Inventing the Self

The Silence of the Hop-Scotchers

November 15th, 2013 · 6 Comments

I’m only about halfway into Turkel (I haven’t read chapter 12 yet) but I find myself having a hard time reconciling my experience with what she’s saying. For me, this distance is not an issue of accuracy, but of opinion; I can’t agree with the conclusions Turkel is drawing, even if her examples might resonate. A few of her points (especially about multi-tasking, or seeking solace in virtual worlds) are good ones, but then I’m disappointed when she uses these moments of analysis to further her techno-pessimism. I was careful not to write Turkel’s and my differences off as indicative of  the generation gap, however I’m starting to think that there is credence to this issue I’m trying to skirt, that maybe Turkel’s reliance on doing things the “old-fashioned” way and the persistence of slight errors of misreading the methods in which people utilize social networks is evidence of irreconcilable interpretive communities. I could play a rapidly dangerous drinking game that revolved around counting the moments in the essay where Turkel reminisces about a technology-free time, juxtaposed against a negative example of people and their machinery “nowadays”. I wonder if a techno-ubi sunt genre of poetry is not too far off, with aging “lords” and “ladies” bemoaning the lost Tumblr-less summers of yesteryear?

Facetiousness aside, I do wonder about how different generations understand technology and its impact on socializing. Unlike Turkel, I would argue that texting and IM-ing are, in-fact, that “old wine in new bottles”, if the old wine stands in for corresponding and keeping in contact and the new bottle is this social networking technology. I might not have the historical perspective Turkel has, but its hard for me to see how advances in computers and computer availability and access are not the latest step in an evolutionary chain that includes the printing press, the development of official mail carrying institutions, telegraphs, etc. Is that crazy, or uninformed? Advances in technology make connectivity faster and more frequent – this seems to me the most basic core of what’s happening here, of what’s always happening.

I preferred the Ito chapter, as Pascoe was able to distance himself from judging and relied on these interviews to extrapolate different modes of interaction possible through Myspace and IM, and what these interactions looked like. These examples also lined up with my experience, but Pascoe’s research was less prone than Turkel’s to misquote or mistake phrases or color observed practices with obvious bias (“The Twitter” comes to mind. My mom says things like that.) People do seem horrified by the idea of a lived experience taking place online, or mystified by the seemingly  arbitrary, complex social codes of networking outlets like Facebook, but I’d once again point to past lives lived in correspondence, to the complicated combination of private and public cues and modes that have always ruled courtship and dating.

But I suppose my problem with Turkel’s bias could be applied to me as well. By the time I really began to socialize in a public sphere bigger than my classmates and close family, I had internet and texting access. So, right at the onset of adolescence, I was already plugged into the grid. What’s more, I had a Gameboy Color (the dark purple one) well before I was a teenager, or had even really been outside my home – so I wonder how much of how I navigate and interact with the “real” world is shaped by formative experiences with exploring the “fake” worlds of Pokemon Blue and Legends of Zelda: A Link to the Past. If you look long enough into the Matrix, does the Matrix look back? Can we see outside of our biased perspectives ever, even with acclimation and learning and contact with new ideas?

In her Introduction, Turkel states “If the problem is that too much technology has made us busy and anxious, the solution will be another technology that will organize, amuse, and relax us.” as the confused viewpoint towards robot companions. Fear of a Skynet Planet notwithstanding, I would once again (and for the last time) say that this has always been the role of technology, to mediate and replace. Some of the discomfort with these new “plugged-in” people seems to be the uncanny closeness I discussed earlier in class this week, of a realization that maybe humans are machines too. Not that we have become mechanized or assimilated, but that we always were connected, at a very basic level, to our tools. Inextricably so.

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Viegener, and the Unabashed Narcissim of Facebook

November 4th, 2013 · 6 Comments

“Everyday I try to say something new, yet still random. And every day I have less to say. I tire of facts. I long for fiction.” #24, lviii

“Random”, in my understanding, is somewhat related to “coincidence”, except that coincidences have something that tie them together (usually the person who is perceiving the coincidences) but they must be, like, cousins? Or dependent upon one another – coincidences are random until they are associated by the perceiver (it’s getting complicated). In this way, “coincidence” is really a construction, in the mind of the beholder. Which unsettles the notion of “random”, I’d think, because randomness is so dependent on perspective, on appearances. In any case, I’m not sure if Viegener is providing a strong argument for the success of random listing, or destabilizing the idea of some kind of Platonic, chaotic Randomness and instead proving something that falls in line with what I’m struggling to say here, that is, that randomness under scrutiny becomes more and more patterned, structured, and intentional. Randomness practiced yields way to routine.

The truth is Viegener’s lists are amazingly fun to read – his project has yielded up some remarkable observations and a great many one-liners and non-sequiturs; a much younger me might want to re-tweet or facebook some of the less subjective blurbs, as they manage to convey a sort of worldly cynicism that is still funny, sad, and sometimes heartbreaking (I had typed heartwarming first, and now I don’t think either fits. Heart-something.) Facebook and the other great plethora of social networking cites thrive on a kind of economy of communication – there’s a skill to expression within specific constraints that I have not exactly mastered, that I think is interesting in light of Nancy K. Miller’s idea about the memoir as memorandum, the autobiography as prosthesis for memory. This is a very interesting wording – as I am interested in our understanding of technology and prosthesis and the line at which we draw a division between the two (or don’t). To extrapolate a bit, I’d argue that Miller is suggesting the readers use memoirs and autobiography (and celebrity? does that become too much like fiction?) as framework to help understand their own lives, to lend them structure by either association or disassociation, which become Miller’s terms of identification or disidentification. What would she make of current social networking sites, the rise of the hashtag or the meme, the apparent homogenization of communication through the popularity of certain recurring phrases or styles of speech? Again, this could be due to my relative lack of social networking skillz, but I become a bit dismayed by how similar people on my various friendslists end up sounding; there were pop songs and then pop stars and now there are pop phrases, pop activities made just for facebook and instagram, like hashtagging every possible emotion or photographing every meal. These frameworks for interaction become like zombie viruses – is this how the meme is supposed to behave? I have very little knowledge of the original context in which Dawkins introduces the term, so if anyone could summarize it for me that’d be awesome.

So is this contributing to narcissism (a narcissism, any narcissism), this ability to generate autobiographical material all day long, every day, and have it validated by hundreds of like-minded people? The anxiety about memory that Miller has located has only worsened, as the philosophical question of the age becomes “If it wasn’t instagrammed, did it really happen?” (and now I’m doing it, capitulating to popular phrases). It seems that the social network as memoir has found that collective community which Miller discusses, and is now merely propagating itself by generating new memes, new hashtags, new pop activities and crazes to document and discuss.

I’m being a bit unfair – it seems I have a tendency to attack that I picked up somewhere in undergrad (in the classroom or otherwheres) – as social networking at its finest can yield up things like Viegener’s duration project, and at its worse still act as a place where people can vocalize virtually anything they want, and it’s remembered forever on the internet, if you can find it.

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Disabled Representations, TED Talks, More

October 21st, 2013 · 5 Comments

Disability Studies interests me for two related reasons: First off, there is a kind of large-scale pop culture awareness of a myriad of serious physical/mental disabilities, as displayed for wide audiences in fiction and nonfiction, television and film, and yet, secondly, there seems to be a disparity in the proliferation of representations of various disabilities and popular (mis)understanding of how disability is constructed and propagated. This seems crucial to understanding the Self, as D. Studies seeks to do away with the “normate” us versus the “damaged” or “different” them. The history of disabled representations in culture shows the disabled as abject, outside, villainous, monstrous, or at home only in freak show; the value of these representations being varied but generally amounting to something like “aren’t you glad you ain’t them?” But if we’re reading Garland-Thompson and her definition of the “normate”, which takes on a socio-economical context as well as relying on a model sound body/mind, it becomes clear that, like the nuclear family, the popular conception of the normate is an historically impossible standard that no one truly fits. Instead, various stigmas form hierarchies of abled or disabled bodies that rely on such qualifiers as race, age, sex, status, health, attractiveness, and more. And yet the disabled figure, in all his/her forms, comes to be expressed in one of two different characters – the character for whom disability is the defining characteristic, action, or quality, and who generally follows a kind of dis-normative arc similar to Matt’s conception of a homonarrative, or a token disabled character in a story otherwise populated with “normal” characters who is meant to teach the “normal” characters and, by extension, the “normal” audience, a lesson. These character archetypes play such a dominant role in our understanding of ourselves and difference that it’s hard to move away from, as opinions and expectations in class would seem to suggest. How do we talk about physical or mental disability when we do not understand it, or when or experiences are radically different? (parenthetical sidebar, would Damasio rely on the ever-important binary of “physical/mental” when referring to disability? Or would the placement of mental disabilities in the region of consciousness, and therefore the brain, make them akin to physical disabilities? Again, to what extent does social or emotional trauma impact Damasio’s sense of the brain and consciousness?)

So it’s fitting that Hornstein’s book researches the various organizations committed to building and assisting the Hearing Voices community. Obviously, community is an important quality to the spread of understanding a traditionally ostracizing, stigmatizing condition. Although she (and many other writers we’ve read so far, I’ve noted) strays from using the term “empathy”, the success of the Hearing Voices community hinges on the possibility of a shared experience – a deeper level of camaraderie and connection than the characteristically cold, detached, “normate” status-quo-enforcing medical-pharmaceutical industry (exaggeration for dramatic effect) achieves. And while I wonder about how potentially divisive the formation of differing camps of shared experiences that cannot have an easy cross-over can be, it is obviously helpful, as evidenced in Hornstein’s numerous examples and the TED talk with Eleanor Longden. We discussed how mainstreaming functional examples of people with various diseases (a term they wouldn’t approve of) lessens the significance of people who are really suffering (again, this is tricky), I think the spreading of their stories and the methods that help them achieve this level of functionality can possibly prevent the variegated forces that can result in the less-functional cases of greater extremes from happening in the first place. As these real-life examples become more relevant to a pop-consciousness – similar to the spread of TED talks – the stigmatized, generic, standard forms for disabled representation will have less a grip upon collective imaginations. I’ve made note of a problem with TED talks before, as their easily-digestible messages become widely misinterpreted and misapplied, and while this same thing happens with more palatable depictions of people with disabilities, I think the acceptable-ness of the various examples of people living with Heard Voices (for example) is derived from their ability to cope, and this ability instilled through a nonconventional, possible-fringe method that could benefit from a wider audience.

One way in which this happens is with a shift in vocabulary. Hornstein notes how doctors and nurses and other facilitators involved with these various groups spend a lot of effort in changing the terms typically used when discussing disability, including doing away with such labels as “victim” and “sufferer”  and other diagnoses altogether, and Hornstein maps the importance of this move. I think we had, at some point in this class, discussed the vagueness of language, especially in the sciences, but here we see that a high level of specificity is achievable and actually conducive to a better understanding of experience. The point of Disabilities Studies, in some kind of utopian future, is after all to actually undo itself, as greater connectivity and understanding actually spell the end of the concept of “disability”. Also, I think that’s pretty much the goal of the X-Men comics since their inception, and while I won’t wast anybody’s time going on and on about comic book mutants, I’d argue the X-men are a pretty reputable pop culture conduit for positive understandings of stigma and disability that doesn’t, necessarily, conform to my above-outlined disabled character types… But maybe not, ’tis just my admittedly biased opinion.

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“Fun Home” and Personal Myths

October 7th, 2013 · 2 Comments

I think Bechdel really illustrates (puns) Macadams’ idea of the personal myth in Fun Home, establishing the literal Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus as a recurring theme throughout both Alison’s life and as an inherent framework for this autobiographical “tragicomic”. What struck me was how, and at such a basic level, other well-known texts infiltrate and contaminate this story, particularly Gatsby and Ulysses, and even these correspond with the Icarus myth (“Stephen Dedalus”, the idea of ‘flying too close to the sun’). I completely buy the idea behind personal mythmaking, and how this process becomes blurred between fact and fiction and fiction again. The first fiction is the subjective personal history constructed retroactively by the self, and while this is crucial to setting up a personal continuity that allows for decision making and future growth, the second fiction – actual, creative, fictional stories that exist outside of the personal experience (like Gatsby or Icarus) – can hold just as much sway over a personal mythology.

McCloud’s Understanding Comics is amazingly insightful as a piece of philosophy, looking at the interaction between storytelling and media and audiences even outside of the comic genre. While I hadn’t originally thought of using the McCloud as a lens, it’s obviously very helpful in any graphic analysis. His concept of “closure” is one that is particularly demonstrated in Bechdel, on multiple levels. The reader is forced to perform closure throughout the graphic novel, mediating the text and images and the action Bechdel is framing, making logical jumps during the gutter inbetween panels. “Closure”, as related to reader identification, also takes place, as the simpler, cartoon style allows a relationship between Alison’s characters and the reader to develop quicker and easier than it would if the drawing style took on a more realistic or nuanced approach. A kind of “meta-closure” also exists within the world of the story, as the characters identify with other historical figures, fictional characters, or periods/groups/movements (Ex: Mr. Bechdel and Fitzgerald/Gatsby, Alison and Woolf/Orlando/The Gay Community at college).

McCloud builds a mythos around comic books (and indeed, there is the notion of the superhero mythos) related to identification and closure and built upon this approachability combined with iconography. Alison’s illustrated characters win our sympathy through our process of closure; we fill these simple drawings with our own voices and ideas and experiences. Fun Home capitalizes on the preconceived set of comic book iconography, purposely eschewing the more traditional genre pieces of superheroes, action and adventure, or sci fi by utilizing the genre to instead tell an auto-biographical story definitely grounded in reality. Once again, there is something meta happening in Bechdel, as her characters form strong opinions and impressions and, what I’d argue are components of personal myths, around real-world icons of movies, novels, and writers, within the story. (Interestingly, Gatsby and Stephen Dedalus and Orlando and other popular novelistic characters are often described as “iconic” – even though I believe McCloud is specifically referring to images as icons, texts can become icons just as easily, and serve the same roles of touch-stones for identity)

This got kind of rambly – as these informal blog posts inevitably do – but I wanna slip into my Disability Lens (as I inevitably will) before I sign off. I thought it was interesting, and certainly relevant to the idea of the self as being governed by the environment, interaction with objects, and other selves, in the way Bechdel frames her childhood Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (as well as her attitude towards family, and, to some extent, her homosexuality) in relation to her father. The family can be conceived of as both an external and an internal force working on Alison’s sense of self; she is a separate individual and yet her experience, her existence, is completely modulated through the family she grows to adulthood in. Alison’s girlhood obsession with ritual and numbers can be seen as an attempt to enact control, due to or in spite of her distant yet controlling father – we can see an argument form for the inception of mental compulsion by outside forces. Similarly, her relationship with her father is again implicated (although I’d argue this is meant to be complicated  and critical) when Alison comes out to her parents. The visible portions of the letter her mother writes stigmatize her homosexuality and quantify it as being caused by Mr. Bechdel; taking into account the history of social perception of homosexuality, Mrs. Bechdel equates Alison’s lesbian-ness with her earlier OCD, and ascribes them both to the father. The figure of the abused daughter as stigmatized/disabled victim and the stereotypical butch image are both powerful archetypes and both seem to be at play in Fun Home, and now that I’ve come full-circle to image and icon and their role in personal myths, I’m wondering what everyone else thinks?

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Option #2

September 23rd, 2013 · 3 Comments

I liked the format of this week’s video lecture, as it wasn’t a lecture at all, but a kind of interview-conversation-debate between Noë and the neurophysiologist, and it lead right into Out of Our Heads, with Noë even utilizing the same metaphors and examples. Since last class, I’ve been thinking about this video lecture project in relation to a ph.d. course I’m taking at the GC: Adaptations, taught by Prof. Greetham. It’s basically a survey of the different ways in which novels are transformed into films, comic books, music-pieces, and more, but its relevance to this class, in my mind, is in the relationship between the video-lectures we watch and the books we later read. At a foundational level, Noë and Damasio’s talks are really performances of their books; adaptations for a wider audience. But even the most accessible of these video talks, so far, is greatly amplified by the inevitably larger space for expounding evidence the book contains, to the point that I believe many of the videos are unnecessary. The questions generated by gaps or ideas left unexplained make a more in-depth reading crucial, so these lectures, in a way, behave more like commercials than anything else. We discussed in class briefly the social currency being plundered from these digestible videos, but really, I feel like, outside of radical unsubstantiated suggestions or personal inferences, these videos are neutered of anything truly enlightening. I don’t think we can get the full picture from these videos alone (there’s a seeing pun in there, somewhere.).

Anyway, returning to Noë, this video was helpful in that it can encapsulate his “astonishing” hypothesis exceedingly well (skip to the 10-min. mark, for what I would argue is his main argument, diluted and devoid of backing up ((which he will do, or attempt, in the book)).). It seems like he is picking up where we left off with Damasio – the core self changes and is changed by the objects it perceives, and the autobiographical self creates patterns or narratives around these relational occurrences. What Noë is arguing, I’d hazard, is that these objects, separate from the body/brain, are central in the process of consciousness. For Damasio, consciousness is impossible without the brain, and Noë agrees, but without a greater environment – complete with other organisms and objects and thought structures – the brain is not enough to generate consciousness all on its own. I thought Alva’s (tired of finding the umlaut e symbol) analysis of the relationship between infants and mothers and kin-systems in monkeys was especially helpful in making this not-so-astonishing hypothesis stick; no man is an island, the growth and development of most any organism takes place within a community of similar organisms and definitely within a physical setting or environment, and that these extra-bodily relations could account for the inability of science to fully explain self-ness through physiological means.

I couldn’t help think about possibilities for human growth, or development, or existence outside of normal social bounds (orphans and the homeless, Sam Rockwell’s character from Moon, test-tube babies), or about how it seems that so-far the disabled or stigmatized viewpoint has only appeared in the forms of medical curio-examples used to reinforce some theory to explain normative human experience, but I feel like I’ve been beating that drum in all of my blog posts and I don’t wanna become one-note. I like Noë’s Blade Runner shout-out, as both a fan and someone interested in studying posthumanism, and how unnatural (read artificial) methods of creating and propagating life call our “normal” or “biological” lives into sharp question, and potentially rendering this self-searching useless. Nothin’ worse than havin’ an itch you can never scratch.


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Damasio and Blindness

September 17th, 2013 · 6 Comments

Hey, sorry, not supposed to comment this week but going ahead anyway because I wonder what people think and I haven’t seen it come up yet. Yanno how Lacan’s mirror stage of infancy gets somewhat undermined by children who are born blind? I’m starting to feel that same way about Damasio and his self-related-to-making-body-maps idea. Barring extreme disease or death, Damasio claims that the constant mapping and updating of the body (homeostasis and all that) is this static, stable, grounding point around which we can say the self bases itself on (forgive the weird wording of the last section of this sentence.) What happens to a self that has undergone some kind of bodily injury? Likewise, Damasio throws the term “image” around quite a bit, but what about selves that do not see, or never have seen? Is there an accounting for this somewhere?

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Siri Hustvedt’s “The Shaking Woman” and Life Writing

September 9th, 2013 · 5 Comments

The back-cover of my copy of Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman, or A History of My Nerves displays a review that contains the phrase “odyssey of discovery”, and because I am one of those people who will read the back and inside covers of books and then develop predispositions, this cliche misled me into believing Hustvedt’s auto-biographical essay would be some kind of literal journey across the world, filled with interviews and testimonials and remembrances. Predispositions are problematic because they are rarely accurate and yet they can be automatic – they must be helpful sometimes (especially when they are re-shrouded as “intuitions”) and yet are more likely dangerous (when they are unmasked as “prejudices”). When a scholarly talk is given by someone described as a European brain specialist, I automatically imagine someone who looks and talks like Antonio Damasio, and thus my version of reality is confirmed as nearer to realistic. Similarly, when I read the words “odyssey of discovery” I expect the following book to read somewhere in-between Homer’s Odyssey and “Eat, Pray, Love”.

Instead, The Shaking Woman reads like the perfect combination of exactly what it is billed as, an autobiographical essay. It is scholarly enough in that it is packed with references to writers and works and ideas and concepts, and yet its tone is familiar and comprehensible, with Siri’s real life episodes used sparingly, and then mainly as examples that illuminate theories or doubts she is reporting or expressing. The open-ended-ness of her argument – for indeed, I believe there is an argument for the relationship between the self, the body, disability or deviation, and life writing present in this book – only proves to enforce the inter-disciplinary  slant her investigation. By smartly incorporating multiple discourses in her work, Siri deftly demonstrates her authority and this rhetorical turn weakens resistance to what she’s writing. Overall, I felt like I learned a slew of different things by the end of this book, even if Siri and I never discovered the source of her shakes.

Thomas Couser does a lot of work in establishing the necessity of life writing in relation to under-represented portions of the disabled community. Obviously, “disability” is a blanket term too complicated to even truly warrant such a sweeping categorization, and it is exactly this enormity of difference and dissimilarity that invalidates any attempt at establishing a “community”, yet we sometimes must deal in generalizations to hasten our informal blogposts. The fact that Siri does not discover an answer is significant because it reveals both our extreme unawareness (disknowledge?) of the human body and its capabilities AND the importance of the search for more answers. As I said, our understanding of “disability” can run the gamut from physical to mental and emotional to political or social – all categories can be referred to as possessing bodies and thus all physical, mental, emotional, political, or social Others can become images of disabled bodies, but this vast majority of stimagtized figures rarely gets the opportunity to represent themselves, and this absence creates the problematic binary of abled/disabled to begin with. Siri’s investigation is motivated by her own mental/physical malady, but her work undoes any easy diagnosis as she becomes a kind of maverick body which disproves many theories, or rather, exposes the oft-taken-for-granted “theory” for what it really is, an educated, contestable guess backed by some evidence. I think this is significant, for Disability Studies as a field exists to show an always-fluctuating range of humanness that denies such static states as “healthy” or “unhealthy”.

Although I cannot find the section now, I especially liked the portion of Siri’s essay that dealt with the doctor who bemoaned the absence of storytelling in the hospital as a form of medication. As The Shaking Woman makes clear, the biological is inexplicably linked with the imaginative – diagnosis and theories are, in the end, creative arguments that utilize, above all, language – and that autobiography is paramount to understanding the self. As a question I would pose before I sign-off (because I worry my train of thought has become confusing or disjointed), I wonder what this essay or the Eakin excerpt would make of individuals who do not have the capacity to generate an autobiography or utilize language, for either general mental/physical reasons, or from illiteracy, and how they perceive self-ness.

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