3 May 2007

Assembling a Postmodern Self

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:55 am

I’d guess that the descriptions of self that I’ve been putting forward in recent posts do not resonate with postmodernists. Social learning, cognitive development, empirical research, the cultural ideal, evolutionary determinism — these are artifacts of a stale modernity, and haven’t we gotten past all that by now? Okay, imagine you’re a postmodernist inventing a theory of personality. What might this postmodern construct look like?

First, you’d say that there’s no way to know what the self is really like. Our knowledge is always biased by the sociohistorical context in which we’re embedded, so we can never get an objective reading what selves are. Even knowing myself is impossible: I’m too close to myself to be objective.

You’d say that the postmodern self is multiple. We’ve long been aware that we present different versions of ourselves to parents, lovers, neighbors, coworkers. We used to believe that these were merely facades, that beneath the multifaceted surface could be found a unified self. Now we’ve come to recognize that the unified self is a modernist myth. We really are different people in different contexts.

The postmodern self is fragmented and alienated. With the demise of the mythical true self, we realize that there’s nothing holding our multiple selves together. We are nothing in and of ourselves; each of us is an unstable nexus in a vast network of instincts, social groupings, activity patterns and cultural values in which we’re embedded. As individuals we’re in danger of disintegrating, or of being lost in the hall of mirrors. We can’t distinguish ourselves from the images of ourselves reflected back to us by ourselves, by others, by the marketplace and the media. We’re ironically self-aware, never wanting to commit to any particular version of ourselves. We recognize that everyone else is also decentralized: we’re never sure we’re really connecting with anyone. True person-to-person connection is impossible when we can’t locate either the self or the other. Though we are multiple and everywhere, we’re also hollow and alone.

The postmodern self is a narrative. We used to think about ourselves in terms of propositions: permanent features that describe us — intelligent, shy, aggressive, open-minded, and so on. We’ve come to recognize that these propositions aren’t absolute, that they’re contingent on time and circumstance. We are our lives as they unfold in space and time. Each of us is a story we tell ourselves. Each of us is a thread in a much larger and longer story spoken by the language of the world.

We are preparing to move beyond the obsession with self. At some point we have to let go of our angst and acknowledge the passing of the modern self, with its self-knowledge, its secure identity, its consistency, its autonomy. This idea of the self was an illusion, spawned by the rational individualism of modern science and the marketplace. So we’re multiple, decentralized, beseiged by unconscious desires and media messages — let’s stop lamenting what we’ve lost and get on with our lives. Let’s stop being so self-absorbed and narcissistic. Let’s accept ourselves as part of forces larger than ourselves and beyond our control. Let’s create ourselves as quirky and amusing short stories. Let’s try to find a little comfort and joy from all the other multiply fragmented characters who are also charting their own quirky and amusing paths through this multiply fragmented world.

Isn’t that the kind of self we’re ready to believe in? Are there other ways of elaborating on this postmodern construct of the self?



  1. I’m not ready to move to a total postmodern construction of the self yet and find extremes on either side limiting. But I also don’t have a nice, coherent framework for the “middle ground” that I am searching for…so with that being said, here are some of my tentative thoughts:

    I find the constructionist argument that there is no such thing as human nature as wrong. I think there are some universals in human nature (facial expressions of emotions as one…notice how this doesn’t undo the constructionist’s argument of what comes to define a particular emotion or need for an attachment figure with ready-made instinctual signals…again how that attachment comes to be understood or defined seems to be constructed) that provide a basis for the largely constructed aspects of who we are.

    I think postmodern notions of “multiple selves” that are influenced by every situation we move into overstate the “mulitiplicity” aspect and overlook the “constancy” aspect of I still recognize that this is “my self” in this such and such situation and the regular type “patterns” that can also be displayed. While I think that multiple self states get at the sense of fluctuation that we feel when we encounter differing environment/relational configurations, I think to posit that these are then “multiple selves” without an common linkage or sense of constancy goes beyond the case. But of course, I am influenced by cognitive neuroscience here and assumptions that the brain is in many ways an organism that attempts to make sense out of patterns and to “automatize” as much as possible so that our conscious processing can go to other things.

    I have problems with “essentialist” language when it comes to the self and I wonder if the sense of constancy of the self is a continously (re)produced feeling state that binds experience together in a stream. I’m still trying to understand this more, but for me neither essentialist language nor multiple self language get it quite right.

    I think ev. psych folks tend to overstate their positions too, often seeming to suggest that behavior is “driven” or determined by biological heritage, which again seems to overlook the genetic/environmental interaction. Often I feel like in this argument between Ev. Psych and Postmodern Social Constructionist that it is an argument between two different types of determinism…it is just a difference in where that detereminism is located.

    All right…enough senseless spewing on my part…


    Comment by Ron Wright — 3 May 2007 @ 11:48 am

  2. For in him we live and move and have our being

    What if we went backwards? Towards a medieval or ancient view of self?

    Perhaps borrowing from the past we construe the self as a self, but one that is intimately related to the world around her. This is not a world of pure physical forces, but a world goverened by the divine – The world is enchanted with the divine. A cosmology with a robust doctrine of divine providence.

    On such a view I wonder if the self is “completed” or made more holistic through contact with the world and with the divine: In him we live and move and have our being. If the postmodern self experiences an unusually high degree of angst by seeing itself as the product of the community and social matrix, unable to assert its own individual being, and on the other hand the modern self suffered from extreme introversion and isolationism by attempting to define itself on its own terms and with a “core” self, then perhaps the way forward is to recognize one’s self as complete when participating in the divine nature and in a world that bears the imprint of the divine all around her. The self may not have a “core” in the modern sense, but perhaps identity can still be forged through participation in the divine. On this view a world created, sustained and governed by the divine imagination is key. Also key would be the imago dei.


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 3 May 2007 @ 12:39 pm

  3. Ron –

    I agree with all your tentative conclusions. Let’s grant that the modernist overestimates the autonomy and stability of the individual self. This is true not just of the Enlightenment rationalist but also of the Romantic anti-Enlightenment with its emphasis on the creative and expressive deep soul and the marketplace’s valorization of the independent decision-maker. We may now have greater respect for genetic and sociocultural determinants of individual thought and action. Nonetheless, the genes express themselves in individual organisms, and individuals are the intentional agents who comprise society. As I see it, a heightened awareness of uncontrollable factors that determine us should make us all the more eager to establish an individual human self on that elusive middle ground between the genes and the collective. We might not be able to kid ourselves any more about the possibility of total self-definition. However, we ought to be able to use our heightened awareness of the external forces impinging on us to recognize when we’re being manipulated and perhaps even to resist that manipulation at least in part.

    I find the constructionist argument that there is no such thing as human nature as wrong… I think ev. psych folks tend to overstate their positions too, often seeming to suggest that behavior is “driven” or determined by biological heritage, which again seems to overlook the genetic/environmental interaction. It seems that evolution has equipped us with a brain of incredible flexibility. The environment we grow up in now looks nothing like the environment in which humans evolved. The skills that enable successful achievement of our intentions are very different from the ones that the Cro-Magnons used. There are so many layers of culture built onto the world and into our memories that it’s probably impossible to say with certainty that this is an instinct whereas that is a learned response. We have instincts to learn an enormously wide array of responses, and that’s what makes us different from the other apes.

    There are limits to the biological organism: no one will ever run a 3-minute mile. But we can invent devices that let us go a lot faster than that. And our species is still very new. If we don’t blow ourselves up, what will we be able to do with genetic engineering, neurosurgical modifications, and all the other apparatus of science fiction over the next couple million years? Once we start modifying the parameters of the organism, even human nature becomes an artifact of human culture.

    I wonder if the sense of constancy of the self is a continously (re)produced feeling state that binds experience together in a stream. I’m still trying to understand this more, but for me neither essentialist language nor multiple self language get it quite right. I think I agree with you here. It’s as if consciousness is a kind of interface or membrane between the organism and the world. It’s continually in flux depending on what’s happening inside and outside. It’s an amazingly competent device, but maybe we shouldn’t load it up with too much content of its own?


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 May 2007 @ 2:46 pm

  4. Jonathan –

    What if we went backwards? Towards a medieval or ancient view of self? I think that’s at least one motif of the emerging Church, taking a more collective stance. But what was the ancient/medieval view of self? The Greeks were very interested in self-mastery, using reason to overcome passion, the higher part of the soul to rule the lower. The Greek philosophers didn’t have much use for the herd, moved by desire and instinct and groupthink. They weren’t much interested in personality or self-gratification; they pursued virtue.

    I wonder if the self is “completed” or made more holistic through contact with the world and with the divine: In him we live and move and have our being. Augustine upheld this view, though he clearly separated the City of God from the city of man. But Augustine also wrote his Confessions, so he was clearly an introspective fellow. Do not go outward; return within yourself. In the inward man dwells truth, said Augustine. He was very interested in self-reflection, in looking at how and why we do what we do. Here’s what Charles Taylor says about Augustine in Sources of the Self, which is a really great intellectual history of the self in Western culture:

    Augustine’s turn to the self was a turn to radical reflexivity, and that is what made the language of inwardness irresistible. The inner light is the one which shines in our presence to ourselves… it illuminates that space where I am present to myself. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that it was Augustine who introduced the inwardness of radical reflexivity and bequeathed it to the Western tradition of thought. The step was a fateful one, because we have certainly made a big thing of the first-person standpoint. The modern epistemological tradition from Descartes, and all that has flowed from it in modern culture, has made this standpoint fundamental — to the point of aberration, one might think.

    Taylor contends that Augustine made it clear that inwardness — of thought, of motive, of conscience — is also the path to the higher things of God. He makes Augustine an intermediate figure on a continuum that leads from Plato to Descartes. And of course the Reformers saw themselves as rehabilitating Augustine too.

    Aquinas was more a throwback to externality, but it was in the form of logic and propositional truths rather than embeddedness in the divine. The more mystical medieval traditions are probably closer to what you have in mind. Less mainstream, more monastic, mysticism has been a secondary stream in Christianity throughout its history. So perhaps it’s a selective attention to certain medievalists other than Augustine and Aquinas that you have in mind?


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 May 2007 @ 3:39 pm

  5. So perhaps it’s a selective attention to certain medievalists other than Augustine and Aquinas that you have in mind?

    Perhaps. Although I have heard Aquinas mentioned with Calvin as two important figures in the development of th sensus divinitatis. The SD connects the self to the divine via the creation. I observe and absorb the beauty of creation and through this I have a sense of the divine. As I understand it, the actual development of the SD by Calvin and Aquinas is not very rigorous or extensive, however, I think there is enough there to make a Self-Creation-Creator connection that is rather mystical.

    So, perhaps I overstated the case a bit, but I would imagine that Calvin, Aquinas, and Augustine were working within a medieval world view such that the inward turn of which you speak probably did not have the full Modern ramifications that we see from Descartes onward. Nonetheless I think a Christian view of the self at this point in history has a lot to learn from the perspectives of church history. Much easier said than done. Frankly, I quite seriously question the possibility of learning all that much considering how much things have changed.


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 3 May 2007 @ 4:15 pm

  6. I think if you could sense yourself as being inside the presence of God it would be pretty cool.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 May 2007 @ 6:51 pm

  7. Ktismatic, this is from Zizek. I believe I said the same thing intuitively, or do you read it differently? This is off-topic so if you want we can discuss it on my blog under that post on orgasm. I will shortly rejoin you on the other discussions; I was busy with the Zizek scandal which broke out across the blogosphere.

    When Deleuze talks about a process which creates and sees in a single movement, he thereby consciously evokes the formula of intellectual intuition, the prerogative of God alonbe. Deleuze pursues a pre-critical agenda, passionately defending Spinoza’s and Leibniz’s metaphysical “realism” (direct insight into the very core of things in themselves) against Kant’s “critical” limitation of our knowledge to the domain of phenomenal representations. However, the Hegelian reply to this would have been: what if the distance of re-presentation, the distance that renders the thing inaccessible to us, is inscribed into the very heart of the thing itself, so that the very gap that separates us from the thing includes us into it – therein resides the core of the Hegelian Christology, in which our alienation from God coincides with the alienation of God from himself. Deleuze says that propositions do not describe things but are the verb al actualization of those things, i.e. these things themselvese in theire verbal mode – would Hegel not claim, in the same way, that our re-presentation of God is God himself in the mode of representation, that our erroneous perception of God is God himself in erroneous mode?


    Comment by parodycenter — 3 May 2007 @ 10:34 pm

  8. Dejan –

    I’ve been lurking in the discussions of Zizek and his endorsement of the movie 300. Congratulations on stirring the pot in various sectors of blogdom.

    It’s conceivable that if God exists he might be some sort of all-enveloping presence rather than a locatable Other. As you say, Hegel’s present God isn’t even aware of himself, or rather that his coming into self-awareness is no different from my coming into self-awareness. The mystic attempts direct contact with the Real outside of language and relationship, and in the process the inward gaze becomes the outward unfocused daze.

    One of the interpretations of Genesis 1-3 is that, since God and man speak even before the Fall, the intimacy of the Garden was still an intimacy of separate beings. Language is a medium for traversing the gaps between people, but language almost by definition can’t achieve mystical union. There is the gap at the membrane between self and world, traversed by perception and inference. There is the gap between self and other, traversed by language. This isn’t unmediated immediacy; it’s a mediated gap. And if God too spoke at the beginning of creation and in the Garden, then he too might always be separate and mediate.

    There are things about ourselves that we cannot know. Even the language of the unconscious needs to be brought into verbal language in order for us to understand it, but that interpretive process establishes the unbridgeable gap as part of the communication. It may be possible to speak from unconscious to unconscious, and perhaps this is the mystical language that bridges all gaps, but if it remains unintelligible then we become aware of the incomprehensibility of the Real to itself.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 May 2007 @ 11:27 pm

  9. Speaking of the unconscious is a bit of a metaphorical black hole, but then it is also the fascination of the unknown that calls forth explorers.

    I’m not all that sure that postmodernism means that all of modernism’s ideas have to be rejected outright. Rather, it seems to me to be an invitation for personal revalidation to whatever result of each of the concepts and theories that we have subscribed to for simply ‘cultural’ reasons.

    Evolution certainly fits in to this matrix somewhere though there is also a thought that we are in some sense de novo. And, genetically the future has already arrived. As usual our technological abilities have preceded our ability to think through or properly control outcomes… and i’m sure that along with attempts to conenrtrate intelligence we will have other experiments ongoing to produce superhumans of various types. Any sensible militarist must already be hard at work on this sort of stuff.

    Will consciousness and human personality survive in any recognisable form?


    Comment by samlcarr — 4 May 2007 @ 8:51 pm

  10. Sam –

    I think these are excellent points, and I agree. Postmodernism is overly skeptical and agnostic, having become overly discouraged by discoveries of self-deception. If we were to fall headlong into this black hole, we would conclude that all of our conscious awareness is an illusion, or a self-deception. We would believe that our true self lies underneath, hidden from view, speaking a language we cannot decipher, shaping our conscious minds without our even being aware of it. Similarly the “superconsciousness” of language and culture in which we’re embedded, determining us from the outside, making us think certain kinds of thoughts because they’re compatible with the cultural zeitgeist. Our unconscious is fooling us; our sociohistorical embeddedness is fooling us. This becomes discouraging, making you feel like you can never understand anything.

    On the other hand, you can acknowledge that you never understand anything completely, but that you can continually improve your understanding. Becoming aware of hidden biases of genes or culture is precisely that: an awareness. It’s not a justification for throwing our hands up and saying that we merely go from one self-deception to another. Trying to understand unconscious motivations, genetic predispositions, cultural biases — isn’t there some hope of progress, no matter how old-fashioned and “modern” the concept — of removing a few more veils that block our view?

    Human culture has modified the earth to the point where it’s almost unrecognizable as nature. It’s likely that over the next ten thousand years culture will modify human nature in a similar fashion. Looking at future man from here he might seem totally alien, but as the years go by the incremental changes will probably be undetectable. The species will probably grow into its new contours, though as always the fit won’t be perfect.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 May 2007 @ 12:00 am

  11. What would you pay for a glimpse of that future?


    Comment by Ivan — 5 May 2007 @ 10:04 am

  12. Given the cookbook nature of genetic manipulation, we are well past the incremental change stage and there will be an explosion of diversity that will be thrust on us ere long. What survives will survive but will it be human?


    Comment by samlcarr — 5 May 2007 @ 11:05 am

  13. Sam, You might be right about the acceleration of change that’s coming soon. We’re almost to a new kind of dualism, where mind really does control matter. But what mind is going to do is to rearrange matter so that it generates a new kind of mind. I’m not sure what the geneticists can do that moves beyond the parameters already set by the human genome. Grafting in genes from other species might do something for the physical organism, but there aren’t any creatures smarter than man to steal DNA from. That’ll get really interesting, when they begin to engineer unprecedented gene sequences that supercharge the brain.

    When does a species turn into a different species? Over evolutionary time it’s when interbreeding stops and the two genetic lines no longer intersect. But if we enter into a future where traditional breeding isn’t even necessary for reproduction, even that criterion goes out the window. What defines human probably won’t be as biologically determinate as it is now. It’ll be based almost entirely on cultural solidarity and continuity with the past. Will those dudes 3 million years from now still be watching reruns of the Simpsons? Then they’ll probably be humans.

    And Ivan, I’d pay whatever I could scrape together.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 May 2007 @ 3:15 pm

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