Dec 312008

Thoughts emerging from a conversation with Sandra Luft of San Francisco State U (who bears no responsibility though):

“Who am I?” Or, “Who are you?“ How we answer such questions clearly changes over time. One of the main ways, though, has been with a narrative, a personal story that describes how one ended up where one is and who one is now. The story takes in the key experiences that seemed to cause one to veer in some new directions, the milestones one passed, the actions, the forks in the road that could have led one elsewhere, the feelings that propelled one in one way or another, the chances encountered and taken or not. In these stories, at least since Freud, the earliest experiences and memories of family life have a particular place in indicating who we have become. If one chooses a more biological approach, putting genetics in a starring role, or even if one puts an emphasis on culture handed down, the story becomes interwoven with an even longer history of the family, the tribe or society. To live is to have a history, to unfold, to evolve, or perhaps to revolt against the given, by turning some corner which leads to new discoveries about oneself.

Discoveries about oneself suggest an inward quest or adventure, also taking place through the passage of time, to discover who one perhaps has been, unbeknownst to oneself, all along. Again, that is  a personal history extended over time, however, a path to a full discovery that possibly can only be completed at one’s death.

That at least is the old way of self-description and self-feeling. The new way, with and through the Internet, is not diachronic, it would seem, so much as synchronic. You are your current set of interests, contacts, Twitter postings, Facebook postings, blog postings, listserv controversies, your latest images, and YouTube videos — trapped in an eternal but changing present that gives no sense of birth or death or growing up, or even growing at all. (I’ve also touched on this in my article on the “Mentality of Homo interneticus” ) You are tied to others and you are only defined in some sort of interaction with them, but only as now. (This also ties to the notion of superself I posted before.)

How would you respond, then, to the question,  “Who are you?” — assuming it still has meaning at all? Is it an impertinence, would it simply be answered by listing all your current contacts, your recent google searches, and maybe a few of the items you have around the house or have recently purchased? Would you describe your ambitions, past achievements, etc.? Or would these be just window dressing for the sake of providing a resume? Are you just something floating in the now — a list of current attention paid and received and nothing really more?

What is the role of your physical body in all this? Is the body more than the sum of yoga classes, gyms you frequent, sexual liaisons, recent or anticipated, foods you have scarfed down in the past few weeks or recipes you plan to try soon, restaurants you plan to eat at or have reservations for? Are you the trips you already have tickets for? Or is your body merely what is on show in the photos and videos that appear on the various websites you connect to? The fact is that it becomes ever easier to present an instantaneous photo or video record of our current surrounds, physical attitudes and appearances, so  that the past is lost in “old” photo “albums” which we have no attention  to waste on excavating.

Is this simply the self of existentialism, as would be familiar to Sartre in Being and Nothingness? Yes and also no, because what gives us our immediacy, what focusses us on the now is as much as anything the inrush from many others, the constantly changing environment on the Net in which so much of life is now spent.

Who are we now? Who are we becoming?

  One Response to “Are We Losing the Narrative Self?”

  1. An interesting perspective. One of the dangers as we lose our narrative selves in favor of a reductionist identity is that we lose the context that holds together the sometimes contradictory facets of our identities. Danah Boyd has done interesting research on the subject.

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