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Monday, May 30, 2005

Existentialism without Authenticity (and vice versa)?

Posted by Sean McCann on 05/30/05 at 12:06 AM

Anyone out there already read Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Ethics of Identity?  If so, is what Carl Elliot says in his American Prospect review (subscription required) possibly accurate?

One crucial aspect of making a life involves shaping one’s own individuality. Appiah suggests that we have inherited two rival visions of what this task involves. The first, which we have inherited from romanticism, stresses the importance of authenticity. According to an ethic of authenticity, a meaningful life involves getting in touch with our inner depths and being true to what we find there. The second vision, which we have inherited from existentialism, stresses the importance of self-creation. On this account, individuality is important because the only valuable life is one that we have made up for ourselves.

According to Appiah, both of these accounts are wrong. The first is wrong because it ignores the importance of creativity in making a life. The second is wrong because it ignores the materials that are needed for creation.

It’s hard to imagine that Appiah builds his argument on such an unlikely contrast, or that he believes the opposition to be exhastive--or that he would suggest existentialism and authenticity belong to rival visions.  Are there any versions of romanticism that do not construe getting in touch with our inner depths and being true to what we find there as in fact ways in which we make lives for ourselves (against the constraints imposed by convention or moral obligation)?  In fact, wouldn’t that be one of the criteria of romanticism: if the goal feels like alienation it isn’t romantic?

I’m woefully underqualified to talk about this and am not sure why I’m bringing it up, except that Elliot’s way of framing things reminds me of what I think is a false opposition common in contemporary academic literary circles--the contrast, that is, between ascriptive identity and personal freedom or self realization. 

This is a contrast that, in one way or another, is often raised in arguments over, say, identity politics.  The problem is that few people I’ve encountered actually believe there’s a real conflict here.  Would that they did.  I’ve never heard any voice of cultural identity argue that a person who is true to their people or tradition or whatever will actually be forced to relinquish in any meaningful way personal creativity or genuine wants.  And, while, granted, there was once prominent that pseudo-Sartrean version of existentialism that imagined the sociopath as the only truly free person, no one’s really taken that line in a long time.  Have they?  Even Sartre came to “Anti-Semite and Jew.” Just as you rarely encounter a defender of group identity who doesn’t believe they’re creating the opportunity for individual self-realization, you hardly ever meet a champion of individual freedom who thinks you have to murder your family before you can be authentically self-creating.

What both sides of the opposition set up by Elliot (along with Appiah?) share, of course, is a basic contrast between the true and the factitious self, along with an understanding that the former is inevitably at odds with the constraints of society and morality.  For all the subversion of “the subject” pursued in academic literary circles in recent decades, that contrast hasn’t really gone anywhere.  In fact, I suspect that a good part of the appeal of the queered, or deconstructed, or decentered individual is that (like surrealism before it, perhaps), it encourages a fascination with the mysterious, unpredictable, nonrationalized self.  Derrida on deconstruction: it aims “to provoke, not only in the reader but also in oneself, a new tremor . . . that opens a new space of experience.” You write, in other words, to find out what kind of mysterious creature you might be.

Theory talk is full of such suggestions.  Lacan, for example, remarking that “we are not ourselves. “ (Actually, I think I just quoted the X-Files.  But I’m sure he said something similar.  At this hour, I’m not myself either.) Deleuze and Guattari assaulting the oedipal self.  Butler celebrating the way that “speaking the unspeakable . . .opens the performative to an unpredictable future.”

I don’t want to deny the legitimate appeal of this kind of talk.  But I think one less acknowledged reason for the weariness with Theory is the sense that there are serious limitations to this kind of hyperromantic individualism.  What’s missing from Elliot’s terms is an acknowledgement that meaningful selves are also formed by surrendering some personal discretion to social, or moral, or political constraints.  It’s been lacking in academic literary discussion for some time too.


Comments

Is “Car je est un autre,” what you’re thinking of there, maybe? Because that are something else.

By Jonathan on 05/30/05 at 01:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Do Elliot and Appiah refer to Lionel Trilling’s “Sincerity and Authenticity”?  It seems to cover similar terrain and maybe sets up the distinction between two conceptions of the self in a more useful way.  I.e., Trilling distinguishes between the older ideal of sincerity, which means being true to one self in order to be true to others, vs. authenticity, the more modern ideal, which means being true to oneself no matter what, even if the self is schizophrenic, pathological, divided, deconstructed, on drugs, or what have you.  I.e., authenticity sloughs off the conception of public responsibility inherent in sincerity, and Trilling sees this as characteristic of the politics and culture of the 1960s.  Trilling obviously prefers the older ideal.  Appiah, if Elliot is reading him correctly, seems to be drawing a fine distinction between two types of authenticity.

By on 05/30/05 at 09:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The contrast is rather familiar in Appiah’s old stomping grounds:  the Harvard philosophy dept.  His old colleague Dick Moran wrote a beautiful book in the vicinity (AUTHORITY AND ESTRANGEMENT), as it is in any other philosophy department.

The “romantic” strain is associated with the conception of the self as something “deep” which one labors to “discover,” and the existential strain is associated with the conception of the self as the result of “invention.”

Most folks think neither extreme is right, and so the challenge isn’t so much rejecting the extremes as the precise articulation and rigorous defense of some sort of middle view.  (Both extremes have counterintuitive implications:  if the self is an invention, then self-knowledge woudln’t be an achievement.  If the self is something discovered--something that I don’t create--then what does it really have to do with me?

does that help?

By Zehou on 05/30/05 at 09:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My complaint isn’t that the choices are too polarized, Zehou, but that it in common usage no one actually believes that discovery/invention is a choice that requires balancing.  To put it another way, who would not regard the promise of the purely invented self as romantic?  Prometheus is a romantic hero. Likewise, in romantic literature, discovering the deep self typically appears as a kind of self invention.  (It’s the deepness of the discovered self that pushes aside the sense that in discovering it one surrenders personal freedom.  No one who speaks in this mode, in other words, believes that you’re just discovering custom and social convention. They’re talking about soul.)

In this case I think there’s a good reason to take the intuition of common usage seriously.  The deep self and the invented self are both pursuits of authenticity as Trilling described it.  (Thanks, Stephen, I had similar thoughts in mind.) And both are alternatives to the deference to others demanded by sincerity. (or perhaps by the Kantian version of autonomy?)

From this perspective setting up a distinction between the romantic and the existential self and then splitting it doesn’t seem like much of an achievement.  There’s no genuine conflict there to resolve, I think.

By on 05/30/05 at 01:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think Sean is really on-target in locating a hidden (or not-so-hidden) radical individualism in post-structuralist thinkers who supposedly explode the idea of the autonomous subject.  Are there articles/books out there that link these thinkers to 1960s politics, or connect their thought specifically to a radically individualistic valorization of selfhood?  For ex., there are plenty of biographies of Michel Foucault that link him to a kind of countercultural solipsism, but I’m not sure anyone’s taken the extra step of linking this 1960s/70s context to a close reading of his work.

I think “Discipline and Punish” is another good example of what Sean’s talking about, although at first it might seem unlikely, given that “Punish” supposedly negates any model of autonomous agency in modernity, whether “Romantic deep self” or “existentialist invented self.” The modern individual is depicted as completely fabricated by perpetual surveillance and discipline of the body--one is “normalized” according to social codes.  (Elsewhere, in History of Sexuality v1 if I’m reading it correctly, F argues that the notion of a Romantic deep self is “produced” by techniques of power.)

But all of this really begs the question:  from what position is Foucault making his own social critique?  The language Foucault uses to describe these social codes (they’re malicious, petty, oppressive, whatever) presupposes some kind of autonomous self that’s able to make this sweeping denunciation of modernity.  Hence, DP is enabled by radical individualism, even though there doesn’t seem to be any “giveaway” passage in DP where Foucault urges us to find a “new space of experience.” Although maybe the battle Foucault refers to on the final page can be given such a reading--he’s implying the individual’s battle against forces that would induce conformity, “social, or moral, or political constraints” being, always, a bad thing.  (Sorry if this post diverges a bit from Appiah/Elliot, but I think this “individualism and post-structuralism” topic to be very interesting in itself.)

By on 05/30/05 at 03:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My complaint . . . that in common usage no one actually believes that discovery/invention is a choice that requires balancing.  To put it another way, who would not regard the promise of the purely invented self as romantic?

If the view on the table was that individuals must decide between engaging in discovery or invention, you’re quite right:  that <i>would be a false dilemma.  But that isn’t the view on the table.

The discovery model (which philosophers like Appiah associate with romanticism IN PHILOSOPHY--not romanticism in literature) and the invention model (which philosophers like Appiah associate with existentialism conceived as a species of philosophy) are:

competing descriptive accounts of what the project of making a life (as we all try to go about it) is.

They are not competing kinds of advice about how to go about making a life.

What makes the contrast important (for Appiah and everyone else who works on these topics in contemporary philosophy) is what gives rise to it:  competing accounts of what the self is.  Each side has counter-intuitive implications, yet nobody’s quite clear just yet about what a “third way” might look like, or about which of the counter-intuitive implications can be blocked or whether some bullet-biting is in order.

By Zehou on 05/30/05 at 08:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zehou, I believe I understand your point and I think I understand what Appiah’s talking about as well, if Elliot has him right.  (Though I don’t believe I ever said that anyone implied that individuals must decide between discovery and invention.  I certainly didn’t mean to.)

The basis of my reaction is that I doubt these really are effectively competing descriptive accounts of the project of making a life.  I think they only seem so when they’ve been philosophically formalized, but I also believe (on the basis of sheer knee-jerk reaction admittedly) that this is not a formalization that is particularly helpful.  The person who you would describe as searching out the deeply rooted essence of his or her self and the person who you would describe as inventing a self in my view are doing the same thing--they’re pursuing authentic forms of selfhood.  Those efforts will take strikingly similar forms (shucking off the constraints of the inauthentic, undergoing trials and temptations, arriving at a sense of self-realization) and they will do so because some of the differences between them are not especially substantial.  “Become who you are” would be a dictum that would work for either project.  In other words, if these are competing models of what the self is, they both involve centrally a self that can have a project for identity.

There are models of selfhood--aren’t there?--for which the command to become who you are wouldn’t be especially relevant.  That’s what I believe Elliot’s contrast left aside.  To choose an example, if by search out the deep sources of the self you meant to describe the project of just doing what your neighbors do, then I’d agree--that is quite different from the existentialist account. But there would be no need to use “deep” to describe such a project.  Wouldn’t the Kantian account of autonomy be similarly an alternative to either of the projects you describe? 

I wasn’t aware of a special philosophical meaning of romantic.  But it would amaze me to know that there could be a definition of romantic selfhood that would not include existentialism.  In fact, the passage that piqued my interest in all this was Elliot’s use of the word “authentic” to describe a rival vision to existentialism. On the face of it alone, that’s amazing. Any version of existentialism that doesn’t see authenticity as core to the vision is surely construing things pretty narrowly.  That’s also the reason I mentioned “Antisemite and Jew.” There, i think, Sartre did not consider the discovery/invention contrast to be important at all.  That could be a mistake on his part, of course.  But perhaps his view like the one I think I see in common usage is correct--that there’s not much value to parsing the distinction because it’s not significant.

By on 05/30/05 at 09:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zim, yes!

By on 05/30/05 at 09:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

<i>The basis of my reaction is that I doubt these really are effectively competing descriptive accounts of the project of making a life. . . . The person who you would describe as searching out the deeply rooted essence of his or her self and the person who you would describe as inventing a self in my view are doing the same thing--they’re pursuing authentic forms of selfhood</i>

They are “effectively competing descriptive accounts” in so far as they are not both compatible with one and the same set of views about self-knowledge, meaning, agency, introspection, etc., and that each has counter-intuitive implications.

So if what you mean is that the contrast has no direct practical significance, well:  that’s what everybody already agrees about, including Appiah.

Kantian autonomy, conceived as a power of self-legislation governed by the constraints of practical reason, involves a sort of creativity.  Further, as has been much discussed, there are respects in which even Sartre’s view echoes Kant in surprising ways.  But that’s partly because Kant’s influence is such that every prominent view echoes Kant in some important respect.  I think Kant is much closer to the romantic conception of the self than to the existentialist conception, but I’m no Kant scholar. 

But it would amaze me to know that there could be a definition of romantic selfhood that would not include existentialism.

Be amazed.  Be very amazed.

By Zehou on 05/30/05 at 11:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m seriously out of my depth here, Zehou, but indulge me if you will.  You say the two projects are not both compatible with one and the same set of views about self-knowledge, meaning, agency, introspection.  I think I can imagine what that would mean.  If you were talking about the discovery model you would say something like self-knowledge requires understanding of the way the self has been formed by deep sources; if you were talking about the invention model you would say something like self-knowledge is knowledge of one’s desires to be a particular self.  Introspection can be directed either to the former or the latter, etc.  It’s easy to see too how either of these models, if anyone actually endorsed them and pursued one far enough would runs into serious trouble. 

I’d just be restating my initial point, I suppose, to say that these models exist at a very high level of abstraction and perhaps at one level of specification lower their differences don’t appear, to me anyway, that serious.  In both models selfhood is a project, there is (problematically, I assume) a self that pursues that project, and introspection is a royal road toward its completion.  Neither model, I’m guessing, presumes that a person in either would go around asking neighbors: who am I?  But both would assume that the question itself has great ethical importance.  I suppose my doubts begin with wondering whether it does, which is consistent with my continuing non-philosophic sense that existentialism is romantic in the extreme.

By on 05/31/05 at 12:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In both models selfhood is a project, there is (problematically, I assume) a self that pursues that project, and introspection is a royal road toward its completion.

Those are good guesses, but they aren’t right.  In neither model is selfhood a project, both models are conceptions of what the self that pursues projects is, and only in the discovery model could a species of introspection yield knowledge.

If the self is something there to be discovered, then that self’s “deep” and “strong” evaluations could be discovered by observation (introspection).  And successfully coming to know one’s deep self would be an achievement--it’s deep, after all, and the power of introspective observation is limited.

And if the states of the self are (or are results of) choices (are always up to us), then it is as easy as pie to know what the states of the self are, and introspective observation wouldn’t reveal anything at all, since we’d have rather direct introspective awareness (or access) to those states.

these models exist at a very high level of abstraction and perhaps at one level of specification lower their differences don’t appear, to me anyway, that serious.

I think by “lower” you mean higher:  to see the differences, you have to look closely and be more specific.  Back away, to a more general, more abstract view, and the differences disappear.  As you said above, the both allow us to conceive of the self as something that can, in some sense, “have a project for identity.” But to me that’s just part of what makes them competing conceptions of the same phenomena.

Your other concern is that the contrast is not “significant” or “serious.” Well, it is in some respects, and it isn’t in others.  But I have a suspicion that the respects in which the contrast is neither significant nor serious are respects in which it is not intended by anyone to be significant or serious in the first place.  What’s on offer is not a pair of competing action-guiding conceptions of how to live, so to point out that the conceptions are not practical in that sense is sort of like charging that the specification of the chemical composition of water doesn’t tell us how much of it we should drink.

Neither model, I’m guessing, presumes that a person in either would go around asking neighbors: who am I?  But both would assume that the question itself has great ethical importance.  I suppose my doubts begin with wondering whether it does, which is consistent with my continuing non-philosophic sense that existentialism is romantic in the extreme.

By Zehou on 05/31/05 at 07:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, I see, the project is not inventing or discovering a self, but making a life.  But at least Elliot’s description makes it seem as if what’s being described are two models of self-as-project--or “shaping one’s individuality.” “One crucial aspect of making a life involves shaping one’s own individuality. Appiah suggests that we have inherited two rival visions of what this task involves.”

I see how the two models can be conceived as competing conceptions of the same phenomena and am grateful to you for explaining.  I’m not particularly concerned, though, about whether these are action-guiding conceptions. I’ve probably put this badly and maybe it’s just naive.  But my original objection is that these models are not exclusive and that the stark way they contrast with each other gives the mistaken impression that they are.  There are understandings of making a life--aren’t there?--that do not place shaping one’s individuality at their center and that do not require either the self as potentially introspective seeker of roots or the self as chooser.  (Though it does occur to me as I write this that I’m not at all as sure about this as I was when I started.) Hence my interest in the level of specification that notes the strong parallel between the two models of selfhood.  They both look modern and romantic to me.  (Obviously, I’m no philosopher.  But I persist in thinking either that existentialism is a version of romanticism or that the meaning of the term existential as it’s used here has only a thin relation to Sartre et al.)

By on 05/31/05 at 01:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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