Thursday, 26 August 2010

"I Think, But I'm Not," Said The Headless Chicken

When Descartes, in his moment of greatest doubt, consoled himself with the insight that, so long as he experiences himself thinking, which he cannot but do, then at least the fact of his existence cannot be doubted - "I think, therefore I am," in its summative form - he went a giant leap too far. Kant, a century and a half or so later, saw his precursor's mistake: we have no right to conclude the existence of that I from the experience of ourselves in thought, because the I that is concluded to exist is not identical with the I that, in any given moment, thinks. The I that Descartes proposed to exist, the I of "I am," is, as Kant called it, a transcendental I, that is, an I that unites our various moments of thinking, of wishing, doing, believing, intending and so on, in a higher, coherent, unified, self. The I of "I think," is, for its part, what Kant would call an empirical I, that is, an I in the world, now, operating for the moment, subject to contingency, consisting only of the particular thought it is having or the act it is doing, with no expectation of continuation attached to it, certainly no cohesiveness with another moment of thought or action guaranteed. Two different Is: therein Descartes' error in assuming that, because one functions at this moment, the other must exist.

Only so far did Kant depart from the insights of his predecessor, however; for, according to Kant, although we cannot, as Descartes thought we could, be certain that our transcendental I, a unified self in which our various moments of thought and action are gathered together, actually exists, we must continue to think and act as if it exists. In other words, for Kant human being in the world can only realise its potential (in fact, can only make sense of itself) insofar as it assumes that its individual actions, its various thoughts, its beliefs, desires, hopes and dreams, are those of a self that transcends them all and wraps them in its grand, unifying arms. Without the assumption of a transcendental self, empirical thought and action is degraded, inhuman.

But the practice of believing, of faith, which allowed Kant to continue to think and act (and continue to expect others to think and act) as if something exists that we cannot know to exist, has since waned (and Kant is, in many ways, part of the drive for "enlightenment" that has been the great cause of this waning), so that, in Britain at least, the ability to imagine a trancendental self, let alone to think and act as if it exists, is largely in abeyance. Coming from a Catholic country in which the transcendental self is written into every nook and cranny of socio-cultural existence - the experience of conscience, and the guilt with which this experience is famously associated, is impossible unless one regards individual instances of one's thinking and acting in the context of a larger whole to which they contribute and which, in many cases, they function to corrupt and degrade; think of it as Dorian Gray's portrait, which operates as the transcendental self to the empirical actions that are unleashed upon an unfortunate world - what strikes one in Britain is, most immediately, people's lack, in the main, of self-doubt, of self-consciousness, of self-awareness, of self-knowledge. Coming from a culture in which thoughts and actions are almost impossible to experience without the attendant judgment of those thoughts and actions as contributors to the self that is ultimately to appear at the gates for judgment (and whether or not one actually holds to the belief system that encourages this, its effect is now endemic), it is extraordinary to see before one's eyes people (that is, what one takes to be transcendental Is) apparently unattached to what they have just said or done, to the extent that something said in anger or error, even at those times when the anger or error is identified and apologised for (this is, after all, a good country for politeness), appears to have no effect on the person who said it. It is as if what was said has no relation to the sayer, as if she is as unresponsible for it as the person to whom it was said, such that the identification of it as, for instance, unfair or hurtful, is somehow an event in which neither of them really participates.

Disconcerting and all as this is in the moment, it is even more confusing taken as a general condition. For what is absent from a society of empirical Is, in which there is no capacity for belief in trancendental Is, is any real ability to reflect on one's behaviour, to alter it, to learn from it. If one changes, it is only as an animal changes, because one has been beaten again and again, or rewarded again and again; empirical Is respond to circumstances - responses to circumstances is, in fact, all they are - but those circumstances cannot be reflected upon but only reacted to. There is, in a society of empirical Is, so little capacity for self-analysis, that the idea of reasoning with someone, of trying to make them know you (never mind making them know themselves) is utterly misplaced; all one can do is to talk about the weather, or some other standard topic, and hope that, today, in this place at this time, one encounters an I that's not too hot to handle.

Kant was right: we cannot be sure that any such thing as a transcendental I actually exists. Philosophers since Kant are right too: the heuristic benefits of assuming that such an I exists are not as certain as Kant thought they were, and we would do well to loosen our expectation that we, or others round us, must think and act - and understand our and their thoughts and actions - as if they must always cohere. But from the loss entirely of the capacity for reflection, for knowing ourselves and others, that practice at belief in a transcendental self or selves affords, emerges a situation of, as Kant would describe it, deep immaturity, a world of almost literally headless chickens.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Natural Childbirth Mistrust

Queen Victoria, notwithstanding her nine children, was no enthusiast for pregnancy and childbirth, and, at the first possible moment and although that moment only arrived for the birth of her eighth child, availed herself of the benefits of chloroform as a pain relief during labour. This was much to the outrage of various interest groups of the time, and in particular of church leaders who held the view that God would not have made childbirth painful if it were not meant to be so and if the pain were not necessary to the production of healthy infants and devoted mothers. Even Victoria was unconvinced by this argument, and today it will seem to many one very weak indeed. And yet, much of the substance of the mid-nineteenth century church's view is sustained by the notion of "natural" that continues to emerge as the dominant contemporary ideology surrounding labour and birth. Today, a woman often finds herself with feelings of guilt and inadequacy at opting for one of the pain relief methods available to her - most usually, the epidural - because of the tacit assumption that a birth without pain relief is a "natural" birth, and therefore a more successful birth, a healthier birth, a more autonomous birth, an easier birth, a better birth.

Now, given the fact that most women who have the option open to them do continue to avail of pain relief in labour, we might conclude that, much as the church's argument in the nineteenth century that the pain of labour is in some sense necessary failed to produce its effect, the "natural" position has not gained its point. But this would be to move too quickly. For, it is actually crucial to the "natural" position that most women do not opt for a "natural" birth; its effectiveness lies not in its increasing the number of labours and births that take place in pain but rather in the dissemination of a view that there is a way of giving birth "naturally" and that not to do so is to have fallen short of our "natural" potential. Why should this be? Why should it be essential to the "natural" position that most women do not opt for a "natural" birth? Well, much of the rhetoric of the "natural" position focuses on the lack of autonomy available to a woman under epidural (she will have delivered herself into the hands of the medics, will no longer be able to move about as she chooses, and will have all key decisions in the birthing process removed from her jurisdiction) and on her inevitable retreat from the experience of her own body, so that the only person who can really know what is happening is taken out of the equation (the woman can no longer feel when and how to push). These two effects are also said to attach to other, less complete, forms of pain relief; diamorphine, for example, tends to make a woman feel detached from her physical existence, and gives rise to a demotivation that can make her more malleable in the hands of professionals. In short, then, the "natural" position argues that reason and experience are bracketed by pain relief during labour and birth; a woman sacrifices both her freedom to judge and her capacity to feel. Implied in this argument, of course, is that reason and experience, autonomy and feeling, would, if allowed to operate, function during labour and birth; without epidural, a woman would, it is claimed, judge for and feel for herself...

...which is why it is important to the "naturalist" that women do not generally undergo labour and birth without some form of pain relief: for, one of the most startling aspects of labour and birth that is undergone without pain relief is its revelation of the very limited nature of the human capacity to reason and experience. Once in the throes of labour pains, a woman unmedicated will often, and very quickly, have reached the limits of her ability to conduct herself, will often, and very quickly, cast about for some person in whom to place all of her trust and who will subsequently work, more or less well, to be the woman's judgment for her. Herein lies the challenge to the midwife, who must - although he or she is not always able to do this - exercise the woman's supposed autonomy on her behalf. And herein lies the rage for "birth-coaching," which the "natural" position recommends as facilitating a "natural" birth and which conceals the fact that a woman in labour will often outsource her supposed capacity to judge for herself as soon as ever she can; if this fact has been buried in a previously worked out "birth plan," it is less likely to strike us as an abdication of reason. So much for the rational birth. Even more surprising is the extent to which a labour and birth without pain relief, far from revealing the woman as a "natural" child bearer, shows up the extent to which we are alienated from our most basic of phsyical experiences. Without numbing, it is said, the woman can judge for herself when to push, can report to the midwife the nature of her experience, can shift her position so that the baby's passage is easier, and so on and so on. What is never said is that it is very unlikely that a woman who has never experienced the need to expel a baby from her body will recognise the need to do so. The what-it-is-like of needing to push is something with which she is not familiar, is something not "natural" to her, and therefore something that she is not necessarily the best person in the room to be the judge of. In fact, it is most likely to feel to her like the desire to defecate, which, given the strength of the taboo against public defecation, is likely to make the woman not want to push just at those times when she ought to push; seen in this light, the person supposedly experiencing what it is like to give birth is the last person in the room whose experience should be given priority.

What a labour and birth without pain relief reveals, then, is that the autonomy and rational judgment that we often regard as definitive of humanity is but a thin and fragile layer atop a deepseated irrationality that is no longer that of the animal (we have, in many ways, been alienated from our animal capacities) but much more like that of the child, and that our ownership of our bodily experiences is very very tenuous, subject, like our ownership of the more intellectual, less supposedly immediate, aspects of our lives, to habit and convention. What a labour and birth without pain relief reveals, in short, is that there is very little "natural" about us - we are neither naturally thinkers, nor naturally feelers; which is why, together (but this is another story) with its implicit disciplining of women by feelings of guilt and inadequacy, it is essential to the "natural" childbirth camp that relatively few women live up to its expectations.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Please Sir, We Want Some More!

There are few more moving moments in the history of the novel than that in which little Oliver - unlucky enough in life to have found himself at the mercy of state provision in the workhouse, and unlucky enough in that to have drawn a straw so short as to have been elected by his fellows to be the one to do the asking - presents his empty bowl, raises his hungry eyes, and says "Please sir, I want some more." Food and shelter are said to be our birthright; to have one so young left so short of both is pathetic indeed. But there is something more pathetic, and it is not to be found in the workhouse, and it does not even know its own name.

The National Student Survey results released this week show that third level students in Britain are, on average, 82% satisfied with their educational experience. In a country where education - that very next phase of our birthright, after food and shelter are assured - is at this stage more or less unavailable, this level of satisfaction represents a degree of want that not even Oliver could imagine. For it is one thing to know what you lack, to have a very clear sense of the object of your longings and to be able to hold out your bowl to receive it; however hopeless your holding out, however unquieted your longings, however unanswered your knowledge, there is a satisfaction and a dignity in naming your want. It is quite another thing, and another thing much more degrading, to have no idea at all what you lack, to have a general sense of want but no particular notion of anything wanting, to have a free floating sadness with no object to which to attach it, to have a bowl that needs filling, a hunger that gnaws, a vague sense that not all is right, but no means to pull it all together, nothing to make you stand up and ask, in fact nothing to prevent you from declining the ladle when at last it comes round with more gruel, while all the while feeling that something falls short and that life is not all that was promised.

It is worse than that, in fact. In many cases, the survey shows that students' dissatisfaction is felt at the poverty of what are called "learning resources" (Blackboard is a popular one) and the failure of lecturers to highlight what are called "key concepts" (all the better for Wikipedia-ing, one supposes); but, to the extent that education - that is, the training in abstract thinking, in reasoning, in argument, the communication and critique of ideas, that defined education for most of human history - is not only not facilitated, but is actually diminished, by the demand that understanding be summarised in a drop-down list and posted for students to see on their own terms, students' current use of the National Student Survey is tantamount to Oliver actually emptying the contents of his bowl on the ground as irrelevant to his general malaise and a distraction from his efforts to set things to right.

Students these days are on unprecedented amounts of prescribed and unprescribed drugs, are in astonishing depths of therapy, show unimaginable levels of ennui, and continually describe themselves and their friends as suffering under a mental illness of some kind; meanwhile they declare themselves very satisfied with their educational experience. All of a sudden, Oliver and his bowl seem a story of hope in a time of plenty; for nothing is worse than the one starved with hunger who does not even know where his stomach is, never mind what a bowl and a ladle might have to do with it.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

The Big Self

We hear much nowadays about "The Big Society," a - perhaps conveniently timed with the requirement for cuts to public services, but not necessarily pernicious on that account - reconception of social responsibility, as increasingly devolved upon communities and smaller groups within them rather than the property of The Big State. Society, on this vision, is far less an achievement of central administration, and far more the concrete, experimental, piecemeal, and much more meaningful and effective, process of people in cohort engaged in their own lives and those of others around them. Aside altogether from matters of political ideology, which have too preemtively tarnished this new vision with the old wire brush of Thatcherism, there is a very pressing question of whether The Big Society is possible in the country of The Big Self.

No doubt, the Enlightenment expectation of the coherent self, constituted by the by definition reconcileability of its various, and changing, components, has long been subject to suspicion; Freud's notion of the unconscious, for instance - a deeply divided and divisive force in the human psyche - is so accepted an account of the self as to have entered the set of tacit assumptions that go to make up our very basic understandings of ourselves and others. And yet, it is not wrong to say that some sense of a unitary self, however shifting and difficult to maintain, often continues to regulate our lives: it lies at the root of efforts to overcome various of our impulses because of the difficulty of making them coexist with characteristics of ourselves that we would like to flourish; it explains our sustained attempts to reconcile others' views of us with the views we would have them hold; and it of course solves the conundrum of why a society so fed up on Freud would continue to try to make one of what are almost, on his account, of necessity in tension. Doomed and all as these efforts may be, prejudiced and all as they undoubtedly are by the traditional expectation that Reason conquers all, they do have some positive effects, not least of which is the manner in which the striving after some kind of coherence for ourselves makes us, to some extent, independent of the whips and scorns of time, of place, and of other people: one is not, though it takes effort, merely three - or ten times three - sheets in the wind, but a force of at least partial resistance to changes, to misunderstandings, to attempted cooptions, to prejudices, to people; one has something - some one thing - to present to people, to have them try to understand, to tread upon their presumptions, and, yes, to stimulate their own conceptions of themselves and others.

True, all of this means that human association is less a "There's room for everyone in the pot" scenario that postmodern fluffiness would have us believe is a desirable condition, but one can look at the situation also from another angle. Not striving for this sense of self, not working at a version of oneself with which to meet the world and those in it, can give rise to a kind of lazy subcontracting of oneself out to various interests, commitments, values, occupations, and groups; with no effort made to gather together these subcontractions, to prioritise some over others, to negotiate a deal between them so that no one of them becomes definitive of, or even necessary to the continuation of, one's sense of self, one is, in a sense, everywhere and nowhere. Being nowhere, one becomes rather odd in association with others, with little to present, with nothing to defend, generating a feeling in one's potential, but unrealised, interlocutors, of a strange dislocation, of a virtual encounter, of a shady deal, in short of anything but a fair exchange; but, being everywhere, one is then also always at stake, so that the views of others on a disparate and unpredictable range of even apparently neutral topics can, without warning, tread upon something so essential to a local shard of self - which, without some centralised administration, is free to run amok and feel itself to be of central significance - that one is constantly being trodden on by innocent interlocutors who did not even know there was anyone nearby. Postmodern fluffiness - and the cotton wool "isn't everything lovely" that is its everyday representative - is therefore trumped by the existential anguish of encounters with no one and the unmanageable outrage of unpredictable annihilations.

Many avoid the novels of Dickens on account of their being peopled largely with characteristics, interests, foibles, eccentricities, virtues, vices, and tastes, rather than with actual characters; those who like their novels realistic are turned away. And yet, British society is riven so through and through by strata and their categories - class, sex, race, being the three big ones of course - that trump what might have seemed the untrumpable human self, that novels filled with identifications rather than identities have a strange, and inverse, realism about them after all. But not even Dickens could imagine the full horror. Martin Chuzzlewit, early on, reports on a sudden and fraught meeting of the extended Chuzzlewit clan, who anticipate the death of their relative and expect some benefit therefrom. Around the table sit the usual splendid array of identifications, in precisely the kind of discord that can result when one's self is all in one, very local place. But among the crowd is also one whose visage is so uncertainly drawn as to give one, Dickens says, the impression that his maker sketched his outline but forgot to fill him in; he is a strange presence, necessarily (it seems) linked with another more fulsome and contributing nothing in particular to the discussion but a moment, and a chair, full of a strange kind of absense. What Dickens did not predict, however, is the grotesque coincidence of strong identifications with the outline of a self that comprises many of this country's wandering souls; what he could not have seen is the strange, and horribly unsettling, experience of meeting one who seems not to be there and then all of a sudden, and inevitably unwittingly, seeming to have killed them with one blow. The outlined man is also, today, the outlying man; you will meet him everywhere and nowhere, and though you will never see him before you, you are bound to wound him to one of his cores.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Come Back Ozymandias, All Is Forgiven

What is one to learn from Shelley's "Ozymandias" but of the futility of attempts to transcend the finitude of human existence: Ozymandias, king of kings, would have his stone carved legs made massive and planted wide apart in the centre of his kingdom; but his land is now desert and his legs two trunkless stumps whose faded stridency is mocked by the cold sneer of his wrinkled mouth, which will erode no faster than the legs from which it has fallen. It is, to our modern ears, a by now familiar lesson. We are not made for lasting; we are human, all too human.

But what, then, of the contemporary mania for recording ourselves, for producing image after image in a manner that increasingly takes the place of experience? Are we Ozymandias, over again, destined to have our soft-toned smiles made a mockery of by the inevitable brevity of our lives? Curiously, no, and that is our tragedy. Ozymandias was of an age in which the contingency of human existence was regarded as the merely human reflection of inhuman, of infinite, truths; human demise was, then, to be overcome by a reaching toward the inhuman, finitude by a striving for the infinite. A hopeless pursuit, we might now think, with our modern wisdom that knows there's nothing but humans and lies; and yet the yearning for something transcendent, the grasping at something beyond, did at least tend to elevate, to educate, to enlighten, to broaden the horizon of our minds. What is characteristic of the modern Ozymandias - the child, aged but eight, whose image is posted worldwide and weekly, and who knows more of how to perform her childhood than she does of anything childish - is that her image is not any striving but rather a rooting in the basest of human possibilities: our drive to capture ourselves, instead of being an effort to overcome death with Truth and Beauty, with Right and Good, is a defiant bedding down in the moment, as if we are not only incapable of reaching beyond ourselves to something greater but are entirely described by cliched smiles, on Hallmark occasions spent in standardised relation. This is all we are, our images say of ourselves: as wrongheaded a view as that of Ozymandias, but worse, so much worse, in its reduction of human existence to a stock of pre-packaged experiences and consequent removal of the possibility of our being taken out of ourselves to something different, and, yes, maybe better.

Two massive legs in the desert tell of a man who got far too above himself; but better that than a constant picturing of ourselves out of the experiences that might, just might, make us learn something new. We may well be human; but must we be all too human?

Friday, 6 August 2010

Life Unconversational

There exists, in Britain, such a fear of conversation that what one says is allowed to produce an effect in inverse proportion to the effectiveness of the saying.