The social theorist Philip Rieff once wrote that as cultures change so do the types of persons who are their bearers. This is a provocative thought yet not at all obvious. Social and cultural change, from the rise of the “information economy” to changes in family life to the technological mediation of our relationships, is happening all around us. We are accustomed to a social environment that is in flux. But while we think of persons as having to accommodate and adjust to change, we tend to assume that through time they remain more or less the same. A recent book review in the New York Times, for example, captures this common view. Rejecting concerns about the effects of the internet on identity, the reviewer writes, “it’s just another tool, an accessory that allows us to do what we’ve always done: interact with one another.” In this view, the tools or other aspects of social life change, not the persons using or affected by them. What is missed here are the dynamic interactions between shifts in our life-world, our representations of self, and our sensibilities and understandings of ourselves. Each is implicated in the other; none is fixed.
As the essays here suggest, we are living through a time of profound cultural transformation that is having important effects on our experience of self. If modern subjectivity was conceived in terms of depth and will and placed a high premium on the “inner life,” we are rapidly moving away from that model (Lasch-Quinn). Modern distinctions are collapsing as reality and representation become fused (de Zengotita), the division between public and private is effaced (Bauman), and the locus of subjectivity shifts from the inner life of the individual to the outside of the collective subject (Ferguson). Our sense of the past, our emotional lives, our bonds with others, our space for individual autonomy, our capacity for self-reflection and self-knowledge—all and more are impacted in potentially fundamental ways. As our culture is succeeded by the next, new types of persons are coming into being.