Sunday, September 26, 2010

Under construction

Construction is one of those intriguing ideas that seems to some people (including me, some of the time) to be so strong that it has the potential to remake one's entire worldview. The idea that ideas are constructed appears in various confusingly overlapping schools of thought: constructivism, (Piaget, Vygotysky), constructionism (Papert), and social construction (Latour and assorted philosophers). Here's a paper that untangles some of these differences, but here I'm interested in their common thread -- the idea that knowledge, ideas, mental stuff in general is built rather than found.

Constructivism is usually applied to things like people learning mathematics or object permanence, but the thing that most people spend most of their energy constructing is themselves -- their social roles, their internal sense of self, their own narratives. But then who is doing the building? The term "autopoeisis" was coined by Maturana and Varela to name systems that constructed themselves, but naming is not explaining and as far as I know the school of thought they founded belongs in the same category as some of the other ideas I've mentioned recently -- which is to say, not necessarily wrong, but it has not been nearly as productive of science as more boring mechanistic approaches. It's fringy.

There's a vast literature on self-construction in anthropology, psychology, and related fields most of which I'm unfamiliar with, and I've never been able to quite get into it when I tried. How do you study something so elusive and amorphous? There are no instruments for selves, and studying social interaction (which seems the best entry into the subject) just gives you the traces, not the phenomena itself. But that's a reflection of my intellectual limitations, or rather, how my own self is constructed.

It occurred to me today that one of the main functions of religion is to construct selves. Theistic religions construct a person who runs the universe and provides rules and techniques for the individual person to relate to it. Such relations obviously mirror the relations between actual human persons, and vice-versa. Consider the historical construction of human selfhood, religions function as a kind of cultural scaffolding for individuals to create and interpret themselves.

Religions create persons in very different ways and, so as a result create very different kinds of selves. Someone who believes they are at the core an immortal being who is only temporarily and incidentally wearing a body as a kind of fleshly envelope just has/is a very different kind of self than I do/am. Yet this song still moves me, so maybe the differences are merely superficial and our spiritual core is the same.

Buddhists seem to be deconstructionists of the self -- they talk about this process critically. They talk about how people are constantly trying to make themselves appear to be solid, permanent, real things when in fact they aren't. And this process of delusion is at the root of suffering. But my own dabbling in meditation (Buddhism ultra-lite at this point) suggests the opposite -- it seems to be about constructing an additional layer of self, one that can stand somewhat outside and monitor all the other self-construction going on. I may be doing it wrong.

During the Yom Kippur service, the Ashamnu prayer has the congregation chanting together:
Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, deebarnu dofee. Heeveenu, v' heershanu, zadnu, chamasnu, tafalnu shaker. Yaatznu ra, keezavnu, latznu, maradnu, neeatznu. Sarar'nu, aveenu, pashanu, tsarar'nu, keesheenu oref. Rashanu, sheechatnu, teeavnu, taeenu, teetanu.

Who are we? We are God's image and truth and infinite wisdom, eternal goodness. Yet we've abused, we've betrayed, we've been cruel, yes we've destroyed...we have missed the mark.
The "infinite wisdom and eternal goodness" seems to be a recent addition to this particular translation, and it's a bit too treacly a sentiment for me. But the idea that sin is an error, a case of "missing the mark", I can get behind. (Here's a good present-day interpretation). The most striking feature of the Hebrew is that it is a litany of words suffixed with -nu, the first person plural possessive ("our"), which emphasizes that all these faults are faults of the community and not solely of individuals. Consider not so much content of this prayer, but the fact that here's a community of people who get together, at some expense of time, money, and attention, and jointly declare a view of their nature. Isn't that odd? It seems almost to be a performative linguistic act, not as explicit as a marriage vow, but still functioning to bind together.

So the self under construction in this world is a social self, a self inherently part of a community doing things together and taking a collective responsible for itself and the world. Maybe this is an unremarkable thing to most people; after all Jews and others have been doing it for thousands of years; if it's so fundamental to human nature then it usually operates without thinking about it. I may be more consciously and intellectually aware of these sorts of commonplace phenomena because with me they don't generally work all that well.


Meaningness said...

All very interesting...

I've found the anthropology of religion helpful in understanding both what other people do religiously and my own responses to religion. "The self under construction in this world is a social self, inherently part of a community doing things together and taking a collective responsibility for itself and the world" is definitely the anthropological line.

Being a geek, this only semi-works for me too. I do think I'm part of a social whole, and responsible to and for it, but the rituals and rhetoric social groups use to produce cohesion are mostly alienating for me.

Regarding Buddhist meditation. The systems I know about are not supposed to produce an extra layer of self that stands outside to monitor the rest. I gather that this is an explicit method in some Hindu systems, where that is called "the watcher". It's possible some Buddhist systems also try to produce that -- Buddhism is extraordinarily diverse -- but the best-known ones don't.

The main meditation instruction of one of my Buddhist teachers was "slaughter the watcher". He came out of a Hindu background, though, and this is not exactly the mainstream advice.

The sense of a watcher or witness might arise spontaneously, without deliberate production, which would not be a problem particularly. Generally the mainstream method is to remain without involvement -- so you neither attempt to produce a watcher, nor to get rid of one. If you do that for long enough, eventually the watcher dissolves spontaneously. If that doesn't happen after a few months of regular meditation practice, you might want to check with a teacher -- your technique might be a bit off.

Plug: I helped produce the Aro email meditation course, which is a series of weekly automated emails that gradually take you further into Buddhist meditation methods. It's free and you can unsubscribe at any point if it's not useful.


mtraven said...

I'm married to a former anthropology student. I learned the very useful buzzword "liminal" (title of the previous post) from her.

I actually have the Aro email course, and made it a short way in before it stopped making sense to me. The early posts were quite useful to me, and as I muddle along perhaps I'll try to progress further into it. I'm pretty resistant to this stuff, but my resistance has been getting worn down. I've been pretty impressed with the practical benefits from even my lightweight efforts.

Don't know about whether a watcher is desirable or not...but certainly there is WATCHING going on, and by the iron laws of grammar a subject must appear to go along with the verb. This stuff is hard to talk about sensibly. I get the impression that Buddhism contains all sorts of elaborate technical language for doing just that, but I can only follow it for a short way, at least for now.