Notes for my talk for the Reflexivity Forum at Warwick on May 24th

What does it mean to be distracted? For the last year, I’ve been telling people that I’m working on a new project about digital distraction and everyone seems to immediately grasp what I mean by this. But conceptualising precisely what we should take ‘distraction’ to mean is slightly more complex than I realised at the outset of the project. The dictionary offers a good starting point, with two definitions:

  1. a thing that prevents someone from concentrating on something else.
  2. extreme agitation of the mind

Looking at these definitions, it’s easy to infer a causal relation between the phenomena they designate: we might assume that (1), if encountered to a sufficient degree under conducive circumstances, leads to (2) through sheer accumulation of distraction. In other words: lots of distractions lead to distractedness

In a recent piece of work, I tried to analyse the rise of (1) in terms of constant connectivity. Interruptions have always been part of human experience, in so far as that there are always contingencies which might emerge in order to disrupt an activity that’s in process. But the ‘triple revolution’ of mobile computing, wireless internet access and social networks have contributed to a proliferation of interruptions, as have the second order effects when this multiplication of communication channels lead to the qualitative and quantitative escalation of communication e.g. people trying multiple means to contact someone in the absence of governing norms about appropriateness, strategic communication that seek to shock and surprise in order to be heard above the din.

Analysed in this sense, talk of interruptions leads rather inevitably to the consideration of reflexivity. What does it mean to ‘prevent someone from concentrating on something else’? It means there was something else they were trying to do and the external event, which we label as a distraction (1), has interrupted their action towards this end. Distraction needs to be conceived of as relational: there is the distracting object, but it only has this power in relation to an existing activity undertaken under conditions that leave someone conducive to being distracted.

What we’re being distracted from might have been routine action, e.g. I get a phone call when making a cup of coffee, but the very act of interruption engenders an awareness of that from which we were interrupted. Consider a distraction (1) significant enough to completely disrupt our previous action: when we ask ourselves “now what was I doing before he phoned?”, this is an incitement to reflexivity, albeit one that reflects a prior failure thereof. So rather than seeing distraction (1) and reflexivity as antithetical, we have to recognise a more complex relationship between them. Distractions impede reflexivity but also highlight it. Persistent distractions engender reflexivity, when we recognise something as a ‘problem’ and begin to ask what it is we might do about it?

It’s for this reason that I don’t think we should consider distracted people as somehow a-reflexive people. Distracted people are those who live within a socio-technical environment sufficiently productive of distraction (1) that we might talk of them as being characterised by distraction (2): it’s an ‘agitation of the mind’, rather than an absence of reflexivity, a difficulty articulating and sustaining courses of action rather a lack of capacity to reach conclusions about what a desirable course might be. Distraction is something which operates on a number of levels simultaneously:

  1. A distracting environment renders time and space for reflexivity unlikely: the conditions for internal conversation are often not in place and where they are, they’re unlikely to last.
  2. A distracting environment supplies more stimuli about potential courses of action and potential projects: under these conditions, ‘bounding’ variety becomes increasingly difficult, rendering internal conversation more necessary than ever.
  3. A distracting environment militates against sustained trajectories of action, because interruptions to action become more likely (with the cognitive costs they entail) as do interruptions to reflexivity exercised about those actions.

Distracting environments are characterised by the proliferation of distractions but the causality of how this leads to distractedness is more complex than I initially realised & I’m still trying to clarify my views on this.

Following on from a succesful event this time last year, we’re organising another reflexivity forum. We potentially have one more speaking slot available but we’re still keen for others to come along for the discussion. Here’s the programme for the day:

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E-mail me: if you’d let to register – please do so ASAP though as I’ll be placing the catering order soon.

From Gates, by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, loc 10246:

It was Bill Gates who focused that view: As Harbers put it, “I created a Bill simulator in my head. Before I would go to a meeting with Bill I would actually run Bill in my head and ask all the tough questions and make sure that I thought about the stuff.” Software simulating hardware: It was the classic Microsoft development method, expanded to Bill himself.

It must be hard to be critical of a corporate cult of personality if you find yourself running a ‘simulator’ of your boss in your head. I find this interesting as a form of internal conversation: it’s reminiscent of someone adopting What Would Jesus Do? as a principle governing their exercise of reflexivity. How widespread is it in the technology sector?

I’m organising this workshop at Warwick in June for anyone using Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity in empirical research. She’ll be there all day & will discuss the development of this work as well as answering questions about it. There will also be a few speakers (including myself, talking about my PhD, which I so rarely do) who have used these ideas in empirical studies. If you know anyone studying reflexivity in this way then please do let them know about the workshop:

Investigating the Internal Conversation
June 2nd at the University of Warwick

The Centre for Social Ontology invites applications for this practical workshop aimed at those investigating human reflexivity through empirical research. The ‘internal conversation’ was developed by Margaret Archer as a solution to the problem of structure and agency: a mediatory mechanism that accounts for how society’s objective features influence its members to reproduce or transform society through their actions. Since initially discussed in Being Human, this account of human reflexivity has been developed through a trilogy of books reporting on empirical studies into the distinct modes through which reflexivity operates. This body of work has been used in projects across a range of disciplines and been the topic of much theoretical and methodological debate.

This workshop intends to support those who are currently undertaking or in the process of planning empirical research investigating the internal conversation. The day will begin with an introductory lecture by Margaret Archer in which she will discuss the development of her work on reflexivity, ranging from the initial formulation in Being Human through to her recent work with Pierpaolo Donati on relational reflexivity.  Then Mark Carrigan (Warwick), Monder Ram (Birmingham) and Balihar Sanghera (Kent) will each give a shorter talk about their experience of investigating reflexivity through empirical research. The rest of the day will address the methodological and theoretical questions often encountered when studying reflexivity e.g. how to identify the modes of reflexivity of research subjects.

The workshop is free but registration is essential. If you would like to participate then please e-mail with a brief description of your project. We’re keen to adapt the content as much as possible to meet the needs of participants. If there are particular issues you would like us to address then please suggest these in your initial e-mail.

I’m organising this workshop at Warwick in June for anyone using Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity in empirical research. She’ll be there all day & will discuss the development of this work as well as answering questions about it. There will also be a few speakers (including myself, talking about my PhD, which I so rarely do) who have used these ideas in empirical studies. If you know anyone studying reflexivity in this way then please do let them know about the workshop:

Investigating the Internal Conversation
June 2nd at the University of Warwick

The Centre for Social Ontology invites applications for this practical workshop aimed at those investigating human reflexivity through empirical research. The ‘internal conversation’ was developed by Margaret Archer as a solution to the problem of structure and agency: a mediatory mechanism that accounts for how society’s objective features influence its members to reproduce or transform society through their actions. Since initially discussed in Being Human, this account of human reflexivity has been developed through a trilogy of books reporting on empirical studies into the distinct modes through which reflexivity operates. This body of work has been used in projects across a range of disciplines and been the topic of much theoretical and methodological debate.

This workshop intends to support those who are currently undertaking or in the process of planning empirical research investigating the internal conversation. The day will begin with an introductory lecture by Margaret Archer in which she will discuss the development of her work on reflexivity, ranging from the initial formulation in Being Human through to her recent work with Pierpaolo Donati on relational reflexivity.  Then Mark Carrigan (Warwick), Monder Ram (Birmingham) and Balihar Sanghera (Kent) will each give a shorter talk about their experience of investigating reflexivity through empirical research. The rest of the day will address the methodological and theoretical questions often encountered when studying reflexivity e.g. how to identify the modes of reflexivity of research subjects.

The workshop is free but registration is essential. If you would like to participate then please e-mail with a brief description of your project. We’re keen to adapt the content as much as possible to meet the needs of participants. If there are particular issues you would like us to address then please suggest these in your initial e-mail.

I was surprised how much I liked Gone Girl. I liked the film so much I went out and bought the book. I’ve been ever more surprised by how interesting I’ve found the contrast between the two. One interesting difference between the film and the book were the different ways in which Nick’s perceived obnoxiousness were narrated. The latter lacked the first person narration which was so prominent in the former and we missed something crucial as a consequence: Nick was concerned about his perpetual failure to translate internal conversation into external communication. In the book he describes how “I carry on an inner monologue, but the words often don’t reach my lips … She looks nice today, I’d think, but somehow it wouldn’t occur to me to say it out loud”. We see this tendency through the eyes of others in both the book and the film:

‘I still remember that very first night: Amy’s missing, you come in here, we park you in this very room for forty-five minutes, and you look bored. We watched you on surveillance, you practically fell asleep.’  [..]

‘I was trying to stay calm.’

‘You looked very, very calm,’ Boney said. ‘All along, you’ve acted … inappropriately. Unemotional, flippant.’

But in the film Nick’s awareness of this tendency can only be expressed in external speech. We don’t see that it’s something that concerns him, something he recognises as an issue and provokes anxiety in him. He only voices an awareness of his behaviour when challenged by others and the circumstances under which he raises it make his replies seem evasive and unreliable. This entails constraints and enablements for the narrative structure – both film and book play with ambiguity but the former does so on the basis of the unreadability of Nick while the latter does so on the basis of the unreliability of his narration. Unreadability induces doubt about what will happen (if we don’t understand his motives then how do we know what he’ll do next?) whereas unreliability induces doubt about what has happened (if the narrator is unreliable then how can we trust their account of the events thus far?) – each is grounded in a certain strategy of representing internal conversation. These can be seen even more emphatically in the case of Amy, as this interesting article from Think Progress makes clear:

Out of structural necessity, we begin our story on Nick’s side. We only know what he knows, and often even less. To reveal more of Amy’s inner life early on would render the big twist untwisted. But even in the scenes that are lifted from “her” chapters in the book feel like they’re being narrated by somebody else. When it is revealed, in the film, that Amy is alive, it doesn’t really feel like anything in Amy has changed. We never get that great, punchy shift in tone. We don’t get those stellar lines of Amy talking about the character of the diary in the third person: “I hope you liked Diary Amy. She was meant to be likeable. Meant for someone like you to like her. She’s easy to like. I’ve never understood why that’s considered a compliment—that just anyone could like you.” Real Amy has total disdain for Diary Amy and everyone who adores her. Everyone is the cops. Everyone is the reader. In the movie, everyone would be the viewer. But in the movie, you just don’t feel it. The voiceover of Diary Amy and the voiceover of Real, Sociopathic Amy sound exactly the same. The real Amy, the character who is the engine of this story, is as elusive to us as she is to Nick.

One of the more disturbing (and one of the saddest) elements of Amy’s story is gone, too: that her parents had been trying and failing to have a child over and over before they had her. Amy only arrived after a series of miscarriages and stillbirths; all these angels were named Hope, and she was haunted by those ghosts who possessed the perfection only afforded to those who die before they can live. Amy was so named because it was a popular girls’ name at the time, as if this would save her from notice by God. Amy’s original plan—depicted in the movie by her “Kill Self” post-its on the calendar—is to hide out just long enough to enjoy watching Nick’s life crumble. To observe the trial, to see him sentenced to life in prison, or maybe, as is legal in Missouri, the death penalty. And then she wants to kill herself. “To join the Hopes.” She is a woman with no will to live.

We see external traces of her inner life but Amy herself remains unknowable in the film. This leaves us with a sharp juxtaposition between Diary Amy and ‘real Amy’ which is absent from the book: it’s presented as a transition from fiction to reality, whereas the book itself is much more ambiguous.

Earlier this week I read Solo by William Boyd. The idea of a new James Bond novel wouldn’t have appealed to me if it had been written by anyone other than Boyd and it lived up to my expectations. One curious aspect of it which I wasn’t expecting was the prominence of James Bond’s internal conversation in the narrative:

Bond lay in bed thinking about the plans for the following night – the crossing of the lagoon and trusting this man, Kojo, to deliver him safely. And what then? He supposed he would make his way to Port Dunbar and introduce himself as a friendly journalist, provide himself with new accreditation, and say he was keen to report the war from the Dahumian side – show the world the rebels’ perspective on events. Again, it all seemed very improvised and ad hoc. (pg 84)

Bond forced himself to think about his options for a while, kicking at bits of the shattered road surface. (pg 99)

To be honest, Bond had to admit that he hadn’t thought much about what he was doing once the urgency of the situation was apparent and the beautiful clarity of his plan had seized him. All that had concerned him was how best to execute it. (pg 146)

Bond paced slowly to and fro, affecting unconcern, but his mind was hyperactive. Something must have gone very wrong – but what? No clever strategy suggested itself. (pg 173)

He stopped. It had come to him like a revelation. All you had to do was give your brain enough time to work. A solution always presented itself. (pg 200)

There was nothing so invigorating as clear and absolute purpose. There was only one objective now. James Bond would kill Kobus Breed. (pg 272)

Bond’s mind was working fast – sensing opportunities, weighing up options, minimising risk. (pg 282)

Bond turned the Interceptor on to the London road and put his foot on the accelerator, concentrating on the pleasures of driving a powerful car like this, trying not to think of Bryce and whatever dangers had been lurking out there in the darkness of her garden. (pg 321)

I use the phrase ‘internal conversation’ because I think Boyd is doing something more here than simply describing the contents of Bond’s mind. These ‘contents’ enter into the narrative because they represent the basis for action rather than solely being a subjective response to the protagonist’s circumstances.

Do you imagine an audience when you write? I’ve become aware recently of how rarely I do this. The main reason for this has been the jarring experience of finding myself overly conscious about the particular audience I happen to be writing for in recent projects. I wrote a chapter on asexuality for a handbook on sexuality and was suddenly aware of the fact it would presumably be trainee councillors, sex therapists and psychology students reading the chapter. The uniform chapter headings that were built into the design of the book produced all sorts of angst about how I was writing i.e. if I’m writing under the heading ‘implications for applied practitioners’ (or a phrase to that effect) then I can’t help but  wonder who are these practitioners and what will they think of how I’m writing? More recently, with Social Media for Academics, I’ve found myself very conscious of what will presumably be a diverse audience and worrying about the ways in which disciplinary specific norms and styles might be creeping into my writing in a way deleterious to the readability of the book.

I’ve found these experiences strange because I’m rarely aware of an audience the rest of the time when writing. Obviously I realise reflectively that people read things that I’ve made public. But this awareness rarely enters into the process of writing itself. It makes me second guess, immediately read back over what I’ve written and agonise over word choice and sentence structure. It seems to preclude the sort of ‘flow’ that my orientation towards writing generally leaves me seeking out. It reintroduces my internal conversation into the writing process and I write much more slowly and enjoy it much less. This left me thinking about how you make sense of this imagined audience, as internal conversation – it makes me think of pragmatism, with this ‘other’ entering into my inner experience while I write, offering a judgemental gaze in virtue of which I find myself assessing what I have written rather than losing myself in the process of writing. But my sense of this other is partial at best and entirely imagined at worst. I don’t really know these audiences and that’s why they’re entering into my writing process in such a censorious way. But then again do I know my ‘usual’ audience, the familiar group to which I’m implicitly contrasting these unfamiliar others? I really don’t and I find it oddly unnerving to pursue this line of thought. Perhaps if I pursue it too far, I’ll find a real generalised other, in Mead’s sense of the term, entering into my experience of writing and forevermore be prone to self-censoring in the face of its stern yet ephemeral gaze.

I wrote a few months ago about the representation of interiority in film and television. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had about the internal conversation after six years researching it. While some sociologists are deeply sceptical of the concept, it nonetheless always seems striking to me how intuitively people grasp what it refers to. I don’t think the constructionist critique of the ‘internal conversation’ is intrinsically problematic, though some of the knee-jerk forms it can take are, but inevitably I’m not remotely convinced by them.

One of the more sophisticated forms a critique could take is to look at the normative force which representations of internal conversation could have on how people represent and narrativise their own inner experience. That’s partly why I’m becoming so interested in how interiority is represented in film and television. I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve started watching Scrubs for the first time in years (damn Netflix) and I’m newly aware of how central JD’s internal conversation is to the narrative form of the show:

Another comedy that relies on internal conversation in this way is Peep Show. The comedic role of the internal conversation is simpler in Peep Show, largely relying on the everyday disjuncture between internal conversation and external conversation. In a way I think the internal conversation in Scrubs is a lot more complicated, being both a source of humour (“Why do I never listen to myself?” asks JD after having done something stupid) but also a device to structure the narrative. The reason I find Scrubs so weirdly charming is the way in which JD narratives his experiences to himself.

I think the show could easily be read as somewhat postmodern but doing so obscures some interesting aspects of it. JD’s responses are clearly subjective responses to objective circumstances, with some of the humour deriving from the incongruity between them e.g. his attempts to cast Dr Cox as his heroic mentor long before Dr Cox is even remotely willing to play that role. The bricolage upon which the show relies is a feature of JD’s internal life rather than of the show itself. It’s a representation of the role pop culture plays in his own processes of making sense of life events, as enacted through the internal conversation.

Some of the internal conversation in Scrub isn’t naturalistic. But I just saw the episode where JD is revealed to be keeping a journal. So the very reflective narrativising moments, as opposed to the situational self-talk, should presumably be understood as self-reflection in his journal. This seems to extend my reading of the show as being about JD’s internal processes of making sense of his trajectory into the medical system.

The notion of ‘internal conversation’ can be contentious in some quarters within the academy. However, outside it, I’ve found that anyone I’ve spoken to about my research instantly knows what I mean when I say ‘internal conversation’ or ‘inner monologue’. I’d suggest that the notion of internal conversation, as something we listen in to needs to be recognised as something distinctly different from those ghostly recesses of subjectivity we look into. Or in other words ‘internal conversation’ does not equate to introspection.

It’s this older understanding of introspection which underlies representations of interiority in terms of mindscapes or psychic landscapes. We enter a ‘door’ into someones mind and action takes place within it. In some cases, this is action within the mind as the individual concerned proceeds to occupy their usual position within the world:

In other cases, the ‘entered’ individual is rendered passive in the world, as with the dreamscapes of Inception, existing in the mind of a sleeping individual and radically unbound by the metaphysics of everyday life:

(Thanks Marta Wasik for these examples)

These are examples of ‘interiority’ of the form I find philosophically problematic and sociologically uninteresting. So why do I find ‘internal conversation’ interesting? Because I’m convinced by Margaret Archer’s argument that we need to invoke something like it in order to gain purchase upon why people do the specific things they do:

without it we can have no explanatory purchase upon what exactly agents do. Deprived of such explanations, sociology has to settle for empirical generalisation about ‘what most of the people do most of the time’. Indeed, without a real explanatory handle, sociologists often settle for much less: ‘under circumstances x, a statistically significant number of agents do y’. These, of course, are not real explanations at all (Archer 2007: 133)

On this view interiority becomes important to narratives because it’s these processes of deliberation (often internal but sometimes ‘spilling out’ into external conversation) which condition the choices made by characters in the story. People are forced to make decisions, choose between competing paths or deliberate about moral dilemmas. These are crucial aspects of stories (and lives) such that their complete absence from film and tv would be jarring, at least without a televisual idiom that compensates for this somehow. But this is an outcome of internal conversation (an answer to the question: “what should I do?”) which doesn’t exhaust the process itself.

One of my favourite examples of the process without the outcome can be seen in the beautiful ending to Six Feet Under (which I’ve just discovered that I’m finally able to watch without crying) in which Claire leaves her family, moving away to build a new life and, as I interpret the scene, sifts through her memories as she comes to terms with the significance of her radically changing life: “what did this mean to me? what did these people mean to me? am I making the right decision? can I really live so far from them?”. As the scene progresses, she projects forward into the future, imagining the person she will become and the persons her significant others will become, as well as how their biographical entanglement will unfold over their lifetimes. I love this scene because it captures the essence of those moments when everything is open, when ‘I’ am standing on firm ground looking towards a future ‘you’ yet to be formed, without reducing it to pure subjectivity. These ‘openings’ exist in the social world, because we do, which is precisely why the ‘I’ never has the sustained freedom it might fleetingly feel it possesses. Institutions, structures, relationships and routines are all recalcitrant. But there’s something deeply human about the feeling involved in radical action to change our lives, in spite of the likelihood that even were it all to go to ‘plan’, it will bring with it all manner of unintended consequences.

But that’s an example of internal conversation in a monological mode. As anyone who watches the show will know, Six Feet Under also shows internal conversations conducted in a dialogical mode. We talk, silently and internally, to others. We talk to ghosts. We talk to people we care about who are absent. We imagine what they say. We take imaginative comfort in disclosing things to them. We exist, as Charles Taylor puts it, as part of “webs of interlocution” and sometimes we converse with introjections of our interlocutors rather than the interlocutors themselves:

There are other examples of this which could easily be appropriated by the notion of ‘exploring the subconscious’. As in Frasier:

But given that the model I’m deploying here is first and foremost sociological, invoking interiority as a crucial moment of social explanation, I’d suggest it’s a much more interesting approach to take in analysing how interiority is displayed in TV and Cinema.

If anyone else has examples (preferably youtube videos!) I’d love to know about them. Please tweet me (@mark_carrigan) or write in the comments box below.

There’s a great article by Lisa Wade in Salon talking about the ‘hidden crisis’ of white heterosexual American men. They have the fewest friends of any group within American society and, it seems, they wish they had more. What really caught my attention was the description of the qualitative characteristics of the relations they have and those which they seek:

Of all people in America, adult, white, heterosexual men have the fewest friends. Moreover, the friendships they have, if they’re with other men, provide less emotional support and involve lower levels of self-disclosure and trust than other types of friendships. When men get together, they’re more likely to do stuff than have a conversation. Friendship scholar Geoffrey Greif calls these “shoulder-to-shoulder” friendships, contrasting them to the “face-to-face” friendships that many women enjoy. If a man does have a confidant, threequarters of the time it’s a woman, and there’s a good chance she’s his wife or girlfriend.

From a relational realist perspective, it’s important to identify the distinctive self/other interactions generative of the kinds of relational bonds identified here. These ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ friendships, grounded in shared interests and reproduced through shared activity, involve a reciprocal orientation towards practice. The friendships grounded in self-disclosure, what Archer calls ‘thought and talk’, involve a reciprocal orientation to each other. The problem is that sustaining these relations necessitates work to sustain the continuity upon which they are founded. Reciprocal self-disclosure which is subjectively satisfying and meaningful to each party, as well as the trust which it depends upon but also generates, necessitates ‘catching up’ as a regular activity. It involves making the effort to know what is going on in the other’s life. It depends upon shared understandings and shared references points because otherwise self-disclosure, externalising internal conversation to a trusted interlocutor, doesn’t work. Without the contextual continuity upon which ‘face-to-face’ friendships are based, self-disclosure doesn’t bring about understanding in the other. The friend may be sympathetic. They may be helpful. But they simply won’t understand in the same way. This in turn leads to a diminished propensity towards self-disclosure:

For those people who gradually learn that their internal conversations do indeed ‘make sense only to themselves’, this discovery has far-reaching consequences. Attempts at spoken interchange about one’s internal deliberations are rebuffed by incomprehension or misunderstanding. Since renewed efforts to make oneself clear usually involved greater self-revelation, continued failure is doubly hurtful and self-defence consist in withdrawal … And to stop (or possibly never to begin) throws one back on one’s own mental resources. In turn, that makes significant tracts of a person’s internal conversation self-contained and knowingly not for traffic in spoken conversation. (Archer 2007: 86)

In late modernity contextual continuity is something that has to be worked at because it’s valued. What I found so thought-provoking about Lisa Wade’s article is the extent to which it suggests that white heterosexual American men would value relations which had these characteristics:

When asked about what they desire from their friendships, men are just as likely as women to say that they want intimacy. And, just like women, their satisfaction with their friendships is strongly correlated with the level of self-disclosure. Moreover, when asked to describe what they mean by intimacy, men say the same thing as women: emotional support, disclosure and having someone to take care of them.

Men desire the same level and type of intimacy in their friendships as women, but they aren’t getting it.

But Wade argues that gender norms intervene. I think this can be usefully understood in terms of the gendering of internal conversation, with normative sanction attached to adolescent boys engaging in ‘thought and talk’:

During these years, young men are learning what it means to be a “real man.” The #1 rule: avoid everything feminine. Notice that a surprising number of insults that we fling at men are actually synonyms for or references to femininity. Calling male athletes “girls,” “women” and “ladies” is a central part of motivation in sports. Consider also slurs like “bitch” and “pussy,” which obviously reference women, but also “fag” (which on the face of it is about sexual orientation, but can also be a derogatory term for men who act feminine) and “cocksucker” (literally a term for people who sexually service men). This, by the way, is where the ubiquitous slur “you suck” comes from; it’s an insult that means you give men blow jobs.

So men are pressed — from the time they’re very young — to disassociate from everything feminine. This imperative is incredibly limiting for them. Paradoxically, it makes men feel good because of a social agreement that masculine things are better than feminine things, but it’s not the same thing as freedom. It’s restrictive and dehumanizing. It’s oppression all dressed up as awesomeness. And it is part of why men have a hard time being friends.

To be close friends, men need to be willing to confess their insecurities, be kind to others, have empathy and sometimes sacrifice their own self-interest. “Real men,” though, are not supposed to do these things. They are supposed to be self-interested, competitive, non-emotional, strong (with no insecurities at all), and able to deal with their emotional problems without help. Being a good friend, then, as well as needing a good friend, is the equivalent of being girly.

As this cultural environment throws them back upon their own resources (“I don’t talk to nobody about serious stuff… I don’t talk to nobody. I don’t share my feelings really.”) it becomes increasingly difficult to establish ‘face-to-face’ friendships even if the characteristics of these friendships are sought after. It’s important not to see ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ friendships as intrinsically diminished though, which I think Wade’s post does to a certain extent, however this is another topic in its own right. I also think we need to see what I presume is a diminishment of homosociality (that’s empirically true, right? I just realised I’ve assumed it in the past but don’t know) in this context. Nonetheless this article captures something important about male homosociality in late modern societies:

Of course, not all men buy into these prescriptions for male behavior, but these expectations do influence most men’s friendships at least a little bit. They mean that, to make good friends, men have to take risks. In a context in which being a man is good and being friendly is being womanly, each time a man tries to form intimate bonds with another man, he potentially loses status. Men who want truly close friends have to fight the instinct to protect their standing above all else. This isn’t easy, as they’ve been told for a lifetime that their status as male, and their place in that hierarchy, is a significant part of why they’re important and valuable human beings.

Men also have to find other men who are willing to take those risks with them. Knowing who to reach out to isn’t always easy, as men often wear a masculine guise, a mask that projects masculinity and hides the things about them that are disallowed. In one study of men’s experiences, one college-age man explained: “I am more of an emotional person. … I never really felt much like who I [pretended to be] because I [was]… putting my man face on.”

These norms are something which need to be seen in historical perspective. There’s a great discussion in Doris Goodwin’s Lincoln biography of the ‘intimate male attachments’ which were common in his time. While it’s perfectly possible that Lincoln may very well have been having sex with some of these famously close male friends, the propensity of many commentators to assume this as a matter of reflex speaks volumes about the cultural tendency Wade discusses in this article. Interestingly Goodwin offers a sociological account of the intensity which characterised the ‘intimate male attachments’ amongst men of Lincoln’s generation:

The family-focused and community-centred life led by most men in the colonial era was transformed at the dawn of the new century into an individual and career-oriented existence. As the young men of Seward and Lincoln’s generation left the familiarity of their small communities and travelled to seek employment in fast-growing, anonymous cities or in distant territories, they often felt unbearably lonely. In the absence of parents and siblings, they turned to one another for support, sharing thoughts and emotions so completely that their intimate friendships developed the qualities of passionate romances. (pg 33)

Are similar trends on the horizon? Will the desire for more intimate friendships described by Wade actually lead to them?

I’ve recently blogged about the role which obsessiveness plays in constituting differing modes of reflexivity. To recap: there is no logically necessary end point to deliberations and thus we must all negotiate, in different ways, the need to draw deliberations to a close so as to reach decisions about what to do and then actually do it*Some rely on trusted interlocutors to complete and confirm their tentative decisions. Others act decisively, trusting themselves sufficiently to commit to the conclusions they’ve drawn. Others still will tend towards the perpetuation of rumination, considering alternative answers or different ways of looking at the question. Finally, some will tend towards the growth of distress, as contemplating the question brings them no nearer to an answer while simultaneously intensifying affect. However these are synchronic characteristics of internal conversation. To understand their diachronic formation requires a relational frame of reference which considers the subject’s past history of translating internal conversation into external conversation.

To seek the completion and confirmation of one’s tentative decisions necessitates that those we express our deliberations to are able to understand where we are coming from. Yet the nature of inner speech can often preclude this. Our inner speech is radically contracted with complex sense frequently condensed into single words or conjunctions of words. For instance the word ‘Gaslight’ is richly significant to me as a contraction of the name of my favourite band. It is the focal point of a web of memories, experiences and meanings. Between seeing the band live on countless occasions, listening to them obsessively and sharing my passion in different ways with those close to me, the term is deeply resonant. But outside of my own mind or a few particular friends, the word ‘gaslight’ will likely bring to mind the literal dictionary definition. Internal speech is faster and more economical than external speech partly because of what Archer (2007: 79) describes as this ‘semantic embedding in our biographies’. But our biographies are always intertwined with others. The personalisation which characterises our inner speech** is characterised by a contextual dependency, with our particularism and idiosyncrasy developing in relation to contextual referents. The degree to which these reference points are shared conditions the ease with which subjects find themselves able to articulate their internal conversations to external others:

So many factors are shared by them – common acquaintances, history and biography, unchanging geography, familiarity with the same schools, hospitals, churches, factories, employers, pubs, buildings and a common fund of anecdotes, idioms and local knowledge. These furnish a mental landscape with the same topographical features. Provided that people retain and sustain this ‘contextual continuity’, their communality of landmarks together with their experiential overlap facilitates the sharing of their internal conversations. To use Piaget’s term, ‘decentering’, or the cognitive ability to assume the perspective of each other in external speech, is rendered much easier. Someone’s conversational extensions (the translations of their internal conversations) may be unintentionally ‘egocentric’, as is usual, but the difference here is that their egocentricity also happens to be very similar to that of their interlocutors. (Archer 2007: 84)

This is what Archer means with her concept of ‘similars and familiars’: “they speak in the same way, share the same word meanings, draw upon a commonwealth of references and a common fund of relevant experiences” (Archer 2007: 85). This commonality is a property of the relations between persons. Their biographical intertwinement, which I’d define fuzzily as a recurrent participation in the same social situations***, leads to the ‘converging egocentricity’ invoked by Archer. Contextual continuity is a relational property emergent from processes of biographical intertwinement which tend to generate ‘similarity and familiarity’. This in turn has important developmental consequences:

For a young subject confronted with new decisions (such as school leaving) and seeking to clarify her concerns in life (such as the choice of her first job), her ‘contextual continuity’ represents a major resource. As she internally fumbles through the infinite variations upon the ineluctable questions (‘What matters?’ and ‘What to do about it?’), she receives two gifts if she shares her incomplete reflections with her ‘similars and familiars’ . These gifts are external ‘confirmation’ and ‘completion’ of her internal conversation. Regular acceptance of them make for what I have called a ‘communicative reflexive’: someone whose reflexivity is instantiated through internal conversation, but is not finished until nascent conclusions have been confirmed and completed through external dialogue. (Archer 2007: 85)

In contrast contextual discontinuity is a relational property which emerges from processes of biographical intertwinement which tend to generate dissimilarity and disfamiliarity. Or in other words subjects who have grow up in conditions of contextual discontinuity will tend to lack the ‘similars and familiars’ whom make it much easier to translate internal conversation into external speech. Their biographies have involved particularistic experiences through confronting novel situations and, as a consequence, they lack (to varying degrees) the shared reference points with those they find themselves biographically intertwined with in their day-to-day life. The processes do not operate mechanistically. Communicative reflexivity emerges if and when a subject values the goods they encounter as a consequence of contextual continuity and there are many reasons biographically why they may not do so. Similarly, nascent autonomous reflexives encounter difficulties in translating internal conversations into external ones but they also have to recognise and respond to these difficulties:

For those people who gradually learn that their internal conversations do indeed ‘make sense only to themselves’, this discovery has far-reaching consequences. Attempts at spoken interchange about one’s internal deliberations are rebuffed by incomprehension or misunderstanding. Since renewed efforts to make oneself clear usually involved greater self-revelation, continued failure is doubly hurtful and self-defence consist in withdrawal … And to stop (or possibly never to begin) throws one back on one’s own mental resources. In turn, that makes significant tracts of a person’s internal conversation self-contained and knowingly not for traffic in spoken conversation. (Archer 2007: 86)

*There’s an important issue here about transcultural and transhistorical variability. I’ve pretty convinced by Archer’s argument that there could never be a society without some reflexivity but that this was often truncated, communicative and orientated towards conventionalism. So to say that obsessiveness is a challenge is also to acknowledge that it is one which was easily met for large tracts of human history.  

**I’m also planning to blog on the relationship between ‘thought’, ‘internal speech’ and ‘internal conversation’. Two books on Buddhism I read over the summer were quite thought provoking towards this end, particularly in so far as they reacquainted me with the refined phenomenology of mental events carried within certain Buddhist traditions. In short I want to elaborate upon the idea that thought is associative, internal speech is declarative and internal conversation is dialogical. I increasingly understand mindfulness as a practice of attentiveness in relation to associative thought which has important implications for declarative internal speech and dialogical internal conversation.

***I mean this in Goffman’s sense. There’s a section in my thesis which I might have to cut about this but if I do, I’ll try and develop it into a paper.

I wrote a few weeks ago about obsessiveness and how I understand it in terms of internal conversation. I’m particularly interested in the role that differing forms of obsessiveness, as a generic term for difficulty with drawing deliberations to a close, plays in making decision making difficult. There’s no logically necessary end point to our rumination about a potential course of action. There’s always other possibilities we could consider. There’s always other ways of looking at the issue. There’s always other people whose advice we could seek. The divergent tendencies of individuals with respect to these possibilities could be conceptualised in a range of ways. I’d argue that they’re more significant than they may seem. Not necessarily because of their implications for action at one point in time but because of their cumulative implications for the trajectories of social action which an individual will tend towards.

It’s from this standpoint that I’m also interested in inertia. The capacity of people to go months, years or decades pondering a decision without making it is one which fascinates me (albeit slightly morbidly). I’m currently reading John Lanchester’s novel Capital and there’s a wonderful passage which made me come back to these issues, which I’ve been thinking about less since I (finally) finished the data analysis for my PhD. In the chapter introducing an Oxford educated classicist who entered the police force on a graduate fast track, Lanchester has a lovely couple of pages in which he paints a vivid picture of the ambivalence which characterises the relationship of this middle-class teetotal Christian to his career in the police. Having “wanted to scratch an itch to do with authority, his need for it, his desire to have it, his liking of hierarchy and order” he found the social politics deeply challenging. While he felt he was doing some good, this nonetheless went hand-in-hand with a perpetual consideration of a possible exit:

That didn’t mean he didn’t think about giving it up and doing something else. He did, almost every day. The thought was a safety valve; the idea that he could quit whenever he liked was one of the things which kept him in the job. The exit was always in his line of sight. The idea of it helped him to stay put and to cope with the rough parts of his job and his day.

This is what I mean about obsessiveness and inertia. This fictional character deliberated almost everyday about a potential exit (“could I leave? should I leave? is this right for me?”) but far from deliberation leading functionally towards action, the obsessiveness which characterises this consideration actually engenders inertia. Reminding himself of the possibility of exit offers fleeting protection against the facets of the job, as well as his feelings about them, which engender his desire to do something else. But if this continues then with the passing weeks and months the cost of exit (and entry elsewhere) become higher and the inertia becomes ever more entrenched. How much of life is lived this way? How different would the world be if inertia of this form didn’t exist? Is such inertia simply a product of the tyranny of choice which privilege allows? Is inertia always negative? Is it possible to investigate inertia in an empirical way? Or will the stories people tell themselves and others to make sense of their inertia prove too much of a problem?

To talk about ‘modes of reflexivity’ can sometimes seem to suggest types of person or personality. Understanding reflexivity in this way misleads because its suggestion of divergent individual traits can too easily obscure the commonalities shared between all reflexive individuals. To postulate a mode of reflexivity entails a claim about an identifiable tendency in how some set of individuals deliberate about objective circumstances in light of their subjective concerns. What makes the difference is how this practical tendency manifests itself over time as the individual makes their way through the world. The variable life of the mind Archer’s account claims should not be understood as a claim about different types of mind but rather as an account of how individual differences in the exercise of a particular mental faculty (reflexivity) are both shaped by our circumstances and, in turn, work to shape those circumstances through the differing modalities of being-in-the-world and ensuing biographical trajectories which they engender.

It’s in this sense that I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the capacity to bring deliberations to a close. Communicative reflexivity constitutes a tendency to rely on others to complete and confirm deliberations: the individual will often draw some initial conclusions but relies on trusted interlocutors to validate these provisional thoughts in conversation before they feel comfortable acting upon them. Autonomous reflexivity constitutes a tendency to complete one’s own deliberations, not in the sense of precluding the input of others but simply that this is seen as a potentially more or less informative contribution to what is a fundamentally individualised process of working out what to do. Meta-reflexivity constitutes a tendency for deliberations to spiral because both self and circumstances are susceptible to further interrogation e.g. “is this really what I want to do?” or “why do I always react this way when this happens?”. Fractured reflexivity constitutes a tendency for deliberation to amplify affect without bringing the individual any closure to an action-orientation. 

What seems crucial here is the phenomenology of obsessiveness. For instance we often consider something such as ‘indecisiveness’ to be a personal characteristic. Whereas considered in terms of reflexivity, this can be better understood as a difficulty with concluding internal conversations. In this sense I want to distinguish between someone who doesn’t know how to start making a decision and someone who doesn’t know how to stop. The former might designate an inability to begin, an absence of criteria and/or of motivation, which lead to a straightforward inability to know how to approach the question in a practical way – perhaps leading to tossing a coin, rolling a dice or simply choosing arbitrarily. In contrast the latter might be understood as a lack of confidence in concluding a decision – “how do I know this is the right choice?”. Though I’ve gotten better with it over time, I still sometimes struggle hugely with decisions simply because I experience myself as very persuasive… I run through arguments in my head to do A and am persuaded, I run through arguments in my head to do B and am equally persuaded, I run through arguments in my head to do C and yet again I’m persuaded it’s a good idea. One of the striking things about my PhD data was how this seemed to be true of almost every meta-reflexive who took part in my research.

There’s an interesting section in Margaret Archer’s Being Human, written before her work on reflexivity had properly begun, which has provided a useful starting point for thinking through this issue in greater depth. It’s one I want to return to post-PhD to ponder this more at the level of phenomenology:

Why does the dialogue finish here: after all the subject may be making an unwarranted judgement about the worth of her concerns or a mistaken one about her emotional ability to live with them. She may indeed, for this is always possible with any judgement, but there is still no arbitrariness in deciding to end a sequence of potentially endless evaluations which could never conclude with certainty. ‘Terminating the sequence at that point – the point at which there is no conflict or doubt – is not arbitrary. For the only reason to continue the sequence would be to cope with an actual conflict or with the possibility that a conflict might occur. Given that the person does have this reason to continue, it is hardly arbitrary for him to stop.’ 

Archer (2000: 241) (italicised section quotes from Harry Frankfurt’s The Importance of What we Care About)

The important point here is that there is no necessary conclusion to deliberation. Particularly when it comes to momentous life decisions, there is a possibility for continual deliberation which is intensified because neither self nor circumstances remain static while the individual deliberates. Once we free our understanding of ‘inner life’ from Cartesian metaphysics and see it as a process always in movement, one which cuts across and threads through the embodied engagements of day-to-day social life, it becomes easy to see how obsessiveness can so frequently go hand-in-hand with inertia. At some point we have to decide. The deliberation itself can never engender certainty and, with the exception of more extreme instances of fractured reflexivity, we learn to act without it. But we do have proxies. For the communicative reflexive, the confirmation of significant others acts as a proxy for the certainty which is a phenomenological impossibility. For the autonomous reflexive, their confidence in their own reflexive capacities acts as a such a proxy. Whereas for the meta-reflexive and fractured reflexive there is, for different reasons, no such proxy and this is why decisiveness remains such a struggle.

This then raises an obvious series of questions about the developmental processes which will engender each of these tendencies. Much of Archer’s recent work has been concerned with the social conditions which tend to generate these tendencies and the effect, in turn, which their ensuing distribution will tend to have (aggregatively and emergently) on society as a whole. One of the main things I want to work on post-PhD is fleshing out this account at the level of the individual. I’d like to engage with the psychological literature to understood in more detail how doubt and certainty work as psychological phenomena, as well as empirical work on how people come to trust themselves.

People who build castles in the air do not, for the most part accomplish much, it is true; but every man who does accomplish great things is given to building elaborate castles in the air and then playfully copying them on solid ground … Mere imagination would be indeed be mere trifling; only no imagination is mere. ‘More than all that is in thy custody, watch over thy fantasy,’ said Solomon. ‘For out of it are the issues of life.’

– Charles Sanders Peirce

One of the most interesting aspects of Margaret Archer’s work on internal conversation is the role it assigns to daydreaming as a modality through which people change. Drawing on a reading of Peirce that is far from uncontroversial (the key influences here are Vincent Colapietro and Norbert Wiley) she understands this “imaginative anticipation” as a mechanism through which “we review and rehearse how we would act under novel circumstances and these action plans prepare the future self to execute them when a similar real conjuncture arises” (Archer 2003: 77). The point is not that this is the goal of daydreaming but rather that the activity indirectly prepares us through our experience of entertaining hypothetical novelty within the imaginative confines of our first-person experience.

This has important implications for the common pragmatist notion that reflexivity only emerges as a response to situational novelty i.e. we’re thrown back upon reflection when habitual responses fail in confrontation with novel circumstances. Instead there is a relative independence of the mind because of our capacity to ‘confront’ novelty internally – it’s not a repudiation of the traditional pragmatist conception of how reflexivity and habit relate but rather an extension of it. Crucially, our daydreams rely on the “social variation and cultural variety available to ponder upon reflexively” (Archer 2012: 59-61). Our daydreams are furnished by the ‘raw materials’ which our social and cultural environment provides for us. But the fact we are able to furnish our inner lives with these ideational materials leaves interiority as an independent source of novelty over-and-above that which is situationally demanded by the circumstances we encounter. Peirce talked about this as ‘musement’:

Our musings can range far and wide to include daydreams or fantasies. Some persons, situation, or idea that has been encountered may prompt them, or they may be triggered by the task in hand. Musings are exploratory; they are ways of clarifying our aspirations and ambitions, our hopes and our fears, our orientations and intentions. Increased self-understanding is their product. These explorations are very much part of our private lives because they are unobservable, have no necessary behavioural outcomes and the understanding we achieve many be of precisely the kind that we do not wish to communicate to others. Nevertheless, through our musings, certain goals can be privately scratched form our personal agendas or they can internally reinforce our determination to see something through. (Archer 2003 100-101)

To give a sense of the implications of this for research, in my own PhD work which involved longitudinal interviews over two years, I made a great effort to get people to elaborate upon their ‘musements’. So if they made occasional remarks (e.g. “if money weren’t an issue I’d love to do X”) I’d just try and talk it through rather than let it drop out of the conversation. It’s a far from radical strategy in an interview but it’s something you become very sensitive to if you accept Archer’s argument about ‘musement’. The point is that “the uninhibited use of imagination is one way in which many people extend their horizons beyond their quotidian contexts and initiate a process of discernment about endorsing much bolder projects” (Archer 2007: 271). Much as with deliberation in general, it’s a faculty which is straightforwardly misrepresented if construed in entirely psychological terms* because its causes and consequences are intrinsically social. I think there’s more to be said about this but Archer’s account of musement’s significance focuses particularly on those ‘bolder projects’ which would,

alter their life courses if they could discount the costs and risks by bringing themselves to the point of commitment. Instead, there are very strong reasons why sharing one’s flights of fancy or inmost urges with a familiar interlocutor will invariably curtail them. Clearly, if the castle in the air is outside the shared context of the interlocutor, then the dialogical partner has nothing positive to contribute because it is beyond his or her experience. However, they can have plenty that is negative to say, ranging from the ‘Don’t be daft – get real’, to perfunctorily entertaining the attractions of being a famous footballer or pop star, yet quickly concluding, ‘It’d be great, but it’s not on is it?’ The problem of offering up one’s dreams (or nightmares) for outside commentary is that they are regularly cut down to size – the size that the shared context can accommodate, which thus serves to reinforce ‘contextual continuity’.

Cutting down to size also entails reminders of normative conventionality. Share your desire for savage revenge on an unfaithful partner and the likely response would be something like, ‘Sure, he’s a bastard but he’s not worth swinging for!’ Just as importantly, the internal, highly vitriolic outpouring of our recriminations in an imaginary conversation literally knows no bounds and we can derive considerable satisfaction from honing our insults into the most hurtful prose. Such mental activities may simply prove cathartic or constitute the stocking of one’s verbal armoury for possible future use; we can harden ourselves to the shocking nature of vituperation by internal repetition. But to share these phrases and formulae with a third party is to introduce an independent ‘ear’ which has the same effect as ‘the gaze’ of inducing shame. People find themselves climbing down, engaging in self-editing or adding modifications to withdraw the public sting.” (Archer 2007: 272)

*Though this is not to advocate a sociological imperialism which would deny the role of psychology in understanding such faculties. One of the (many) things I want to work on post-PhD is to try and flesh out this account of ‘internal conversation’ through an engagement with the social psych and cognitive psych literatures. Particularly the literature on ‘system 1’ and ‘system 2’ which, from my cursory engagements with it, make the equivalent sociological debate about reflexivity and habitus seem embarrassingly sterile.

In my last few posts on Being Human I’ve looked at Archer’s account of emotionality. Integral to this is the internal dialogue through which first-order emotionality (natural, practical and social affectivity) gives rise to what Archer calls second-order emotionality. She represents this process  in terms of stages of discernment, deliberation and dedication. I initially found her thinking on this difficult to grasp but my understand of it, which she’s read and not disagreed with, is that this is intended schematically: the actual biographical movement through these ‘stages’ is messy and particularistic but it is nonetheless possible to analytically delineate distinct steps.

What renders this ‘internal dialogue’ necessary is the fact that our first-order emotions are commentaries “upon something independent from emotionality itself”. It is a “dialectic between our human concerns and our emotional commentaries upon them” in which “both elements will undergo modification because of the interplay between them” (Archer 2000: 23). This takes place through a conversation which is “passionate and cognitive through and through” in which “logos poses questions and pathos gives it commentary” but “both the present and the future self make use of each of them”. It incorporates a significant counter-factual element involving “interior examination of future scenarios to discover if and how the two can fit together and live together in alignment, were certain concerns to become designated as a person’s ultimate ones” (Archer 2000: 231). The notion of ‘internal dialogue’ here, refined over her next three books, should not be construed in a reductively linguistic or rationalistic way:

Procedurally too, just because the conversations takes place using words (the private use of the public linguistic medium), care must be taken not to stock the cards in favour of logos. Firstly, words themselves can be infuse with passion; they do not condemn us internally, any more than in our interpersonal exchanges, to being dispassionate conversationalists. Secondly, words themselves depend upon the non-verbal images they summon-up and often need supplementing with pictures of future reality. So too, part of the conversation will be wordless, as the various parts of the self jointly contemplate their past, present and future emotional reactions by reviewing, reliving or imagining the quality of their feelings. The ‘agenda’ of the ‘I’ and the ‘You’ is to produce a joint articulation of their ultimate concerns, as ones to which the self can be wholeheartedly attached: but since this is about caring, which entails an external ‘object’ and a subjective commitment, the outcome itself will be a blend of logos and pathos. (Archer 2000: 231)

Discernment is a process in which “the subject and object, the ‘I’ and the ‘You’, work together to review the projects in which they might invest their caring” (Archer 2000: 232). Emotionality leaves us with a (fallible) understanding of that to which we are drawn. But “however strongly we are drawn to a particular project, there are other concerns which have to command our attention, such as the state of our health, the need to earn a living and other people’s views of our relationships, actual and potential” (Archer 2000: 232). These do not constitute a ‘reality principle’ to which potential projects that matter to us are counterposed because these concerns also matter to us. Emotions provide the ‘shoving power’ which moves us to action (though what they move us to is not therefore moral, as Archer takes issue with Taylor’s account) but they do not prescribe what action should be or how the various projects (i.e. agential doings in the broadest sense)  which might emerge from our concerns can be made to cohere. Discernment involves a “preliminary review of those projects we have reason to deem worthwhile” (Archer 2000: 233). It involves a integrative evaluation of “the things we are doing, the things we have done and the things we could do” which aims to orientate us towards what would be satisfying and sustainable for us to do now.  There’s a lovely Zygmunt Bauman quotes which captures something of this: “In what we do we hardly ever start from a clean slate. The site on which we build is always cluttered: the past lingers in the same ‘present’ in which the future tries to take root“. Our past actions, choices and evaluations are sedimented in the present moment in a way which constrains and enables how we are able to orientate ourselves towards our futures:

The “i” is constantly engaged in a review of its current concerns, though this is rarely how people think of it themselves, but it becomes more recognisable if we put it in terms of the constant stream of internal awareness about our satisfactions and discontents – which are our emotional commentaries upon our present position. When living in any particular house, we continuously register its inconveniences and attractions which crystallise into decisions about home improvements or ceteris paribus into a decision to move. (Archer 2000: 234)

While I don’t that example has quite the universality she imagines, it nicely captures the continual and in motion nature of discernment. We recognise aspects of our present circumstances as significant and contemplate potential projects arising from these concerns, through appeals, aspirations, reproaches and challenges which we make to ourselves.

Deliberation involves the evaluation of the concerns and potential courses of action which we have discerned. It is a “matter of question and answer, of re-questioning and following-up, of amended questions and modified responses” (Archer 2000: 236). It can involve concerns being discarded as we interrogate ourselves about whether “I really care enough to keep doing this?” or “does X matter to me given Y and Z”, observable in our lives when “a skill falls into disuse, a practice is continued, a friendship lapses or a commitment is transformed” (Archer 2000: 236). These deliberations involve “a very provisional ranking of the concerns with which the self can live” as a process in which “concerns have been progressively compared and clarified and the relative worth of various projects has emerged” (Archer 2000: 236). It involves us considering how costly these various commitments might be and how they can be integrated into the overall fabric of our lives and made to live with our other concerns.

Dedication is the “emergent moment to which the previous two moments of dialogical interaction have been leading intra-personally. It entails an accommodation of concerns, as well as the courses of action to which they orientate the subject, which is satisfying and sustainable. It involves judgements of worth and determination of projects. The claim here is not that “subjects themselves will see their internal conversations in terms of a debate about objective worth” but rather that these are experienced in a much more particularistic way as considerations about what to do and who to be (within condition not of our choosing which impinge upon our deliberations in all manner of ways, some of which recognised but others not). It entails the establishment of a modus vivendi: “the prioritisation of the three orders, via an evaluation of concerns pertaining to them, and an accommodation of the concerns belonging to the other two orders, in such a manner that the subject believes this to be a working balance – one with which he or she can live with as their individual modus vivendi” (Archer 2000: 238). The most explicitly such a modus vivendi enters into a subject’s deliberations is in existentially orientated questions concerning “what am I going to do with my life?”. More often, this over-arching perspective is subsumed under the particular concerns at stake and the particular questions their prioritisation and accommodation pose within the context of the lived life.

I’ve been preoccupied recently by parallels I keep observing between common features of asexual biographies and those of other groups who share a common trait. In the case of asexuality this ‘common trait’ is not experiencing sexual attraction. Exactly what this entails about the individual’s experience and what, in turn, this experience has come to mean to them biographically is a more complex issue. But underlying the diversity which exists within the asexual community there does seem to be a common set of experiences. This ‘lack of sexual attraction’, whatever causes it if indeed such a question is meaningful, is rendered problematic through the normative pressures which are enacted with concrete others (peers, friends, family etc) whether directly or indirectly. This brings about an experience of feeling ‘broken’ or ‘damaged’ and self-questioning as to why this might be the case i.e. “what’s wrong with me? why aren’t I interested in sex like everyone else?”. The biographical specifics can be very variable from this point onwards and, given this is the starting point of a blog post rather than its main topic, I’m going to sidestep them somewhat. Suffice to say, if someone does come to identify as asexual (at least post 2001/2002) then they probably did so either through stumbling across it in the media or as a result of encountering asexual blogs, forums, videos etc online (with the former in fact often leading to the latter).

What has always fascinated me is the experience that comes next, as something that had been self-interpreted as pathology comes to be reinterpreted as a non-pathological characteristic which is shared with geographically remote others. Exactly what this means is again biographically specific. For some people it’s just a useful label to make sense of oneself and convey that understanding to others. For others it can lead to the emergence of a deep sense of collective identity. But what I think unites the range of responses people have to this discovery is the transformation of a difference into a commonality. Within their local context and existing social networks, this characteristic of ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’* has been rendered problematic by the explicit judgements and implicit attitudes encountered in other people. It thus emerges as a difference which interrupts a shared frame of reference. It will intrinsically generate a tendency towards introspection because, given that this recognition of difference is provoked by experience of implicit or explicit censure, it will become decreasingly less attractive to try and talk through this difference (“why am I this way? what’s wrong with me?”) with others who, inductively, can be expected to only confirm the assumption of pathology and thus intensify distress.  Their pool of available interlocutors shrinks dramatically as a result which, in turn, leads them to seek alternative routes towards self-clarification. This might be to consult expert systems (go to a doctor, to a councillor, to a sex therapist) or, more likely, it’ll be to go online. if you go to google and type in ‘does not experience sexual attraction’ then you will immediately find a whole plethora of asexual resources. This allows what was a difference (in relation to the immediate context) to instead be established as a commonality (in relation to this dispersed reference group). To summarise:

  1. The local normative environment rendered P’s experience of X problematic (“Why am I X when everyone else seems to be Y!? What’s wrong with me?”)
  2. This experience of normative censure dramatically reduced the pool of available interlocutors with whom P could talk about X (“I can’t talk about X with anyone. They’ll just think I’m weird”)
  3. P looks beyond the normative environment with the aim of coming to a better understanding of X (“Why am I X? What could be making me this way?”)
  4. P finds others who share the trait X and recognises her own experiences in those she encounters, either directly or indirectly, outside the local normative environment (“Oh there are other people who are X? I’m not so weird after all!”)

What emerges as a difference at (1) becomes a commonality at (4). As well as the application of this biographical model to other forms of experience, I’m interested in how processes of this sort can be understood at the macro-social level. If I’m right that the underlying mechanisms at are at work in other spheres (i.e. the expanded pool of interlocutors offered by the internet allows what would otherwise be a proliferation of differences to instead becomes the emergence of new commonalities) then this is a really interesting route into debates about the internet, social change and social integration. It raises obvious empirical questions about the nature of these ‘new commonalities’ and the similarities and differences which in turn obtain between them. Do they provide a basis for the establishment of ‘new continuities’ as Archer would put it? Or simply represent a fragmentation that exists at the level of groups, self-defined in a particularist and experiential way, rather than of individuals? Is it even meaningful to talk about ‘groups’ in this sense? Subcultural social worlds is a concept I’ve been playing with recently to make sense of this, seeing them as emergent but heterogeneous spaces of meaning and practice which are constituted through biographical interweaving and amenable to the further emergence of networks acting in relation to values and ideas within this ‘social world’.

*I keep writing this in inverted commas because I think it’s a conceptualisation of a difference and that its objective basis varies a lot. The category of ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’ emerges from the relation between particular constellations of norms about sexuality and an individual who, for whatever reason, does not meet the expectations implied by them. The ‘for whatever reason’ is the objective underpinning of that experience for any particular individual and it needs to be analytically distinguished from the biographical process of coming to understand oneself which it indirectly brings about. It’s a necessary but insufficient condition for the emergence of an asexual identity because the characteristics it is generative of need to be rendered problematic at the social level for them to be in any way significant. This is why I think studying the aetiology of asexuality is conceptually confused – ‘asexuality’ is a deeply socio-cultural phenomenon and it’s too broad a category upon which to base an investigation of what underpins it causally.

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.