Feeling Real

Let's assume this: the self is not just multiple but in a state of perpetual flux (we all fluctuate with greater or lesser intensity and speed).

And this: the self is not hermetic but is always and already constituted by "external" forces — the self is run through with networks that exceed you and me — gender, class, race, sexuality, looks (place in what Michel Houellebecq calls the sexual hierarchy — I fucking love that), and so on.

This is all to say that there is no one self, no one mode of being, of we can say: "That! That's the real me. All that other stuff? Not so much." It is all you — or me, as the case may be. When I'm home alone surfing pantyhose porn? That's me. When I'm drooling and muttering as I sleep? Me. When I'm nervous and blushing and stammering as I try to flirt? Me, too. When I'm being a jealous, passive aggressive asshole? Hate to say it but, yep, that's me. When, despite being 41 years old, I'm a petulant prick when around my parents? C'est moi.

And yet there are times when we feel — in ourselves and in others — that we're being real (or know we're being phony). But what does real and phony mean here? After all, everything we do is real. And everything we do is who we are. So what makes doing one thing real and another not?

Well, as we assumed from the start, there is no fixed point by which to judge the realness of our being. We can't size up this self along the measuring rod of the real self. Everything is in motion; every state is just another state — the so-called measuring rod, too.

I want to say, then, that this state of feeling real (or not) is the result of a certain aesthetic reaction to a state of resonance. This is to say, the great teem of my being — we are a complex of systems digestive, emotional, coronary, affective, nervous and so on — this network of networks can sometimes harmonize in such a way that there is a kind of order (but a strange and precarious order).

Kant says that the beautiful is a state of perpetual agitation of the faculties — we cannot understand per se, cannot put the experience in the a conceptual bucket — but in such a way that there is discretion and proportion. When discretion and proportion are torn asunder, we enter what Kant calls the sublime. Ah, but the Kantian beautiful is, well beautiful: a state of flux that enjoys some kind of limit and proportion. I love that.

And that, I believe, is what I'm suggesting about this feeling of being real — it is a kind of pleasing resonance in which our complex of systems are working together to create precisely this state.

This makes the act of feeling real a) an aesthetic experience; and b) an act of systems maintenance.

But it's not an act of trying to maintain one state (which I sometimes fear is the Buddhist goal: to always have one state. But I don't know fuck all about Buddhism so forget I said that). This state of feeling real may, later, feel like it was phony. So this "real" state is not one state but is itself different states at different times (and that themselves are internally variegated).


Nathan said...

Interesting appeal to Kantian aesthetics. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you seem to be drawing parallels between the networks which constitute the subject and the faculties which Kant describes as constituting the subject. It's an interesting move for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, it updates the architectonic from a mechanical model (Kant's model describing a mechanistic relation between faculties which also grounds a mechanical view of the universe in Newton's terms) to a virtual model (a network of networks which circumscribe domains of experience while operating laterally on proximate networks delimiting alternate domains). I'm not in love with the designation "virtual" and I'm not sure that I've captured your meaning of "network of networks" in the subsequent description, but I wanted to point out this recasting of terms just the same, cause I think it's neat. The other thing that I think is interesting about taking up the Kantian architectonic in this way is that builds on what was already an important thesis in Kant, which is that the subject is distributed. Though the ego/individual is implicit in Kant's discussion of the subject, the two aren't explicitly identified. So the Kantian Subject, like the networked Subject, is not confined to the body/mind of the individual: it's distributed across a set of virtual faculties which are actualized only in the act of cognition.

I don't think, though, that our feeling of realness or our recognition of realness or phoniness in others is best described as a harmonizing of networks. That's partially because I don't think of it as a strictly aesthetic experience. I think that there's an experience of recognition - when you look at something and you feel like it's returning your gaze - which is absolutely an aesthetic experience and maybe closer to what you're describing. But I think the question of realness has, first and foremost, to do with a certain practice, a certain discourse of self-identity. This is not a discourse that we're always engaged in. There are plenty of times when I'm hanging out with friends and there's an implicit understanding that we won't be self-identical: we can be false, facetious, dramatic, silly, etc. And those interactions often involve much beauty, and much harmonizing and re-harmonizing of networks. But, if we take another circumstance where there's an implicit understanding that we should be self-identical, say a break-up conversation or some other moment of reckoning within a relationship, our sense of realness does not necessarily coincide with a harmonizing of networks. At least, that's never been the case for me.

So, I guess I just want to suggest that we can't necessarily ground our experience of realness in a certain mode of aesthetic reception or resonance. The two may be associated in certain circumstances but I think this is a correlation rather than a cause. Ultimately, I think we have to de-ontologize the discussion and admit that self-identity is a practice/discourse. Of course, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't fight for or against different practices of subjectivation. Maybe this is Jarod Lanier's point, that we shouldn't cede our practices of self as individual thinker to the practice of self as node-in-network. If it were just a matter of one being true and the other being false, there would be no need to debate the topic and thereby resist the ascension of one practice over and against another.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Thanks for the incredibly thoughtful comments.

First, Kant: I've come back to that chapter on the beautiful and the sublime over and over again. And while so many have been attracted to his sublime — read: Lyotard — I dig on his definition of the beautiful. It's so exquisitely strange. And, as you note, what interests me is its architecture less than its descriptive accuracy (if that's the right word).

Second, the practice of self-identity. I can't help but feel we're saying more or less the same thing. I say: what we call being real is a practice of maintaining a certain balance or distribution of systems (indigestion, for instance, can throw the whole thing off and make me feel "not like myself").

And this practice, this state, need not lead to being self-identical. Of course, my state of being real entails irony, winking, posturing, etc. The real I speak of is always moving, is temporary, and is actually not real: it is a certain state that enjoys some elusive proportion and stipulation (a limit so that I can say: this is what I am). And I know this state as I know a work of art: without certainty or concept (ergo, I call it an aesthetic experience).

So I think I have de-ontologized it: I've tried to make it a perpetual practice of systems negotiation. And of course there are different practices (even if I critique Buddhism: I do so out of ignorance and because it's funny — to me, at least).

Or, as is probably the case, am I missing something in your argument?

Nathan said...

Ah, I see. I got caught up in Kant and mistook your use of "aesthetic." I was thinking of a certain distribution of sense rather than an epistemological criterion. So, I perceived a sort of reification of "realness" as mode of reception rather than a practice. So, yes, I do think we're basically saying the same thing.

I wonder, though, if there is a distinction to be made between this sort of intuitive recognition of realness and realness as it functions discursively - the aforementioned discourse of self-identity. In one sense, I can see how this discourse would be just another network to negotiate, to bring into accord with the other networks which constitute the self. But, I also want to say that this network is qualitatively different from the others - digestive, nervous, affective, etc. - because it implies a relation of intersubjectivity and is therefore immanent to our self-consciousness. In other words, our ability to recognize ourselves as coherent selves depends on the recognition of others and their recognition of us as coherent selves. Therefore, the discourse of self-identity in the context of intersubjective relation has, to my mind, a special status. As a constitutive network, it affects our ability to recognize ourselves as anything at all, let alone real, unreal, etc.

I never feel great about pushing a Hegelian concept like this, but I really think there's something to it. What do you think?

Robert said...

Read Eckhart Tolle's book, "A New Earth." WHO is it that is judging your reality, your "self" and the nature of your realness? How is it that you are self-aware at all? Just some suggestions and thoughts.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Robert: Yes yes, good good: This feeling of realness — and I think that is the wrong word — is one making sense of oneself. And this state of self-consciousness is itself a state, part of the mix. Hence there is no certainty, no fixed moment of being "real." It's all a relative affective state.

drwatson said...

I really like this essay - it finds a wonderful way into the question I keep asking/pondering about notions of authenticity. I'm just getting back from a wonderful trip to NYC, but I'll try to respond at length tomorrow.

drwatson said...

@Nathan - I think my thoughts on this subject are really close to yours. I agree that while there is an aesthetic component to "being real" there's something about the state that the term "aesthetic" doesn't quite capture.

I'd like to hear more about what you mean by de-ontologizing. I remember reading people like Levinas talk about the problem of a philosophy that had ontology at its center, but I always have trouble imagining what a philosophy would look like that wasn't ontological.

drwatson said...

@Coffeen - I think with this essay that we're more or less on the same page - I think most of my issues, and I hate when this happens - are issues of terminology. I don't quite know how to talk without using phrases that appeal to genuineness - whatever we want to call it. This may sound silly, but I've always loved the phrase "keep it real," even though it's certainly overused. I mean "keep it real" never meant be only one way - it meant be authentic, which could take place in numerous modes - at least I think so.

So I think people really can be frauds - now this becomes interesting if that's an authentic mode. Gadamer points out that even thieves want to understand each other, so there's an implicit ethic even when, say, planning a bank heist (being a fraud). There may be lots of centers or no center, (I prefer the former) but there's still a Nietzchean/Heraclitian way for one to become what one is. So authenticity but not in a Romantic sense.

I think this means that I both have to respect Dillinger and MLK because they were both in a state of "authentic becoming." (Again, this terminology is a pain in the ass.)

Daniel Coffeen said...

@Nathan: I've taken so long to respond to your last comment because I'm trying to make sense of it. Before I jump in, let me ask: What do you meany the the discourse of self-identity? Do you mean the way we talk about — the words and concepts — that make up selfhood? Or do you mean the network of people, the other, in whom we see ourselves? My next post will be an attempt to address some of this....