Monday, November 02, 2009

Charles Ess Tomorrow

Charles Ess at Århus Univeristy 'Global Convergences, Political Futures? Self, Community, and Ethics in Digital Mediatized Worlds'

Tomorrow I will be attending a seminar (and having lunch) with Prof. Charles Ess at HUMlab. While I have read Ess on new media ethics I have been looking further into his work and found something that almost excites me. He works with a concept termed 'relational self':

This takes us still further to the left – to the sense of self as relational or, in slightly different terms, “smeared out.” This is a sense of self that is characteristic of many cultures and peoples around the world, including those countries shaped by Confucian traditions, as well as indigenous peoples, e.g., in Africa (see Paterson 2007), North America, the polar peoples, etc. My friend and colleague Henry Rosemont, Jr., uses the metaphor of the onion vs. the peach. The atomistic self is something like the peach-pit that underlies an external body: while the external body undergoes change and decay – the peach-pit remains the same through time. Relationships with others for such a self are always extrinsic: even if all such relationships are removed, the peach-pit will continue to exist. By contrast, the relational self is constituted by its diverse relationships with others – e.g., friends, family, the larger community, etc. – with each relationship analogous to a layer in the onion. Such relationships are intrinsic to such a self: remove the relationships – peel away every layer of the onion – and there is nothing left.

The concept of the relational self is similar to what I have been thinking about for quite a few years as a result of studying Australian Aboriginal narrative systems. Traditional Aboriginal narratives cannot be classified as fiction or non-fiction, they organize society in such a total and integrated way that they defy all conceptions of narrative according to Western classifications. It was precisely this that I was thinking of when I wrote a long piece Narratives of Creation and Space: Pilgrimage, Aboriginal, and Digital:

To even speak about narrative in the context of Australian Aboriginal story systems is to misrepresent the roles of story in cultural contexts. The distinction between fiction and non-fiction cannot be successfully applied to Aboriginal story systems. The language based knowledge systems that are termed in English ‘Dreamtime’ were given the name by the British anthropologist Baldwin Spencer in 1896 in relation to what he understood of Aranda culture of the Central Australian desert (Silverman 2001). The term persists today and is now used by many Aboriginal people to describe how the “actualized transiency in the present, and the perduring life of the world is carried by ephemeral life- forms. All living things are held to have an interest in the life of living things with whom they are connected because their own life is dependant upon them. Care requires presence not absence….those who destroy their country destroy themselves” (Bird xvi). Over the enormous landmass of Australia very different Dreamtime law systems developed and I am speaking generally when I discuss aspects of them here. In every system however, the individual is bound within complex networks of relationships and responsibilities to the land area from which they come, context dependent family relations, the histories of both of these and their “actualized transiency in the present”. How these relationships develop through a person’s life is expressed in visual, spatial, linguistic and sonic arts. These arts assist my general exploration of Aboriginal language based media.

My hope is that an awareness of context-dependent, relational selves will draw human beings back from the moral precepts of bourgeois individualism, what Mikhail Bakhtin described as “the culture of essential and inescapable solitude”. Is it possible? This may be a question I ask Professor Ess tomorrow.

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