The Shifting Experience of Self   /   Spring 2011   /    Thematic: The Shifting Experience of Self

The Shifting Experience of Self

A Bibliographic Essay

Joseph E. Davis

Leonardo Stabile/flickr.

Exploring the flattening out of subjectivity.

I can imagine a world…in which persons with highly developed inner worlds became the exception rather than the rule we used to think them to be.—Evelyn Fox Keller11xEvelyn Fox Keller, “Whole Bodies, Whole Persons? Cultural Studies, Psychoanalysis, and Biology,” Subjectivity: Ethnographic Investigations, ed. João Biehl, Byron Good, and Arthur Kleinman (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007) 359.

One of the most remarkable features of contemporary life is the many radical ways in which selfhood is being newly envisioned, represented, and experienced. Wander into the cultural studies section of a bookstore, and you might get the impression that subjectivity, an inner life, and the very capacity for self-knowledge have largely disappeared, if they ever existed at all. This literature projects an image of the self as fragmented and discontinuous assemblages of experiences. Subjectivity—self-experience through time—has been replaced by “subject-positions,” social categories and their storylines that are largely externally determined. The “inner” lacks any stable substance and is merely an extension of external roles that are instrumental and performative, endlessly negotiated within a fluid and mediated cultural milieu. Over in the psychology section, you’ll find surprisingly similar conclusions, albeit expressed in a scientific idiom. Social psychology, for example, is now heavily influenced by what psychologist John Kihlstrom calls the “automaticity juggernaut.” In this view, everyday thought, feeling, and action is in large measure, if not wholly, controlled by reflex-like processes that operate outside conscious awareness or voluntary control.22xJohn F. Kihlstrom, “The Automaticity Juggernaut—or, Are We Automatons After All?” Are We Free? Psychology and Free Will, ed. John Baer, James C. Kaufman, and Roy F. Baumeister (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008) 155–80. We know very little about what we are doing, why we do it, or how we feel about it. Much the same picture emerges as you move to the shelf on evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience, or over to popular titles on genetics and psychiatry.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).