S C I E N C E & S P I R I T
The Self as an Outdoor Market
|In June 2005, Haverford College hosted the annual gathering of the Friends Association for Higher Education, an organization of intellectuals and academics who have serious faith lives, and see themselves as being guided by spirit. One session of particular interest explored how the postmodern conception of the "decentered self" might be compatible with the Quaker tradition of "centering": if there is no center within (or without?), what do we center on, with--and how? A dialogue ensued between Roy Gathercoal, who presented the session, and Anne Dalke, who attended it. They continue that conversation here, making it public as an invitation to others to join in.|
August 7, 2005
I'm very grateful, Roy, for your willingness to dig deep into these matters with me; no offense given or taken a'tall; quite the contrary! What intrigues me most, in all you say below, is your description of "looking inward" and perceiving the self there not as a thing, but as a place or space, a crossroad, "an outdoor market." Bringing the outside in, and locating it there, is a very resonant image for me, one that corresponds with what I know experientially: myself as a busy intersection where I negotiate all I encounter, all I need to order, all I have to put in relation with all else. Like you and Kathleen, I see great promise in this conception, as a way of re-defining mental health: it's very helpful to think of our varied tolerance for discord, and of the possibility of re-writing the script, of re-ordering our conversations so that they are less discordant. And I do understand that this description of what constitutes the self is less a theology than a psychology. Where it gets theological, as you say, of course, is when you bring God into (or notice that God is in, and want to accentuate God's role in) the conversation; and where it gets postmodern is when you describe God, like the self, as a "constellation of communities."
You observe that each community represented in this marketplace-that-is-the-self "has a different language," and that your identity emerges as all members of this unique constellation of communities negotiate conversations with one another. I'd take this a step further: each self, too, has a unique language. In order to make myself absolutely transparent, completely understood by others, I would have to be able to use a language expressive of my unique experience--but then other unique selves, each with their own unique experiences and unique languages, couldn't understand what I was saying. All our languages, in other words, are compromises, implicit agreements to call a spade a spade, or science science, or religion religion. And I betcha that our most-growing-sort of conversations are those in which we are re-negotiating the meanings of things: when what I invoke by saying "science" or "religion," say, differs from what you understand by those terms.
I pick those two words advisedly, because I've been engaged lately in another conversation nearby, in which I've been trying out, out loud, the possibility that "religion" and "science" might mean, for others, what they mean for me, which is the same thing:
a kind of testing: looking at the objects of the world, others, ourselves, watching their/our behavior, predicting further behavior--being always open to realizing when we cannot do so.
Postulating that both science and religion are about communal testing, about reaching shared judgments about internal experience, I then asked (and haven't been answered; would you like to try?) whether what distinguishes science from religion is the
matter of "rightness": Scientists know that they are only getting it less wrong, while religionists are convinced that--though they may only discern it incompletely, even with the help of others--there actually is a right to be discerned? That there is an external standard against which we judge our actions?
Who or what is the judge, in the marketplace of the postmodern self? And what are the grounds for judgment, once (as you say) postmodernism has done away with the idea of a norm?
July 24, 2005
I read your essay and have spent some time thinking about it. A good read.
I couldn't figure out how to add to the page, so I'll just write to you and you can decide how and where to put it.
A couple of things to clarify, not in the sense of truth, but in the sense of more coherence with the rest of the things I say: First in no particular order, I would say that "narrative mining" is not at all restricted to pre- or modern players. In fact, premoderns probably wouldn't recognize much of value in another's culture, so this is the group probably least tempted by this sort of exploitation.
By "narrative mining" I am intentionally recognizing the wealth of a culture's narratives. There are various ways of doing this, of extracting peoples' stories from the culture (yet not removing the story, but changing it somehow, perhaps taking its innocence through the process of having a culture member tell the story to an outsider?).
My primary--temporally first--purpose in employing this metaphor is to serve as a warning to those who newly discover the power and excitement, the great value of narrative. I believe it is possible to harm cultures through the ruthless and uncaring/detached stripping of narratives.
Academics in general, and anthropologists in particular (and I suspect that literary critics and communication scholar/researchers--to cover our two areas--are are not immune) like too well the objective and altogether detached seat that modernity afforded. And why not? As a researcher I can come in and examine others without subjecting myself to anything I haven't chosen to write into the research protocol. I've not heard of a social scientist negotiating the research protocol with the people who are to be studied. . . from their perspective, the researched experience a descending upon by strangers speaking strange things and riding strange beasts barded in the livery of inquiry. I wonder how very different this experience is from that of the Mayans marveling at the incoming colonializers-to-be.
I really don't know what all the rules or sensibilities ought to be, but it does seem reasonable that postmodern research might consider some sort of reciprocity. Oh what power comes shielded in silence.
I therefore leave an incomplete call for a dialog among the postmodern-oriented so that we might not all end up red-faced and red-handed when the effects of our profiting from what seems to be an inexhaustible supply of narrative turns out to be exhaustible. . .or worse.
For the second issue I'll pick the theology of what I'm trying to do. One of your questions included ". . . works as an expression of a postmodern theology. . ." To this I would answer "of course." I am a little nervous about your emphasis on theology, however.
Right off I'll grant that my position as author shouldn't be privileged too much. Yet from my perspective I don't see this as a particularly theological work.
I suspect the confusion arises in my flitting between my description of how I understand the decentered self that masquerades as me and my probes at what the process of being centered, or decentered might look like for anyone. Of course I will wrap myself in the rainbow postmodern colors of one-in-many; "this is only one possible description of one part of something undefined" and so I do not need to accept the responsibility of defending this position as the only good, proper or "blessed of the academy" position.
Post modernity, even in its present infant state, often makes clear the indivisibility of the whole from the sum of its parts. I am probably missing a bunch of important and interesting stuff if I remain in the comfort of the third person. I will see things differently if I take seriously the idea that everything (including me) is linked to everything else (also including me): Another deviation from the detached objective seat of the modern social scientist.
But there is much wisdom saved for us by those who worked within this modern tradition. I suspect a part that wisdom that may be of particular value to us here, goes something like "if you start mixing up your own personal life/story/experience with that of what you are studying, you're likely to end up confusing everybody." I fear that I am guilty on this count.
Let me try another shot at it (please?)
Instead of seeing our selves as a thing, it might help make some things work if we conceive of us as places/spaces. That is, instead of conceiving the self as an entity with solid ontological status (and perhaps even with real atoms) we might see the self as a crossroad where our many communities interact through their languages.
So I might metaphorize the self as an outdoor market or as a group milling about for any of a multitude of reasons.
Language is of the life of a community. It is what emerges from and re-effects (and re-affects) the community. Language is so portable, divisible and reconstitutable language is the primary way that the community interacts with other communities. Thus it is through language that a community knows what it knows about itself ("itself" being what is not "other").
Further, because of the relatedness of language and meaning (how can I know what I mean until I hear myself saying it?) what members of a community mean when they describe their community is reflected by, and bounded by, their language.
I would like to entertain the possibility that each community has a different language. That is, even among two sub-sub-sub-communities of native English speakers there are differences in meaning for the same (in terms of phonemes, etc.) words.
Further, two selves who are both members of communityA and community B can "move" the locus of the action by evoking a code word or string of words so that both selves who were "in" community A begin speaking (perhaps in mid-sentence) with evocations of meanings that are sensible in B (and perhaps insensible in A). This movement has to be consensual or negotiated, or one or both selves will be talking only to themselves. Of course, this negotiation can go awry. Sometimes one speaker wants to "be in" community A but another speaker wants to "be in" community B. Power plays, negotiation, sabotage, even coercion can result. Perhaps more intriguing (as long as I'm not one of the poor selves) one participant thinks that the switch to community C has been agreed upon, but the other speaker isn't even a part of community C and continues in the interaction hearing the other with the meanings of community A in place.
These conversations (the intersections of the languages of various communities) don't take place in empty space (as far as I can tell). selves aren't usually the mouthpiece for communities. Communities seldom have a single mouthpiece. Within selves is where the communities carry on their constant discourse, arguing, pleading, negotiating, collaborating, etc. with other communities over word symbols, meanings and contexts.
So, interestingly (to me, at least) when I look "inward" I see my self as the space in which all of the communities of which I am a part interact. That is, it is the unique constellation of these communities that makes me, me. My identity emerges in the process of these various and divergent communities conversing with each other: performing the necessary negotiations to maintain the conversation, vying for positions of influence (in the network "centrality" sense) and influencing each others' set of meanings in an ongoing dance.
At least it's a dance as long as the communities' discourse remains civil. I could imagine the horror that would result if my communities included, say, the NAACP and the KKK. How these discourses would interact, with their very different imputed sets of meanings at loggerheads, simply could not be peaceable, unless one was thrown out, that is, excluded from the conversation as a result of my cutting ties with the community. (Even so, I would still have the lingering dialog of the "then" communities railing against one another, but one or both voices would be relegated to the outskirts of the space that is me. )
When I look "outward" I see my self as one space among many in which the various communities to which I belong are growing, changing, adapting through the interaction with the voices of other communities.
So the self is both the place where I reference my identity (as a symphony/cacophony of the combined voices of the various communities to which I belong) and the place where the various communities interact with each other, so as to share/grow/adapt their identities. Pretty heady stuff. . .
Kathleen (the research psychologist) and I have talked about this and we see promise in this conception as an emerging definition of mental health. The modern definition is based on an idea of a norm, from which certain individuals deviate. Those who deviate too much are mentally ill, and their illness is defined in terms of observable behaviors, sometimes traceable to specific biological states.
But postmodernism does away with the idea of a norm. . .there is no objective place that an individual could be that is "normal." The best we could come up with would be an extremely fluid measure of where the median, mode or mean is at a specific time and place. We certainly have no business (say the postmoderns) taking for ourselves a "God's seat" in order to dictate what is "good" and what is "blemished."
So without an observable and measurable norm, who can say who is mentally healthy?
Perhaps there is fruit in exploring the idea that when my community of voices is in some sort of harmony, then I am in a state of mental health. When my voices start to become discordant, angry, conflicting, I become less mentally healthy.
A couple of interesting things emerge here. One is that "healthy" isn't the same for everyone. People have differing degrees of tolerance for discord and competing definitions/accounts/narratives. So if I'm mentally unhealthy, one route could be to increase my tolerance for diversity--there is a quote something about wisdom being the ability to maintain two opposing positions and still function.
Another route might be that I need to reorder my conversations, relegating some to more of an outer, background position while foregrounding or centering on others. Part of the solution might be to exclude some communities altogether.
It surely changes the role of the therapist/counselor!
As you see, my focus is not intended (at least, by me) to be a theology. The question of what is at the "center" of the universe becomes moot. My focus would be not on what is the center of everyone else's universes, or some construction of a mean of those divergent universes, but rather on what constitutes my self, and how I am relating to the various communities of which I am a member, whether I should seek out membership in other communities, and how I should structure the dialogs that are always happening.
That's enough for me to handle.
The theology for me comes in at the point of my own construction of dialogs. My conversation/dialog with God is moving toward the center of who I am. The more it becomes central the more it influences the various other communities that are part of me.
So from my perspective a postmodern evangelical is not someone who believes that everyone ought to say the same things. Instead, I would work to encourage others to first recognize God as some community/constellation of communities with whom they can converse, then to start the process of moving (or rearranging the discourse) so that that conversation becomes more central.
For me a relationship with a living and present God is what "salvation" is about. This relationship as with all others affects me not through some external power or magic talisman or mantra, but through my willingness to talk with God in such a way that this conversation influences all of the other conversations that comprise me.
I hope this long and meandering comment has not been tedious. It is a bunch of new ideas for me, and I don't yet have the shorthand that would allow me to speak of them as efficiently as I could, say, the modern philosophy of science (or scientism).
Do you see some value hidden among these many words? Does this resonate with your continuing discussions?
I hope to hear from you,
In anticipation (and some fear that I have offended),
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