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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

“. . . improvising a raft after shipwreck . . . ”

Gil Bailie on symptoms and sources of the postmodern self adrift

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

“. . . improvising a raft after shipwreck . . . ”

The term “identity crisis” first appeared in the work of psychologist Erik Ericson (1902–1994). It described the struggle most people experience during adolescence to answer the existential questions, “Who am I? Who can I be?” In Ericson’s view, these are perennial human questions. But they are, of course, asked and answered differently in different cultural settings.

For decades, numerous psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and theologians have reflected on how some assumptions about human nature and human identity become more plausible than others as social, political, and economic conditions change. Many Church leaders have long recognized that even the most thoughtful account of human personhood — grounded in biblical and careful theological reflection— will be treated with suspicion by their contemporaries if the picture it presents doesn’t match what their cultural experience has predisposed them to accept. 

Within what was once “Christendom,” dominant assumptions about human identity were long shaped by Christian concepts. But the various forces of modernity and hyper-modernity displaced or rejected the Christian framework, creating a culture-wide “identity crisis” that requires intellectual and pastoral attention. “Who am I?” and “Who can I be?” are questions that require a theological anthropology that courageously challenges the dominant account of human nature.

Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, issued by the Second Vatican Council, has prompted continuing reflection on the differences between Christian understanding of human experience and that promoted — explicitly and implicitly — in modern societies. In a paper titled “The Subject of Gaudium et Spes: Reclaiming a Christocentric Anthropology of the Human Person,” theologian Gil Bailie describes how the Patristic use of the word “person” to describe some aspects of the mystery of the Trinity “laid the groundwork for a revolution in human self-understanding.” But, like many others, Bailie believes that much more can be built on that long-standing foundation, and that current social and political confusions are evidence of the need for such construction. 

The Abstract that summarized his paper began: “Beneath the surface of many of the disturbing moral, political, cultural problems now looming is the growing incidence of what Henri de Lubac called the diminution of ‘ontological density,’ a spiritual distress that Hans Urs von Balthasar characterized as the ‘loss of ontological moorings.’ The modern self, fashioned according to Cartesian presuppositions which vastly inflated its capacity for social autonomy, is succumbing to pathologies intrinsic to the anthropological fallacies upon which it was premised. The attenuation of the Christian revelation that gave personal existence its theological underpinnings and cultural sustenance is having a devastating effect, especially on the young. No response to the political, cultural, and moral confusions of our time will succeed if it does not address this underlying problem.”

Later in the paper, Bailie summarized the descriptions of our social and personal condition offered two social analysts who describe our plight but offer no alternatives:

“The spiritual, psychological, and increasingly ontological predicament in which many — especially the young — are today living has been disturbingly captured by Kenneth Gergen [in The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (Basic Books, 1991)] and made all the more distressing by his effort to remain sanguine in the face of it. Like Freud, however, Gergen and a few of his postmodern contemporaries, provide an inestimable service by insightfully surveying social and psychological phenomena they have nevertheless analyzed so inadequately. The lived experience of the postmodern self, Gergen seems happy to announce, is multiphrenia. He writes: 

“‘As one casts out to sea in the contemporary world, modernist moorings are slowly left behind. It becomes increasingly difficult to recall precisely to what core essence one must remain true. The ideal of authenticity frays about the edges; the meaning of sincerity slowly lapses into indeterminacy. And with this sea change, the guilt of self-violation also recedes. As the guilt and sense of superficiality recede from view, one is simultaneously readied for the emergence of a pastiche personality. The pastiche personality is a social chameleon, constantly borrowing bits and pieces of identity from whatever sources are available and constructing them as useful or desirable in a given situation.’

“Like so many postmodern apologists, Mr. Gergen — having diagnosed a self-dissolution that coincides with the loss of Christian sources of hope — must try as best he can to remain cheerful. Now perfectly unencumbered by the modern quest for what de Lubac termed ‘static sincerity,’ the postmodern accommodates to his life as a de-centered ‘social chameleon,’ taking bits and pieces at random from the incessant parade of mimetic models to which he is exposed. ‘If one’s identity is properly managed, the rewards can be substantial,’ Gergen strains to assure his readers: ‘the devotion of one’s intimates, happy children, professional success, the achievement of community goals, personal popularity, and so on.’ All this is possible, he imagines, ‘if one avoids looking back to locate a true and enduring self, and simply acts to full potential in the moment at hand.’ Avoiding this glance backward — the glance that might awaken that blissfully dormant ‘guilt of self-violation’ and its accompanying ‘sense of superficiality’ — is what another postmodern apologist, the indefatigable Norman O. Brown, calls ‘improvising a raft after shipwreck,’ the shoring up of fragments against one’s ruin. 

“In his Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis Professor Brown managed to sustain the hyperbolic prose and the erudite impudence for which his books in the 1960s were famous. The result is one of the strangest and most candid paeans to the postmodern spiritual catastrophe extant, but one, like Gergen’s, rich in anthropological insight massively misdiagnosed. Brown starts with a definition of psychological identification that might have been written by René Girard and adopted for use by the Church in the now urgent task of recovering a reinvigorated hagiographic catechesis. Psychological identity, Brown writes, is the ‘process whereby the subject assimilates an aspect, property or attribute of the other and is transformed, wholly or partially, after the model the other provides.’ It is, in other words, ‘sympathy intensified to the point of reproduction’ but within the permissible spectral range, whereas clinical hysteria is an involuntary and unwelcomed experience of mimetic influenced, warded off by a repertoire of strategies which comprise the disease symptomatology. But all that professor Brown can do with this immensely fruitful insight is to turn it into just another rough beast slouching toward the local mall or web browser to be fed and famished. . . .

“Those clinically diagnosed as hysterics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries inhabited societies more structured and less fluid than those of today. Individuals were expected to retain a higher degree of psychological continuity, and the failure to do so tended to draw more attention than the corresponding failure today, when identities morph far more routinely and arouse considerably less clinical scrutiny or social concern. The cultural institution that has facilitated this more psychologically fluid situation is the market. Just as there is something to be said for aspiring to a degree of social autonomy — it is necessary in order to resist the gravitational power of collective hysteria, the mob phenomenon — so there is something to be said for the collaborative construct of material need and mimetic desire, of social restlessness and psychological tenuousness, for which the market provides a venue and an outlet. The economic value of the market cannot be disputed, and its globalizing tendency, while problematic to some extent, may effect more long-term reconciliation between peoples and cultures than the transnational institutions explicitly dedicated to these things. As Gaudium et spes observed, however, ‘the progress of the human person and the advance of society itself hinge on one another,’ and in a world where market forces are congenial to the loss of both social and psychological cohesion, material improvements are accompanied by a spiritual pathos far less easy to measure or meliorate. Whereas the modern self was adapted to and fostered by the majoritarian voluntarism of a democratic polity, the disaggregated and atomized postmodern self is adapted to and shaped by the consumptive voluntarism most congenial to the now all-encompassing market, and ever at the mercy of the political and moral edicts that emanate from it. It may well be the case that it is the availability of the market — as the repository of desire and the ritual arena where disappointed desires can be easily and quickly recycled into new desires — that has caused clinical cases of hysteria to disappear into a sea of subclinical episodes. Had those suffering from the ontological deprivations of late modernity and postmodernity not had the market available to them these deprivations may well have manifested themselves more explicitly as psychopathology. The market facilitates the routine and incremental forms of self-transformation for which material acquisitions and their short-lived exhilarations function in quasi-sacramental ways.”

As of this writing, Gil Bailie is in the process of completing a book with the working title, The Apocalypse of the Sovereign Self: Recovering the Christian Mystery of Personhood. The concerns expressed in the paper excerpted above will be developed more fully in that book, and I hope he and I can talk about the book when it is published.