Critical, creative and digital writingEcriture critique, créative et numérique

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The interactional self

Dualism: The Schism of Meaning and Life

In the twentieth century, the immateriality of meaning has been one of the dominant big ideas. This way of thinking is still quite pervasive in the twenty-first century. Regarding meaning as intangible and transcendental is a corollary of a universalistic and mechanistic mindset. In this worldview, there can be only one true meaning, and the latter can be attained–known–through rigorous scientific investigation. In other words, a person can be either right or wrong, but can't be both. Meaning is absolute, universal. This universalistic view of science is a perversion of the foundational principles of the scientific method: the latter is based on doubts and observation, not on certainty and supposition. In this perverted framework of universalism, the scientific method should allow one to "discover" the hidden "truths" of the world; it should allow the scientist to "unveil" the "true meaning" of an event or object. In this quest for truth and meaning, knowledge is scientific, conceptual; knowledge is extracted from the world by the observer. The universalistic view thus implies that the "truth is out there" and that "meaning is absolute." Both are supposed to exist independently from living beings; they are thought to be congealed into stasis in another realm: the realm of ideas. Many scientists and scholars have undermined this monological view of the world, this unilateral imposition of a "true meaning" onto object, fact, event, process and phenomenon. Good scientists and scholars alike, whether in the hard sciences or the social and human sciences, are wary of any claim to "true meaning" and "absolute knowledge". However, despite this discredit, the principle that the world of ideas is outside of the world of matter is still rampant. Meaning, because it is believed to be contingent on this world of ideas, is therefore still believed to be independent from the material world. We should know better…

Meaning and Complexity

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, people have been reminded that the earth system was more complex than basic dualism pretends. Many of us know that the world is not black or white; we know that the world is a composite of a quasi-infinite number of shades of grey. World Wars and anthropogenic changes of the biosphere have shown us that scales and limits do matter in defining knowledge, meaning and truth. Depending on the boundaries that the observer sets, the nature, characteristics and qualities of the observed phenomenon may change. There is not one truth or one meaning, but a myriad of truths and meanings. It all depends on the context of observation and on the spatiotemporal scale chosen to delimit the observed phenomenon. Two people can hold two different views, and in good faith can be certain that their view is the only "true" one, the only valid one. Problematic as it is in a dualistic model, it is not so much in a pluralistic one. Indeed, without a pluralistic understanding of meaning as contextual, and thus immanent in the interaction of observer and observed, conflict is inevitable. And yet, despite our understanding of the complexity and unpredictability of nonlinear dynamic systems–the Earth is one of those!–in the news media and in the political sphere, dualistic thinking always seems to dominate the important questions of our time. We are constantly caught up between the right/wrong binary–simplistic and monological–and the pluralistic theories of relativity and complexity–manifested in earth-system phenomena such as climate change. Ultimately, it is easier to reject the complex version and choose the simple one, even if this choice means risking extinction.

The Crisis of Being in the Age of Representation

I suggest that this schizoid situation results from a misunderstanding of what "being" is all about. Regarding meaning as absolute and as belonging to a realm of ideas located outside of the material world creates a harmful schism. As an individual, we are necessarily confronted with the two worlds, but unable to cohabit in both at the same time. The dissociation of being and meaning in turn causes a feeling of alienation, which leads to favour stasis over action, selfish disinterest over care for others. Indeed, what we are can be incompatible with what we know. This is particularly the case in contemporary societies where representation has replaced experience in the acquisition of knowledge and the definition of meaning. We now know much more than we will ever experience. Representation–embodied in written language, photographs, films, television and internet–have made it possible to know about contexts we would never have encountered in our embodied life. In the age of modernity, texts–including writings, images and videos–are scattered everywhere. But these texts most frequently do not show us information relevant to our own life. We are saturated with meaning that pertains to other contexts, other worlds, and yet we are unable to completely discard the information we receive. The separation of being and meaning is alienating the Self: the immateriality of meaning is a harmful mindset, for it undermines the powerful effects of representation on our consciousness.

Towards the Interactional Self

One way of remedying this dissociation of life and ideas, of being and meaning is to rethink the contemporary Self as a process of both expression and interpretation. I suggest calling it the interactional Self, because it captures the ongoingness of the triad of consciousness/body/environment, its interactivity and dynamism, as well as the ensuing continuous reception and production of meaning, whether in the virtual world or in the physical one. Taking this stance entails putting being back to the fore. It means embracing being as the result of an interaction between our organism and our environment. In this view, our being (or Self) is constantly in a process of interpreting the world–all its signs, whether they be physical, verbal, sensory, ecological, societal, and textual–and of expressing itself as a process of the world. This expression can be physical, bodily, spiritual, affective, artistic, verbal, etc. In this interactional view, being does not separate consciousness from body, body from environment, and being from meaning, but rather mingles them all. Regarding the Self as expression and interpretation should allow us to reconnect knowledge, ideas, environment, world, organism and life. To the interactional Self, there is no alienation from the world, even if the latter is mediated through representation (text, image, sound, and video). In this view, life is communication; it is the organism's reception and production of meaning as s/he participates in the emergence of the world. Other contexts brought to us by telecommunication and representation are as important in shaping our interactional Self as our direct physical context. The physical circumstances surrounding an organism intermingle with the representational circumstances mediated to the organism, and this continuous intermingling constitutes the organism's environment. To an organism, the whole of its environment–virtual and physical–is full of meanings. In this framework, the world is not a text, but each text is interpreted as a meaningful world that is superimposed onto and fused with the physical and material world. The earth-system contains myriads of texts, and thus myriads of open and emerging worlds that intermingle with the given world of our existence. In the same vein, ecological and sociocultural processes are expressions of the emergent world and their signs are interpreted by the Self. This way of looking at the individual as enmeshed in a meaningful environment itself composed of a variety of meaningful worlds–physical, textual, sensory, emotional, verbal, filmic, imaginary, etc.–allows us to account for individuality, intersubjectivity and institutions. In this framework, the entanglement of the Self is realised through expression and interpretation. Both the notions of expression and interpretation transgress the dualistic view of life. Expression transgresses this boundary between being and world by creating meaning within the world. Interpretation dissolves the boundary by absorbing meaning from the world. Taken together, expression and interpretation establish the interactional Self as dialogical and caught in an emerging and ongoing conversation with the world.

Self and Expression

A corollary of thinking of the Self as expression is that an individual's life is all about creating meaning. Through our actions but also through our thoughts, through our body and through our mind, we not only express ourselves in the world, but we also express the world's effects on the Self. By expression, I do not mean simply verbal or artistic communication. The body's actions, locomotion and emotion are all ways of expressing the Self. Every gesture we make, every word we speak, every emotion that shows on our face and in our body, all are expressions of the Self. These expressions of the Self carry meaning and can be "interpreted" by our environment. Here the notion of environment encompasses other persons, but also animals. Expression is therefore what connects the Self to Others, and expressive signs manifest themselves in our daily life, both in unconscious actions and in conscious attempts at communicating. For instance, by walking into a forest, we express our presence and a range of other signs, which will alter the environment of the forest in a visible and audible way: the birds will interpret our presence as a threat, and will stop whistling their songs; some mammals may freeze and wait for us to pass before resuming their activities. Locomotion, even if it is random, is an expression of something, if only our presence. It is to be noted that the Self's expression is not separate from interpretation. They are both a component of the process of being.

Self and Interpretation

If expression is directed outwards and serves to make the Self known to other beings, interpretation is directed inwards, from the world and from others into the Self. Interpretation is the process of making sense of the environment's expression. In the process of being, we are always interpreting signs of the world. We create meaning and use it to continue our journey through life. We not only interpret verbal signs, but environmental signs in general. We make the world relevant to our life. Emotions are a bodily expression of our interpretation of the world around. Emotions are traces of our interaction with the world. When we interpret the perceived situation as dangerous, we will feel fear; when we interpret the situation as pleasurable, we will feel happiness, etc. But in order to feel fear or happiness, there must be a sign that we interpret and that triggers the emotional reaction. For instance, if I am walking through a forest and see a bear. I will interpret the bear's body, his movements, his mere presence as a threat; this will most probably scare me. This fear will express itself in a certain way; most probably I will run away, or perhaps I will freeze, hoping the bear hasn't interpreted my presence as the sign of a good meal to come. Another example is when we interpret someone else's expression, for instance an emotion. If I perceive the signs traditionally associated with sadness, I will immediately interpret that you are sad. Depending on whether I like you or not, interpreting that you are sad will either express itself in my being sad too, or it will make me happy. What is important here is that interpretation cannot go without expression. As I interpret my environment, I express my Self in return. Both are sides of the same coin. Sometimes, the Self interprets its own expression, thereby inscribing itself into the world of intersubjectivity. This self-conscious interpretation of the Self results in the expression of social emotions, such as guilt or shame for instance. As we interpret our expressive behavior as contrary to others' expectations, then we are made aware of our ability to express things unwillingly. Interpreting one's own expression is like putting oneself in others' shoes. Empathy allows us to feel connected with others.

Why Rethinking the Self in the Digital Age?

In the age of internet, it has become easy to express ourselves through representation–text, film, and picture. But many of us have forgotten that we also express ourselves through our actions, our movements, our emotions; we express our Self through our very life! Focusing on how we self-consciously project our Self through social media is one thing, but thinking of it as the only way we express our Self is narrow-minded. This criticism also goes for people who think that their only means of expression is wealth, and having a fancy car, a fancy house and fancy clothing. Contemporary societies are plagued by a rampant crisis of expression! We have forgotten that there are other ways to express the Self than material wealth and narcissistic self-promotion. We have forgotten that how we express ourselves is not necessarily the same as how people interpret us. But there is also a crisis of interpretation in our contemporary societies. Those of us who have access to internet and television have access to other worlds that have no direct relevance to our daily life. Think of how we are made aware of an earthquake in Haiti, despite our never having been to Haiti, or knowing anyone who lives there. We are made to suffer with people without being able to help these people. We are made witnesses to events that are so completely alien to us that we don't know what to think. We are made to empathise, but without being able to act on this empathy. It is hard in this situation to see the represented world as part of our daily life, and thus part of the Self. It is hard to interpret these signs of other worlds correctly. The technology of the news media–internet and television mostly–put us in a schizoid position in both the way we express our Self and in the way we interpret the World. Our Self seems to reside only in the way we fashion it through representation; the World we perceive through representation seems to reside only in the medium of transmission. Overall, our identity seems to be located in representation and be dislocated from our being-in-the-world. In this context, rethinking the Self as a constant process of expression and interpretation of the signs of the world–all the signs of the world, both environmental, bodily and textual–allows us to re-enmesh ourselves in the physical fabric of the world while acknowledging our entanglement with places and peoples we do not directly encounter. The main problem of contemporary societies is that the dissociation of the virtual and the physical have left us in a state where our Selves are located neither completely in the virtual, nor completely in the physical. We are in between representation and reality, but are not quite aware to what extent. We are torn between the things we experience mediated, and the things we experience first-hand. We have forgotten to criticise our position and function in the world. We define ourselves consciously through digital media, but are not aware of the expressivity of life. In the same vein, we absorb representations, but we do so without interpreting it in relation to our Selves. Conceiving the Self as both interpretation of our environment and expression in our environment is a way of critically rethinking our place and function in, and our conception of the World. It is a way of grouping verbal, iconic, environmental and bodily signs together without discriminating against any. The interactional Self offers a way of reconciling representation and reality. The interactional Self remedies the schism caused by dualism. The interactional Self is merely a start, though… *** To sum up, the interactional Self expresses as much as it interprets. It expresses itself in signs and stories that others interpret. It interprets signs and stories that others express. The interactional Self expresses itself in textual, ecological and bodily signs and stories. It interprets textual, ecological and bodily signs and stories. The interactional Self is enmeshed in the sociocultural, representational, physical, virtual and ecological fabric of the world, both through its expression in it and through its interpretation of it. To the interactional Self, the virtual and the material are meaningful and significant. The interactional Self subverts the dualism of mind and matter, of meaning and world, of virtual and physical. The interactional Self reconciles inside and outside by re-enmeshing the Self in the fabric of the world.