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15.11.05

Cultural Theory, Habermas, and Hugo Schwyzer

Today is a good day, because I get to write about three of my favorite topics. This synthesis was sparked by Hugo Schwyzer, who writes:

[Lynn] Phillips talks about the problem so many young women struggle with: separating their own desires from those of their families, friends, and the broader culture. For many of the women Phillips interviewed, the internalized audience is omnipresent, but never more so than when engaging in sexual activity. The make-up of the audience varies little from young woman to young woman: mothers and fathers, friends and family members, teachers and pastors and peers. Each member of the audience has his or her own set of expectations for how the girl ought to behave, and gradually, those expectations have crawled deep into the psyche. Raised to be acutely sensitive to the wishes and values of others, most young women "internalize the audience" by adolescence if not before. (Mom really can be everywhere!) And of course, once young women begin to interact sexually with others, the "audiences" begin to make conflicting demands.

... Thus I'm convinced that one of the most important feminist tasks is helping young -- and not so young -- women to quiet that internalized audience. Quieting, mind you, is not the same as dismissing. All of us, at times, can be comforted and strengthened by the memory of what some loved one or respected person has told us. On occasion, it's appropriate to ask: "What would so-and-so say if they could see me now? What advice would they give?" We ought on occasion to consider the wishes and beliefs of our culture, our faith (if we have one) and our parents. But though these ought to be factors in our decision-making about food, sex,and pleasure, they ought not to be the decisive ones. Helping young women listen to their own desires, separate from those of the large and loud audience, is a key feminist goal.


The liberatory project that Phillips* and Schwyzer outline is a very appealing one. However, as it stands it seems to be based on an Enlightenment/liberal model of the person that has come in for criticism in the social sciences. The liberal person is autonomous and unified self, with endogenous preferences, experiencing barriers and constraints as he or she attempts to interact in a world filled with other people.

The problem with the unified self seems easy enough to resolve. Poststructuralists have shown that identity and the self are in fact often fragmented and contradictory. Schwyzer's mistake is in assuming that internalized audience may be multiple and conflicting, but that a person's authentic desires are necessarily already consistent and unified. Here I must side with the existentialists who argue that while a unified self is not an automatic reality, it is a worthy goal. We can leave behind the paleo-liberal idea of the naturally unified self without discarding the idea of constructing a unified self. Thus Schwyzer's quest for the "authentic yes and authentic no" requires a (practically linked but conceptually distinguishable) existential project as well as the liberatory project he outlines.

More problematic is the idea of an easy separation of endogenous and exogenous preferences. Schwyzer is arguing for liberating people** from the exogenous preferences that we carry around in the form of the "internal audience." Even social scientists who hold no brief for the grid/group typology often approvingly cite Mary Douglas for the basic premise of Cultural Theory: that preferences are not inborn or given by early and effective conditioning, but rather arise out of social relations. Someone who is fully human cannot be imagined in isolation from the society in which their preferences form and operate.

The easy conclusion to draw from Douglas is that the distinction between endogenous and exogenous preferences -- between the "authentic yes and no," and the "internal audience" -- is illusory. But this runs up against the fact that we seem to experience the distinction as a real one (albeit not always clear-cut) in considering our own motivations. I'm unwilling to dismiss this as a mere Whorfian reading of our own experience through culturally given categories. I also don't think it's enough to distinguish them only as a matter of degree, viewing the "internal audience" as those cultural messages that we haven't internalized as fully as those desires that appear authentic.

Here I think Jürgen Habermas's attention to communicative action can offer some help. Habermas allows us to draw a distinction between being motivated by a sense of duty or a requirement imposed by another, versus motivation by a conviction that something is right. Communicative action is the process by which one person attempts to truly convince, rather than just harangue or guilt-trip, another person. The authentic yes and no can then be understood as those desires that a person has become truly convinced of, either through communicative action or through one's own experience (coupled with self-directed communicative action). The internal audience is made up of those voices whose claims a person feels compelled by but hasn't fully been convinced of -- thus making them appear as if coming from an outside source.

As a final speculation, I'd bring this distinction back to the grid/group typology of Cultural Theory. The internal audience strikes me as the mechanism by which grid is imposed, whereas group operates through cultivating shared authentic yesses and nos.

*Having not read her book yet myself, I can only go on what Schwyzer says about her ideas.
**Schwyzer and Phillips talk specifically about women, and I agree with them that women face greater, and qualitatively different, challenges on this front. However, I think that the general idea is applicable in some fashion to all people.

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