The Reflexive Imperative and Fractured Reflexivity

This is the second of four posts in which I’ll explore the modes of reflexivity which are so integral to the argument Archer makes in The Reflexive Imperative. Underlying these concepts is an understanding of social morphogenesis as leading to the ‘situational logic of opportunity’ given the generative mechanism of variety to produce more variety. The arguments made to this end are quite intricate but their main ramification for understanding modes of reflexivity relates to the patterning of individual responses to this expansion of choice: 

For some (the communicatives), it can be partly but not entirely evaded, for others (the autonomous), it can be seized upon and fallibly exploited, and for yet others (the meta-reflexives), it presents a new horizon of novel possibilities. However, not everyone can practice one of these three reflexive responses towards the ‘logic of opportunity’, all of which seek to match life outcomes to subjects’ life concerns. (Archer 2012: 249)

These people are the fractured reflexives and, for a wide range of reasons, their deliberations tend to intensify distress and disorientation rather than bringing them to any conclusion about what to do or who to be. Their common denominator is that their self-talk intensifies affect rather than producing an action orientation. Those whose internal conversation takes this form regularly “admit to huge difficulties in making decisions, in defining courses of action to be consistently pursued and, above all, in engaging in anything more than the survivalist’s day-to-day planning” (Archer 2012: 248). The point is not that these people are somehow unable to function but rather than the fractured nature of their reflexivity makes ‘functioning’ intensely onerous, characterised by an intensity of introspection that is both a response to the stress and anxiety which circumstances provoke but also a cause of it, as the absence of any consistent orientation towards the practical question life poses will tend to cumulatively add to an individual’s problems. They accrue objective penalties through prevarication, indecisiveness or avoidance because the necessity of selection doesn’t go away simply because they struggle to respond to it purposively and “subjectively, they undergo profound mental distress and experience a disorientation that is qualitatively distinct from the anger and unfairness experienced by many in modernity” (Archer 2012: 290). But the reasons for fractured reflexivity and the precise form it takes are variable:

Displaced reflexives previously exercised one of the other three modes of reflexivity but the interruption of negative contingency led to its suspension. So for instance a communicative reflexive who struggles to adjust to the university environment when deprived of the friends and/or family who served as interlocutors. In these circumstances they are thrown back upon their own resources when left without those on whom they depended to complete and confirm their internal conversations. However they may find new interlocutors who can play this role or they may begin to move towards the practice of another mode of reflexivity, as the individualism thrust upon them situationally leads them to reorientate themselves towards the social. As Archer puts it, “subjects ‘displaced’ by contingent occurrences could return to their earlier mode of reflexivity if circumstances became more favourable and provided that their relations supported their return” (Archer 2012: 290).

Impeded reflexives are those who have yet to develop the practice of a particular mode of reflexivity to the extent required to complete deliberations in an action orientated way. Nonetheless they show a propensity towards and share a similar relational background with practitioners of another mode. So for instance an impeded autonomous reflexive might formulate plans and strategies while lacking the capacity to enact them in any sort of consistent way, as the demands of everyday life come to occupy their self talk in a way which crowds out the longer term planning which they nonetheless have a propensity for. In such cases their relational circumstances have proved necessary but insufficient for the development of a particular mode, engendering a tendency but also failing to provide the conditions for it to fully develop and/or being characterised by contingencies which have interrupted its development.

Expressive reflexives are those who tend to rely on ‘gut feelings’ to negotiate the choices which life presents them with. This is a refinement of the generic category of ‘underdeveloped reflexivity’ which Archer used in the previous two studies. Quantitatively those falling into this category do not register as any mode of reflexivity (including fractured) on the survey instrument which asks about self talk and qualitatively their mental processes are deeply express in a way which distinguishes them from other subjects: “their expressive rather than dialogical responses mean they exercise their agency solely in relation to the present moment and current circumstances, rather than assuming any reflexive governance over the shape of their lives” (Archer 2012: 250). These are people for whom life is deeply episodic, who Archer speculates may be responding to being overwhelmed by their difficulties by seeking to “blot out their problems by refraining from reflexive activities that defeat them, thus quasi-volitionally opting for a passive agential status in which circumstances are allowed to determine outcomes” (Archer 2012: 278). This only has a speculative basis in her data, as only two of the survey respondents exhibiting this pattern volunteered for interview, with Archer suggesting that expressives “live by ‘presentism’ because to them there is no ‘big picture’ but simply a succession of events that command their attention from day to day”. Unlike the manner in which communicate reflexives evade the necessity of selection by embracing normative conventionalism, expressive reflexives “produce ‘bounded variety’ simply by limiting selection to dealing with situational ‘chunks'” (Archer 2012: 279). They use ‘gut feelings’ to negotiate the options which are situationally available in an ad hoc way, “subordinating the cognitive to the ‘gut reaction’ through a selective perception that picks out only those parts of information that confirm the inerrant nature of their emotive responses” (Archer 2012: 283). The problem with living expressively in a manner governed by contingency is that “there is nothing to guarantee any coherence between these sequential outcomes and yet the subject has to live with or deal with their consequences” (Archer 2012: 250).

In the next two posts I’ll discuss autonomous reflexivity and communicative reflexivity. Then I’m planning to write something on Archer’s critical engagement with Maruyama’s cybernetics and, if I don’t give into the temptation to avoid a debate which frustrated and preoccupied me for the entire second year of my PhD, I’ll write something on habit(us) and reflexivity.

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