September 16, 2007

Pluralizing and transforming the I into a manifold structure implying areas of contingency

From: Subject - Author - Experience: The Subject in the Expanse of Art, Bratislava: Soros Center for Contemporary Arts, 1999, 11-33. Wolfgang Welsch Becoming oneself
4. Non-selfish conceptions of selfhood
It is specific to (occidental) modernity to focus on autonomy and the autonomous self. But things haven't always been this way. Inside and outside Europe there have been conceptions of the human which suggested the opposite route: not to understand the self as something closed on itself but rather as a type of relationship, or to attempt to become oneself by being willing to lose oneself. For such conceptions contingency is quite familiar, or inherent to selfhood and becoming oneself, not something strange or menacing to it.
Think, for example, of the Christian idea that you should disregard yourself and that by so doing will gain yourself.(18) Similarly, for a Buddhist, it is the most obvious thing that you will gain redemption only by losing yourself: the intentional search for the Self is the cause of all unhappiness, the proper goal to achieve is the `selfless' self.(19)
Or think of Hölderlin. He lived in a time when the modern conception of the Self became popular and was being advanced by his former philosophical friends. Yet he never conceived of himself according to the pattern of the single I amidst other I's but in terms of a relationship between human beings und gods:
"I understood the aether's still
The words of men I never understood.
In the arm of the gods I grew."(20)
Many other poets took a comparable step when pluralizing and transforming the I into a manifold structure implying areas of contingency. Thus Montaigne had already said that "we are all patchwork, and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game".(21) "I have nothing to say about myself absolutely, simply, and solidly, without confusion and without mixture, or in one word."(22) Novalis wrote that one person is "several people at once" since "pluralism" is "our innermost essence".(23) Or remember Walt Whitman's "I am large ... I contain multitudes",(24) or Rimbaud's "JE est un autre",(25) or Valéry's "je crois plus que jamais que je suis plusieurs!"(26) Robert Musil declared in the Man without Qualities: "The ego is losing the significance that it had previously had as a sovereign dispensing acts of government."(27) "Perhaps, when the inappropriate significance which we afford the personality disappears, we will enter into a new one as in the most splendid adventure."(28)
The philosophical critique of the standard occidental conception of the Self - a critique concisely expressed in Horkheimer's and Adorno's phrase "Men had to do fearful things to themselves before the self, the identical, purposive, and virile nature of man, was formed"(29) - has indeed had many precursors and parallels in artistic and literary experience.
And just reflect for one moment: Isn't it a strange thing indeed that - following our conventional grammar - we always talk of becoming one-self - as if this numeric singularity were simply natural? Why only one? Why not several, why not many? Is there any reason definitely obliging us to think of identity only in terms of numeric singularity? Could `identity' not also mean the ability to connect different features, to link many kinds of identity which have some traits in common while differing in others - but without any one of them comprehending all other identities?(30)
5. Nietzsche
The paradigm author for what I have in mind might be Nietzsche. Of himself he said that he was "glad to harbour [...] not `one immortal soul', but many mortal souls within".(31) "The assumption of one subject is perhaps not necessary; perhaps it is just as permissible to assume a multitude of subjects, whose interplay and strife form the basis of our thinking and our consciousness altogether?"(32) Nietzsche coined the formula of the "subject as a multitude".(33)
Nietzsche's Ecce homo - his account of his own life - has as subtitle: "How one becomes what one is". This might sound like a tribute to the old concept of the Self as an internal nucleus which one has to find and to realize. But listen to what follows, to Nietzsche's answer to the question "how one becomes what one is":
"That one becomes what one is presupposes that one doesn't have the remotest idea what one is. From this viewpoint even life's blunders have their own sense and value, the occasional byways and detours, the hesitations, the `modesties', the seriousness, wasted on tasks which lie beyond the task. A great cleverness can be expressed in this, even the greatest cleverness: wherever nosce te ipsum were the recipe for downfall, forgetting oneself, misunderstanding oneself, diminishing, narrowing, moderating oneself becomes reason itself."(34)
Finally he says:
"In this respect, my life is simply wonderful. [...] I fail to recall ever having exerted myself - no trace of struggle can be demonstrated in my life, I am the opposite of a heroic nature. `Wanting' something, `striving' for something, a `purpose', having a `wish' in mind - I don't know any of this from experience."(35) Home Curriculum vitae Research areas&Current projects Publication List Online Texts&Publication abstracts Department of Philosophy Contact

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