Wednesday, October 12, 2005

but i like my self--and feminist theory, etc.

I took a survey religion course in philosophy here (long time ago), and the entire class really grappled with how alien Buddhism is to the western mind and to our concept of self in particular. The whole thought that we are "grasping" for the self, and that's the only way to understand the "self"'s just too freaky. I like the way this clinging is described by the authors, "we--that is, our personality, which is largely dispositional formations--cling to the aggregates as if they were a self when, in fact, they are empty (sunya) of a self" (80). It's funny how the struggle in my early philosophy class to get my brain around this concept is very similar to the struggle I had early in this class to see cognition as a social activity. It seems quite clear how related these "jumps" are.

Another thought: I found it useful how, rather than simply working against the dominant paradigm (traditional cognitivism with its focus on symbolic processing), the authors are able to situate this model "above" their subsymbolic model of connectionism and emergence. They write, "in other words, the symbolic description is possible at another level. It is clearly possible to treat...symbolic regularities in their own right, but their status and interpretation is quite different when we take them at face value, as if they were independent of the substratum from which they emerge" (101). The authors argue for a "complementary bottom-up and top-down" approach to understanding cognition that employs both models.

Finally, I saw some possibly interesting parallels between the Buddhist notion of the "grasping" self that we are meant to transcend, and some of the late 80s and early 90s feminist reformulations of the Cartesian/enlightenment subject. (By the way, is it okay to use these two terms, "self" and "subject," interchangeably? probably not. The latter seems to mean the "self" operating within power structures and being constructed by them. But, what the heck, I am going to use them interchangeably here.) Many feminist revisions of the self use a metaphor of mobility: Rosi Bradiotti's "nomadic subjects," Haraway's "trickster rhetorician" who slips away from fixed meaning, Anzaldua's border crossers, Butler's "turn" toward the police officer in the Althusserian hailing of the subject, and even her constant use of the chiasmus--it's almost like the self becomes a rhetorical turn for her. I guess what I'm trying to get at here, is that all these models of a mobile subject are seeking to liberate us from the "fixed" enlightenment self. Yet, the authors of this book would probably claim that they do so by reenacting the mobile, grasping self that is the very source of human suffering according to the Buddhist tradition. It would have been interesting ("would have" because this issue is sorta passé now in fem theory), to inject a Buddhist-inspired criticism of these mobile selves and see what the theorists would have said back in the day.

(an apology...It is a working project of mine to write theoretical things with the same kind of lucidity as the authors of this book. I have not achieved this here!)


Blogger jmj said...

One question I had about Varela et al.'s approach to the self is that it seems they are arguing for the absence of a self, but I think they are actually pointing out that the self cannot be found. Is this how everyone else understood the book?

11:42 AM  
Blogger mdl said...

Interesting. I haven't read the book yet, but I think they make both arguments: that the self can't be found, and that the "self" as we think of it does not exist. The Buddhist tradition would say that this desire for "a self" impedes us from reaching enlightenment and it's one of our earthly obsessions that cause suffering.

2:43 PM  
Blogger mdl said...

Oops, first sentence should read "I haven't read the whole book yet." ;)

2:44 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Great connections to haraway and butler here. I think some of these connections have to do with the phenomenological roots of a great deal of prostructuralism. I think the "turn" in Butler is a lot like Heidegger's "turn." And yes, these "passe" notions (I kinda hate that they're passe) are totally a reformulation of the Western "self." Then again, as you say in your comment, even Buddhism would acknowledge that we never stop trying to grasp at the self - even when we know it isn't there.

3:17 PM  

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