Monday, August 05, 2013

Self-cultivation, Secularization, and Neoliberalism

Part of how we are produced as who we are is through the ways we are shaped by socially-enforced patterns of practice and attention. We are, as Michel Foucault showed many years ago, produced as docile and as beings with certain capacities that are useful to powerful institutions through the judicious application of disciplinary power -- we are produced as good workers, good soldiers, good consumers, and so on. On the other hand, one of the ways in which we can intervene in our own self-formation, in ways potentially much more lasting than a simple one-time, New-Years-resolution-style act of will, is through self-disciplinary practices of repeated focus, attention, reflection, and action. This does not allow us to escape our circumstances or to jump automatically to some different path, but it allows us to act on self in ways that, with time and patience and persistence, will likely take our journey in different (if never exactly predictable) directions than otherwise.

Perhaps the example that springs most readily to mind of a practice with potential for such self-cultivation is that of meditation. I mean, I am skeptical of some approaches and of some claimed benefits to meditation, but I think that generally it is such a practice. Another such practice can be writing, if approached in the right way -- I am currently reading a book by Natalie Goldberg, who has been a Zen practitioner for decades and a well-respected writing teacher for almost as long, and one of her key insights (and one emphasized in the book I'm reading at the moment) is the way that writing, too, can be a practice of this sort. I have never done more than dabble in meditation, but writing is certainly this sort of practice for me.

Another such practice that has been integral in shaping me is reading. Not everyone reads this way, of course, but some people do. In the standard narratives of the emergence of the discipline of literary studies, an important element was the way in which a small number of English gentlemen of a particular class produced themselves as new sorts of subjects through a sort of literary self-cultivation, a kind of discipline of engagement with text. Given the role of that class of English gentlemen in empire and other sorts of nastiness, I'm certainly not eager to claim any sort of kinship, but there's no denying that one part of my emergence as who I am today is related to a series of encounters of a particular self-changing sort with texts.

Another way to think about such self-cultivation, based on Ladelle McWhorter's reading of Foucault, is disciplines organized around pleasure. These disciplines can be things like gardening and dancing (examples from her life), or sadomasochistic sexual practices, hallucinogenic drugs, and the writing of philosophy (examples from Foucault's life). I haven't set out to deliberately engage in disciplines of pleasure, but in retrospect I think I have -- writing is one example, for me, but there are others.

Then there is the example of prayer in a Christian context. Prayer is more often treated in lay discourse as a sort of obeisance or a kind of communication of a wishlist, and certainly I have known Christians who would be aghast at the idea that their practices have anything in common with the meditation that the "heathens" engage in (which opens them up to the devil, dontchaknow). Nonetheless, some approaches to prayer are very much meditative, and certainly they meet the definition of focused, repeated attention, and often include a sort of engaged reflection on self.

And, finally, I would argue that lots of other ritualized practices that are often slotted as "religious" or "traditional" meet the definition of practices which produce selves. Christian church services can be like this, as I think can the services of many religions, the ritual and ceremony of many indigenous cultures, and so on. I'll talk more about this below, with particular reference to the secularizing Christian/post-Christian context of Canada today.

I have written before about my own relationship to religion, which is complicated and ambivalent. Part of that relationship has to do with me coming from a mainline Protestant background, and still being shaped at a fairly deep level by a sort of non-religious cultural Presbyterianism. That said, Christianity at an explicit level was never particularly central to my experience even in my childhood, it is not an active part of my current life, and it is not something I miss or feel a lack because of. Moreover, though I have enough background to have at least a reasonable lay understanding of the system of symbols and language and idea that comprise the diverse strands of Christianity, it is not a system of symbols that resonates with me (at least at an explicit level) and, while I do feel flashes of affinity with traditions like the social gospel and liberation theology, the Christian symbolic universe is much more likely to be off-putting to me. All of which is to say that the observation to which this post is leading is not about identifying as Christian (I don't) or about yearning for some missing source of meaning (I'm not).

Given all of that, I don't have many occasions in my current life to be a part of Christian ritual. This past weekend, I did have such an occasion, and it was not just any Christian ritual, but conservative evangelical Christian ritual. As you might expect, my responses to being in such a context were complicated, and I'm not going to go through every detail. One aspect that I want to note is that, given that the purpose was remembering the life of a man who thought very differently than me about many things but for whom I felt a definite respect and affection, I was thankful to be able to be a part of it. And another aspect that can't be denied is that it pushed me to process a number of kinds of things not so much about the man at the centre of the ceremony but the ceremony itself, including a refreshing of the already-named alienation from the language and symbols from which the ceremony was constructed and a definite lack of desire to reconnect to such social contexts.

But. Another thing that I thought about as the event was happening was the last point I made above, about religious ceremony being a sort of practice. Going to church is a sort of focused, repeated, collective attention that calls into question who we are and how we move through the world. It is, indeed, a practice of collective self-cultivation. And in particular I was wondering what it means that this form of collective self-cultivation -- the only form that many, many people are likely to encounter -- has become significantly less common in Canadian society over the last forty years.

Now for some caveats for those readers who rush to a sort of unnuanced, uncritical, evangelical secularism: I am not claiming that these shifts are unilaterally bad, I'm simply claiming that they are complicated and that we might have lost something along with whatever we might (or might not) have gained. I am not for a second denying that young queers sitting in those same pews I was sitting in last weekend might well be driven to hate themselves by the words they hear there over the course of years. I'm not denying the messed up views of gender that are no doubt being drummed into the parishioners (though I'd counter that there are just as many secular sources of such views). I'm not denying that the interesting (imperfect but substantive) evangelical renunciation of the anti-semitism and anti-Black racism that tainted earlier decades is made much less heartening by the fervent embrace of Islamophobia (but, again, the most evangelical secularists tend to be virulent Islamophobes too). I am not denying the One True Way mindset that has been part of Christianity perhaps from its founding but certainly since its 'entanglement with empire' (a paraphrase of a Christian feminist theologian) at some point during its first millenium, and that is so integral to the conquest that has been such a major part of the global legacy of the West in the last five hundred years (though the One True Way mindset is no less present in Christian-derived secular contexts, and one could argue that it was operationalized for modern empire quite directly via secularism). I am not denying that in many (but not all!) such spaces the focus is on locating problems within individuals who are then encouraged to feel bad about themselves and to fit into oppressive social relations, rather than on transforming social relations such that we might all be able to survive and thrive. I am not denying that whatever self-cultivation goes on in many (but not all!) such spaces is at best a big dollop of top-down imposition along with the sort of active engagement by ordinary people that has a chance of overflowing the boundaries set by authority figures. It's not simple and it's mixed with a lot of messed up stuff. I recognize this.

Nonetheless, church is one of the only regular, systematic venues that most people in Canada today whose heritage, in their own lives or those of parents or grandparents or great-grandparents, includes Christianity have for reflecting on what life means and how we should live it. It is repeated, focused attention to our conduct in the world. Moreover, it is based on mining a rich and complicated symbolic system that is complex enough that even when a singular, oppressive message is being preached, there is scope for inventiveness, for compassion and justice to seep through the cracks, for dynamic responsiveness to the circumstances of real lives.

What have we lost with the loss of that space in so many lives?

I don't actually know the answer to that. I don't want to feed into the ridiculous narrative espoused by some right-wing Christians that attributes all manner of social ill to fewer people going to church. I remember Christians I went to highschool with making that argument, and it made me (privately) roll my eyes even then. And of course there are the prominent right-wing evangelicals who blame everything from extreme weather to terrorist attacks on lesbians and liberals and lack of prayer in schools. All of that is extremely silly and can only be plausible if you refuse to commit even minimal sociology (to paraphrase Stephen Harper). However we understand changes in religious practice in Canada over the last four decades, it has to be in the context of all of the other complex social changes in that time as well.

And yet, I still wonder. I still wonder how this loss of collective reflection, practice, and self-cultivation has an impact on us as selves being cultivated and as a social whole. I cannot help but see a correlation with the neoliberalization of capitalism over the same period, a major component of which is the material and cultural relegation of things previously seen as social into the private sphere. What earlier movements (often in interesting resonance with politically very different ways of seeing society that lingered from earlier times) had cast as social problems that could be solved socially, neoliberalism has taught more and more of us to see as private. It has taught many of us that the capitalist market is the only social force worthy of deference, even as access to many forms of comfort and safety and resources is reserved for fewer and fewer people.

Is the change in distribution of practices of self-cultivation not similar? For increasing numbers of people, it is no longer an imperfect but collective endeavour. Instead, opportunities for deliberate self-cultivating practices are individualized, which means fewer and fewer people can access them at all, and even among those who can they tend to happen in ways that are more likely to tune out the ethical and political call that the social makes (or should make) upon us. I certainly recognize that all of the practices of self-cultivation that I engage in are quite individualized (or are quasi-collective in a much different sense), and it would be much harder for me to relate to, say, writing and reading the way I do if I didn't have access to privilege in the way that I do. And I want to emphasize that it's not that people who don't or can't access the individualized versions, or for that matter the collective versions based in religion, are "bad" or "lesser" in any way. Such people are no less likely to be ethically good, interesting, talented, or worth knowing than anyone else. Rather, I see it more as a denial of opportunity for people to intervene in their own lives. And beyond that, it is also perhaps a loss of scope for collective intervention into our social world. After all, there have been important moments in Canadian history where collective self-production that happened in part through Christian contexts was important in mobilization to challenge inequality, injustice, and war -- it was always complicated and often had politically dubious aspects too, but it nonetheless accomplished important things. What does it mean that such space has eroded in the same period of time as neoliberalism has ascended?

So I have no conclusion. I wouldn't wish things backwards even if I could, for all the reasons already given. But I still wonder what we have lost, and what that means for our political practices in the present.

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