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The Resurrection of the Modernist Self
Examining "The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self" [Pt.3]
§III. Trueman vs. The Marxists and Postmodernists
While Carl R. Trueman is not a Marxist,he still holds a considerable number of views in common with them on the nature of postmodernism as a further development of modernism. This makes his deviations from their line of thinking all the more striking. For whereas Trueman does not speak about the postmodern self, Jameson, Eagleton, and postmodern theorists do so frequently and explicitly. Best and Kellner explain that —
On Jameson’s account, postmodernism signals a number of cultural shifts. These include…the near-total commodification of culture…the end of the problematics of anxiety, alienation, and bourgeois individualism in the radical fragmentation of subjectivity…
In other words, for Jameson “…the simple and indivisible ego-self existed at one time, during the period of classical capitalism and the nuclear family, but has come to an end in the postmodern era.”Not only does Eagleton agree with Jameson about the dissolution of the modernist self, he also underscores the importance of the body in postmodern philosophy’s concept of the self, a point whose significance will be shown in more detail when we dedicate our examination primarily to RTMS in forthcoming articles. Eagleton writes —
The postmodern subject [i.e. self], unlike its Cartesian ancestor, is one whose body is integral to its identity….the body has become one the most recurrent preoccupations of postmodern thought.
…the body offers a mode of cognition more intimate and internal than a now much scorned [by postmodernists] Enlightenment rationality.
This turn to the body sprang partly from a structuralist hostility to consciousness, and represents the final expulsion of the ghost from the machine.
The shift from Merleau-Ponty [a modernist philosopher par excellence, an Existentialist] to Foucault [a postmodernist philosopher par excellence] is one from the body as subject to the body as object. For Merleau-Ponty…the body is ‘where something is to be done’; for the new somatics [i.e. the postmodernists], the body is where something gazing, imprinting, regulating-is being done to you. It used to be called alienation, but that implies the existence of an interiority [i.e. “a simple and indivisible ego”] to be alienated, a proposition about which some postmodernism is deeply sceptical.
Eagleton, like Jameson above, notes that the “simple and indivisible” [i.e. atomistic] individual is something that postmodernism has abolished. Whereas the modernist self had an essential core that could be discovered by reflection, and whereas the duty of the individual was to engage in introspection of his inner life, understand who he is and, consequently, live a life of authenticity in light of that self-discovery — the postmodernist individual is devoid of anything interior, any essence, any “true” self to be expressed. It simply is not the case that for the contemporary self “the body is raw matter, while feelings are absolute,”nor that for the contemporary self “human freedom, and thus identity, is…constituted by the untrammeled exercise of the will.” What is more, even if we — for the sake of argument — grant the existence of an interior “true” ego whose goal was to exercise its will without restraint in pursuit of being-in-the-world authentically, the postmodern individual would have no means of expressing it, given that postmodernism’s attack on essentiality resulted in the belief that “there is nothing outside the text.”
Additionally, in their analysis of the postmodern self/subject, philosophers Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, while staunchly critical of Marxism, nonetheless proposed an understanding of the self that reflects the same general strain of thought. The postmodernist self, i.e. the late capitalist self, for these thinkers exhibited a kind of schizophrenia. Eugene W. Holland elaborates on what they meant by the term schizophrenic. He writes —
..we could define schizophrenia as a form of “unlimited semiosis” [i.e. unlimited production of signs (e.g. words, images, etc) imbued with meaning] – in the psyche as well as throughout society – that emerges when fixed meanings and beliefs are subverted by the cash nexus under capitalism.
…schizophrenia constitutes an objective tendency of capitalist society and of its historical development. Every extension of capital – both geographical (imperialism) and psychological (marketing) – entails the simultaneous elimination of extant meanings and beliefs, and hence the extension of schizophrenia: “all that is solid melts into air,” as Marx put it.
Thus, we note again that the self in postmodernism is not a unified, single, individualistic, indivisible ego capable of expressing itself via thought, speaking, writing, artistic productions, or even bodily articulations. It is a materially, historically, socially, and intellectually bound social construct.
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And this view is not unique to Jameson, Eagleton, and Deleuze and Guattari, as Kenneth J. Gergen explains —
As we enter the postmodern era, all previous beliefs about the self are placed in jeopardy, and with them the patterns of action they sustain. Postmodernism does not bring with it a new vocabulary for understanding ourselves, new traits or characteristics to be discovered or explored. Its impact is more apocalyptic than that: the very concept of personal essences is thrown into doubt. Selves as possessors of real and identifiable characteristics—such as rationality, emotion, inspiration, and will—are dismantled.
In the postmodern world we become increasingly aware that the objects about which we speak are not so much “in the world” as they are products of perspective. Thus, processes such as emotion and reason cease to be real and significant essences of persons; rather, in the light of pluralism we perceive them to be imposters, the outcome of our ways of conceptualizing them. Under postmodern conditions, persons exist in a state of continuous construction and reconstruction; it is a world where anything goes that can be negotiated. Each reality of self gives way to reflexive questioning, irony, and ultimately the playful probing of yet another reality. The center fails to hold.
Similarly, John Barressi and Raymond Martin summarize the movement from the modernist self to the postmodernist self in history as follows —
In the modern history of theories of the self, the Second World War is a watershed. Prior to the war, the seeds of dissolution of the self had been sown and had even begun to sprout. Yet, while some approaches demoted the self, none dismantled it. Across disciplines, the self had fragmented. Within disciplines, it was still intact. As a consequence, by mid-century the self may have been challenged, but it was not dethroned. That task was left to the second half of the century.
After the war many theorists began to think of the self more as a product of culture than as its creator. The last half of the century witnessed rampant unintegrated scientific specialization, the withering philosophical critiques of deconstruction and postmodernism, the penetrating attack in analytic philosophy on the very concept and importance of personal identity, and newfound perspectives spawned by feminism, post-colonialism, gender/sexual/ethnic awareness, and by technological development. As a consequence, the self, which began the century looking unified-the master of its own house-ended it looking fragmented-a byproduct of social and psychological conditions.
By the end of the century, virtually every discipline that took cognizance of human nature, including biology, sociology, anthropology, political science, and even neuroscience joined the fray.
The notion of a unified self was introduced into scientific theory in the seventeenth century, particularly in the theories of Descartes and Locke, as a replacement for the notion of soul, which had fallen on hard times. But eventually the notion of a unified self fell onto hard times of its own. Its demise was gradual, but by the end of the twentieth century the unified self had died the death if not of a thousand qualifications, then of a thousand hyphenations.
Those who seek it today in both the philosophical and scientific literatures soon discover that none but the carefully initiated can wade into the waters of theoretical accounts of the self without soon drowning in a sea of symbols, technical distinctions, and empirical results, the end result of which is that the notion of the unified self has faded from view.
So ended the twentieth century. Prior to the Second World War, the self seemed to be a unified subject of investigation. Theorists did not agree on what to say about it, but they seemed to agree that it was something about which they had something to say. When they talked about the self, it was as if they agreed that in talking about it they were talking about the same thing, and about just one thing. By the end of the century, there was no such presupposition. What once had seemed so unified, now lay in fragments.
The contemporary self, according to the above academics, is in fragments. It is not a single, indivisible ego seeking to exert itself through the manipulation of semiotic codes. As Barressi and Martin say, that self “died the death of a thousand qualifications.”
Yet consider Trueman’s depiction of the contemporary self in his article “Zen Christianity.” He writes —
At root, we could say that, in the West, human imperfection comes increasingly to be seen as a lack of money - because money can buy any or all of these things and thus enable us to become perfect…When I buy something, then for a split second, I become god; I, Carl Trueman, use my divine powers to transubstantiate a worthless piece of paper or plastic into a loaf of bread, a book, a car, a house. This momentary self-deification satisfies my idolatry of self, but only for a moment; it has to be repeated again and again and again if I am to keep myself persuaded that I am indeed god, master of all I survey.
…this consumption is itself a manifestation of the human desire to throw off responsibility to God and deify humanity itself.
Unlike the postmodernist self which exhibits narcissistic qualities “not because she or he has a clear sense of self to be imposed on the world, but because of a deep rooted anxiety and insecurity that comes from not having much of a self,”Trueman’s self is here is portrayed as a “simple and indivisible ego” engaging in consumerism in order to further assert its sovereignty over the natural world (including its own body) and thereby achieve perfection. For Trueman, it is the modernist/individualistic self who resides in the center. As he explains elsewhere —
[Consumerism] produces notions of truth and ethics that are as malleable as the market place. By placing individual purchasing power at the heart of the system, public morals are made dangerously vulnerable to all manner of transformation. The right of private choice, the centrality of consent, and the need to avoid hindering the economy are all related to consumerism.
It is the individual — unmoored from tradition and traditional authority structures by his own capitulation to a modernist view of the self as an autonomous individual — who is to blame for our current cultural condition.
This is not to undermine how closely he aligns with Marx. We will look at this in more detail in forthcoming articles.
Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations (New York: The Guilford Press, 1991), 184. (emphasis added)
Allan, Kenneth. “The Postmodern Self: A Theoretical Consideration,” in Quarterly Journal of Ideology Vol. 2 (1997), 2. https://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/K_Allan_Postmodern_1997.pdf
Illusions of Postmodernism, 69. (emphasis added)
ibid., 71. (emphasis added)
Trueman, Carl R. “The Apocalypse of the Modern Self,” Ethics and Public Policy Center, Sept 16, 2021, https://eppc.org/publication/the-apocalypse-of-the-modern-self/.
John Phillips explains this famous assertion from postmodernist philosopher Jacques Derrida as follows —
…our history and our language opposes it [i.e. any text or thing functioning as a text/communicative medium] systematically to all the things it might represent, like life, the world, the real, anything it refers to, the mind, consciousness, personal or shared experience. The best text would be one that conveyed the most accurate impressions of these things. The trouble with the text is that it might not convey the right impression, the true impression, and it might therefore be misleading. A rhetorical frontier has been drawn between the truth of things and the text. According to this historical prejudice: the text is on the outside, the truth of things is hidden away on the inside. However, according to the same logic, the truth of things only remains hidden inside because it is essentially outside the text, in some far off yonder. Once again we are bound by the rhetorical distinction between the empirical (the text) and the transcendental (its meaning or truth). This, of course, does not fit the facts.
“Derrida and Deconstruction,” https://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/elljwp/deconstruction.htm. The basic idea here is that language is self-referential. It does not point beyond itself to any “true” reality but merely points to itself.
Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Introduction to schizoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1999), 15. (emphasis added)
The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 7. (emphasis added)
The Oxford Handbook of the Self, ed. Shaun Gallagher (New York: Oxford, 2011), 50-52. (emphasis added)
Dimensions of the Postmodern Self, Dickens, 189. (emphasis added)
“Consumerism and the Church: An Interview With Carl Trueman,” Q: Ideas for the Common Good, 2010, http://126.96.36.199/blog/consumerism-and-the-church-an-interview-with-carl-trueman.aspx. (emphasis added)
In a recent article touching upon the subject of the self, in fact, Trueman restates this position with clarity. He writes —
The idea that the self is something plastic—that, we believe, we can shape in any way we wish—is the West’s reigning idea of selfhood. This idea especially shapes our thinking about our sexual natures. The sexually autonomous view of the self gained widespread prominence during the 1960s and has remained influential since then. Our changing understanding of “the self” is closely tied to shifts in our understanding of the world.
To put it bluntly, the modern cultural imagination sees the world as raw material to be shaped by the human will. Perhaps the most important factor in shaping this has been technology.
Technology…reinforces the focus on the individual, and on individual satisfactions. Take something like music, a basic part of human societies throughout history and across the globe. In the past, music was always a live, and often a communal, activity. Somebody had to be playing music for it to be heard; and somebody had to be present in order to appreciate it. Now we can listen to whatever music we choose, whenever we want, and, perhaps most significant of all, we can do so in privacy. Music has been transformed from something with a primarily live and communal focus (live concerts notwithstanding) and has become most commonly an item of consumption for the individual.
“Our Plastic World — And Our Plastic Selves,” Ethics & Public Policy Center, Feb 22, 2022, https://eppc.org/publication/our-plastic-world-and-plastic-selves/. (emphasis added)