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?”

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* 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.”