[Paleopsych] Hedgehog: Joseph E. Davis: Healing the Fragmented Self

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Joseph E. Davis: Healing the Fragmented Self
The Hedgehog Review - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

          While the therapeutic is often seen as a cultural ethic, Joseph
    Davis focuses on one form of clinical practice, the recently developed
    therapies for adult child abuse survivors. These therapies provide a
    window on contemporary identity questions, he argues, because they
    explicitly address identity fragmentation, a central theme in much
    current discussion of the self. Davis identifies a conceptual
    disjunction between the treatment process and the new client
    self-narrative to which it builds. He considers what this
    self-narrative might suggest about the nature of identity and the
    question of self-fragmentation as a form of personal liberation.

          Joseph E. Davis is a Fellow at The Institute for Advanced
    Studies in Culture. He has edited two forthcoming books: Stories of
    Change: Narrative and Social Movements and Social Change and the
    Problem of Identity: Paradoxes and Prospects of Postmodern Life. He is
    currently writing a book about the historical roots and current
    practice of adult survivor therapies.

          In affirming the "decentering of the subject," and even the
    "death of the subject," many seem to suggest that the question of
    personal identity is no longer important. Upon closer inspection,
    however, it appears that they have been sorely disappointed. For,
    despite predictions to the contrary, questions of subjectivity and
    multiple identities have reemerged with a new force and a new urgency.

          We should not have expected otherwise. The destabilizing and
    uprooting social forces that created the "homeless mind," that
    pervasive uncertainty about how to place oneself in an increasingly
    pluralistic environment, have, if anything, only intensified. The
    social conditions of advanced capitalist society have rather served to
    accentuate the plurality of authorities, the de-institutionalization
    of private life, the multiplicity of role expectations, the
    disembedding from geographical place, and the loss of overarching
    systems of meaning that so strained the task of establishing and
    maintaining a coherent sense of self in modern times. While by no
    means affecting everyone equally, many well-documented features of
    contemporary life, from consumerism to new technologies, can have a
    powerfully fragmenting and relativizing effect on personal experience
    and on the continuity and content of the self-narrative.

          Of course, some celebrate self-fragmentation and malleable
    identities as a form of personal liberation. Many postmodern thinkers
    champion a self characterized by variation, by change, by flux, by an
    irony toward life and a free-floating approach to work, ideas,
    attitudes, and feelings. This self is not stable and centered but
    multiple, and can, like Proteus, the sea god who could change his form
    into many shapes, resymbolize itself, linking disparate identity
    elements in a constant stream of new combinations.[3]^1 For many in
    the postmodern avant-garde, freedom is precisely the ability to
    transcend and reconstitute one's self. Similarly, players in
    multiple-user fantasy games testify to the fulfillment enjoyed by the
    virtually limitless identities they can adopt on-line, and one segment
    of the multiple personality literature applauds the ability of some
    multiples to dissociate creatively, and, thus, in part, applauds
    multiplicity itself.[4]^2 Though what is meant by terms like
    "identity" and the "self" is not always clear in these discussions,
    the celebrated belief is that a fragmented "self" allows one at some
    level the experience of freedom.

          Despite the celebration, however, fragmented selves are often
    seen to constitute a disability, and in more extreme cases, a mental
    disorder. Nowhere is this more evident than in the proliferation of
    programs, shows, books, teachers, counselors, and guides on how to
    consolidate and hold the right identity. Whole movements with high
    rates of participation, including the New Age and recovery movements,
    have arisen over the past few decades to attend to tribulations of the
    self arising from the insidious and fragmenting discontinuities of
    everyday life. Closer to the mental health mainstream, new categories
    of disorder and new therapies have proliferated that explicitly attend
    to fragmented selves. Multiple personality disorder (now called
    dissociative identity disorder) and post-traumatic stress disorder are
    but two of the more outstanding examples. Together, they would seem to
    have replaced narcissism, a blurring of boundaries between the self
    and what is not self, as the characteristic psychological disorders of
    our time.

          The new therapies for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse
    are based largely on one or both of these disorders, and are
    addressed, in principal part, to self-fragmentation in the clients'
    lives. With some fringe exceptions, there is no celebration of
    fragmentation here. Dissociation and identity-splits are postulated to
    result from serious childhood trauma, and their resolution is central
    to the healing regime. Rather than discarding overarching narrative
    frameworks, as with the postmodernists, the therapeutic goal is to
    construct new ones. However, considered from their endpoint--the
    attitudinal signs of health--survivor therapies would appear to share
    a vision of the normative self largely consistent with the
    conceptualization offered by the postmodernist. In much the same
    terms, clients in these therapies are encouraged to take an open and
    contingent view of the self and personal relationships, to be
    skeptical of all social conventions, and to be self-defining. But if
    the endpoints can be so similar, then how can the views of
    fragmentation be so different? Here we come to the paradox in the
    practice of survivor therapies that, I suggest, challenges the
    postmodernist idea that fragmented selves are liberating.

          The paradox in survivor therapies is the disjunction between the
    endpoint self and the means used to produce it. According to survivor
    therapists, the endpoint self, the "true" self, is self-discovered by
    clients. The therapist tells clients that he or she is merely a guide,
    helping them to strip away the painful emotional baggage that has kept
    them from fully developing and recognizing their true autonomy and
    capacity for self-direction. As each client comes to discover his or
    her true self, the therapist continues, he or she will find that it
    flourishes when unencumbered, realizing its potential in freedom of
    choice, growing and developing in many possible and simultaneous
    directions, always capable of revising itself as the need arises. The
    therapeutic means, by contrast, involve an expert persuading a client
    to tell the story of his or her life according to a preexisting
    narrative template, legitimated with scientific findings, and
    presupposing essentially universalist rules about individual
    development, responsibility for life outcomes, and the nature of
    normality. One version of the self-narrative, the client's, is
    effectively pathologized by linking it to trauma, systematically
    deconstructing it, and then substituting another version in its place.
    This is not a coercive process as its critics have claimed, nor is it
    the mere emancipation and recognition of a hitherto silenced voice as
    the therapists have claimed.

          The paradox in the means-ends disjunction is not limited to
    survivor therapies. Many within the vast network of "anonymous"
    groups, for instance, seek to produce a self rooted in much the same
    therapeutic ethic by employing a medical model of addiction not for
    biochemical dependencies but for excessive behaviors ranging from
    gambling to shopping to caring for pets.[5]^3 The discourse of
    identity politics is another, and important, example. Using a social
    constructionist methodology, activists and academics challenge all
    claims to objectivity, truth, and rationality by arguing for the
    social origins of knowledge and its service of political ideologies
    and structures of power. Yet, as otherwise sympathetic critics have
    noted, the social critique worked out within identity politics is
    itself typically grounded in discourses filled with realist,
    essentialist, and foundationalist assumptions about the
    marginalized.[6]^4 The objectivity, and thus authority, of one version
    of reality is deconstructed as inherently biased so as to be replaced
    with the marginalized alternative, which is then privileged as a truth
    beyond cultural standpoint.

          The means-ends inconsistencies in survivor therapies, and in
    these other examples, may simply represent a cultural lag. Survivor
    therapy, from this angle, might be seen as an example of a
    transitional form of therapy, leading clients toward a form of
    postmodern sensibility, yet still rooted in modern warrants of science
    and the tendency to universalizing presumptions. Over time, if this
    view has merit, we should expect the means to "catch up" and conform
    more closely with the ends (or, as in identity politics, the ends to
    catch up with the means). The future direction of such therapies would
    be towards some form of constructivism, which, as noted earlier, does
    not view old self-narratives as objectively wrong but simply as
    subjectively undesirable.

          A second possibility, and it seems to me the more persuasive for
    the means-ends disjunction in survivor therapies, concerns not a
    cultural lag in the means but a largely unspoken premise in the ends.
    Survivor therapies aim to help clients jettison impediments from the
    past and resolve a fragmented sense of self by guiding them to
    reflexively construct a new self-narrative. The new self-narrative,
    however, would appear to require a foundation, a moral evaluation of
    victimization, that is not itself reflexively constructed by the
    client (so likewise with the moral indignation at the heart of
    identity politics). Therapists use all their rhetorical tactics
    precisely to prevent clients from taking a contingent or morally
    uncertain view of their pasts. Moreover, the therapeutic ethic that
    informs the reconstituted endpoint-self embodies moral ideals about
    what is good, what is worthwhile, and what has meaning. Despite an
    ostensible process of clients liberating their own true selves, then,
    survivor therapies reorient them according to new moral frameworks.
    While not described by therapists in this way, it would appear that if
    clients come away with a more unified sense of self, it is because
    they now possess a moral orientation toward the past and toward the
    future that infuses identity with continuity and coherence.

          The identity-framing work of therapists suggests that personal
    identity rests on a moral foundation, a point which the philosopher
    Charles Taylor has been making for some time.[7]^5 Seen in this light,
    it would appear that the celebration of identity fragmentation is not
    about identity at all. Adopting different personas in on-line games,
    for example, while exhilarating for players, may in no way challenge
    the unity of the moral frameworks that help define who they are. A
    moral foundation to personal identity challenges the postmodernist
    claim that the self can be truly decentered without at the same time
    being in crisis. As Anthony Giddens has argued, rather than succumbing
    to fragmentation, a range of cultural options are available for
    engaging the tribulations of the self in nonpathological ways.[8]^6
    But without some orientation in moral space, however achieved (a point
    recognized by the therapists), the self is adrift and the meaning of
    personal experience remains undetermined. It is hard to conceive of
    how such an experience could be liberating. Perhaps, as some have
    noted about assertions that "everything is relative," behind claims to
    a liberation in nonfoundations lies an unacknowledged foundation

          Given the increasingly fragmenting tendencies of contemporary
    social experience, problems of identity are here to stay. So too, if
    identity fragmentation or decentering is in fact intolerable, is the
    need for expert guidance and overarching narratives. Reports of their
    demise or transcendence, it would seem, have been greatly exaggerated.

    [9]^1 See, for example, Robert Jay Lifton, "Protean Man," Partisan
    Review 35 (1968): 13-27, and The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an
    Age of Fragmentation (New York: Basic, 1993); Connie Zweig, "The Death
    of the Self in the Postmodern World," The Truth About the Truth:
    De-confusing and Re-constructing the Postmodern World, ed. Walter
    Truett Anderson (New York: Putnam, 1995) 145-150. ] [10]^2 See sources
    in Michael F. Brown, "The New Alienists: Healing Shattered Selves at
    Century's End," Paranoia within Reason: A Casebook on Conspiracy as
    Explanation, ed. George E. Marcus (Chicago: University of Chicago
    Press, 1999) 137-156. ] [11]^3 See John Steadman Rice, A Disease of
    One's Own: Psychotherapy, Addiction, and the Emergence of
    Co-Dependency (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1996). ] [12]^4 See,
    for example, Kenneth J. Gergen, "Social Construction and the
    Transformation of Identity Politics," Social Construction in Context
    (London: Sage, forthcoming). ] [13]^5 See Charles Taylor, Sources of
    the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
    University Press, 1989). ] [14]^6 See Anthony Giddens, Modernity and
    Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford:
    Stanford University Press, 1991). ]

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