Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Living Autobiographically

The following was written by Kris Drummond, a contributor to the site. Philosophically minded, Kris's current focus of thought is the concept of identity as narrative and man's potential leap past that framework. Expect more from Kris in the near future. Feel free to email if you have any questions for him or would also like to submit your own article or work of fiction.

by Kris Drummond

Within Western culture, the word “identity” often takes on a role of ambiguous suspicion.  On the surface, consideration of the word produces a mental shrug, its meaning so utterly self-evident that to probe deeper can be nothing more than the expression of some neurotic symptom of perceived inadequacy.  However, as Paul John Eakin states in his book Living Autobiographically: How we create identity in narrative, “When this identity story practice is disrupted, however, we can be jolted into awareness of the central role it plays in organizing our social world” (Eakin 4).  Whether we are forced into the analysis of identity through such a disruption or we enter into the inquiry voluntarily, the result of the search returns to us the disconcerting fragility of personal narrative as a valid interpretation of actual reality. 

In Living Autobiographically, Eakin declares that the essential core of a socialized human being is a collection of stories running on a linearly perceived timeline of “selfhood,” and as he correctly asserts, this practice of self-narration is usually so internalized that it can remain unconscious and unquestioned for an entire lifetime.  In reading Eakin, I find myself in agreement to this main proposition, although I think that he ultimately falls short of addressing the full implications of what his thesis implies.
In his book, Eakin seems to be focusing only upon the establishment of modern, Western enculturation to support his idea that stories constitute the core of identity.  While I agree with him that self-created narrative is indeed a characteristic of our culture, it seems to me that this fact is nothing more than an internalized microcosm of the culture within which we find ourselves.  We are raised within an ideology that is based upon the stringent maintenance of self-defined borders and a radical need to project those boundaries upon the world we interact with on a daily basis.  These self-drawn lines of narrative seem to be what Freud would call defense mechanisms, and they extend beyond our linear ideas of story into the very morals and beliefs we hold as truths.  It is the Freudian superego, managing the chaotic input of life in a way that makes sense to our cultural time and place.
When Eakin states, “Don’t we know that we are more than that, that Sacks can’t be right?” he is referring to the existential discomfort felt within the Western narrative that our whole notion of self, often perceived as a very solid, even permanent entity, is nothing more than a self-perpetuated fiction.  He seems to stop there, positing that beyond the veil of story must surely lie oblivion or incoherence or some other vague, unwholesome consequence, such as in the case of an Alzheimer’s patient.  It seems to me that this position is a projection of Eakin’s own discomfort, (perhaps an inherently cultural discomfort and one that I share), onto the territory of existence outside of story.  While it’s true that what we normally consider “identity” is a collection of stories, the assertion that identity ceases to exist upon the exhaustion of self-narrative is faulty.
Even in the case of the Alzheimer’s patient whose story has lost any sense of coherence, identity is still present.  Something is present, a body, but even more than that, the simple fact of awareness that physically persists as long as a being is alive and conscious.  Does this body carrying awareness not constitute identity?  Or is it the case that identity has simply shifted to a new mode of being, outside of cultural expectations?
The current mythos of our culture would have us believe that in a mechanistic Universe of cause and effect, we are nothing more than a meat body and a story traveling through chaos until the batteries run out.  However, in older cultures and previous mythos, varying levels of identity existed.  In the Eastern tradition of Vedanta for example, the personal self existed, but beyond that were levels of identification which lay beyond language, such as their idea of Atman, or the Universal being which permeated everything.  Instead of seeing the Atman as something outside of themselves, it was simply another, higher level of existence that could be identified with if the veil of language was permeated.

It seems that as a culture, we are telling a story about story.  Our identities are so thoroughly rooted in language that the idea of existence outside of narrative is completely inconceivable.  This begs the question, what might be the alternatives, and are different modes of being required for our continued survival as a race?  Can we simply sit down with a copy of Be Here Now and expect our insatiable self-defining tendencies of craving and aversion to vanish simply because we both need and want them to do so?

To answer these questions requires a much deeper look into the nature of our process of identity creation, and is a topic I will take up in my next installment…to be continued!

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