Posted by: gcarkner | September 12, 2012

Individual Survivalism vs. Community

A Tale of Two Grad School Strategies

A radical pursuit of self-definition and private self-interest, to the exclusion of the presence and the needs of the Other, although immensely popular today, is a far less tenable and credible option. Postgraduate students can operate on a faulty assumption of chronic distrust, that is, fear that other grad students will always try to control and manipulate one’s behaviour, steal one’s research for his own purposes, or try to impose her agenda (will-to-power) in the lab. This fear is often intensified as we seek to reinvent ourselves as an  “expert” in our field and carve out our academic niche towards that tenure track position. This leads to the loneliness that all grad students experience.

Late modernity’s nihilism tends to intensify this problem and leave the self feeling even more alone—weighted down with the responsibility to create and re-create both reality and oneself (see Foucault’s third phase). This is the view of self-construction. This pressure drives many to defeat, angst and despair; it can be quite concerning and distressing (MacLean’s recent article on campus angst: http://www2.macleans.ca/2012/09/05/the-broken-generation/). Although such competition and manipulation is apparent at times, this is a jaded perspective on human sociality. It is far too cynical about the potential of human relationships within academia (grad school red with tooth and claw).

The autonomy that modernity cannot do without (Foucault), needs a dialectical relationship with community as a balance to one’s own intense self-reflexive relationship. The nature of autonomy cannot be confined to a radical self-determination. It must involve the possibility of recognition by and dependence upon other people within a larger horizon of significance. Note that famous French political theorist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, as documented by Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart, saw two different kinds of individualism in America, one of which was more communal in sensibility. It is possible to articulate/define oneself as a communal being.

There is available a different stance which we can find in Romans 12 or Ephesians 4, or in many other places. I recently attended a lecture by David Sloan Wilson at SFU Harbour Campus. He is very bullish on cooperative human potential–an ecology of mutual benefit and common good. It is more challenging to take other selves seriously in terms of the good that they are, and the good that they can offer us, and we them. It is also challenging to think that they are as God-loved and deserving of grace as us, especially if they are competing for the same scholarship. But we posit that trust building is a tentative, yet necessary, exercise for the moral and mental health of graduate students and the health of the academic community as a whole.

Our quest for freedom and strength through academic study can grow partly through a wiser discernment and exploration of the communal dimensions of our time in grad school. This is freedom to identify with, cooperate with, and serve the Other. One of the conclusions of my dissertation on the dialogue between Michel Foucault and Charles Taylor was that redeemed freedom (versus autonomous freedom) by definition takes on a distinctively communal character. It is contextualized within a discussion and relationships between fellow interlocutors and collaborators.  This flourishes against the backdrop of a larger narrative and purpose (pursuit of truth, good of humanity, good of creation) one that makes sense of us and our relationships.

Individual autonomy wisely gives up ground to community and makes space for the Other in order to avoid some of the pitfalls, narcissistic extremes and alienations of radical autonomy. This will augur well to provide for a richer, more meaningful moral and social experience in grad school. This is a fundamental commitment and does not always flow naturally from our self-interested desires; it involves a refusal of the ultimacy of these desires, replaces them with higher desires for community and the cultivation of communal virtues. In GCU, we try to promote this as a lively and fruitful option.

Gord Carkner

See the complete article: Individualism and Radical freedom Examined: Radical Individualism Examined


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