Ideologies of Experience: Trauma, Failure, Deprivation, and the Abandonment of the Self


While it is difficult to find a branch of modern thought, science, industry, or art that has not relied in some way on the notion of “experience” in defining its assumptions or aims, no study has yet applied a politically-conscious and psychologically-sensitive critique to the construct of experience. Doing so reveals that most of the qualities that have been attributed to experience over the centuries — particularly its unthinkability, its correspondence with suffering, and its occlusion of the self — are part of unlikely fantasies or ideologies.

By analyzing a series of related cases, including the experiential education movement, the ascendency of trauma theory, the philosophy of the social contract, and the psychological study of social isolation, the book builds a convincing case that ideologies of experience are invoked not to keep us close to lived realities and ‘things-in-themselves,’ but, rather, to distort and destroy true knowledge of ourselves and others.

In spite of enduring admiration for those who may be called champions of experience, such as Michel de Montaigne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others treated throughout the work, the ideologies of experience ultimately discourage individuals and groups from creating, resisting, and changing our experience, urging us instead to embrace trauma, failure, deprivation, and self-abandonment

Praise for Ideologies of Experience

“In Ideologies of Experience, Matthew H. Bowker is onto an idea of profound significance. His concept of an ideology of experience may very well hold a key insight into the contemporary psychological processes behind our politics of fantasy over reality, and false attributions and assertions over valid information. Once we as individual selves are taught to mistrust our own capacity for reality testing and knowing good from bad, stripped of critical thinking we forfeit the essence of citizenship in a democratic society.”

—Michael A. Diamond, Professor and Director, Center of the Study of Organizational Change, Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs, University of Missouri

“A critical and provocative interdisciplinary inquiry into experience, and the ways it might be manipulated, Matthew H. Bowker challenges us to question basic assumptions we make about our society and our lives. Ideologies of Experience is a work from which all of us can profit.”

—Stephen Eric Bronner, Board of Governors Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University, USA

“Bowker explores a fascinating array of ideas dealing with the self and the impact of what he calls ‘ideologies of experience’ on the self. This is a fascinating and stimulating excursion through philosophy and psychoanalytic theory that enriches our understanding of how the self relates to itself, to others, to the community and to the often difficult and traumatic ways experience attacks and engages the very foundations of our being.”

James M. Glass, Distinguished Scholar/Teacher and Professor, University of Maryland, College Park, USA

“In the aftermath of radical changes to traditional assumptions about subjectivity, and selfhood, this book offers a useful and original re-interpretation of key contested concepts—experience, ideology, trauma, solitude.”

—Marshall Alcorn, George Washington University, USA, author of Changing the Subject in English Class

Reviews of Ideologies of Experience 

“This important book aims to make sense of an eclectic set of discourses and
attitudes that Matthew Bowker thinks work against the development of the self. These discourses, which he refers to collectively as ‘‘ideologies of experience,” emphasize the importance of trauma, failure, and deprivation, and, in doing so, promote the abandonment of the self. Ideologies of experience ‘‘endorse immediate identification with and incorporation of experience’s objects, the splitting of experience from thinking, the repetition and transmission of experience in unthought forms, and the over-reliance upon the psychic mechanisms of projection and introjection’’ (p. 2). To ideologies of experience, Bowker opposes an ideal of selfhood. The self is ‘‘an ideal, a potential and complex human achievement’’ (p. 153). A self thinks, analyzes, is a wishing and willing agent, acts creatively and not
compliantly or compulsively, and is a subject and not an object. Unfortunately, according to Bowker, the ‘‘world is full of not-selves,’’ and, he thinks, ‘‘ideologies of experience are an important part of the reason why’’ (p. 17).”

—Contemporary Political Theory, Reviewer: Kevin Pham, University of California, Riverside

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