Ever wake up not feeling yourself? This can be a haunting reality as when a person says you’re not yourself today or that doesn’t seem like something you’d do. To have our stable wholeness questioned can leave us feeling off kilter or even defensive. These moments illustrate that our being (our ontology) is more fluid than we might assume. We embody different shrouds of self in different circumstances and according to different audiences. And, like shadows crossing over a werewolf’s moon, we are many things to many people, including ourselves.
The truth of our multifarious existence is replete with creative and liberating possibilities. As AU students, we forge new identities as we embark on distance education. The one key ghost we must make peace with transgresses the holiday calendar: our ghost of procrastination past. To this end, our multiplicity of essences function as a toolbox. Martin Heidegger noted that our being in the world (Dasein) invariably constitutes a fractal as we encounter external reality: our being “has already dispersed itself in definite ways of being-in [different contexts]” (Being and Time 57). This has pedagogical consequences for our processes of learning. We might be the relaxing after dinner version of ourselves but that self within it contains flexibility such that we find the time to study.
The classic counter-culture theorist Allan Watts spoke to how we become plural rather than singular selves from a Buddhist Zen, as well as social-psychological, perspective. Watts noted:
“As a child is brought up it becomes more and more self conscious and it loses its freshness … the human being seems to be turned into a creature, designed to get in his own way … he’s always questioning himself (and asking) ‘am I being consistent, does what I do make any sense’” (Watts, online).
Clearly part of us is, ironically, not us at all, but rather our imagined viewpoint of what others make of us. Like a creepy voyeur with hidden cameras stashed around every corner, our mind is booby-trapped with our worries about how we are perceived by others. The philosopher George Berkeley even claimed that “to be is to be perceived” (Berkeley, online). Luckily, at AU we are judged more on our academic output than how we look, although we nonetheless are perceived by the invisible eye of our classmates and tutors as they read our work. The mind’s eye never shuts.
Watts adds that our desire for consistency founders toward farce because we cannot be our authentic selves to all people all the time. Bringing our AU study material to a crowded family firepit or a first date at a movie theatre would seem untoward, for instance, even if it’s what our truest self would rather be doing. However, as Watts continues, problems arise because we tend to surveil ourselves in the face of perceived cultural norms and potential social opposition. Insidiously, like creeping possession by a nefarious demon, we spawn “a second self inside us … that comments on us all the time” (Watts, online). If we’re not careful, we’ll be run ragged by imagined interpretations by others, and these can be quite nightmarish if we have learned to expect harsh judgement and ridicule from our peers. Contradictions abound because what functions in one social context, and what accounts for a decent explanation of our behaviour to ourselves given the circumstance, may seem eerie or uncannily out of place given a different setting.
Having been “taught also to behave consistently, almost like the characters in a book … as if they were actually consistent in life”, we demand of ourselves a fictional and fantastical adhesion to a character that we play rather than embody (Watts, online). In a sense we are never absolutely ourselves in that each self, like each spoken sentence or instance of body language, is itself an expression of an inner state that reflects, as down a hall of mirrored images, a response to infinite other reactions to internal and external sentiments. With characteristic pith, Watts concludes that this expectation of consistency “warps us” such that we become disoriented and unable to find our true selves (Watts, online). However, in true ye who enter abandon all hope House of Horrors fashion, our original self is absent: we are the sum but not the essence of our parts because we are perpetually in flux.
This is all very creepy if we take literally the fact that “we are brought up to makes sense of ourselves, to account for ourselves … to account for our actions in words” as though a sentence can summarize our deep internal reality (Watts). There’s a term for this ideology that each of us is reducible to a single expressive self knowable through the unity of spoken and written words: phonocentrism (Stawarska, online). At AU we experience the active formation and creation of new identities: our studies graft themselves onto our everyday life and force us to contend with the fluidity of our existence.
Meanwhile, from a surrealist perspective, a pastiche of self and imagery is just what the psychopath doctor ordered: good things happen when we embrace juxtaposition and difference as articulated by the surrealist movement’s desire to embrace “the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table” (Sokei, online) Surreal though our many identities may be if they are jumbled into one, that’s only a backdrop to the actionable reality of our lives: on a daily basis we encounter the existential fact that we are not one but many.
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, wizards of polymorphous identity proliferation, ennobled the act of embarking toward new terrains of self-discovery. Disturbing as our more outlandish selves might be (I never thought I’d enjoy a statistics course, what terror!), it helps to investigate alternate explanations and definitions of who and what we are. Ontologically, this is the ultimate Hallowe’en masquerade. Take the statement, this is me for instance. Deleuze and Guattari state:
“one could try to create new, as yet unknown statements for that proposition, even if the result were a patois of sensual delight, physical and semiotic systems in shreds, asubjective affects, signs without significance where syntax, semantics and logic are in collapse. This research could go from the worst to the best since it would cover precious, metaphorical, or stultifying regimes as well as cries-whispers, feverish improvisations…” (Deleuze and Guattari, 147).
Counter to the expectation that our selves come neat and tidy and ready-packaged, Deleuze and Guattari compare our expectations of self to Descartes’ Reason (Cogito). Deleuze and Guattari state:
“A new form of slavery is invented, namely, being slave to oneself, or to pure “reason”, the Cogito”. Is there anything more passional than pure reason? Is there a colder, more extreme, more self-interesed passion than the Cogito?” (D and G, 130).
To truly desire a stable and consistent self is to harbour an unrequited and impossible love, one doomed to a macabre and tragic ending. “What love is not betrayed? What cogito lacks its evil genius, the traitor it will never be rid of” (D and G, 131). Sometimes our inner rebel doesn’t want to crack the books. To study effectively, then, is to balance our inner delinquent with our inner savant. In a sense, then, to love ourselves is to love our darker side. After all, each of us has sun and shadows and these reflect our emotions and sentiments as well as our interests and abilities. Our studies allow us to discover and create new selves as we interact with new information and uncover our best scholarly self.