There was a young man who said "though
it seems that I know that I know,
what I would like to see
is the I that knows me
when I know that I know that I know."
–Alan Watts (I think)
Today in my seminar we're talking about Kevin Korsyn's Decentering Music, many of whose arguments issue from a widespread assumption within cultural studies: that the notion of the centered self, the independent and self-willed self, is an illusion. Many of those arguments follow from psychoanalytic or semiotic arguments, some of them formidably abstract. As a grad student I always had a hard time quite imagining what such a notion could really mean: I'm, like, not me? If I'm not me, then what am I? What might the alternatives be?
So anyway, everyone in my seminar has been writing questions for up to cogitate upon leading up to today's class. This was my contribution:
In the passage of pp. 42-46 (and elsewhere), Korsyn maintains that the conception of the individual self as developed in the post-enlightenment West, the self of the Cartesian "cogito ergo sum", is a historically- and culturally-specific invention (i.e., not something that is natural and universal), and cannot therefore serve as the basis for anything that might describe itself as a non-ideological, "objective" study of music. So, in a nutshell, your notion of yourself as a separate, bounded, rational individual, a subject who works on an array of objects "out there" in the objective world — your ego, in other words — is an illusion.
OK, we've heard all this before. Now, the question: using only terms and examples drawn from your own experience, and without appealing to philosophy or cultural theory, can you make this understanding of the self plausible?
So, just throwing that out there. What would you all say? I ask the question because (a) the problem of individual identity is such a universal one in contemporary humanities thought, and (b) the point is seldom argued in any but the most abstract way. Usually we just get appeals to the authority of Lacan or Derrida or whomever. But is it something we can experience? If so, what is that experience? I'm not asking that rhetorically. I think the question of the self is real, not just an airy-fairy pseudo-question dreamed up by bored humanities professors who have run out of real things to talk about. But I'm impatient with any purely abstract statement or explanation, and cultural theory, if it is to amount to anything more than some glass-bead game of shuffling abstract concepts around in some airless realm hermetically sealed from human life, should be able to throw light on things that happen to us in our lives. If it doesn't, then what's the point?
(Well, I suppose you could argue, a la Milton Babbitt, that then it would be like pure mathematics, where theorems are valuable for their intrinsic beauty rather than their practical applicability to life, though that would be a strangely formalistic argument for a cultural-theory practitioner to make.)