Thursday, December 2, 2010

FEELING The Implications of Searle's Work On Status Functions

I got into a conversation with some friends about John Searle's latest book Making The Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. A very compelling and exciting book.

Searle is trying to explain the existence of human institutional reality. In particular, he is interested in things like money, cocktail parties, laws, marriage, etc.. All the various things that exist only because a society has agreed that they exist. These are what he calls status functions. These titles function in our society only because they have been given a certain status.

Searle believes that the bulk of our social and institutional reality is contingent upon a sea of status functions. They are all around us: they are stop signs, menus at stores, laws, national and religious identities, and so on for days. The bulk of our experience is constituted by a plethora of status functions.

But how did these status functions come to be? Through language itself.

Searle believes that language possess a unique property of being able to bring certain things into reality simply by declaring them to be so. To use Searle's example, If I go out with a friend and buy two beers for us, and I set one in front of him and tell him that it is his beer, and he reaches for the other beer and starts to drink it, suddenly the situation is uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable because I made a status function declaration and my friend is not abiding by it. He, in turn, is making a competing status function declaration by reaching for 'my' beer. Or perhaps I'm in a bar playing billiards and I realize the table next to me has a sign on it that says 'reserved'. If two people were to talk up and start playing on that table without a reservation there would be a certain discomfort going on. Same thing: that sign 'reserved' was a status function declaration that brought a certain institutional reality into being.

Now, these examples are mundane, but Searle is adamant that it applies to every facet of our social existence. Searle believes that the status function declaration is responsible for all of human institutional reality. That it is this property of language to simultaneously declare things and bring them into being at the same time that allows complex institutional reality to exist. If Searle's analysis is correct, which at times seems hard to deny, this should be a big fucking deal.

This seems like it has the power to shake our faith in our own lives. Why do we live the way we do? Because people have been making these status function declarations for all these centuries? People don't even do it consciously. They just happen. By Searle's definition actions constitute speech acts. So actions, like pushing a beer towards someone, can constitute a status function declaration.

Similarly, the founding of nations can be achieved through status function declarations that are not explicitly stated. An army entering a city is in itself a status function declaration. This should challenge our every loyalty. It should make us think why we love our country. Why we love our families the way we do. Why we love anything or hate anything. This should prompt an infinitely spiraling form of reflection. Given the relationship between language, culture, and emotions (which I badly need to explore), it should be obvious that status functions would structure our emotions for us.

This whole post is about asking how Searle's work can change us emotionally. Is it possible for us to really FEEL the implications of his work? Can we use his analysis to restructure our emotions? Can we change the structure of our emotional reactions? Because it seems like all our allegiances that serve as the axis for our emotions, nationhood, family identity, cultural or racial identity, have the potential to be dismantled and reexamined in important ways in light of Searle's work.

I think that his work makes a lot of sense to me intellectually. But what I want to know is if it is possible for it to make sense to me emotionally. Can I use this work to restructure my emotions?

And with things like gender and sexuality the answer is a clear yes. I've written on many occasions, and recently in my piece of November 18th 'Bottled Water and Irresponsible Metaphors', about how intellectual work in the study of gender and sexuality leads to direct changes in my behavior and my emotions. Once I recognize that standards of gender and sexuality, even the concepts of gender and sexuality themselves, constitute status functions, it is possible for me to behave in new ways. I think that my emotions have been changed because of my exposure to gender and sexuality studies.

But how deep can this work go into my emotional core? What emotional convictions do I have that are constituted by status functions? I suspect many.

How hard can I work to make new status function declarations? Very

I just think that if we were to take Searle seriously, and try to embrace his full implications, we would find our identities shattered. I find Searle to be implicitly Nihilistic. My friend pointed out that I have a very tailored or altered definition of Nihilism. But I still think it is so. This idea of status functions shows us that if we were to examine history we would find that systems of meaning recreate themselves without any actual or essential one emerging. Life is about creating meaning in a void.

Right now I'm telling myself that I want to let Searle into my heart and see what happens.

Update 12/3/10 8:19am: I don't want to make it seem as though status functions aren't legitimate ways of structuring our lives. They are the only way of structuring our lives. And it isn't a bad thing if our emotions are constituted around these status functions. But Searle's analysis implies a flexibility and creative possibility to our emotions. If we can manipulate the status functions that we live by through status function declarations then the world gains a lot of possibilities. Unfortunately society's most powerful status functions have a lot of momentum and we wouldn't be able to change them easily. But a question for me is: Is it possible to live by status function declarations that live simply within our own head? The answer is yes and no. With gender and sexuality, yes. With capitalism, no. Check out my writing on Bottled Water and Irresponsible Metaphors. At this place I can say that intellectual insurrection is an effort to structure your experience with your own unique set of status function declarations when society's status functions seem disagreeable. I previously defined it as the effort to maintain a mental freedom when your physical actions could not be brought in line with your thoughts. I still maintain that. I now just want to incorporate status functions more explicitly.

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