Photo by Sandra Meadows
Here's an excerpt from Mike Amnasan's dissertation "Community and the Individual Talent." While this section doesn't directly name class as a particular or sole focus, in a recent email about this section Mike wrote, "I am working on a part of my dissertation at the moment which deals with similar class issues to those I wrote about in books like Liar." I find interesting the engagement with how class manifests in comfort and discomfort, an economic and an uneconomic life, and the importance of distraction. Ideology inside the body. Like the way we might think that perspective, an invention of the early modern period, is natural and mimetic of how we see, rather than something that organizes and constitutes how and what we see. If you want to read more about LIAR, click here.
Mike Amnasan was a sheet metal worker for over twenty years, working on high rises and othercommercial buildings out of Local 104 in San Francisco (and for two years out of Local 28 in New York). Before that he worked in factories, mostly garment factories in Los Angeles. He met other writers for the first time in Robert Gluck's writing workshop in San Francisco. He went back to school, coming to that decision with the psychotherapeutic help of Liz Naidoff. He presently lives in Brooklyn and is a Ph.D. student in the philosophy department at The New School. He is the author of Liar written in the early '90s and published by Ithuriel's Spear in 2007.
Pre-Reflective Attunement with Others and Intellectual Difference
You normally do not look closely at a chair when you take a seat, but, as Martin Heidegger tells us, you may look closely at this chair if, while sitting in it, a leg breaks and you topple to the floor, or if you make a point by calling attention to it. There is also a third possibility that Heidegger does not consider: you may look more closely at the chair, even questioning if it is yours to sit in, if you feel out of place. This involves sensitivity to a situation you have not adjusted to, perhaps one that you will never adjust to sufficiently to put to rest an unusual awareness of your own body, and those aspects of your surroundings that, if you were at ease, would not intrude on your perception.
The following is the Beginning of Dambudzo Marechera’s story “Black Skin What Mask.” It is Marechera’s description of what his black protagonist feels like when he goes among crowds in Oxford England (1) :
My skin sticks out a mile around here. Every time I go out I feel it tensing up, hardening, torturing itself. It only relaxes when I am in shadow, when I am alone, when I wake up early in the morning, when I am doing mechanical actions, and, strangely enough, when I am angry. But it is coy and self-conscious when I draw in my chair and begin to write. (93)
Marechera’s character, probably more or less himself, is overly sensitive to white people’s attention to his skin. Given his title, Marechera was probably influenced by Franz Fanon, who in Black Skin, White Masks writes “I am overdetermined from without. I am the slave not of the ‘idea’ that others have of me but of my own appearance” (116). He is overdetermined by the stares of white people, and strives for anonymity. He is forced to reflect upon himself because he cannot forget about himself in the way someone more at ease takes for granted. In “They Diagnosed me a Schizophrenic When I Was Just a Gemini. ‘The Other Side of Madness,’” Colin King describes how his becoming overly conscious of how white people were reacting to him as a black man in England was confused with symptoms of schizophrenia and manic depression.
What Fanon is missing, when he is “over-determined from without,” is the ability to move among people and things without taking much notice, to be pre-reflectively already among people. When Marechera speaks of “doing mechanical actions” during which he no longer feels his skin torturing itself, this involves automatic behavior: more or less unconscious actions.
Josef Parnas, Pierre Bovet, and Dan Zahavi, using a “phenomenologically informed perspective,” propose that schizophrenic autism involves an inability to relate to one’s surroundings and others without close attention to what one is doing. They contrast this to “the ability to see things in the appropriate perspective, an implicit non-conceptual grip of the ‘rules of the game’, a sense of proportion….a non-conceptual and non-reflective indwelling in the intersubjective world” (133).
They defend the explanatory value of this phenomenological approach, but they do not regard it as definitive. While a phenomenologically informed account is compelling, and may offer insight into schizophrenic autism, the loss of “the ability to see things in the appropriate perspective” is not necessarily a symptom of mental illness. Becoming too aware of what most people normally take in stride, can be the result of being treated in a racist manner, or sensitivity to being regarded differently, or simply being different from the people you are among, or feeling something amiss that everyone else seems to overlook. This can involve an aggregate of symptoms that demonstrate a lack of some fundamental requirement of a normal life, the lack of a pre-reflective attunement with others we normally take for granted. But to speak of the lack of the “pre-reflective,” as Parnas, Bovet, and Zahavi occasionally do, can be deceptive. This sense of lack overlooks the competitive nature of mental processing. The pre-reflective may become overruled by mental preparedness to develop some way to get a handle on perceptions that are disturbing, personal, baffling, and uncertain. If you are aroused to the feeling that something is not right, you will pay closer attention to what is going on around you. You are likely to theorize reasons for this feeling, even if these theories are developed from insufficient evidence or a poor interpretation of evidence. You may get it wrong, even if there is something that rightfully aroused your suspicions, and it may be something that you, and anyone else for that matter, would not normally notice. You may become more conscious of the gestures and facial expressions of others (whether you accurately interpret them, or take them as too personally about you, or if you see the shared looks of others as a mutual recognition of their entitlement).
The very definition of the pre-reflective tells you that there is a good deal going on around you that you can safely and practically look past to what has been agreed upon as more important concerns. You will most likely remain unconscious of a prejudice that is immersed in every day practices, as long as you focus on the work you are responsible for performing. Since the pre-reflective involves being attuned with others in regard to “a taste for what is adequate and appropriate,” your body performs the appropriate conduct, by rote, freeing you to pay more attention to issues brought up by you or the people you are with. There is freedom and economy in the pre-reflective. Nevertheless, it is inadequate if a situation arises that calls for unusual attention.
The naturalness of the pre-reflective can be contrived. An actor will find it easier to deliver her lines naturally in front of an audience if she has a secondary focus: an activity to focus her attention on, something to occupy her hands for example. If she concentrates on her lines, her delivery will sound forced. This is why it is important for actors to concentrate on actions rather than speech, even though delivering lines is probably the most important thing they do. In this case it is ordinary behavior--an actor sets a table for example, and while doing so, she has an easier time delivering her lines naturally. This “ordinary” behavior can be consciously intended to help with speaking on a stage more naturally. This is, again, like Marechera’s ability to attain relief through the performance of mechanical actions, relief from feeling himself to be the object of white people’s stares. This relief can be artificially produced, but only where there is some activity you can perform automatically as pre-reflective knowing, like knowing how to set a table without having to give much thought to what you are doing, and as long as you are unquestionably the right person to perform this task, and that it follows from the “rules of the game” so that you do not feel conspicuous by virtue of doing something inappropriate for someone like you, in this place, among these people. Nevertheless, at other times you may be more concerned with asserting independent judgment.
At birth we are already with other people. Consequently we normally become attuned with others long before we perceive ourselves as intellectually different from others. This consciousness of your difference can call your belonging with the others you are among into question. And there may be reasons why you would want this “belonging” called into question. In the following Zahavi describes Husserl’s account of “cultural embeddedness”:
I learn what counts as normal from others, and indeed, initially, and for the most part, from those closest to me, hence from those I grow up with, those who teach me, and those belonging to the most intimate sphere of my life. I thereby participate in a communal tradition, which through a chain of generations stretches back into a dim past. I always already find myself a member of a community. I am born into it; I grow up in it. (Subjectivity 166)
Here’s the problem. You may, as you mature, come to dislike the norms of those you grew up with. This would not be an unusual intellectual awakening to a new judgmental ability. You cannot demonstrate a new capacity for independent judgment by doing what others expect of you. Furthermore, if you grow up in a nuclear family and your parents choose to live in an intellectually bleak community the members of which tend to eagerly defend their limited interests, you may develop a terrible fear of the personal development Zahavi lays out above. This would amount to a fear of responding automatically like those who you are closest to. You may feel as if some of the ways you now do things belong to someone else which, in a sense, is an accurate judgment. You may automatically do some things in ways that do not suit your, more recently developed, self, while looking for other people who ask questions that will suit you better than the interests of those close at hand. If this is the case, you, as an intellectual being, have arrived on the scene too late, long after having acquired automatic ways of interacting with others. You do not want an understanding of “what counts as normal” from others whose taste in such matters you do not trust. But you could not intercept these norms when you acquired them early on before you were capable of judging them independently of the people you acquired them from.
And yet, that you can even make such a judgment, now, in regard to who you are, suggests that your conscious self can be surprisingly immediate, and understood through judgment that emerges from more recent exposure to ways of thinking that you did not grow up with. You may anticipate a more favorable community for you to develop your thoughts within than any you have previous experience of. And yet, due to your lack of appropriate experience, you might not expect to be immediately welcome within any community that approximates what you imagine could be more favorable to you, and this is a problem with the pre-reflective. Fitting in involves automatic attunement with others, behavior that is awkward when too consciously performed. Although you can consciously reject a life-time of personal history, or a key concept for a whole civilization in an instant of insight, adaptation to new situations involves slower changes, and may never be fully successful.
Offspring can be radically different from their parents. Siblings can be, in the biology of their brains, suited to very different lives. This difference will not fully emerge in childhood. A child may be already predisposed to ways of thinking, as the physical make-up of fundamental aspects of her brain that will largely determine who she will later become, ways of thinking that she met with no examples of early on when she acquired norms from those closest to her.
A common finding is that the effects of being brought up in a given family are sometimes detectable in childhood, but that they tend to peter out by the time the child has grown up. That is, the reach of the genes appears to get stronger as we age, not weaker. Perhaps our genes affect our environments, which in turn affect ourselves. Young children are at the mercy of parents and have to adapt to a world that is not of their choosing. As they get older, however, they can gravitate to the microenvironments that best suit their natures. (Pinker “My Genome” 5)
They “can gravitate to the microenvironments that best suit their natures” if such microenvironments are available to them—and there may be problems with assuming that there are ideal microenvironments. It may incline us toward thinking that takes ideal communities for granted. Miss-matches with communities, and impasses that result in breaks from attunement with others, may be important for developing insights, important to developing an “emerging philosophy” by creating an unusual consciousness of what we normally overlook.
Pierre Bourdieu thinks of norms, learned early on, as personal taste unconsciously embedded in our bodies:
The schemes of the habitus, the primary forms of classification, owe their specific efficacy to the fact that they function below the level of consciousness and language, beyond the reach of introspective scrutiny or control by the will. Orienting practices practically, they embed what some would mistakenly call values in the most automatic gestures or the apparently most insignificant techniques of the body—ways of walking or blowing one’s nose, ways of eating or talking—and engage the most fundamental principles of construction and evaluation of the social world, those which most directly express the division of labour (between the classes, the age groups and the sexes) or the division of the work of domination, in divisions between bodies and between relations to the body…(466)
For Bourdieu, being of a social class is pre-reflective. It concerns a direct and unconscious correspondence to a division of labor. It is not, then, something we can observe in ourselves and change according to a later developing self. This model does not include the capacity to embrace discourse incidentally encountered while turning away from early influences. I agree that a conscious refutation or reevaluation of adopted norms will not simply displace one’s unconscious repetition of “insignificant techniques of the body,” or correct poor adaptation to an unfamiliar, but desirable, microenvironment once and for all. At the same time, it is our ability to change in many respects into people who we could not anticipate that makes it so difficult to assess the potential of individuals. In the following, Bourdieu is in agreement with Husserl’s understanding of how we learn what counts as normal from others early on, but adds a social class bias:
Total, early, imperceptible learning, performed within the family from the earliest days of life and extended by a scholastic learning which presupposes and completes it, differs from belated, methodical learning not so much in the depth and durability of its effect—as the ideology of cultural ‘veneer’ would have it—as in the modality of the relationship to language and culture which it simultaneously tends to inculcate. It confers the self-certainty which accompanies the certainty of possessing cultural legitimacy, and the ease which is the touchstone of excellence; it produces the paradoxical relationship to culture made up of self-confidence amid (relative) ignorance and of casualness amid familiarity, which bourgeois families hand down to their offspring as if it were an heirloom. (66)
In contrast to this description of “casualness amid familiarity,” an arousal to that which is normally pre-reflective could result from entering a room full of people of a social class you have not adjusted to being among. This can result in a “sense of unfamiliarity of the familiar, [a] sense of being overwhelmed or captivated by perceptual details” (Parnas, Bovet, Zahavi 4). You could (assuming this arousal is not symptomatic of continuous pathology) leave this place and return home (if you have a room of your own), where you are no longer overly conscious of yourself and the place where you are. Marechera could enter the shadows, perform mechanical actions, or get angry, the latter perhaps being a refutation of the need for attunement with others.
You may be better pre-disposed toward the work being done by those people you are uncomfortable among than work more typical of someone with your past. Marechera’s great facility with English got him to Oxford, on scholarship, but it did not make for an easy adjustment there. Ideally you will discover the right “microenvironment” at an appropriate age of development to make the adjustment to a new life easily, as a natural transition to new challenges suiting your stage of personal development—and yet this more smooth transition, assuming it is possible, may amount to the loss of whatever advantage a greater sensitivity to where you are could provide.
Pre-reflective attunement with others sets us free from sensitivity to our usual haunts. Privilege is largely maintained through places that the appropriate members of a community will have an unconscious feel for, often corresponding to a sense of entitlement. When confident members of this community are not engaged by problems, even while located where they commonly do so, their brains can relax into a comfortable baseline neural activity (2). This allows them to engage in a richer variety of interactions. They will be relaxed enough to joke with one another, use irony, and other forms of humor, good-naturedly poke fun at one another’s minor errors of judgment, attack others propositions without fear of alienating themselves, and so on. By contrast, the person who does not belong, if he enters this institution, will become too conscious of where he is for comfort. If he is too conscious of his effort to blend in, he is not doing it very well in regard to his own phenomenological experience, and he will feel himself to be lacking in a way that he cannot correct by becoming more conscious, since it is the lack of the ability to relax.
Maybe I should be too conscious for comfort if I enter an institution in order to learn there, and contribute. Maybe I should feel embarrassed if I feel myself relaxing to the extent that I can treat a chair I am about to sit in as so "ready-to-hand" that I pay no more attention to what I am doing than if I were in my own apartment, since I will, then, express through my regard for my surroundings a certain entitlement: all this is naturally mine to be a part of and easily locate my future within. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about what Robert Sternberg calls “practical intelligence”:
To Sternberg, practical intelligence includes things like “knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect.” It is procedural: it is about knowing how to do something without necessarily knowing why you know it or being able to explain it.It’s practical in nature: that
is, its not knowledge for its own sake. It’s knowledge that helps you read situations correctly and get what you want. And, critically, it is a kind of intelligence separate from the sort of analytical ability measured by IQ. (101)
There is pleasure in the mutual confirmation that we are competent in what we do, the pleasure of “knowing one’s way around,” along with others; if you are in academia, it is like expanding your home, the place where you are comfortable, to include a whole field of study. There is a clear advantage in feeling at ease in various institutions which you can, then, more easily make use of, and more easily contribute within, and this alone may allow you to do more satisfactory work than someone without such an advantage. You can become more involved in ongoing and lively debate, involved in more interactions of various kinds with others who make more practical demands upon you, often involving duties and responsibilities, actions that become mechanical and that allow you to adjust more quickly and easily to new challenges, and so on. And this may give you more ability to have an effect on the lives of others for better or worse.
At the same time, there can be no surprises in “practical intelligence,” beyond how smoothly interactions go, which, on the positive side, can offer the same pleasure an athlete feels when he is reacting to the actions of others quicker than the time it would take to become conscious of what he is doing, an economy of movement that can be breath-taking. And yet, you can’t savor the moment, since, phenomenologically, it goes by so quickly; you do not feel the delay of conscious attention to what you are doing. “Practical intelligence” is know-how according to given rules, and as Bourdieu tells us, these practical practices operate below the level of consciousness. But such practices can be interrupted, producing the confusion of greater consciousness of the situatedness of your interactions, rousing you out of this ease of comportment. This is not the worse thing that could happen; it involves the consciousness that makes uneconomic efforts, to do something different, possible.
In order to develop insights, I should be somewhat distracted by the thought of what other people may be doing elsewhere, things that I am not able to do here and now. I should be somewhat distracted by thoughts that will detract from the economy of what I am doing here and now. I should be somewhat distracted by the thought that my body is located in one place only and that the extent to which I am tied to context is not trivial. This consciousness disrupts the economy and the pleasure of automatic response, but, along with the tension it produces, it can provide the conditions for a rationality that is based on a broader selection of information.
Kant would regard this tension as a kind mental health problem. He devotes a section in Anthropology to the problem of distraction:
DISTRACTION (distractio) is the state of diverting attention (abstraction) from certain ruling ideas by means of shifting to other dissimilar ideas. If the distraction is intentional, it is called dissipation; if it is involuntary it is absentmindedness (absentia)….To be distracted in society is impolite, and often laughable as well. Women are ordinarily not subject to this impulse, unless they devote themselves to learning. A servant who looks distracted while waiting on table is usually thinking something evil, either he is plotting something or he thinks about the possible consequences. (S 47)
While, for a woman, distraction can be a symptom of the folly of devoting herself to learning, for a servant, waiting on table, it is probably evil, which suggests that for a servant to have thoughts devoted to anything other than serving will likely involve plotting against those he serves. Distraction, other than in the case of the plotting servant, is a mental health problem. “The most wholesome means of recovering control is social conversation on various subjects, similar to playing. Such conversation must not change from one subject to another by violating the natural relationship of ideas, for then the state of mental distraction would break up the company because everything is confused and the unity of conversation is entirely lacking” (S 47). If someone makes a habit of distraction he becomes useless to society. He should use reason to reign in his attention, confining it to “the natural relationship of ideas.” Reason, in this respect, is a means of control through reducing attention. Inclination to associate remotely related information can result in an easily distractible mind.
When Kant was considering distraction he was unlikely to have considered the possibility of becoming distracted by ideas that do not fit within the “ruling ideas” of the people he is among while these ideas are nevertheless related to the subject matter being discussed. Different disciplines now often have different “ruling ideas” for dealing with the same essential subject, whether Kantians speaking of intuitions, neuroscientists speaking of sense data and mental processing, or continental philosophers speaking of a phenomenological first person experience as opposed to an empirical approach to perception. The “ruling ideas” of one discipline (as opposed to those of another) may be more useful for considering some aspects of a problem, but not others. This could give an advantage to being able to alternate between the "ruling ideas" of different communities within one’s overall efforts.
Distraction is essential to organizing your life, especially if you have varied interests that bring more information into your mental processing. For example, if you are at one event, say a talk, you may sit near the exit if you have to sneak out before it ends in order to attend another event. Thought of that second event, reminding you to check the time, must repeat occasionally. When it does, you must emotionally reinforce the importance of this other event (remember it as important) so that thought of it will return. If you think of this other event as insignificant you may forget all about it. The importance of somewhere else makes you more aware of where you are than you may like, more aware of sensory perception as opposed to comprehension of what a speaker is saying, more aware that you are in this place, only, and that you can only attend the other event if you leave this event before you may want to. You must remain somewhat intellectually removed from the people you are among. When the time to leave gets near, you must more strongly reinforce thought of the second event, the need to get up from your chair and slip out, so that it will recur more frequently closer to the time when you have to leave. Each time the thought of this other event occurs to you, you lose focus on the people you are presently among. Thoughts of the second event will be distracting, perhaps even impolite. You may feel guilty for not giving your full attention to the speaker. On the other hand you may feel excitement at negotiating a bigger world.
Equivalent choices are stressful because they require either an arbitrary choice or the confusion of alternating attention. And yet we could—this is what I claim--regard the confusion of more kinds of information that is related in regard to subject matter, but that is, nevertheless, unrelated in regard to the “ruling ideas” of the communities involved, as necessary for more advanced thought than would fit within a more economic life.
You can gain more confidence within a narrow-based rationality--at least, confidence of being able to handle clearly pertinent information, and probably even larger amounts of information, more easily recalled in conjunction with other similar memory, since memory is enhanced by association. In an academic setting you may worry about the prospect of becoming embarrassed in comparison to other faculty members who remember more of the information important to your profession.
When sensitive to being only here and now, there is nothing you can do to transcend the pain of your physical limitations, your largely incidental position within a particular, necessarily-limited, time and place. Without transcendence you are left with either a disappointing acceptance of your limitations, or the confusion of alternating attention, but in the latter case you can come to conclusions that you could not have otherwise reached, but to get there may require a consciousness that arouses you out of a pre-reflective attunement with others.
(1)Marechera was in England on a scholarship to Oxford. He came from poverty in Zimbabwe, the son of a lorry driver helper, someone who helped load and unload trucks.
(2) In an article concerned with insight, called “The Prepared Mind,” John Kounios and others have concluded that prior to solving problems most areas of the brain show decreased signaling “as neural activity returned to baseline” (886). In preparation to solve problems using insight, there is “increased readiness to monitor for competing responses, and to apply cognitive control mechanisms as needed to (a) suppress extraneous thoughts, (b) initially select prepotent solution spaces or strategies, and, if these prove ineffective, (c) subsequently shift attention to a nonprepotent solution or strategy. Such shifts are characteristic of insight” (887).
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction; A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers; The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown, 2008.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. San Francisco: Harper, 1962.
Kant, Immanuel. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Trans. Victor Lyle Dowdell. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1978.
King, Colin. "They Diagnosed Me a Schizophrenic When I Was Just a Gemini; The Other Side of Madness." Reconceiving Schizophrenia. Ed. Man Cheung Chung, K.W.M. Fulford, and George Graham. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.
Kounios, John, et al. The Prepared Mind; Neural Activity Prior to Problem Presentation Predicts Subsequent Solution by Sudden Insight. Psychological Science. 2006. Vol.17. No.6.
Marechera, Dambudzo. "Black Skin What Mask." The House of Hunger. Oxford: Heinemann, 1993.
Parnas, Josef, Pierre Bovet, and Dan Zahavi. Schizophrenic Autism: Clinical Phenomenology and Pathogenic Implications. World Psychiatry. 2002 October; 1 (3): 131-136. [PubMed]
Pinker, Steven. My Genome, My Self. The New York Times. 2009 Jan. 11. Magazine. [nytimes.com]
Zahavi, Dan. Subjectivity and Selfhood; Investigating the First-Person Perspective. Cambridge: Bradford, 2008.