What is incorporation?
We all like to believe that we are original and autonomous individuals, soveriegn individuals that are authentic. This is an impossible occurence and the concept of incorporation describes the process of our ‘thrown-ness’ into existence. It’s sometimes referred to as a ‘ready-to-hand’; ‘present-at-hand’ or ‘readymade’ quality that affects our ontical-ontology in existence. We are born into a world of history and talking about incorporation is a study of historology (history of being) and historciality (ontical history of a being). Incorporation is a process we can’t avoid, it is a heteronomous will, a determinism of our being in being.
To incorporate something means to take it from the world around you and then make it part of your own body.
For example, when we ingest food we extract nutrients from it and some of these nutrients are transformed into cells in our bodies. In a similar sense, we are educated in society and we pick up ideas, beliefs, norms and practices from other people around us and then make them ‘our own’.
Parasitic and Symbiotic
From the example of ingestion and nutrients in the body, incorporation is not strictly harmful in and of itself. Some forms of incorporation are symbiotic, which means that two bodies co-exist in a way that is beneficial for both bodies. For example, there is bacteria in our bodies that helps to break down food and remove harmful toxins, without them we would not be able to survive. A tic however, which feeds off our blood, is a parasite. The tic needs me to live, but I can live without the tic.
Some of these ideas are dug in very deep in our subconscious and may seem like instincts, they become emotional, unconscious and unthinking, ‘physical’ reflexes and ‘gut feelings’, or knee-jerk reactions. This is usually apparent when what we have incorporated is challenged or violated and a cognitive dissonance occurs.
There are four main processes of incorporation – mimesis, performativity, normativity and the formation of subjects.
Human beings have a strong and largely unconscious tendency to imitate each other, especially from what they consider to be ‘role models’. Some philosophers and psychologists use the Greek term mimesis to describe this phenomenon. Children start to imitate the people around them within hours of them being born, starting with facial expressions. After a few months, it gets more complex and they copy and repeat practices and routines that they are shown.
Mimesis or ’embodied unconscious imitation’ is a very early and powerful way in which we incorporate values, desires and actions of those near to us. The drive is for power – we have an unconscious desire to have more and more control over our bodies and we copy routines and practices, ideas and values from others in order to get the ball rolling. This doesn’t stop after childhood however, it continues through the rest of our lives.
There are even earlier ‘transmission processes’ for appetites that are passed on while we are in the womb, what our mothers eat determines what our tastes are.
Mimesis can sometimes be referred to as a ‘herd instinct’, ‘chameleon effect’ and subconscious ‘priming’.
One way in which we incorporate values, norms and practices is by repeatedly performing and practicing them. When we learn a new song or dance, we start off awkward and rigid, but eventually through practice and repitition, the moves and sounds flow more naturally until it is like a ‘second nature’.
Developmental Psychologists studied how children learn ‘scripts’, or repeated patterns of social interaction. There are determined scripts for bedtime and dinnertime, or ‘going to the park’. Like a theatre script, it can include a typical sequence of events or scenes and can feature and number of roles (mummy, baby etc).
Built into it are expectations of what happens next, desires and emotions about what is happening and values, of right and wrong actions and responses. Basic structures of human memory seem to favour learning through scripts. Infants have little memory for particular objects and one-off events, buthave strong memory for repeated sequences.
Like mimesis, script learning is not something that stops when we grow up, it continues throughout our adult lives too.
Norms and practices – also interpretations, values, desires, or even whole scripts combining a number of these – that people in a group feel to be normal or expected and to be right. Norms are supported through rewards and punished through sanctions.
Norms are unofficial rules, often unwritten that are enforced by nieghbours, informal groups, as opposed to laws, which are more formal rules that are enforced by the state or other ‘specialist’ agent. We don’t have to make the distinction here, some official laws work like norms, if they are accepted as right and normal.
Many norms are implicit, rarely put into words, perhaps even entirely unconscious. Many Developmental Psychologists think children start to learn norms before they can speak. They are ‘moral feelings’ that we learn and then later rationalise into ‘moral concepts’. So they are largely unconscious and can go unquestioned, even when we consciously rationalise and justify them.
It’s another aspect of the ‘herd instinct’ – that we cling to groups seeking approval and belonging.
The traditional way of training people into a groups’ norms is through humiliation and violence for norm-breakers. By contrast, rewards of status for conformity.
Note how norms involve a number of different people in different roles, they depend on the type of encounter. The norms, or what you are expected to do in certain situations – and want, and value, and expect, how you are supposed to interpret the world, will be different depending on how you are identified, what role you are expected to play.
Humans become subjects – who can reflect on themselves and their actions, make conscious plans and projects over time. We can become self-governing or self-policing. For example, I measure myself by what I ‘should be’, strive to become more like the ideal and feel inadequate or guilty if I fail.
This is a paradox of subjectivity – while we seem ‘free’ to make and re-make ourselves in new ways, persuing our chosen projects, what we choose doesn’t come from a pure source ‘inside of us’: we have incorporated these choices, too, from the cultures around us.
You might be a strong, commited and independent subject, but the ideal you aim for comes right off the shelf of norms and stereotypes, let’s say from capitalism, or patriarchy for instance – ruthless money maker, model worker, family guy, housewife, object of desire, gangster, consumer, or playboy.
Thinking about and working on yourself as an individual is an important form of social domination in modern life. Think about how we are sold ‘aspirational lifestyles’ or the need for ‘self improvement’ to name a couple of examples.
Mimesis, performativity, normativity and subject becoming don’t mean that the subject is ‘doomed’ to cultural slavery. Having ‘care of the self’ is a vital starting point for developing new cultures and forms of life, freer ways of living. But just being a ‘soveriegn individual’ is not all there is to being free. Subjectivation, or techniques of the self can be used in a number of ways, they can be used to defend or reinforce forms of life dug deep into our bodies (such as capitalism and patriarchy), or they can be used to destroy and overcome them.
- We incorporate values, desires and practices of the cultures around us through a range of processes
- Some of these processes are deeply unconscious, they work on us even when we are not aware of them and without conscious effort on our part
- These unconscious incorporation processes start in early childhood and continue throughout our adult lives
- This doesn’t mean we are unthinking slaves of the cultures around us where we grow up and live. We can learn to understand these processes that shape us and use our self-consciousness to help transform our ways of life.