The Eroding Sense of Self






(Photo:FredMandell.com)

It’s a cliche (at least to my circle of friends) to say, “I am not defined by what I buy.” In other words, our sense of individuality isn’t based on our choices in the free market. That’s pretty simple and clear to me, though I know it’s not clear to everyone. There are a lot of folks who wear Gucci, Saab, iPod or other badges of free market distinction.

But what if it goes a lot further than this? What if we’re not defined by what we do, either? What if our tastes, preferences, even our loves and hates lack significance as well? What if there is no self at all?

I was tripping on this tonight, after talking to a friend about a problem he’s got relating to the opposite sex. I offered to him (thinking to myself that I’m a fixer — that’s what I do) that he could relax his nervousness by trying to meet more women than he normally does, spreading out the anxiety. Or maybe he could have a drink or two to relax.

“I understand that’s what you’d do,” he says, “but that’s not me.”

Yeah, but wouldn’t it be you if you did it?

“It’s just not me. That’s not my personality.”

So his sense of self is fixed. Does it need to be? Of course, that’s his choice, not mine. I don’t want to be pushy, ’cause that’s not me.

So what is?

Are we our choices? What is this soul thing inside me and what is my wife’s soul? I don’t love her because of her choices, preferences or even what she does. It’s something else that plucks me like a string and I don’t understand it.

Just a thought.

— Stephen Carter-Novotni

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10 Comments on “The Eroding Sense of Self”

  1. PW Says:

    personality is just a generalization, an aggregate of how you behaved in the past. if you truly have free will then there obviously can be no absolute definition of a self.

    je pense, donc je suis

    the past can’t change, but it is not who you are, merely who you were at that instant.

  2. The Dean Says:

    Steve wrote:

    “In other words, our sense of individuality isn’t based on our choices in the free market. That’s pretty simple and clear to me, though I know it’s not clear to everyone.”

    It is not clear to me at all. People who buy into over-commercialized products built on the backs of sweatshop labor and with earth-destroying techniques say a lot about their individual characters, right? And isn’t our individuality related to our character?

    “There are a lot of folks who wear Gucci, Saab, iPod or other badges of free market distinction.”

    Yes, and that tells me something about them, doesn’t it? The badges mean different things in different circles.

    Some are enlightened, and others are not.

    (Notice I did not say which side I was on.)

  3. The Dean Says:

    BTW, if you want to talk about how your wife “plucks your string,” I think you should consider getting a more personal blog for discussing such aspects of your private life.

  4. Steve Novotni Says:

    Dean:

    Since you’re concerned with character, it might make sense for you to join Bill Gothard and his band of merry men. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Gothard

    Seriously though, I’m not sure that mass media driven buying habits are reflective of our inner natures. Is our true self, if it exists, our actualized self or, as PW says, who we were in that moment?

    Also, I hope the editorial elite notes my sparing use of commas.

  5. Luke Says:

    Steve-and-Dean–the failure of consumerism is that it DOESN’T describe personality to the extent desired for self-identification; things we buy are just for our use, by and large, and thus consumption is a very tiny aspect of postmodern subjectivity–whereas, culturally it’s almost ocmpletely dominant. SO, everybody is across the board pretty let down by the triviality of their culture, even if they’re content in their world.

    Things would be very different if we had decent robots. Or easily accessible ponies.

    Ultimately, you are what you do; if Sartre lived in a consumerist culture, he’d’ve realised that “having” is subsumptive to “doing” and so “Being and Having” wouldn’t be a different chapter than “Being and Doing”. Furthermore, you do what you like, “liking” being the primary function of the will; any action you take is, compared to all alternatives, what you will. The will isn’t free, because you can’t change it–nobody used the term “free will” until late in the 19th century, because nobody had been that profoundly silly–the Will, or the precognitive irrational capacity to want, cannot be determined by the Self without contradicting its terms.

    To answer the most recent questions, the description of the Object of the buyer is flawed (like all things) in the Judgment of the Subject (in this case, the Dean). You don’t know wh that girl has on Gap jeans. Maybe they were free, and she’s being ironic. Similarly, the guy with the Trader Joe’s bag isn’t an informed and responsible consumer–otherwise he’d do some research into how TJ’s can charge so much less for certified organic food–and then look for the word “certified” on the box. Hell, maybe the guy in the Che t-shirt beat up a Dominican day laborer and stole it from him.

    The choices you made in purchasing something constitute some factor of your personality, varying greatly in size; unfortunately, since we really can’t be informed of the impact of all of our choices, we’ve created a historically irresponsible culture. You can tell it’s late, because that’s when I don’t shut up.

  6. mc Says:

    Whose “sense of self” is eroding? There is no connection between a self identity and what you consume.

  7. The Dean Says:

    Then what would you say about those who have it in their nature to support and participate in mass media driven buying habits?

    Perhaps some do not know better. Their characters are dim. Others, however, know and support that system. Does it not reflect their natures?

  8. Natasha Says:

    From Steve: …” What if there is no self at all?

    According to Buddist thought and teaching, there is no self.

    We are all interconnected. It is only on this plane that we THINK we are separate.

  9. Neal Watzman Says:

    It’s very simplistic to think that we are defined by the things we buy, despite what the advertising people would like us to think. What we buy is one of the many choices we make in life.

    We are responsible for the choices and/or decisions we make in this life, but how we are defined, if indeed we can be, is quite complex. People are more than that.

  10. mc Says:

    “Perhaps some do not know better. Their characters are dim. Others, however, know and support that system. Does it not reflect their natures?”

    The question of the existence of the self, (“What if there is no self at all?”) or the identity of the self can’t be answered by what is consumed. Existence of a self-identity or a self-knowledge is not hinged on consumption.

    The objects or ideas consumed or used might tell the observer some qualities of the self. They don’t define the self. The self in question may consume certain kinds of foods but that does not define who or what the comsumer is.

    We have the choice of seeing our selves many ways. We can do so metaphysically or through spiritual beliefs, for example. The last way to identify who or what we are would be through what we consume. While it is the most obvious quality to recognize, it is fraught with chances for misinterpretation.

    In a consumer culture like ours it seems a little dangerous to confuse who we are with what we buy and use. Value would come into question and there would be no way to arrive at a healthy and acceptable conclusion.


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