Monday, June 06, 2011

Kenneth J. Gergen, Interview with Laureano Ralon, FIGURE / GROUND June 5, 2011.

Let’s move on. As you know, the Cartesian notion of a unitary subject with hard boundaries came gradually under attack from different schools of thought: in the first half of the 20th century existential philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty put forth a conception of self as being-in-the-world, amidst things, and past its fleshy boundaries. In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan spoke of media as “extensions of man” – mind, body, and senses. In the 1970s post-structuralist thinkers such as Barthes and Foucault announced the “death of the author” and “the death of man.” More recently, however, Andy Clark, David Chalmers, and Robert Logan have taken on more moderate approaches with their notions of an “extended self.” How did your own notion of a Multi-being or Relational Being contribute to the decentring or de-structuring of the Cartesian subject?

I presume you must be somewhat familiar with my book, Relational Being: Beyond Self and Community, in which those latter concepts were featured. The central contribution that book makes to the sort of decentring of the Cartesian self is certainly different from Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Foucault, and different as well from Barthes and from McLuhan’s extended self. The central argument goes something like this: that to make any sense at all requires coordinated action between two or more persons, so that whatever I say, for example, only comes into sense by virtue of how you coordinate with it, and vice versa. If you affirm what I say, you give sense to my words; if you do not listen, I make no sense; if you disagree my utterance becomes questionable. In this way meaning lies not within the head of an individual, not within the words of an individual, but in the process of coordination. It is not the “me” speaking to “you,” nor you replying; the genesis of meaning lies within the you-me coordinated action.

Consider: If you take words the individual words in a sentence, not one is meaningful alone; words become meaningful only by virtue of their relationship to other words; a paragraph stands as meaningful in terms of its relationship to other paragraphs, and so on. Now, put that in the context of what we call interpersonal relationships. The same holds true: I only make sense in terms of the way my utterances fit into a context or conversation, which is a coordinated activity like a dance. In a Wittgensteinian sense, meaning is created in the game itself – not within the action of any individual player. So if you follow that out, the very idea of a Cartesian self is a by-product of that relational process, or, to put it in another way, any unit like a self, or subject, or boundary between self and other is already coming out of the relational activity. This is to say that everything that has any meaning for us at all has its origins in a relational process, which itself cannot be articulated outside of using its own by-products. So what we have then is a sort of originary source of all meaning lying in coordinated activity, or what I call a confluence, a flowing together…


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