Mon 1 Feb 2010
A short meditation this week on the nature, history and status of our experience of ourselves: Most philosophical historians will argue that the experience of ourselves from the first person perspective, that seemingly natural primary identification we have with our ‘I’s, is anything but natural and is, in fact, a historically developed perspective. This is, of course, a very odd claim and one, moreover, which is mind-boggling difficult to comprehend; but essentially the argument runs as follows: when you study the literature and philosophy of the west you quickly discover that we have not always thought of ourselves in the same way we do now; that in fact, the ‘internal’ viewpoint granted in the first person perspective was developed relatively recently.
To argue this point, these historians will point in part to the nature of narrative (after all, how we talk about ourselves, as the analyst knows, reveals fundamentally how we think of ourselves); and how, in the ancient world, there appears to be a distinct lack of first person narrative. Think about the epics or the earliest scriptures which seem to always be narrated in the third person impersonal. What’s more, therein we find human beings portrayed as passive: exposed to and subject to the whims of a cruel world, the impersonal forces of nature or the wrath of the Gods. Human action is thus not portrayed as the out-working of some interior life, but instead as the effect of seemingly arbitrary happenings in the cosmos. Moreover, the value and meaning of those actions is always interpreted from a third person perspective, that is on how they can be seen in the eyes of a particular community, if not the actual political community of the character then at least the audience who may hear the tale. The actions of an individual thus appear to be evaluated in the ancient world on the basis of whether or not they bring shame or valor in the eyes of others. From this, the historians conclude, the most ancient concept of the self was one that was: a) fundamentally mediated by the social; and b) not seen as separated, distinct or closed off from the world (some interior experience).
The modern experience of subjectivity, wherever one plots its origins, is distinct then in that it establishes the self as a primarily interior experience, something only the subject itself has access to and moreover as a power in the world with its own sphere of influence. Our actions, we think, are the result of some happening within us, whether conscious or unconscious, and not the whim of any exterior force. The subject, we think, is primarily active, and not passive – is internally coherent and not at exposed to the gaze or judgment of other. It is private. As such, we experience ourselves not in terms of how our actions are seen by a community, but how we think or feel about them ourselves. This transition in perspective is demonstrated in our employment of the first person perspective, both in literature and in philosophy (think of Descartes’ cogito for a relevant example), but also in how we talk about our own experience and history making the ‘I’ primary.
But it seems to me, and this is the subject I’d like to provoke our discussions this week (if only virtually), we seem to be situated at a watershed moment in the history of the experience of ourselves: another cultural transition akin to the birth of subjectivity (that movement from the third person perspective to the first) – one which is seemingly carrying us back to the third person perspective, but in a new and strange way. I witness this in the way my students think and talk about themselves and their interests, but I witness this most on Facebook where status updates are narrated in the third person (i.e. “Drew is very ashamed of the quality of his blog post today”), photos are taken from the third person perspective (either through the mirror or held at arm’s length) and always posed (as if those in the photo are already estimating how it will look to others and what their best angle is for those others) and where it seems that something needs to be commented on by the community to have really happened. Isn’t this, at least to some extent what we see in the culture of blogging: the conviction that for something to have really happened to me it must be share and validated by the community? Isn’t there a strange blurring between what would traditionally have been deemed the interior realm of the private and the exterior realm of the public online or the suspicion in my students that there is no point in doing something privately, only value in doing something which will be seen publicly, something for which they will be acknowledged and get some credit (like the student I had recently who told me that he kept a personal journal for his imaginary future wife or progeny who may want to read what he was thinking or feeling today and so carefully crafts each sentence worried about how it might appear to them)? I wonder if anything is done privately by my students (any journals kept not in the hopes they will be read, but with precisely the opposite hopes). Is this also what I see in their hyper awareness, however justified, of how they are being judged from the outside world (by future employers, peers, or other professors) and their attempt to sculpt themselves and their c.v. (and even to their private extra-curricular activities) in terms of how it will appear to others? Isn’t this further what we see in the current cult of celebrity and reality TV super-stars where someone is valued solely on their media-friendliness (and not on the merits of their character)? Is this, furthermore what I witness in people who will take a digital photo of something they are currently experiencing (say the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls) and then immediately turn their back to the actual experience, to look at the photo they just took (seemingly imagining how it will be perceived by others who will later comment on it online)?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not a chronological snob. I do not lament these changes, offering instead my own nostalgic portrait of the good ol’ days of my youth when we knew what was private and what was public and had a distinct first person perspective. Frankly, I think there are some real problems with the modern perspective of my generation. It is not my intention either, however, to praise what appears to be a weakening of the experience of ‘modern’ subjectivity in my students. Instead, it is simply my hope to raise the very undeveloped and tentative thesis that there is a difference between our two generations which I think can be explained by examining the history of the experience of ourselves (the history of subjectivity) and which I think may explain some uncanny, at least to me, recent social phenomena. I look forward to your own thoughts and commentary (though I ask you to keep in mind, that though I knew this was to be published and subject to public view, given my generational predilections, it flowed from private thoughts and was composed without really concerning myself with your future judgment – it is therefore not as polished as most of my students Facebook pages are. I’ll hope for your generosity then with my ‘modern’ limitations).