Friday, February 06, 2009

The Model of Self in Asian Culture

The Model of Self in Asian Culture

The ‘self’ in Asia, to the extent it makes sense to speak of one at all and as it is embedded in our world models, I submit, is a relational predicate i.e. it is a property which is ascribed to a relationship. Being a rough first approximation, this statement is capable of being explicated by means of an equally rough analogy. For example, consider the relation of biological descent: between any two bio-logical organisms A & B there obtains such a relation, just in case the organism A has the relationship of being-a-parent with the organism B, which has the relation of being-an-offspring. This relationship can be re-described from the perspective of the two relata by saying that A has the ‘property’ of be-ing-a-parent-of B, and that B has the ‘property’ of being-an-offspring-of A. “Parenthood” and “self-hood” can thus be seen as being roughly analogous. But even at this juncture, it is important to stress that A does not have the property of being a parent (like, say, it has the property of being dark-skinned) any more than some material object has the property of being “scarce”. ‘Parent’, scarcity’, ‘self, etc., are properties of relationships, as described from the perspective of one or some of the relata. This would imply that there is no ‘self’ outside of such relationships as might obtain.

It is important to bite into this question a little bit deeper. I am not just saying that the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ distinction’, or the ‘I’ and the ‘Thou’ difference, arises in a relationship. Such a suggestion would almost win a universal consent. What I am saying is that, the roughness of the earlier analogies becomes apparent here, the ‘self’ is a way of describing a relationship from the point of view of one of the relata. (Let us assume a dyadic relationship in order to keep the discussion simple.) But, from the perspective of which of the two relata? It is here, I believe, that the fundamental difference between the two cultural conceptions of self begins to emerge.

Let me use two dummy letters ‘A’ and ‘B’ as picking out two human organisms so as not to clutter up the discussion. It is important to emphasize that A and B do not create or even enter into a relation-ship. Rather, it is the case that some relationship has brought A & B together (To express it like this may make it sound counter-intuitive to the Western-educated sensibilities. But if you will try to think in your native languages, and see how absurd it sounds to say, for example, that A & B created the relations of teacher-pupil, doctor-patient, son-father etc., you will realize that the language I am using makes it counter-intuitive to say what I did.) In this relationship, the ‘self’ of A is parasitic upon the perspective from which B sees A. To begin with, A’s ‘self’ is constituted by those actions of B which are directed towards A. These structure A’s representation of its own actions. Actions of B towards A are crucially dependent upon B’s representation of A. If I may speak only of representations, without considering the relationship between action and its representation, then it can be said that the repre-sentation of A that B builds constitutes not so much the raw material out of which A builds his ‘self’, as much as it is a first-order representation of the ‘self’ of A. Upon this constitution of A’s identity by B, there arises another representation constructed this time by A: A constructs what A takes to be B’s representation of A. This second-order representation, i.e. A’s representation of B’s representation of A, constitutes the ‘self’ of A. Self-representation is parasitical i.e. it is always a derived representation.

Loosely put, A becomes a ‘self’ in a relationship and he becomes that when B constructs him as one. There is nothing complicated about this: you are a son, a pupil etc., when you are recognized as a son, a pupil etc. In a very strict sense, even this second-order representation is not a ‘self’: it is one’s identity as a son, father, wife etc. i.e., B does not construct A’s ‘self’ ,because there is no ‘self’ for A out-side of what he is to different people. Ignoring this complication does not vitiate the points I want to make later on, but will only facilitate the discussion. If this complication is not ignored, we will have to nest so many representations within one another that the discussion will become complex without adding anything of importance. So, I will simply say that one is a ‘self’ as a pupil, son, father, wife etc., when I talk of Asian cultures.

Is there a difference between what I claim to be implicit in our world models and the views prevalent in the West? Yes, there is. The process is seen differently, or so one is led to believe, whether one takes the world models or theories in the West as the reference point. In the relationship between A & B, A creates/builds up her/his identity, firstly, by distinguishing her/himself from B. Here, the ‘other’ is the background against which the self should take form; the distinction between ‘you’ and ‘me’ is preliminary to sketching out an ‘I’. Such an identity is preliminary because, at this stage, one has arrived at one’s self negatively, i.e., as a ‘Not-You’ or as a ‘Not-Other’. The second moment of building up a self involves a positive specification of some suitable properties. Whether this entire conceptualization is itself question-begging, as I think to be the case, or not, it is nevertheless the case that the construction of one’s self is an active process involving the organism whose identity is being talked about. The ‘others’, insofar as they play a role at all, are secondary to this process and function, where they do, in the same way the ground does with respect to a figure.

This difference may not be evident if one thinks of the way children build up their identity, more so when one thinks of the ideas of Cooley or G.H. Mead. But it must become obvious if we think of adults. For the latter, others’ representation is not even the raw material using which one sustains one’s identity. It is used, if at all, in ‘self-appraisal’, to use Wylie’s characterization which is not just hers alone. The self of an adult, in the Western culture, is its own foundation.

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