3 July 2009

I Am, I Do

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:38 am

So anyhow, my explorations of the hot blog topic of trolls and grey vampires, of sneers and accusations, of projects and critiques, are motivated only in part by my desire to choose sides. We might wish we had tough skins, separating critiques of our work from critiques of our selves, but I’m not sure it’s either possible or optimal. Who I am consists in large part of what I do and of what’s done to me. Much of what I do is impersonal, in the sense that anyone could do it. When I drive my car or do the laundry or calculate the mean and standard deviation of a data set I’m performing a generic task, in a prescribed way, that’s intrinsic to the role I’m occupying. Still, my performance of these tasks can be distinguished from that of a machine. I take an alternate route to admire the scenery; I fail to notice the black sock mixed in with the whites; I detect a possible pattern among the outliers while eyeballing the raw data.

In academic work some projects seem inevitable. There’s an obvious next study to be conducted in a research trajectory, an obvious connection to be explored between two thinkers. And yet the precise contours of even a predictable project almost always carry some idiosyncracies in their design and execution, idiosyncracies that can be traced back to the person conducting the project. Do project idiosyncrasies make manifest certain stable characteristics of the individual or team undertaking the projects? Or is an individual or a team best regarded as a temporary nexus of historical and contemporary trajectories, such that even their idiosyncracies can be regarded as predictable for them? I’m tempted to say that it doesn’t matter, but I believe it does.

We can talk in inhuman terms: while an object and its environment occupy the same reality and interact bidirectionally with each other, there is a difference within that reality between object and environment. What constitutes the environment depends on what kind of an object we’re talking about: what a patch of tall grass means to a rabbit is different from what it means to the guy who mows the lawn. And whether grass patches and rabbits and lawnmowing guys are more or less interchangeable, this particular patch of grass is part of the environment only for this particular rabbit, this particular guy. (And vice versa, of course: this rabbit, this man, are part of this grass patch’s environment.)

But humans are different in the ways they interact with their environment. Individual rabbits surely differ in the way they go about eating a patch of grass, but those differences are minor random variations in the execution of a preprogrammed instinctive behavior pattern common to the species. The behavior of the guy with the lawnmower might be predictable too, but his behavior depends on whether he’s the owner of the patch of grass or the guy hired by the owner, whether the neighbors keep their lawns well-manicured or not, whether the guy prefers to mow on a weekly schedule or based on how much the lawn has grown since last time, and so on. These individual differences are surely affected by species-wide characteristics, but they’re not locked in as tightly by instinct. There are distinct characteristics about this particular guy — his sensitivity to social pressure, his economic motivation, his aesthetic sensibilities, his enjoyment or distaste for the task, his compulsiveness versus impulsiveness, other things he wants or has to do today — that affect what he does with his lawnmower to that patch of grass.

This particular guy’s characteristics: do they describe what he does, or who he is? It’s not a clear-cut distinction. Individual differences between people manifest themselves in the different ways they perform particular tasks — that is, in the ways they interact proactively with their generic and specific environments. I don’t believe that my selfhood is diminished because I have no personal lawnmowing responsibilities. Still, when I had a lawn and a mower, someone could infer a few things about  me by observing the way in which I typically performed the task. In all likelihood there are other tasks which I do perform these days that would offer similar glimpses into some of those same characteristics I manifested as a lawnmowing guy. The performance of a task exposes both the characteristics of the task as well as certain characteristics of the performer. This is true of lawnmowing, of doing crossword puzzles, of formulating theories, of writing blog posts.

So, returning to the topic of undertaking a project: one could argue that the project in effect executes itself. Maybe there is no meaningful difference between person and environment. Projects emerge through the social interactions among humans and the neural interactions in those humans’ brains. The boundary between the guy with a project and the guy with a critique of the project is an artificial one: the interactions internal to the social and intellectual environment are what make the project happen. That’s one way of looking at it, and it’s a legitimate way. Differences among individual projects would be less important than the projects regarded collectively as the cumulative expression of a larger human intellectual environment.

It’s also legitimate to regard individuals and their particular projects as separate entities, distinct from other people and their projects. As an individual I act and am acted upon by a local environment made up of natural things and forces, of artifacts and social forces, of other individuals and what they’re doing. I can regard the blog post that I’m writing as manifesting a particular pattern of generic characteristics present in all blog posts which, together with those posts’ readers and commenters, collectively comprise the blogging environment. Or I can regard the writing of this post as a distinct and focused expression of part of who I am as an individual. And I can regard the post itself, now that it’s just about finished, as a unique artifact that in all likelihood would never have come into existence if I hadn’t done it. Outside forces surely have shaped what I’ve done here regardless of my awareness or intentions. But to some degree I can intentionally filter those influences, absorbing or deflecting or adapting to them. They are part of my local environment. My idiosyncratic interactions with that environment reveal as much about who I am as about what I do and the environment in which I do it.

I venture to assert that this blog post is different from any of the other millions of blog posts floating around out there, and that this particular post would never have come into existence if I hadn’t written it.



  1. Interesting post and very close to what I’m arguing in a number of respects. Your remarks about what constitutes a project and the role that the collective plays in the formation of projects strikes me as very close to what Negri and Hardt refer to as the “common”. They argue against the notion of intellectual property on the grounds that products of intellectual labor are only possible on the basis of the “common” or collective formations that can’t be said to originate with anyone in particular. By the same token, however, it’s important to note, I think, that the dish is not its ingredients, nor the plant its soil, water, sunlight, etc. The dish would not be possible without its ingredients, but were we to stick to an analysis of the ingredients we would miss the proper being of the dish as the synthesis of the ingredients creates an entirely new object out of these other objects. Likewise in the case of a project. A project always draws its ingredients from elsewhere through a sort of bricolage, but in the synthesis of these ingredients it produces something new that diverges from that out of which it came.

    Comment by larvalsubjects — 5 July 2009 @ 7:25 pm

  2. I agree, LS, that the origins of an object don’t determine its properties. Related to your recent post on Darwin, individual differences might originate in genes, but those differences manifest themselves in ways that the genes do not. Likewise with speciation: the origin of species (nice book title) can be traced to the statistical distribution of multiple individuals over repeated generations, but the species is itself a distinct object with properties irreducible to the properties of individuals.

    While humans might not be privileged in an object-oriented universe, they do manifest many unique properties. Intentional subjective agency is one of those properties. Even if agency has been overemphasized, I don’t see any reason to dismiss it altogether. The array of possible ingredients might be predetermined, but which ones to use and in what measure are central to the chef’s artistry. And just because the structure of the blog software and the internet and the usual ways of interacting on blogs constrains what I write to a considerable extent, the way I exercise authorial freedom inside those constraints is what constitutes my distinct voice. Whether it’s a difference that makes a difference is, of course, another matter.

    Comment by john doyle — 5 July 2009 @ 8:54 pm

  3. Good post.

    Good commentary.

    Comment by Erdman — 7 July 2009 @ 7:19 am

  4. John,

    The ONLY reason, and I say “only” with a very wide scope here, to privilege human, and indeed individual agency, is that we take it to be a/the difference that makes a difference. And this largely falls upon the domain of morally/aesthetically praising or blaming an individual. Now surely praising and blaming individuals (rather than internal processes or aspects of them that are from from the concept of agency, or processes or aspects outside of them, the same) is quite a major mode of human/social organization, but as anyone who examines the psyche can tell you, quite often this kind of praise/blame misses quite valuable, a perhaps ultimately more valuable understandings of what is happening in the world. In a certain sense what we praise/blame in agency is a kind of rudimentary short-cut, and not fundamental properties of a person.

    Comment by kvond — 7 July 2009 @ 8:21 am

  5. sorry, “far from” not “from from”…

    Comment by kvond — 7 July 2009 @ 8:36 am

  6. “I venture to assert that this blog post is different from any of the other millions of blog posts floating around out there, and that this particular post would never have come into existence if I hadn’t written it.”

    I do think the thought, the idea, is somewhat less than unique, so in some sense generic. It used to be the fashion in ‘criticism’ to purport to know (or be able to deduce) the influences upon an individual author’s products. I it is certainly particularly true of biblical ‘higher’ criticism, but it used to be very commonplace to so analyze an author’s work. Very often living authors would be incensed, or perhaps just amused, by the critic’s derivations.

    Comment by sam carr — 8 July 2009 @ 3:05 am

  7. There’s a significant backlash against individual intentionality as either a delusion or a justification of neoliberal self-sufficiency. But I do think there’s an intermediate ground between preconscious neural firings from which consciousness emerges on the one hand, and social structures in which individuality is subsumed under collective forces on the other hand. This intermediate realm also plays out between genes on the one hand and species on the other. Holding onto and extending individual subjectivity is I think a worthwhile pursuit.

    Comment by john doyle — 8 July 2009 @ 1:43 pm

  8. John: “Holding onto and extending individual subjectivity is I think a worthwhile pursuit.”

    Kvond: Unless you want to “hold on” just for the sake of holding on, you would in my mind distinguish your “holding on” from the one that I outlined above, that is, for the sake of praise or blame (which I do not minimize).

    I’m not really interested in backlashes or trends in one way or another.

    Comment by kvond — 8 July 2009 @ 1:46 pm

  9. Just being quick here, kvond, trying to explain why the perspective in my post, while less than unique as Sam points out, has currency. I’d not seen your prior comment, inasmuch as I’m trying quickly to get caught up at the local cafe (on vacation). Praise/blame comes into play only after attribution has been assigned and judgment of value has been rendered. I think that both attribution and evaluation of quality are legitimate activities. Of course sometimes the results of intentional agency differ from what had been intended, but if someone writes a unique short story which I judge to be excellent, I wouldn’t feel mistaken in praising the author.

    Comment by john doyle — 8 July 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    • John: “but if someone writes a unique short story which I judge to be excellent, I wouldn’t feel mistaken in praising the author.”

      Kvond: Like I said I do not minimize the organizational powers of praise/blame, but only that one should keep track of what it is that we are doing. Very often the attribution of agency is divorced from the praise/blame dynamic, just as it was in your comment above. This is actually quite like a Cartesian concept of independent modes of Judgment. Rather, the valuation, if only held as repressed, is implicit in the ascription itself, for the reason why we assign the agency is that we suspect that the difference that makes a difference lies within a value judgment.

      As for your author, sure praise him, but perhaps after you read several other authors and influences you may come to understand his “uniqueness” differently. When you see the causal influences all about him/her, and how much he/she is giving expression to, the “uniqueness” floats as a kind of ghost.Something like how Latour describes in his analysis of “original” and “copy”.



      Comment by kvond — 8 July 2009 @ 2:23 pm

      • Again, quickly and without reading your post, praise of the story’s author from me conveys more the sense of a shared aesthetic, a participation as reader in a fictional world that attracts me, that the author has shown me something that I can see and want to see.

        Comment by john doyle — 9 July 2009 @ 1:53 pm

      • No doubt about it. But this is an imaginary relation. An important one, but one that could be accomplished via a computer generated story just as well.

        Comment by kvond — 9 July 2009 @ 7:44 pm

      • True, but would I feel the same sense of camaraderie in exploring this alternate reality together? I regard the written story as an interpersonal link, like a conversation, as well as a stand-alone artifact. I do think about the sensibilities of the writer while reading, which makes it clearer to me that fictional worlds, characters, etc. are created as well as discovered by the writer. But as you say, this relation with the author is also imaginary, partly a creation as well as a discovery on the reader’s part.

        Comment by john doyle — 10 July 2009 @ 10:43 am

  10. This is what I am trying to tell you, but I seem to be failing at being clear…

    John: “True, but would I feel the same sense of camaraderie in exploring this alternate reality together? I regard the written story as an interpersonal link…”

    The “link” which is imaginary, is based upon the confluence of a great variety of forces and determinations, enough to say that any easy “property” of intentionality to be “held onto” is at least to some great degree a condensation, an obscurance, and a short-cut. You can hold onto agency, but what one is holding onto in agency (at least in my opinion) are several divergent strings, all gathered together in one hand.

    Comment by kvond — 10 July 2009 @ 11:14 am

  11. There’s the level or the layer/boundary where the greats deign to allow us to ‘link up’ with them… and then there’s the sense that there’s more, now hidden, that can be revealed, and then more beyond that.

    Comment by sam carr — 17 July 2009 @ 2:13 pm

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