“We must socially stimulate ourselves to place at our own disposal the material out of which our own selves as well as those of others must be made” (G.H. Mead, “The Mechanism of Social Consciousness,” Selected Writings, ed. Andrew J. Reck).
In a series of posts Larval Subjects has just discussed disgust with the blog medium, the frustration produced by rude and arrogant blog commenters, democracy and perverse internet egalitarianism, and upsetting mismatches between rhetorical effectiveness and the truth. As usual the reflections over there are first-rate, but in a very different theoretical idiom and emotional register than mine. LS will get where he gets without my kibbitzing. So instead of being impertinent there I’m going to address these questions here and attempt to show what a different way of looking at them might yield.
To my mind these posts are all related, and what relates them is relationships. Specifically, LS like many other people I know is disappointed by the distance of real relationships from ideal ones. Blogger to commenter, internet user to user, all of us to democracy, humans to the truth. In each case there’s a hope for something special to happen, a desirable better way to do things, and a letdown with what we actually get. Underwear and socks for Christmas again. Although we’re outside my way of thinking about things, I do see the point. In each of those spheres of relationship things are not as they ‘should’ be.
After the usual philosophical training in high idealisms of various kinds and only Marx to fall back on, what a treat it was for me to find George Herbert Mead. Mead does not torture himself and others with shoulds. There is no ideal against which the real is being compared and always, always found wanting — although he does explain why people tend to think that way. Mead starts with actual relationships and stays there. His abstractions come from the pragmatics of pattern and repetition. They are symbols or they are habits. People create and share abstractions — including a sense of self — as tools to keep track of and assign significance to the interactive networks and assemblages that they encounter in their lives. This process is his focus.
LS begins to entertain an idea along these lines when he considers Feuerbach’s view that, as LS puts it, “we project our highest aspirations and desires onto another being, but then experience these qualities not as existing in and from us, but in something else. God is thus an alienated and distorted image of our own essence or nature.” Right, and not just God. Notice, however, how LS has subverted the social-relational drift of Feuerbach (as Feuerbach himself does with the static concept of ‘species-being’) by smuggling in the language of ‘desire’ and ‘essence’. Later in the train of thought this re-idealizing reading would be better foreclosed by Marx and Durkheim, both of whom had similar ideas of how abstractions happen in the course of real social relationships, the former in his discussions of religion and fetishization, the latter in his analysis of the stability of collective representations compared to individual perceptions and explanation of religion as societies representing themselves to themselves. “Therefore the collective ideal that religion expresses is far from being due to some vague capacity innate to the individual; rather, it is in the school of collective life that the individual has learned to form ideals” (The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912, trans. Karen E. Fields).
Marx was coping with Young Hegelians, utopian socialists and liberal political economists; Durkheim was trying to sociologize Kant while detheologizing the positivistic sociology of Saint-Simon and Comte; and both were thoroughly steeped in the western philosophical tradition, so the social relationality of thought is both demonstrated and discursively obscured in their work — as N Pepperell is showing brilliantly in Marx’s case. As much as I loves me the Marx and Durkheim, and can get what I need from them, there’s a lot of digging through the cluttered attic involved with finding any particular useful thing. Sure, I’ll do it if I have to. But what I like about Mead is that although he knows his philosophy, he started out as a railroad surveyor and has a nice direct way of laying his track right to the point in short, pithy essays. In fact, his writings are a little like blog posts.
The reason Mead didn’t write more, and more at length, is interesting. He was a very good teacher. He devoted his thought and energy to getting his points across to his students and colleagues, who were his first and realest audiences. To his fans’ benefit and dismay he did not apparently have any strong vocation to talk at more abstract audiences through a book. This conversation right now with these people right here was the one he cared about. There’s no platonism at all in Mead, no inclination to think of the world we live in as less than fully real, ‘phenomenal’ in relation to some more perfectly and enduringly real noumenon behind the curtain of our lamentable animal perceptions. My grad advisor David Luft taught me to take pride in being simpleminded, which was a wicked subtle joke he told on himself and the philosophers upstairs. Mead tells the same sort of joke in his essay conversations with his imagined audience.
For Mead “Our thinking is an inner conversation in which we may be taking the roles of specific acquaintances over against ourselves, but usually it is with what I have termed the ‘generalized other’ that we converse, and so attain to the levels of abstract thinking, and that impersonality, that so-called objectivity that we cherish” (G. H. Mead, “The Genesis of the Self and Social Control,” Selected Writings, ed. Andrew J. Reck). This is the ‘truth’ of real interactions in real communities, that gets its objectivity from being shared and effective. Roots of standpoint theory are here (going back to Hume, of course, or forward to, for example, Sandra Harding’s “strong objectivity”), without the metanarrative of heroism and villainy that’s usual in more contemporary versions. On this view rhetoric is not something opposed to truth, but a process communities use to work truth out.
Selves are the product of an ongoing series of feedback loops, to which at first we bring only basic biological dispositions to mood and attention, with localities gradually defined as ‘environments’ in a process of experimental differentiation, and specific others in relation to whom roles are worked out and abstracted into worldviews and ‘generalized others’. (Most of Freud’s developmental theory is in that last sentence, without the reification of accidents of Freud’s own culture.) It is by ‘taking the role of the other’, getting a feel for the game (as Mead, Wittgenstein and Bourdieu would all put it), that the self is differentiated in particular and then abstracted symbolic space. As an explanation of Mead this gesture may be enough. Because I don’t have a specific interlocutor for this post other than the existentially thin ‘Larval Subjects’ persona, I don’t know how much detail to go into here. Wouldn’t want to be a schooler. Comments would help, if you’ve made it this far.
So why do we blog? Lots of reasons, of course, or perhaps lots of rationalizations for the same reasons. But in terms of the contrast I’ve set up there are two contradictory possibilities. The first is the search for an ideal audience as against the disappointing real audiences who inhabit our real lives. Students, colleagues, friends, etc. who in their human, all too human ways come to their conversations with us with differing standpoints produced by differing self-formation processes in differing interactive histories. It’s hard work continuously reorienting ourselves in real time to others whose roles we have not yet taken and who may not give us much to go on to do that. Much easier to close off this real interaction and search for a more perfect one with ideal others who will echo, confirm and amplify the generalized other our thoughts already embody. I think this is what LS means by ‘democracy’ and as he says, as such it doesn’t exist. In this sense he is right that the academy is where eggheads go to protect themselves from democracy. The internet then turns out to be a place where that many more disappointingly imperfect others lurk.
The other reason to blog is to have (more of) these difficult conversations in which our selves are literally destroyed and recreated in dynamic interactions with really other others. Here self is not stabilized by being closed off from further (exhausting, painful) interaction but metastabilized by embedding in networks and assemblages of relationships. I realize this is a bit of a salto mortale, especially for selves whose interactive history is confusing or oppressive. But I agree with Mead that this is what it means to really think. So this is why I and perhaps some others blog, as Mead suggested in the opening quote.