The following essay Prospects for the Floundering Self has appeared
in Organizations and People ( Volume 13, Number 3, August 2006 ) 

Prospects For The Floundering Self

PETER ABBS

ABSTRACT:The concept of self has become deeply problematic. Postmodern thinking  tends to deny the existence of any essential self while consumer culture works to homogenize people. And yet if we explicate the historical developments of the self in western culture we can locate three dynamic premises for understanding our sense of individual identity. These relate to the notion of freedom, to the notion of the embodied nature of consciousness, and to the notion of ecology. When these three elements are brought together they may throw further light on the self and its future.

Introduction: Explicating the conditions of self

I teach a somewhat heretical Masters course at the University of Sussex called In Search of Soul . It is, I have to confess, something of a Big Dipper affair diving and rising through western culture at tremendous speed. We begin with Sappho and Heraclitus and end, ten weeks later, with the present moment - a somewhat fraught and breathless journey. But what I am out to identify are some of the precise moments in which the understanding of the psyche, soul, self actively changed, inaugurating a further sense of life's deepest purpose or, if not purpose, open possibility. I often begin with the work of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, and take his distinctive use of the word psyche to denote not breath (as in Homer) but a self with infinite depth. It is a good starting point in any historic quest for the individual as it marks a significant semantic and spiritual moment in the story of the self. From there I move to the court-case against Socrates in Athens in 399 BC to examine his main speech where he claims, with an uncharacteristic directness, that his driving philosophical concern was to work on the psyche . These two moments register early quantum leaps in the differentiation of the self from epic tribal culture. From there I take our journey of enquiry through the bible and the early Christian theologians, through the Renaissance, through Romanticism, through Modernism up to our present Post Modern dissolution.

By the time the course has reached the twenty first century it is the last week of term. At our last session we gaze at each other with a certain incredulity. It is as if, instead of arriving at a clear destination, we have juddered to a halt in the middle of some unnamed ghetto. Feeling something of the same giddiness and unease as my students I say: " Well it's really a life time's work, isn't it? So good luck! " Perhaps I say it lightly - and with a smile - but not without an unfashionable high seriousness. For, indeed, our dominant culture seems profoundly confused, if not incoherent, about the self and offers little guidance beyond the deceptive phantasmagoria of quick money, managerial power and canned celebrity. Has all the historic work on shaping the self culminated in nothing: a denial of identity, a whimper, a scream from the basement, an ironical aside, an advertising slogan? Not exactly. For our cultural situation is much more ambivalent and muddled than that. There have been real gains and savage losses. Both sides demand recognition. I am not sure that in my course I bring out fully the conceptual difficulties and latent possibilities.

So in this article I want to try and make more explicit - to explicate - my own rather diffuse thoughts about the condition for the self's true flourishing. I want to jot down better notes, as it were, for my last seminar, so that future students will not leave the journey quite so dazed. I would like them to sense the attraction of further horizons, to have a measured sense of hope and possibility. For the odyssey of self is not over.

 

A poetics of being in a restless world

The first idea that I would want to stress is this: the status quo need not define us; it is never as authoritative as it appears. The sympathetic study of history - I name what we do a poetic form of archaeology - slowly liberates one from the tyranny of fashion. It enables the mind to contemplate other ways of being in the world, other forms of desiring and conceiving. It offers an arena for sustained contemplation, free from the constraining imperatives of the market place. But the study of our long philosophical and literary history also indicates something else: that we live in an intellectually turbulent culture which never stays still. As the philosopher Hegel pointed out, western history is one of absolute restlessness . It possesses a protean energy, moving dialectically from one movement to another, each position correcting for a time the defects of the previous position until that, in turn, succumbs to the same inexorable dynamic. If this is true, it means we can bring to our current orthodoxies such destabilising questions as: What is the anti-thesis to Post Modernism? What is the anti-thesis to global capitalism? What is the anti-thesis to hedonistic materialism? Or to phrase the question within the terms set by the course In Search of Soul : what further possibilities remain open for the shaping of self? Merely articulating such questions opens the doors and windows of the reflexive house of consciousness.

 

Three developments in the western story of self

But there are other vivifying notions we can extract from the western story of the self. For me, at least three major developments stand out. These are:


i) A n unfolding narrative of freedom

ii) Recognition of the embodied nature of consciousness

iii) A more holistic approach to the self.

 

An unfolding narrative of freedom

The first relates to freedom. The story of the self in western culture seems to be, above all, an unfolding narrative of freedom. The place and power of freedom emerged in the classical world with the great speech of Pericles praising the freedom of Athenian citizens and gained a further existential purchase in the rigorous philosophical exercises developed by the Stoics; it burst forth triumphantly in the Renaissance, especially in the Oration on the Dignity of Man by Pico della Mirandola. In this inspired treatise God addresses man as follows:We have made you neither heavenly nor earthly neither mortal nor immortal, so that, more freely and more honourably the moulder and maker of yourself, you may fashion yourself in whatever form you shall prefer . The same goal of freedom ignited both the Enlightenment and Romanticism where it found resounding expression in the words of Rousseau: Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains . And since the time of the French Revolution it has taken political, legal and ethical shape in all the progressive movements (pertaining to class, gender and race) that we can name. For the discerning individual this call for freedom meant, above all, the freedom for individuation : the right to think one's own thoughts, to follow one's own conscience and to shape one's life accordingly. Not the summation of work on the self, of course, but, always, the pre-condition for its accomplishment.

 

Recognition of the embodied nature of consciousness

The second advance concerns a recognition of the embodied nature of consciousness . The traditional reading of the self has been overwhelmingly dualistic in nature; it fiercely segregated psyche from soma, soul from body, spirit from matter and judged the second term in the equation as inferior, as generally brute, insatiable and essentially evil. In classical philosophy this dualistic conception of human life, amounting often to a loathing of the senses, was given archetypal formulation in the Phaedo , Plato's account of Socrates' reflections before drinking the hemlock. In that document Socrates' hatred of the body is palpable. This negative judgement ran like a dark current through most of Greek and Hellenic philosophy to join the stream of theology in the early centuries of Christianity. Here the notion of the Fall further damned the body, as both corrupt and corrupting. As Kierkegaard was to write: " the consciousness of sin is the conditio sine qua non of Christianity ." For eighteen centuries human life was thus fundamentally conceived as a preparation for another life in the supernatural realm, finally free from the distorting and distracting energies of the senses and the natural world they disclosed.    Since the middle of the nineteenth century this monumental dualism - still so heavy on our collective psyche and embedded in our common language - has been slowly crumbling away. Again and again, it has been seen as offering an untenable account of who, how and where we are. It was Darwin's work to put human life humbly back into the zoological order, back into nature from which it had been wrenched by the twin engines of abstract reason and wish-fulfilment. The theory of evolution, so shocking to the Victorians, has radically changed the landscape of the soul and its genesis.

 

A more holistic approach to the self

The third advance relates to the second. Our approach to the self now tends to be more holistic, we conceive the soul and body as indivisible, interactive and interdependent. Indeed, in our own time the story of the soul has metamorphosed into another essential story: the story of the body - of its genetic codes, of its sublating instincts, its various sexualities, its own genre of non-conceptual wisdom. ( Behind these changes of course, lie the seminal influences of psychoanalysis and the biological sciences). To make the case in its broadest shape: if the true inner theme of our confused century should be individuation, then its outer theme must be ecology .

 

Towards a multi-dimensional self

So we are, perhaps, uniquely equipped to understand the promise of identity. We are able now to envisage a multi-dimensional self; a self housed in nature and the body; a self shaped by a multitude of interacting forces - genetic inheritance, society, history, language - and yet also itself a locus of freedom; a self which belongs to all that has shaped it, yet which bears also the reflexive power to think beyond the status quo, and to act ethically and imaginatively in ways that can be neither predicted nor described in advance. Such a conception of a polyphonic self (a soul creating out of the constraining conditions of its own being) is, then, one of the extraordinary outcomes of the long history of the soul. And yet the warm invitation it throws out to us seems deeply discordant with our daily jangling experience of contemporary life and the world in which we have to survive. It hovers tantalisingly before us, suggesting an image of human wholeness that seems to be in profound opposition to the collective and organisational demands of our age. And it is precisely this contradiction which, I believe, creates the intellectual sensation of bewilderment in my students at the end of the course.

 

Prospects for the self in a global consumer society

For it would seem that today we inhabit a technological tribal culture, a Brave New World, where, once again, collective goals are defining the limited horizons of millions. Mass-culture, almost by definition, is not a culture of probing inwardness, of subtle nuance, of elected idiom. People happily allow their bodies to carry the brand names of the age - as if to announce their group happiness, their servile membership of the tribe.
Across Medieval Europe it was the Church which dictated the social codes and rituals; today it is the over-arching multi - nationals anxious to secure sales rather than souls, but even more potent in the influence they can exert because of the hypnotic powers of the ever more sophisticated electronic media. Under such formidable collective pressures the individual becomes re-defined not as a citizen of an alert democracy, not as a soul capable of moral growth, but simply as a consumer, a customer with certain contractual rights. All that does not pertain to this one-dimensional role of consumption is simply relegated to the hidden abyss of private distraction.
 

The only other values given the imprimatur of collective assent are the 'advances' of science and technology, 'advances' which, without the direction of inner wisdom and rooted creativity, merely compound the externalisation of human existence and intensify the manic rhythm of the collective tribal dance. Paradoxically, in such a context the espousal of freedom contributes not to the inner goal of individuation, but to an ever growing alienation of the spirit, which, obviously, nothing in the society is able to address.

 

Psychological influences of postmodernism

It is passing strange that at the same time as global consumerism has become our social reality, the dominant intellectual fashions in the west propound the absolute relativity of all positions and, consequently, the impossibility of any kind of definitive understanding. In Post Modern thought even the notion of self has been deconstructed, being conceived as an illusion cast by the spell of language. According to this thinking, the person can possess no true identity, no essence. The "I" is merely a floating noun without a referent. These arguments, many of them dating back to the great destabilising writing of Nietzsche, need close attention. All I can do here is point to their psychological influence, their disconcerting synchronicity with the age of hype and shopping, their dissipating influence on personal and creative life. My students' disorientation as we return to our forlorn twenty first century seems, indeed, a fitting response. For have we been studying no more than the history of another illusion - the multiple manifestations of a linguistic deception? In which case, what is left for us? A life of Irony, with our speech always in self-conscious quotation marks? A ventriloquism without heart?

 

Explication: a question of becoming who we are?

It is characteristic of my seminars to end with a series of questions. But the above questions are not exactly neutral; they are meant to be abrasive, dissenting, challenging. For I wonder if another road may be open to us. There may be a fertile way through the Post Modern habits of thought, as there must be a way ( if we are to survive ) beyond our one-dimensional consumer culture. As I have suggested history is inherently dialectical and things are never quite what they seem. Is it possible that the future may be shaped not by current fashions, but by what they have invariably repressed: the profound need to connect with our long history and to our longer biology; the need to cherish more fully our creativity and our impulse to individuate; the need, in brief, to become who we are?
 

Our history is one of absolute restlessness. Is it possible that in the unconscious counter energies are already constellating, and that they prefigure the next chapter in the story of the self?