The Future Is Drawn Into The Present By Means Of The Reflexive Organization Of Knowledge Environments


My short story has a changed title: Non Being’s Positive Side. The being of non-being is about more than non-being, for starters try reflexivity. In this post I tell the story of an ambivalence-inducing culture that produces a positive affect. According to Giddens, modern society’s complexly mingled and juxtaposed messages from many sources may be reflexively channeled by the individual to not only liberate the individual from the constraining aspects of traditional culture but, also, to self-actualize the individual in the reflexively mobilized order that characterizes late modernity.

Ambivalence-Out Of The Darkness Shads Of Light

If Individuals Are To Organize Their Own Relation To The Encompassing Social World, A Maximum Of Reflexivity Is Required

The Self-Actualizing Aspect of Ambivalence in Late Modernity

If, however, the human being is naturally inclined to produce an overgrowth of cultural objects (as is the result when the individual is identified with the boundary that simultaneously separates and joins the individual to society), then perhaps a description of ambivalence in negative terms is incomplete. Perhaps, in addition to ambivalence’s negative consequences, there is something about ambivalence that brings forth the essential creative capacities of human kind. This is precisely the direction Giddens (1991) takes in Modernity and Self-Identity. In this book Giddens discusses the “emergence of new mechanisms of self-identity” in relation to the liberating aspects of an ambivalence-inducing culture. Without loosing sight of an ambivalence induced cultural pathos (for example, living with the fear of: apocalyptic catastrophe–the bomb, ecological catastrophe, the rise of totalitarian superstates, the elimination of questions of morality and ethics from the sciences, technology that instrumentalizes one’s relationship to nature, the collapse of global economic mechanisms, the continued differential exclusion of the haves from the have-nots, etc.), Giddens describes how modern society’s complexly mingled and juxtaposed messages from many sources may be reflexively channeled by the individual to not only liberate the individual from the constraining aspects of traditional culture but, also, to self-actualize the individual in the reflexively mobilized order that characterizes late modernity.

[Footnote. Two types of reflexivity are defined in Giddens’ Modernity and Self-Identity. Both types characterize modernity, albeit on different interactive levels with the individual. Giddens (1991: 243-244) states:

“Institutional reflexivity: the reflexivity of modernity, involving the routine incorporation of new knowledge or information into environments of action that are thereby reconstituted or reorganized.
Reflexive project of the self: the process whereby self-identity is constituted by the reflexive ordering of self-narratives.”]

According to Giddens (1991: 15), “modernity can be understood as roughly equivalent to the industrialized world.” In this sense, both the industrialized world, or, the social relations implied in the production processes of technology, and, capitalism, which for Giddens means “a system of commodity production involving both competitive product markets and the commodification of labor power,” come together to form a risk culture.

[Footnote. According to Giddens (1991: 196), “modernity opens up the project of the self, but under conditions strongly influenced by standardizing effects of commodity capitalism”. This capitalistic commodification turns labor into a commodity and creates abstract commodities for consumptive purposes–all in an attempt to shape consumption habits as well as monopolize the conditions of production.]

When Giddens uses the term risk culture he does not mean that social life in modern society is any more risky than it use to be. Rather, he (Giddens, 1991: 3) states:

“[T]he concept of risk becomes fundamental to the way both lay actors and technical specialists organize the social world. Under conditions of modernity, the future is continually drawn into the present by means of the reflexive organization of knowledge environments. A territory, as it were, is carved out and colonized. Yet such colonization by its very nature cannot be complete: thinking in terms of risk is vital to assessing how far projects are likely to diverge from their anticipated outcomes.”

In other words, for Giddens, risk and reflexivity, on an individual level and on an institutional level, are the essential ingredients of modernity. Whereas in traditional cultures social environments were more stable, change was routinized, and, the need to calculate outcomes for possible futures were minimized, in modern culture, if individuals are to organize their own relations to the encompassing social world, a maximum of reflexivity is required. In the setting of modernity, the connection of the personal with social change takes place in the reflexive process of self-identity.

A Person’s Identity Manifests In The Ongoing Process Of Personal Narratives

In Order To Have A Sense Of Who We Are, We Have To Have A Notion Of How We Have Become, And Where We Are Going

Giddens did not hesitate in making the distinction between ‘identity’ of the self (as opposed to the self as a generic phenomenon), and the necessity of a reflexive awareness of self. Since Mead (1934) it has been widely recognized that the self constitutes a reflexive process. Although some people are more likely than others to be reflexively self-aware, it is presumed by Giddens that reflexive self-awareness, as an essential element of biography, is a common, cross-culturally practiced phenomenon. It is especially practiced, according to Giddens, in order to “keep in touch” with one’s self-identity. Giddens (1991: 54) states:

“The existential question of self-identity is bound up with the fragile nature of the biography which the individual ‘supplies’ about herself. A person’s identity is not to be found in behavior, nor — important though this is — in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going. The individual’s biography, if she is to maintain regular interaction with others in the day-to-day world, cannot be wholly fictive. It must continually integrate events which occur in the external world, and sort them into the ongoing ‘story’ about the self. As Charles Taylor puts it, ‘In order to have a sense of who we are, we have to have a notion of how we have become, and of where we are going.’”

From whence does a person’s self-narrative or biography come? Giddens would probably respond to this question by saying: reflexive self-awareness arises from a person’s need to sustain a healthy state of mind [especially] under the conditions of modernity which, more often than not, is characterized by a person’s evaluation of her/his future in terms of fragmentation and uncertainty. Thom (1983) and Simmel (1918) would probably agree with Giddens, but they would add that the experience of fragmentation and uncertainty could just as easily arise from a person’s processing of self-reflexive awareness as it could from the “risk conditions” of modernity. Mead, on the other hand, would probably answer the question, not by referring to the concepts, fragmentation and uncertainty, but, by locating the genesis of narrative and biography in the socialization process itself.

Mead would probably agree that self-narrative and biography are products of the reflexive nature of self, but he would also point out that within the contextualization of self, whether it is taken as an object or subject, there will always exist the “content” of some basic form of social relation. We never experience reflexive self-awareness in its pure form, since we never experience it in a social vacuum. The self, in its reflexivity, will always set itself apart from, and, in the process, be able to communicate with some meaningfully rich social construct. According to Mead (1934: 142), “It is this fact [that the individual is an object to himself, and,…he is not a self in the reflexive sense unless he is an object to himself], that gives a critical importance to communication, since this is a type of behavior in which the individual does so respond to himself.” It is for this reason that self-narrative becomes even more meaningful (less fragmented) when the individual integrates her/his self-narrative back into the social continuum from whence it came. Once again, according Taylor (1989: 234), “In order to have a sense of who we are, we have to have a notion of how we have become, and of where we are going.” It is my contention that the experience of fragmentation and uncertainty can and does arise from the active processing of self-reflexive activity, albeit certain kinds of self-reflexive activity. In order to understand why this occurs it will be necessary to more fully develop Mead’s concept of self.

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