Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Interior Origin

De-authentication. A more subtle mode of self-erosion also results from the increasing inundation of images, stories, and information. Consider those confirmatory moments of individual authorship, moments in which the sense of authentic action becomes most fully transparent. Given the Western tradition of individualism, these are typically moments in which we apprehend our actions as unique, in which we are not merely duplicating models, obeying orders, or following convention. Rather, in the innovative act we locate a guarantee of self as originative source, a creative agent. Yet, in a world in which technologies facilitate an enormous sophistication about cultural conventions, such moments become increasingly rare. How is it, for example, that a young couple, each of whom has been inundated for twenty-some years by romance narratives - on television and radio, in film, magazines, and books - can utter a sweet word of endearment without a haunting sense of cliché? Or in Umberto Eco's terms, how can a man who loves a cultivated woman say to her, "'I love you madly," when "he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland?" In what sense can one stand out from the crowd in a singular display of moral fortitude, and not hear the voice of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, or Harrison Ford over one's shoulder?
Commodification of the self. These arguments are closely tied to a final, technology-induced shift in cultural understanding. Because the technologies of sociation enable information to be disseminated widely at low cost, popular entertainment has become a major industry. Critical to the entertainment industry are individual performers -individuals who, because they are entertaining, command a broad audience and vast remuneration. In effect, the "self" becomes available as a saleable commodity. Individual performers may take on new names, spouses, and lifestyles in order to increase their fame and income. As the entertainment industry expands, and as television channels become more numerous, the demand for "characters" becomes ever wider. Increasingly, the common person - owing to a peculiar passion, unique story, act of heroism or stupidity, or possession of inside information - becomes a potential candidate for fame and fortune. Consequently, there is a growing consciousness of the self as a commodity. Being true to one's self, possessing depth of character, and searching for one's identity all become old-fashioned phrases; they are nicely suited to earlier times but no longer profitable.
Each of these tendencies--toward polyvocality, plasticity, de-authentication and commodification of self--undermines the long-standing importance placed on the integral self, that core to which one's actions should be true. Although this erosion is lamentable in significant respects, it is also important to take note of growing criticism of the Western, traditional concept of individual selves.
On the conceptual level, the problem is not simply that the conception of a private mind carries with it all the thorny problems of epistemological dualism (subject vs. object, mind vs. body, minds knowing other minds), but also that the very idea of an independent decisionmaker proves uncompelling. How, it is asked, could mental deliberation take place except within the categories supplied by the culture? If we were to subtract the entire vocabulary of the culture from individual subjectivity, how could the individual form questions about justice, duty, rights, or moral good? In Michael Sandel's terms, "to imagine a person incapable of constitutive attachments ... is not to conceive an ideally free and rational agent, but to imagine a person wholly without character, without moral depth."
These conceptual problems are conjoined with a widespread ideological critique. Alexis de Tocqueville's observations of nineteenth-century U.S. life set the stage: "Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows ... he gladly leaves the greater society to look after himself." In recent decades these views have been echoed and amplified by many scholars. Christopher Lasch has traced the close association between individualist presumptions and cultural tendencies toward "me-first" narcissism; R. N. Bellah and his colleagues argue that modern individualism works against the possibility of committed relationships and dedication to community; for Edward Sampson, the presumption of a self-contained individual leads to social division and insensitivity to minority voices.
Ultimately, the concept of an interior origin of action defines the society in terms of unbreachable isolation. If what is most central to our existence is hidden from others, and vice versa, we are forever left with a sense of profound isolation, an inability to ever know what lies behind another's mask. With strong belief in an interior self, we inevitably create the Other to whom we shall forever remain alien.

-Kenneth J. Gergen

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