Who Am I?

The idea of identity has been debated in western philosophy and sociology for a long time.  Of course, it also comes up in my current course “Consumerism, Politics, and Values,” ranging from Benjamin Barber’s discussing of “branding” and how companies try to market identities to consumers, and Don Slater’s probe of theories of modern and post-modern identity.

Erik Erikson coined the term “identity crisis” and defined identity this way: “a subjective sense as well as an observable quality of personal sameness and continuity, paired with some belief in the sameness and continuity of some shared world image. ”  In other words, identity is both subjective and social, identity is not a free standing individual trait.  How could it be?  Without some social measure or sense of relative existence (difference), identity would be meaningless as a concept.

Yet most of us go through life with a very individualistic idea of identity, the so-called Cartesian ego.   DeCartes famous “cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am” posits the notion that if there is thinking being done, there has to be some entity doing the thinking.   DeCartes reached that position through rational reflection, apparently divorced of any kind of social or collective influence.   To be sure, he used words — language is a social construct — but arguably he could have had the idea even if he didn’t have the words to communicate and symbolize the idea.

Modern western liberalism (liberal in the philosophical sense, not the American politics jargony sense) puts the individual at the fore.  Identity is individual, and defined by ourselves.   The external world gives us choices, options and opportunities, each of us chooses how to construct ourselves in the world.    The market is thus a place of consensual exchange, freed from the demands of tradition, pre-ordained status (i.e., aristocracy vs. peasantry), or coercion.   The government exists primarily to defend our individuality, protecting our lives, our liberty and our property.

To modern liberals, questioning this individualist ontology is to embrace collectivism, and risk undoing the good brought about by the enlightenment.  Government, in the name of the collective, will lay claim to our property, infer status on people, and construct the social order, thereby asserting the power to assign identities.   Thus for modern liberals individualism is both a political value and a moral good — it asserts liberation and freedom  over oppression and even slavery.

Yet what if that individual concept of identity is misguided?   Many modern liberals cover their ears and go ‘yada yada yada’ at this suggestion, so important is the concept of individual identity to their world view that they dare not consider a challenge.   However, if they are wrong their entire philosophical framework is an illusion, the liberty they proclaim is false, and their claims to represent moral good a delusion.

And, of course, there are numerous reasons to question that concept of a rational chosen identity.   There is the challenge Freud posited when he discovered that the motives for human behavior come not from rational reflection, but rather the subconscious.   Regardless of what one thinks of Freud’s various theories, the idea of subconscious drives causing human behavior is so well proven in psychological studies that no one can seriously question it.   The so-called “id” — the desire for instant gratification of whatever we want — apparently comes from a time when surivival required a strong drive to eat, procreate and overcome danger.   Nature kept it in check.    Freudians believe that now a “super ego” reflecting an idealized version of how we should behave (social rules and personal expectations of perfection) counters the “id”, with the ego trying to balance the two.

But if I am in part defined by a subconscious and irrational set of desires that must be repressed or controlled in order to act in society, my identity can come neither from individual rationality or those desires alone.   One navigates this world and culture in order to find socially and personally acceptable ways to fill desires and drives, meaning identity cannot be completely individual, and must have a social component.

This opening to the social, especially as it involves subconscious activity, means that we are open to emotional manipulation — such as by advertisers, politicians, and art.  In fact, one reason theater, poetry, music and art have been prized in most cultures is that this is seen as a positive sense of emotional connection.  Rather than manipulation it is edification, and it is overt.  You know the poet is trying to reach an emotion, you are connecting with something honestly.   When politicians symbolically try to connect their program with strong emotional themes, or advertisers show McDonalds or KFC with images of family and wholesome pleasure, that is manipulative because we don’t recognize the power of the emotional appeals.  We think we are rationally choosing the political program we believe in due to consideration of policy, when we’re really going more from the gut.

Yet it is not just our preferences or choices being manipulated, it’s our very identity — something we’re also blind to if we cling to the idea identity is pure choice and individual.    Moreover, without ascribed and clearly given identities, that power to choose ones’ own identity produces, as Slater notes, “anxiety and risk.”   We have to find a coherent notion of the self that we can internally identify with over time, and connect it a position within the social framework:  there are commonalities and differences to others that allow one to feel that one inhabits a place in the social order that makes sense — even if it is something like an ‘eccentric artist.’  Yet marketers constantly push us to question and shift identities, meaning that many people find themselves having to constantly re-create their identity, superficially connecting with symbols or labels rather than something personally and socially meaningful.

The key to personal happiness and contentment is that identity must have meaning — a person has to feel not only that he or she has a label, but that label is meaningful, both internally and in the world.  That’s why nationalism, religious faith, and other notions of identity — with strong symbols, historical and clear connections, and often an exclusive population — are powerful.   People can identify with something greater than themselves, and find meaning in so doing.   Modern enlightenment liberalism distrusts those identities — they are not rational (why be proud of being an American when it is an accident of birth, why simply identify with the collective) or are traditional (religion is seen as myth).   So the individual must find meaningful identity on his or her own, presumably through rational choice.  Yet the enlightenment and rational thought are tools, unable to themselves provide true meaning.  This is a recipe for chronic identity crises and personality disorders.

That’s the modern challenge: to literally define oneself in a meaningful manner, cognizant of attempts to manipulate people and market faux identities (identification with brand names, lifestyles promoted by advertisers, political movements, etc.)   To do so, one must accept that ones very essence is not purely individual, but part of  a social context, and includes subconscious drives and desires from both our childhood and our genetic heritage.   We must defy both the philosophical hold modernism has on our notion of the self, and the psychological sense that the other — society, culture, other people — are completely separate and detached from self and identity.   This cannot be done with reason alone, and opens up a need to consider the realm of understanding beyond reason — the inspirational, artistic, spiritual, or transcendent.   How to do that will be the subject of a future (likely the next) post.

Update:  I feel a need to write my next post on the 30th anniversary of Carter’s malaise speech, so this will be continued later this week.

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  1. #1 by notesalongthepath on July 15, 2009 - 5:29 am

    Hi Scott,
    I never thought about everything you bring up in this post. I worked in advertising for a while, and am usually aware of manipulation by advertisers, but I hadn’t realized the depth of the dilemma of growing an authentic self while learning to somehow cooperate with society. Very interesting and enlightening.
    Pam Bickell

  2. #2 by henitsirk on July 15, 2009 - 7:28 pm

    What I see so often are people who don’t seem to be aware that our culture has given us a method of self-definition that we are not consciously choosing. For example, many people are absolutely shocked when I say that I don’t watch TV. It’s not even an option for them to consider! Likewise consumerism and advertising: we are defined by what products we buy. How many people really consider what it means to wear a logo or name on their clothing — do they even think that they are being co-opted into being a walking advertisement, or do they just see themselves as cooler, hipper, part of the right group, etc.?

    I had a bad experience reading Thomas Kuhn in college, but I think his concept of paradigm has value. It’s outside most people’s paradigm to see their lives as defined by consumerism. It’s just reality for them, and they can’t (or won’t) shift their consciousness enough to see it objectively.

    And again, as in your last post, we are faced with duality: self/other, individual/society, freedom/oppression, etc. I think we get into serious trouble when we follow this kind of thinking. And of course I do it as well — I define consumerism as “not-me”.

    Now, as usual, I have to bring in some Steiner! He thought and spoke quite a bit about the self. He developed an idea of human beings having twelve senses: the traditional five, plus 7 more such as the sense of warmth and the sense of balance. The last one of all, linked to the highest stage of development of the child, is the sense of self/other or ego.

    Steiner also developed a way of looking at society and culture (the “threefold social order”) which has correspondences to liberty, equality, and fraternity with the social realms of culture, law, and economics respectively. Steiner was definitely not a dualist! Here’s a nice description, from here:

    “Individuality and community are lifted beyond conflict only when they are recognized as a creative polarity rooted in basic human nature, not as contradictions. Each aspect must find the appropriate social expression. We need forms that ensure freedom for all expressions of spiritual life and promote community in economic life. The health of this polarity, however, depends on a full recognition of the third human need and function — the social relationships that relate to our sense of human rights. Here again, Steiner emphasized the need to develop a distinct realm of social organization to support this sphere, one inspired by the concern for equality that awakens as we recognize the spiritual essence of every human being. This is the meaning and source of our right to freedom of spirit and to material sustenance.”

  3. #3 by Scott Erb on July 15, 2009 - 7:39 pm

    Thanks for all the comments Henitsirk — I haven’t had time to reply but will read through them. I also am going to re-order Steiner through interlibrary loan — I had to return most of them unread last time because the semester got so busy that they just stood on my desk until they were due (though I did read a good chunk of his biography of Nietzsche — very interesting). Given your views, you’d love this course and the discussions we’ve been having — we’ve read Benjamin Barber’s “Consumed,” and a really good academic book by Don Slater called “Consumer Culture and Modernity.”

  4. #4 by notesalongthepath on July 15, 2009 - 10:03 pm

    Okay, you guys are making me wish I’d had a college education. You sure get to read a lot of interesting books.

  5. #5 by Josh on July 16, 2009 - 12:59 am

    Nice post, Scott. I always thought that the subconscious expressed our true desires and therefore defined our true individuality. I haven’t studied Freud very much though, so perhaps I’m wrong.

    I’m glad you will be discussing art soon. Perhaps you will discuss Nietzsche and Wagner? Wagner is interesting because he and Nietzsche saw eye to eye on the ideas of individuality and rationality. Wagner’s music was certainly very individual for the times! The subject matter of his operas, however, (dealing with gods, myths, and the spiritual) was very irrational. Eventually, Nietzsche saw Wagner as a traitor. So it seems to me that Wagner could move quite nicely between the rational and the irrational.

    But these are just some thoughts from someone who has only had one college course in philosophy. Let me know if you believe I am misguided.

  6. #6 by Henitsirk on July 16, 2009 - 2:34 am

    And thanks for not deleting my long comments :-)

  7. #7 by Henitsirk on July 16, 2009 - 2:45 am

    I forgot: Steiner had a lot to say about our unconscious desires as well. In fact, much of what he proposed as meditative work was meant to increase consciousness of those desires and therefore to increase control over them. Far too much to go into here, but I think he would have disagreed with “the motives for human behavior come not from rational reflection, but rather the subconscious” — I believe Steiner thought that they can come from the subconscious (what he would have termed “astrality”) but that we can definitely overcome that. And that we also have higher motives, which can also be outside of our normal consciousness, that guide us. There’s a book comparing Steiner and Freud…I’ll have to read that someday!

  8. #8 by Scott Erb on July 16, 2009 - 3:48 am

    Yes, your comment makes me want to read the Steiner-Freud comparison. The idea that we can overcall subconscious drives completely goes against modern psychology, as I understand it. But perhaps there is a middle ground in terms of becoming conscious of and able to overcome, rather than making it seem as if we can live completely conscious and aware.

    Steiner seems an interesting case too, since his language and reflections go outside enlightenment methods and rhetoric. Right now, even critics of the enlightenment, such as post-modernists, have to stay within the framework. I need to read more from him, and reflect on all this. Ironically this summer’s course (and the four students involved are great — we’re thinking and learning together on these issues with no clear answers) has generated more intellectual curiosity then I get during the semester — I literally lie awake or wake up with thoughts about these issues playing around my head. And when I am working on our outdoor project for the backyard, I find myself enjoying the authenticity of that work and experience, it has more meaning.

  9. #9 by henitsirk on July 16, 2009 - 2:27 pm

    But doesn’t psychoanalysis attempt to bring our drives to consciousness in some way? Steiner thought that if we, for example, became aware of our thought processes as well as our unconscious habits, we could begin to manage our astrality consciously. I’m sure this has some parallels in modern psychology: when we conflict with a partner, we may come to see that our unease stems from some wound of childhood. We can then work to change our interactions in the moment by staying aware of that origin, and consciously trying a new way of responding.

    Steiner thought that our drives (again, his word was astrality) were natural, but something we should not let rule our actions and thoughts. I think he believed that some day human beings could be completely aware, but not any time soon! Something to work toward.

    Sounds like postmodern thought was simply a reaction to enlightenment thought, which puts it in that dreaded duality. Perhaps Steiner was trying for a third way that could step out of that dynamic.

  10. #10 by Mike Lovell on July 17, 2009 - 4:29 pm

    I, like Notes, have limited education, in the formal sense. These books you and Henitsirk bring up always sound interesting…however Freud always ends up a complicatingly dry read that I never get much past skimming parts here and there. Do any of these books actually ‘flow’ nicely for a guy who prefers stories (fiction or non) over careful explanations of perceived mental diagrams?

    From my own personal library of opinions (yes I have volumes of them, founded or unfounded!) I am a firm believer in individualism and the individual effort. Not to forsake the other players in society, but I take pride in being as self-sufficient as I possibly can be (and yet I work for someone else…go figure), but will not hesitate to help those around me with my own resources. I tried to avoid politics, but I can’t help it here….the problem with the collective overtures is not so much that of voluntary efforts by individuals but a true collection of efforts and materials by mandate, in a way that seems to be entirely anti-individualism. Many of the supposed collective preach the message, but fail miserably and fidn themselves entangled in their own ego, with wants and desires, with little true altruism as their purpose, which to me seems like total hypocrisy, thereby nulifying their credibility to the core. Not to say that there arent truly altruistic people out there, but I often think that most in this category are more individualistic than one might think.

  11. #11 by henitsirk on July 17, 2009 - 4:47 pm

    Mike, I talk about Rudolf Steiner a lot. He is *really* hard to read! So I end up finding more “user-friendly” authors who were inspired by him to be a lot more fruitful. But then it’s good to read the original source when possible too. Don’t despair!

    You said: “I take pride in being as self-sufficient as I possibly can be (and yet I work for someone else…go figure), but will not hesitate to help those around me with my own resources.” That’s a great balance, just how I wish most people would be. Unfortunately I think we more often need a mandate, as you put it, because do we lack altruism, or fear financial problems, or are too egocentric or cynical to help others. I suffer that problem all the time!

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