Friday, 4 September 2009

An Independent State of Self or Dark Space for potential Avatar other?

Linda Martin-Alcoff, Professor of Philosophy and currently the Director of Women`s Studies at Syracuse University in the USA, asserts in The Political Critique of Identity,

'... in classical liberal political theory, the initial state of the self is conceptualized as an abstract individual without, or prior to, any group allegiance. It is from this "initial position" that the self engages in rational deliberation and thus achieves autonomy ...'

This is a scenario involving 'free choice' (if choices are not viewed as subject to indeterminant factors - my brackets). 'As (Immanuel) Kant developed this idea, a person who cannot gain critical distance from and thus objectify their cultural traditions cannot rationally assess them and thus cannot attain autonomy. In Kant's view, an abstract or disengaged self is for this reason necessary for full personhood. Moreover,the process of modernity, which was conceptualized as analogous on the societal level to the process of individual maturation, became defined as just this increased ability to distance oneself from one's cultural traditions. In this way this distancing ability also became a key part of the global, European-centered teleology of intellectual and moral development, defining the terms by which societies were to be labeled advanced or backward.’

Martin-Alcoff goes on to stress that, … the norm of rational maturity, then, required a core self stripped of its identity …

One side of this theoretical and often as history has shown, prejudicially-lived debate, has sought to locate and resolve in us an independent state of self. We can now see that this state may be defined perhaps imperfectly and dichotomously, responsible not only for shaping but also for ignoring it seems, the collateral damage occurring to that other aspect of personal and collective identity - the issue of our belonging. Could it be that this aspect of which Kant speaks, this process of maturation, the graduation to ‘… full personhood’ is a contributor to the erosion of our sense of belonging? Has the manifestation of this balanced autonomous identity so carefully harboured by us, comprised merely a veneer over that reality which now emerges as a lost locus? To what extent might we be vulnerable?

Elizabeth Grosz (1995) maintains that neither the subject`s consciousness or interiority, nor its essential humanity or distinctive individuality can any longer provide for us a firm base for identity. Grosz posits an alternative territory for coherency in this debate; that subjectivity of the individual and its relations with others be investigated through consideration of its corporeal self rather than its conscious lineaments and textures. Grosz cites the so-called French feminists who suggest that bodies are never just human or social bodies but bodies mediated by gender, asserting that this is significant in relation to the nature or mode of corporeality assigned to any subject. Grosz suggests that through the groundwork into sexed corporeality and the links between corporeality and conceptions of time and space established by Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, if bodies are to be reconceived, not only must their matter and form be re-considered but also their relational environments and spatio-temporal locations. So conceptions and understanding of space and time are necessary correlates for the investigation into corporeality and in turn, identity. The sociologist Roger Caillois`s (1917-1938) work is perhaps best known for his interrogation of the boundaries between the sacred and profane, the sociological and ethological and the human and animal, but his work centring upon the scientific and the uncanny, dealing with perceived spatial characteristics of the insect world and its predilection for mimicry also furnishes us with a useful analogy. Mimesis is significant for identifying ways in which the relations between an organism/body and the spatial characteristics of its environment can become confused and ambiguous because there is a reflexivity existing between the two. Camouflaging characteristics of both, the host and the surrounding space appear in both 'parties'. Mimicry in this context is a consequence of the representation of space in terms of how this may be perceived by insects. This presents a correlation for us as humans when we consider Pierre Janet`s description of 'legendary psychasthenia', that state which manifests when a psychosis is responsible for creating such confusion and ambiguity within a given space`s properties that the identification for the subject of an actual location in that place becomes impossible:

It is with represented space that the drama becomes specific, since the living creature, the organism, is no longer the origin of the coordinates, but one point among others; it is dispossessed of its privilege and literally no longer knows where to place itself ...' (1999 p.124)

Caillois regards psychasthenia as a response to an imperative introduced by space for the identity of the subject. For the subject to be valid as 'subject' they must be able to locate themselves in the same space inhabited by their body. This for the subject, is conditional in the establishment of coherent identity. This process of locating and affirming subjectivity is also cognisant with personality, where the subject as organism identifies a feeling of distinctness and separation in themselves from the surrounding space, an anchor which provides a coherent condition from which their identity emerges. From this vantage point the subject has a perspective on their world, which becomes the locus from which vision and perception emanate - that state of Tuurangawaewae, a place to stand, which in turn forcibly suggests that where you stand determines what you see of that location which surrounds you, physically, psychoemotionally and metaphorically and symbolically through signs and signification. Legendary Psycasthenia, as another entity-descriptor or inhabitant of the self moves in at the point where the subject loses their ability to clearly establish their standpoint - the location where their personality may reside spatially, which leads to a loss of that sense of place which denotes the the self-as-place in any given space and time. Through Caillois, Grosz suggests the subject may be both, captivated and replaced by space, blurred with the positions of others:

I know where I am, but I do not feel as though I`m at the spot where I find myself. To these dispossessed souls, space seems to be a devouring force. Space pursues them, encircles them, digests them in a gigantic phagocytosis. It ends by replacing them. Then the body separates itself from thought, the individual breaks the boundary of his skin and occupies the other side of his senses. He tries to look at himself from any point whatever in space. He feels himself becoming space, dark space where things cannot be put. He is similar, not similar to something, but just similar. And he invents spaces of which he is the 'convulsive possession' (30) (:p.125).

Grosz assures us that there are clear correlations between mimicry realised through the human analogue and that of the insect world. Both represent what Caillois describes as the 'depersonalization by assimilation to space'; both, the psychotic and the insect renounce their abilities to occupy a point of perspective and abandon themselves to being located spatially by an/as others:

'The primacy of one`s own perspective is replaced by the gaze of another for whom the subject is merely a point in space and not the focal point around which an ordered space is organized. The representation of space is thus a correlate of one`s ability to locate oneself as the point of origin or reference of space: the space represented is a complement of the kind of subject who occupies it' (p.125).

The above reference represents an extreme example of disassociation with self through the '... depersonalization by assimilation to space', yet there is an implication here indicating that a life spent immersed primarily in spaces which are potentially overwhelming in their lack of reciprocity; their disinclination to contribute a dialogue with us in that reflexive process of person-becoming-place-becoming person, (the sublime of urban sprawls, rush-hour crowds, city centres, underground railway platform throngs ...) may place at hazard our sense of ownership or belonging while we endeavour to assimilate the data coming at us from each new location, which in turn if prolonged, places our sense of identity in jeopardy. If we choose to live in this way in a semi-permanent fashion, inhabiting airport arrival and departure lounges; driving, coccooned, across town to shop for food in hypermarkets which possess the spatial characteristics and proxemic cultures of commercial aircraft hangers; commuting for hours every morning and evening in 'virtual' conduit spaces of automobiles or trains which remove us from the opportunity to dwell in places of corporeality which match our own, (although the constituents of our own corporeality are debateable) to arrive at sealed, multi-storey containment*, is it still possible to maintain that sense-of-place with which we might resonate, that space in which we may belong?

*('After the novelty of telegraph wore off, the Weather Service was shifted over to the Department of Agriculture and it ultimately wound up in the Department of Commerce, which oversees aviation and interstate trucking. Regional Weather Service offices tend to be in very grim places, like industrial parks bordering metropolitan airfields. They have sealed windows and central air-conditioning. Very little of the air being studied actually gets inside.') (Junger, S. (1997) The Perfect Storm, HarperPerennial a Division of HarperCollins 1997 p.99)

It is difficult then, if not impossible to ascertain to what extent the maintenance of our self within identity may be vulnerable to apparently anomalous relations with spaces which have the power to confuse us. Spaces which betray no reciprocity of intent, that condition which is reflexive identity building, where each party, both individual and space, contribute to a balanced assimilation of self awareness. In 'normal' conditions of the everyday, most manage the business of being an unbalanced human quite well. (In the sense that our other personna is largely ignored). Much of my research into the archive of the self and its sub-portfolios have suggested to date that as sentient beings we are nothing if not resilient and manage (and often actively initiate) our transformative Avatar/Cyborg/other potential within our own makeups extremely well. We can only speculate as to what may be occurring beneath the surfaces of our acknowledged and openly manipulated surfaces of communicable endeavours. Is there a growing awareness within the excitement of the 'New Technologies of Becoming' (my inverted commas), those challenges and extensions to our reality, like post-structuralist and metaverse constructs; re-formulations of and adjuncts to the Real, that there may exist for us all, a '... dark space where things cannot be put'?

Is this a comment pertinent to the articulation of Avatar personna in apparently representational spaces like Second Life? Clearly, spaces which are reflexive with and mirror our own intent to blend with, to interact effectively with the space, provide opportunities for us to foster a sense of self-identity. It is all very well to talk about 'mixed-reality' in relation to metaverse environments, but if we do not have a way in to enable fluidity across the interfaces involved, it makes the composite description a little one-sided.

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