The Reflexive Self and Alternatives

How to Cite

Adams, M. (2002). Ambiguity: The Reflexive Self and Alternatives. M/C Journal, 5(5).
Vol. 5 No. 5 (2002): Self
Published 2002-10-01

Anthony Giddens and a number of other social theorists and commentators see reflexivity as the guiding principle of modern self-identity (Giddens 1992; Beck). According to this thesis, reflexivity brings, at least potentially, a new level of knowledgeability, control and orderliness to one's experience of self. It ushers in a demystified world, geared towards calculability. In Giddens' own words, "....reflexivity refers to a world increasingly constituted by information rather than pre-modern modes of conduct. It is how we live after the retreat of tradition and nature, because of having to take so many forward-orientated decisions" (Giddens & Pierson 115).

Reflexivity involves "the routine incorporation of new knowledge or information into environments of action that are thereby reconstituted or reorganised" (Giddens 1991 243). Life is characterised by planning and goal-orientation. In Giddens' terminology it is a "project", involving "the strategic adoption of lifestyle options, organised in terms of the individual's projected lifespan" (1991 243). The future is "colonised", knowledge is "reappropriated", and the self is a "trajectory". Relationships are increasingly transparent and democratic, always open to negotiation. These sentiments are repeated often, and lie at the heart of neo-liberal analyses of the contemporary self.

While such accounts undoubtedly reflect certain aspects of self-identity in the modern world, it also neglects many areas of experience relevant to the contemporary self - tradition, culture and concepts of fate, the unconscious and emotions - for example, and our experience of our own self is far less clear-cut than Giddens and others suggest. Selfhood as a vehicle for grasping the world in relation to itself is experienced far more ambiguously, during both the more mundane passages of daily life, and in the more "fateful moments" of one's life. It is characterised as much by a lack of definition and precision as it is by a calculable boundary and trajectory.

Giddens & the Reflexive Self

Giddens ends up with a rationalist caricature of the processes that make up self-identity. His comments on the formation of values, reproduced here, are a case in point:

It wouldn't be true to say we have values that are separate from the increasingly reflexive nature of the world - values are directly involved in it, because we live in a world where we have to decide what values to hold, as individuals, and in a democracy, collectively - essentially through reflexive discourse. In more traditional cultures those values are more given (Giddens & Pierson 219).

Are the values we hold really the result of nothing more than rational "decisions"? Most people, if asked, would probably have only a vague idea about the origins of their values. One would be mistaken in attempting to trace them back to a purely rational decision making process. It is certainly hard to conceive of values, and maintain a meaningful sense of the word, if they are reduced to the result of "reflexive discourse" alone. This picture of the world is again far too tidy. People do not go through life choosing from and storing a range of values which they then apply methodically to their understanding of the world. What we value is bound up with all the factors I have just mentioned - culture, emotion and so on.

In the same way, self-identity can no more easily be reduced to a number of options from which we choose objectively and transparently. This is apparent in a number of interrelated factors which impinge upon self-identity, largely overlooked in the championing of choice, self-disclosure and reflexivity. How we experience ourselves, how we want to see ourselves and others to see us - all the things that constitute self-identity - is open to contradiction. Giddens too easily constructs the reflexive self as a functional whole, all units - reflexivity, practical consciousness and the unconscious - working for the overall benefit of the self. Such a view of selfhood is easily complicated.

I want to argue that most individuals are defined as much by the conflict of intentions, or by their actions contradicting their intentions. People are often unsure of what they want to happen - of their 'trajectory' - except when they indulge in fantasy. How one experiences one's self changes from day to day, moment to moment. A clear understanding of the self as a "reflexive narrative" is, in this context, a rare event. Individuals may be capable of reflexivity, but it is against a wider backdrop of ambiguity.

In a recent analysis Giddens draws from a contemporary work of fiction to illustrate the exhaustive application of reflexivity in everyday life. The novel, Nicholas Baker's The Mezzanine, "deals with no more than a few moments in the day of a person who actively reflects, in detail, upon the minutiae of his life's surroundings and his reactions to them" (Giddens 1994a 60). Giddens goes on to quote a lengthy description, in which Baker's character reflects on an ice-cube tray he has just picked up. The extensive consideration of the changes in ice-cube trays and a detailed understanding of them represents, for Giddens, "profound processes of the reformation of daily life" (1994a 60). Everything is opened up to inspection, from a post-traditional vantage point. Even the more mundane elements of life are part of a series of "everyday experiments", in which the outcomes are no longer certain. In Giddens's analysis, "we are all in a sense, self-pioneers" (Tucker 206).

Alternative Fictions

Fictional accounts of selfhood, and the self's relation to others and the outside world, are likely to be pretty reflexive affairs. "Narratives of the self" are in fictional accounts, a prime concern. It may not always be helpful to draw upon fictional accounts to suggest the reflexivity of the modern world. This problem aside, fictional accounts can also be used to problematise the notion of reflexivity, and suggest a more ambiguous selfhood. In Tim Lott's recent novel, White City Blue he documents such an understanding throughout. Take this description of the development of the main character's relationship with his future wife:

Not so long ago, me and Veronica would only see each other at weekends - that's Friday, Saturday and Sunday night - and on other night in the week; a ratio of freedom to commitment of 3:4. That's reasonable I think.... But as the marriage approaches, the F:C ratio is slipping badly. She's round here most nights now, and the ratio is moving towards more like 2:5 or even 1:6. I don't mind, I suppose. Processes like these aren't really stoppable anyway. It's organic, inevitable. Nobody decides, nobody really wants it to happen. But it happens anyway. I go out with my mates a few nights a week, she goes out with hers, but somehow or other, without any particular arrangement having been made, we both usually end up here (34-35; my emphasis).

In this example, albeit fictional, the protagonist, far from reflexively understanding the passage of his life, only has a vague grasp of the cause of events. Reflexivity is only apparent in the retrospective illustration of those events for the reader.

The fictional account of modern selfhood documented above is mirrored in a recent critique of Giddens's definition of reflexivity by Nicos Mouzelis, summarised in the following extract:

the reflexive individuals' relation to their inner and outer worlds is conceptualised in ultra-activistic, instrumental terms: subjects are portrayed as constantly involved in means-ends situations, constantly trying reflexively and rationally to choose their broad goals as well as the means of their realisation; they are also constantly monitoring or revising their projects in the light of new information and of the already achieved results (85).

Mouzelis does not suggest that the concept of reflexivity itself be abandoned. Instead he argues that Giddens's version of reflexive awareness is "culture-specific, or more precisely, western-specific". He argues that reflexivity needs to be re-conceptualised, to overcome Giddens's "over-activistic" tendencies, and accommodate other ways of being reflexive. Mouzelis signifies what alternative reflexivities might look like when he suggests what is missing from Giddens's concept. Giddens's understanding, he argues, "entails a type of reflexivity that excludes more contemplative, more 'easy-going', less cognitive ways of navigating reflexively in a world full of choices and individual challenges" (85). Mouzelis seeks an alternative formulation of reflexivity, which challenges Giddens's activistic version:

Is it perhaps possible to resort to [a] reflexive attitude that does not seek (via rational choices) actively to construct life orientations, but rather allows in indirect, passive manner life orientations and other broad goals to emerge .... a kind of existence where instead of actively and instrumentally trying to master the complexity of growing choices, one chooses (to use Pierre-August Renoir's expression) to float as a cork in the ocean of post-traditional reality? (85-86).

The main character in White City Blue would probably agree. An 'easy-going' attitude towards one's beliefs is displayed in this dialogue from the same novel:

You were going to say that friends are the most important thing in life.

I suppose so. I'm not sure. I suppose so. I don't know that I believe it though.

Why would you say it if you didn't believe it?

A good question. But isn't it what everyone does? You don't have to believe what you say. How are you meant to know what you believe? Sometimes - most of the time you just have to guess. You have to say something, after all.

I don't know. Sometimes you just pick up opinions. Like fluff on your jacket.


And you don't always know where you picked up the fluff. But there it is all the same.

In this extract the main character is disclaiming reflexive capabilities. The comparison between the fictional world evoked here and that in Giddens' example suggest two different views of modern self-identity. Reflexivity, as commonly understood in contemporary accounts, does not and cannot embrace the whole range of experiences which make up self-identity in each concrete moment, particularly the rationally ambiguous nature of everyday life, indicated here.

There is more to self-experience than rational understanding – "no matter how skilled and knowledgeable the agent, miscommunication can arise because of emotional, cultural and other non-cognitive factors that are part of the process of communicating through language" (Mestrovic 46). As with communication with others, so with self-consciousness - communication with the self, and, as Halton suggests: "being human involves feeling, dreaming, experiencing, remembering and forgetting, and not simply knowing" (Halton 273).

These other elements of experience contextualise reflexive awareness, and ground its transformative capabilities in the need to acknowledge the complexities of self-identity. Contemporary self-identity is characterised as much by a lack of definition and precision as it is by a calculable boundary and trajectory. It may, then, be possible to think of alternative ways of constructing identity which rely less upon rational-cognitive models of self-awareness.

Alternative Selves

The anti-religious philosophy of Krishnamurti is one example of an alternative formulation of self-identity incorporating a form of reflexivity (Mouzelis, Krishnamurti 1970). Krishnamurti"s texts demand that individuals give up on almost all forms of rational thinking in ordering their existence meaningfully. Furthermore: "Beliefs, divine revelations, sacred texts, as well as rationalistically derived moral codes, are not only quite irrelevant in the search for a spiritual, meaningful existence today, but they actually constitute serious obstacles to such a search" (Mouzelis 88). Krishnamurti"s belief is that genuine self-awareness comes about only when rationalised schemes and projects for the self are abandoned; "when ratiocination, planning and cognitively constructed means-end schemata are peripheralised" (Mouzelis 88). He argues "the fundamental understanding of oneself does not come through knowledge or through the cultivation of experiences" (Krishnamurti, 1970 25). To exist authentically, one has to explore one"s own self through "silent and continuous gazing inwards" (Mouzelis 89). From this state, "a tranquility that is not a product of the mind, a tranquility that is neither imagined nor cultivated" is possible (Krishnamurti 1970 28).

Adorno is similarly critical of dominant formulations of emancipation, which, he argues, focus upon "the conception of unfettered activity, of uninterrupted procreation, chubby insatiability, of freedom as frantic bustle". (156). He imagines a world where "lying on water and looking peacefully at the sky, being, nothing else, without any further definition and fulfilment, might take the place of process, act, satisfaction" (157). I have not sought to explore Krishnamurti"s perspective in any detail here, nor indeed Adorno"s, Halton"s Mouzelis"s, or many other peripheral accounts of self, only indicates that alternative formulations of reflexivity are possible, where goal-oriented thought processes take a back seat to a more contemplative and tranquil awareness of self. In pursuing these alternatives, a more complex and representative understanding of reflexivity and self-identity may be generated. At the same time, alternative discourses may further illustrate and problematise the one-sidedness of neo-liberal accounts of the reflexive self.

Author Biography

Matthew Adams