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Self-identity, history, modernity

How distinctive in historical terms are the concerns and orientations expressed in Rainwater's `self-help manual'? We might, of course, simply say that the search for self-identity is a modern problem, perhaps having its origins in Western individualism. Baumeister claims that in pre-modern times our current emphasis on individuality was absent. 7 The idea that each person has a unique character and special potentialities that may or may not be fulfilled is alien to pre-modern culture. In medieval Europe, lineage, gender, social status and other attributes relevant to identity were all relatively fixed. Transitions had to be made through the various stages of life, but these were governed by

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institutionalised processes and the individual's role in them was relatively passive. Baumeister's analysis recalls that of Durkheim: the `individual', in a certain sense, did not exist in traditional cultures, and individuality was not prized. Only with the emergence of modern societies and, more particularly, with the differentiation of the division of labour, did the separate individual become a focus of attention. 8

No doubt there is something in these views. But I do not think it is the existence of the `individual' that is at stake, as a distinctive feature of modernity, and even less so the self. `Individuality' has surely been valued -- within varying limits -- in all cultures and so, in one sense or another, has been the cultivation of individual potentialities. Rather than talking in general terms of `individual', `self' or even `self-identity' as distinctive of modernity, we should try to break things down into finer detail. We can begin to do so by charting some of the specific points in, or implications of, Rainwater's portrayal of what therapy is and what it does. The following elements can be drawn out of her text:

1 The self is seen as a reflexive project, for which the individual is responsible (this theme figured in chapter 1 above). We are, not what we are, but what we make of ourselves. It would not be true to say that the self is regarded as entirely empty of content, for there are psychological processes of self-formation, and psychological needs, which provide the parameters for the reorganisation of the self. Otherwise, however, what the individual becomes is dependent on the reconstructive endeavours in which she or he engages. These are far more than just `getting to know oneself' better: self-understanding is subordinated to the more inclusive and fundamental aim of building/rebuilding a coherent and rewarding sense of identity. The involvement of such reflexivity with social and psychological research is striking, and a pervasive feature of the therapeutic outlook advocated.

2 The self forms a trajectory of development from the past to the anticipated future. The individual appropriates his past by sifting through it in the light of what is anticipated for an (organised) future. The trajectory of the self has a coherence that derives from a cognitive awareness of the various phases of the lifespan. The lifespan, rather than events in the outside world,

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becomes the dominant `foreground figure' in the Gestalt sense. It is not quite the case that all outside events or institutions are a `blur', against which only the lifespan has form and is picked out in clear relief; yet such events only intrude in so far as they provide supports for self-development, throw up barriers to be overcome or are a source of uncertainties to be faced.

3 The reflexivity of the self is continuous, as well as all-pervasive. At each moment, or at least at regular intervals, the individual is asked to conduct a self-interrogation in terms of what is happening. Beginning as a series of consciously asked questions, the individual becomes accustomed to asking, `how can I use this moment to change?' Reflexivity in this sense belongs to the reflexive historicity of modernity, as distinct from the more generic reflexive monitoring of action. As Rainwater stresses, it is a practised art of self-observation:

What is happening right now?
What am I thinking?
What am I doing?
What am I feeling?
How am I breathing? 9

4 It is made clear that self-identity, as a coherent phenomenon, presumes a narrative: the narrative of the self is made explicit. Keeping a journal, and working through an autobiography, are central recommendations for sustaining an integrated sense of self. It is generally accepted among historians that the writing of autobiographies (as well as biographies) only developed during the modern period. 10 Most published autobiographies, of course, are celebrations of the lives or achievements of distinguished individuals: they are a way of singling out the special experiences of such persons from those of the mass of the population. Seen in this way, autobiography seems a rather peripheral feature of individual distinctiveness as a whole. Yet autobiography -- particularly in the broad sense of an interpretative self-history produced by the individual concerned, whether written down or not -- is actually at the core of self-identity in modern social life. Like any other formalised narrative, it is something that has to be worked at, and calls for creative input as a matter of course.

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5 Self-actualisation implies the control of time -- essentially, the establishing of zones of personal time which have only remote connections with external temporal orders (the routinised world of time-space governed by the clock and by universalised standards of measurement). The insistence on the primacy of personal time (the durée of day-to-day social life) is everywhere in Rainwater's book -- although, as we have seen, it is not offered as a philosophy of the `absolute present', but as a mode of controlling the available time of the lifespan. `Holding a dialogue with time' is the very basis of self-realisation, because it is the essential condition of achieving satisfaction at any given moment -- of living life to the full. The future is thought of as resonant with possibilities, yet not left open to the full play of contingency. So far as possible, the future is to be ordered by exactly those active processes of temporal control and active interaction on which the integration of the self's narrative depends.

6 The reflexivity of the self extends to the body, where the body (as suggested in the previous chapter) is part of an action system rather than merely a passive object. Observation of bodily processes -- `How am I breathing?' -- is intrinsic to the continuous reflexive attention which the agent is called on to pay to her behaviour. Awareness of the body is basic to `grasping the fullness of the moment', and entails the conscious monitoring of sensory input from the environment, as well as the major bodily organs and body dispositions as a whole. Body awareness also includes awareness of requirements of exercise and diet. Rainwater points out that people speak of `going on a diet' -- but we are all on a diet! Our diet is what we eat; at many junctures of the day we take decisions about whether or not to eat and drink, and exactly what to eat and drink. `If you don't like the diet you are on, there is a new minute and a new choice-point coming up, and you can change your diet. You're in charge!' 11

Body awareness sounds similar to the regimes practised in some traditional religions, particularly religions of the East. And indeed Rainwater, like many others writing about self-actualisation or therapy today, draws on some such regimes in the programme she offers. Yet the differences are pronounced. For body awareness is presented by her as a means of constructing a differentiated self, not as one of the dissolution of the ego.

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Experiencing the body is a way of cohering the self as an integrated whole, whereby the individual says `this is where I live.'

7 Self-actualisation is understood in terms of a balance between opportunity and risk. Letting go of the past, through the various techniques of becoming free from oppressive emotional habits, generates a multiplicity of opportunities for self-development. The world becomes full of potential ways of being and acting, in terms of experimental involvements which the individual is now able to initiate. It would not be true to say that the psychologically liberated person faces risks while the more traditional self does not; rather, what is at stake is the secular consciousness of risk, as inherent in calculative strategies to be adopted in relation to the future.

The individual has to confront novel hazards as a necessary part of breaking away from established patterns of behaviour -- including the risk that things could possibly get worse than they were before. Another book on self-therapy describes things in the following way:

If your life is ever going to change for the better, you'll have to take chances. You'll have to get out of your rut, meet new people, explore new ideas and move along unfamiliar pathways. In a way the risks of self-growth involve going into the unknown, into an unfamiliar land where the language is different and customs are different and you have to learn your way around... the paradox is that until we give up all that feels secure, we can never really trust the friend, mate, or job that offers us something. True personal security does not come from without, it comes from within. When we are really secure, we must place our total trust in ourself.

If we reject deliberate risk-taking for self growth, we will inevitably remain trapped in our situation. Or we end up taking a risk unprepared. Either way, we have placed limits on our personal growth, have cut ourselves off from action in the service of high self-worth. 12

8 The moral thread of self-actualisation is one of authenticity (although not in Heidegger's sense), based on `being true to oneself'. Personal growth depends on conquering emotional blocks and tensions that prevent us from understanding ourselves

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as we really are. To be able to act authentically is more than just acting in terms of a self-knowledge that is as valid and full as possible; it means also disentangling -- in Laing's terms -- the true from the false self. As individuals we are not able to `make history' but if we ignore our inner experience, we are condemned to repeat it, prisoners of traits which are inauthentic because they emanate from feelings and past situations imposed on us by others (especially in early childhood). The watchword in self-therapy is `recover or repeat.'

The morality of authenticity skirts any universal moral criteria, and includes references to other people only within the sphere of intimate relationships -- although this sphere is accepted as highly important to the self. To be true to oneself means finding oneself, but since this is an active process of self-construction it has to be informed by overall goals -- those of becoming free from dependencies and achieving fulfilment. Fulfilment is in some part a moral phenomenon, because it means fostering a sense that one is `good', a `worthy person': `I know that as I raise my own self-worth, I will feel more integrity, honesty, compassion, energy and love'. 13

9 The life course is seen as a series of `passages'. The individual is likely, or has to go through them, but they are not institutionalised, or accompanied by formalised rites. All such transitions involve loss (as well as, usually, potential gain) and such losses -- as in the case of marital separation -- have to be mourned if self-actualisation is to proceed on course. Life passages give particular cogency to the interaction of risk and opportunity spoken of earlier -- especially, although by no means exclusively, when they are in substantial degree initiated by the individual whom they affect. Negotiating a significant transition in life, leaving home, getting a new job, facing up to unemployment, forming a new relationship, moving between different areas or routines, confronting illness, beginning therapy -- all mean running consciously entertained risks in order to grasp the new opportunities which personal crises open up. It is not only in terms of the absence of rites that life passages differ from comparable processes in traditional contexts. More important is that such transitions are drawn into, and surmounted by means of, the reflexively mobilised trajectory of self-actualisation.

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10 The line of development of the self is internally referential: the only significant connecting thread is the life trajectory as such. Personal integrity, as the achievement of an authentic self, comes from integrating life experiences within the narrative of self-development: the creation of a personal belief system by means of which the individual acknowledges that `his first loyalty is to himself.' The key reference points are set `from the inside', in terms of how the individual constructs/reconstructs his life history.

Of all this, of course, there are questions one could ask. How valid are these conceptions? Are they in some sense ideological? Are they more to do with therapy than with any changes which might have affected the self in modern social conditions? For the moment I want to bracket these issues. It seems to me justified to assert that, partial, inadequate and idiosyncratic as the ideas just outlined may be, they signal something real about self and self-identity in the contemporary world -- the world of late modernity. How that may be we can begin to see by connecting them up to the institutional transformations characteristic of that world.

Date: 2016-04-22; view: 562

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