Thursday, April 4, 2013

In what sense has social theory troubled the model of the Enlightenment self?

With the proliferating social theories, it is widely debated that the model of the Enlightenment self is challenged with the increasingly dispersed parts of identities that are unstable and persistently shifting in relations to social institutions and cultural trends. Social theories are explaining what the Enlightenment cannot comprehend, hence causing the theory of the self as a resolute individual, less relevant.

The Enlightenment self has been the model for understanding human thoughts and feelings since its appearance in the mid 17th century. It is generally known as the liberation of free thoughts and reasoning where the individual is only responsible to himself (Foucalt, 1984, p. 36). One of the fathers of Sociology, Auguste Comte had famously put forward the ‘law of three stages in knowledge’ (Coser, 1968, p. 428 – p. 434). The Enlightenment sets off in the metaphysical, the second stage. Metaphysical is the simple ‘cause and effect’ stage (Comte, 1853/1858 p. 28), which is how we would understand ourselves with the Enlightenment ideas. We are led to believe that we are in charge; we are free to reason with ourselves and emerge from self-incurred immaturity (Kant, 1789/1996). Foucalt suggests that there is no way of standing against or in support of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is a series of political, cultural, social events that brought upon the need to ‘break off’ from traditional forms of knowledge. As so, it is only within our power to accept it and succumb to its rationalization or to reject it and deviate (1984, p. 39).

However, it has become apparent that social theories are rapidly seeping into our everyday conversations, making up a significant part of popular science. As the very definition of social science is to study the social interactions and individuals within a constraint of structural boundaries (Mann, 1983), to first understand its theories, it is crucial that we alter our egocentric perspectives and understand that we are “human being(s) amongs other human beings” (Elias, 1970/1978, p. 15). We have to consider the countless physical and social elements that have their own valued discourse in society and within our living circle. The experiences we go through as an individual are not necessarily the grand reality but it also exists in the realms of the self (Difference Without Dualism (Part One), 2013). The feelings and thoughts we may have are relatively true but not objectively true because it only true to those who make it a part of their reality, their consciousness. Social theories have shown the ‘hidden parts’ of reality that the Enlightenment model could not, the realities we did not engage with, but are still directly affected by it. An example would be the London Riots that happened year 2011, the drastic responses were a result of the narratives of certain social groups that resonate with the initial eruption, thus triggering a dominos effect.

This current paradigm of knowledge can be related to Comte’s third stage of knowledge, positivism (Comte, 1853/1858 p. 28). Elias described Auguste Comte’s support of positivism in sociology to aim as an objective subject and advocates that social facts be accumulated by observation and theories can be gradually formed after (1970/1978, p. 35). Positivism is mainly an ongoing experiment of life. Such as how various aspects of our social lives are insecure, unstable and changing all the time. We learn as the circumstances occur, then gathering experiences that in turn shape our social personalities.

The culture in society today has turned into an intricate web of communication where we are all constant negotiating our individual identities with the social world. Since we are not isolated individuals, it is preordained for us to play mandatory roles such as the role of a child to our parents or a role of a citizen of our country. Goffman claims that we are all social actors and act out what we perceive to be the best interpretations of our current roles (Dillon, 2010, p. 265). Contradictory to the Enlightenment self, actors will perform a range of different roles in a lifetime, and learns the social specifications and collective values of each role through socialization (Dillon, 2010, p. 267). Goffman also suggests that social actors see themselves as a character and a performer (2001, p. 180 – p. 182). The two positions run parallel together during a ‘performance on stage’. We perform the social roles based on past interactions with similar ‘performers’ but also instilling our own character into our ‘performance’. We still take in consideration of information and knowledge that was passed on from social interaction with others, and does not act freely as a subjective, individualized development.

With everyone being able to afford commodities for entertainment purposes such as books and movies, individuals are often treated to the exaggerated versions of stories. As these are the only way we are offered a peek into someone else’s narrative, it creates surreal impressions that affect our understanding of the social world. As the narratives provided in books and movies are often twisted or distorted for entertainment purposes, people are led to think that the lives of others are exciting, dramatic and almost always end in ‘happy endings’, and by comparison, our own lives are bland and tedious. Moreover, the slick and charm of the movie characters cultivate a belief, a certain idea and expectations of the people in the real world. These fragmented concepts are blurring the actual objective and relational reality of the social world (Difference Without Dualism (Part One), 2013).

Other than that, language is also an important feature in the social life. Without a shared language, advanced social interactions would be impossible. Words are labeled with meanings for further references, to convey and process a message (Culler, 1976, p. 19). It is also essential to note that a localized slang of language is the evidence of the meanings that is loaded on to the ‘noises and sounds’ by us (Culler, 1976, p. 21 – p. 23). Pinker states that the language is a window to social relations. He explains that ‘indirect speech acts’, “where we veil our intentions in innuendo and hoping our listener to read between the lines”, are social interactions where the words said aren’t as important as the underlying meaning which the words does not explicitly express (2011). So, the important factor in these situations is the dependence on the shared, collective knowledge, which cannot be learnt from the Enlightenment self, but from interacting with the social institutions that we try to break free from. Hence, as language is proven to be a social construction and it being a vessel needed to help explain thoughts and feelings, it can be seen that even our subjectivities are controlled by a culturally defined set of words.

Furthermore, the Enlightenment self does not explain the self in relations with the social structure. The Enlightenment ideas isolates the development of ‘self’ theoretically which is impossible to accomplish practically. Giddens proposes an interesting notion of how the ‘self’ is built up by the individuals, allowing them to choose blocks of preferences and customized traits to construct a ‘self’ (Giddens, 2000, p. 252). Although we have progressed to a more technological and knowledge-laden era, we are still obligated to confine ourselves within the boundaries of society. We not only get to compose our own narratives, Gauntlett stated that Gidden’s Structuration theory claims as society affects the individuals, individuals also shape society. The habitual repetition of acts enforces the social structure, forming cultural meaning and rules that bind us but also asserts that we too have the power to ignore or deviate, creating new social guidelines (2002, p. 93).

The Power of Outrospection shows the power of reaching out and not digging within ourselves for social progress and change. It is outrospective that is celebrated now, not introspection of the self. Outrospection can be a source of social change, a revolution of human relationships (2012, December 3rd). There is a proliferating two-sided social phenomenon in society today. We want to be special; to have our own experiences that we believe is unique compared to everyone else. Nevertheless, on the other hand, we also want empathy. We want other people to understand how we feel. We take comfort in knowing that we are not alone any personal situation. Social theory challenges the enlightenment self and believes that empathy can be the new foundation of a globalized humanity across culture.

These needs are answered and reflected strongly by the escalating use of social media such as Twitter and Tumblr. A similar popular function of both micro blogging platforms is the ‘retweet’ (Boyd et al, 2010, p. 1) or ‘reblog’ (Tumblr, 2007). This function is to repeat a before-stated idea or opinion, as a subtle agreement, validation or favor for the subject discussed. Boyd, Golder and Lotan discussed the act of retweeting and categorized the ten different reasons for retweeting that includes “to publically agree with someone”, “to make one’s presence as a listener visible”, “to amplify or spread tweets to new audiences” and “for self-gain, either to gain followers or reciprocity from more visible participants” (2010, p. 6). Tumblr’s function is slightly different; it is a platform mainly to reblog photos that arouse liking, may it be something of desire or nostalgic value. The idea is to allow each user on Tumblr would have their own blog that consists of ideas and representations of the self, which is reblogged from another, hence, creating an online culture of relating and empathy. Although Tumblr does not have the same direct communications as Twitter, it is also derived from the same principle, to broadcast individuality and according to Gunawardena and Zittle, to create a social presence (1997, p. 10). With social media, the online community is slowly turning from the assumed centralized self towards a dimension of information exchange and a web of connecting other people’s ideas.

The social theories may have overruled the Enlightenment ideas, but there are still some values and ways of the Enlightenment ideas in the new model. Although, not a substantive length of progress is made, but to think that we are now increasingly getting used to the new ideas and moving from the introspective self to a profounder phase of understanding the world, from the second stage of knowledge to the third, is tempting within reason. That reason being our progress is aiming towards a collective goodness in society, the well-rounded satisfaction from all humans. Empathy is the tide that will bring forth the wave for social change. As more social theories develop, it is actually tiding the occurrence of the transition from egocentric culture to an altruistic society.


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