Saturday, 1 March 2008

Journal #8: Dual Selves and Berger's Women

The Lives of Amphibians and Chimæras:
Journal #8
Dual Selves and Berger's Women
From Berger's Ways of Seeing, I have extracted a few quotations that I want to examine:

"Reproduction isolates a detail of a painting from teh whole. The detail is transformed. An allegorical figure becomes a portrait of a girl."

"...this has come at the cost of a woman's self being split into two."

"[She sees] the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman."

Now, I disagree on some details and agree on others, but the direction of Berger's argument is not really what interests me. The idea of a split self does.

The 'gift' of being able to see yourself as an other has many benefits. For instance, you can control how people see you; Berger makes this point and deplores that it is women's only source of power, and he's right. However, it is a source of power and even men, who according to Berger have power based on how others perceive their potential, could use it. Those who seem to have no self-consciousness are often outcast as socially unacceptable. Those who are incapable of self-reflection often do not grow and learn as well as those who are capable. The ability to perform a sort of mental mitosis and become two 'selves' is thus useful. Notice Nineteen-Eighty-Four's doublethink: mental dexterity allows belief in contradictory thoughts, which allows survival. The conditions were not ideal, for sure, but conditions never will be. In less-than-ideal circumstances, the dual self is useful.

The difficult comes, of course, when you cannot turn this 'gift' off--if your two new selves don't come back and be one self again but instead go on being two different selves, you (vous, not tu) get a bit of a problem. In the case of women, one self objectifies the other self--or, the woman objectifies herself. This could clearly lead to problems of self-esteem and self-worth. The theory (though contestes) goes that this sort of thinking, taken to the extreme, leads to disassociative identity disorder--multiple personalities. Of course, DID is the (known) extreme, but the point is that there are dangers involved.

And now to the first quotation: Venus, out of context, becomes a young woman. Berger argues that reproduction (and selection) changes the work. But I say the detail, the women herself, is not "transformed." Instead, how we observe her is--essentially, the detail contained both meanings and both women (that is, the detail was both Venus and an ordinary woman). One is allegorical and thus a self presenting her (other?) self in a certain way, and the other is a self as she is. I ask, rhetorically, why it can't be the case that it is both a person and a symbol? Perhaps it is because symbols are less useful if they have their own agency. But then I'm more concerned with the agency of the symbol than how useful it is to an author... after all, doubling should give power to the doubled.

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