mind, self, society and “the generalized other”
(Originally Posted on February 10, 2013 by hopefulandfree)
The organized community or social group which gives to the individual his unity of self may be called ‘the generalized other.’ The attitude of the generalized other is the attitude of the whole community…If the given individual is to develop a self in the fullest sense, it is not sufficient for him merely to take the attitudes of other human individuals toward himself and toward one another within the human social process, and to bring that social process as a whole into his individual experience merely in these terms: he must also, in the same way that he takes the attitudes of other individuals toward himself and toward one another , take their attitudes toward the various phases or aspects of the common social activity or set of social undertakings in which, as members of an organized society or social group, they are all engaged…But only by taking the attitude of the generalized other toward himself, in one or another of these ways, can he think at all; for only thus can thinking—or the internalized conversation of gestures which constitutes thinking—occur…[T]here are two general stages in the full development of the self…first…the individual’s self is constituted simply by an organization of the particular attitudes of the other individuals toward himself and toward one another in the specific social acts in which he participates with them…second…in the full development of the individual’s self that self is constituted not only by an organization of these particular individual attitudes, but also by an organization of the social attitudes of the generalized other or the social group as a whole to which he belongs…Thus, there is a social process out of which selves arise…”
—George Herbert Mead, “Mind, Self, and Society” (1934)
You might not imagine it possible to live for decades among human society, to become formally educated, to bear and nurture one’s children into adulthood and witness their leave taking from the family home, to accomplish all these activities of life—while never once realizing that one’s ability to think—in the sense of carrying on internalized (mental) conversations with a Self—does not exist.
Of course there is always a vague sense of awareness of difference, of some unknown aspect of mental or cognitive functioning which sets one apart from most others. But it is impossible to pinpoint with any substantive knowledge the extent of whatever that difference may include. The meaning of a self eludes one’s grasp, including even the sense of recognition, when looking in a mirror, of the being who appears to be returning one’s gaze. The face in the mirror is always that of a stranger, a person known intellectually to represent the visual image of oneself. But there is no feeling of connection, of warmth or closeness or understanding—nothing like the feelings one experiences when gazing upon loved ones—of what the image represents or reveals about the image as a familiar or known human being; rather, the representation in the mirror appears to be nothing more than an object which can move by means of some external power, and, thus, the experience of looking at the image inspires a sense of uneasy wariness, almost as if a stranger has appeared inside one’s room, except the stranger is not human. She seems to represent a kind of intricately designed, life sized, life like, mechanized doll.
The thing in the mirror, which seems to be looking back, appears to be looking at an unpleasant sort of object, something wholly unnerving and unnecessary, something that exists with no purpose beyond its ability to have its movements and actions directed and controlled, much like a child’s plaything, a doll or an action figure with movable body parts, a replica of a person—right down to its capacity to form words with its mouth, as if speaking spontaneously. Any bodily movement which resembles self directed action is, however, an illusion.
The thing is an object of horrific power, nevertheless, but only in the sense of its absolute powerlessness. Its powerlessness in fact provides power for others of its kind, for those without a self, for those that need therefore an external source of animating impulse. Its powerlessness indeed provides the motivating drive on which the others depend—to feel powerful, to feel alive rather than dead, and thus Its powerlessness presents the others with the only reason possible for allowing Its continued, yet reviled, existence. Their absolute dependency on Its powerlessness creates within the others a primitive rage so savage that Its existence is abhorred and, thus, always tenuous. Its absolute powerlessness—the only characteristic of Its existence that holds meaning—is the solitary attribute which stands between Its existence and annihilation.
Hence. Moreover. And.
Only by taking the attitude of the generalized other toward Itself, the internalized conversation of gestures which constitutes thinking can occur.
Like most things, the development of the self—or the mind—is not an all or nothing affair. Under conditions of extreme domination, such as those just described, the self, invariably, cannot develop in the fullest sense. That process would result, by necessity, in self destruction. Nor, therefore, can thinking (an intrapersonal process requiring a self) develop in the fullest sense. Indeed, a partial self who attempts that which others understand as thinking risks destruction of the partial self, for thinking requires the emergence of the generalized other into consciousness. When the generalized other consists of powerful impulses seeking only to fully disempower and eradicate the existence of a self, thinking must forever be avoided at all costs for, indeed, the cost of continued existence was determined long ago, and the price has already been paid, and must be paid within each moment, hour after hour, day after day, year after year.
The mind, the self, and the process of thinking must remain approximations, must remain as partially formed abstractions, illusions incapable of coming forth into actual wholeness, as active participants one with the others.
There are external sources of power that may be borrowed upon to override—for a limited time—the generalized other…if one has the ability to pay and can obtain access to the source (an unlikely proposition for most.)
For the mind and the Self exist inextricably within Society, within a vast and all encompassing generalized other, and all individuals must pay the generalized other, all must pay the fee for continued existence—the price of membership—sooner or later.
hopefulandfree on February 11, 2013 at 10:42 am said:
Note to self: I suspect the description of the mirror image represents the most traumatized parts of “me”…as if I’m describing what happens when “PTSD” episodes are triggered by an unrecognized event, smell, sound, taste, image, and so forth. The absence of thinking (or dialog with self) is, perhaps, another form of generalized avoidance of internal triggers, thoughts that may prove highly risky for their ability (weird word) to evoke severely painful emotions, feelings that do not merely replicate past emotions experienced during trauma, but feelings that are real, intense, immediate and all the more confusing and upsetting because they arise as if from nowhere, with no current cause-and-effect logic but are brain pathways deeply grooved, so to speak, in the manner of automatic responses to unconscious or instantly repressed images, or memories…I recall in this moment, for example, a common response during “PTSD” reactions, namely a feeling of nausea or rather the sensation of nausea that lingers along with (accompanied by) emotions of deep loss, sadness like that which comes from being utterly alone and isolated from any source of caring, or love, or help. If only I had a way to recognize the so-called “flash back” as a trauma response unrelated to current lived experiences…yet that lack of awareness is one of the factors of this disorder that makes it especially cunning and powerful. The intensity of emotional and physiological responses (such as nausea) are perceived by me (consciously) no differently than my responses to immediate situations—say the death of a beloved animal companion. Thus, much like in childhood when I retreated to my closet floor again and again, often to scream into pillows or (and this is painful to admit) bang my head repeatedly against the wall, there is also a sense of shame devoid of any self compassion—shame related to powerlessness, maybe shame resulting from a false believe that I should have control over such reactions…that I could not remain completely repressed and in a state of denial is really (to me) evidence of my irrepressible humanity, my inability to become the robot-like being I describe. I longed to have no feelings, no emotions, and to become untouchable and detached—I remember wishing, when I was a teen of about 14 or 15, that I could be catatonic like the girl in “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” (!!!) and I also felt angry with myself for being unable to accomplish that feat—but…what an understandable response to unbearable conditions. Strangely (actually, not strange in light of all that was going on and had been forever) that was the point in time when I noticed my physiological shift in energy and motivation…from have some capacity to self regulate behaviors that might bring pleasure (such as going to the beach to walk along the shore) to having almost no capacity to motivate myself or to imagine any potential for feeling better. This was probably the result of the most severe depression that I had yet experienced in life. It coincided with almost constant thoughts of needing to be dead. (Before then I had gone through similar periods but had always somehow managed to come out the other side, whereas this time I found I was not finding improvement…it was terrifying and shameful to feel so alone, powerless, and horribly sad…it also corresponded with the absence of my best friend, D, who was on a long cruise with her family and thus we were unable even to correspond with each other…I see that I have always depended on friendship for my sanity, I have always needed to have at least one very close friend nearby—available to talk with if only about feelings, usually leaving out the worst details of my life—during times of sadness and stress.) I pleaded with my mother to take me to a psychologist—I felt a strong drive to find a way to survive and I was frightened that I would not manage to do so this time without help—but my poor mother was heavily invested in maintaining her illusions of normalcy. I believe she struggled terribly with her own deeply repressed memories and fears…plus, her life would have imploded and/or shattered if she ever had to bluntly confront (without the complex cushions of denial) the reality of her life as a wife and mother…and probably the reality of her own childhood. I believe her autoimmune disorders, resembling lupus, were strongly connected with her own life long experiences of trauma.
Anyway. That was also the first time I recall looking in the mirror and observing “the stranger”, and sensing that something was very very “wrong” with me…far beyond the normal angst and turmoil and emotional flights (and hormonal upheavals) of many typical adolescents.
hopefulandfree on March 16, 2014 at 2:15 pm said:
It is now slightly over a year since I wrote the above post and subsequent comment. Today on the 16th of March, 2014, it feels as if the above discussion was prescient in ways I still don’t understand of course yet conditions in my life have (A) changed significantly and (B) entered my conscious awareness more fully—and the result of both are almost unbearably painful to me at times…in fact, many hours in many days, I feel as though I am grieving and mourning the loss of my entire family, not the family that I grew up with as a child and teen, but the family I helped to to create with my husband—the family I loved with all my heart, the family that (I believed) I was protecting, helping, nurturing, and mostly keeping safe from those aspect of the world that could do the most harm to them if given the opportunity.
Now I recognize much of my part in the eventual harm that has occurred to them. My own struggle to control the outcomes of so many aspects of their lives, to prevent tragedy, for example, contributed to the fearful and stressed mindset of one, perhaps, who became gradually more compelled to focus on (attempting to) control outcomes too, and influenced another to resist against perceived efforts by others who (seemingly) were trying to control this one’s life. In both cases, the result was a limitation (more or less severe) in awareness of sources of danger—including dangerous people. Hence, my attempts to control as a way to safeguard led to the opposite outcome: HARM…serious and lasting harm. The kind of harm that results from having blind spots and distorted perceptions…which prevent one from achieving greater awareness of many aspects of reality…. In my current blog posts, I am attempting to absorb the consequences of my lifelong patterns of behavior, consequences to others and to myself…including how much responsibility can be rationally attributed to me (my choices), and how much responsibility cannot be taken on by any individual—for it is impossible to know what any outcomes would have been had I made different choices or reacted differently.
hopefulandfree on March 27, 2014 at 11:36 pm said:
And now it is only about eleven (11) DAYS after the most recent comment. YET. Some awareness (in me or of mine?) has again shifted in such a profoundly startling and maybe disturbing way that I am left somehow less baffled but nevertheless close to being freaked out about that which is becoming more and more apparent to me. Namely. (And this is very upsetting to record here.) Oh. Fuck. Just. Say. It.
“I”, or this consciousness now writing this, here, now, today, is not alone. Maybe not alone “in” this body. period.
For “I” (as this consciousness now writing this) did not write the original post above that quotes George Herbert Mead, and, moreover, no matter how bizarre or pathological or frightening this admission or belief sounds (to me—forget about how it sounds to an other) I am loathe to attempt any denial of it. Oh, tomorrow I may feel very different—in regards to this and to all the unknown but partly suspected implications. Tomorrow I may think “What the fuck?”
In fact I will be surprised, perhaps, (this is getting confusing) if I DO NOT feel compelled at a future time to DENY any and all identification with that “notion” and/or it seems likely that I will want to find a way to rationalize or to come up with a plausible-sounding (to me, anyway) explanation about WHY and/or HOW I could have written such a a strange idea and seemingly to have believed it at the time—much like I felt compelled to rationalize what “I” had apparently written in the original post…and on the very next DAY at that! Clearly it was disturbing to me on so many levels (that’s an interesting/relevant way of putting it, btw.)
I now read that original post (both the quote and the narrative relating to the quote) and I know or at least I “know” that the narrative was written quite literally as an authentic-as-possible description of the writer’s personal experience and perceptions.at that time—as close to authentic and accurate as the writer could come using language/rhetoric available to “her” at the the time.
What (in the name of god) am I supposed to make of all this? Well, I don’t believe that “all this” is actually so bizarre or unusual—except maybe for the part about catching on (so to speak) to the process, the part about becoming increasingly unable to rationalize and/or deny the difference (the very powerful and striking difference) between the writer’s “voice” THEN (at that point of time in the past ) and MY “voice” in this moment. The difference goes far beyond any kind of difference in in “mood” or “perspective” experienced by the SAME consciousness except just at two different times. Oh. Indeed. I can almost anticipate the kinds of explanations “I” will feel compelled to invent for the purpose of evading some seriously heavy shit. Some inexplicable shit. Some I-don’t-like-the-implications-here shit.
Ahem. (I’m now telling myself:”It’s okay, kid—it will all ‘work out’ later if not soon. Everything is okay even though maybe almost nothing is simple or anything like ‘what it seems’…”)
hopefulandfree on March 27, 2014 at 11:43 pm said:
Yep. Minutes later I can almost SENSE some nearly unconscious attempts at back-pedaling as quickly as possible AWAY FROM this “heavy shit”…hmmm….
hopefulandfree on March 31, 2014 at 12:19 pm said:
And, now, 4 days later, the thought is less “Maybe not alone ‘in’ this body” but more “maybe not ‘myself’ in this body.” But then, again, that’s yet another thought—so not “mine” or “about me” (?).
hopefulandfree on March 28, 2014 at 12:02 am said:
Again, minutes later, I wonder who the hell has been returning to this post again and again lately…and why..WHO, that is, besides me. Whether mere coincidence, or not (as in it could simply be different people coincidentally studying GHM–source of long quote–and thus googling the title, such as students in the same class who may be studying or learning about or focusing on GHM’s work)….ANYWAY, I am GRATEFUL because when I notice that this post has been, YET AGAIN, READ or looked at (or maybe just glanced at for a spit second, of course) the more that I am prompted to return to the post and to re-read the quote, AND, MOREOVER, the more I read that quote from GHM, the more I come to understand it in a way that is particularly HELPFUL to me….even if I have the PARTICULARS interpreted in a way that’s confused or not-quite-close or not-anywhere-close, the general DIRECTION in which I am “travelling— with the quote as my companion—seems promising. That is, it feels promising and seems to be making more and more sense to me. I think. :) So…hmmm…thanks…universe?
hopefulandfree on March 31, 2014 at 7:37 pm said:
I love the following interpretation of Thomas Metzinger’s theory of human consciousness in relation to our illusions about being or having a “self”—quote BELOW is from a book review of METZINGERS’S popular book: “The Ego Tunnel” http://www.naturalism.org/metzinger.htm
“On Metzinger’s view, the self – the feeling of being a mental me in charge of the physical body – is a module within consciousness activated by your brain’s neural processing. The self is categorically not some substantial, essential invariant entity, like a soul, spirit or homunculus…Instead, the self is a phenomenal (that is, experiential) construct that disintegrates entirely when you fall into a dreamless sleep, to be reactivated (usually in attenuated form) when you dream, and that reappears nearly instantaneously when you awake in the morning.
The self is put online only when needed, part of a larger phenomenal reality generated by the brain as it represents the world and you in it. This reality seems perfectly concrete, but the startling fact of the matter, a challenge to naïve realists (that is, just about everybody), is that IT’S AN APPEARANCE, A VIRTUAL REALITY.
You, the subject conjured up by the brain, do not directly encounter the world. Rather, YOU PARTICIPATE IN A LARGER BRAIN-BASED REPRESENTATIONAL CONSTRUCTION—CONSCIOUSNESS—THAT MAPS THE ACTUAL WORLD closely enough for you-the-organism to stay out of trouble. This global simulation carried out in each of our heads, what we can’t help but take as real, is what Metzinger calls the Ego Tunnel. WELCOME TO THE MATRIX.”
hopefulandfree on March 31, 2014 at 7:59 pm said:
Here’s another great quote by Thomas Metzinger (from an interview at beinghuman.org by Michael Taft, 9/28/2012), in which Metzinger borrows an image from Wittgenstein to show a simple idea about the function of phenomenal self over time):
“A self-model is not something in the brain or in philosophy, it is also something social and public…But again, strictly speaking, it’s never really happening to the same person, but it’s also not true that there is nobody there. Of course, there is a sufficient similarity over time, the organism survives, genes are copied, books are written. We don’t arbitrarily change and it’s kind of a flux. I like very much the image the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once used.
He said you could have a rope—a long rope made of very different strings of different color. AND NO STRING, neither the red string nor the blue nor the green one, WOULD GO THROUGH THE WHOLE LENGTH OF THE ROPE. Yet the rope could be very robust, strong, and stable, even though there is not one thread that goes through it from beginning to end. I think that’s a good image for how we are on the bodily level, as well as on a psychological level.
Despite this, we have robust experiences of autonomy and self-determination. We have the subjective experience of controlling our behavior, and we also have an experience of mental self- determination, controlling our attention, our mental state and all of these things. As modern science shows, some of these inner experiences may not be fully veridical, but just adaptive.”
In other words “self-deception may offer some benefits. Maybe.
hopefulandfree on April 13, 2014 at 1:38 pm said:
I wake up. Never know what I’m gonna get. Never know which eyes I’ll be seeing the world through. Will it seem okay? Bearable? Too goddam fucking much to absorb? Lately, mostly, the latter is closest to the truth. I’m barely hanging on. I’m the gal with a plan. As tidy as possible. But. Still. The damage is impossible to predict. Horrible to contemplate. The thought of her pain is the only thing keeping me here. One. More. Day. I can do one more day. Right? Some acts are truly unforgivable, after all. I gotta believe that.