The self as project

At most bookstores nowadays, one cannot fail to notice the proliferation of books dealing with self-improvement in all its aspects.  There are books on dieting, health, aerobics, public speaking, meditation, yoga, body building, the soul, and the inner self.   Sociologists say these are indicative of a lifestyle politics which seeks  the appropriation of the body and the conquest of the self.

Of related interest are readings on the mastery of human relationships: words of wisdom and lessons for lovers and spouses, women and men, parents and children, politicians and constituencies, etc.  The object is the same: how to get our relationships with others right.  The trend has spawned a lucrative publishing industry for therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and all kinds of writers — old and new — who tell  life’s secrets often in the form of aphorisms.

The British sociologist Anthony Giddens claims this is all part of a characteristic of late modernity. He calls it reflexivity — the yearning and capacity to appropriate expert knowledge and make it a part of an everyday survival kit.  While reflexivity has long been taken for granted as a tool in corporate planning, at no other time has it been applied at the level of the individual on  the grand scale  we see nowadays.

The main premise of reflexivity is that we live in a risky and rapidly changing world.  The risks have to be reduced, change has to be managed, so that the future can be colonized.  This is of course  standard fare for large-scale public and private bureaucracies that strive to control their destinies.  But we are not used to hearing people apply such rational strategies to the pursuit of the self as a project.

Traditional societies bind their members to custom.  A destiny is never selfchosen; one is born into it.  Through magic or homeopathic practices, one may seek to alter one’s destiny, but in the end, the individual stands powerless.  He must resign himself to what he is and what he has, banishing all illusions about being able to craft or transform himself willfully.

Late modern individuals think otherwise.  They are confident that they can perpetually re-invent themselves.   With the aid of commodified expert knowledge, they believe there are practically no limits to what a determined person can do to make himself/herself beautiful, witty, attractive, healthy, shapely, young, strong, serene, gentle, and powerful.   Skeptical about collective approaches to solving life’s problems, they believe in the ability of the individual — empowered at the level of the reflexive self —  to prevail and find his way in the modern world.

In this “benign narrative”,  survival is privatized,  and the myth promoted that one can overcome the fragmentation of available knowledge and weave this into a coherent strategy for dealing with life’s manifold problems.    The mass and systemic production of the dangers from which the individual seeks escape is cavalierly ignored.  The entrenched interests that perpetuate these dangers in the first instance are blithely dismissed.

Everywhere, we see signs of this confidence.  The varied forms of knowledge offered in the market can be so beguiling that the modern person comes to believe that he can actually arm himself with private solutions to what may be essentially structurally-generated  problems.  Ecological disasters are only one example.

Indeed, some writers have suggested that perhaps reflexivity is “not so much an instrument  of individual freedom, fate-control, or ‘colonization of the future’ — as a device to re-forge the public anxiety into corporate profits and, on the way, to further deflect public concerns away from the dangerperpetuating mechanism itself.”

Clearly, there are limits to personal empowerment through reflexivity.  But having said that, we must point out its value as a dsirable trait of the modern person, in particular the importance it attaches to self-consciousness and selfcreation.   This has a good side and a bad side.  On the bad side, there is the danger of listening to our bodies and our selves too closely, drawing quick conclusions from what is happening to us at every conceivable moment. Hypochondriacs know this only too well.

On the good side, self-awareness can make us realize, in the words of the mystic poet, Rainer Maria Rilke,  “that what we call fate does not come into us from the outside, but emerges from us.  It is only because so many people have not absorbed and transformed their fates while they were living in them that they have not realized what was emerging from them; it was so alien to them that, in their confusion and fear, they thought that it must have entered them at the very moment they became aware of it….”

We mostly live unconscious lives.  Even the best of us may sometimes draw the most elaborate models of social reality, and yet be thoroughly incapable of any form of introspection.  They will tell us about the laws of motion of practically everything in the external world, but nothing about the murmur of their own solitude.

Shortly before he died of cancer, Lorenzo Jose, a very dear friend and mentor, told me: When you reach 50, you must go on a journey by yourself.  I turn 50 tomorrow, and I am going away for a while.  I think I have understood at last what he was trying to tell me.  He did not mean just traveling.  Albert Camus said it more explicitly: “Travel, like a greater and a graver science, brings us back to ourselves.”


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