easily make things worse).
In the end, only hearing from the extremes leaves the person speaking to oppression with only two discursive avenues: agreeing with the sympathetic radical, moralizing against the unsympathetic radical. Neither of these contributes much in the way of advancing the discursive positions at stake in the discussion. For a middling approach, rather than the polarizing, serves as the grounds on which the different parties can converge. If the exposition of polar positions leaves participants unmoved, this is precisely because that which does lays the groundwork for advancement falls out of, not just confrontation, but bringing together.
This does not come to the same thing as maintaining that there is no place for radicalism and that all should first pass muster in the eyes of a pervading centrism. Radical approaches do much to show the onesidedness of an initial position and can serve to reorient a debate along different lines. When the time comes to advance critical positions, the most fruitful approaches pass, however, through the median positions and split the difference in rewarding ways. Criticism seems more synthesis than radicalism.
B.) We can scrutinize Carruthers’ presentation for limitations in the kinds of self there under consideration. Recall first Carruthers’ description of conscious self:
We decide what to pay attention to, what to remember, what to think of, what to imagine, and what sentences to rehearse in inner speech. There is control, of course, and it is a form of self-control. But is not control by a conscious self. Rather, what we take to be the conscious self is a puppet manipulated by our unconscious goals, beliefs, and decisions.
One worry may be that, by evoking a broader term which is not clearly delimited, the objection has broader application than it perhaps should and tempts readers to draw broader conclusions than they perhaps should. For example, the way persons discuss their selves, as per folk psychology, suggests that consciousness does not exhaust their notion of self. If there is perhaps good reason to impose limits on consciousness and on the forms of self operative in consciousness, this does not warrant consigning self to the bin. Rather, what is at issue here proves the relation between consciousness and self. Just how deeply does this coincidence run?
Working from a provisional template, we have previously attempted to elaborate a (sub)classification of selfhood that suits the purposes of our inquiry, i.e. facilitating discourse:
1.) Person: the biological substrate or vehicle for senses of self and personal history.
2.) Self: the mental or emotional correlate to person as substrate or vehicle for senses of self and personal history.
3.) Subject: a construct or property of self as bearer of rights
4.) Individual: a construct or property of self as bearer of a concrete, personal history.
5.) Identity: the more or less conscious synthesis or distillation of the above into a condensed formation permitting identification with; creation of a self-image for others.
6.) Agent: the more or less unconscious way in which the above hang together; everyday experience of oneself when not taken as an object of study or presentation for oneself or others.
Although all relate to selfhood in one way or another, of these, only 5.) would encounter serious complications and need for revision as per Carruthers’ provision. Given that projection of a self-image requires control over and manipulation of sensory-based material, it seems reasonable to assume that this task proceeds in a manner quite unlike that which we imagine. More precisely, the materials offered up by unconscious processes in the mental economy figure prominently in the self-image whether we will it or no, and, so, we engage in self-deception the person goes about fitting the different parts of her identity together.
Yet the other levels of selfhood compensate for this empirical oversight at the level of “identity” in different ways. 1.) “Person” accounts for the impact of genetics upon self, as shown elsewhere in connection with voting habits. 2.) “Self” leaves open to what extent unconscious mental or emotional properties weigh on conscious life and control. 3.) “Subject” and 4.) “Individual” are abstract constructs which neither stand nor fall with the notion of consciousness in that they are ascribed to persons independently of their consciousness thereof. 6.) “Agent” makes room for the cognitively unavailable aspects of everyday experience and interaction with the cognitive economy, unconscious or otherwise. Even 5.) “Identity” allows for the possibility of gradation in our conscious access to a self-image.
All of that is to say that, while there are problems with folk psychology understandings of self, a number of which we have pointed out in previous writings, and we do not wish to maintain self’s immunity against failings, conscious self is more in need of correction and nuance than outright denial. In some sense, selfhood merely requires the proper shading.
In fairness and to his credit, Carruthers does not wish to do away with self but aims instead at a more nuanced approach to the question. It is worth repeating his closing remarks:
Who’s in charge? Well, we are. But the “we” who are in charge are not the conscious selves we take ourselves to be, but rather a set of unconsciously operating mental states.
On this, the present account and Carruthers seem in agreement. The line between conscious and unconscious selfhood requires redrawing: it is more a matter of finding where to draw the line than questioning the line’s existence. If Carruthers may be inclined to give the lion’s share to unconscious self in answer to “Who’s in charge?”, we are more reticent, whether out of good reason or mere romanticism. For, in filtering out different levels or spheres of selfhood, we can more clearly set out conscious and unconscious domains and explore the possibility of interaction. Yet some will wonder whether we accomplish anything by merely multiplying conceptual distinctions. Nonetheless, it is important to remember to what extent the accounts above can be made to fit one another.