Marc Fonda’s Ongoing Program of Research

Presently, I have two research projects in progress. One of which is related to power in American millenarianism and the other stems from my doctoral research and investigates the possibility of developing an understanding of self as an aesthetic category.

Power and Media Use in the History of the American Apocalypse

My research into the vicissitudes of American Protestant apocalypse is informed by psychology yet is historical and sociological in focus. The intent is to develop a historical chronology in one volume on the varieties of American millenarianism, which is something that does not presently exist. My conceptual framework is undergrided by issues of power which suggests, in general, that millenarian movements are uniquely concerned with power and authority in the attempt to develop a new understanding of humanity and community while of developing some new, more adequate form of redemption.

This survey of the evolution of American millenarian expression is a critical one that expands from the models of power as developed by Kenhelm Burridge’s New Heaven New Earth (1971) and John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Anatomy of Power (1982). In this model, power acts as a significant motive for most millenarian movements. The recognition of unjust power distributions in a society is responded to through millenarian activities that call for new concepts of self, community and salvation which are more responsive to the needs of the general society and attempt to provide more just distributions of power. By examining the rhetoric and media use of American millenarian activities over time, one may not only identify the historical distributions of power but also how millenarian movements used the sources and instruments of power for their own ends. My initial research indicates that a conceptual framework based on power relations is, indeed, an appropriate one. One conclusion may be that millennial movements and activities are always political.

Towards an Aesthetics of Self

My second project is more ambitious in scope and requires ongoing development, yet is beginning to gel. This project is multidisciplinary at base, borrowing insights and arguments from such far-flung fields as neuropsychology and neurophilosophy, cultural anthropology and sociological theory, depth psychology, art theory, and metaphysics among others. The project is tentatively entitled ‘Towards an Aesthetics of Self.’ This project is inspired by my doctoral research on James Hillman’s archetypal psychology and his understanding of the imagination and the imaginal world with respect to the question of what it means to be a human being.

Following theorists like Suzanne Langer’s Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (Volume I, 1958), Hillman argues that humans are feeling beings first and foremost. To say that human individuals ‘feel’ their ways through the world, suggests that we make aesthetic judgements continuously and in all situations and this is true with respect to the construction of identity and theories on self. This position is supported by contemporary cognitive sciences which suggest that pure intellect is ineffectual without feelings to temper its ambitions (see: Antonio Damasio’s Descates’ Error, 1994 and Joseph LeDoux’s The Emotional Brain, 1996). If feeling is fundamental to human experience (i.e., perception and cognition), then we may assume that feelings are also fundamental to individual and cultural conceptions of self and identity. It would appear that it is one’s responses to the images (in the broadest sense) experienced help to inform the choices that ultimately make up individual identity and cultural preferences regarding identity. This would be an open-systems approach that posits that not only are individuals formed by culture but that individuals may form culture as well.

The meaning behind the Greek aisthenasthai (‘perceiving through feeling’) provides an additional theoretical ground from which to begin this examination. Thus an aesthetics of self implicates how self and identity are formed by our feeling responses to the things we experience and how one’s imagination of self is related to the imaginal field (the culture or cultures to which one is exposed). It is not only possible to examine various theories of self as an aesthetic response to the experience of being human (e.g., the choice of Freudian over Jungian conceptions of self may be based on an aesthetic preference), but also to examine how cultural prescriptions of what it means to be human influence identity. Daniel Dennett, in Consciousness Explained (1992), argues that self does not include the notion of a homunculus overseeing and making continual judgements on one’s perceptions. Rather self involves a process by which the brain continually sends out signals to the body and the resulting perceptions, thereby, make up an image of individual continuity in both the physical and emotive realms. Dennett’s position is fruitful insofar as it provides some materials with which I may construct my theoretical framework. Yet, while Dennett does point to a reasonable conception of the continuity of self, he does not account for such things as the interaction between the individual and the cultural, how two are co-dependent, or for individual variation within a single culture. In other words, his is a closed-systems approach to selfhood that appears to be limited to the mind-body relationship, evolutionary theory, and utilitarianism. Dennett’s approach does not account for and was not intended to account for cultural and social influences in the development of 1) theories of self, 2) the meaningfulness of experiences of self, and 3) the identities people may form as a means of expressing their unique understanding of self.

I presume that the things we experience, from both the interior (mind/soul/body) and the exterior (culture/society/world), are intrinsic to the development of identify and our understandings of self. Thus part of an individual’s identify may be formed by picking and choosing from the cultural fare to which we are exposed. In a multi-cultural, globalized context, however, such cultural fare makes up a smorgasbord from which individuals and cultures may sample a wider variety of possibilities. The political consequences of a globalized world and consumer culture is a situation in which individual fantasies or imaginings of self are less likely to be monocultural at root. At the same time, this situation implies that individual imaginings of self are more likely to be polycentric (i.e., with multiple centres of meaning).

Hillman suggests that individual identity is based upon individual appropriations of (multi)cultural understandings of identity and self and makes up a number of ‘fantasies’ or imaginings which is appropriate to one’s own preferences as informed by one’s experiences (i.e., it is an aesthetic response). One source of evidence for this supposition may be found in the film "Paris is Burning" which documents how members of New York’s gay community celebrate their indentities/personae, ranging from the original drag queens to heterosexual-appearing men in suits on Wall Street. In this film, we find that the very marginality of their sexual preferences requires gay men to construct public and private identities that feel appropriate to their understanding of the self they experience yet may also allow them to function more or less comfortably in the greater society.

As noted, this project requires ongoing research. It is imperative to develop a strong metaphysics which accounts for an adequate relationship among imagination, memory, perception, time and space (see: Edward Casey’s Spirit and Soul, 1991) as well as self and other, mind and body, culture and world among other issues. I would like to continue research into contemporary cognitive sciences so as to provide comprehensive and up-to-date evidence to support this metaphysics. Other areas of research include art theory, symbolism, semiotics, narrative and other areas in the broad category of communications theory in order to develop a convincing model regarding the presentation of self. Research into sociological theory is also essential in order to present a strong case for the conditions applicable to consensual reality and the interventions individuals may bring to such a reality. While there is a lifetime of research and contemplation yet to be conducted, I do believe that I am fast approaching a point at which I may begin to author initial works on an aesthetics of self.

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Copyright © 2000 Marc Fonda. All rights reserved.
Last updated: September 22, 2000.