Title page for ETD etd-01172005-102259


Document Type Master's Dissertation
Author Mabile, Louise
URN etd-01172005-102259
Document Title The moral subject vs. the political actor : the political price of interiorization
Degree MA (Philosophy)
Department Philosophy
Supervisor
Advisor Name Title
Dr M J Schoeman
Keywords
  • no key words available
Date 2004-06-13
Availability unrestricted
Abstract
This dissertation is an attempt to examine the political implications of the ethos of self-persecution that accompanied the rise of modern man. The attempt at achieving self-transparency and to locate a final, deep 'truth' within the depths of the subject, which began in the apparently harmless search for God through acts of confession, grew into the merciless persecution of the auto-voyeuristic subject. I argue that the horror that complete self-transparency would imply, is mercifully kept at bay by the opacity of language, that makes complete penetration to the 'final' self impossible. I illustrate the possibilities of redemption from self-persecution by referring to the work of thinkers like Hannah Arendt, Friedrich Nietzsche and the post-structuralist thinkers like Jacques Derrida.

Chapter 1 is an attempt to show that what we understand by 'the subject' is by no means static or universal, different ages and cultures developed radically different conceptions of self - alternatives that could provide the necessary inspiration for the revival of a flagging political tradition. One such alternative is self-conception in antiquity. The usage of the word 'subject' is inappropriate to refer to any pre-Christian Greek concept of self, because no single word refers to Homeric Man as a unity. Instead, Homer, who employs no non-material language, depicts parts of characters that are always more than the whole. There is not even a single word that could roughly be taken as a synonym for 'mind'. The Homeric self was an assemblage of various narratives and impressions, without an inner core or 'self', loosely held together by the broad narrative that is an individual's life. For this reason, it could offer an alternative politics to an age weary of the discipline that accompanies the rigidly defined modernist subject. I deal with the ambiguity and slipperiness of the classical subject, and illustrate its complex 'superficiality' at the hand of a number of relevant Greek concepts including splachma, poiésis, daemon, psuché, phrenes, nóós, thumos and até.

If there was no rigid distinction between self and world in the ancient Athens, the same cannot be said of the public and private domains into which the polis was divided. Difference was spatially, not morally defined. After her horrific experience with totalitarianism in Nazi Germany during the 1930's, Hannah Arendt drew on the Greeks to show that the public space was the unique space of appearance where a public actor could show off his virtù on stage in front of his peers. Her usage of masks indicate the impersonal dimension to acting. Far from wanting to give us a theory of self-expression, she constructed a philosophy that is in many ways the opposite of the Rousseauian politics of authenticity. I explore the ways in which Arendt questioned the traditional philosophical hierarchy between the vita contemplative and the vita activa, and her re-evaluation of the activities of the vita activa, namely labour, work and action.

In addition to my brief exposition on the Homeric world, I briefly examine the shift from acting to thinking man as it occurs in the Republic. I address Plato's reaction to the political decay in which Athens found itself after the Golden Age of Pericles. I argue that, already in the Republic, there are signs of a certain impatience towards the hidden, and a desire to 'bring things to the light', a desire that would never leave Western man again, but would grow into an all-consuming passion. After the hermeneutical turn we know that no literary work allows a definitive interpretation. This is especially true of great masterworks, and the Republic is no exception. Although I think that Arendt is justified in locating in Plato one of the sources for the anti-political character of our philosophical tradition, it is necessary to distinguish between 'Plato', and Platonism. Anticipating the argument put forward in chapter 4, I argue that the multivocity inherent in Plato may make him more political than Arendt initially took him to be.

Chapter 2 focus on the turn inward. Augustine, through his notion of the confessing-self, seeks to formulate an ethos that does not allow everything to revert back to the self. The self turns away from the lust to dominate the world and into the depths of the soul where it seeks to fashion even the most fleeting desires in obedience to God's truth and the standards of His morality. At this stage in the development of the self, there is no question of self-transparency - the relationship to the transcendent makes it an impossibility. For all or Augustine's profound insight into depth - remembering, willing and unifying the scattered self in confession, the inner Augustine remains a battlefield. In this respect, Augustine's confessing-self inadvertently provides a beacon of warning to an ethos that demands self-transparency at all costs.

In the second part of chapter 2, I compare the Confessions of Augustine with those of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Living during the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, Rousseau's motives are radically different from that of Augustine in the fifth century.

The revelation of self, hesitantly presented in Augustine, takes a different turn fourteen centuries later. Gone is the link with the transcendent. Augustine confessed to God, Rousseau sometimes to a filled public house, packed with enemies, sometimes merely to the shifting selves he refused to acknowledge. Augustine sought truth, Rousseau, sincerity. For Augustine the self would represent a barrier to God, Rousseau publicly created a private self. Rousseau's purpose is rather to unburden himself of shame, and to justify what he deems weak. In doing this, the 'defined self' - a self that can fall back upon himself without reference to what is perceived as a 'hostile order' - comes into being.

Drawing on Michel Foucault's analysis of the 'normalizing' tendencies that characterizes much of the concrete functioning of power in modernity, I briefly summarize his critique of modern power as it operates through 'panoptic power' and confessional strategies which assert that we harbour 'deep truths' within ourselves that we must carefully decipher and follow. I then focus specifically on the concept of the 'autopticon', and how power operates at its greatest efficiency by strategies of self-surveillance. When Foucault's theoretical work is read in terms of his genealogies, his work acquires a Nietzschean profundity.

In contrast to Augustine, for whom depth is the dimension of freedom, Foucault sees depth as the dimension of subjugation. It is this dimension in which the other is rooted out and the subject is constituted in terms of hegemonic norms and the standard of self-transparency. That we somehow fail to get to the 'bottom of things' by no means discourage the therapeutic society, it merely ensures the persistence of endless subjugation.

But Foucault was not the first to identify the self-tortured subject. This honour belongs to Nietzsche, and his response to the naked, unmasked subject of philosophy forms the topic of chapter 3. Nietzsche's genealogy of Herkunft is not the erecting of foundations: on the contrary, it disturbs what was previously considered immobile, it fragments what was thought unified, it shows the heterogeneity of what was imagined consistent with itself. And, one might add, it shows the folly of looking for a 'deep', liberating truth within the self when in fact, nothing but surfaces for the inscription of the social order, for the application and imposition of power exists. This is precisely what Nietzsche points to as his genealogy demonstrates the oppressive use of subjectivity as a construct of oppression in what he terms a 'hangman's metaphysics'. In addition to an analysis of Nietzsche's criticism of the modern subject, I point to his anticipation of the cure to the problem of self-transparency, namely an acceptance of the redemptive potential to be found in language.

This forms the topic of chapter 4. In chapter 4 I argue that the vita lingua contains the possibility for at least a certain degree of relief from our culture of surveillance. Language, by its very opacity, makes the ideal of (self)transparency an utopian illusion. Every attempt to come to a final conclusion about a text is bound to fail. This aspect makes our linguistic engagement with the world tragic, yet at the same time allows for a merciful, messianic dimension that might save us from the horrific nihilism that the granting of the Enlightenment wish would entail. I draw again on Arendt, this time for her conception of the storyteller, to find a viable middle ground between the death of the author and the absolute author of the Romantic era that acted as a guarantee for the truth of his text. The linguistic turn certainly requires an altered conception of the self, but there is no need to sacrifice the self to an entirely autonomous and impersonal language system. In addition, I refer to the hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer and the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida, to demonstrate the alternatives suggested by the very anti-utopian nature of language.

The fact that we exist linguistically, a fact that appeared in more positivistic age as a curse, is now the very feature that saves us from the hell and obscenity of absolute (self)transparency. If language is indeed as opaque as Nietzsche, Lacan, Derrida and others have claimed, intentionality can play no determining role in the establishment of meaning. Nietzsche explicitly proclaimed the virtual impossibility of having his texts understood. To understand his texts the way Nietzsche understood them, one would have to be Nietzsche. And perhaps, one hastens to add, perhaps not even then: If this is the case, the question arises as to what a confession really reveals, and even if it does not conceal rather than reveal, makes its appearance. If the author 'disappears' behind his text, textuality appears in our time to have replaced the lost mask of antiquity and the ancient regime.

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