Category: philosophy

Home and the ‘Californian cult of the self’

More reflections prompted by:

Clare Cooper Marcus, House as a mirror of self. Exploring the deeper meaning of home, Lake Worth, Nicolas Hays, 2006 [1995].

To add to my miscellany of definitions of home, Cooper Marcus (pp. 105-6) refers to a 1979 work by David Seamon with a strong Heideggerian theme, A geography of the lifeworld. Movement, rest and encounter. ‘David Seamon, who has written on the phenomenology of the home, suggests that a feeling of at-homeness for most of us seems to combine the qualities of rootedness, security, a sense of “ownership”, restoration, feeling at ease, and warmth’.

My initial enthusiasm for Cooper Marcus’s book has waned a little. My response, to quote Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan from the original Star Wars, is: ‘these are not the droids you are looking for’. The book was originally published in 1995 and uses field research collected over a period of twenty years in California from the mid 1970s. It also refers to the author’s own childhood and some of her adult experiences. Cooper Marcus grew up in Britain and her account of her childhood, evacuated to the countryside away from the blitz in London during World War II, shares the same sometimes bitter sweet utopian flavour of early and mid-century twentieth English children’s fiction, notably the novels of Edith Nesbit and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories. The examples of other people’s relation to their built living spaces are redolent of a Californian culture of consciousness raising and alternative self culture, now faded into memory and whose remnants exist only in the margins of sub-culture. Much of her literary research refers to work published in the 1970s and 80s and earlier.

Foucault’s assessment of Californian cultures of the self very much applies here.

In the Californian cult of the self, one is supposed to discover one’s true self, to separate it from that which might obscure or alienate it, to decipher its truth thanks to psychological or psychoanalytic science, which is supposed to be able to tell you what your true self is. Therefore, not only do I not identify this ancient culture of the self with what you might call the Californian cult of the self, I think they are diametrically opposed.
Michel Foucault, On the Genealogy of Ethics : An Overview of Work in Progress, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 362

Reading the various stories of people and their relation to their houses, one is left curiously hanging, the psychological ‘truth’ of their relationship to their living space is exposed, but one wonders – what then? What detailed techniques can be used to go from there?

In the end, Cooper Marcus’s book is a great starting point for reflection but bound by a particular time, place and discipline (Jungian psychology) that I find all a little remote. The book serves to emphasise how much has changed since the mid 1990s and the exponential speed of that change. Next on my reading list for this topic is Alain de Botton’s more philosophical, contemporary and European focused book, The Architecture of Happiness.

From the Lighthouse: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Light, edited by Veronica Strang, Tim Edensor, and Joanna Puckering

This sounds like a most interesting book. I have long been fascinated by lighthouses and their liminal location between land and sea, throwing light into the darkness, guiding benighted travellers across rough seas and away from hidden rocks. They also form a minor theme in science fiction – representing that border point between the unknown and the known and the possibility of the intrusion of the other worldly. Lighthouses appear in Doctor Who on at least a couple of occasions and also in the 1962 film version of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. They also make an appearance in horror and supernatural films such as the strange and atmospheric 1948 film Portrait of Jennie.

Progressive Geographies

9781472477354From the Lighthouse: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Light, edited by Veronica Strang, Tim Edensor, and Joanna Puckering – now out with Routledge.

What is a lighthouse? What does it mean? What does it do? This book shows how exchanging knowledge across disciplinary boundaries can transform our thinking. Adopting an unconventional structure, this book involves the reader in a multivocal conversation between scholars, poets and artists. Seen through their individual perspectives, lighthouses appear as signals of safety, beacons of enlightenment, phallic territorial markers, and memorials of historical relationships with the sea. However, the interdisciplinary conversation also reveals underlying and sometimes unexpected connections. It elucidates the human and non-human evolutionary adaptations that use light for signalling and warning; the visual languages created by regularity and synchronicity in pulses of light; how lighthouses have generated a whole ‘family’ of related material objects and technologies; and the way that light flows between social and…

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The human and the relation to the non-human

More reflections prompted by:

Clare Cooper Marcus, House as a mirror of self. Exploring the deeper meaning of home, Lake Worth, Nicolas Hays, 2006 [1995].

Cooper Marcus argues following Jung that:

“In the course of our lives, other people enter, and sometimes leave the field of our psychic awareness. […] What is less obvious is that the same thing happens with the objects and places in our lives. We selectively pay attention and invest them with emotion as it serves the deeper, largely unconscious process of individuation, or becoming who we truly are. […] In our own lives we select the sets and props of different “acts” (or periods of life) in order – often unconsciously – to display images of ourselves and to learn by reflection of the environment around us.” p. 8

Cooper Marcus over the course of the 20 year period of gestation of her book developed a fascinating technique which invited people to visually draw a representation of their home, then to speak to that representation of home as they would to a human person and then invite the home speak back to them. What interests me about this is the recognition of the non-human as a person in its own right and the idea that the human is not the only existent who acts in the world. The human, in fact, exists in relation to a very broad network of the human and non-human. This is of course Bruno Latour’s actor network theory (orginally derived from aspects of Foucault’s work).

But in Jungian fashion, Cooper reads this as the material things simply reflecting back to us our own preoccupations and projections, or alternately our manipulation of those material things. I would perhaps modify the statement I made in my last post and suggest that Jung’s thought was just as colonising as Freud’s in that it appropriates and colonises the other in the interests of the self. The New Age movement which has taken on many aspects of Jungian psychology tends to reduce the external world to the desires, wants and failings of the self. The external is simply a subservient instrument in the expansion and fortification of the self.

I always feel a sense of unease when encountering psychological and existential/phenomenological systems of thought and note my preference for an approach like Foucault’s. In psychology and the systems of Freud and Jung, the starting point is always the self which spreads to occupy every aspect of existence. Everything becomes a reflection or projection of the self and the hard boundaries of the other are eliminated, colonised and assimilated. Jung argues that what we see in the external are projections of our own unconscious. One becomes trapped in a claustrophobic system where there is no outside to the self. The unknown, the unconscious is a substrata of the self which either waits to be discovered or exposed to the light of day (Freud), or are unrecognised projections of the self, both individual and collective which are then open to manipulation (Jung).

Foucault however, begins with the premise that we are born already belonging to a historical, cultural, linguistic and material situation. The human self is born into this complex network and the measure of freedom of the self is the capacity to modify that belonging, even if it is only in the tiniest of ways. Those modifications are networked into the broader outside and we use and modify tools already available in human culture and history to effect changes to ourselves within this broad network. It is not about creating an ever expanding fortress of identity (Jung’s strange Bollingen Tower project might be an example of this), but of understanding our limits and intersections with the network of which we are a part.

The new school of Object Oriented Ontology or Speculative realism also argues for the position that non-human things are not simply screens onto which the human self is projected, but have their own autonomy. These ideas find predecessors in the structuralist movement, including Foucault’s own ideas.

I noted in my book in relation to structuralism:

In the place of research centred around an unchanging and introspective human subject, the structuralists advocated the exploration of the unconscious structures underlying culture, knowledge, society and language – in short the structures underlying all human endeavour. They examined structures of cultural production without linking them back to a central human agency or to individual psyches, to consciousness or to individual lived experiences of existence.
Clare O’Farrell, Michel Foucault, London: Sage, 2005

Going on to quote Foucault

It is humanism that is abstract! It is all these cries from the heart, all these claims concerning the human person and existence that are abstract: that is, cut off from the scientific and technical world which is actually our real world … Well, the current effort being made by people of our generation, is not to set up man against science and against technology, but precisely to show that our thought, our life, our way of being, right down to our most everyday way of being, are a part of the same systematic organization, and thus emerge from the same categories as the scientific and technical world. It is the ‘human heart’ which is abstract, and it is our research which seeks to link man to his science, to his discoveries, to his world, which is concrete.
Foucault, Entretien avec Madeleine Chapsal. In Dits et ecrits, vol I., (Paris: Gallimard), pp.517-18)

Freud vs Jung

Browsing a not terribly high end bookshop in Brisbane, somewhat surprisingly I came across this book:

Clare Cooper Marcus, House as a mirror of self. Exploring the deeper meaning of home, Lake Worth, Nicolas Hays, 2006.[1995]

I have long been fascinated by the relation between home and physical space. Interestingly, there appears to be only a paucity of philosophical reflection on this subject, although I have by no means done an exhaustive search in the area. One work I quite like on this subject is Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness. (Here is a short piece he has written on the subject of home.)

In any case, I have started reading Cooper Marcus’s book and am finding it fascinating. I am no great fan of Jung or psychology in general, but she mixes it with her strong background in architecture (she is a retired Professor of Architecture and Landscape Architecture from Berkeley) along with references to Bachelard and others, so I am prepared to listen.

As I read, I will post up reflections prompted by the book. As a starting place, I found her description of the difference between Freud and Jung’s approaches quite enlightening. Freud’s notion of the unconscious is a place of isolating and solitary darkness, threat and fear to be conquered, tamed and controlled. Jung’s notion is of a mysterious, collective and not unfriendly (but still dangerous) surrounding cosmos of inspiration allowing the self to expand its boundaries and links to the outside. Freud operated in the mode of colonising power erasing the other, Jung as an explorer and friend of the other. This binary characterisation is of course not entirely accurate, but for me it sparks a whole range of ideas and possible choices that could be made at a collective social and cultural level or choices that could have been made in the problematic twentieth century.

This is what Cooper Marcus says:

For Sigmund Freud, the unconscious was like some dangerous wilderness, and symbols manifested in dreams contained impulses or conflicts the conscious mind needed to conceal. Carl Jung had a very different perception of the unconscious. For him, it had both a personal and a collective component and was “like the night sky, an infinite unknown, studded with myriads of tiny sparks of light that can become the sources of illumination, insight, and creativity for the person in the process of individuation”. (Metzner, p.5), pp.7-8

A period of radical change (2017)

I thoroughly agree with this comment from Francois Ewald in an interview on November 3rd in Los Angeles Review of books

I have the feeling that we are living through a much more radical transformation at the moment than in May 1968 or even after the collapse of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall. For 70 years we have commented and critiqued the order established after World War II. But this page is about to be turned, and a new world is opening up that we don’t yet understand. We are confronted with the social question anew. The question of responsibility will be negotiated once more, and in a way that will be as important as the transformation that I described in L’état providence.

At present. one has a sense of living through a period of ambient chaos and experimentation as people try to sort this out – experiments with a new ‘sharing economy’ (uber, air bnb), experiments with new forms of hyper surveillance, and a return to authoritarian managerialism and sovereign rule in many workplaces in the Western world. All of these with new globalised technological affordances which make the enforcement of these practices much more ruthlessly effective. To add to this, experimentation with new political forms – the so-called post-truth society of Trump and Brexit, the painful death pangs of the idea of the university and the counter-conducts of Wikileaks and others.

Epictetus, Freud, Ignatius

Just adding a few notes to yesterday’s post… Foucault mentions Freud, of course, as one the inheritors of the ideas of Epictetus and Cassian, but we could also include St Ignatius Loyola in this lineage with the intricate structures and practices he constructed around the ‘discernment of spirits’. ‘Discernment’ is the term retained from this phrase in an age generally sceptical (except in New Age circles) of the existence of a whole other world of spirits.

this site administered by the Loyola Press describes Loyola’s ‘practices of the self’ as follows:

Discernment of spirits is the interpretation of what St. Ignatius Loyola called the “motions of the soul.” These interior movements consist of thoughts, imaginings, emotions, inclinations, desires, feelings, repulsions, and attractions. Spiritual discernment of spirits involves becoming sensitive to these movements, reflecting on them, and understanding where they come from and where they lead us.

Ignatius set up a list of 22 rules for discernment – which would bring him into line with Epictetus’ rule based approach as well.

One might also mention in this context of the spiritual training of the mind, Eastern practices of ‘mindfulness’ which have been imported into Western culture via systems such as yoga and New Age meditation practices.

The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.

Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

This sounds like a rather interesting book, although I have only read a brief extract and a review. I like Crawford’s point, at least as described in the review below, that we need to pay focused attention to the constraints of physical reality, rather than losing ourselves in an abstract screen world of virtual possibilities. This is a point being made by a number of philosophers at present.

I’m not so keen on the concept of ‘mastery’ referred to below however, as this all smacks a bit too much of domination for my tastes. I would prefer to think of ‘working with’, rather than submitting things to our will. And because I can never resist throwing in a reference to Foucault: this focus on our interaction with the physical and the material, a materiality which is both human and non-human, and the necessity of patiently working with it at a whole range of levels, is arguably one of the primary focuses of Foucault’s work as well, and what makes his work so easily applicable to so many domains.

Reviewed by Nick Romeo at The Daily Beast, 5 March 2015.

Extract from review:

Crawford’s solution [to the distractions of the modern world] is not that we retreat into soothing sensory deprivation tanks; he advocates engaging with the “the brute alien otherness of the real” as apprentices and eventually masters. His ideals of focused attention are activities in which we exercise freedom not by purchasing products to express our will, but by submitting to the intrinsic demands of the external world in some restricted domain and accommodating its realities in skillful and intelligent ways. This sounds far more obscure than it actually is: playing ice hockey, practicing glassblowing, learning Russian, working as a short-order cook, building pipe organs, and playing an instrument are some of the examples he gives.

Nietzsche once said that joy is the feeling of one’s power increasing. Crawford appropriates the remark to argue that getting good at skilled actions fulfills a fundamental human need that our culture often neglects by offering instant technological solutions. In one fascinating section, he compares Mickey Mouse cartoons from the early and middle 20th century to children’s television today. The older shows present the physical world as a source of menace and humor: one thing that the constant collisions, crashes, explosions, and general slapstick show is that characters are subject to immutable laws of physics. Nature does not pander to its denizens; it follows that it’s a good idea to pay attention to the world and try to understand how it works rather than how you would like it to work.

In the contemporary Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, by contrast, a Handy Dandy machine solves problems by presenting pre-approved options on a screen menu. Technology has conquered risk and peril, and material reality meekly obeys the wills of characters, provided they have the appropriate gadgets.

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