Phil Ford

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.)  

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to Consciousness

  1. Maria Lj says:

    “your notion of yourself as a separate, bounded, rational individual [is an illusion]”
    A few years ago, when in an altered state of mind (not induced by meditation, nor by drugs, but by sleeplessness and extreme stress) I experienced this radical skepticism and doubt about the self and the world. For several hours I sat pondering those great philosophical questions, as if they were deadly serious quests and important to solve there and then, by me: “who am I, and who is doing the thinking inside my mind? Is the outside world real, or just an illusion that exists just because and when I happen to think it is there? or am I maybe an illusion inside the world, existing only when other intelligent beings are thinking of me?” etc.
    My understanding is that the “separate, bounded, rational” part of our individual mind is rather small – compared to all the other stuff of various origin that is stored in our memories and necessary for performing that great illusionist show of the self as separate from the rest of the world! The independent, self-structured part of the mind is like the structured content of one single, well-layouted little webpage with its individual url, connected to the whole brain of content on the interwebs… Something else is thinking with our minds, most of the time.
    I also believe that we can neither live with the radical doubt – “anything is possible; everything is changing and fluid” – or be permanently aware of the conscious idea that we are connected and totally dependent (socially and culturally), which means much of our thoughts and emotions are conditioned by our surroundings, nor live radically independent and think of ourselves – trying to be – what other folks do not allow us to be! Trying to be something that nobody (neither your neighbour, the deity of your choice, your cat, your favourite politician or a dead grandparent) approves of is impossible for a social being, because it is a sort of lie that you can’t live with.
    Our individuality consists of the ability to devise some rules for how to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the stuff that is stored in us, and then keep the idea about the coherent self, even if the individual is just another heap of cultural and natural garbage, similar to all the other garbage floating around, but not exactly…

  2. PMG says:

    Well, I think the opposite question–use everyday experience and language to describe a bounded, rational self–is just as difficult to answer!
    My disagreement actually would be over Korsyn’s history. (as least as presented here, it’s been awhile since I “read” it in grad school!) There are other theories of the self, after all, that put the birth of the idea of identity after World War II, when Erikson popularized the very term “identity” and we get the rise of what we now call identity politics. And so I would argue that actually the radically contingent sense of self we’re talking about is a reaction against this more modernist notion of identity, rather than a reaction against some ancestral Descartes.
    And if put that way, then there are lots of everyday experiences to draw upon! Beginning with the reactions against identity politics, which is pretty endemic amongst kids these days. When it comes to sexuality, my friend likes to call it the Ani DiFranco approach: rather than finding some sort of political agency in bonding together as a disenfranchised group, they just say “Don’t put me in a box!” I think you can make a strong argument for a generation that was raised in postmodernity–and I believe in psychology enough to think that’s important–the concepts of labeling and categorizing your identity are pretty roundly rejected in lots of everyday ways.
    Good question!

  3. Michael Ethen says:

    We can say one has an identity, but not in the same way that one has two eyes: it’s not handed out in one fell swoop. Better, then, to discuss processes of identification. To ask whether identity is something we can experience, on the one hand, is to invite discussion about instants and moments, the here and now. In this sense, it certainly is something we can experience, especially during situations based on proclaiming a collective identity (like protest demonstrations or pride parades).
    On the other hand, taking the long view diminishes the relevance of particular experiences and promotes discussion of experience accumulation. Does identification appear after just one experience? (Frantz Fanon said his world changed upon hearing a young boy cry, “Look Mom, a Negro.”) No, more likely it requires repeated, similar experiences to form an identity. And we’re unlikely to remember all experiences that constitute that identity. The long view thus complicates the question and reveals the possibility of multiple subject identities.
    Simplistically, then, identity is both perceptible and imperceptible. The key is to consider both instantaneity and process, realizing that to focus on one is to gain valuable insight into the other.

  4. Amy says:

    I don’t know if I have ever sat and truly thought about reality as I know it. I consider my reality all of my interactions with others.

  5. In his journal a 35-year-old Emerson notes that he wants to emulate Montaigne in writing a book “which is full of fun, poetry, business, divinity, philosophy, anecdote, smut, which dealing of bone and marrow, of cornbarn and flour barrel, of wife, and friend, and valet, of things nearest and next, never names names, or gives you the glooms of a recent date or relation, but hangs there in the heaven of letters, unrelated, untimed, a joy and a sign, an autumnal star.”
    That’s some pretty fancy writing for a journal entry, and the tortuous style is essential to the message. The game, as Emerson sees it, is to investigate the universality of human contingency not (Phil will be delighted to know) by way of some quasi-mathematical theorizing, but rather by contriving a style of writing (dare I say living) that deepens our sense of the human predicament.
    So much for the moderns. For postmodern musings on the relation between self and universe, nothing beats Zippy.

  6. Though they are different, I think it might be worthwhile to consider the Buddhist notion of ‘anatta,’ or ‘not-self,’ in attempting to understand the post-structuralist/post-modernist denial of the traditional subject. Neither is denying the individual, but rather the emphasis is that no one is permanent, self-contained, or completely independent. In simple terms, we are members of groups, communities, we use language which is not controlled by any one user but rather emerges ‘inter-subjectively.’ When we act, all of our past experiences, our shared norms, values, etc, act as well. Yes, these vary widely, but the ‘doer’ is an illusion. There is no doer behind the deed, to paraphrase Nietzsche. The idea of an independent, rational, universal self (as perhaps exemplified in Kant) got us into a bit of trouble in the past. One can criticize it from many angles (feminist, Marxist, post-colonial,) but the fact of the matter is there is no universal, and insisting on such a thing is either reductive or raising a certain model above others (Men over women, for instance.)
    Anyway, perhaps one way to imagine this applied to music is to compare Western classical music to, for instance, jazz.
    Classical music can stand in as an example of high modernism; internal structure, tension, resolution, skilled musicians following a score, a conductor, etc. (This doesn’t change the fact that the individual musicians still must perform together, but it stil demonstrates a certain emulation of modern ideals.) Jazz, on the other hand, is less clear cut. Sure, there may be a band leader, and various cues are passed to signal various events, but the form is more dependent on improvisation, which in this case I think demonstrates a certain degree of inter-subjectivity. Anyone who has taken part in such a group activity knows the sort of balancing act of ones role reacting and influencing others which one in turn reacts too.
    Perhaps an even better example is ambient music, or any music that uses the mixing desk as a compositional tool. Simon Reynold’s article “Post-Rock,” from the Wire I think, but also collected in Audio Culture, makes this point well. The end product of such musical creation is not one that could exist in ‘the real world,’ which is to say its very nature is defined by the fact that an individual, or many individuals, couldn’t not have produced this in real-time. This doesn’t collapse the subject, or the author, in quite the same way, but I think it can be illuminating nonetheless.
    I doubt that helped at all. But, not easy subjects to articulate!

  7. ‘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.’
    I disagree with the way in which you frame the notion of the ‘centered self’ as an ‘illusion.’ I suppose that this might depend on what specific cultural theorists you had in mind, but, particularly with the French, the self is not an illusion, in contradistinction with ‘reality’ or in the sense of believing in something that is not true or that does not correspond to ‘reality’, rather the notion of the self in the history of the West (back to Augustine’s Confessions) has been constructed and shaped through various systems of power, discipline, etc. The self (or idea of the self) exerts force and influence and is ‘real’ in this sense. It is not quite a matter of illusion but of de-centering what claims to be natural, inalienable, universal. It is contingent and performative.

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