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.

The notion of ‘clarity’ is a contested one within social theory. This was made clear to me when various posts of mine, often just embedding videos of other people speaking, attracted a lot of indignation on Twitter. There are some people who really don’t like Lacan and Žižek being criticised for their lack of clarity. The latter still bothers me, given how much I enjoy his work and how much of it I read. For instance I’m currently reading his Hegel magnum opus* – the seeming inability of some people to accept it is possible to enjoy someone’s work while also criticising them baffles me. Or perhaps I’m still indigent about being called ‘scientistic’.

Rather than rehearsing this tedious internet dispute, my point is to stress that writing clearly and writing well can be antithetical. I think Žižek often writes well, in the limited sense that his work is often enjoyable to read, while nonetheless rarely writing in a way that could be called clear. I think John Rawls writes clearly, in the sense that one knows where one stands with him, while nonetheless writing tedious prose. I mean this in the sense that it is clear what he is saying and why he is saying it. This is sustained throughout a text. Therefore it becomes possible to relate to him in a way that otherwise would not be possible.

It’s this capacity to relate to the arguments a theorist makes in a text which has been on my mind since reading the chapter on Goffman in Ian Craib’s (wonderful) Experiencing Identity. In this chapter, he identifies the “appeal to obviousness, self-evidence and reasonableness” which runs through Goffman’s work, such that “the world calls, everyone can hear it, it is reasonable that someone try to answer” (p 76). He offers a wonderfully incisive critique of this rhetorical deployment of obviousness:

To read Goffman is to be seduced or to refuse seduction. It is not to enter into a critical dialogue, nor is it to understand another’s view of the world. Initially one must lose oneself in his world or keep out of it altogether. The seduction fails or succeeds through a double strategy. In the first place, the reader is led into an ‘identification-in-superiority’ with Goffman. We become privileged observers in a special way: we see through tricks, acts, illusions of all sorts. With Goffman the reader is no fool. the reader becomes an ‘insider’, his or her status is confirmed by the systematic use of argot and suspicion. The alliance is confirmed when the suspicion is extended by Goffman to himself; it becomes a knowing alliance in which both Goffman and the reader admit to the possibility that Goffman might be fooling the reader. The systematic ‘frame-breaking’ of the introduction sets up a knowing conspiracy which achieves seduction through a revelation that seduction may be what is happening. It is not that we are taken in by Goffman’s openness, rather we side with him because of his admitted trickiness. We ourselves become tricky, knowing and suspicious. (pg 79)

He goes on to develop this line of argument, contending that “rarely does [Goffman] take the responsibility for what he is saying”. I’m not sure Žižek takes much responsibility for what he is saying either. This is my fundamental suspicion about opaque writing – it tends to undermine active intellectual engagement** by suppressing the propositional content of the argument. In any argument there are a multiplicity of points which can be affirmed or contested, with varying degrees of significance given their locations within the unfolding structure of the argument. Many of these nodal points will call into question the logic of the argument itself, or at least open up the possibility of it being reframed. By suppressing the propositional content of the argument (which all prose will do to some extent) we close down certain lines of response. Texts which lack clarity tend to obscure these and, through doing so, preclude an experience of being monologued at becoming one of having a dialogue with. For instance I find Žižek difficult to engage with because reading him is like having a very entertaining, interesting and learned scholar drunkenly monologuing at you in a high speed way. It can be great just to sit and listen. It  can get boring and you make your excuses and move to a different table. But what it never facilitates is a dialogue.

I find Žižek to be a very particular sort of reading experience, which is perhaps why I enjoy reading his books. What I’d like to understand more broadly is this relationship between the phenomenology of reading and the rhetorical style of theorists. I think Craib captures something important about Goffman and there’s the possibility of extending an analysis of this form to other theorists:

The alliance with the reader, then, is in the face of a world which is ‘just like that’. All one can say immediately is, ‘Yes, it is like that’, or ‘No, it is not’. In fact, neither response is adequate, or both are equally adequate: some aspects of the world are ‘like that’, others are not. To break free of Goffman’s guiding gestures is to begin to distinguish what he is really talking about, and it is a matter of looking at the questions that come out of his descriptions, but which remain unanswered and often unasked (pg 79-80)

My most rewarding experiences of reading theory have come from those who I was initially sceptical of but then was largely persuaded by (Archer) or those who I was initially persuaded by but then developed a scepticism towards (Crossley, Giddens, Elder-Vass). It’s this experience of moving closer or moving further away from a body of work, through textual engagement, which I’d like to understand better than I do. What sorts of relations does a text facilitate with its reader? What implications do these have for the reader’s mode of engagement? How can we understood these as a relationship between two distinct sets of properties and powers: those of the reader and those of the text?

*Consciously I’m genuinely interested in it. I’m also hoping it’s broad enough in its scope to help flesh out the limited (and limiting) intellectual map of contemporary continental philosophy I’m working with. Though it’s hard not to wonder if I have some unconscious motive in relation to these disputes about Žižek that irritated me so much at the time (whereas few things on the internet do these days).

**I use the word ‘tends’ very consciously here. I think there are countervailing tendencies, often arising from determined readers keen to cut through the thicket of obscurity, operating here in a way which ensures that philosophy of this sort doesn’t descend into oratory.

Edited to add: Reading Ian Craib is like having a relaxed chat over a pint on a sunday afternoon in a quiet pub.

In contrast to the scorn which Rorty’s name now provokes in some quarters, it’s arresting to see the esteem in which he was held by Roy Bhaskar in the late 80s, albeit in the context of a trenchant philosophical critique. He commends Rorty’s “eloquent critique of the epistemological problematic” but intends to argue that Rorty remains captive to this problem field in ways he himself fails to recognise (Bhaskar 1989: 146). In doing so, he advocates a philosophical post-narcissism which is capable of elaborating “non-anthropocentric pictures of being” through taking Rorty’s project of ‘de-divinisation’ and pursuing it much further than Rorty was either willing or able to do (Bhaskar 1989: 147).

His initial target is Rorty’s account of science, particularly his easy imputation of chronic success in “the prediction and control of nature”. In this claim Rorty reveals himself to have accepted Hempelian assumptions about natural science, in effect committing himself to a basically positivist account. Much of Bhaskar’s critique proceeds from systematically exploring the ambiguities which are entailed by Rorty’s failure to distinguish between the intransitive (ontological) and transitive (epistemological) dimensions of science. Once we begin to draw this distinction, Rorty’s constant invocations of ‘redescription’ come to seem much more modest in their conclusions, though Rorty himself fails to recognise this:

Thus redescribing(td) the past in a revolution way can cause(id) radical new changes, including a new identity, self-definition or auto-biography: but it cannot retrospectively cause(id) old changes, alter the past (as distinct from its interpretation). It is not surprising that Rorty should slip from transitive to intransitive uses of terms like ’cause’ – it is endemic to empirical realism, the epistemological definition of being in terms of (a particular empiricist concept of) experience. (Bhaskar 1989: 152).

Bhaskar’s point is not to impute anti-realism to Rorty, though the latter surely does come to this in his later work. For Bhaskar “the crucial questions in philosophy are not whether to be a realist or an anti-realist, but what sort of realist to be (an empirical, conceptual transcendental or whatever realist); whether one explicitly theorises or merely implicitly secretes one’s realism and whether and how one decides, arrives at or absorbs one’s realism” (Bhaskar 1989: 153). Bhaskar is in agreement with Rorty’s repudiation of the ‘Archimedean point’ outside human history and the notion of ‘correspondence’ as standing between world and language. However he finds it problematic, as well as internally inconsistent, for Rorty’s realism to adopt such a whiggish approach to actually existing science – imputing a continual extension of our capacity to ‘control and intervene’ with one hand while bracketing the philosophy of science with another. He shares Rorty’s anti-foundationalism and applauds his  “vigorous assault on its attendant ocular metaphors, mirror imagery and overseer conception of philosophy” (Bhaskar 1989: 157).

So what’s the problem? Rorty’s peculiarly positivistic stance finds expression in his assumption that an individual represents a closed system. Bhaskar addresses this point in a dense critique which I won’t attempt to summarise but is an astonishingly accomplished analysis which is worth studying in detail (Bhaskar 1989: 161-162). His attention is to better understand “A Tale of Two Rortys”: a tension which runs through his work and precludes him from offering either an adequate understanding of scientific activity or a sustainable account of human freedom. In essence he finds himself reproducing a linguistified version of the Kantian distinction between people as empirical selves and as moral agents. Rorty is attempting to combine a physicalism which sees individuals as closed causal systems, in which it is possible (in principle) to predict every movement of a person’s body by reference to microphysical states, with an affirmation of the discursive freedom of human beings.

However it is this freedom to ‘re-describe’ which is the cause of all the problems. He fails to distinguish between objects changing and requiring a new description and an unchanged object being redescribed. In this sense ‘redescription’ comes to be detached from the characteristics of the objects being redescribed. Yet this is central to Rorty’s account of human freedom:

Man is the describing, redescribing being. Among the entities man can describe in a new, and abnormal, way, is himself. By making a new, incommensurable description of herself ‘stick’, she makes it true; and thus ‘gives birth to’ (to use Harold Bloom’s term) or ‘creates’ herself – which is to say ‘overcomes’ her previous or past self. Moreover, only by describing herself in a totally novel way can she capture or express her idiosyncrasy, uniqueness – or rather achieve it, achieve her individuation – for anything else would reduce her to a (more or less complex set of formula(e), a token of a type (or set of types). Such radical self-redescription (which could be nicknamed ‘me-‘ or ‘we-‘ description) is the highest form of description. For not only does the redescription redescribe the describer; but in the process of redescription – of wining it, of making it stick, of achieving recognition for it – it makes the (re)description true; so achieving the identity of subject and object, by creating it. (Bhaskar 1989: 171)

On this picture we are left with a notion of freedom as “caprice, discourse, capricious discourse and creative discourse” (Bhaskar 1989: 173). Even this highest form of freedom within Rorty’s account, the possibility of ‘creative discourse’, falls short because it operationalises freedom in abstraction from the material dimension of social life. Rorty’s account makes it difficult to see how we could ever come to identify or transform structures which engender a diminution of human freedom. It also fails to recognise the constraining effects they may have on freedom even in his own narrow understanding of it. As Bhaskar observes, “it is now easy to see how the notion that ‘man is always free to choose new descriptions’ can encourage the voluntaristic position that man is always free to choose any description” (Bhaskar 1989: 176). Rorty’s discursive freedom should not be repudiated in and of itself but should rather be contextualised in terms of a much deeper sense of freedom and, crucially, a notion of emancipation which “depends upon the transformation of structures rather than just the amelioration of states of affairs” (Bhaskar 1989: 178).

Hi, 

I’m helping to organise a conference stream at next year’s Discourse Power and Resistance. For more about the conference check the website out > http://dprconference.com/ 

There’s an attached description of the theme. As part of the ‘Space and Place in the Democracy Project’ conference stream at Discourse Power Resistance 2014, we are particularly interested in presentations on current and future scenarios that detail the interaction between digital technologies and the potentials for and threats to fully democratic communities.  There are a series of influential agendas in the form of smart cities, big data, the quantified self, and algorithmic culture that intertwined with the neoliberal capitalist project(s) raise concerns for the inclusion and exclusion of individuals and sections of society on the basis of undemocratic principles and practices. We hope to bring together a series of thought provoking discussions that explore these alignments within the context of space, place and democracy.

If you’re interested in presenting or would like to talk more about participating please email me.

Please forward this email to anyone you think might be interested in this event.

Best wishes,

Jame

Dr. James Duggan
Education and Social Research Institute
Manchester Metropolitan University
799 Wilmslow Road
Didsbury
M20 2RR