Archive for November 13th, 2010

telling tales

November 13, 2010

Some notes from Owen Flanagan’s keynote address last night (“What Kind of Identity is Narrative Identity?”) to the 42d annual meeting of the Tennessee Philosophical Association, at Vanderbilt’s Furman Hall in Nashville:

John Locke’s narrative/”forensic” self, combined with William James’s phenomenal/flowing self, yields the “conscious autobiographical stream” of 1st person subjectivity.

The traditional psychology talks like one who should say a river consists of nothing but pailsful, spoonsful, quartpotsful, barrelsful, and other moulded forms of water. Even were the pails and the pots all actually standing in the stream, still between them the free water would continue to flow. It is just this free water of consciousness that psychologists resolutely overlook. Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it. With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead. The significance, the value, of the image is all in this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it, – or rather that is fused into one with it and has become bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh; leaving it, it is true, an image of the same thing it was before, but making it an image of that thing newly taken and freshly understood…

Now any thought the quality of whose fringe lets us feel ourselves ‘all right,’ is an acceptable member of our thinking, whatever kind of thought it may otherwise be.

The point of all these worries about whether there is a substantial self, how it knows itself, and why it matters, is to discover amidst the fringe and inchoate elements of our streaming awareness– the feelings of and, if, but, and by (etc.), and all the books we’ve read and music we’ve absorbed, and the interpersonal encounters we’ve registered– some stable and enduring fitness for living.

Richard Rorty expressed the “cosmopolitan” irony of our situation, from a bourgeois liberal point of view: there are many different kinds of person, their ways of living are variable according to local standards and conditions, we know that none of them enjoys exclusive endorsement by the metaphysical structure of the universe… and yet, we bourgeois liberals feel confident that our hatred of cruelty and love of tolerance and mutual respect are the correct attitudes. Can we say why, in terms the universe itself will corroborate? Maybe we can’t, maybe we’re just tales twice and thrice told because we’ve grown accustomed to telling ’em that way.

Or maybe personal selfhood is just performance art. Lit critic Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” the angst that one is just copying and not being original and creative in one’s own right, is best alleviated by a decision to play with variable identities while not truly  owning or being a single one of them. Life becomes a stand-up improv marathon.

Especially in the self-disclosing age of social networks and blogs and transient celebrity for all, we’re constantly spinning stories about ourselves. Do we have a clue, who we really are?

Personhood-as-performance has this going for it: it’s creative, interesting , fun, novel, and absurd (if you like that sort of thing). On the other hand, it may be frivolous, inauthentic, unreliable… and absurd (if you hate it).

Flanagan had lots more to say, in his high-energy, rapid rhythm, multi-media presentation. But he didn’t quite get to the next chapter in James’s Psychology: the attentive self, beyond the phenomenal stream. That’s the self with intentions, purposes, and meaning. It’s the self that sets us free and finds us something to live for.

And that’s the self you’ll be hearing more about from me. Got the green light yesterday to present  “Storytelling and the Attentive Life” at the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy‘s annual meeting in March, ironically this year in Julia Sweeney‘s hometown of Spokane, Washington.

Why “ironic”? The conference theme is “Narrative and Identity,” and Julia has announced her intention “to stop being a public, personal, storyteller.”

Better start getting my story straight, and rehearsing my performance.