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The

shifting concept
of the self
IAN BURKITT
HISTORY OF THE HUMAN SCIENCES Vol. 7 No. 2
©
1994 SAGE
(London,
Thousand Oaks and New
Delhi) pp.
7-28
Within certain schools of
thought
in both
sociology
and social
psychology
the
concept
of the self has
begun
to move
away
from the traditional
image
of the
isolated
individual,
towards a
concept
of selfhood which
emphasizes
the social
nature of the
person.
The
target
of attack for this
shifting concept
has been
twofold:
first,
the
philosophical image
of the self-contained
individual,
or
monad,
has been
challenged by
the focus on the social construction of
self;
and
second,
the notion of the
possessive
individual,
so central to
capitalism,
has been
critiqued by
the idea that the self is a cultural and historical creation. In the
place
of these two older
conceptions
of the individual there has
grown
a broad-based
set of theories which has become known as social constructionism. These ideas at
first coalesced around the work of
Berger
and Luckmann
(1967)
who claimed
that
reality
was a construction achieved
by
individuals
engaged
in social
interaction and the communicative
process
of
creating knowledge.
Since
then,
a
number of theorists have taken
up
the mantle of
Berger
and
Luckmann,
including
Rom Harr6
(1979, 1983), John
Shotter
(1984)
and Kenneth
Gergen
(1982).
All these theorists have in common the basic constructionist notion that
human
reality, including
social
life,
is the
product
of conversation or
discourse,
and this also determines the
powers
of humans as individual
persons.
This has
recently
been described
by
Harr6
(1992a)
as the discursive turn in
psychology,
which indicates the main thrust of this research into the
way
that social
beings
construct their world and themselves
through
discourse.
Whereas the initial work of
Berger
and Luckmann drew
upon
the
phenomen-
ology
of Alfred Schutz and
attempted
to
marry
this to more
global
theories in
sociology,
such as Marxs and
Durkheims,
the more recent theories of
constructionism have been informed
by micro-sociology
and discourse
analysis,
on the one hand
(Harre,
1979, 1983; Shotter, 1984;
Potter and
Wetherell,
1987),
and
by
structural,
poststructural
and
postmodernist
theories of discourse on the
other
(Gergen, 1991;
Parker, 1989;
Parker and
Shotter, 1990;
Sampson, 1989).
In
7
8
this
article,
I will concentrate
mainly
on the latter strand of social construc-
tionism,
my
aim
being
to assess the
importance
of the
shifting concept
of self it
presents
us
with,
and then to offer some criticisms and
challenges.
I think that
social constructionism has not solved as
many problems
as it would claim
through
its
presented
alternative to traditional notions of individuals as isolated
monads.
Also,
I feel there are
problems
in some of the
(post)structuralist
and
postmodernist
ideas that have informed much of the recent theoretical work in
constructionism,
particularly
that this has led to an over-concentration on
discourse at the
expense
of
understanding
humans as embodied social
beings.
Instead I want to trace the roots of the idea of individuals as isolated entities and
to
present
an alternative
theory
of the social formation of the
person
which draws
more
strongly upon sociological theory
and the social
theory
of the
body.
It is
also
my
view that
many
of the
breakthroughs
claimed
by
constructionism
actually predate
their recent
endeavours,
and that earlier theorists were
approaching
the
questions
raised
by
the
concepts
of self and
identity
in a more
satisfactory way.
THE DISCURSIVE CONSTRUCTION OF SELVES
The main aim of the social constructionist movement has been to deconstruct the
idea of the
singular
individual which is found in the main canons of western
philosophical,
and also
everyday, thought.
For
Gergen (1991,1992)
this tradition
of individualism is seen
mainly
in the romanticist movement in
19th-century
philosophy
and
music,
which relies on the notion of a
deep-seated
interior
special
to the individual
person,
of which the
great thoughts
and works of art are
mainly
an
expression.
All that is
good
in human
life,
in
thought, morality
and
creativity,
is due to this inner kernel of the
self,
which is
usually
seen as a divine
gift
for
which the mere mortal who embodies it is
only
the vessel. This central core is
normally
defined as human consciousness
or,
more
usually,
as the soul - the
intrinsic essence that defines each
person
and their
unique
contribution to social
life.
Ultimately
the soul is seen as
synonymous
with the
presence
of
God;
a small
particle
of the divine contained in each
person.
However,
this notion of the self-contained individual who has at his or her heart
an inner
being
or
essence,
is not
unique
to the romanticist tradition. It can be traced
back even further to the rationalist
philosophers
of the Renaissance such as
Leibniz,
Descartes and Kant
(see
Elias,1978;
Burkitt, 1991).
Their belief was that
consciousness
essentially
defined what was
unique
about the human
species,
for
although
all creatures on the earth have
life,
it is
only
human
beings
who are
consciously
aware of their life and of their own distinct existence as individuals.
For Kant the
possibility
of the human mind was
given
in the transcendental
subject
or,
in other
words,
in the
principles
which make all
thought
and
morality possible.
For Descartes the
very
act of
thinking
defines the individual as a
person;
it
separates
9
humans from the other life-forms of the
planet
and lifts them closer to the God
who
designed
them. Yet as consciousness defines the inner essence and
gives
substance to the human
self,
consciousness or mind are terms which - as Elias
(1991a) points
out - become substitutes for the idea of the soul.
They
are the
modem
equivalents
of the Geist or
spirit
that lives inside each one of us.
Despite
the advent of Darwinian
evolutionary biology
and the best efforts of 20th-
century philosophers,
most
people
still work with such a
concept
of the self in
their
everyday
lives and take for
granted
that the
personality
of an individual is
given
at birth
by
some inner soul or
by genetic
inheritance.
In
contemporary society,
what
undoubtedly
sustains the notion of the isolated
individual is the
experience
of
everyday
life in
capitalism,
where
people
are
highly
individuated within the division of labour and are
expected
to act
autonomously
from one another.
Macpherson (1962)
has shown how the doctrine of
possessive
individualism was central to the
requirements
of
capitalism, especially
in the
17th
century.
This doctrine stated that each individual was the owner of his or her
own
capacities
and, thus,
people
were fitted to a
society increasingly
dominated
by
markets
through
which
goods
and services were
exchanged.
In
many ways,
such a belief
arising
within an
increasingly capitalized society
can be seen as a
forerunner of Marxs
emphasis
on the
importance
of the labour
contract,
through
which each
person
who
possessed
marketable
capacities,
or labour
power,
entered into a contract with a
capitalist
to sell their skills or
energies.
Whilst
Macpherson
doubts that the doctrine of
possessive
individualism matches
20th-century capitalism quite
as well as it matched the
society
of the 17th
century,
there is no doubt that individualism is still a
powerful
notion in
capitalist
societies and was central to the success of the new
right
in the 1980s.
Certainly, Sampson (1977)
has
argued
that the notion of the isolated self found
in
psychology
is a reflection of the American
capitalist
ideal of individualism. He
and other social
constructionists,
like
Gergen, suggest attacking
this ideal both in
society
and in
psychology by
a deconstruction of the notion of
individuality.
In
general
terms,
the individual with whom
psychology
is concerned should be
seen as a construction of various discourses in
society,
which
produce
both the
image
and the
capacities
of such a
subject.
These
insights
are informed to a
large
extent
by
the work of
poststructuralist
and
postmodemist philosophers
who
have shown how the modem individual is
actually produced by
the discourses
which are
supposed
to describe its
being.
In what I shall call the first
phase
of deconstruction of the
subject,
Foucault,
in
particular,
concentrated on a
study
of the discourses which
produce knowledge
of the social world
along
with the identities of those who
populate
it.
Initially,
he
saw
emerging
at the turn of the 19th
century
three discourses that created the
social
landscape
in which new
power
relations and new identities would
emerge
(Foucault, 1970).
These were the discourses on
living beings,
on
language,
and on
wealth. In terms of the human sciences Foucault believed that these discourses
increasingly gave
a central role to the
concept
of
Man,
who was seen as a
10
conscious
agent
whose actions are
intentional,
one who is not a million miles
away
from
Macphersons possessive
individual,
the owner of his or her own
capacities.
However,
these discourses do not reveal a
subject
who was
always
in
our midst but went
unrecognized
until the
point
of
discovery:
the discourses ac-
tually produce
such a
subject
as the domain of the individual is worked out
within the human sciences. But of
course,
in Foucaults now famous
phrase,
we
can declare the death of Man if
by
this
concept
we mean a transcendental
subject
with constant
capacities,
for this
subject
is a
product
of social and historical dis-
courses.
In his later
writings
Foucault went on to show how the discourses of the
human sciences
actually
thrived in certain
institutions,
such as
hospitals, asylums
and
prisons,
and harnessed the
power
of these
places
to drill the
bodily energies
of the recalcitrant inmates into
capacities
usable in industrial
capitalism (Fou-
cault,
1977).
This
reworking
of
bodily energies
into usable commodities was
largely
done
by
institutional
regimes
and routines. Here we find the creation of
the
possessive
and isolated
subject,
the individual who is
possessor
of his or her
own useful and saleable
capacities.
This leads us on to the second
phase
of deconstruction which is found in
post-
modernism. In this
perspective
the
discursively
created,
fixed
capacities
of the
human
individual,
organized
around a central core of conscious
self-control,
are
seen
only
as a
superficial phenomenon,
a solidification of more fluid
energies
and
desires that swirl around no fixed and central
identity -
around no soul or mind.
These
things
are but the illusions created in discourse and can be removed
by
deconstruction. In other
words,
through analysing
and
deciphering
the dis-
courses in which the
subject
is constituted one sees
clearly
that the isolated in-
dividual is an illusion created
through language,
and this revelation
challenges
the
notion of the
sovereign
individual of
capitalism (Abercrombie
et
al.,1986).
Deconstructive
techniques
have been advocated in
psychology by
E. E.
Samp-
son
(1985; 1989),
who follows the method as
developed by
Derrida. Like the
structuralists before
him,
Derrida theorized that all identities are
given through
the basic frameworks
provided by language
and are thus determined
by
the
grammatical
laws that
operate
within
language.
Once these identities are shown
as discursive
constructions,
nothing
can be said to
correspond
to the
linguistic
terms;
that
is,
there is
nothing
outside of
language
that carries within
it,
for ex-
ample,
the
identity
of a
night
or a
day,
for these are
meanings given
to the
periods
after the sun rises and falls.
Meaning
is not
something
which is
given;
it exists
only
within
language,
and is made
possible by
the rules that allow the
language
to
be written and
spoken.
Thus the identities of which we write and
speak
are con-
tained within the text and cannot exist outside of it. We can illustrate this
by
writing
a word such as Man and then
crossing
it
out, or,
in Derridas
terms,
placing
it under erasure to show that while we need the word to communicate a
meaning,
there is no such
entity
to which we refer that contains the essence of
Man
independent
of the text in which it is
given
that essence or
meaning.
11
However,
unlike the
structuralists,
once Derrida has deconstructed such
identities
by showing
them to be
products
of the text rather than
things
in their
own
right,
he has no intention of
reimposing any meanings by constructing
new
texts in which new identities can be
shaped.
Instead,
discourses are left in a fluid
state in which there are no
clearly
defined
identities,
the
subject existing purely
as
a
process
rather than a fixed centre - in ambivalence rather than in the
straitjacket
of stable
identity.
As
Sampson says:
The Western
conception
of
personhood,
which has
clearly permeated
psychologys understanding
of its
subject, emphasizes
the notion of
persons
as more or less
integrated
universes and distinctive wholes. The
emphasis
is
placed
on wholeness and
integration,
at least as an ideal state of
personhood
to be attained.
(1989:14)
But:
Derridas
conception,
however,
gives
us a
fully
non-centred and non-
centrable
representation
of
personhood.
His deconstruction of the
metaphysics
that
requires
centres and
points
of
origin
or conclusion
creates the
picture
of a
process
without
beginning
or
end,
without a centre
in
charge....
The
alternative,
more
Derridian,
view would
give
us a
subject
who is multi-dimensional and without centre or hierarchical
integration. (Sampson, 1989:15)
So the notion of the
subject
as a
fully
aware,
self-present being
is
challenged
in
this
approach.
For
Sampson, following
Derrida,
this idea of the
subject
is one
created
by
the traces of the western text of
fixed,
stable and centred
identity
which forms the subconscious of each
person, placed
there
by
our
history
and
culture. Our
experience
is not immediate and
self-evident,
but is filtered
through
this subconscious
process
in which are found the historical
traces,
and it is this
very process
that allows us to feel that our
being
is self-centred and
self-contained.
However,
once this historical text is deconstructed then the
processes
of our
being
can be left in a more fluid and decentred form.
The
operation
of the
psychic processes
that Derrida believes to be involved in
the
production
of
subjectivity
is how Freud described them in his
paper A Note
upon
the
&dquo;Mystic Writing-Pad&dquo; (Freud,
1984
[1925];
Derrida,
1978).
In this
article,
Freud uses a
simple writing
device,
the
Mystic Writing-Pad,
as a
metaphor
for the
workings
of the
psyche.
With this
device,
people
write with a
blunt instrument on a
cellophane
surface underneath which is a
layer
of
paper
and then a
layer
of wax. The
writing
leaves no mark on the surface of the
cellophane
or on the
paper
below
it,
but creates in the wax beneath them an
imprint
that shows
up through
the
paper.
As no mark is
actually
recorded on the
surface
cellophane
or the
paper
below
it,
these can be erased
by peeling
the
layers
away
from the wax. The
only imprint being
on the
wax,
the
paper
and the
12
cellophane
are now
wiped
clean,
ready
to take a fresh
imprint.
Yet a trace of what
has been written is
always
left in the
deepest layer
of the
wax,
so that
nothing
written on it is ever
completely
erased. For
Freud,
this was a
perfect metaphor
of
the
psychic process
in which a barrier
(like
the
cellophane
on the
pad) prevents
too much stimulus from the world around us
reaching
our
perceptual
centres
(the paper
on the
pad)
and
permanently damaging
or
impairing
them. Our
perceptual
consciousness is then
always ready
to receive fresh information from
the environment.
However,
beneath
perception
and awareness is another
psychic system,
the
unconscious,
which
(like
the
wax)
retains a
permanent
trace
of information and
experience
which can
always
resurface
into,
or be retrieved
by,
consciousness.
For
Derrida,
of
course,
the
metaphor
of the
writing-device
used
by
Freud
has
deeper
resonances than Freud had dreamed of
(pardon
the
pun).
Derrida
believed that what was
actually
inscribed in the unconscious
process
was a
text,
a cultural and historical text which
positioned
the
subject
in a textual world.
What this means is that
everything
which we believe is
given
to us as individuals
by
nature,
our
unique self-identity
which
separates
and
distinguishes
us from
others,
or our self-conscious world-view and
personal capacities,
is
actually
shaped by
the texts which
compose
our culture. As
Sampson says,
the
importance placed
on this
by
Derrida is also because
writing,
that is the
permanent
trace,
exists
always already...
before
perception
is aware or
conscious of itself. To
phrase
this
differently,
the
trace,
which is absent from
consciousness,
forms the basis of consciousness itself
(1989:11).
This means
that consciousness - which is
constantly
aware of its own
presence,
its own
immediacy
and
receptiveness -
is
actually
structured
by something
which is
absent;
that
is,
by
the text written into the unconscious. The same is also true of
speech,
for when we
speak,
the
apparent immediacy
of the
speech
act is
always
structured
by
an unconscious
process
that has
already
taken
place.
So what is
present
is
only
the surface manifestation of an absent
process,
and the
centralized,
integrated,
isolated individual is
only
the
appearance
of textual
processes.
In
summary,
then,
we find in
poststructuralist
and
postmodernist theory
a
double deconstruction of the isolated individual that
psychology
has
always
taken to be the
object self-evidently present
for its
scrutiny.
First,
Foucault has
shown that the individual is a
product
of the
very
discourse that has isolated and
identified it. The
capacities
of this individual are
shaped
within the
power
relations of modem
societies,
particularly
in correctional
institutions,
so that
there is no
pregiven
individual to which we can refer.
Second,
in the next wave of
deconstruction,
we find Derrida
opposing
all
attempts
to
identify
the
subject
with a new
discourse,
and instead
making
a deconstructive
attempt
to
keep
texts
and identities in a fluid state of absences and
presences. Through
these ideas the
tide is
slowly shifting away
from notions of the
lonely
but heroic Romantic and
the
sovereign
individual of
capitalism.
13
CRITIQUE
OF THE CONSTRUCTIONIST
MOVEMENT
The social constructionists such as Foucault and Derrida
(or
should I
say
here
deconstructionist?)
feel that
they
have
gone
a
long way
towards
overcoming
the
Romantic and rationalist
image
of the self. Their deconstructions have led to a
shifting
of the
concept
of the self
away
from the individual to the discourses and
texts which
give shape
and
meaning
to the
very
notion of
individuality.
However,
despite overcoming
the
tendency
in the West to see the self as a
pregiven entity
which forms the basis of social relations and
culture,
the
poststructuralists
and
postmodemists
have fallen into another
trap
of rational-
ism ;
in
particular,
into a variation of Kantian transcendentalism. This is a
variation of Kantianism because whereas in Kants
philosophy
rational
principles
of
thought
were seen as
part
of the transcendental
subject,
which made
possible
particular subjects
with rational and moral
capabilities,
in constructionism it is
discourse or the text that becomes the transcendental which
produces
the
subject.
As Derrida
said,
the text is
always already present
for a
given subject.
But this
raises the
question
of who writes the texts in which the
subject appears. Similarly
with
Foucault,
discourse is seen as
creating
the
space
in which the
subject appears
as an
object
of
knowledge.
Even when Foucault moved into the
study
of
power
and discursive
practices, power
was said to
produce
the individual
(Foucault,
1980):
a statement which leaves unclear the
ontological
status of
power.
Indeed,
as I have
suggested
elsewhere,
there is a trace of
metaphysics
at the base of
Foucaults notion of conflict and
power (Burkitt, 1993),
because it makes
socially
constituted individuals and
groups,
and the conflicts between
them,
contingent
to the
strategies
of
power
and discourse.
Of course this
critique
could be said to contradict Derridas main intention
which was to
get people thinking beyond points
of
origin
for texts. This is fine so
far as Derrida sees the text as located in the
community
of
speaking
or
communicating
individuals.
However,
the
problem
is that this is
precisely
what
Derrida does not
do;
his whole
purpose
is not to connect the text to
anything
that
exists outside of
it,
nor does he stress the
importance
of communication. While in
his
essay
on
Freud,
Derrida defines a text in the broadest terms
possible,
including gestures
and other
signs,
he does not
say
whether these have the same
status or
importance
as
writing
and
speech,
the
theory
of which dominates the
main
body
of his work. Are
gestures
of the same order as
writing
and
speech,
and
if
not,
what is the difference and the relation between them? Derrida has
largely
left these
questions
unanswered.
What is
missing
from
poststructuralist
and
postmodemist
theories such as
Foucaults and
Derridas,
is
any
notion of
practice
in
respect
of the formation of
discourses and texts.
They
tend to follow the structuralist
principle
of
seeing
discourse and texts as entities structured
by
rules or relations internal to the
system
of
signification
itself.
However,
what this leaves out is the central
aspect
14
of
language
outlined
by Wittgenstein (1953),
which is the use to which humans
put
their
language
in
practice.
Here
language
is not
just
a
system
of
signs
that
bears no relation to
anything beyond
it,
but is a
practical
instrument that has a use
for human
beings
within the whole
range
of their activities. This was the
point
of
Wittgensteins
method which has become known as the
language-game,
where
he would describe the use of words in a
very simple game
of
language
to show
their
practical
function
(Wittgenstein, 1975).
This method stresses
something
important
that is
beyond
the
text,
something
which Derridas method denies:
that
is,
the
practical
use of
language,
of texts.
Something
else that is
missing
from Foucaults and Derridas use of discourses
and texts is the
importance
of texts in the human
activity
of communication.
When Derrida
says
there is
nothing
outside the
text,
he is
making
a valid
point
if
merely claiming
that there can be no
meaning
outside a
group
of
communicating
individuals who exist in relation to one another.
Objects
do not contain
meanings
in themselves but are
given meaning by
the texts that
social,
communicating
beings develop
between them.
However,
this does not
always appear
to be what
Derrida is
saying.
If we take the
point
of view that I have
just
stated
here,
then
there is
something
outside the text to which the text and its
meanings
refer: that
is,
there exists a
group
of
interrelated,
interactive
beings,
and also an environment
of
objects
with which the
active,
communicating beings
in the
group
are
engaged.
Another
linguist
and
philosopher,
Bakhtin,
has stressed this side of human
language:
the role that it
plays
in communication
(Clark
and
Holquist, 1984).
He
emphasizes
the use of
language
in concrete social
settings
where human
beings
attempt
to communicate with one
another,
over and above the
systemic quality
that a
socially
shared textual medium
inevitably
takes
on - precisely
because it is a
communicative and therefore social achievement rather than a creation of
any
one individual.
Language
is then
praxis
or,
as Bakhtin refers to
it,
linguistic
praxis (Gardiner, 1992:166).
However,
the context in which
language
is used
remains
important
for it is here that
language
lives,
taking
on its life and
vitality
and all the
things
that
give
it both the
quality
of a stable
system
and the
facility
of
dynamic change.
Thus
language gains
its
meaning through
the various forms of
relations to
reality
that it mediates in a social context
(Bakhtin, 1986). This
has
led Callinicos
(1985)
to refer to Bakhtins
linguistics
as the thesis of contex-
tualism,
because we could
say
he realized
that,
in the
production
of
meaning,
beyond
the text there lies the context. Thus if
we,
along
with
Bakhtin,
stress
communication as
opposed
to enclosure in a world of
self-referring signs,
then
there is
something important
that exists
beyond
the text. As Bakhtin
says:
I am
against
enclosure in a text.... Contextual
meaning
is
personalistic;
it
always
includes a
question,
an
address,
and the
anticipation
of a
response,
it
always
includes two
(as
a
dialogic minimum). (1986:169-70)
What Bakhtin is
doing
here is
pointing beyond
the text to the context of social
relations and interactions between
people
to which
language belongs
as a
15
communicative device. These ideas have
always
formed
part
of the other branch
of constructionism I referred to
earlier,
particularly
in the work of Rom Harr6
and
John
Shotter,
whose
primary
influences are
Wittgensteins philosophy
and
the
micro-sociology
of
linguistic practice,
such as
ethnomethodology.
However,
while
they appear
to be
arguing something
similar to the
points
I am
making
here,
I believe that their theories tend to
stop
short of a
study
of the contexts of
linguistic practice
and remain
firmly
within the bounds of conversation and
language.
As Harr6 has
recently
claimed,
My
own research interest has been
focused on the discursive conditions for the
production
of selves and on the
discursive
production
of
agency (1992b: 65).
This
position
was stated most
clearly
in one of Harres earlier works where he claimed conversation between
people
as the
primary reality,
one which is to be
thought
of as
creating
a social
world
just
as
causality generates
a
physical
one
(1983 : 64-5).
But the
question
must then
be,
what is the context in which this conversation arises? This seems to
be answered
by
Harr6 with the claim that
people produce language (and
each
other as
selves)
in
joint
action and in the course of
engaging
in certain discursive
practices (1992b: 67).
Yet this
appeal
to
joint
action would seem to contradict
Harres earlier claim that
agency
itself is a
product
of discourse.
If there is to be such an
important
reference to the notion of
joint activity,
as
there is in both Harres work and in that of
Shotter,
then it would seem to merit
much closer
inspection
and careful
theorizing.
Indeed,
in
response
to the work of
the
psychologist
Lev
Vygotsky,
Shotter has claimed that
joint activity
should be
the unit of
analysis
for the
psychological functioning
and moral action of
humans
(1992:190).
In another
context,
Shotter
(1993)
has also
suggested
grounding speech
in
practices
and activities:
yet
in the same article he returns at
the end to the notion of
reality
as a
product
of conversation. I would
suggest,
then,
that in the work of both Harr6 and Shotter we can see them
struggling
to
free themselves from some of the more extreme forms of social constructionism
which advocate there is
nothing beyond
the text.
However,
in
my
view,
they
have not
yet
been able
adequately
to theorize the
practical
contexts in which
language
and conversation
may
be
enveloped
and
developed.
In
contrast,
what I am
suggesting
here is that because there is
something
beyond
the
text,
a social context in which
language
and texts
play
their
part,
then
these are
equally important
in the
way
that selves are formed and also
conceptualized (Mead, 1934). People
are located not
just
in texts but also in social
relations and
practices:
the elemental forms of context. Self is
not, then,
purely
a
creation of discourse but a
product
of social relations and embodied actions
within those relations. As human
selves,
we do not
just experience
ourselves as
textual but as flesh and blood: as embodied
agents
with
capacities
that have causal
effects in the natural and social world. This contradicts the notion of the self and
embodiment in much recent social
theory, particularly poststructuralism
and
postmodemism.
For
example,
the
image
of the
body
found in Foucault and
Derrida was
largely
as a surface for
writing
and the self was a
product
of this. In
16
Foucaults
work,
when the
body
rebelled it did so in a Rousseauian
way,
where
the mechanisms of the
body
come to resist
power
and social
discipline (Foucault,
1980).
But this view is
actually
a form of Cartesian dualism where the natural
responses
of the
body
are
opposed
to the rational demands of consciousness and
society.
The
body
both is inscribed with social forces
through
relations of
power,
and
opposes power through
its own
internal,
unruly energies.
What this vision
misses is the idea of a social self and a social
body,
one that takes its
powers
of
agency
from its life
among
other
people;
those
agential powers being shaped
and
moulded
through training
and
learning.
We are therefore
empowered
and
disempowered
in various
ways by
our social
upbringing
and
by
our
learning.
Furthermore,
social
power
is conducted
through physical presences
and
absences as well as
through linguistic presences
and absences. This is what I
meant earlier when I said that certain
perspectives
in
sociology
could be seen as
an advance over
constructionism,
because what these
perspectives recognize
is
the
importance
of social relations and social
practices
in the formation of selves
and
bodily capacities.
This in turn leads us to new
conceptions
of the self. The
question
that remains
is,
while the
concept
of the self is
shifting away
from older
individualistic
notions,
can we
keep many
of the
advantages
of constructionism
without
falling
back into rationalist dualisms or into the dead end of a focus
solely
on discourse? To do
this,
I would
suggest,
means
turning
to some ideas
developed
in
sociology.
SOCIAL RELATIONS AND INTERDEPENDENCE
That the
changing conception
of the self has
always
been linked to
changes
in
social
power
relations and the
interdependencies
between
people,
has been
outlined most
sharply by
Norbert Elias. In
this,
we can see a contrast between
Elias and
Foucault,
for while the latter saw
changing
notions of the self as linked
to
discourses,
particularly
in the human
sciences,
Elias shows how these
discourses on the human
self-image
are
actually
linked to the
changing experience
of individuals within the broader context of
dynamic
networks of social
relations. For
example,
Elias
(1991b)
links the doubts Descartes
expressed
about
existence - about whether there was
any certainty
to human existence
beyond
the
individual
thought processes
that could conceive of it
-
to
changing
balances of
power
within the
society
to which Descartes
belonged.
It was the
growing
secularization of
society,
with the concomitant loss of
religious power
and of the
influence of
religious teaching
over the
interpretation
of
experience,
that led
individuals to
experience
themselves as alone in the world to a
degree
never
known before. Descartes demonstrates the difficulties
people
had in
thinking
about themselves and the
certainty
of their own
image
when the
religious picture
of self and world became a
target
for doubt.
Equally,
the new form of self-consciousness
expressed by people
of the
17
Descartesian
age
was linked both to the
increasing power
of humans over natural
events,
and to the rise to
power
of new social classes such as courtiers and the
urban middle classes based around the state and commercial centres. These
classes were less
likely
to
accept
the
image
of themselves advanced
by
the old
religious
authorities;
this was
especially
true of intellectuals such as Descartes.
He
struggled
to reconcile the
religious aspects
of humans with their
secular,
bodily
existence;
as
beings
with a
spark
of divine
creativity
and
uniqueness,
unlike
any
other
animal,
and also as embodied
objects
who can be studied and
scrutinized. Elias believes that this dual
aspect
of the human
self-image
arises in a
world where
people
are
part
of more
complex
networks of social
interdepen-
dence,
and thus need
greater powers
of
foresight
to
plan
and coordinate
joint
activities. In such a
world,
persons
must scrutinize and control their own
individual behaviour more
closely
than in
previous periods
of
history,
in order to
orientate themselves more
effectively
with the conduct of others. But this makes
people
more aware of themselves as
objects
of their own
observation,
and thus as
individuals who are
separated
and
distinguished
from the others around them.
This
was,
in
fact,
the
very thing
that Descartes was
experiencing:
himself as the
thinker and
yet
also the
object
of his
thoughts.
In modern
terminology
we have
come to
express
this as the division between
subject
and
object. However,
this is
perceived
as a division
only
because
Descartes,
and other thinkers of the
period
and
thereafter,
imagined
the two attitudes as two
separate
attributes: the material
body
which formed the
object
of
observation,
and a more
ephemeral, spiritual
essence which
composed
the
subjective
observer-the I of
thought.
The
greater
powers
of observation and self-control demanded of the I made the
experience
of oneself as an
object separate
from all others more
acute,
as the
increasing
need
to observe and think before one acted
placed
more
complex
restraints on the
emotional reactions to others which form an intrinsic
part
of human social life.
Emotions then became elaborated in social life with more subtle
colorations,
being
infused with a more constant and internalized demand for restraint.
Again,
this came to be
perceived
as a division between two
separate
substances: on the one
hand,
the emotions which
belong
to the automatic
responses
of the
body,
and on the
other,
rationality
which
belongs
to the soulful
essence of
thought.
The
triumph
of one of these substances over the
other,
of
rationality
over the
emotions,
was characterized in
Enlightenment thought
as the
victory
of
humanity
over the
bestial,
of the moral order of civilization over the
physical
order of the animal
kingdom (Wokler, 1993).
In the moral
state,
humans
feel themselves to be their own
creation,
because
they
work their own natures
into a state of
perfection.
This is done
through
reason which allows us to
escape
the
slavery
of the
passions
and to
pass
from barbarism to
civility.But
this involves
the
feeling
that reason is
controlling
the
passions
and with this comes the illusion
that the two are
opposing
entities,
the one set
against
the other.
Whereas Foucault was to see this as the
product
of new texts which marked
out a new terrain of human
experience
and inscribed it on the
body,
Elias saw this
18
experience
as
actually emerging
within the social relations and
interdependencies
of the
day.
Humans did
experience
themselves in this
way
and this
experience
was reflected in the texts of the
Enlightenment.
But these are not the source of the
experience;
rather,
they
are one of its
products.
The source of the
experience
is
the
changing power
relations of the
day
where,
with an
increasingly
centralized
state and
pacified
relations between individuals in
everyday
life,
social controls
are
slowly being
internalized.
Previously,
these controls over
peoples
behaviour
were
largely
external,
belonging
to individuals or institutions that could exercise
authority; only
now are
they beginning
to
tip
towards the internal
plane.
Social
controls
shape
conduct
by acting
on the
body
to mould behaviour. Now that
these controls are more internalized in the
bodys
own
responses (or
in the
psychic agency
Freud called the
superego)
rather than in external
authorities,
people experience
their own self as if it were
composed
of two
objects -
the mind
and
body,
reasons and the emotions - that are
mutually
inimical and at war with
one another. One of the most
nearly perfect expressions
of this can be found in
Adam Smiths book The
Theory of
Moral
Sentiments,
in which he claims that
people
should not
express strong
desires of the
body.
Reason is then
experienced
as an
object
that is in
opposition
to
emotions,
the mind in
opposition
to the
body.
Others,
like
Rousseau,
came to the conclusion that it is moral relations that are
the
corrupters
of a
pure
human essence. This is because the moral codes
imposed
on the
body
are
thought
to
spoil
it. The same idea is reflected in Freuds view of
the
compromise
between the id and social
morality,
and also in some
contemporary approaches
in
psychoanalysis (Lasch, 1979).
But
again
we find the
idea that morals are
opposed
to nature and that
part
of the self is turned
against
itself when moral demands are
placed upon
individuals. Once
more,
this is
part
of the same
feeling
that individuals in the West have had since the
Enlightenment,
that two substances are active inside them which are in fundamental
opposition -
moral sentiments and the emotions. The
body
is a
thing,
an
object,
with
passions
that are
(rightly
or
wrongly) being
controlled,
while the mind is an insubstantial
essence set in
opposition
to the
physical
and the
tangible.
However,
as Elias has
suggested,
this
feeling
is created in social relations and
interdependencies
in which the
personality
structure of individuals in
any age
is
patterned
and
shaped.
This
fundamentally
alters the Foucauldian view that
individual selves are
actually
a
product
of the social texts of the
epoch.
From texts to relations
Another view in the
shifting concept
of the
self, therefore,
gives precedence
to
social relations as the
primary
influence in the formation of
persons (Mead, 1934;
Buber,
1970
[1937]; Macmurray, 1961).
Here,
social relations are also the
structuring principle
of social
life,
not the rules of
language
or the internal
relations of the text. Social relations
always envelop
individuals and construct the
self in its various different levels. As Elias
(1991b)
claims,
even if our ties to other
19
people
are not
immediately
visible,
these
interdependencies
are still the most
powerful
force
acting upon
us. The
web,
or
living
tissue,
of these
interdependen-
cies Elias calls the
figuration
of
people.
This is a term used to
convey
the idea
that human individuals are
always
bonded to one another in a network of
relations in which
they perform
different
functions,
and where there is a tensile
equilibrium
of
power
balances between
groups
and individuals who hold
different functions. Even when we are
alone,
or
perceive
ourselves to be alone
because we know no one in a
crowd,
we are still tied to this
figuration
of
relations,
still bonded to other
people
with whom we are
interdependent
and
shaped
in our
personalities
and
scope
for
possible
actions
by
relations of
power.
As Elias
says:
The invisible order of this form of
living together,
that cannot be
directly
perceived,
offers the individual a more or less restricted
range
of
possible
functions and modes of behaviour.
By
his birth he is inserted into a
functional
complex
with a
quite
definite
structure;
he must conform to
it,
shape
himself in accordance with it and
perhaps develop
further on its
basis. Even his freedom to choose
among
the
pre-existing
functions is
fairly
limited. It
depends largely
on the
point
at which he is born and
grows up
within this human
web,
the functions and situation of his
parents
and the
schooling
he receives
accordingly.
This
too,
this
past,
is also
directly
present
in each of the
people scurrying
about in the
city
bustle. It
may
be
that the individual does not know
anyone
in this
bustle;
somewhere he has
people
he
knows,
trusted friends and
enemies,
a
family,
a circle of
acquaintances
to which he
belongs
or,
should he be now
alone,
lost or dead
acquaintances
who live
only
in his
memory. (1991b: 14)
However,
the
key
to
understanding
the
importance
of what Elias is
saying
about the
self,
is that it cannot be understood outside the networks of these
chains of
interdependence,
nor can the
figurational
network be understood as
external to individuals. For
Elias,
we live in a tissue of mobile
relationships,
which have
by
now been
precipitated
in
[us]
as ...
personal
character
(1991b: 14).
Like Derrida who wanted to have us think in terms of
processes
without
points
of
origin,
this is also one of Eliass aims: unlike
Derrida,
though,
he does not want us to think of a text without
point
of
origin,
but of a
figuration
of human
beings
without
beginning.
He wants to work
against
the creationist
myth
that there first
appeared
a
single
adult human
being
who was the
progenitor
of all who followed: or that a number of such
single
individuals came
together
to
form social relations in an act of social contract. In this
picture
there is a
leap
out
of social
nothingness
into the bonds of human
society.
However,
... there is no such
leap
out of
nothingness,
and no
myth
of
origin
is
needed to make
comprehensible
the
primal
social relatedness of the
20
individual,
his natural
dependence
on a life with other
people.
The facts
directly
before us are
enough. (Elias,1991b: 21)
And it is from within the mesh of our
interdependence
with other human
beings
that our own
self-identity
is
produced.
In his work on the
civilizing
process
Elias
(1978; 1982)
shows how the
psychogenesis
of individuals is
always
linked to the
sociogenesis
of
interdependence
and
power
balances in the
figuration.
Our
personalities
are moulded as children
through
our
dependences
on others. This is
expressed
in Eliass notion of the
psychogenetic
law,
which
states that
every
individual child must
go through
a
civilizing process
of its
own;
this does not mean that each child
goes through exactly
the same
phases
as its
society
in its
passage through history,
but that a child is raised
according
to the
standards of its culture so far as
they
are
currently developed.
At birth an infant is
said to be a
preliminary
sketch of a
person
whose instincts and mental functions
are malleable and
relatively
undifferentiated. It is
only
in relation to other
people
that the child
grows
into a
relatively complex being
with a
self-identity
that is
both a reflection of its culture and
yet fairly unique.
What we can see
clearly
from Eliass work is the association between the
development
of the self and the embodiment of human
beings,
who,
in the course
of their
upbringing,
learn to
discipline
and control their own bodies in
ways
that
are
socially prescribed.
These
disciplines
and controls then form into
dispositions
towards certain activities and behaviours that are common
amongst
social
groups
with a similar
background. Self-regulation
is
part
of what we now refer to as the
unconscious,
or what
Elias,
along
with Pierre
Bourdieu,
calls the social
habitus. This is because these
patterns
of
activity
are
constantly reproduced by
people
in a non-reflective
way. Although they
have been learned
they
are
ingrained
in our
bodily responses
so that even if
they
become the
objects
of
consciousness,
it is not
always easy
or even
possible
to
change
them. These
bodily responses
are often
pre-conscious
and
may shape
our conscious
processes,
such as our tastes or
judgement,
without our
realizing
it. In these
sociological
theories of social
practice
we find the
concept
of the self
shifting yet
again
to a
very
different
focus,
one that sees the
shaping
of
bodily dispositions
within social relations as
primary
to the formation of the self. It is these
dispositions
that are the basis for the conscious
processes
of
choice,
judgement
and
cognitive categorization.
The focus therefore moves from
cognitive
processes
to
bodily dispositions.
From
cognition
to the
body
Elias shows the formation of
bodily disciplines occurring
in the
changing
social
structures of the western world from the
period
of the Renaissance onward
(Elias,
1978;
1982).
He
argues
that with the
greater
centralization of the state
and,
with
it,
the
monopolization
of the means of
violence,
European
societies in this
period
became
internally
more
pacified. This
led to
greater
controls
being placed
21
on the behaviour of individuals in their
everyday
lives. These controls and the
more subtle nuances of behaviour
they produced, emerged
first of all in the
aristocratic courts and
spread gradually
to
every region
of
society.
Elias shows
how the manners and conduct of the
age placed greater
demands on individuals to
control the functions of the
body,
and also to use
greater foresight
in
planning
and
executing
their actions. Thus it is with the
greater
control of the
body
that there also
emerges
the demand for
people
to treat themselves as
objects
of
reflection,
to look
at themselves more
objectively
and to
plan
their actions and
responses
with
greater
foresight.
From the intensified control of the
body
there
emerge
the
cognitive
processes
of mental
foresight
and
planning
which
appear
to be
separate
from the
emotions and
impulses,
and therefore from the
body.
In actual
fact,
nothing
could
be further from the truth.
In terms of these new forms of
bodily discipline,
Elias realizes
that,
at
first,
they
are
specific
to a
particular
social class. The
disciplines
in which our
bodily

behaviour is
grounded emerge through
what Elias calls the social
habitus,
a term
which refers to the
dispositions
of a social class or
group
due to their common
codes of conduct and the similar
patterns
of their
upbringing.
Like
Elias,
Pierre
Bourdieu also uses the term habitus to describe the
importance
of
socially
instilled
dispositions,
and thus also
emphasizes
the
importance
of the
body.
For
Bourdieu,
the habitus is the
system
of
structured,
structuring dispositions
which is
constituted in social
practice. By
this Bourdieu means the
bodily dispositions
that
our social relations and
practices
have instilled in
us,
and which tend to
reproduce
themselves when the
body
is called into action in various social contexts. Habitus is
therefore
...
systems
of
durable,
transposable dispositions,
structured structures
predisposed
to function as
structuring
structures,
that
is,
as
principles
which
generate
and
organize practices
and
representations
that can be
objectively
adapted
to their outcomes without
presupposing
a conscious
aiming
at ends
or an
express mastery
of the
operations necessary
in order to attain them.
Objectively regulated
and
regular
without
being
in
any way
the
product
of obedience to
rules,
they
can be
collectively
orchestrated without
being
the
product
of the
organizing
action of a conductor.
(Bourdieu, 1991: 53)
This does not mean that the aim of
practice
is
always
unconscious,
only
that it
can be
so,
as
peoples practices
are oriented
through bodily dispositions
instilled in
them from
past
social
practices.
This is like Garfinkels
(1967) background
expectancies, except
that these are not so much
linguistically negotiated
and
taken-for-granted meanings
as
bodily patterns
of
activity
shared
by
all who have
been
brought up
within a similar social habitus.
Hence,
there can be
pattern
and
formation in social
praxis
and social relations without the need for
any
conscious
coordination.
So,
The
habitus,
a
product
of
history, produces
individual and collective
practices -
more
history -
in accordance with the schemes
generated by
22
history.
It ensures the active
presence
of
past experiences,
which,
deposited
in each
organism
in the form of schemes of
perception, thought
and
action,
tend to
guarantee
the correctness of
practices
and their
constancy
over
time,
more
reliably
than all formal rules and
explicit
norms.... This
infinite
yet strictly
limited
generative capacity
is difficult to understand
only
so
long
as one remains locked in the usual antinomies - which the
concept
of the habitus aims to transcend - of determinism and
freedom,
conditioning
and
creativity,
consciousness and the
unconscious,
or the
individual and
society. (Bourdieu, 1991: 54-5)
Habitus, then,
flows
through
the
body.
The unconscious is the
forgetting
of
history
which has instilled this
process
in the
body:
in
many
cases ones own
family history.
As Bourdieu
says
above,
the
question
is not so much about
determination and freedom as about the
ways
in which individuals
apply
their
learned
capacities
and
dispositions
in each
new,
or
familiar,
social situation. This
allows for the
generation
of
novelty
within a framework of
practice
that is
entirely
learned and therefore
socially
structured. Bakhtin has a similar idea
about the
production
and
reproduction
of
language,
in that it is a social
product
with
systemic properties yet
it is
applied
in creative and innovative
ways
in each
instance of social communication
(Clark
and
Holquist, 1984).
The actions of social
beings
are therefore
always
structured
by history,
which
does not mean to
say
that action is
rigidly
determined
(Williams, 1992).
Because
people forget
about their
history
and about their
learning - just
as someone who
has mastered a
game
is never conscious of each
physical
or mental move while
playing
it - we who have mastered the moves and
strategies
of the social
game
are
not conscious of each action we undertake: we
produce
our learned
practices
and
orient them to
specific
situations in the belief we are
practising
total
spontaneity.
We do not realize that those who
apparently
act with the most ease are in fact
past
masters of the social
game
rather than the most
spontaneous
individuals.
Likewise,
when we
act,
we are not conscious of all the
learning,
all the
discipline
and
control,
that has been instilled in
every response
and
every
movement of our
body,
thus
shaping
our
practices.
Practice is
always
both these elements
coming together:
the
dispositions
lodged
in the
body creating patterned
or
strategic novelty
when
placed
in a
concrete situation. This is similar to the
process
of
practice
labelled the me and
the I
by
G. H.
Mead,
who
recognized
these two elements as both
integral parts
of the social self
(Mead,
1964
[1913]: 1934).
Themewas the self of
past
actions,
the
self-image
of the
person plus
the
monitoring
and
censoring aspects
of
consciousness;
on the other
hand,
the I was the self as it acted in each novel
situation,
always finding something
new in its circumstances and
responding
in
original
or
unique ways.
This is
very
much the work of the
bodily
self. Mead
recognized
that
they
were both connected and
integral
to the social self.
23
However,
because he made an
analytical
distinction between the
two,
critics have
often accused him of
reintroducing
a residual self
(thy!)
set
against
a socialized
self
(the me).
This is not the
case; however,
while
realizing
the
importance
of the
body
in social interaction and how
meaning ultimately
resided in
body
actions
and
gestures,
Mead did not
fully
understand
exactly
how
important
the
body
was
in social
practice.
Nor did he realize that because most of our
bodily dispositions
remain unconscious at the moment of their
reproduction,
we are not
always fully
aware of them while we are in action. This is
why
Mead found that the self in
action could never
grasp
itself,
could never catch its own tail while it was in
movement. But this is not
something peculiar
to consciousness or to
perception;
it is because our
thoughts
and actions
originate
in
bodily dispositions
which do
not need
complete
conscious awareness in order to function.
However,
Meads
conception
of the self and the
psychical apparatus
is more
useful than Derridas or Freuds in
studying
the
body
in action. That is because
Mead
recognized
the
practical
nature of the
psyche,
that it is
always
connected to
social
practice
and does not exist in some
separate
textual or mental domain.
Whereas Derrida and Freud
struggled
with the
metaphor
of the
mystic
writing-pad,
Mead
conceptualized
that which remains
open
to new
experiences
and information as the active
person
in their various social locations and
settings
(the I).
It is the embeddedness in social contexts that allows the individual to be
constantly receptive
to new
stimuli,
while at the same time the
body
carries the
forms of
history
in terms of the cultural
image
of the self and the
disciplines
involved in social interaction
(the me).
So the I and me are not
just psychical
but also
bodily,
and
they explain
the
process
of
receptive, yet
structured,
readiness better than the
concepts developed by
Freud and Derrida. The burden
of the
past
does not
weigh only
on the brains of the
living,
as Marx
said,
for the
past
is embodied in
every
muscle and sinew.
Furthermore,
this is not
necessarily
a
burden,
except
where our
past experience
is marred
by exploitation
or
abuse,
thus
colouring
our
dispositions
so that
they
become inhibitions. In other
cases,
the
dispositions
are what enable us to
act;
they
are what we feel to be the
power
of
agency
located in our bodies and selves.
Thus
history
is not written into us
only
as a text. It
develops
in
bodily
organisms
with their own
rhythms
and
capacities, emerging
first as
disciplines
but
eventually
as
dispositions
for
practices -
the
very things
that enable us to act.
In this
scheme, then,
we act and
respond
not
solely through cognitive
mechanisms but also
through bodily dispositions.
Indeed,
bodily dispositions
are seen as the basis of all forms of
categorization - being
the
structuring
structures - and are thus the foundation for
cognitive systems
of classification.
However,
these no
longer
involve
just psychical systems
alone,
but all the
bodys
capacities.
This is
something
that is
beginning
to be realized in
cognitive
science
itself;
for
example,
Ulric Neisser
(1988)
has
recognized
the
importance
of the
visual
system
in
structuring agency.
24
SOCIAL RELATIONS AND THE EMBODIED SELF
In the view I am
suggesting,
then,
bodily systems
are coordinated into
dispositions through
social
relations,
whereby
the
bodys
own
potentials
are
used and moulded within the social
process.
It is social relations and
interdependencies,
of a
political
and
personal
nature,
that
provide
the context
into which the texts and discourses of human life fit and take on their
meaning.
The
meaning
of
language
is not
simply
about
conforming
to
grammatical
rules,
but is the
expression
social
beings give
to the conditions of their lives
together,
including
the
changing experience they
have of themselves as individuals in a
social world. The mind and the
body
are
not, therefore,
two
separate
substances,
as
they appear
in the Cartesian
picture
of
humans,
but are
parts
of the same
entity
-
the embodied social
being.
Indeed,
as I mentioned
above,
the
ability
of humans
to think in more abstract
ways
is
coming
to be seen
by cognitive psychologists
as
based in
bodily dispositions
such as the visual
system
which allow humans to
move within and
explore
their world
(see
also
Gibson,
1979). Perception
and
action
thereby
make
possible
and form the basis of the more abstract
processes
of
cognitive thought.
But it is not
just bodily capacities
that are
given
to us at birth and that have
formed over
long spans
of time
through biological
evolution that act as a
foundation for conscious
thought.
It is also the
way
these
capacities
are moulded
into
dispositions through
our relations and
interdependencies
with other human
beings.
Relations and
interdependencies
form a social habitus in which our tastes
and
dispositions, thoughts
and
feelings
take
shape,
and all these
things develop
together
rather than in isolation from one another. For
example,
the
way
we
learn to feel about certain
objects
or sensations - the
appearance
of a work of
art,
the sound of
particular
music,
the taste of food - whether we like or dislike these
things,
will come to influence our
thinking
about them.
Thinking
itself is a form
of
reflection,
of
standing
outside ones self
mentally
and
viewing
ones self as an
object ; from
a
distance,
so to
speak.
Consciousness of this
type
tends to
develop
with the
learning
of
language
and the induction of the individual into the culture
of their
society,
which allows for the
development
of certain
ways
of
looking
at
ones self.
However,
as Neisser
(1988) points
out,
the notion of
self-concept,
which concerns the
knowledge
of what it is to be a
person
within a
particular
society,
cannot be
separated
from what he calls the
ecological
self,
which
corresponds
to a
persons perception
and
activity
in their immediate
physical
and
social
setting.
These two
things
must be connected to a
degree
or else the
self-concept
would not be a firm basis for action in the
present
social
context,
nor
would the
self-concept
have
any
viable
meaning
for social actors.
The texts and discourses of a culture are therefore
important
to the
understanding
of ourselves as
people,
but
they
do not
totally
determine what we
think or do. Texts also relate to the context of our
lives,
to social
relations,
interdependence
and
practice,
and to the
ways
in which we
perceive
ourselves to
25
be embodied and
empowered
within social life.
Feeling
ourselves to be active
agents
and
passive patients
is
part
of
physical being
in the social and natural
world,
as much as it is
part
of
conceptual understanding.
Mark
Johnson (1987)
shows how
meaning
can be
composed
of
metaphors
drawn from our
physical
experience
of embodiment. For
example,
our
experience
of
agency
and
passivity
is modelled
upon
our
understanding
of causal forces at work in the environment
-
of one
body coming
into collision with another and
influencing
its
course,
the
other
body responding
to the force. Thus social life is made
up
of
experiences
such as Mead
described,
where we are in constant
interaction,
acting
towards
others to influence their behaviour
and,
in
turn,
responding
to their actions or
their
replies.
In this
process
we feel ourselves to be both
agent,
the force we
recognize
as
I,
and
patient,
the more
passive,
reflective
me,
which are the two
sides of the social self. These are
simply metaphors
and do not refer to internal
substances or
mechanisms; indeed,
the I and the me can be seen as
metaphors
for the
way
in which
physical beings experience
social life.
So here we see once more the
importance
of the
body
underlined in terms of
the
way
in which an
embodied,
ecological
self can
bring
into
discursively
expressed meanings
its
perceptual understanding
of the
environment,
and use
this to create
metaphors
which are
socially meaningful.
A human self can
only
be
an embodied
self,
aware of its location in the
physical
and social
present
of time
and
space,
as well as
conceptually
aware of the
concept
of its own
self,
its
past
and
the
projection
of its existence into the future
(something
which social
constructionism is
becoming
aware
of,
particularly
in Harres later work
[1991]).
Also as selves we must be aware of the
concepts
of the self within our societies
and how our own
self-image
fits in with this: but we also
possess physical
dispositions
and
capacities
for certain
types
of action and these non-discursive
phenomena
are also fundamental to the
type
of self we are. The latter are
aspects
of the self that most
psychologists
and social theorists tend to leave out of their
accounts of selfhood.
However,
as I
hope
to have indicated
here,
the
ground
is
shifting
in this
respect
within social
theory
and
psychology,
and with it the
concept
of the self is
shifting
too,
from
seeing
the self as the
product
of the text or
as centred on
cognitive processes
alone,
to one where ideas about the
body
and
social relations are
being incorporated
into a
theory
of the self.
CONCLUSION
Social constructionism has created
major
advances in the
concept
of the self
by
illustrating ways
in which the self is
produced by
the
society
and the culture of
which it is
part.
However,
social constructionism has concentrated
largely
on
language
and the results of discourses on the self. This has left the
impression
that
the
only
world that the self knows is a discursive world and
anything beyond
this
constructed world is screened out
by language.
What I have tried to
suggest
here
26
is that while the
discursively
constructed world is
important
for
knowledge
of
the
self,
there are also other levels of the self that are vital. Bourdieu and Elias have
drawn attention to how
bodily experience
is
shaped by
social relations and
practices,
and how this is
interdependent
with the
cognitive categories through
which
people
orient themselves
consciously
within their world and also come to
experience
their own selves.
Indeed,
the
way
that the self is
experienced
in
any
historical
epoch
is
shaped by
the social relations of the
period,
so that the self
which
emerges through
the conversations and the texts of the times is an
expression
of the social
context;
the text is the
product
of the
changing
nature of
the
way people experience
themselves,
rather than selves
being
the
product
of a
text constructed a
priori.
Theories of the embodied self can also be found in the
cognitive psychology
of those like Ulric Neisser who claim there is a level of the
self and its
understanding
of the world that is not
just
textual or
cognitive,
but is
grounded
in the
experience
of the
body.
Thus we find that the
concept
of the self
is one that is
continually shifting,
and
currently
it is
shifting
towards a
greater
recognition
of the
way
that humans are embodied within their social contexts.
University of Bradford
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