The Meaning of ‘Me’: A Multi-Disciplinary Analysis of the ‘Self’

Who defines who we are? Are we a constructed amalgamation of outside influences, or do we have the autonomy to define ourselves? Is there even a dichotomy to be made here? Could we not be both?

In this piece, I explore, just very very briefly, how discourses in disciplines have evolved over time. And how with each perspective, they provide different insights into the elusive figure that is the ‘self’.

I would like to insert a HUGE disclaimer here that I’m not claiming to represent EVERY discourse within each discipline here, neither am I saying that discourses are discipline-specific, nor am I claiming that any discipline is better than the other. I am simply trying to introduce the discussions in a comprehensive way to people who might be curious to learn more.

Should you have any other burning criticisms, please feel free to leave them (constructively) in the comments so everyone can learn more.

A uniqueness to be noticed, shared and expressed

At the heart of the neoliberalist lies the belief that there is an authenticity of the self to be expressed. The cultural industries, as Adorno & Horkheimer assert, encourages the purging of the self but this is merely the illusion of “authenticity” and is insidiously reproduced for the benefit of the capitalist system. This “authenticity”, or as Benjamin puts it, ‘aura’, is lost with the mechanical reproduction of art.

But is there no value in repetition? After all, are we not obsessed with archiving? For Derrida, there is power in repetition since with every repetition, it creates new infinite possibilities, and yet, there is also a bad kind of repetition, as he draws from Freud, one that perpetuates stagnation through the simple recall of ‘memory’.

(Source: Saatchi Art — Joseph Bounds, KQDK5CTR)

On another note, the neoliberalist philosophy promotes that our value and worth is rooted in what we can do or produce. Marx warns against ‘commodity fetishism’, or the determining of one’s value through the association with the products that one consumes or produces. After all, does that mean that a life that does not produce is meaningless? Is it possible though for an individual to simply not produce or is it just that the individual is not producing what society wants them to? As Dworkin argues, does life not have intrinsic value?

A developmental process over time

A lot of discourse also emphasizes the strife to make one’s mark, as if one could leave a one-of-a-kind contribution to the world, in line with our historical tradition of glorifying extraordinary individuals. Nevertheless, as Deleuze reminds us, we need to recognize the spectacularity of all individuals and how we each have the power to shape the multiplicity of realities through beginning, beginning and beginning again.

(Source: Saatchi Art — Joseph Bounds, GOK9VY7K)

And is the self really unchanging? Surely from birth to death, we are not the same person. And yet perhaps it is this entirety of a lifespan that determines our self.

Erikson expands on this in his theory on psychosocial development. He proposes that there are eight life stages at which our own formation of our identities might conflict with society’s, and with the resolution of each, we will become fuller human beings that are more equipped to deal with future crises.

Pre-determined or self-determined?

However, is it really possible to find one’s “true” self?

Some might say that the self is already pre-determined by higher powers. As Nozick puts it, even if a life without God or gods might seem fulfilling, it is the higher power that gives one “ultimate” meaning.

(Source: Saatchi Art — Joseph Bounds, QGEDPQWD)

Others though believe that the meaning of life is self-determined, that maybe life doesn’t inherently have meaning and instead, it’s what you make of it. Perhaps, as Lacan explains, we all have an ambiguously shaped hole in our lives, chasing the feeling that we all felt as children being loved for the first time.

Yet, this autonomy to determine the meaning of life is not as dire as it seems. To Camus, this freedom to determine what gives life meaning helps us cope with our existence. Linking back to the previous point about time, perhaps, as Frankl suggests, we simply take on whichever perspective helps us endure our peculiar existence.

Formation/existence as transgression/resistance

That being said, not everyone seems to have equal liberty to define the self.

Delving into feminist and sociological works by de Beauvoir, the act of defining the self can appear to be a trivial one, especially with an increasing number of works recognizing the constructed-ness of identity. And yet, some identities seem to be systematically diminished and recognized as inferior to others. Martin, for example, sheds light on how sexual organs have been imbued with fairytale-like qualities, where the egg has been repeatedly characterized as passive, like a “dormant bride awaiting her mate’s magic kiss”, whereas sperm are often “on a mission”.

(Source: Saatchi Art — Joseph Bound, OM24OTVQ)

At times though, simply existing can be seen as transgressive. While Descartes argues that the body is subjective to the mind, Butler proposes that the mind is also sometimes subject to the body. In addition, building on previous points about how the formation of identity is a process, Butler echoes that gender and sexual identity is also ‘performed’ and reinforced by ritual. Shilling extends that while some rituals, like exercise, are seen as more “acceptable” kinds of rituals, others, like cosmetic surgery, still carry much stigma.

Moving from orientalism to post-nationalism

Along the same lines, there seem to be inequalities in the way that people are perceived across different ethnicities and geographies.

As Said proposed, representations of the Orient have been methodically crafted and reiterated, reinforcing a global inequality where the Orient is seen as exotic yet vulnerable and submissive, needing to be civilized, whereas the Occident is seen as all-powerful, progressive and the ideal to be attained.

(Source: Empty Easel — Joseph Bound, Divide)

Others though have attacked this problematic notion. Spivak has proposed that sometimes the Orient also self-orientalises, and this is done strategically for perceived benefits. Others, like Pratt, stress the need to recognize that colonisation was a two-way interaction and that colonizers similarly had their ills and fears during the process. This is not to say that all their actions were forgivable, as Fanon explains, but it is useful in recognizing that good and evil do not exist in a clear cut binary between colonizer and colonized, but rather, is a constant war cut through the heart of every person.

Being shaped by and shaping space

The moulding of identity is not merely done by persons though, as space also plays an important part in the policing and authorizing of formation and expressions of identity. With regards to sexual and gender identity, for example, Johnston & Longhurst propose that space can both mould and be moulded by the communities that inhabit it, and can both include and exclude who should be present in it.

(Source: Saatchi Art — Joseph Bounds, Sunlight Spirit)

With the innovation of technology though, the concept of ‘space’ is also changing. In the ‘Network Society’, Castells introduced the notion of the “space of flows” and “timeless time”; with the advent of new mobilities technologies, we can circumvent geographical boundaries and time restrictions, and be in multiple places at once in the virtual and reality.

Turkle reveals how such affordances have also created new opportunities for ‘multi-lifing’, specifically how creating online personas has given us new ways of exploring self-concept.

Who we are is defined by who we surround ourselves with

Not only does space play a role in the definition of ‘self’, the people in those places similarly place a pivotal part. Motivational speaker, Jim Rohn, said that “we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with”. And to a certain extent, that might be true.

(Source: Joseph Bounds — Joseph Bounds, Echo)

According to the Asch experiments, in moments of uncertainty, often our opinions might be adapted from that of the majority view due to our fear of rejection. This is especially true if we deem the group to be similar to us, since the mass media, as Price offers, signals and indicates how people belonging to a certain group should react.

Likewise, our understanding of ourselves can also be in juxtaposition to others we identify with. In Festinger’s social comparison theory, he puts forth that we often compare ourselves with others we deem to be similar to us so as to evaluate our present social standing.

Neoliberalism & the hegemony of popular media

Is the self increasingly susceptible to outside influence though? As media becomes increasingly intrusive, Turkle warns that we now have less time to reflect on the self. This can be detrimental not just to our formation of self-concept, but can also lead to a dwindling sense of empathy for others in society.

(Source: Empty Easel — Joseph Bound, Have I Found You?)

Still, media representations and interpretations of the self are not always contradictory. As Winnicott explains, there might be elements of the true self in the false self and vice versa. With regards to tourism, for example, often countries would represent themselves in a certain way, and while the image might be hyper-romanticized or caters to an Orientalist view, these representations still draw from ‘real’ things.

Overall, I hope this article gives you a good foundation and understanding that definitions of identity are not as straightforward, and that with each perspective, they reveal different elements that also deserve attention. For more cool artwork, check out Joseph Bounds.




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Carman Chew

Carman Chew

People. Culture. Places.

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