[Paleopsych] Hedgehog: Kenneth J. Gergen: The Self: Death by Technology

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

[I sent this before. It is an excellent article about the changing concepts of 
self, if not its disappearance.]

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.^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.^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.^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.^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"?^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."^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.^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."^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."^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;^11 Robert Bellah and his colleagues argue that certain
forms of individualism work against the possibility for committed
relationships and dedication to community;^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.^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

^1 Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word
(London: Methuen, 1982). ] ^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). ] ^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. ] ^4 See
David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American
Character (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953). ] ^5 See, for
example, Robert Jay Lifton, The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an
Age of Fragmentation (New York: Basic, 1993). ] ^6 Umberto Eco,
Postscript to The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (San Diego:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983) 67. ] ^7 Peter Berger, Brigitte
Berger, and Hansfried Kellner, The Homeless Mind: Modernization and
Consciousness (New York: Vintage, 1973). ] ^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. ] ^9 Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits
of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982) 179. ] ^10
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Doubleday,
1969) 506. ] ^11 See Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism:
American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton,
1979). ] ^12 See Robert N. Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart:
Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1985). ] ^13 See Edward E. Sampson, Celebrating the
Other: A Dialogic Account of Human Nature, Psychology, Gender, and
Theory (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993). ]

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