Raoul Wieland explores our quest for self-knowledge and transformation and wonders whether failure is the secret to self- and world improvement.
If find it difficult and entirely impractical to tackle this subject without thinking first about the many ways in which we understand our(selves)—the ‘self’ in relation to the ‘other’—and what we make off the interconnecting, ambiguous ideas/processes that are identity, meaning and belonging.
The topic of the ‘self’ has long been a salient topic, for it is pivotal to questions about personhood, identity, the body, and agency. For many hundreds of years, thinkers hailing from all sorts of places, religions, ideologies and cultures have contemplated consciousness and self-knowledge: the desire for answers to the questions ‘who am I?’ and ‘what am I like?’
This makes for a very vibrant and complex dialogue that would require extensive research and way more space than I have here available to me, if I were to try to do this conversation justice. Nevertheless, let’s begin.
In the ‘Illusion of Self’, Sam Woolfe recalls the Principles of Psychology written in 1890 by William James who believed that “we can think of there being two kinds of ‘self’. There is the self which is consciously aware of the present moment—we represent this self by using the pronoun ‘I’; then there’s also the self we recognise as being our personal identity—who we think we are—which we represent by using the term ‘me’.”
According to Hood, author of the book The Self Illusion: How The Social Brain Creates Identity, “both of these selves are generated by our brain in order to make sense of our thoughts and the outside world: both ‘I’ and ‘me’ can be thought of as a narrative or a way to connect our experiences together so that we can behave in an biologically advantageous way in the world.”
In a way, our ‘self’ is then a fabrication which emerges out of the story-telling powers of our brain, which combines our experiences, thoughts, and behaviours into a narrative that frames our identity and corresponding subjectivity.
In other words, aware of our ‘self’, we sense our ‘selfhood’, our individuality (and all the qualities that constitute it), and thus become directed in our subjectivity. What this means is that, as a subject—with unique consciousness experiences—we take or have a particular stance/bias (our subjectivity) and make judgments about ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ depending on the collection of perceptions, experiences, expectations, personal or cultural understandings, and beliefs specific to us as a subject. We are therefore no longer ‘objective’, but are enmeshed in our particular way—our lens—of looking at and giving meaning to the world around us. We thus chose, act and react in particular ways.
Beyond an understanding that our ‘self’ does not exist as something already determined at birth, as something innate or natural to us, how do we understand the processes by which the ‘self’ comes to take on an individuality? In other words, how do we understand the narrative making of our brain and how does our identity come to be? Recalling William James, how are the contexts, environments, and events that are experienced by the ‘I’ connected with the establishment of the ‘me’?
These questions were a big part of what motivated French philosopher Michel Foucault’s work. He writes: “My objective for more than 25 years has been to sketch out a history of the different ways in our culture that humans develop knowledge about themselves: economics, biology, psychiatry, medicine, and penology. The main point is not to accept this knowledge at face value but to analyze these so-called sciences as very specific “truth games” related to specific techniques that human beings use to understand themselves.”
Foucault emphasized that the way people act or react is linked to a way of thinking, and of course thinking is related to tradition. This connects with his belief that the subject is a social construction (construction of the subject within and by societal norms as a student, soldier, criminal, women, man, of a particular race, etc.) and thus constituted by power relations.
For Foucault, power is not wielded by people as much as it represents a ‘regime of truth’ that pervades society and dictates normalcy or the way things are and ought to be. Power is therefore closely tied to knowledge and hegemony (i.e. common sense). To think about subjects and the ‘self’, therefore requires that we think about structures of coercion or domination.
Feminist critiques of the ‘self’, for example, have claimed that “prevailing conceptions of the self ignore the multiple, sometimes fractious sources of social identity constituted by one’s gender, sexual orientation, race, class, age, ethnicity, and so forth.” This has often meant that “although represented as genderless, sexless, raceless, ageless, and classless, the dominant narrative of the ‘self’ masks a white, healthy, youthfully middle-aged, middleclass, heterosexual MAN.” This leaves women’s selfhood vulnerable/questionable, makes it invisible or establishes women as the ‘Other’, a non-subject, non-person, non-agent—in short, the mere body. The legal doctrine of coverture that held that a woman’s personhood was absorbed into that of her husband when she married, stands as an example of this nullification of women’s selfhood.
In her book, The Politics of Our Selves, Amy Allen writes that “we should see the subject as constituted in and through power/discourse formations…. there exists no structure of subjectivity that is not always already an effect of a power/discourse matrix; there is no reflexivity that is not itself culturally constructed”. What this means is that a thinking subject reflecting upon itself, its identity, agency, etc. does so always within a particular discourse or ‘regime of truth’.
What does it mean for a subject or a ‘self’ to exist within or be influenced by a ‘regime of truth’ or a particular ‘common sense’? Patriarchal values and norms (e.g. gender roles/norms), as a ‘regime of truth’ or a hegemonic discourse, for example, may be seen as becoming / being integrated in the cognitive, emotional, and conative (impulse) structure of the ‘self’ that women experience; they are, arguably, internalized and influence how women think about themselves, their identity and their agency. The same process holds true for men, but in a different way / power dynamic.
Self, Truth and Agency
Upon analyzing the histories of control and punishment within societies, Foucault coined the term ‘governmentality’ which can be conceptualized as a) the way governments try to produce the citizen best suited to fulfill its policies and b) the organized practices (mentalities, rationalities, and techniques) through which subjects are governed. In brief, the term refers to ‘social control techniques’ that produce knowledge and particular discourses that get internalised by individuals and that then guide the behaviour of populations. This, he believed, reflected a more efficient form of control, as individuals were now governing themselves according to the ‘regimes of truth’ that they had internalized.
In this context, one might argue, even our ‘critical capacities’—our ability to criticize the regimes of truth that influence us and our ability to transform/liberate ourselves – is culturally constructed and circumscribed; or said in a different way: we can only build alternatives with the theoretical tools and techniques that we already have available to us. This might sound depressing and hopeless, for why would any dominating regime make available the tools so that the subjugated may dismantle it and in the process liberate themselves and reimagine, reconfigure and transform?
Perhaps it is a mistake to think about a ‘regime of truth’ as bounded, finite, static, complete, and not vulnerable to influence. Foucault, for example, believed that “truth is a thing of this world: it is produced … each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.” Truth, in this sense, is the result of discourse and institutions, and is reinforced and redefined—constantly—through, for example, our education system, and the media.
This suggests that there is such a thing as a ‘battle for truth,’ a battle about “the rules according to which the true and false are separated and specific effects of power are attached to the true … [a battle about] the status of truth and the economic and political role it plays.” Truth is not static but is in constant flux and is continuously being (re)negotiated.
The self’s capacity for self-transformation is therefore made possible as truths make battle and collide. Tectonic collisions, or perhaps more correct, the incessant challenge and chipping away by many small alternative truths, creates rifts in the narrative. From within these cracks may emerge transformation; acts of failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming and not knowing pose challenges to the status quo and pick up the pieces brought about by collision to reconstitute the new from the old.
In such circumstances, what Foucault referred to as ‘technologies of the self’, “permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.” A feminist reimagining of the ‘self’, is one such transformation.
One hopes that such a reconstitution leads to, not another form of domination, but rather, a condition more permissive of human flourishing.
Men, manhood, masculinity and failure
I propose that men act or react based on a way of thinking that is part of a ‘regime of truth’ wherein ‘failure’ features very prominently as a control mechanism that has been internalized.
What it means to be a man faces strict guidelines and borders; a ‘common sense’ narrative or regime of truth circumscribes this ‘being a man.’ Tony Porter calls it the ‘man box’. We are in a box and the box outlines the edges of our permissible and seemingly possible identity, emotions and desires. Step outside at your own peril of being policed, chased back and becoming extremely lost in new and unchartered territory. I have written more about such constraints in my article about masculinity.
If we consider the ‘self’ not as homogenous, but as consisting of many different conscious experiences such a desires, dreams and aspirations, then one can see how this policing keeps the ‘self’ of men severely constrained / restricted. It cannot unfold fully, does not find sufficient expression, is often not validated and dares not be embodied. Instead, the box conceptualizes the self as a seamless whole with a repressed inner diversity; boundaries of the ‘self’ are policed.
This has ominous consequences: “alien desires and impulses are consigned to the unconscious, but this unconscious material inevitably intrudes upon conscious life and influences people’s attitudes and desires. In particular, the feared and despised Other within is projected onto “other” social groups, and hatred and contempt are redirected at these imagined enemies. Misogyny and other forms of bigotry are thus borne of the demand that the self be unitary together with the impossibility of meeting this demand. Worse still, these irrational hatreds cannot be cured unless this demand is repudiated, but to repudiate this demand is to be resigned to a degraded, feminized self.”
Michael Kimmel, in his book Manhood in America, gives voice to this phenomena when he writes how an ‘ideal’ or hegemonic version of masculinity, described as—young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant, father, of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports—stood/stand as a myth that men had/have to live up to and contend with. Working-class men, gay man, men of color, immigrant men and of course women were often seen as unworthy, incomplete, inferior and hence marginalized as an ‘other’. The self-other boundary becomes very sharp/distinct, in part because our inner diversity is repressed, stigmatized, policed and circumscribed to an ‘ideal.’
The tragic character of Colonel Fitts in the movie American Beauty, for example, reveals how homophobia is very much tied to a repression of desire—denying the ‘self’ to desire what it desires—a sharpening of the self-other boundary and ultimately leading to break-down and unravelling.
What else are men denying themselves as they grow up within a patriarchal ‘regime of truth’ that circumscribes their emotions, desires and ways of being?
Because men need men’s approval—much of the effort to prove our manhood occurs in front of the watchful and evaluative eyes of fathers, friends, teachers, coworkers and bosses—the fear of not measuring up and of losing one’s reputation of being a man amongst other men is very real. The fear that one is not powerful, strong, rich, successful, fill-in-the-blank enough has accompanied men for a long time and has influenced our actions. Fear of failure, so I believe, functions as an efficient means of control.
Our narrative, the history and the present reality of manhood, is haunted by failure; a pervasive, intangible affect accompanied by very real, visceral gut-wrenching emotions that keep us up at night. Can we ever appease this hungry ghost? Can we lay it to rest or must we continue sacrificing lives to it?
Can we ever just be at rest and be at peace with ourselves, one another and the world or must we repeat over and over again the old, tiring game of one-upmanship, competition, ‘othering’ and exclusion?
I believe we can and we can do so by failing: failing boldly and creatively. Failing is a revolutionary and a creative act if it violates and disrupts the common sense narrative that circumscribes our identities and relationships by proposing an alternative.
So how may we fail and in failing bring about a revolution / transformation / reconfiguring and an expansion of possibilities of feeling, desiring, being, knowing and relating? What truths do we have at our disposal to do battle with the limiting definitions of manhood?
This is not a throwaway or a rhetorical question. I believe that the questions that we ask ourselves dictate the paths that we take. I also believe that men know all too well – viscerally – the social pressures bearing down on them. Where does depression, alcoholism, mental and physical illness come from? And how are these issues made worse?
In the article Men and the Stigma of Mental Health, the author writes, for example, that “men are not given permission to be vulnerable in society… any interpretation of vulnerability is considered a weakness and men are thus reluctant to open up or share their feelings simply because they would therefore be labeled as weak… This is so dangerous because what can start off as mild depression, or mild anxiety, or some difficult life stressor that needs support, can easily and quickly escalate to substance abuse, alcoholism, sex addictions, unhappiness, unnecessary pain and anguish and in the worse cases, suicide. It’s a miserable dark hole…”
Who or what is it that gives or denies permission to the ‘self’ to be vulnerable? We can here remind ourselves of Foucault and the concept of subjugated subjects, not, however, to claim victimhood, BUT, and this is key, to take it upon ourselves to live a ‘critical ontology of ourselves’, a process which Foucault conceptualized as “an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”
These twin notions of autonomy must underpin the politics of ourselves. And so, On To Failure!, or as Quentin Crisp remarked, “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.”
Photo—Eddy Van 3000/Flickr