Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The "I" and the cultural imprint

This is a note picked from a bracketed aside, below, to the effect that we do not make our own cultural imprint "just as we please". Why not, you might wonder? We can't make our culture just as we please because "culture" (as understood here) is an abstraction from all of the cultural imprints of the individuals that comprise the cultural formation -- but our own cultural imprint is just that, our own, and you might think that its make up is, within practical limits, up to us to decide. What would limit our ability to do so?

Two general considerations:

  • First, there is the idea that the symbols of the cultural imprint are affected by each "communicative encounter" through a so-called determinate or causal process, not a conscious one. Just as we can't choose whether or not to recognize a sign (e.g., understand a word seen or heard), so we can't help but be affected by the context and manner in which a sign is used -- where "affected" pertains to the bundle or chunk of experience that constitutes the symbol invoked by the sign.

    But -- such symbols are also affected by new experience that's relevant to their content (e.g., each encounter with a new instance of, say, the concept "tree" will have a small -- depending on one's developmental stage of course -- affect on the concept itself). And thought is also experience of a certain kind, so in that sense we can recover at least some control over our own cultural imprints -- that is, over our own concepts (among other things), as we expect. But there's another, perhaps more interesting, form of limitation:

  • This has to do with the fact that the "self" or the "I" is itself just another concept or symbol within the cultural imprint, and has no privileged access to any other symbolic construct. The advent of language, by providing a way of breaking conscious experience into chunks, (aggregating those chunks through abstraction, etc.), and by providing perceptual "handles" for those chunks in the form of signs, has made possible not just self-awareness, but a "self" or an "I" in the first place. The "I", notice, is inherently (grammatically) the active subject and hence difficult to make into an object of thought at all -- if we can even think of "I", it's as some kind of point of view, irreducible, and standing outside of all other objects of thought. But I (!) think this is a fundamental error, and source of error -- the word "I" is a sign like any other, and the symbol it evokes is also a construct or assemblage of experience like any other.

    Now, it's true -- and important -- that language provides a kind of recursive process by which we can interrogate or investigate our own symbolic constructs, including our notion of our own "self", and even our own "I". But there is no standpoint outside of our self from which to do that, and so any such investigation is necessarily affected from the start by the existing structure of the "I". And the very act of investigation, as another experience, also affects the "I" of the investigator and whatever symbolic construct is being investigated. In this sense, it's hard to resist bringing in another metaphor from, or analogy to, physics, and call this limitation a kind of Psychic Indeterminacy Principle (so I didn't resist). We're complex, mutable, contingent beings not just in our physical wholes, but in what we'd like to think of as our psychic core or essence as well.


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