The Saturated Self vs. the Search for Authenticity
Yes there can be an authentic masculinity
Editor’s Note: Happy New Year to you all! This piece is part of my work on men and masculinity, but it speaks to our collective humanity in a time of postmodern ridicule. I consider it one of my “Arguments with Books” articles. Enjoy!
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Kenneth J. Gergen’s The Saturated Self is one of those books that compels me to continue reading because so many statements ring true to my experience. First published in 1991 and later updated in 2000, the book is a comprehensive approach to the problem of the disintegrating and re-emerging conception of the self of the late 20th Century. He is writing a kind of dialectic in which the classic fight between the romantic self of depth and inner reality versus the modernist self of rationality and stability gives rise to a third way — the postmodern self of multiplicity and innuendo. Such a postmodern self seems to make a mockery of any notion of the authentic self, and therefore of the authentic man or authentic masculinity. I think he is wrong, and I will show you why.
In the introduction to the 2000 edition, he writes:
It seemed to me then that the accumulated technologies of the twentieth century — from the automobile, radio, and telephone in the early year to television, jet transportation, the computer, and the Internet more recently — were radically altering the character of my life and the lives of those around me. The effects seemed both promising and perilous… The long-standing traditions of modernism and romanticism were being replaced by a peculiar new condition that we now understand vaguely as postmodernism.
[The book’s] salient concerns are more salient than ever, especially the discussions of technology and the postmodern condition — multiphrenia; the erosion of the centered self; the deterioration of truth, objectivity, and authority; and the emergence of new visions of relationship.
In this edition, he also sees four conditions that he did not see in the earlier version: the drift toward insularity, breathless bewilderment, techno-being, and organization/disorganization. This was the year 2000, before Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or any other social media had been invented. Gergen already saw the insularity that would lead to our social and political balkanization, the sheer overwhelm of channels and information, the integration of machines into everyday life, and the conflict between the increase in social organization and its ongoing subversion. All of this, he says, has led to a crisis of the self. The socially saturated self, he claims, cannot hold together as a meaningful whole.
Yet, as I shall argue, both the romantic and the modern beliefs about the self are falling into disuse and the social arrangement that they support are eroding. This is largely a result of the forces of social saturation. Emerging technologies saturate us with the voice of humankind — both harmonious and alien. As we absorb their varied rhymes and reasons, they become part of us and we of them. Social saturation furnishes us with a multiplicity of incoherent and unrelated languages of the self. For everything we “know to be true” about ourselves, other voices within respond with doubt and even derision. The fragmentation of self-conceptions corresponds to a multiplicity of incoherent and disconnected relationships. These relationships pull us in myriad directions, inviting us to play such a variety of roles that the very concept of an “authentic self” with knowable characteristics recedes from view. The fully saturated self becomes no self at all.
My primary interest in Gergen’s critique is his conclusion in this paragraph: “…the very concept of an “authentic self” with knowable characteristics recedes from view.” Does it? My work with men has often confronted the concept of an authentic man or authentic masculinity, either of which posits as its foundation an authentic self. Is there really no authentic self anymore? And what would this mean for the whole idea of authentic masculinity?
Gergen is onto something in that these postmodern forces challenge the old romantic and modern senses of the self. In fact, the challenge of finding the authentic man or an authentic masculinity points directly to the fact that these ideas are in crisis. If they weren’t, we would know what was authentic because it is a given in a world view. While the postmodern challenge is very real, it is premature to identify the self — any self or sense of self — as dead.
Gergen, however, puts forth an apocalyptic vision:
To contrast with the modern and romantic approaches to the self, I shall equate the saturating of self with the condition of postmodernism. 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.
The problem is that Gergen overstates the impact of postmodernism. I say it is overstated because most people do still view the world through these romantic or modern lenses — i.e., perspectives that imply that perception of a real self. Contemporary Christianity appears to have no doubts cast by the rise of technology the way Gergen says here. Climate and social justice activists also appear to be uniform and steady in their views. The balkanization of thought-worlds into insulated digital communities is leading to a disintegration of society, but less so of the individual. It appears that at this time, human beings are finding the postmodern multiplicity impossible to sustain, and therefore the balkanization provides relief.
As Gergen claims, it may well be that “the fully saturated self becomes no self at all,” but it is also apparent that people are finding ways to insulate themselves from full saturation. They select where they want to be, and wall off other inputs. They friend people who reinforce their ideas and de-friend people who challenge them. That selection leads to balkanization. It is a defense against full saturation because such saturation is overwhelming. We don’t want to see everything there is in the world. We don’t want to see every perspective. We need different inputs and different perspectives at different times of our lives. We need filters. Social media, the plethora of cable TV channels, and other media outlets conspire to inundate us. But they also give us the power to select out, to insulate ourselves, and to limit the range of what we are exposed to.
On what basis are such selections made? I might suggest that they are made according to the very authentic self that he claims is receding from view. When people say, “I don’t want to see any more of that,” or “I’m sticking to this view,” what are they connecting to in themselves? It must be some uniformity, some solidness, some essence. Call it instinct. Call it principles. Call it the authentic self. They are making choices based on something. Modernist? Romantic? Something else? I don’t think we can just leave it as postmodern and therefore believe people will stay endlessly in a confrontation with the abyss of nothingness. The world is showing us the folly of believing it will.
It may well be that previous beliefs about the self are challenged in the postmodern era, and even that concepts of personal essences are thrown into doubt. But as I pointed out, such doubt is confronted by an assertion of such essences. Perhaps such essences are not as pre-eminent, but they do not disappear. Rather, postmodern sensibilities compete and conflict with modern and romantic essences, probably in all people, to eventually form that actual sense of self. He argues that there is no identifiable self:
As I shall propose, this eroding of the identifiable self is both supported by and manifest in a wide range of beliefs and practices. The postmodern condition more generally is marked by a plurality of voices vying for the right to reality — to be accepted as legitimate expressions of the true and the good. As the voices expand in power and presence, all that seemed proper, right-minded, and well understood is subverted. 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.
In this last paragraph, Gergen oversteps his case. He starts by claiming that there is an erosion of the identifiable self, and ends it by claiming that “the center fails to hold.” This goes too far, for the center need not fail to hold. On one hand, there is evidence that all of reality is not only a product of perspective or a way of conceptualizing — bang yourself in the head with a 2x4 if you need evidence. On the other, his postmodern conceptualization fails to see through itself. Postmodernism posits certain ideas “that seemed proper, right-minded, and well understood,” and apparently, its ideas are not “subverted.” They become the new center.
Indeed, the self must have a center that holds. When the center fails to hold, you have a psychological and social disaster. Psychologically, you get schizophrenia, overwhelm, anxiety, or depression. Socially, you get a catastrophic collapse of society and social relations. Politically, you get anarchy and terror. The center must hold. We can’t live without the center. The issue is the urgency with which we cling, and the desperate measures we all take to do so.
Instead of this nihilism of the self, which Gergen posits for a postmodern understanding, it seems to me that his perspective actually points to a new set of essences, not a bunch of nothingness. The postmodern self is the self that stands at the center of the multiplicity. Yes, there is a cacophony of voices, but the postmodern self is not the one that wilts before them. Rather, this new self is the one that develops the skills and abilities to handle the multiplicities. “Wholeness” used to mean that one could stuff all of one’s essences, to use Gergen’s term, into one view of the self — the romantic inward version of depth or the modern rational man. Postmodernism’s gift, it seems to me, is that it forces one into neither of these views, but rather welcomes both into a larger conception of the self. While postmodernism has its silly notions of non-reality, its gift is fluidity. I want to emphasize this quote from Gergen again:
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.
The fluidity and relativity he describes in this passage provide for the emergence of a new self, and therefore, the last short sentence is false. It is not that the center fails to hold, but rather that the center becomes essential to navigating the questions. The self is the one thing that holds it all together, and the postmodern self is the one capable of withstanding all these competing claims without losing track of its own integrity. It is a skilled self rather than an ideological self. It adheres to nothing other than its capabilities of construction, reconstructions, negotiation, questioning, irony, and playful probing. It can hear everything. It will weigh everything. It will be swayed and influenced, of course, but not controlled, not imprisoned by saturation, not wandering like a lost boy in a forest where nothing appears to be real.
The authentic self is precisely this self that does not collapse in the face of so many roles. Rather than receding from view, the authentic self emerges from among the complexity. It is the constant in one’s being. And in my view, this constant is obvious — it is our experience. The experience of emotions from within. The experience of the conflicts, socially and internally. The experience of thoughts and ideas and how they pummel us into new ways of looking at things. It is, as it always must be, our experience of life that is at the core of who we are.
So, what does this mean for the authentic male or authentic masculinity?
First, let us validate the notion of the self. The romantic and modern notions of what the self is may be incomplete, but there exists a self that experiences life — its feelings, thoughts, imaginations, exuberances, conflicts, and so on. Somehow that self, by a combination of nature and nurture, comes to its own essences, principles, and values. They arise from within, they are imposed from without, and they define in some way the center; that is, the self that is buffeted by all these forces. In today’s world, this self that withstands the multiplicity of claims is the authentic self. It receives all the input, and against the essences, principles, and values it has become, the input is evaluated. Based on the evaluation, action is taken or withheld. The receiver, the evaluator, and the actor are, in fact, the authentic self.
Any sense of an authentic man or authentic masculinity, then, must be based on this notion of the authentic self. Too often, the authentic man has been an idea based on romantic notions of inwardness, depth, emotion, and the like. Therein lies the frequently stated bias toward “vulnerability,” as if vulnerability is the key to opening the door to depth (see my criticism of this here). This would be in line with the romantic notion of the self Gergen outlines. A competing notion of the authentic man is the modern one — efficient, effective, rational, mechanistic, objective. He is also an ideolog, so this notion follows from ideological traditions, especially evangelical Christianity, libertarianism, progressivism, and the like. But as Gergen says, these two notions are being challenged and dismantled. Rather than disintegrating into nothingness, however, the nature of the authentic self, and therefore of the authentic man, is changing.
The authentic man is a receiver, evaluator, and actor, and to be those, he is aware of those essences, principles, and values that make him who he is — i.e., a self. The fully authentic man-self is not driven by unconscious forces, but rather seeks consciousness of the forces that compel him. As experiences arise, his first move is to receive without judgment. What is this experience? Where did it come from? What is happening inside me? What feelings, ideas, or images are arising of their own accord? Men trapped outside their authenticity tend to react with flares of anger, lashing out, blaming. Something is driving them. They are not receptive; they are defensive instead. The inauthentic lacks the introspective receptivity necessary to hold a reaction, observe the inner movements, and ensure that he is looking at reality.
The second move is evaluation. He weighs this experience against those things that are true within himself — those essences, values, and principles that have come to define part, if not all, of his self. As it is confronted, it may also become an input to the formation of the self, for it is being forged throughout our experience of life. It is yet another formative experience — affirming, disaffirming, challenging, opening new perspectives, or any of a myriad of other impacts on the self as it is structured.
Finally, the experience will produce a response — perhaps it is rejected as immoral, accepted as beautiful, or acted on with a decision or choice.
Put together, it is the deliberate consciousness brought to this that distinguishes the authentic from the inauthentic man. That is, this is how it would work in a perfect world. Alas, humans, including men, are not perfect. We handle some things better than others. We fail often. And we succeed.
In the context of Gergen’s view of the self, this deliberate consciousness without judgment — the receptivity part — is the skill behind the multiplicity, or as he calls it, the multiphrenia, of postmodern life. The self possesses the capacity for deliberate consciousness without judgment; using the consciousness differentiates the authentic from the inauthentic. Rather than there being no self, there is a skilled self — one that can conduct this differentiation.
Authentic masculinity should not be equated with vulnerability, as it often is. Rather, true authenticity would seem to be connected with receptivity — to the forces, to the doubts, and to the opposing urges within oneself. We can contrast these with the desperate grasping for a base in the balkanization of society. This is a clinging to an old world view in the face of more nuanced understandings of the world and ourselves — or maybe in the face of changing selves driven by technology, as Gergen also asserts. Postmodernism has jolted us out of the complacency that the world is one way for us and everyone. It forces us to confront the possibilities of multiple realities regarding the self, and therefore regarding our own selves. The authentic person learns new skills to handle this exposure and reality, whereas the inauthentic hides from it, usually behind an ideology or one of the two worldviews Gergen is talking about. This doesn’t mean that “there is no self at all” or that “the center fails to hold.” Rather, it should heighten and celebrate the Self as what holds us all together. Modernism and romanticism are dethroned, yes, but they are dethroned because the ego is dethroned, and the ego is central to both understandings of the self. They confuse self with ego.
The postmodern view of multiplicity creates an awful lot of consternation, even crises, for people. But it does so with a value — we get to see life as it actually is, rather than through a lens of morality (modern or romantic) that is imposed upon the individual. Such impositions are heinous acts against the reality the self experiences. Is there a price for that insight? Of course. Is it worth it? Well, there’s no point to that question because no one has a choice.
Authenticity, then, lies in the welcoming attitude toward all experiences of life. It refuses to do violence to the experience by forcing it into a particular ideological framework. The experience, feeling, or imaginative thought is observed as a fact, an occurrence, something worth considering. Where it gets difficult is when the data, so to speak, is either counter to an ideology or residing in the shadow of one’s being.
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