What is Reflexivity? A reply to a student (Encore)
October 18, 2009
Reflexivity means self-referentiality.
The truth is that we can only start understanding reality from the standpoint of our own accumulated and learned experiences, and for the most part, our preconception of things. In this sense reality is something we can ‘create’ for ourselves—for ourselves, precisely because we would normally wish reality to satisfy our needs. It is therefore out of the question if we would want reality to resist us, or challenge our preconception of things. We may describe this process as subjective ontology, viewing things or beings from the point of view of our prejudices and biases as to how we want reality to be. Ontology is a term that denotes study of things, or broadly speaking, a conception of what things or beings are. (Ontos in Greek language means ‘things or beings’).
Self-referentiality or subjective ontology (reflexivity in general) is understandably positive for self-empowerment. Not only does this endorse a view of reality that is in the hands of individuals to make or break, but also broadly and philosophically unmasks the ultimate nature of reality, namely, that humans are the creators of reality, their destiny, their future. There is no reality that humans cannot create and shape according to their needs, goals and interests. Reality is therefore something that does not come from outside of us, rather, it comes, arrives out of us.
This, however, as much as it draws an ideal picture of reality based on the assumption that humans are responsible enough to take advantage of their creative powers—that is to say, their power to create a world out of the different realities they weave together in light of their shifting wants and needs—may risk overriding, not without self-deception and self-promotion, the limitations intrinsic to self-referentiality to the point of believing in the illusion of the supremacy of the self. And because there are as much realities as there are different selves capable of crafting their own, this illusion no sooner would contribute to a social phenomenon in which everyone is equally right and wrong, rivaling one another for supremacy. The battle would ensue, and after much conflict would give way to the most supreme conception of reality, hence, to a vastly superior ‘self’ that is the efficient cause of that reality.
The self as the efficient cause of reality, an extremely superior self, is nothing less than a hegemonic reality. We are not simply talking of the self as pure individual; rather the ‘self’ can assume a collective shape in terms, for instance, of class character. In this sense, we can talk of the individuality of the capitalist, the industrialist, the politician as part of the economic power class. That class in itself is the self of the capitalist, the industrialist, the politician; it is from that class and power orientation that he/she draws a political, social, cultural, and juridical identity or self. It is easy to understand why a given social condition would remain static or unaltered to the extent that it has become impervious to change or anything that might suggest the need for reform. The truth is that the social condition perpetuates those in power who would normally hold on to the gains and privilege of having created a reality that satisfy their goals and interests.
But no social condition can perpetuate itself forever. There is nothing mysterious, mystical nor providential about this. The point is anything that humans have created are contingent to the degree of reflexivity or self-referentiality they have invested on it. No self, individual or collective, can have a perfect view of the reality it creates. The best it can do is to observe and practice discretion, rationality and judiciousness in shaping the world according to well-defined, meaningful interests, interests that do not exceed the modest aims of self-empowerment or self-improvement. Self-referentiality undergoes a process of substantial self-deprivation, the self that may feel well satisfied and contented with simple provisions of life. The simpler the self is, the more others, or other selves, can acquire opportunities for relative self-improvement, thereby determining the extent to which society achieves equity and justice.
This aspect of the practice of self-referentiality or reflexivity challenges the subjectivism intrinsic to the first form of ontology I mentioned above. A society that is slowly becoming reflexive in terms of pursuing equity and justice vis-à-vis the nonreciprocity of individual and collective needs and interests may be said to be a society whose individuals, especially those fortunate in life, are performing substantial sacrifices for the common good. There is nothing more commendable than sacrificing one’s power, privilege, and opportunities so that others may have a chance to live decently: the point is one pursues equity and eventually justice even if reality itself does not ultimately allow reciprocity. Sadly, as we emphasized, reality has only one and ultimate structure: it is that humans are nonreciprocal, in good or worse.
But that is ontology, which means, what things are. It is true that humans create things. Only they can do so. However, humans have also the power to destroy things, and for the better, those things that do not help the human condition release itself from a false necessity that is wrongly understood as what things are, no more, no less. At some point, the nonreciprocity of the human condition becomes understood as the ultimate necessity itself, suggesting, among other things, that one cannot change the fact that he is born poor and his neighbor in a silver platter. This shape of necessity is no longer strictly ontological. The necessity of poverty may hover between the accidental and the one forcefully fabricated to perpetuate the conditions of power. The latter must be the handiwork of a subjective ontology that has completely absorbed the illusion of supremacy, if not self-importance, and having triumphed over others whose circumstances are no match to its power to shape things, would rather ensure that things are systematically regulated, measured, or constituted to the satisfaction of power. Innumerable lies and deceptive maneuvers must be at work. For one, the lie that poverty is predetermined, that it is a fate that one can only uselessly recriminate. On the other hand, there is plenty to offer to the bounties of the rich, the privileged class, and more if the cycle continues unabated. At most religion perpetuates this lie, but also the politics of possession; the economics of accumulation and industry, etc, which altogether are handiworks of subjective ontology, or more correctly this time, of the uncaring ontology of power, whether we speak of religion or the secular.
Self-referentiality as ontology must give way to a form of reflexivity that may be properly termed, as suggested in ethical philosophy today, as deontological, more correctly, ethical, hence, ethical self-referentiality. In the most contemporary parlance, this is referred to as a process of self-emptying, a sublation, and a critical ontology of the self, altogether endorsing a weak form of self-ontology. This creates a divide: weak ontology versus the hard ontology of the prevailing reflexivity of society that is premised on an individualistic pursuit of goals and interests.
Self-ontology in its unassuming form encourages the pursuit of knowing oneself; knowing the ontology of oneself in the ultimate sense would mean discovering to what extent one has unwittingly and consciously contributed to the perpetuation of social injustice, or to the prolonging of the suffering of the ‘other’. While the practice of self-ontology does not entertain the illusion that human nonreciprocity can ever be rehabilitated, nor the hope that this reality can ever be cured in one’s individual or even generational lifetime, the truth is there is no question whether the ‘need’ for change is illusory or just simply a waste of time committing oneself to. If one ever feels this need seriously, then we may fairly judge that he/she has shorn his/her participation in the realm of false necessity, and is now prepared to ex-ist in the sense the premodern ancient understood it, namely, to exist is to stand outside, both in terms of time and space. From the Greek word ekstasis, or ecstasy in English: this means, to become otherwise than being; to become, to a certain degree, impossible. One becomes im-possible if one becomes an essence in contrast to being a mere appearance in the world of things, incapable of becoming something other than being a part of the spectacle. In other words, to ex-ist is to stand outside the realm of appearances, of prearranged possibilities, to be-come free of the common influence of time, of society, of history which is nothing but a spectacle of the subjective and for the most part, utterly insensitive creations of Man. It is the insensitivity of subjective ontology—which invests the meaning of the term Man with conceit and pride—that has since the fall of the premodern hitherto defined the soul, the nature, and the destiny of human existence. This time the call is unmistakable. The summons to become impossible.
The call of conscience, otherwise. For the knowledge that one has unwittingly or deliberately contributed to the misery of humanity in sundry forms is the first step to heeding the voice of the other who is deprived, naked, unfortunate, incapable of challenging the powerful pressures of existence, and worst, dying in hunger, caught in the crossfire of conflicting subjectivities accentuated by canons, altogether liquidating the possibility that they have a chance to become impossible, and then, to become free of misery, of exploitation and alienation from the sweet promise of life despite its imperfections.
Indeed, it may be said, human life trails on the actual—yet discreet—impossibility of achieving love—for all it connotes to different individuals, colors, etc., which means that the impossible is actually happening yet, given the common pressures of social existence, and even more, in the present, not afforded the proper hearing it deserves, the attention it surely wants if only that for all its minor and often accidental occasioning within the interstices of our personal and interpersonal lives the impossible can become widespread in its rather most preferred manner: slow, discreet, not aggressive, devoid of competitive urges that normally induce the will of the ambitious, and lastly, of the motivation to proclaim one’s righteousness.
The impossible—love and justice—is always at work in small ways, the gods working within us secretly, the conscience nudged, but not enough to transform reality. It is at work in a teacher, a writer, a social worker, a poet, a thinker, a soldier, a nurse, the street sweeper, the pedestrian who spares a coin for the beggar, the child who is deeply hurt and cries for all his innocence when he sees a dog slaughtered, or hears an unexplainable racket, a bomb exploded in the near bus station or the busy market, that disturbs his sweet time surveying the peacefulness of the landscape, of good-natured people crowding his curiosity, of things exuding in colors that enhance all the more his faultless conception of reality—how he would wish it would stay the same when he comes of age.
But then, this child, or the child that is retained in us and is now working behind our conscience, is waiting for the world to follow suit. This child hankers for love, for the most impossible one of all, namely, justice. He would try to convince the world by eliciting its affection: for all his innocence, he thinks the world is capable of loving back, through the amiable gestures of the people around him, through their kind-hearted deeds, through the small sacrifices they make, through the wisdom his teacher imparts, the playful schemes he learns from his playmates that are as innocent as the winding landscape of his dreams, through the concern of a lover to the beloved that he sees from his parents, his guardians, his baby-sitters, through the way his wounds are tended by his seniors, his sister, his brother, the caring shoulders he leans on when he cries, through the fondle and caress of a representative of humanity that touches his heart. Ah, these impossible people that shape his world!