“Third Culture” and the Self – Why Not Utilize Continental Philosophy?

Daniel Avatar

In Zizek’s magnum opus the Parallax View, he develops an important discussion around the Third Culture and conceptions of the self compared to the tradition of contintental philosophy.

What is the “Third Culture”? “The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.”

The way the concept of the “self” is constructed in Third Culture thinkers such as Daniel Dennet, Damasio, Kurzweil and others= the self is a non material construct that functions (similar to the brain itself) as an unconscious relay machine, stimulated from the outside, and all awareness of itself is as a reflective machine filled with the possibilities of transformation. All reflection and truth of itself is reflected back out to the world through a series of projects/projections. As Zizek has argued in the Parallax View (2006), these philosophies of self, spawned from the ever advancing discourse on brain science and neurobiology need to extend their findings/implications to the complex and varied history of continental philosophy and German idealism.

Susan Sontag, in her collection of essays, Against Interpretation observed (in 1966) an emerging sensibility able to bridge the gap between a scientific-technological understanding of culture and an artistic-literary understanding. The modernist view of culture pitted these two views as diametric opposites. Sontag’s argument was that the literary mode was made obsolescent by the advent of this new sensibility, which was actually a union of science and culture. The synthesis of the two camps transformed the role of the artist and brought about a reevaluation of art in terms of theory and made art now tied to practical vocation. The creation of this new sensibility was characterized by a disintegration of the autonomous artist, entering a company of architects, neurologists and other hard-science disciplines, now able to incorporate technology and literary sensibility, the very source of a new molding of sensibilities, which to many (mainly Modernists) represented a certain death of an “independent and autonomous humanism” and art making in general.

The best way to understand this shift in sensibility is to view it as a divorce with the notion of art as idea, and the emergence of art as object for consciousness raising. The blurring of high and low art brought about by the synthesis, etc. The primary functions of art to the new sensibility now include: the idea of art as an extension of sensations, as constantly able to shape its response to the ever shifting nature of its environment, to the inclusion of new cognitive realms and all the while staying true to its purpose: to impact emotions, consciousness and sensations. This split with theory, with ideas, with the Humanist school brings art into an accessible non-esoteric world – where there is no difference between high and low art, the ideas behind the object of art are first and foremost significant for their impression on the senses, not as commentary on mimetic reality but still connected to theories and social/political statements.

In prehistory art spawned as a magical-religious way to make sense of reality and has evolved into a commentary on secular culture, and the twentieth century of art is causing a stage of art making that seeks to disrupt consciousness, to form new sensibilities, a unique and new ground.

Why has the new sensibility stripped its reliance on literary theory and continental philosophy? Many have been arguing that “deconstruction” and post WW-II French thought in general has come to be the shibboleth of theory, which is partly responsible for the “Third Culture” discourse of public intellectuals. Sontag’s new “unitary sensibility” has expired based on the rise of Third Culture ideology – my argument is that the “technological scientific world view” has outstripped its hold on the “artistic-literary” to the extent that certain ground is getting lost. Through examining the cognitive developments influenced by neo-evolutionists like Daniel Dennet and the world views engendered by computer consciousness advocates such as Kurzweil, the outstripping, or suffocation of the unitary sensibility to the side of a technological-scientific view that is ultimately limited in philosophical approach and in terms of art praxis. Brain science research and many “third culture intellectuals” are disconnected from politics, from invisible oppression, and I would argue that this disconnect is also outside of progressive social change. Without too much diversion from this subject, I want to explore the ways that the rather abstract notion of “self” is being created by third culture intellectuals and brain science experts to exemplify this tendency.

Foucault’s lectures from the College De France in “The Hermeneutics of the Subject” reveal that “truth” of the self is equivalent to the soul found in the “Hermeneutics of the Subject” lectures brings great clarity to western origins of truth about the self. Indeed the purpose of life is to know and to care for thyself. The very first book of philosophy was Plato’s, “The Aliciabades,” a pedagogical guide to an elite young man, being prepped to attain a status of power in the community. The evolution of truth making about oneself from the Alciabades on through, has engaged the subject in a “process” of truth making, which has always required a level of self-transformation.

Upon the enlightenment, the “process” would occur through a radical withdrawal from the world, as in Hegel’s statement on entering the “night of the world.” The “night of the world” is a reversion from reason bound thought into the world of pure narrative and mythic reality – the winter of our genius. The process can be applied to the dialectic, where “Self awareness,” and the truth of the Self’s situation, occurs through a radical self awareness, yet self-awareness itself is radical withdrawal from the self. This echoes Lacan’s formulation that self-consciousness is itself radically unconscious. What both schools teach is that upon conscious apprehension “of the self itself” a dialectic or transformation brings the truth that much closer to the subject.

This view of self, to the brain science paradigm ends up positing a certain “no-self,” not in a Buddhist sense, rather in a sort of postmodern cybernetic world view. The view is as follows: the self is a non material translucent entity floating in a sort of bricolage of ever shifting reality. The self is composed of mental (non material) and neuronal (material) entities that evolved through an explosion out of the neuronal. In a sense then we have to enter the world of phenomenology to understand the way that conscious content and perception with the phenomenal world first arises.

The “process” of self awareness/truth to the third culture then differs from the philosophical version since Plato. Damasio posits the “process” as interaction between our autobiographical self and the “I” or agent in control of our individual will. The autobiographical self uses the past to fill in the present more fully. Consciousness, then works as a “short circuit” between present input and past working memory controlled by the I and a series of autobiographical agents. In relating to the past the present becomes what it is.

To Kant, self-awareness opened up the scene upon which conscious content can appear. The famous notion coined by this view is that the “search generates its own object.” How important it is to understand this view!! This idea is the cornerstone of all ideology making and truth making. Our conscious experience limits the very possibilities we have to gain knowledge about ourselves. Something is, only insofar as it is not perceived/experienced as what it is. If the current story I am telling you is true, then there is no way it could be intuitively true.

Let’s take this to the symbolical realm of public space. It is a healthy notion to deny the existence of a big Other in the realm of collective action (a completely different entry) yet for the process of self realization, the big Other or puppet is just a blind automaton, according to the brain science movement. Third culture views bring the struggle for free will and destiny into a predetermined process that marginalizes the role of the will and autonomous action.

Take Oedipus, the real struggle of Oedipus was to break out of his fate. This phenomenon is the classic “I cannot do otherwise” situation. Third culture discourse renders the subject in the mode of an “I cannot do otherwise” situation and bases the struggle on infinite regress, a claim that there is no real free act and no real self because we have no “material” self that exists once we reach back into the causal chain of events that have come to constitute our situation.

This was accepted by Kant and Nietzsche for instance when they claimed that the the subject is responsible for the very constellation within which his particular act appears to him as inevitable, in the mode of “I cannot do otherwise.” The most real way to live in the situation of facing our destiny versus our free will was in amor fati, or complete freedom beyond the confines of “infinite regress” and one’s particular situation. Indeed, let’s simplify the Eternal Recurrence of the Same: it is a way to own the infinite potential paths that are inexorable from your situation until you have mastered their hold over your freedom.

To philosopher Daniel Dennet, ideas are what control our actions (similar to viruses that have no conscious control over our will, once again, a reassertion and defense of a certain passive relation of the will to ideas and to action in the world. The subject in Dennet’s world view is stripped of will and serves as automata. What his work on the evolution of consciousness indicates is that consciousness occurs as through a “natural evolution process,” and that ideas are similar and synonymous to our genes, out of our control, they infect mankind. To me this view resembles a reversion to nineteenth century positivism i.e. the same notions that founded the idea of a grand teleology to life, (offshoots of Darwinian evolution) to the rise and fall of civilizations, as in Spengler. Since we are all fighting for the narrative, the consciousness-evolutionist posit an anti narrative that brings their theory into a negative and passive relationship with the human world of autonomous action and will.

Dennet revises Cartesian cogito by positing a way of our understanding consciousness that operates as the a “Cartesian theater” – where there is no single source or receptacle for all phenomenal input into our consciousness and that consciousness functions similar to our genes (synonymous for ideas in the phenomenal world) and they lay the ground work for any and all interactions in the life-world. hence, all action are inherently chaotic and unpredictable. For instance, I heard Dennet speak at a bookstore that 9/11 was explainable only through this removed and passive way, that religion is a disease idea that imposed its grasp on humanity as a plague. .

The late work of Derrida on Levinas brought the idea of decision making into a more complex relation to others and into the discourse of continental philosophy which recognizes the discursive construction of the subject as continually shaped and affected by her relations to others. Derrida posited that will formation always contains a notion of, “the others decision in me.” This indicates that the surface of understanding the self formation can only transpire through a certain opacity. In other words, only when we are faced with “opacity of the other in me” do we find that recognition of our own self arises. The same opacity of the digital edifice of cyber reality also contains this bricolage, (a refracting and varied surface that emits flashes of material reality) to find one’s way to self realization – one is faced with an impenetrable density.

To Damasio, all consciousness is an emotional reaction. The subject emerges through the disturbance of the organism’s emotional homeostasis. The first basis of the “conscious you” is rooted in a feeling that arises as a representation of the nonconscious proto-self in the process of being modified within an account. There is an illusion at the same time, and the illusion is what brings in the “I,” as a narrator and autobiographical controller of one’s own story. In the cybernetic world, we are looking for what is already there to restore our essence. For instance, I am an agent narrator that precedes the grand narrative already set out in the dense bricolage of animate non material and material reality.

For the agent to be involved in the mapping of their own conscious experience of self-awareness/truth, “it” has to be included in the process that “it” is animating. This brings in Lacan’s famous notion of, “a signifier represents the signifier for another subject.” What I am is the pure One of an empty Self which remains the same One throughout the constant change of autobiographical narratives. The One is engendered by language: it is neither the Core Self nor the autobiographical Self, but what the core self is transubstantiated when it is transposed into language. This view of self formation, I am borrowing from Damasio, who links emotion as that which precedes “feeling” into the empty and pure subject. Ultimately, it is only through feelings that I become the full subject of lived self experience.

“I” language gives rise to a self-positing where the signifier is designated as the performer of action. All reasons which motivate me to act exert their causal power only in so far as I posit or accept them as reasons. To Lacan, the Freudian unconscious is the place where the subject is not aware of their own victimization. The subject of the unconscious is the point of empty self relating. Again, self-consciousness itself if radically unconscious.

Dennet’s phenomenology argues that the very content we see is the result of our previous judgment. Husserl’s Logical Investigations held this view as well, yet maintained that the role of the agent/subject was to transcend that hold through conscious reassertion of perception, to change perception. Dennet advocates a status quo apprehension with reality, a non-radical view. To Dennet, there is no qualitative experience as such. What we experience as reality is already the result of this elaboration. The immediacy of qualia is inherently mediated, the result of a bricolage that is inherently mediated. There are no gaps to be formed there is only the illusion – and Dennet wants to erase what Hegel called the “second level appearance of appearance.”

Because there is no direct phenomenal acquaintance with the subject, the subject as “I” is conscious of itself only in so far as there is a failure of reflection, or a failure of the self-reflective grounding of the subject’s identity in the recognition of himself in his other, (melding Derrida and Dennet).

By taking some different views of Third Culture and Self, we notice that the Third Culture, as a discourse is enough to be considered an ideology. The track of chaos theorists, (Dawkins most notably) neo evolutionists, (Jay Gould, Dennet) New Age mystics and holon theorists (Wilbur and Integral Institute, etc.) have slowly merged lanes to become a sort of transposition of biological-evolutionist concepts to the study of human history – we are on the verge of a post ego centered world composed of transindividual cosmic awareness. That culture itself has become a sort of chaos theory system that can “uses” language, ideas and other “memes” to expand itself and it follows a sort of positivistic design.

What does all of this tells us in relation to the multiculturalist deconstructionist academy of “cultural studies?” I would argue that the union predicted by Sontag has expired on the basis of the death of the public intellectual present (as she was present in the 40’-60’s) and the birth of the single issue (overly theory-laden academician) thinker, supporting a major issue such as racism, or the new fundamentalism vs. the pro-abortion tolerant pluralist (for instance).

The problem with the historicist minded theory-laden public intellectuals of the Left is their reaction to the text as an object of oppression, always asking, to what degree is it Euro-centric, or caught in a certain oppressive discourse? These notions of exegesis and study have disconnected a coherency of academic thought and rendered it as obscure and overly complex. Science and brain science in particular has come to replace the empty space left in the void.

To the cultural studies academy, all scientific truth is sought in terms of it’s socio-political impact, not as a unifying theory that explains the cosmos. So in reality, cultural studies as a discourse reaches scientific truth, (that is, after it’s multicultural stamp and deconstructionist signature) in pre modern terms.

What is the logical extension of a the Third Culture “paradigm” if not a society as portrayed in the film Gattaca with Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke – the terrible nightmare spawned from the triumph of the Third Culture. The utopian realization that power relations disappear in the event of a society dictated by the merit inherent in genetic codes! What is needed in this case is a reassertion of a humanist position that clearly articulates the impasse between the Third Culture disconnect from the real problems, a bold an invigorating reassertion of engagement with public issues from a position that does not pretend to have the answer for everything and is humbled and grounded in a praxis of intellectual orientation that Richard Rorty argues for in Achieving our Country.

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