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?