Thursday, May 12, 2016

On the non-existence of reflection

In an NYRB essay on former intelligence czar Michael Hayden’s new memoir, the author notes a curious moment where Hayden describes the interaction of intelligence figures across borders who meet and talk shop. In this tĂȘte-a-tĂȘte occasionally a moment emerges that Hayden calls a “creation mythology,” in which his counterpart would make a comment passed off as fact that expresses a non-critical judgment of political conviction.  His example: a remark that Serbian Muslims do not care for the lives of their children.  Hayden then turns this realization back on himself and wonders if his counterpart similarly treats some of his own comments in this way as mere “creation mythology.” And he concludes that yes, this must be the case.
I cluck like a chicken and say “no shit” to myself, because I am enlightened, and know all about the inestimable value of reflection, and feel a little warm inside knowing that I am enlightened. Then I start to think that reflection and intelligence are not synonymous. I think about how so many people are intelligent in being able to understand and apply rules and methods.  But that this does not mean that they are capable of reflection (as I am!).
This reminds me of a period when I was a graduate student thinking about “the gift” and using this terribly abstract concept to make sense of my life.  An erstwhile girlfriend told me that this was a mistake. This judgment became the more true as I slowly suffered through the beginnings of an emotional decline.
Yet what I was doing at that moment was—in at least one respect—reflection.  I was taking a concept that I was obligated to learn as a student of philosophy and was turning the concept back on my own life.  This is why people study philosophy, I believe (I hope). They are bedeviled by concepts that have a personal resonance.  Through whatever path led me to philosophy (long Sunday mornings in church) a concept bedeviled me, and either that bedevilment continued or was replaced by a newer, more robust, more “sophisticated” bedevilment.  The point is that the activity was personal in an essential respect.
To approach this phenomenologically, the ego has an object that it attends to and becomes (in the sense that it momentarily dispenses with self-consciousness).  This is how the mechanic or the philosopher-technician works.  Without self-consciousness, the ego cannot be reflective.
In the act of reflection, by contrast, the ego poses the object over against itself, yet it remains aware of itself in this act of attention, such that it can counterpose the object to itself.  This is reflection: turning the concept back upon the thinker—becoming self-conscious.  
And yet, to turn it against oneself means to draw forth some knowledge of oneself (an object of consciousness) and to relate it to the first object—the concept. One has doubled the objects.  If we had imagined that in self-consciousness we somehow had knowledge of the self outside of objecthood, that is false. 
This is what constitutes the act of reflection.  But then I have to turn back to this essay and wonder what it is that I think I know when I judge Michael Hayden’s non-critical concept of “creation mythology.”   I do not know why he calls it a creation mythology, although I understand why it might be a mythology.  Most accounts call this ideological consciousness.  In Marx and Engel’s writings, ideological consciousness is a knowledge of the world already shaped by the class interests to which one belongs yet to some degree oblivious of being shaped by these class interests.  This concept can be extended to include political and ethnic interests or investments.  It is generally conceived as a false consciousness.
  But what strikes both myself and the essay’s author is Hayden’s failure to recognize until writing this memoir—or simply his failure to thematize in any meaningful way—that the notion of a creation mythology applies to himself as equally as it does to his erstwhile counterpart.

This lack is generally characteristic of dramatically successful people: they do not reflect on themselves in any meaningful way.  In a certain sense all of us fail to truly reflect on ourselves, because we are not capable of knowledge of the self outside the frame of objecthood or representation.  We cannot depart from our prejudices and therefore never actually witness their shortcomings. 

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