Sympathists

Posts Tagged ‘Identity Formation’

On Berger and Luckmann

In Sociology on June 13, 2009 at 10:00 am

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post is a precursor to a more detailed commentary on Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s “The Social Construction of Reality,” and introduces the work through my favorite quote therein:

“In an important way all, or at least most, of the others encountered by the individual in everyday life serve to reaffirm his subjective reality.  This occurs even in a situation as ‘non-significant’ as riding on a commuter train.  The individual may not know anyone on the train and may speak to no one.  All the same, the crowd of fellow-commuters reaffirms the basic structure of everyday life.  By their overall conduct the fellow-commuters extract the individual from the tenuous reality of early-morning grogginess and proclaim to him in no uncertain terms that the world consists of earnest men going to work, of responsibility and schedules, of the New Haven Railroad and the New York Times.  The last, of course, reaffirms the widest co-ordinates of the individual’s reality.  From the weather report to the help-wanted ads it assures him that he is, indeed, in the most real world possible.  Concomitantly, it affirms the less-than-real status of the sinister ecstasies experienced before breakfast–the alien shape of allegedly familiar objects upon waking from a disturbing dream, the shock of non-recognition of one’s own face in the bathroom mirror, the unspeakable suspicion a little later that one’s wife and children are mysterious strangers. Most individuals susceptible to such metaphysical terrors manage to exorcise them to a degree in the course of their rigidly performed morning rituals, so that the reality of everyday life is at least gingerly established by the time they step out of their front door.  But the reality begins to be fairly reliable only in the anonymous community of the commuter train.  It attains massivity as the train pulls into Grand Central Station.  Ergo sum, the individual can now murmur to himself, and proceed to the office wide-awake and self-assured” (149-150).

Berger and Luckmann mean here that the reality of being in society is daily recreated and fortified through contact with society through one’s morning routine.  The idea here is widely applicable despite Berger and Luckmann’s reliance on the somehow comic, stereotypical, John Cheever-esque New England businessman as representative of all humankind.  But, indeed, and again pace Cheever, if any one social type were to fall prey to metaphysical terrors it may well be our passenger on the New Haven Railroad.  More to the point, what fascinates here is the idea that our identity as an able participant in social processes requires a kind of patching together through ritual and regularity, and that, by extension, said identity emerges from sleep each morning somewhat fractured, spotty, several cards short of a full deck. 

The key word in the quoted paragraph is, I think, “massivity.”  Upon waking, emerging from dreams, “sinister ecstasies,” I check the time and stumble to the shower; the social world, “reality,” looms, but remains as yet thin and somewhat unbelievable. Thinking forward to the social being that in past days I have been, and all of the actions that accompany simply being in the world, I perceive a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the present “me” and the “me” that carries out these actions.  But, after coffee (chemical stimulus), dressing for work (confinement and limitation disguised by fashion as choice and decision), bidding goodbye to family (reinforcing responsibility and tapping into eons of pater familias symbolism), boarding the train (committing oneself to forward motion toward that location where sociability will be unavoidable), and recognizing fellow riders, nameless as they may remain, the full weight of the role that one will be expected to play begins, once again, to come home. Continue reading
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On Knotting the Necktie and Other ‘Practices of the Self’

In Sociology on January 29, 2009 at 9:25 am

Editor’s Note: Sympathies is pleased to present the first of what we hope to be many posts from our old friend, Mr. Andrew Inch. Here, Mr. Inch responds to an earlier post of mine on J.G. Ballard and “My Dinner With Andre.” As is his wont, Mr. Inch has zeroed in on the true topic of the post which may have been submerged by a certain amount of thematic rambling.  Despite the fact that he has chosen the very European lifecourse of professional student, Andrew too once worked in an office, as his post makes clear.

Andrew Inch, United Kingdom

necktyingSo after promising not to get drawn into writing anything other than my doctoral thesis I find myself responding to something here on Classical Sympathies at some length, maybe even provoked to do so. Or perhaps just with a memory of provocation. Or a desire to provoke. In any case, Matthew Thomas’ recent post on “Social Image and Social Reality: On Ballard’s “Conversations” and “My Dinner With Andre”” seemed to invite a response.

Matthew’s post was concerned with the way we come to perform particular identities, to take on, or affect certain social positions. He seems interested by the nature of this performance, placing it in relation to the worlds of theatre and literature through the work of J.G. Ballard and the film My Dinner with Andre. He is concerned to probe the possibility of some kind of authenticity, and to wonder at the self he himself presents to the world through the stabilizing practices of routine. Ultimately, he seems to want to assert the potential for creative agency through exercise of the will-to-power, the possibilities immanent in the performance of new identities through the carrying out of the appropriate rituals.

For me this drew to mind a one time colleague, for arguments sake let’s call him MT, who would as a matter of course dress for work in a neatly pressed business shirt and necktie. Or at least that is how I remember him -some years have passed since we worked together after all. This was, however, particularly noteworthy since, in the workplace in question, there was at that time no formal dress code, and many of the rest of us chose to dress in a less formal fashion. Continue Reading

Social Image and Social Reality: On Ballard’s “Conversations” and “My Dinner With Andre”

In My Dinner With Andre, Sociology on January 24, 2009 at 10:59 am

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

In the comments section for my earlier post “On Staying in Business Hotels II: A Ballardian Perspective,” Mr. Andrew Inch introduces the concept of “psychogeography” in relation to Ballard: “His vision of the ignored edges of urban life, and the sinister presences that inhabit these spaces seems to reveal a deep engagement with the psychic impacts, and psychotic tendencies of late modern capitalism. Business hotels certainly fit squarely within the Ballardian imagination.”  Andrew points out that psychogeography is also a fitting description for Walter Benjamin’s method, if it could be called that, and indeed Benjamin’s rambling and unstructured yet somehow systematic exploration of European cities, Paris, Naples, Marseilles, will be the subject of a future series of posts.

This post, on the other hand, will put a period on Ballardania for the time being by offering a run-down of some of the highlights of Re/Search’s “J.G. Ballard: Conversations.”  We will also investigate the intersections between the Ballard material and nuggets from the inimitable 1981 film My Dinner With Andre. For readers who wish to follow up on Ballard, Re/Search has issued a whole book of Ballard quotes.  Also, The Complete Short Stories are available in two volumes, and are the best place to start digging into Ballard.

Re/Search’s 350 page book of Ballard on the phone is, admittedly, for fans only, and in these conversations Ballard runs true to form by going around and around on his pet “obsessions.” Occasionally he falls into outright repetition, but for the most part each conversation sheds new light on already familiar ground. The striking thing about reading Ballard, whether in novel form or here, is the degree to which Ballard’s interests intersect only casually with my own. Running down the list: swimming pools, beach resorts, and gated communities; Ronald Reagan; plastic surgery; the evolution of sexuality through technology; car crashes, airplane crashes; William Burroughs–none of these topics keep me up nights. Continue Reading