Self images

by CarlD

Frames / Sing’s discussion of copies, formative influence, history, originality and Latour pings another set of my thoughts on identity. Here’s a tangentially-relevant section of the work in progress that sets the scene for my comments there, in which I’ve begun to talk about how original objects (e.g. selves) emerge from processes in which none of the elements or dynamics are even slightly original (nb that I am technically using ‘fractal’ incorrectly and have not yet found a language that accurately captures the dynamical complexity I’m getting at) (citations omitted):

I. Developmental Psychology: Processes and Images

It is awfully tempting to think of infants as ‘naturally’ selfish, reading back into them the accomplishments and organized emotional responses of adulthood. Famed developmental psychologist Jean Piaget captured the greater subtleties of the question when (reacting to Freud) he described the infant’s as a “narcissism without a Narcissus,” that is, a demand for attention without awareness or intent. Infants do not have selves yet.

What they do have, as every parent knows, is a disposition (or ‘temperament’) on a continuum of attention-getting strategies with happy at one end, cranky at the other. Both smiles and wails attract attention, but in different ways under different conditions. Parents vary quite a bit in their willingness and preparation to provide care, which after all is optional, inconvenient, and sometimes detrimental where their own survival is concerned; but infants must be attended to if they are to survive. Evolution, including cultural evolution, has not left this important matter solely to some nebulous maternal or parental ‘instinct’, and our frequent observation of bad parents should indicate the wisdom of this strategic diversity (other backups include extensive socialization in ‘mothering’, which would obviously be unnecessary if it were natural or instinctual, and social/ political pressures to provide care). For infants each attention-getting strategy has its evolutionary advantages, and the diversity along the continuum is useful at the species level, creating a built-in survival adaptation to diverse initial conditions (including parental attitude) across at least part of a given population of infants.

There are two key points here. The first point is that the strategy deployed by any particular infant need not be ‘conscious’, hence meaningfully ‘selfish’, at all. Mood dispositions are at the outset a relatively simple function of brain chemistry. Your happy smiley baby’s brain is producing good chemicals for happiness; your cranky waily baby’s brain isn’t. Parents can take neither credit nor blame for this at the outset (which does not stop them from doing just that).

Soon, however, they can accept their measure of responsibility with better reason. The second and more important point is that the infant’s disposition instantly structures her participation in a cycle of interactions with ‘significant’ others — those persons and things which respond to the smile or the wail. It is through interactions with others that the growing infant goes from a basically happy/ basically cranky bundle of chemico-physical attention-getting behaviors to a more sophisticated participant in social arrangements — an emergent self.

Early on this can only happen by chancing upon refinements of the original routine that produce more or less satisfactory results. Experience begins to pile up about when, where, and with which objects (such as people) various refinements succeed and fail (memory becomes crucial here). Experience also begins to pile up about different forms of success and failure, so that desirable and undesirable outcomes expand from the physical essentials to include various kinds of more abstractly ‘personal’ rewards and punishments like retrieval or removal of a pleasantly familiar object (including persons). Especially meaningful interactions are further abstracted as rules of conduct that later may serve as foundations for calculations of self-interest or for ‘morals’, depending on what is valued in the interactive milieu.

In the process these interactions, depending on their content, frequency, and intensity, may strengthen or weaken the original chemical disposition. But more significantly for the emergence of self, interaction normally adds dimensions to the original disposition. These dimensions then ongoingly interact with each other, the physical makeup of the person, her ‘environment’ in its many internal and external dimensions, and other persons, to create an incredibly complex interactive field. This interactive field builds and is built into selves — not just ‘internalized’ but embodied — as a necessary consequence of learning and adaptation. Selves are correspondingly complex.

At this point a couple of images may be helpful for visualizing the process of self development. One familiar image of the developing self is a house to which rooms (skills, knowledge, character traits) are added as situations calling for them arise, and materials for their construction become available. This image seems appropriately developmental, and satisfies a minimal definition of interactivity by its reference to perceived needs and possibilities. Plus, houses are comfortingly solid. However, the development of houses by room addition is not very dynamic; rather, it is merely cumulative and linear. We certainly know people who stay rooted to the same spot, always eat in the same place, and can’t sleep in anything but their familiar bed — dreaming of a rec. room or a screen porch. But such stolidity is highly dependent on unchanging environmental conditions, since building new rooms is slow business, tearing down old ones is a major, structurally dangerous enterprise, and when the flood comes, the whole house can’t be moved to higher ground no matter what. The self that fits the house image is accordingly produced by and best suited to stable, unchanging times.

Another common image of self is a crystal. We often talk about people as having ‘facets’. New experiences cut new facets, which both reflect and refract the surrounding environment. Such faceting is nicely dynamical, because each new one rearranges the reflection and refraction of the whole, as does the specific rotation of the facets with respect to the world. The main problem with this image, dazzling though it may be, is that its complexity is all on the surface. The interior of the crystal (the depth of the self) is solid, simple, and unchanging, never touched by the play of light at the edges, never transformed by the rays ‘just passing through’. Like the ‘house self’, the crystalline self had better hope there are no drastic changes of environment, or it may wind up shattered.

Another possible image of self, and the one that most closely approximates the full range of human possibilities as emergent, situated, and fractal beings, is the Calder mobile. Mobiles are durable, stable structures, but unlike houses and crystals they have no particular ‘core’ or solid configuration. They are highly interactive, both with themselves and with their surroundings. Like crystals, they can be rotated to present different facets to situations; and which facet is presented has tremendous impact on how the mobile receives and delivers interaction. They are not infinitely malleable but they can be added to, subtracted from, and reconfigured on the fly, with spectacularly beautiful results if care is taken with balance, with spectacularly bizarre results if not.

Each of these images has something to recommend it, and each can be misleading if taken too literally. Just so with our most common image of self, the body. The singularity of the body (strange to think so when it has so many parts), its apparent stability (actually it’s dying and being rebuilt cell by cell all the time), and its clear normal association with a single mind, encourage the common sense notion that the self is a singular entity. So far, O.K. The danger of this image is in the small conceptual step from singularity to simplicity. It is well to remember that many things called single for the sake of convenience, like countries, planets, and bodies, are actually complex manifolds. So too is the self.

Whether visualized as rooms, facets, mobile elements, or even melody lines, dimensions of self are added as experiences and reactions to them become habits. William James (1842-1910) was perhaps the first modern psychologist to call attention to the importance within the self of habits as mediators of complex yet ordinary experience. If we actually had to think about every detail of our lives (will I put my shoes on sock-shoe-sock-shoe or sock-sock-shoe-shoe today, or even wear shoes at all; will I drive on the right or the left of the road today; will I dare to eat a peach) we might never get out of bed. “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision….” James concluded from this obvious fact that our selves are, and must be, bundles of habits with a thin layer of reflection on top to handle unfamiliar situations and transcend the ordinary. For people with restricted, routine lives (‘house selves’), that layer of reflection may be very thin indeed, but even for creative geniuses the dimensions of self that handle ordinary situations without the distracting bother of reflection must necessarily be legion. Of course, we get the habits that fit the conditions of our lives; indeed, those conditions can be read back off of our habits, if, that is, we can suspend judgment long enough to do so.


12 Comments to “Self images”

  1. I like these images of faceted crystal and mobile. From each, the changes at the “surface” reflect both structural dynamics, but also causal influences which are expressed in those changes. In any particular “motion” it becomes a spectrum of interpretive attribution, whether it is more important to attribute it to the character of the crystal/mobile, or the external influences that it interacts with. The direction of our interpretative attention is one solely of finding what is germane.

  2. I don’t know quite how to think about habit. A successful compiled behavioral routine certainly makes life simpler: you don’t have to think about it; you just do it when the appropriate situation arises. But this is how instinct works too, without the learning and repetition required to instill a habit. One might conclude that habit is instinct in the making for a species that hasn’t been around long enough to get really efficient. I.e., if a habit consistently proves adaptive, then the gene that facilitates the rapid crystalization of this habit will eventually come to dominate the gene pool. Instincts are quicker to activate than habits, leaving less room for error in deploying them. In this sense habit is a poor stepsister to instinct.

    But humans rely more on habits than on instincts. What advantages do habits have over instincts? One, there’s more flexibility in invoking or not invoking a habit for specific situations. Two, habits can be imitated: humans can watch what someone else had to learn through a long series of trials and errors and simply appropriate it. Three, simple habits can serve as modules or subroutines for building even more complex actions, which can then be invoked in more complex environmental situations. These advantages seem to rely on something like subjective agency. I understand that habit is a preferred candidate in accounting for the process of individuation, but habit really does seem to operate differently in humans vis-a-vis other species. It’s this flexibility in deployment that seems decisive. I suppose one could regard human flexibility itself as an advanced kind of habit — assessing situations and choosing behavioral routines accordingly. Just thinking along with you here, Carl…

  3. Sorry for the delay, busy day.

    Kvond, your remarks here are right on but highly compressed and make a lot more sense in the larger context of your original post and elaborations. (So readers, do click the link above and check it out.) Just to pick up a germane fragment from there, you write:

    not only of these special cases of most obvious ‘originality’, great moments of art or history, but also if our everyday perceptions is like this, the affective way that we bond with events, objects and persons, keyholing them due to their copious influence either upon our personal lives, or our world. It is interesting to think that we already think in a medieval typology, or a genetic mythology, even in our everyday perceptions. And that this is not necessarily a bad thing, but rather part of the very way that the fabric of our doings is made. At best, if this is the case, perhaps we can make closer studies of this, choosing and tracing our originalies and their copies, their constructed causes (those we deem germane), with greater care. A keyhole-ology. A kleiology.

    If I understand you correctly you’re getting at something I’ve also been groping toward, which is an understanding of formative history as a retrospective construct of selective germanity, in which we make new senses of ourselves (or new selves), mything ourselves up as I’ve put it, according to what we choose affectively (or strategically, to invoke Bourdieu) to pay attention to in our past.

    But John’s picked up on the habit part of this post and habit is not about choice or interpretation but about the automation of stimulus/response loops of various kinds – as he suggests, a midpoint between attentive cognition and genetic hardwiring. We’re operating on at least all three of these levels at once, which makes us quite flexible but also prones us to some pretty wacky existential dissonances.

    John, I’m agreeing with everything you’ve written here. I’d add that instincts, habits and cognitions (which can each be subdivided in various ways) all benefit in an evolutionary sense from some diversity. Instincts only generalize through populations when they ‘work’ or at least don’t hurt too much across a range of survival / reproduction conditions. (As S.J. Gould tells us, not all variation is adaptive. It only needs to not be fatal. Not survival of the fittest, but survival of the fit enough.) Habits are more contingent, as you say. They’re at their most durable in what we call culture, although even cultures are in constant flux in relation to environments. Cognition offers the greatest flexibility, but this makes it the most thermodynamically costly; so there are always advantages in moving the work it’s doing down into habit, where opportunity costs of rigidity accrue. Does this connect with what you were thinking?

  4. I’ve been reading The Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuation between Kant and Deleuze by Giordano Bruno. Chapter 4 is entitled “Systems of Habit: Ravaisson, James, Peirce.” There’s something paradoxical about habit being a source of individuation, since the whole point of habit is to eliminate variation in behavior sequences. Pure creatures of habit would seem to be entirely robotic, disindividuated. I think it’s the idea of stringing habits together, and also of building variability on top of habit, that facilitates continual individuation. James was big on this notion of using habit as a strategy for freeing up mental energy to tackle less well-defined activities in less familiar environments. It’s how cultures individuate themselves as well: on the shoulders of giants and all that. Maybe I’ll report back after I’ve read Chapter 4.

  5. the whole point of habit is to eliminate variation in behavior sequences

    Can’t a habit be a regular framing, a focus that still leaves room for choice? Consider, for example, the wine lover for whom wine with dinner has become a habit, a daily occasion to exercise the connoisseur’s delight in choosing the right wine for this particular dinner and night.

    There is also the special pleasure that comes from occasionally breaking settled routines. Without the habit as context, that distinctive frisson would not exist.

    Think of poets who use established forms, haiku for example with its rigid 5-7-5 syllable structure and mandatory seasonal words, a frame within which poets continue to come up with strikingly individual poems.

    Methinks that the notion that habit implies a kind of mindless automatism is missing a lot.

  6. I’ve been reading The Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuation between Kant and Deleuze by Giordano Bruno.

    Giordano Bruno? You mean Alberto Toscano? I mean all the Italian names look the same to me too..

  7. Alberto Toscano indeed. You’d think if I took the time to copy the whole title of the book I could write the author’s name down properly. Memory is kind of like habit: call up the right one for the wrong situation and it’s worse than useless.

  8. The radio is now playing a piece by Umberto Giordano, further confusing me.

  9. I was actually watching a Fellini movie myself – are you also reading Bruno?

  10. No — I’m not quite sure what set of synaptic connections led to that particular confusion of names. Maybe it’s an omen or my unconscious telling me to read Bruno.

  11. John M. @ 5 – that’s a great point. I wonder how widely this can be generalized – to what degree do we create or selectively attend to these frictions between the ordinary and the extraordinary to give our lives meaning?

  12. Having now read through Ch. 4 in Toscano’s (NOT Bruno’s) book, I begin by noting that the writing style is dense and turgid, though I suppose I could blame the translator or my own sketchy education in philosophy. I have the same experience wading through Badiou.

    Toscano is building toward Deleuze as the hero of his story, as the one who comes closest to describing a fully immanent process of individuation. Moving in this direction is Peirce’s attempt to discover in habit “a history of laws of nature.” Says Toscano:

    “For Peirce it is uniformity or regularity itself — as well as deviations from it — that must be accounted for, not mere isolated facts [or, for that matter, isolated objects – JD]. Far from enshrining laws as the transcendent principles of explanation, they must be accounted for in turn, and the only way of doing this is by tracking their genesis. Thus Peirce writes in a crucial passage: “Uniformities are precisely the sort of facts that need to be accounted for… Law is par excellence the thing that wants reason… Now the only possible way of accounting for the laws of nature and for uniformity in general is to suppose them the results of evolution. This supposes them not to be absolute, not to be obeyed precisely. It makes an element of indeterminacy, spontaneity, or absolute chance in nature.”

    Peirce proposes that natural laws are patterns of regularity that emerge and precipitate from the flux of indeterminacy and chance — they’re habits of nature, if you will. Before Peirce, and also in Wm. James, the pattern which eventually settles into habit is deemed as having originated in desire or will, which presupposes an autonomous individual as the source of its own individuation. Peirce proposes that the process of individuation creates individuals, without the need for invoking any sort of top-down agent selecting the ends for which regularity or law or habit become the means. This bottom-up individuation becomes a possibility for all of nature, including human intelligent behavior. The individual human — or the individual object or event of any sort — is for Peirce a ‘bundle of habits’ (same term as James), stabilized inrelation with the environment in which it’s embedded. Says Toscano:

    “Habit is thus the concrete middle term, the ontological operator, between, on the one hand, a hypothetical state of pre-evolutionary indifference and, on the other, a situation of law-like regularity embedded in habituated systems which are defined by networks of active, or practical relations… Peircian habit is an iterative procedure in which chance is captured by, or ‘canalized’ into, regularity, and in which regularity itself is always prey to the novelty-inducing irruptions of chance.”

    Habit for Peirce becomes the engine driving what Gyorgy Kampis calls “recursive evolution”: “whenever a solution is achieved a new task is also defined.” Toscano again: “In the final analysis, laws or universals are but the evolutionary result of the stabilization of relations, and individuals the hardened — but nevertheless provisional — nodes of these relations.”

    The next chapter is on Simondon, about whom I know nothing except that his writing is supposed to be even more impenetrable than most. So stay tuned.

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