Inventing the Self

Asking the right questions?

November 20th, 2013 · 1 Comment

Conversations about human connection and technology usually fall within two predictable camps: Those who lament the lack of “real face time” connection, the false promise of more time, betrayed by the eternal presence of the virtual world via mobile technology (while using such technologies) – And those who celebrate the possibilities and expressions of intimacy and connection are fostered through social technologies. Sherry Turkle’s work is representative of this first camp, complete with the nostalgia for hopscotch on Brooklyn streets, and CJ Pascoe’s ethnography of dating intimacy and technology in American teens shows how rituals of public and private romantic relationships mediated by technology collapse rigid boundaries between the real and the virtual. Certainly these arguments and explorations are more nuanced than tech-resistant and tech-positive, but these overarching threads are present in both of these authors’ works.

While Turkle pose a good question when she asks what kinds of connections with others do we want to have, she neglects to answer her own questions that her “alone together” premise begs.  Before the rise of social tech, weren’t we still alone together – that is, distinct selves in relation to our human environments? Or even more pessimistically – alone alone? In some sense, the human condition is always one of solitude, which is the state of experiencing an ongoing self that is distinct from others. Either way we look at it, solitude and intimacy are ever present in the human condition, and technology is but one lens with which to observe the visibility of these aspects. When Turkle questions the inauthenticity of online lives & representations of self on social media by saying “We can edit our messages untile the project the self we want to be,” she doesn’t seem to ask about our underlying desires to be seen as we want to be by others. Don’t we already do everything we can to control our self-presentation in non-virtual arenas too? Hasn’t intimacy always been a time-consuming task? Finally, absent in all of Turkle’s critiques of the ways we feel eternally on-call and tethered to email  – is a critique of capitalism. She seems to put the sole blame on the technologies themselves, rather than the system in which we’ve developed technologies for a specific use: To be more productive so we can consume more.

On the other end, rather than ask what our relationships to our computers, tablets, and mobile devices are, Pascoe looks at what relationships humans have with each other, mediated through social technologies. A more productive question might be, what are our expectations of technologies, seen through this lens? If the disconnection from technology also means a disconnection from humanity, but we feel somewhat dissatisfied by the ways we’re connected or expected to connect, how can we connect in more satisfying ways?

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I couldn’t help it. (25 + 3)

November 6th, 2013 · 1 Comment

1. I’m not sure I could ever live up to the possibility of being authentic for an audience – real or imaginary.
2. I think everyone’s just like me in that respect. It doesn’t even matter if you know who’s reading.
3. Or does Viegner’s bulleted narrative of self mean that he’s authentically created via the interaction between his hands typing, and my eyes reading?
4. Virtual is both imagined and real. I thought New York was big so I wouldn’t see people I cruised online.
5. The autistic boy lost in New York can’t speak. Lowboy was lost on the train too. He spoke to people only he could see.
6. I am writing for you, even if you don’t read this.
7. Ten out of ten doctors say you have a 100% chance of dying.
8. Facebook + Adderall + books make me forget a lot.
9. Viegner’s remembrance of his dad’s parrot reminded me of my dad’s African Grey parrot, Sunshine (I hate that name). It said “God is a great lady” and “I fly with the buddha” and “Go Gore, no Bush!” and made telephone ringing noises followed by “Hello? Oh hiiii!” We got Sunshine when I was 14 and my dad said we had to stop swearing in the house because African Greys have a large vocabulary and learn everything.
10. Whenever my parents left the house, I tried to teach it how to say “Fuck my mouth! I can’t help it, fuck my mouth!”
11. I got sent to boarding school soon after. Sunshine got sent to some aviary. An 80 year lifespan was too far away from that 100% chance of death for us both.
12. This is what Nancy Miller calls “interactive remembering.”
13. I’m not someone who made lots of lists on Facebook, because I was too cool for it which meant not cool enough to have my lists read as cool.
14. Intuition isn’t the foundation of randomness. It’s an illusion driven by the life you’ve already had.
15. Someone else could take this class. Someone else could write this list.
16. Self awareness isn’t the same thing as bravery. Is self-consciousness authenticity?
17. Voyeurism isn’t really a fetish. Today someone said that fetishism is a way of looking.
18. My parents are crazy. This means I have lots of crazy stories. I could gossip about myself.
19. “The Unique Adventures of an Individual Snowflake in the Neoliberal Era”
20. I like lists that I can cross off better. It makes me feel productive. What does writing a memoir (being the subject/object of voyeurism) produce?
21. Many people have said dude you should write a memoir.
22. Is it true that you can’t be what you can’t see?
23. Am I cheating on this assignment?
24. Thank you, thank you. I couldn’t have done it without you!
25. My style is more of an echo.

26. A Toyota Echo. That’s what they give me every time I rent a compact car.
27. I have had sexual dreams about people that didn’t have a crush on, then I woke up with crushes on them.
28. I want to complain in a way that makes people like me.

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October 22nd, 2013 · 4 Comments

The contrast between reading about research being done on neurobiological processes and treatment of heard voices (TMS, antipsychotic drugs, lateral processing, connectivity, & neuro-stimulation studies) and the experiences & strategies embodied by had by voice-hearers is stark. The different ways of knowing about voice hearing lead to radically different strategies for dealing with this phenomenological experience. Whatever the cause and wherever voices are “rooted” in the brain’s functioning, strategies of support, trust in the hearer, and mindfulness practice have clearly revolutionized treatment. This resonates with my own experience searching for feeling well, where “feeling better” hasn’t usually meant I’ve gotten rid of anxiety, past trauma, or fears. The question has been, “How can I live with this, if it never goes away?”

I couldn’t help but wonder who funds the research that McAdams’ chapter on neuroscience and voices outlines. Following the money may answer why research that leads to drug development is prioritized  over the effective strategies employed by voice hearers that account for their environmental histories. When hundreds of dopamine and serotonin inhibiting anti-psychotic medications barely work but we keep developing them, there’s always a reason. Not to say that neuroscience can’t help us understand this phenomenon, but it seems we have an ethical duty to ask the questions that will help relieve the intense suffering that many voice hearers experience, and also fund research into strategies that have already proven to have great positive impact on people’s lives.

Neither strategy is incorrect, nor complete. The HVN movement struck me as having many parallels with ACT UP and TAG AIDS activists in the 80s, where people dealing with high-stakes symptoms, poorly understood causes, and ineffective treatments inserted themselves as essential to solutions to a deeply stigmatized and feared condition. Similarly to AIDS, destigmatizing both conditions by acknowledging its existence to oneself and others instead of hiding one’s status or ones voices (hiding what is already hidden), rendering its presence visible in medical and social fields,  and creating  space to discuss its effects on  lives has been invaluable to having a livable life with both HIV and voices.

Clearly, assigning potential meanings to why voices arise and lessons they may teach seems to have helped the case of Helen Chadwick and many others – alleviating the experience of arbitrary torment.  Chadwick questions the source behind the lessons she’s assigned to her voices to make sense of them, asking if they’re “too obvious” – as this integration may be desirable to even if it’s not accurate, because it’s been helpful. A complete prioritization of alternate meanings & a rejection of the study origins of voices in neuroscientific research and drugs is not my point, but the HVN’s success has shown that a reevaluation of a system that positions hospitalization and medication as the only answer is clearly a moral imperative. Whereas the origins of HIV are also still not fully understood, desperate activists with everything at stake held institutions to a moral imperative to acknowledge the impact their intellectual/medical gatekeeping had on thousands of people, and started the process of destigmatization so those with HIV can live livable lives. Perhaps these medical activists have much to learn from one another. 


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October 8th, 2013 · 1 Comment

“As we construct the past to create a narrative that makes sense to us, we give birth to characters who personify key aspects of the self…..wherein characters “are born” or “come onto the stage.” It is often at a high, low, or turning point that an imago finds a narrative mechanism for coming to be.” (McAdams 128-9)

If Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir came to be because of a need to shape her story to facilitate the possibilities of multiple truths in her family history, then her reconstruction of her father is therapeutic in the sense that it gave her the compassion to examine her childhood as producing a coherent self in relation to a fragmented family whose members have tragic existences or endings.  Instead of Bechdel’s life drawing her, she draws snapshot-like visual-linguistic memories that have contributed to the construction of lives in relation to one another that shaped her identity. Less a child with a  history, or a father with a secret, Bechdel draws from the multiplicity of her characters to come to peace with what can not be known: How did her father conceptualize of his own queerness, was his death accidental or suicide, how is she produced by her family and how is she self-made?

Rather than dwell on these questions, she weaves literary myth into personal myth to make meaning and avoid reducing her own sexuality and identity (or her father’s) into existing tropes – while being aware that the concepts of “lesbian” and “father” are societal myths, collectively created imagos – “a standard cast of characters for contemporary identity making.” (McAdams 127). By honoring the non pathologized multiplicities that Carter suggests, Bechdel is able to see her father as intelligent yet destructive, committed and bound but impulsive, yearning to connect but lost in projects, enchanted by the aesthetic and immersed in the literary, urban and rural, bound to the family but at once apart from it even if in desire. It is in this imago construction that she can formulate her relationship to her father and how it has shaped (and not shaped) herself – rather than dwell in the lack of meaning that grows in the unknown. The known seems to be good enough – and sad enough.

If we can’t be what we can’t see (as the concept of imago implies), then Bechdel has also transcended the family as the primary loci for conscious identity formation as an adult: She came to understand her queerness an an identity without conscious awareness of her father’s sexuality. Yet she is shaped by her non-heteronormative parent, queering her kinship structure, whereas the common understanding of  “queer family” is usually that of a chosen one.  While he uses literature to connect to Alison and she reciprocates the exchange through the creation of Fun Home, further mythologizing the linkages between his desires and hers to find common ground in their differences. She was to identify as queer and transcend the heteronormative restrictions of family that her father was not.  Yet she finds connection in the fact that  “Not only were we inverts, we were inversions of one another” (Bechdel 98).  And even though these fraught connections are “tragicomical,” maybe they’re as close as we get to understanding ourselves and those closest/farthest away from us.

 – – –

On a complete side note, I did Carter’s Personality Wheel, and was creeped out that I’m an “inflexible and unadaptable” Single Major with a “fairly unchanging life” (Carter 141). Sounds awful. Am I lying to myself? Or am I getting old?

carter wheel


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Out of our Heads

September 24th, 2013 · 2 Comments

My blurb on this book if I were a super cheesy book reviewer: Out of Our Heads is a breath of fresh air among the neuroscience literature we’ve explored so far. Noë’s facility with simple yet highly effective analogies and expert storytelling that distills what is generally presented tediously and dry into a page-turner for this genre.

OK, so that aside, I was definitely captured by this book and became clearly convinced by his hypothesis: That consciousness cannot simply “live in our brains, or in our bodies, but is the ongoing experience of relating to and being changed by our environments and other organisms.” He’s so convincing regarding what it’s not, that it was fascinating (and even entertaining) enough to learn about what consciousness is not through several different philosophical and biological lenses.

One large theoretical question I have about Noë’s argument is about it’s implications for our agency. Since humans cannot control much of our environments (including other humans), does his viewing of consciousness as always partially determined by our environment mean that we do not “drive” the “story in our minds”? He writes that consciousness is “…not something the brain achieves on its own. Consciousness requires the joint operation of brain , body, and world. Indeed, consciousness is an achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context” (Noë 10). While Noë’s ideas may open up much greater possibilities for understandings of our selves in relation to a dynamic world and he may see that as liberating us from neural determinism where you = your brain, it’s also a little scary too.  In true analogical style, He writes that “the brain is no more in charge of what you do that a surfer is in charge of the wave he’s riding” (Noë 95).

Yet just because the brain is not the only apparatus at work – doesn’t mean that Noë agrees with Blackmore’s claim that consciousness or the self are illusory, and makes a clear return to realism from science’s post-modern focus on deconstructing the awareness of individual senses in the brain (like vision) as mere illusions. In relation to Damasio, I wonder if Noë would agree that thought without language is possible, when he writes that “A language user is, to the extent that she is expert, the participant in a specific social practice; crucially she is the participant in a social practice of which language forms only an aspect.” This remains unclear to me, but I’d be curious to know what others think he would argue.

Just as I now use a language that was in place before my body/consciousness arrived, the idea that other people have produced the knowledge that I now think of as “mine,” or what I know – was beautifully explained in this book. The interconnectedness of humankind through knowledge, language, and “commitment to the consciousness of others”  (Noë 33) had really beautiful implications for humanity: Essentially he shows the extent to which the consicouness of ourselves is predicated on the viability of consciousness of others (and vice versa), showing that we are so interconnected that our default view of others’ existence is that of ourselves. Perhaps the implication is that with this more accurate understanding of consciousness as highly related to our outside world, we’ll take better care of it, and of each other.

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Siri Hustevedt’s The Shaking Woman: Body/Self

September 10th, 2013 · 3 Comments

Hustevedt’s chosen form and frame carried me along her reading of her body and of a self forged from pain, through a deeply personal quest to understand the relationship of body to self, where contradictions illuminated the phenomena of what it’s like to have a body and a self. Yet through her essay, she reveals the scientific and theoretical fruits found on her quest to unearth and explain a bifurcated self, leading us to not only diagnose her physical and psychic symptoms along with her, but to investigate how all selves are forged – arguably borne out of pain and death, a seeming contradiction.

I am reminded of another essay of sorts, one delivered verbally to me by my father – one that I also was allowed to watch shift as he progressed on his search for self. Before I was born, my father was a marathon runner and trained on his college campus while studying behavioral psychology from Skinner’s department at Western Michigan University. He has type one diabetes, and one day he had an insulin reaction while running alone and passed out due to low blood sugar. He wasn’t found by a campus janitor until he was nearly dead, and then died in the ambulance that was called. Paramedics, then doctors tried to resuscitate him at the hospital as he remained dead for over ten minutes.

During this time, my father had what can be conceived as a classic out-of-body experience, where he tells me that his consciousness separated from his body, watched the doctors working on his prone body from above, felt an insurmountable and seemingly permanent sensation of peace, and began to drift towards a bright light. He became conscious of an impulse to go back into his body, to do more in his life, and recounts willing his “self” back into his physical body, feeling the sensation of his “spirit heels” clicking into his physical ones – reclaiming his heartbeat & pulse at that very instant.  For years, he recalled this experience as a spiritual one, and dedicated himself to spiritual practice to try to recreate his new understanding of self and sensation of peace he’d experienced while dead, but this time while alive. Unable to do so, like Hustevedt, he read as much neurobiology and brain chemistry as he could understand, and now explains the phenomena as a neurochemical process: his brain, in shock and dying, released chemicals to make him feel at peace during our most extreme conscious transition.

Like Hustevedt, the amount of brain scan imagery available, neuroscience, and psychosomatic research on the brain’s processes is a tempting and illuminating road to follow when explaining schisms like she and my father have had.  Hustevedt takes us on a tour of psychological and physical anomalies – her own and those of others, treating the exploration of her own illness as a kind of self voyeurism she lets us in on, alongside cases of “alien hand syndrome,” patients who have gone blind but don’t mind or even acknowledge this limit, tales of deep disassociation, double visions of oneself, synesthiesia, Tourette’s syndrome and more. To toggle between writing personal narrative and empirical data and its historical permutations seems to be part of her healing process, and one that blew apart ideas of mental/physical dualities,  suppositions that equate mental symptoms as “not real” and the real yet inextricable combination/split of body and self. Her (and medicine’s) inability to neatly connect a mental process to a physical outcome, or marry her conscious mind to her involuntarily shaking body, shows us how alienating of a place the body can be, but also how complex, inexplicable, and intriguing our psyches are.

I recently returned from a seven day silent Vipassana insight meditation retreat, where one of the teachers spoke about the Buddha’s definition of the self in the Pali Canon as just five simple aggregates: Form (our physical bodies and the outside world), our senses and perceptions (sight, sound, etc… as positive, neutral, or negative), our mental formations (feelings, thoughts, opinions), and then our consciousness (discernment) of all those things. How strange that all we are working with is a body with senses, our internal world of thoughts and feelings, and then our awareness of those four simple pieces – And yet things are this complicated!

Hustevedt’s ability to find some solace in the lack of explanations (despite the ever-advancing and overlapping fields of psychoanalysis, medicine, history, and neuroscience) some healing in psychogenic illness, in the contradictions that accompany the autobiographical self is a delight to watch. I too, require pulling from vast disciplines, even finding myself on meditation retreats (something I never thought I’d be interested in) to be alone with my consciousness so that I may come closer to understanding my self. As Hustevedt probed, even if compulsively, she shows that through the death of a “normal” self and through emotional and physical pain, one is alive as we maintain, reconstitute, and transcend ourselves at each moment of consciousness. I’ll also be recommending this to my father, as he continues on his path of inquiry.

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