Everyone is taking selfies, but does that mean that no one is selfy, that is, self-like, anymore? It’s a serious question, even if it is prompted by the hilarious new song (I suppose that’s what it is) titled “Selfie,” which features a young woman, with an attention span of approximately 3 seconds whose only anchor in a stable reality seems to be the compulsion to take a selfie (and announce that she is doing so) every 10 seconds or so. The song, which, like so many other products of contemporary culture is a parody so immersive in its object as to blur the boundary between parody and celebration, seems to suggest a direct correspondence between ubiquity of the external and ultra-literally named marker of “selfiness” and the absence of any inner experience of the same.

Freud’s “Copernican turn” was his claim that human consciousness was on the margin, not at the center—the margin, more specifically, of immense and obscure unconscious processes that we could only ever know very imperfectly, and only affect minimally. Freud used the term “Ego,” which is not necessarily a close synonym for “self,” but we have already introduced the term “consciousness,” and cultural Marxists following in Freud’s footsteps (Lacanianly mediated) introduced the term “subjectivity,” to cover conceptual territory aimed at including and usurping that covered by “Ego,” “self,” “consciousness,” and others, like “individual,” “person” and “identity” (not to mention “soul”). The notion of “subjectivity” aims at greater precision, drawing on phenomenology to conceptualize the subject “constitutively” embedded in a world of objects and inter-subjectively mediated intentions, but also contains an implicit taunt in its allusion to subjection. No theorist of subjectivity will admit to being only a subject herself. All these terms, except for subjectivity, are used so widely and have been used for so long that it would be ridiculous to dismiss them as “mystifications” (and not only would I not dismiss “subjectivity,” either, but I will further explore the term’s implicit argument that modern society has progressively marginalized, impaired, diminished and even shattered what was once taken to be the human center). The task for originary thinking is explore the overlapping terrains covered by this sprawling vocabulary, and make sense of them as so many ways of being signifying beings.

Andrew Bartlett gets us off to a very good start in his “Originary Human Personhood” in the Fall 2011 issue of Anthropoetics. I will be more interested in the “self” than the person in this discussion, but Bartlett’s originary analysis of personhood, and the distinction he draws between “person” and “self,” suggests a way of starting to see these concepts in relation to each other. Starting from Eric Gans’s contention that the originary “person” was God, Bartlett proposes that the appropriation of a kind of derived divinity in the constitution of the human “person” takes place through the mediation of the private, erotic center. To be a person is to be lovable and to love (to confirm the lovability of another)—to be an inexhaustible source of desire for another who is in turn such a source for oneself; to be aligned with another as reciprocally orbiting centers of meaning and concern capable of shutting out the world. Meanwhile, Bartlett distinguishes the “person” from the “self” as follows:

To be a self is not quite yet to be a person. The self designates rather a denuded, anesthetic entity lacking both the concrete bodily vulnerability and the power to create meaning that belongs to the person. “He is a wonderful person” sounds fine; “he is a wonderful self,” awkward. “She is a giving person” makes sense; “she is a giving self” rings oxymoronic. The undesirability of the reputation of “selfish person” tells all: the self is not the person. To have achieved personhood and to have personality, to be personable, to have personal relationships–those are goods. But to have a self–well, we all have one of those, it takes no work to have one of those; having a self makes no distinction–what can one do with oneself? The erotic self–especially–knows that what it can do with itself is limited. (The erotic person, however, may seem limitlessly beautiful.) In the originary event, the moment of consciousness of self is the moment of resentment. In resenting the sacred center, we first experience ourselves as violently dispossessed by it. Originary selfhood would thus be resentfully but not interpersonally human. In naming the sacred Object only as object of resentment, we are not yet naming God as a person: the sacred Other whom we selfishly name in resentment is not the divine Person whom we name in love. By contrast, to love God as originary Person is to love something of the way the sacred central Object has moved and moves us. Likewise in human exchange, the self-dispossession of resentment opposes love. We cannot have true love for the one against whom we feel real resentment. These contrasting associations of the self with resentment and the person with love, it seems to me, are worth preserving.
And yet there is value in owning the mere originary self as a kernel of sign-using consciousness prerequisite to personhood. Individual agency, free will, moral responsibility: several founding texts of Generative Anthropology affirm the value of the contributions made by these categories to the project of our self-understanding. Acclamations of even a resentful free will are a valuable counterweight to the post-structuralist denials of agency that would sever the connection between our internal scenes of representation (i.e., our imaginations), and the many external worlds, local and global, where exchanges of signs and things produce concrete results and where ethical performances have often incalculable consequences for good and evil. Anybody who uses language is a self endowed with free will; to use the sign on the scene of representation is to be a human self. My first qualification aims simply to spotlight the fact that a self consumed by resentment militates self-defeatingly against the openness to exchange of others’ personhood, and therefore against its own. Resentfulness is parasitic on love. The totally resentful self is not yet a person because such a self must abolish without loving the otherness of the center, and the desire to abolish the center makes exchange with others as centers, as persons, impossible. Distinguishing between selfhood and personhood may, therefore, illuminate the boundaries between originary resentment and originary love. If I am consumed by resentment of the other, I have not stepped back from myself to recognize the otherness in myself. I have not learned to imitate the sacred central Other withdrawing itself in the founding move of erotic activity from which human personhood is derived.

Bartlett’s analysis explains (to follow in the tracks of his own linguistic observations) why “selflessness” is praised, and why the extinguishing of the self (as in Buddhism) can be transcendent project—none of which would apply to “personhood.” If the self is a “prerequisite” of personhood, then the purely resentful, self-protecting self must be a kind of “skeleton” supporting the fully “embodied” person. Implicit in this argument seems to me a couple of other consequences: first, that the self can survive the obliteration of the “person” (Bartlett does not say, but how could we deny, that one’s erotic centrality could be demolished under certain conditions); and that as long as the self persists, the reconstitution of the person remains possible, while the pulverizing of the self, if we imagine that to be possible, would make any such restoration impossible.

This identification of the self with resentment also provides insight into the grammar of “self,” in particular its use in reflexive pronouns, which itself derives from the ancient identity of meaning of “self” with “same”—when we say “itself,” we mean the same “it” that was just referred to. In that case, the self is sheer sameness of the individual, that whatever it is that makes the individual that individual from moment to moment, year to year, decade to decade. Originary resentment is what makes us our“selves,” while I suppose the originary love of the person is ecstatic, taking us outside of the continuous flow of the self-same. Would that then mean that feelings of guilt and shame (i.e., conscience) are attributes of the self, insofar as those emotions are experienced when we have not been self-same, have broken the line of continuity (maintained through promises to self and others) that makes commitment possible? And the “sovereign subjectivity” so despised by post-humanist theories would, then, also reside in the self, or would rather be the self which, like an ever-vigilant government is constantly policing its own borders, keeping out intruders and keeping intact the needed defense mechanisms. Paranoia would also be an attribute of the self, and schizophrenia its breakdown.

More interesting even than all of that is the light shed by Bartlett’s analysis on the particular vulnerabilities of both person and self in a decentered, centripetal modern world. I have wondered for a while why the sexual revolution has been such an obsession of liberatory movements (political and artistic) from the Romantic period on, and why modern means of mass manipulation target the erotic so relentlessly. In other words, if Bartlett is right, then a possible strategy of assault and domination becomes visible. The specific articulation of self and person Bartlett outlines would be the basis for an individual who can think for him/herself, resist illegitimate demands, live within his/her means, recognize human limitations, and so on. If the erotic can be plugged into broader circuits of desire driven by commodity production, then personhood can be kept under constant pressure—the fantasy Bartlett outlines in his essay as the basis of the erotic imaginary (“You find yourself surrounded and alone in the center and you notice that all the people on the periphery–who knew? — suddenly “want” you erotically. They all want consummation with you, the person…”) only to dismiss as unrealistic and undesirable would be the source of one’s vulnerability to mass produced erotic fantasies, only in this case without any place to withdraw to (such withdrawal being, in Bartlett’s model, the way one transitions to a more mature eroticism).

Another prong of this assault would target the self. We could see all the normalization processes of modern societies, in which disciplines like medicine, psychiatry, sociology, economics and so on become disciplinary practices aimed at homogenizing and regulating millions of individuals circulating through modern institutions (first of all teaching them reading, writing and arithmetic) as directed at the self first of all. All these practices can be reduced to devising and enforcing the procedures needed to maintain “sameness” across a bewildering array of institutions, situations, obligations, norms, etc. We could see the early modern period studied by Michel Foucault in which these institutions were set up and given their legal and political foundations as excessive, often brutal, ad hoc and easily exploited by charlatans and power-hungry psychopaths and yet, for all that, necessary and largely successful. But with the myriad tentacles of the marketplace (most obviously, the massive explosion of pornography in recent years) undoing the erotic foundations of personhood, the processes of self-regulation may be getting more desperate and haphazard, drawing upon the new bio-political disciplines (drug therapies, gene research, etc.). It may be that more and more selves can only remain the same insofar as they adhere to increasingly arbitrary and rigid regimes of regulation.

Obviously, it would be impossible to quantify or be certain about any of these claims—what would it mean to say fewer people are less completely persons or selves now than was the case, say, half a century ago? Maybe what looks (inevitably) as disintegration to those embedded in a particular meditated mode of being is simply a transformation to terms of personhood or selfhood we are not able to recognize. Maybe, more radically, the entire vocabulary of human self-reference is being remade, to the point that somewhere down the road people won’t really understand what we once meant by things like persons and selves. To take just one example, the fact that the genre of romantic comedy in the movies is just about defunct suggests that certain key elements of erotically mediated personhood are no longer operative—the movie critic James Bowman associates the esthetic power of the genre to the belief on the part of the couple (and the audience) that the two people were “made for each other,” were “destined to be together.” Such a belief seems to me a “necessary appearance” (to use Arendt’s term for beliefs about reality that survive all attempts at demystification) for the closed erotic circle Bartlett identifies as the source of personhood—if such a belief is becoming as alien to our sensibilities as tragedy has long been, then we are indeed witnessing a sea-change in the self-person configuration.

At this point I don’t want to pursue this analysis further; I just want to suggest that originary thinking should pursue such questions as the contemporary state (or states) or the “person,” the “self,” and other originary elements of the human; and we should do in a way that is as divested from, or defers any desire for, any particular outcome as possible. That is, no apotropaic invocations of the preferability of market society to other forms, or of the superiority or inevitability of liberal democracy—or, for that matter, any denunciations of the market or prophecies of doom regarding liberal democracy. I would recommend refusing the use of a particular historical form of personhood or selfhood as an invariant model against which we find contemporary forms to be degraded versions; or using an idealized model of the self or person in order to condemn contemporary institutions for “distorting” that model. Of course we must be interested in the outcome of any moment in the unending process of hominization; but the clarity of analysis will benefit from our keeping that interest as minimal as possible, at simply identifying the threshold at which new modes of signifying emerge. What are the new modes of attentionality; how are we seeing and giving ourselves to be seen (and heard and felt and imagined) in new ways?

OK, I’ll pursue it just a little further. It seems to me that what is central to modernity is something that Marshall McLuhan associated with print culture—the capacity and compulsion to analyze phenomena into to ever smaller fragments that can in turn be recombined and disseminated in new ways that bear less and less trace of their origins. To the extent the person and the self can be reduced to a set of fragmented, stereotyped gestures that can be turned into esthetic formulas and models of imitation aimed at directing the “subject’s” attention in pre-programmed ways (what Judith Butler, following Derrida, once called “citationality,” referring to the fact that we are always citing and quoting others, even or especially when we believe we are most “ourselves”), the less we are persons and selves. Restoring, re-imagining or instituting new forms of personhood and selfhood, or imagining forms of individuality or “agency” irreducible to those terms (we could just become indeterminate processes of semiosis, for example) would then depend upon entering, interfering with and commandeering when possible that process of analysis and composition of the elements. The skeptical, suspicious resentment of the self would be needed here, as would the ecstatic, even if fleeting, enthusiasms of the person. The problem would be to acknowledge that one is always taking on others’ words, down to one’s most inmost being, while remembering that they are, even when most our own, in the end still others’ words.

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