The "self" and the paradoxes of other controlled idenfications of the action
Some comments on Sartre on Genet, and Rambo
The idea which I have never ceased developing is that,
finally, one is always responsible for what has been made of oneself--even
if one cannot do more than assume this responsibility. I believe that
a man can always make something out of what has been made of him. This
is the definition I would today give of freedom: the little movement which
makes out of a totally conditioned social being a person who not give
back the totality of what he has received from his conditioning. This
is what makes a poet out of Genet, even though he had been rigorously
conditioned to be a thief.
This quote can be read at two levels, one fully grounded in the 20th century theories
of socialization, whether of Durkheimian or pragmatist lineage, and one exploring
possibilities in the further developments in structuralist theorizing allowed by work in
- Sartre implies that, by being born in a particular social environments,
Genet was determined to become a thief.
- Obviously we have here some philosophical license: the Durkheimian
work to which Sartre referred would only have said that there was
a higher probability of Genet becoming a thief than of the child of
the higher classes.
- But while Sartre accepts what appeared at the time as (social)
science, he also rejected the reading of the studies as implying a total
abdication of freedom and responsibility. Starting with the same moral
revulsion that continue to drive current interests in "agency,"
he emphasizes how, in fact, there is evidence that people are not fully
determined, that they can make something else out of themselves through
acts of personal responsibility who thereby affirm a "freedom"
that should also be a principle of social analysis.
- While Sartre does not use the Meadian vocabulary of the self
and the I, that which must be postulated to allow for the transformation
of a thief into a poet can be related to Mead's discussion of radical
indeterminacy at the moment of action.
- One problem with the above analysis is that it does not recognize
that the categories "thief" and "poet" are themselves
the products of cultural process that not only distinguishes between the two
statuses, but also define what is to count as either and who can be recognized
publically as indeed one or the other.
- Durkheim was the first to propose systematically that what counts
as crime for any society is organized by this society: there is no intrinsically
criminal activity outside of a set of rules and commandments about what
is to be criminal. Benedict and all early cultural anthropologists offered
often weaker but essentially similar theories.
- While this can be shocking when applied to acts currently
unchallengeably criminal, this is common sense in all efforts to reclassify
other acts out of the criminal category (e.g. abortion, euthanasia,
etc.) and still other as criminal (e.g. sexual harassment, genocide,
- The same argumentation is also at the basis of much work
on the placing of physical handicaps within the range of human possibilities.
- Given such an argumentation, then it is not the act of the person
(or the physical symbol) that carries meaning, but the manner of its use
within wider sequences.
- In other words this picture:
is meaningless unless it is appropriated within particular discourses
which can make it equally American and resistant to America.
- This is NOT to say that the picture (given its sequential
place as the last in the movie) as itself does not have a power over
its interpretation but rather that more can be done with this picture
than an examination of the picture by itself would reveal.
- This reopens the question of "freedom" in a different
form. The issue moves from determining the extent of Genet's movement away
from his socialization for he did not control his identification as a "poet."
Indeed he has not been moved by most with authority into the canon of 20th
century French poetry. Making Genet into a poet was as much a product of Sartre's
work and his relative freedom to label people poet against the academy of
his time, as it was the product of Genet's work.
- Then, where is Genet's freedom? It is not quite in transforming
himself into a poet as in transforming the personal patterns of his action.
In this process of construction a possible self-for-others (and himself?)
he made himself a particular kind of thief and a particular kind of poet.
Whatever made it possible for others to see him as a thief is as much a product
of his freedom as what made it possible for Sartre to coopt him further as
a poet and an example for the reality of existential freedom. Being a thief
was not what Genet had to become any more than being a poet was. Both are
the results of his indeterminate actions within a system of identifications.
From the beginning of his life he could have acted differently even if he
could not control his circumstances. What he would say next (his paroles)
was always his (free?) responsibility, even if he could not act upon his langues
- Some further comments on "exuberance" in translation (Becker 1995)
or extra-vagance in culture (Boon 1999)
- All this can be related to Maxine Hong Kinston's ability to say 'I' in kindergarten and to my use, with Ray McDermott, of her statement in the context of our discusssion of "cultural facts" in Successful Failure (1998)
February 16, 2000 [April 6, 1999]