The Interrupted Self

In Letters From Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race, written in the 1920’s, Romano Guardini, related the following experience: “I recall going down a staircase, and suddenly, when my foot was leaving one step and preparing to set itself down on another, I became aware of what I was doing. I then noted what self-evident certainty is displayed in the play of muscles. I felt that a question was thus raised concerning motion.”

“This was a triviality,” Guardini acknowledges, “and yet it tells us what the issue is here.” He goes on to explain the “issue” as follows:

Life needs the protection of nonawareness. We are told this already by the universal psychological law that we cannot perform an intellectual act and at the same time be aware of it. We can only look back on it when it is completed. If we try to achieve awareness of it when we are doing it, we can do so only be always interrupting it and thus hovering between the action and knowledge of it. Obviously the action will suffer greatly as a result. It seems to me that this typifies the life of the mind and spirit as a whole. Our action is constantly interrupted by reflection on it. Thus all our life bears the distinctive character of what is interrupted, broken. It does not have the great line that is sure of itself, the confident movement deriving from the self.

It seems to me that the tendency Guardini identifies here has only intensified during the nearly 100 years since he wrote down his observations.

As an aside, I find works like Guardini’s useful for at least two reasons. The first, perhaps more obvious, reason is that they offer genuine insights that remain applicable in a more or less straightforward way. The second, perhaps less obvious, reason is that they offer a small window into the personal and cultural experience of technological change. When we think about the difference technologies make in our life and for society more broadly, we often have only our experience by which to judge. But, of course, we don’t know what we don’t know, or we can’t remember what we have never known. And this is especially the case when we consider what me might call the existential or even affective aspects of technological change.

Returning to Guardini, has he notes in the letter on “Consciousness” from which that paragraph was taken, literature was only one sphere of culture where this heightened consciousness was making itself evident.

I can’t know what literary works Guardini had in mind, but there is one scene in Tolstoy’s short novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), that immediately sprung to mind. Early on in the story, which begins with Ilyich’s death, a co-worker, Peter Ivanovich, has come to Ilyich’s home to pay his respects. Upon entering the room where Ilyich’s body lay, Peter Ivanovich is uncertain as to how to proceed:

Peter Ivanovich, like everyone else on such occasions, entered feeling uncertain what he would have to do. All he knew was that at such times it is always safe to cross oneself. But he was not quite sure whether one should make obeisances while doing so. He therefore adopted a middle course. On entering the room he began crossing himself and made a slight movement resembling a bow.

I’ve come to read this scene as a microcosm of an extended, possibly recurring, cultural moment in the history of modernity, one that illustrates the emergence of self-consciousness.

Here is Peter Ivanovich, entering into a socially and psychologically fraught encounter with the presence of death. It is the sort of moment for which a robust cultural tradition might prepare us by supplying scripts that would relieve us of the burden of knowing just what to do while also conveying to us a meaning that renders the event intelligible. But Peter Ivanovich faces this encounter at a moment when the old traditions are only half-recalled and no new forms have arisen to take there place. He lives, that is, in a moment when, as Gramsci evocatively put it, the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In such a moment, he is thrown back upon himself: he must make choices, he must improvise, he must become aware of himself as one who must do such things.

His action, as Guardini puts it, “bears the distinctive character of what is interrupted.”

“Peter Ivanovich,” we go on to read, “continued to make the sign of the cross slightly inclining his head in an intermediate direction between the coffin, the Reader, and the icons on the table in a corner of the room. Afterwards, when it seemed to him that this movement of his arm in crossing himself had gone on too long, he stopped and began to look at the corpse.”

He is not inhabiting a ritual act, he is performing it and badly, as all such performances must be. “He felt a certain discomfort,” the narrator tells us, “and so he hurriedly crossed himself once more and turned and went out of the door — too hurriedly and too regardless of propriety, as he himself was aware.”

I’m not suggesting that Tolstoy intended this scene as a commentary on the heightened consciousness generated by liquid modernity, only that I have found in Peter Ivanovich’s awkwardness a memorable dramatic illustration of such.

Technology had a role to play in the generation of this state of affairs, particularly technologies of self-expression or technologies that represent the self to itself. It was one of Walter Ong’s key contentions, for example, that “writing heightened consciousness.” This was, in his view, a generally good thing. Of course, writing had been around long before Tolstoy was active in the late 19th century. He lived during an age when new technologies worked more indirectly to heighten self-consciousness by eroding the social structures that anchored the experience of the self.

In the early 20th century, Guardini pointed to, among other things, the rise of statistics and the bureaucracies that they empowered and to newspapers as the sources of a hypertrophied consciousness. We might substitute so-called Big Data and social media for statistics and newspapers. Rather, with regards to consciousness, we should understand the interlocking regimes of the quantified self* and social media as just a further development along the same trajectory. Fitbits and Facebook amplify our consciousness by what they claim to measure and by how they position the self vis-a-vis the self.

It seems to me that this heightened sense of self-consciousness is both a blessing and a curse and that it is the condition out of which much of our digital culture emerges. For those who experience it as a curse it can be, for example, a paralyzing and disintegrating reality. It may, under such circumstances further yield resentment, bitterness, and self-loathing (consider Raskolnikov or the Underground Man). Those who are thus afflicted may seek for renewed integrity through dramatic and/or violent acts, acts that they believe will galvanize their identity. Others may cope by adopting the role of happy nihilist or liberal ironist. Still others may double-down and launch out on the self-defeating quest for authenticity.

“Plants can grow only when their roots are in the dark,” Guardini wrote as he closed his letter on consciousness. “They emerge from the dark into the light. That is the direction of life. The plant and its direction die when the root is exposed. All life must be grounded in what is not conscious and from that root emerge into the brightness of consciousness. Yet I see consciousness becoming more and more deeply the root of our life.”

All of this leads him to ask in conclusion, “Can life sustain this? Can it become consciousness and at the same time remain alive?”


* For example: “Now the telescope is turned inward, on the human body in the urban environment. This terrestrial cosmos of data will merge investigations that have been siloed: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, biology, biochemistry, nutrition, epidemiology, economics, data science, urban science.”




Tip the Writer


7 thoughts on “The Interrupted Self

  1. I actually disagree quite strongly with this analysis. Peter Ivanovich’s problem, which I think Tolstoy is describing quite clearly, is that he is a shallow social conformist (as indeed is Ivan Ilyich until his death), a ‘modern man’, who has simply forgotten, or not learned how to behave in the traditional way, but does not have the autonomy or courage to decide for himself how to behave, in any situation. So he is all at sea. Ivan Illyich on the other hand is perfectly happy to conform, and knows how to do so, and lives an utterly false, shallow, meaningless, but ‘successful’ life, albeit unhappy at a deeper level, until his death agony and spiritual liberation / resurrection (unobserved by anyone, who simply see him dying in apparent agony).

    Guardini is typical of a self-conscious individual (and perhaps of many modern people, especially intellectuals) – yes, you cannot think your way down stairs, you have to physically do it, and your intellect is simply an impediment – but an accomplished sportsman is absolutely aware and conscious of what he/she is doing, they are just not doing it with their mind – they have trained and practiced their whole being – mind, body and spirit (for lack of a better term) to do a particular thing well – they are and must be undistracted, particularly by their own mind not being completely engaged in the action itself, in the present moment and nowhere else. Especially not for example thinking about what they will do to win the match, or regretting or dwelling on a previous mistake. ‘keeping your eye on the ball’ is a shorthand for being 100% engaged with the current action (not looking where you hope to hit it, or watching someone in the crowd, or admiring the skill with which your playing the shot).

    There is a certain type of intellectual activity, where it is possible to both think, and be aware of what and how you are thinking – the opposite of daydreaming or fantasy. But most modern people, apart from the really happy, effective ones, are living in an almost constant state of distraction, of a lack of proper attention to what they are actually trying to do. And that is undoubtedly in part one of the more pernicious effects of modern information technology. It is designed to distract.

    1. I’m not sure that I disagree with your disagreement. On the one hand, I’m not wedded to my interpretation as anything like a definitive take on what Tolstoy intended. It is more the case that Ivanovich’s interrupted, self-conscious action struck me as an image of the condition I’m trying to get at. Your reading of Ivanovich, and the general drift of the knowledge, is, as far as I’m concerned, basically correct. That said, what if we were to ask why exactly Ivanovich behaves the way he does, or, alternatively, what the sources of his shallowness may be? I wonder if the significance I’ve imported onto this scene is necessarily at odds with what your suggesting.

      I also agree very much with your discussion of an embodied form of attentiveness that is characteristic of the accomplished sportsman or musician or dancer, etc. But that form of attention is, as you suggest, very different than the sort of attention to the self that I think Guardini is analyzing. Some years back, in fact, I wrote about embodied practices as an antidote to the hyper-self-consciousness that characterizes many in our time, myself not excepted: See also:

      So, I’d say that, yes, distraction is clearly a problem, and modern information technology is part of the problem (addiction by design, etc.), but I’d also say that it heightens a certain kind of attention or, to put it another way, directs the attention toward the self in a way that aligns with the kind of disordered consciousness that Guardini writes about.

  2. I agree with @davidjsimpson1952. The cultivation of mindful awareness in Buddhism is precisely the sort of simultaneity of conscious awareness and action that it seems Guardini considered exceptional, if not impossible.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Julian. See my reply above to David. The sort of awareness you describe is, I believe, of a different sort than the consciousness Guardini finds problematic, in part, I suspect, because it is not, strictly speaking, mental, or at least not merely mental.

  3. Excellent…this topic (the intensifying self-consciousness of modern humans) has preoccupied me for a few years now, and I think it’s under discussed. Your mention of irony reminded me; I frequently have the thought that the rise of the ironic attitude is tied to the need to remain ever more socially flexible. The ironic mode is an effective way to remain uncommitted to either seriousness or flippancy. It allows our remaining to remain loosely defined, like a legal contract, until the concrete details of the situation become clear enough to settle on a firmer stance.

    I haven’t read a ton of sociology from the early-to-mid-twentieth century, so if you know of other sources on this I’d be interested. Some few thinkers I am aware of seemed to notice this growing self consciousness, though: I feel it lurking throughout Erving Goffman’s work, particularly when he mentions things like the “bureaucratization of the spirit,” which we all undergo “so that we can be relied upon to give a perfectly homogenous performance at ever appointed time.” Surely this new self consciousness is partially a product of a new and more intense social consciousness, born of new pressures and the feedback of new forms of representation.

    Georg Simmel seems to have been convinced it was tied to the rise of the modern city. In his essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” he writes “The psychological foundation, upon which the metropolitan individuality is erected, is the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli.” And prior to that, he asserts that, of the more famous responses to modernity (Nietzschean, socialist), “the same fundamental motive was at work,
    namely the resistance of the individual to being levelled, swallowed up in the social- technological mechanism.”

    I’m also reminded me of a talk by Alasdair McIntyre called “A Culture of Choices and Compartmentalization,” but I haven’t read it recently enough to say more than that.

    Part of the difficulty here is that even realizing the burdens of an over-abundance of self consciousness does little to cope with them; in fact, it’s much the opposite. But what I think is clear from Simmel and Goffman especially (and we’ve come some way since then, haven’t we?) is that this reserve and hyper-attentive presentation has become a fixture of social life – a necessity. Where humans once gathered resources, we now focus much more on collecting attitudes and cultural snippets as a kind of social currency. And, if that’s correct, it implies that communication is a lot more work than it used to be.

    1. As it has been for you, so, too, has this been an area of interest for me for some time. I do tend to think it is a crucial aspect of the modern (post-, meta-, etc.) identity. Really, it is at the heart of all of our identity-talk, which is somehow both cause and symptom of the condition. I tend to see it as the product of the formative impact of increasingly sophisticated technologies of the self and the untethering of the self that is characteristic of modernity (the physic consequences of everything melting into air). I think it may have been you who noted in a comment (to which I never replied, my apologies if so) a certain resemblance to communitarian thought in some of what I’ve written. That would be a fair assessment. My thinking on this bears a similar stamp. Along those lines, I’ll have to look up the piece by MacIntyre, I don’t think I’ve come across it before. Several years ago, Thomas de Zengotita’s Mediated covered much of this ground in a useful way.

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