‘Selfhood’ and ‘Subjectivity’ (Part 1: The ‘Self’ as Ontological, Technological and Embodied)

What are the meanings of the commonly used terms ‘Self’ and ‘Subject’; what does it mean to speak of one’s sense of ‘Selfhood’ and ‘Subjectivity’? Here lies a maze of terminology. The primary task of this next series of posts is to explain the specific ways that these terms are used.

We are confronted with a linguistic nightmare upon reading that “…some ‘Technlogy’ (or ‘Technique’) has had an effect on the user’s sense of ‘Subjectivity’ “. Why, we immediately ask, did the author of that statement, use the term ‘Subjectivity’ and not ‘Selfhood’? What differentiates the two? It is absolutely necessary, before engaging with the terms ‘Self’ and ‘Subject’ to have clear definitions – albeit not necessarily definitions that can please everyone! In the next couple posts I’ll focus on the term “Self”.

The term ‘Self’, I contend, refers to the place of an individual within the associated Macro (i.e. World-View) and Micro (i.e. Political-Technical System) systems she is enmeshed in. This sounds dense, but it is quite simple: Put differently, to have a sense of ‘Self’ is to have a sense of being an agent conditioned by their culture’s specific World-View and Political-Technical systems. On one hand a “Self” is an agent within a Cosmology; on the other hand a “Self” is an agent within a unique Political and Technical arrangement. We might, rather broadly, claim that ‘Self’ refers to an agent’s sense of its role or place within its reigning paradigm. When we ask about ‘Self’ we are asking the question of how some agent fits into their world. Consider the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, looking at the grooves in each piece, and thinking about how they fit together…

For example, in the Middle Ages one would have – at the Micro level – been a ‘Self’ commensurate with the Medieval political practice of Feudalism, where kingly ‘divine right’ inspired a system of nobles, knights and serfs, each of whom recognized their place in that political system. Or consider that at one time to say ‘me’, referred to a ‘myself’ that was actually referring to a much larger Self, one part and parcel of a living, ordered cosmos. Thus, the Micro, or Political, dimension of the serf, the knight, and noble, cannot be understood without drawing upon the larger Macro system that provided the reference to a living, ordered cosmos.

One fits into the Micro ‘puzzle’, because one fits into the Macro ‘puzzle’, and vice versa – there is no distinction between the two and they rely upon each other. Each piece of a ‘puzzle’ must have two or more sides that connect with another piece. Hobbes’ Leviathan, understood as a political Micro system, is likened to a machine that prevents an irrational ‘state of nature’ and amasses citizenry into the rationally-ordered body of the sovereign. But Hobbes’ practical philosophy, his Leviathan, is itself connected to the Newtonian cosmos and Newton’s natural science. The orderly Macro system Newton

presents emerges in the same constellation as the orderly Micro system Hobbes formulates. Here, the ‘Self’ is understood as having an ontological (Macro) and a political (Micro) place. Self straddles the ontological-cosmological (Macro/World-View) and the social-political (Micro/Political-Technical).

But can this be all that is the case? Where does it leave what is closest to us? Our flesh and our embodiment! The question of the ‘Self’ is always a question of how an embodied agent fits into historical Micro and Macro systems. It is ultimately a question of how one’s flesh is understood in relation to the flesh of the universe (i.e. ontological-cosmological Macro systems), and how one’s flesh is understood in relation to the flesh of others (i.e. political-social Mirco systems). One cannot simply be a ‘Self’ and is always, in every case, a ‘Body-Self’. Every theorization of ‘Self’ – even among ascetic cults and religions – are ultimately beset by having to consider ‘Self’ as a ‘Body-Self’. While Platonism, the most magisterial of all ascetic cults, seems concerned with a rather abstract self or soul, one finds – in actuality – that Plato’s dialogues concern the body and how the body ought to behave. The ‘good’ life for Plato (81d Phaedo), the life that allows one to die without being dragged back to Hades, co-responds to a certain way to comporting one’s body in the world. Thus, we must, at all times, resist the temptation to think abstractly about ‘Self’. ‘Self’ is body-self. The ‘body-’ is the necessary substrate, or condition, of having a place in Micro and Macro systems.

To be continued….


~ by dccohen on January 20, 2010.

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