Discourse, Consistency and Identity

I haven’t offered up a good disjointed ramble in a while, so here comes one…

I typically talk about Discourse and consistency in terms of building bridges between Discourses, as though building the bridges is the main goal. I’d like to open up the question of consistency more broadly for a moment, to help note that the question is more far reaching than one might initially think. The can opener works something like this:

It has been claimed, by Dr. James Paul Gee, that Discourses are “identity kits” that we put on and wear. I have no problem with this concept, and it seems perfectly reasonable to view it as Gee says. In each distinct context of our lives, we’re a bit different. We have different language, with different meanings, nuances and history in its lexicon, depending upon the social context of our speech. We have different attitudes and ways of being, depending upon the social context of where we are, when, with whom. Placing all the contexts side by side would reveal at least slightly different versions of a single person’s identity, or we might even say it would reveal several different identities. This is not rocket science to consider, and everyone who has found themselves speaking and acting differently in different contexts is familiar with what I’m saying. The obvious questions are, which identity if any is the (more) real one, or more generally, are all of the identities simply parts of an overall monolithic identity an individual possesses? There are many reasons such questions are consequential, but to me there is a particular area that rises to the top in importance:

According to the heights of traditional spiritual views, we each indeed possess (or, at least, potentially possess) a singular and ultimate identity, and an ultimate goal rests in discovering and living from this singular identity—exclusively. But at this point, the worms begin to crawl out of the can. Here are a few of them:

First and perhaps most obvious of all, “spirituality” is a Discourse in its own right, and it must first be privileged above all others if we are to take seriously the very basis of this discussion. Further, spirituality is not so much a single Discourse as it is a conversation made up of many related Discourses. What do we do with those, and how do we group them and apply privilege to them? What meta-language, itself a Discourse, would we use to accomplish such assignment of privilege?

Second, the consistency problem. Gee notes that many of the multiple Discourses we each inhabit are in tension one with another, and some are downright contradictory. Gee would say that people act consistently in a given Discourse, but are not always consistent across Discourses. Gee would say people are consistent locally but not globally. Gee would also say the people tend to believe, however, that they are consistent globally as well. People like to believe that everything in their skull fits together consistently, even though it doesn’t. To me, this is a huge point; as I’ve noted in previous posts.

Third, we must ask why people tend to believe they are consistent globally. Gee would talk to me at this point about theories of the mind and the incredibly understated ability of humans to be self deceptive and believe they are globally consistent. But my point rests in a question: Given all that, why is it even important to us, in the first place, to believe we are consistent? What is the magical, be all and end all, importance we place on being consistent creatures? Why do we believe we must be consistent? Why should that be the end goal of our self deception? My theory is that all this goes on because we believe: (1) that if we are consistent, then we obviously possess the truth, (2) that if we possess the truth we are therefore right, and (3) if we are right, we are validated as a (good, decent, proper, correct, even saved) human being.

Fourth, but what if consistency is a fallacy? What if it is a red herring? What if, in truth, it doesn’t exist? Where, then, are we left in the middle of the human condition? What if our entire conscious, as well as self-deceptive, quest for consistency is of no point at all? What if the very foundation of what we believe validates us is a crock? If identity is bound up in Discourse, and if Discourse is founded in consistency, and if consistency is a contestable notion, what are we left to do with the idea of identity? The problem of “who am I?” is not simply anymore the rather complex quest for a stable and ultimately consistent being, but is now the problem of considering who I am in the absence of a foundational concept (i.e., consistency) granting stability itself. The problem of defining myself is now a problem of finding a way to define myself.

Fifth, why do I say, how can we say, that consistency is a contestable notion? For one, it doesn’t appear to exist, either empirically or theoretically. In short, what Gee claims about local versus global is similar to academic philosophical critiques of the coherence theory of truth, which is pretty much the idea that consistency and truth go hand in hand. These critiques grant that the coherence theory holds up in local systems, but nothing else. Additionally, and this work has seen a renewed interest in the past few years, minds like that of the mathematician Godel have pointed out quite handily that even within very precise local systems, consistency eventually breaks down somewhere. It seems clear to me that while consistency is a useful concept and even a worthy goal, it isn’t a litmus test for… well, much of anything.

Staring at the worms, I’ve lost my momentum and am asking myself, what’s my point so far? I think it’s something like this:

In the realm of being concerned with things spiritual, we need to reconsider the long-presumed value of “consistency.” It seems to me to be a bit too scientific and mechanical. It seems to carry far too much weight, while at the same time being inadequate to the task of considering the weightier matters of human existence. It seems that in this way it folds inward on itself and nears collapse; it is unable to accomplish what it implies is essential. It seems to me that consistency is little more than a measuring stick, and a rather dubious one that is very relative but assumed absolute, for judging the presence or absence of truth in another. In this way, consistency is akin to moral legalism, with all of its incumbent pitfalls, snares and fallacies. It seems to me that we need to think differently.

Just what “differently” may be, I’m not sure yet. But I’m pretty much convinced that consistency as any measure of a person is quickly moving out of my thinking. It’s quite liberating, I am finding, to let go of yet another method within which I have been expecting people to live according to my own questionable standards. It is also quite liberating, I am finding, to let go of yet another method within which I pathologically expect too much from myself.

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