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VISIONAND VISIBILITY: THE PHENOMENOLOGYOF POWER AND THEAMERICAN LITERARY CONSCIOUSNESS OF SELF* John Stephen Martin This is a study of the dialectic of consciousness to be found in American fiction, andits relation to changing concepts of selfuood. Consciousness in the context of selfuood is usually expressed as the American notion of individualism. However, 1tis well to point out that "consciousness" is an ideological term as much as it might be a psychological experience or a philosophical concept. 1 The term "consciousness" arises in the post-Enlightenment world, which was casting off thelast remnants of an authoritarianism that bound subjects to feudal positions of traditional power, and it referred both to the revolutionary skepticism of such traditional power as well as to the individual "rights" to personal power found in the Romantic concepts of universal Reason and Nature and withheld by despots from the common man (Minogue 4, 3, 152-54; Foucault 59, 39). To be sure, in the context of political philosophy, the terms Reason and Nature were very ambiguous, and they gained specific meaning primarily in the rhetorical strategems framing the terms which various ideologies used in the name of revolution and reform (Minogue 111, 138-141 ). However, in the American situation, the political ideology was accompanied by a social-economic revolution that made "power" arise from entrepreneurial individualism and become "visible" in 'The following paper was given as the President's Address at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Association for American Studies held in Victoria, British Columbia, in the autumn of 1985. 182 John Stephen Martin commonplace experience (Hartz). Such experiential "consciousness" of the "powers" of Reason and Nature convinced Americans that they had found the means directly to tap the "powers" to liberate all men from the "false consciousness " of traditional authoritarianism. But strangely enough, an analysis of American literature indicates two subversive truths undermining the common ideology: first, if individual ''power'' to ignore the past authority was an effectof the "visible" daily life, literary protagonists were mere products of experience and had no individual moral intentionalism ("free will"); secondly, if this determinism was true, there was no way to account for the manifold human "visions" which since the Revolution sought to alter the traditional beltefs. manners, and activities in accord with the new notion of the ''right'' to freedom from such authoritarianism. Americans were thus caught in a dilemma of culture and civilization unique to themselves: they assumed they had a society in which the "power" to change was "self-evident" and justified, but they also were susceptible to doubts about this "power" when the "visible" world in-itated them, failed to explain or support their ideological hopes, or openly oppressed their "inalienable" awareness of personal "visions." In this sense, the American experience of individualism-its ''consciousness'' of individualism-is itself an ideological struggle against what is assumed to be an ideological doctrine of the perfection of Reason and Nature in America. In short, there is a paradox of two truths which only a dialectic can harmonize; and it is this dialectic of' 'vision" and "visibility" which I see as best defining the American consciousness of selfhood, and which I will address. 2 It was Ralph Waldo Emerson, at the beginning of his career, who presented the problem and first formulation of consciousness and selfhood to his countrymen. Writing in his 1836 seminal work entitled Nature, Emerson grappled with the most paradoxical of the terms confronting his generation. Emerson appeared tobe a modem neo-Platonist when he asserted that the universe is composed of "Nature" and the "Soul," but in the very next sentence, he subdivided the term "Nature" so that it was more inclusive than ordinarily understood. He termed "Nature" to be, as he said, "the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body" (II). Emerson's phrasing implied that there is a pnmary Nature which includes the secondary nature of physical matter plus all the instances of man's "art" that has transformed secondary nature; and as a result of this, primary Nature is actually a mirror-like antithesis of "Soul" which is ever changing. The terms gain meaning from the dialectic opposition; to understand the term...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 182-196
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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