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Kenneth J. Gergen: The Self: Death by Technology
The Hedgehog Review - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

          Kenneth Gergen asks whether in the midst of a techno-cultural
    revolution the traditional conceptions of self and community continue
    to secure a morally viable society. Gergen examines the erosion of
    both individualism and communalism (and their associated institutions)
    by the accumulating "technologies of sociation," the host of
    relatively low-cost technologies that dramatically expand and
    intensify social connection. He considers the effects of these
    technologies on the experience of a private self and argues that
    cumulatively they undermine the presumption of the individual as the
    locus of moral agency.

          Kenneth J. Gergen is Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore
    College. A prolific author, his most recent books include The
    Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life and
    Realities and Relationships: Soundings in Social Construction.

          Drawing from early Greek, Judaic, and Christian traditions, and
    particularly from the Enlightenment, we have typically viewed the
    single individual as the atom of the moral society. Whether we speak
    in terms of psyche, soul, agency, rational deliberation, or conscious
    choice, we generally hold that moral action is derived from particular
    conditions of the individual mind. Thus, philosophers seek to
    establish essential criteria for moral decision making, religious
    institutions are concerned with states of individual conscience,
    courts of law inquire into the individual's capacity to know right
    from wrong, and parents are concerned with the moral education of
    their young. The general presumption is that the virtuous mind propels
    meritorious conduct, and that with sufficient numbers of individuals
    performing worthy acts, we achieve the good society.

          Yet, as Walter Ong's exploration of oral as opposed to literate
    or print societies suggests, our conception of individual minds is
    vitally dependent on the technological ethos.[3]^1 The shift from an
    oral to a print culture, Ong proposes, significantly alters the common
    forms of thought. Thus, for example, in oral societies people are more
    likely to depend on recall, concrete as opposed to abstract
    categories, and redundancy as opposed to precision. Yet, there is an
    important sense in which this fascinating thesis is insufficiently
    realized. While Ong wishes to locate forms of mental life within a
    cultural context, he has no access into mental conditions themselves.
    That is, the analysis may be viewed as a treatise not on mental
    conditions but on cultural constructions of the mind. It is not
    thought in itself that changed but our way of defining what it is to

          To extend the implications of Ong's analysis, we may ask whether
    the conception of the mind as a critical focus of study--something we
    must know about--was not solidified by the expansion of printed media.
    In an oral society, where the determination of the real and the good
    grows from face-to-face negotiation, there is little reason to launch
    inquiry into the speaker's private meaning. Through words, facial
    expressions, gestures, physical context, and the constant adjustments
    to audience expression, meanings are made transparent. However, when
    print allows words to spring from the face-to-face relationship--when
    the discourse is insinuated into myriad contexts separated in time and
    space from its origins--then the hermeneutic problem becomes focal. To
    wonder and speculate about "the mind behind the words" is to create
    the reality of this mind. To grant this mental condition the status of
    originary source of action is to solidify its importance. Both
    hermeneutic study and psychological science have since assured the
    reality of a meaning/full mind with moral intent.

          Given the potential dependency of conceptions of self on
    technological conditions, let us consider our contemporary ethos. In
    particular, what is to be said about the increasing insinuation of the
    technologies of sociation into our lives and its effects on our
    beliefs in individual minds? In my view the transformation of the
    technological ethos slowly undermines the intelligibility of the
    individual self as an originary source of moral action. The reasons
    are many and cumulative; I limit discussion here to several
    concatenating tendencies.[5]^3

          Polyvocality. The dramatic expansion of the range of information
    to which we are exposed, the range of persons with whom we have
    significant interchange, and the range of opinions available within
    multiple media sites make us privy to multiple realities. Or, more
    simply, the comfort of parochial univocality is disturbed. Having
    become privy to multiple realities, we do not know where to limit
    ourselves. From the spheres of national politics and economics to
    local concerns with education, environment, or mental health, we are
    confronted with a plethora of conflicting information and opinion. And
    so it is with matters of moral consequence. Whether it is a matter of
    Supreme Court nominees, abortion policies, or affirmative action, for
    example, one is deluged with conflicting moral standpoints. To the
    extent that these standpoints are intelligible, they enter the
    compendium of resources available for the individual's own
    deliberations. In a Bakhtinian vein, the individual approaches a state
    of radical polyvocality.

          If one does acquire an increasingly diverse vocabulary of
    deliberation, how is a satisfactory decision to be reached? The inward
    examination of consciousness yields not coherence but cacophony; there
    is not a "still small voice of conscience" but a chorus of competing
    contenders. It is one's moral duty to pay taxes, for example, but also
    to provide for one's dependents, to keep for oneself the rewards of
    one's labor, and to withhold monies from unjust governmental policies;
    it is one's moral duty to give aid to starving Africans, but also to
    help the poor of one's own country, and to avoid meddling in the
    politics of otherwise sovereign nations. Where in the mix of myriad
    moralities is the signal of certitude?

          If immersion in a panoply of intelligibilities leaves one's
    moral resources in a state of complex fragmentation, then to what
    degree are these resources guiding or directing? Or more cogently for
    the present analysis, if "inward looking" becomes increasingly less
    useful for matters of moral action, does the concern with "my state of
    mind" not lose its urgency? The more compelling option for the
    individual is to turn outward to his or her social context--to detect
    the ambient opinion, to negotiate, compromise, and improvise. And in
    this move from the private interior to the social sphere, the
    presumption of a private self as a source of moral direction is
    subverted. As negotiating the complexities of multiplicity becomes
    normalized, the conception of the mind as a moral touchstone grows

          Plasticity. As the technologies of sociation increase our
    immersion in information and evaluation, they also expand the scope
    and complexity of our activities. We engage in a greater range of
    relationships distributed over numerous and variegated sites, from the
    face-to-face encounters in the neighborhood and workplace, to
    professional and recreational relationships that often span
    continents. Further, because of the rapid movement of information and
    opinion, the half life of various products and policies is shortened,
    and the opportunities for novel departures expanded. The composition
    of the workplace is thus in continuous flux. The working person shifts
    jobs more frequently, often with an accompanying move to another
    location. In the early 1990s one out of three American workers had
    been with his or her employer for less than a year, and almost two out
    of three for less than five years.

          As a result of these developments, the individual is challenged
    with an increasingly variegated array of behavioral demands. With each
    new performance site, new patterns of action may be required;
    dispositions, appetites, personas--all may be acquired and abandoned
    and reappropriated as conditions invite or demand. With movements
    through time and space, oppositional accents may often be fashioned:
    firm here and soft there, commanding and then obedient, sophisticated
    and then crude, righteous and immoral, conventional and rebellious.
    For many people such chameleon-like shifts are now unremarkable; they
    constitute the normal hurly burly of daily life. At times the
    challenges may be enjoyed, even sought. It was only four decades ago
    that David Riesman's celebrated book, The Lonely Crowd, championed the
    virtues of the inner-directed man and condemned the other-directed
    individual for lack of character--a man without a gyroscopic center of
    being.[6]^4 In the new techno-based ethos there is little need for the
    inner-directed, one-style-for-all individual. Such a person is narrow,
    parochial, inflexible. In the fast pace of the technological society,
    concern with the inner life is a luxury--if not a waste of time. We
    now celebrate protean being. In either case, the interior self recedes
    in significance.[7]^5

          Repetition. Let us consider a more subtle mode of self-erosion,
    owing in this instance to the increasing inundation of images,
    stories, and information. Consider here those confirmatory moments of
    individual authorship, moments in which the sense of authentic action
    becomes palpably 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 conventions. Rather, in the innovative
    act we locate a guarantee of self as originary source, a creative
    agent, an author of one's own morality. Yet, in a world in which the
    technologies facilitate an enormous sophistication in "how it goes,"
    such moments become increasingly rare. How is it, for example, that a
    young couple, who for 20 years have been inundated by romance
    narratives--on television and radio, in film, in 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"?[8]^6 In what sense can one
    stand out from the crowd in a singular display of moral fortitude, and
    not hear the voices of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, or Harrison Ford just
    over one's shoulder?

          Should one attempt to secure confirmation of agency from a
    public action--political remonstrance, religious expression, musical
    performance, and the like--the problems of authenticity are even more
    acute. First, the existing technologies do not allow us to escape the
    past. Rather, images of the past are stored, resurrected, and
    recreated as never before. In this sense, the leap from oral to print
    memory was only the beginning of a dramatic technological infusion of
    cultural memory. Thus, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid
    observations of how any notable action is historically prepared. To
    perform publicly is to incite incessant commentaries about how one is,
    for example, "just like the 60s," "has his roots in Billy Sunday
    revivalism," or "draws his inspiration from Jimmy Hendrix." Should the
    public demonstration gain media interest, there is also a slow
    conversion from the authentic to the instrumental. That is, what may
    have once seemed spontaneous is now converted to a performance "for
    the media" and its public. Indulgence in political passion, for
    example, becomes muted by the attentions one must give to wardrobe,
    voice projection, and facial expression. One cannot simply "play the
    music," but must be concerned with hair styling, posture, and girth.
    In a world in which the local is rapidly transported to the global,
    the half-life of moral authenticity rapidly diminishes.

          Transience. To the extent that one is surrounded by a cast of
    others who respond to one in a similar way, a sense of a unified self
    may result. One may come to understand, for example, that he is the
    first son of an esteemed high school teacher and a devoted mother, a
    star of the baseball team, and a devout Catholic. This sense of
    perdurable character also furnishes a standard against which the
    morality of one's acts can be judged. One can know that "this just
    isn't me," that "If I did that I would feel insufferable guilt."
    However, with the accumulating effects of the technologies of
    sociation, one now becomes transient, a nomad or a "homeless
    mind."[9]^7 The continuous reminders of one's identity--of who one is
    and always has been--no longer prevail. The internal standard grows
    pallid, and in the end, one must imagine that it counts for little in
    the generation of moral action.

          There is a more subtle effect of such techno-induced transience.
    It is not only a coherent community that lends itself to the sense of
    personal depth. It is also the availability of others who provide the
    time and attention necessary for a sense of an unfolding interior to
    emerge. The process of psychoanalysis is illustrative. As the analyst
    listens with hovering interest to the words of the analysand, and
    these words prompt questions of deeper meaning, there is created for
    the analysand the sense of palpable interiority, the reality of a
    realm beyond the superficially given, or in effect, a sense of
    individual depth. The process requires time and attention. And so it
    is in daily life; one acquires the sense of depth primarily when there
    is ample time for exploration, time for moving beyond instrumental
    calculations to matters of "deeper desire," forgotten fantasies, to
    "what really counts." Yet, it is precisely this kind of "time off the
    merry-go-round" that is increasingly difficult to locate. In the
    techno-dominated world, one must keep moving, the network is vast,
    commitments are many, expectations are endless, opportunities abound,
    and time is a scarce commodity.

          Each of these tendencies--toward polyvocality, plasticity,
    repetition, and transience--function so as to undermine the
    longstanding presumption of a palpable self, of personal consciousness
    as an agentive source, or of interior character as a touchstone of the
    moral life.[10]^8 Yet, while lamentable in certain respects, the
    waning intelligibility of moral selves is much welcomed in other
    quarters. Both intellectually and ideologically the concept of the
    self as moral atom is flawed. On the conceptual level, it is not
    simply that the conception of moral agency recapitulates the thorny
    problems of epistemological dualism--subject vs. object, mind vs.
    body, minds knowing other minds--but the very idea of an independent
    decision maker is uncompelling. How, it is asked, could moral thought
    take place except within the categories supplied by the culture? If we
    subtracted the entire vocabulary of the culture from individual
    subjectivity, how could the individual form questions about justice,
    duty, rights, or moral goods? 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."[11]^9

          These conceptual problems are conjoined to widespread
    ideological critique. Alexis de Tocqueville's observations of 19th
    century American 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 itself."[12]^10 Within recent decades these views have been
    echoed and amplified by many. Christopher Lasch has traced linkages
    between individualist presumptions and cultural tendencies toward
    narcissism;[13]^11 Robert Bellah and his colleagues argue that certain
    forms of individualism work against the possibility for committed
    relationships and dedication to community;[14]^12 for Edward Sampson
    the presumption of a self-contained individual leads to an
    insensitivity to minority voices, suppression of the other, and social
    division.[15]^13 Ultimately, the conception 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 the other, and vice
    versa, we are forever left with a sense of profound isolation, an
    inability to ever know what lies behind the other's visage. By
    constituting an interior self we inevitably create the Other from whom
    we shall forever remain alien.

    [16]^1 Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the
    Word (London: Methuen, 1982). ] [17]^2 Such a conclusion would also be
    congenial with a rapidly growing body of literature on the historical
    and cultural construction of the mind. See, for example, Michel
    Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol. 1, trans.
    Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1978); Catherine Lutz, Unnatural
    Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and Their
    Challenge to Western Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
    1988); Carl F. Graumann and Kenneth J. Gergen, eds., Historical
    Dimensions of Psychological Discourse (New York: Cambridge University
    Press, 1996). ] [18]^3 For a more extended analysis of the "loss of
    self" in the media age, see Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen:
    Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon and Schuster,
    1995); and Kenneth J. Gergen, "Technology and the Self: From the
    Essential to the Sublime," Constructing the Self in a Mediated Age,
    ed. Debora Grodin and Thomas R. Lindlof (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1996)
    127-140. ] [19]^4 See David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the
    Changing American Character (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953).
    ] [20]^5 See, for example, Robert Jay Lifton, The Protean Self: Human
    Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation (New York: Basic, 1993). ]
    [21]^6 Umberto Eco, Postscript to The Name of the Rose, trans. William
    Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983) 67. ] [22]^7 Peter
    Berger, Brigitte Berger, and Hansfried Kellner, The Homeless Mind:
    Modernization and Consciousness (New York: Vintage, 1973). ] [23]^8
    These conclusions are surely resonant with other accounts of "the
    loss," "decentering," or "deconstruction" of the self in recent
    scholarship. However, where key writings by Foucault, Lacan, and
    Derrida derive their conclusions from theoretical premises, the
    present analysis attempts to trace the sense of dissolution to
    particular circumstances of cultural technology. In effect, one might
    suppose that the very intelligibility of the theoretical analyses may
    be derived from common experiences in contemporary culture. ] [24]^9
    Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge:
    Cambridge University Press, 1982) 179. ] [25]^10 Alexis de
    Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Doubleday, 1969) 506. ]
    [26]^11 See Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American
    Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, 1979). ]
    [27]^12 See Robert N. Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart:
    Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of
    California Press, 1985). ] [28]^13 See Edward E. Sampson, Celebrating
    the Other: A Dialogic Account of Human Nature, Psychology, Gender, and
    Theory (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993). ]

References (do visit)

    2. http://religionanddemocracy.lib.virginia.edu/hh/index.html
   29. http://www.virginia.edu/iasc/

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