Self-awareness and reflexive technologies

What is it to be self-aware? Why is it a good thing? One of the strengths of the relational realist conception of reflexivity is that it doesn’t conceptualise this capacity in terms of self-awareness. One can be hyper-reflexive and yet devoid of self-awareness, constantly acting on the basis of partial or entirely fallacious self-knowledge in a ceaseless spiral of activity which moves them ever further from a situation where they’re clear about what it is they want. Something like this is my immediate response to the kind of critique Ian Craib offers of reflexivity and self-awareness in The Importance of Disappointment. I think he’s correct to identify the psychopathological dimension inherent in normative accounts of reflexivity:

The advocating of a constant self-awareness is also different from what it claims to be; my use of the word ‘catechism’ in relation to Rainwater’s list of questions was not accidental; my first association with such instructions was learning as a fairly young child that God could see me wherever I was, and sitting on the toilet feeling both embarrassed and slightly excited by the idea. The idea of watching myself all the time is not quite so embarrassing or exciting but seems a suitably mature version of the same thing.

What this exercise seems to require is a sort of splitting that momentarily we might make when we are very frightened, the moment when we leave our bodies for a safe place to watch what is happening to us.

Ian Craib, The Importance of Disappointment, Pg 118

I think this is a really important analysis which any sociological account of reflexivity must be able to address. There is a tendency towards ‘neurotic obsessiveness’ inherent in normative accounts of reflexivity. But I think we need to have a concept of reflexivity as a capacity in order to be able to make sense of the emergence of normative accounts of reflexivity and the implications they have when deployed (reflexively) in the context of individual lives. Or in other words: there are discourses surrounding ‘reflexivity’ but there is also a capacity assumed by those discourses. I don’t think the denial of this capacity is a tenable position, though certainly any particular account of it can be rejected.

This is the point i was making in my recent critique of Foucauldian attacks on reflexivity. They setup the argument in a way which means that questions about the discourse surrounding reflexivity swallow up questions about reflexivity as a capacity. The complexity arises because the former does encompass the latter i.e. social theorists talking about reflexivity as as a capacity are contributing to the discourse surrounding reflexivity. But subsuming all such contributions under nebulous categories like ‘neoliberal governmentality’ obscures the variability of this relation e.g. I suspect the Giddensian account of reflexivity contributed much more to ‘neoliberal governmentality’ when leading a ‘third way’ policy seminar at a new Labour strategy retreat then it did when writing academic books about social theory. The exhaustive focus on discourse systematically obscures the really interesting questions about how social scientific ideas circulate within the wider social world.

I entirely accept the legitimacy of methodological bracketing when investigating discourses surrounding reflexivity. For instance this is what I understand Nikolas Rose and Peter Miller to be doing in their work. But the same move is legitimate in the opposite direction. When conceptualising reflexivity as a capacity it can be useful and necessary to bracket the discursive context. But ultimately we need to bring that context back in on both sides. An adequate account of the discourse surrounding reflexivity should be consistent with an adequate account of reflexivity as a capacity. I’m really interested in the relationship between the two, something I conceptualise in terms of cultural resources and reflexive technologies.

The self-help book Craib discusses constitutes a reflexive technology in my view. It’s something that has been designed, produced and disseminated for the purposes of augmenting reflexivity. It is a book predicated on the understanding that “we only really become able to realise our full potential when we become our own therapists” (pg 113). It aims to help readers ‘realise their full potential’ by extending their capacity to manage their own emotional life. But as Craib convincingly points out, its operation likely draws upon and entrenches affective dynamics which are of questionable value, reflecting as they do ‘the powerful self and its illusions’. So we can identify two relations here and a relation between the relations:

personal reflexivity <—> reflexive technology

                                         |   |

personal affectivity <—> reflexive technology 

The reader engages with that book with deliberate goal of “wanting to get a better grip on my life” or something along those lines. If you’re ever stuck at Euston station waiting for a train (it happens to me a lot) go to WH Smiths and flip through the ‘business’ section and it’s astonishing how much of this crap gets produced. Clearly this publishing cottage industry is viable and at some point I intend to start systematically recording the blurbs of these books on my phone (though I wonder if that will invoke the ire of security guards) because the stated goals (“fulfil your potential!”, “take control of your life!” etc) fascinate me. I assume this is partly marketing patter but I imagine it’s not an awful starting point for getting a sense of the motivations underlying the purchase of the books.

So a reader engages with a self-help book in order to pursue a goal of self-change. The book frames that goal in a certain way, guides the reader through specific deliberative pathways stemming from it and inculcates action tendencies in relation to their self and their circumstances. But the original goal had an affective underpinning (“I can’t stand all this mess!” and the inchoate feelings underwriting such an articulated sentiment) that shapes the engagement with the book. But of course this all takes place within a social context and it would be mistaken to conceptualise this social context as an unchanging background to the messy business of personal life:

personal reflexivity <—> reflexive technology       (                                         )

                                         |   |                                                (         social context      )

personal affectivity <—> reflexive technology       (                                         )

For all the many faults one can find in the work Giddens did in the 90s, its popularity surely rests in part upon the attempt to incorporate the most private aspects of inner life into a macro account of global change. I think it utterly fails to do this for reasons I’ve spelt out in the first chapter of my PhD (and I’m wondering if I should publish this or if it’s about 10 years too late to contribute something to the critique of Giddens on late modernity…). But I think the underlying ambition is an interesting one. However my strategy would be to look at the conceptualisation of the mechanisms and processes at work here, in order to avoid the panoramic generality into which Giddens falls with all the problems this entails.

3 thoughts on “Self-awareness and reflexive technologies

  1. What are basic processes through which self-books can have an effect – so not looking at specific books and specific people but looking at the relationship between the two in a more abstract way.

  2. This article is interesting but a bit complex for me. It called my attention your sentence of ” Watching ourselves all the time as a more mature version of our belief of God doing it”

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