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Rhetorics of Self-Making
By Debbora Battaglia
University of California PressCopyright © 1995 Debbora Battaglia
All right reserved.
Problematizing the Self:
a Thematic Introduction
There is no self alone at the start.
This project began as an invitation to contributors to write on "the rhetoric of self-making" for annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association.1 The topic was, of course, ambiguous (which I think it fair to say was an issue for us all) owing entirely to the place and effect of "rhetoric" in the title—its unsettling influence on "self" and "making." For taken here as ideology's "signifying aspect" (Barthes 1977, 49), rhetoric alerts us that the "self" cannot appear within these pages as a natural object, unproblematically given, or as an essential, preexisting sense to be fashioned (Greenblatt's starting point in his seminal study of Renaissance self-fashioning ). Likewise, "making" cannot straightforwardly be taken as determining a self (an experience or realization of self may bear little relation to a self "made"), or as invariably useful for understanding how selfhood emerges in cultural practice. Thus, under rhetoric's influence, the self cannot be the stable product of its ownmanufacture (e.g., as in the "self-made man"). Indeed, the production of some thing , or even a multiplicity or a sequence of unitary self-objects or coherent self-images (since this position implies a self there or invariably worked toward at the beginning) is likely to appear beside the point of how to represent the nonsteady state of selfhood in different cultural situations, and varying degrees and relations of determinancy. And the plot thickens. For the authors, all of us anthropologists, are seeking to privilege subjects' modes of knowledge and experience—our roots in ethnography insist upon this—meanwhile acknowledging that our efforts have our own rhetorical traditions as their wellsprings, and comprise only one dimension of the discriminating enterprise of anthropology.2
"Self" as a Representational Economy
A multiplicity of rhetorics shares, then, a place with a diversity of socialities as the only givens at the scene of writing. Hence our collective focus on rhetorical practices in contradistinction to finished products of rhetorical activity.3 If this volume contributes furthermore to what might be termed a critical anthropology of selfhood , an anthropology emergent, that is, in the off-centering effects of a (structurally) ironic self-distancing, it is because its proper subject is neither the self (as experienced) nor the "self" (as culturally figured) but the problematics of self-action in their relation to issues of power. One might say that a focus on rhetoric does not allow one to deny problematic relationships their profile in argumentation; does not allow us to oppose destabilizing the cultural constructs it investigates. Accordingly, whether readers prepare to "suspend disbelief" or to be suspicious (as in Ricoeur's two strategies of rhetorical reading [1992, 159 n. 23]), the rhetorical awareness prefigured in the title does not allow a passive reading of the ambiguities or the cultural mediations at hand.4
Too, this volume turns away from issues of textual eloquence; it is not about the "commanding dominance of the individual personality" in some consummate performance or text (Kant's observation in Kritik der Urteilskraft , reiterated by Nietzsche [1983, 97]). Instead, rhetoric is taken as an uncertain and provisional social project. Insofar as this project is characterized by a blurring of "the limit separating expression from disguise, but also [allowing] that oscillation succinct expression" (Barthes 1977, 57), its aesthetic has less to tell us about style in some pure form than about the political judgments it inscribes.
From this position there is no selfhood apart from the collaborative practice of its figuration. The "self" is a representational economy : a reification continually defeated by mutable entanglements with other subjects' histories, experiences, self-representations; with their texts, conduct, gestures, objectifications; with their "argument of images" (from Fernandez, as discussed by Ewing [1990, 265]), and so forth. Marilyn Strathern has described the "integratory capacity" (1991, 15) of such summary concepts—their effect (as with ethnography) of producing an experience or evoking an image of integration which nonetheless fails to encompass the diversity of possible experiences. Selfhood by this figuration is a chronically unstable productivity brought situationally—not invariably—to some form of imaginary order, to some purpose, as realized in the course of culturally patterned interactions.
From this perspective the "transcendent self" of ego psychology and some psychological anthropology, a self perduring, continuous, impermeable, unitary, and universally sought after (for discussion, see Murray 1993, 3), is cast as a socially enacted agenda or ideology, a practical capacity of human culture rather than of human nature. We are left, then, to challenge any a priori valuation of transcendence on methodological grounds at least. Further, we come to appreciate the close relatedness of a unitary self-concept and rhetorics of individuality. For the ethnography makes it apparent that alternative constructs exist—different premises of self-experience—as practices that inscribe dividuality (Strathern's important insight ) as a culturally valued capacity of persons. This is most apparent where the ethnographic focus shifts to exchanges of objects that, whether as gifts or as commodities, are seen to engender and concretize subjects' attributes (Battaglia, this volume)5 over the course of their social life. The cultural mechanisms of displacement, deferral, extension, projection or introjection, and so forth, by which this process operates, call to issue any ascription of inherent value to such objects, and analogously, any assertion that self-centeredness or a singular "self identity" is universally desirable. Instead, subjects may concern themselves with the social possibilities of attaching and detaching material self-objectifications; of maintaining a multiplicity of sources of self-influence in these concrete terms.6 The placedness of the subject is important in this context, as are the dispersed habitation of the self in various forms and the effect this has of ramifying or prescribing sites of self-encounter. From this critical recognition, possibilities present themselves for cross-cultural comparisons of the structuration and subversion of selfhood rather than of "selves."
An approach to selfhood as an embodied and historically situated practical knowledge, in other words, prompts a larger question of rhetoric, namely, what use a particular notion of self has for someone or for some collectivity. It is this question that separates the working premises of authors here from a narrowly textual, Aristotelian regard for rhetoric "as one finds it in books," to cite Nietzsche's critique, "just as [Aristotle] also thinks the effect of drama to be independent of the performance, and thus does not take up the physical presence on stage in its definition" (Nietzsche 1983, 100). And it gives this volume a positive relation to studies, such as certain studies of self-narrative, which stress the role of agency, and the social conditions of textual production and reception as revealing of "the ambiguity of authorship" (Rosenwald and Ochberg 1992, ix; also, Crapanzano 1980, 1992; Young 1983). Accordingly we find ourselves, with no little trepidation, proceeding along a course explicitly alternative to essentialist exposition. This course prescribes that our concerns must have directly to do with the historical circumstances, the poetics, and the power relations that define a selfhood emergent in sociality—with the "substitutive reversals," the "referential aberrations," the "figuralpotentiality" (De Man 1979), the "deflections" (Burke 1969) constitutive (and not merely expressive) of the self-in-process, and the hidden agents and agencies rhetoric implicates.
Overall, the chapters of the book cohere around two sets of rhetorical tensions that subjects' "self-actions" (Wagner's term in this volume) present as critical issues: namely, locating agency, and rhetorics of individuality and relationality. At the same time, tensions exist within these issues which articulate telling cultural differences. I turn now to discussion of these.Locating Agency: Selfhood and Determinancy
A salient theme of the studies that follow is the indeterminancy of rhetorical action. And it alerts us that the problematics of agency will be central to the process of signification that self-rhetoric manifests. In particular, we shall need to attend to the location of agency and the social conditions of its appearance or obfuscation. The critical point in this regard is that self-action may take place upon a subject apart from it; self-action may be oriented to or simply find its object and significance in a subject who is not its source. Put another way, the acting subject is not invariably or always consciously its own source of an experience or recognition of selfhood, or of a sense of herself or himself as fashioned. The story of the cultural mediation of this experience or sense is the story of rhetoric's originative force.
Here issues of technology enter in directly. If we accept that the problematic of agency is central to theorizing selfhood, then we must take account of what Foucault terms "technologies of self": that is, the instrumental means and practices of self-action as understood historically. Technologies of self, which "can be found in all cultures in different forms . . ., do not require the same material apparatus as the production of objects; therefore they are often invisible techniques" (1984, 369). This invisibility is an important factor when considering the ethics and effects of self-rhetoric in context of the conditions and issues of postmodernity. Where new technologies stand to place not only persons' disembodied images but their genes "on stand by" (Heidegger 1977, 17) for possible use by others, the Platonic aim that a life become a work of art is profoundly challenged. Foucault wrote (shortly before his death): "From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think that there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art" (1984, 350–351). Yet where the forces of biotechnologies and information technologies hold sway, that vision is qualified, as it were, where it lives. The ancient Greek "kind of ethics which was an aesthetics of existence" (Foucault 1984, 343)—and which was not special to the Western world—is called to relinquish the skin-bound individual as its primary site of moral control; to resituate or reinvest morality in relational flows that extend beyond such boundaries of the flesh.
George Marcus begins his chapter on this point by critiquing the notion of a self "made" other than rhetorically. Arguing for the eccentric self as a "thoroughly performative, sensorial, unself-conscious response to the social conditions that define one's selfhood—conditions that involve hidden . . . agency," he calls attention to the position of self-agents and agencies between the eccentric person's sense of self and that of the eccentric's public. As "taken over" by these mediating influences, the self is "mimetically doubled or parallel"—locatable as its doppelganger, a mere "familiar" abiding most certainly in this representation without structural equivalence to an original model. Indeed, eccentrics are "hyper-aware that their selves are being created elsewhere, in an unseen world." The imaginary, then, is the only stable component of this self-action (a point that calls to mind Nietzsche's philosophical position on rhetoric). An operation of the "radical displacement of self in sentience," it is brought to substitute for self-awareness by its public's indulgence of the mechanisms of image production.
Of course, audiences indulging others' self-images, or for that matter responding skeptically to them, are actively (though not necessarily knowingly) committing their own self-action. It becomes important in this regard to know if audience self-action is affected by the degree or location of control of the rhetoric. That is, do audiences respond differently to a doppelganger produced by external agencies than to images whose production is seized in self-awareness? The case of Aboriginal filmmakers illuminates some further implications of this question. For, as Faye Ginsburg shows, indigenous producers are acting upon their awareness of hidden agency in taking control of their own image production. Introducing their rhetoric and goals into an existing global industry, they become coproducers with governments responsible for the political circumstances against which the media asserts itself. It is this ironic and ambivalent coproduction embodied in the person of the filmmaker as a "bush cosmopolitan" which evokes for Euro-American audiences a vision of reconciliation which potentially masks inequality. They indulge not so much the agents' as their own imaginary identities.
When Roy Wagner states the point for advertising—that is, that advertising a "self" cannot be mistaken for performing a self—it is likewise to underscore the argument that self-awareness is not necessary to self-action. By his examples, self-enactments are realized in self-consumption, where agents reveal not their effectiveness as "hidden persuaders" so much as their capacityfor persuading themselves of their effectiveness in shaping an identification in their audience. From this position, the self enacted is "nobody's vision." Being located, "unowned," in the advertising, the self has "the autonomy of a shaman's spirit powers" to generate its own effectiveness.
Something of this autonomous life is presented in the urban Trobriand case, where self-images in the national press and in the form of indigenous yam displays evolve a "conversational publicity" on the theme of cultural identity between parties whose connection may never be accomplished nor even explicitly sought. Rather, identity issues are incorporated into, or rejected from, the flow of social discourse, back and forth across categories of Trobriand or national identity. Thus a nostalgic coproductivity comes to substitute for a self as a product of activity; selfhood being, on the one hand, authored at times and with unknowable consequences—prospectively—by others, and on the other hand, deferred and displaced by the actions of other subjects in respect to the images fixed in yams or in print. One consequence of Trobrianders "disavowing dependency" (to take Judith Butler's phrase, discussed by Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin) on two self-fronts (i.e., as "traditional" and as "nationals") by enacting the rhetoric of each against the other is to leave their images open to further appropriation by agents who may operate them either in or against the self-interest of the persons imaged; turning self-images in support of or against themselves. Trobrianders assert an overarching connective value for this nondeterminative narrative process, quite apart from the positive or negative quality of the connection or any actual or envisioned outcome.
As Marilyn Strathern has shown in exploring the phenomenon for Melanesian culture, the agent, or acting subject, may thus be less a locus for relationships than a "pivot of relationships . . . one who from his or her own vantage point acts with another's in mind." In this view "the object or outcome is their relationship, the effect of their interaction" (1988, 272) to be transformed or replicated. However, the self-action of agents may only influence, but does not insure, control over the outcome. As her chapter here shows, it is the terms of the effort which problematize the relationship by means of rhetorical assertions that represent as biologically given the identities of subjects in fact connected as "relatives." It follows that the subject who seeks a "true" personal identity (for self or on behalf of another) by reference to biological makeup alone, commits an erasure or diminishment of self-agency. Paradoxically, to give definitional status to coproducers' genetic presentiments through time and to the locus of genes is to diminish an agency that from the start defined itself as a social relational capacity—not as a location at the site of a person.
It is on this point of deferrals and displacements of self-significance through time that we turn to the example of Jewish male identity, and to marks on the body of no more fixed or invariably active significance than genetic traces within it. Boyarin and Boyarin discuss, for example, how the Jewish father's decision to have his child circumcised may be seen as a deferral of his own selfhood to a time of experienced communality. If self-enactment can be deferred—if "there is no subject prior to imitation," but rather "as a bundle of operated bodily signs, intentions, and actions it is distributed across a temporal weave" nonsequentially—then a unilinear progressive conception of time is inadequate to discuss it. Connections, the authors point out, "are not merely 'with the past' along a line of time, but rather multidirectional," effected within "empathetically expanded time." There can be no "self-made man" within such a consciousness.Rhetorics of Individuality/Rhetorics of Relationality
Another major theme of the collection is the tension between rhetorics of an individuated, autonomous self and rhetorics of a collective or relational self. As presented here, these rhetorics sometimes, but do not invariably, oppose each other as the grounds of social action (as well as that action itself). That is, some situations produce the action of tacking between the two as incompatible positions, others of tacking between them as complementary positions, still others of appropriating one rhetoric to the cause of the other. The fact that rhetorical self-action within and across cultural boundaries can present this kind of porosity or disloyalty to fixed ideological definitions—running stubbornly contrary to the notion of unchanging cores of personal identity—indicates the larger problem with the self/other binary for comprehending the sociality of selfhood. Even when conceived of, very valuably I believe, as a dialectical (in the sense of a dialogical) relationship (e.g., Bakhtin 1981; Bruner 1984; Crapanzano 1992) or, after George Mead, as a social premise for redefining the "self" as a "self-other" (Mead 1962), conditions are created for "othering" which tend to neglect or underrepresent power asymmetries, and for the rhetoric—the "self" concept—to be conflated with self-experience. To note this danger is to invite critical consideration of why we or our subjects take up one rhetorical position or another, of to what feared or hoped-for effect we engage the rhetorics we do. Put another way, we must ask to what effect one rhetoric engages another in relation to which it defines itself.
The fact that all the chapters analyze either Euro-American phenomena orcultural action in their relation to Western dominance gives this query a purpose in examining the characterization of selves as culturally fated either to relationality (e.g., Dumont 1972) or to individuality (e.g., Kohut 1971), or as fixed cultural categories across contexts of social action (e.g., Geertz 1984). Indeed, it emerges from this volume that the equation of an individuated "self" with the "Western world" and the relational "self" with the "non-Western world" is strikingly problematic—a rhetorical tension, quite possibly, of most approaches to the cross-cultural study of selfhood and not a cultural given for subjects.7 For the same dichotomy exists within Western contexts, in this volume appearing as distinct Jewish and Christian American ideologies of self and self-action (by reference to their respective historical valuations of group identity and individual salvation [Boyarin and Boyarin]; see also Taylor 1989); within the person of the eccentric whose individuality is, paradoxically, denied by the fact of multiple agents and agencies' involvement in authoring her or his "self" (Marcus); as tensions within feminist scholarship and practice to do with issues of presenting gender relations as culturally specific or "derelationalizing" women vis-à-vis masculinist ideologies (Strathern). And the point appears analogously in the "self-determination" movements of fourth-world and third-world peoples (Ginsburg) and in the culturally elaborated slippage of individuated/relational ideologies of self embodied by certain Trobriand figures, whose self-characterizations as "revolutionaries" derive from the pervasive individualism of a postcolonial urban context they occupied and exploited (Battaglia). Thus, as Robert Foster (n.d.) has recently argued, we must likewise attend to the various sites of production and consumption—state, commercial, local, and so forth—at which the body becomes "the site of apparently autonomous agency (free will, free choice)" in contradistinction to a prevailing valuation of collectivity and relationality.
While critically reframing self typologies, these essays participate also in exposing the inner self/outer self dichotomy as culturally and historically specific—a point that historically has been explored in reference to cultural constructs of emotion (see, e.g., Lutz 1988, Myers 1979, 1986; Rosaldo 1984; A. Strathern 1977; M. Strathern 1979). Of course, the reframing and reinscription of these binarisms begs a larger question even as it turns our attention to the border crossings—the problematic self-action—which make such alterities apparent as rhetorical constructions. For while accepting that bipolar types of self are "wildly overdrawn" in the anthropological and psychological literature (Spiro 1993, 117), and mind/body dualisms likewise, the alternative of a self-practice model asserts itself here without apology against the "transcendent self" concept (Murray 1993), in the voices of authors who are most self-consciously reflexive. It is then the relation of folk models (e.g., of a "whole self," a "private self") to self-practices, as well as to Western theories that themselves divide along relational-individual lines, which remains to be explored (Spiro 1993). Implicitly, this volume calls for such exploration.
Ginsburg speaks powerfully to this issue in her discussion of the process she observed of Aboriginal media producers being commodified and valued as individual "auteurs" in the marketing of Australia's cultural image at home and overseas. Rather than their efforts being taken as representing the interests of a broader polity, indigenous filmmakers are thus submitted, as cultural capital, to the dominant culture's valuation of the individuated self in self-expression. As their own goals of self-determination for the broader polity are obscured and depotentiated in consequence—as a self-determination explicitly evocative of nationhood "implicitly suggests the merging of individual with collective interests" and "privileges the individual as a political or artistic agent, implicitly detached or even in opposition to a broader polity"—the "conflation of rhetorics" renders the apparent empowerment of indigenous filmmakers a mask for "current inequalities and a history of political domination and cultural destruction."
Issues of self-determination and a similar threat of subversion are implicitly central also in Strathern's discussion of the rhetoric of individuality in genetic essentialism. Moving us to the site of the body and to personal identity, Strathern shows that to posit genetic knowledge as the source of uniqueness denies social context and relational identity its rhetorical efficacy, presenting "as given what is in fact a culturally mediated, relational identity." In this context, Euro-American genetic essentialism "cannot be disavowed, but it can be disowned as partisan"—exposed as medico-legal rhetoric. As genetic manipulation and the construction of "genetic families" is arguably self-determination at its most avowed, basic, and literal, the notion of "self-determination" itself emerges as figurative, demanding of interpretation and rigorous scrutiny as an ideological notion, as well as an empirical effect.
In both of these cases, relational selfhood gains in value and significance in opposition to a rhetoric of individuation. But whereas, as Ginsburg states, "indigenous media has been able to flourish because of the space opened up by the contradictory rhetorics of self-making that shape its production reception in both dominant and Aboriginal cultures," genetic essentialism is expanding into the space that relationality increasingly occupies only as a nostalgia for tradition. In neither case can the opposing rhetorics be neatly discussed in terms of indigenous selves and nonindigenous others, or without acknowledging the possibilities for anthropological engagement to make apparent, as opposed to obfuscating, indigenous processes of self-identity.
Wagner reminds us of issues of national cultural identity in his discussion of "the kinds of cultural problems that advertising brings to the fore"—the substitution of image for effectiveness in contemporary America. This discussion centers on the notion that images of products which embody the idea of America are more important as emblems of the America idea than as material things. The paradox is that advertising rhetoric is a force of purely imaginary collectivization that, in creating a "need for need," a "negative artifact," gives an ideology of individuality and particular consumption the object necessary to its existence. Self-action, then, being predicated on a "contagious image of consumption," may be performed without self-awareness. The case in point is given as a "contingent America," predicated on the "self-action" of consumers who may act aware, but are not necessarily aware, of advertisers' intentions, and by the self-action of advertisers who do not reflect needs or wants of consumers so much as they mime their own heritage of product invention within the cultural imaginary of advertising. The concept of construction, of America as a cultural construct, is not necessary or adequate to this phenomenon of mutual attraction of subjects to their own objectifications in wholly contingent self-action.
The point begs a question for the urban Trobriand case, wherein the presentation of certain Trobrianders as "traditional" in the national press is problematic in respect to both their national and their Trobriand cultural identities. In the postcolonial urban context, even the cultural given of inherited relationship is construed as open to redefinition. Specifically, Trobrianders of low matrilineal rank appropriate the license of a postcolonial rhetoric of individuality and independence to assert new versions of themselves which effectively upend power relations as structured in the Trobriand hierarchy. This self-argument or self-prospecting on two fronts, in respect to identities both more and less traditional than as given by cultural convention, presents a Janus-action of resistance to individualistic and relational ideologies alike. Further, as the press images take on a significance and life of their own, "otherness" emerges in its multidimensionality as circumstantially and nondeterminantly external or internal relative to the self-in-process. For urban Trobriand elite, the answer to the question of who one is defining oneself against is thus always, at some point and of course only partially, "oneself."
Offering, alongside Ginsburg, a valuable shift to a broader historical perspective, Marcus shows how the families of eccentrics appropriate the eccentric individual identity as a "dynastic marker of distinctive status." This appropriative action, presenting as a legitimate reception of inheritance, a given relationship, shows the rhetoric of individuation taken to its logical extreme.
But this rhetoric depends for its effect on audience complicity. The general public must indulge a "discourse of distinction" in order for it to operate.
Jewish Orthodoxy presents a striking contrast in this regard. When Boyarin and Boyarin draw attention to the head covers of Orthodox Jewish males as marks of distinction, it is to make the point that "external others" may also be Jews—that otherness may be nonoppositional to some self-object—but also to suggest the effect of inscribing a "more profound unity that transcends . . . superficial differences." The authors' contestation of what they refer to as the "moral and political effects of 'othering'" (in this context, an expression of the choice to be native) sets out "the negotiation of pulls" toward individual and collective selfhood in the ritual action of Jewish males by describing this dynamic as a "critical posing of freedom" that is "imperfectly effected" in Judaism.
For anthropologists, a project that challenges essentialist notions is perhaps uniquely risky. For we are enjoined, as I mentioned earlier, to act upon the limits and potential of acknowledged coauthorship with indigenous subjects. There is, in other words, an inherent reflexivity, an implication of rhetorics across the frames of our and others' engagement in rhetorical action, from which there is no recusing ourselves as writers of culture who are also engaged in a comparative enterprise (Clifford and Marcus 1986; M. Strathern 1991). And this fact exists alongside a deep regard for subjects' positions which, as I have noted, ethnography stands for within or without the field of cultural studies. Furthermore, we must recognize that people may argue and persuade not only with words but with sounds and gestures and objects and the images produced by new technologies—which this particular collection highlights by its choice of topics. These require that we acknowledge the operation of material constraints across forms of rhetorical action, and the culture-specific values such constraints encode.
Fundamentally, the patterns of self-action which appear in these pages reveal the capacity of rhetoric to generate social "entanglement" (Ricoeur 1992, 161) and disentanglement, and to incorporate or externalize others. The poetics and the politics of selfhood converge on this point. But the studies themselves will tell it better.References
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