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The Ambiguity of Self-Reflection as Means to Self-Transcendence or as End-in-Itself

Self-reflection is the means by which the subject first brings itself into being. Subjectivity is constituted by the capacity of consciousness to


Tobias Churton, Gnostic Philosophy (Lichfield, UK: Signal, 2003), Chapter 6: “The Troubadours.” reflect upon itself and grasp itself as an immanent realm of self-awareness and autonomous action. Power is gained over others and over one’s environment by not reacting directly and immediately in response to them. In such immediate, bilateral relations, the human subject is likely to be overpowered by the forces of nature and is, as often as not, outmatched even by members of its own species. Instead of directly opposing superior force in quixotic fashion, we can leverage power by constructing a selfenclosed system or grid that we ourselves mold and control. By managing some such construct that we master, and by extending it gradually, we can build on the modest powers that we possess by nature and can enhance their scope. The advance of civilization has augmented the wherewithal of power constructed in this manner almost beyond imagining. At the most basic level, this repetitive self-reflective mechanism might be illustrated simply by the building of a wall, stone by stone. It is possible to erect an impregnable bulwark in which each piece is chosen and shaped and then integrated with the others in an interlocking network by repeatedly applying the same methods to the same type of basic materials. In one of the most primitive forms imaginable, such a construction embodies the principle of simple repetition of the same: it demonstrates the practical power of mechanical self-reflexivity.

Modern technology has proved capable of expanding such deliberately, self-reflexively generated power on a fabulous scale. In laser technology, for instance, a series of mirrors is used to reflect again and again the same beam of light and thus to multiply it exponentially in intensity. Almost any system of circuitry in our myriad devices operates on an analogous principle of endless reduplication. These mechanisms work almost like magic in creating internally coherent programs that efficaciously act upon external reality simply by regulating, through repeating patterns, their own internal circulation of information. By turning inward and relating directly only to itself, the self’s (or original cell’s) initial power can be gathered and multiplied deliberately and artificially. Through such methods of self-replication, the self is enabled, then, to relate indirectly, but with redoubled force, to the outer world. This type of power can be multiplied without limit to produce comprehensive systems with virtually uncontainable potential to further the reach of our command.

There is a kind of “cunning of reason” (Hegel’s “List der Vernunft”) in not attempting to match force by force, confronting nature and others directly, but rather withdrawing into a sphere that one can construct and control for oneself. Through such methods, we can attempt then to deal on our own terms with the reality that lies outside the calculable, manageable circuits that we create. We create a system for ourselves through which we can define and dominate a realm of our own making and shaping. Actually, what we control is not the world as such in its own intrinsic reality but only the forms of it that we recognize and construe in our conceptually constructed system. We substitute a humanly concocted

Self-Reflection and Contemporary Thought 249 model for nature itself in the unsoundable depths of its own being: in its intrinsic reality and alterity, the real remains for us a closed book.

The entire technological apparatus of modern civilization that spans and harnesses the earth, garnering its “resources” for human use, is made possible and is brought into being in this manner through self-reflection. Self-reflection is a source of power that is quite different from the immediate, raw power of nature. A different kind and order of force is created by self-reflection and its formalizations. This force is no longer immediate like that of the weight of a stone or the pressure of the wind. It is of a different order from the might of an approaching tidal wave or the destructive burning consumption of a forest fire. The uncanny, selfengendered force of self-reflection is realized through renunciation of first-order force, as Adorno and Horkheimer so effectively argued and illustrated through reference to the archetype of Odysseus.

This new type of human hero is distinguished by using technical devices and craft to worst his enemies and to triumph over superior natural violence, exemplarily in the shape of the Cyclops. The specifically human power of self-reflection is based on self-denial and subjection of life, with its instincts and impulses, to a rule of law and order. All civilized order is founded on such application of force first against oneself. Adorno and Horkheimer expose the original act of sacrifice on which the order and power of society are built as a kind of second-degree barbarism. They relentlessly strip away the masked violence from bourgeois society in the postwar world, but they also go all the way back to the antecedents of the Enlightenment in archaic Greece. Odysseus is examined in detail from the Homeric source and is made to stand out as a first archetype of bourgeois self-mastery for the sake of achieving domination over others and over nature. The source of his exemplary and formidable empowerment is, in effect, at its roots, the power of self-reflection—of critical thinking and conscious calculation manifest in self-restraint.

Humanity gains power in this indirect, sometimes devious, way by withdrawing from direct engagement with external reality and, instead, self-reflectively defining for itself a world of immanence made up of formalized objects that are abstract and exist only in the world created by human spirit and for human consciousness. This has been the recipe for technological progress and the magic formula for gradually achieving sovereignty over nature. Let us be clear, however, that what is dominated is not really nature itself but only a formalized schema, an abstract version or model of it. We can destroy “nature” as we understand it, but the chemical substance is all still there and, on its own terms, is not in the least deranged. Only in relation to us and our conceptions and needs are its order and amenities damaged. What we call “mastering nature” is


Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialektik der Aufklärung: Philosophische Fragmente (Amsterdam: Querido, 1944), trans. E. Jephcott as Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. G. S. Noerr (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).

really only making arrangements for ourselves within the compass of its own unrepealable dictates. These arrangements have value and validity for us alone. Nature is not dominated. It follows only its own laws in reacting to everything that we do. What has changed is that our relation to ourselves utilizes natural elements in ways that we find convenient or advantageous. Does this necessarily come at the price of ignoring nature, or can we enter into more intimate relation with nature by such interactive arrangements? On this question, our fate hangs in the balance.

Self-reflection emerges in modern thought and history as an awesome and mighty—but also destructive and tragic—technique for wielding power. It relates everything to the self, putting the self and its own preservation and self-aggrandizement always first. Self-reflection is not just an epistemological posture or habitus but also a form of relating to others within the world—yet always only through and as a means, first and finally, of relating to oneself. The brutally cold and relentlessly calculating mentality of bourgeois culture, as analyzed by Marx and Engels, subjects love and desire and everything else to the individual subject and its all-devouring egotism. The alarming consequences become evident in the fully unleashed global capitalism of colonialist and consumerist societies. One would want to reject self-reflection wholesale after witnessing the ravages it brings about in our contemporary world. The accusations brought against it in the tribunals of moral conscience concerning human rights and of consciousness of its environmental impact are staggering.

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