Strangers to Ourselves

For reasons that I probably do not myself fully understand, I am endlessly intrigued by discussions of the ever elusive state of being we call authenticity. At least part of the intrigue lies in how a discussion of authenticity can ensnare within itself philosophical, sociological, technological, and even religious considerations. It makes for lively and stimulating discussion in other words. Authenticity talk is intriguing as well because it may be under its guise that the ancient debate about what constitutes a good life and the venerable quest to “know thyself” survive today.

Both of these considerations also suggest a serious difficulty presented by authenticity talk: the word authenticity, as it is commonly used, masks a complex and diverse set of concepts. This complexity and diversity threatens to introduce a slippery equivocation into what might otherwise be well-intended conversations and debates. At least this has been my experience. But then again, discussing what exactly authenticity is is part of what makes such discussions lively and interesting.

My own thinking about authenticity is sporadic and owes more to serendipity than to any conscientious scholarly endeavor. For example, most recently, from no particular quarter, the following question formulated itself in my mind: What is the problem to which authenticity is the answer?

There is nothing particularly insightful about this question, but it did get me thinking about the whole set of ideas from a different angle. The meandering mental path that subsequently unfolded led me to identify this problem as some sort of psychic rupture or dissonance. We don’t think  of authenticity at all unless we think of it as a problem, and it presents itself as a problem at the very time it enters our conscious awareness. It is a problem tied to our awareness of ourselves as selves.

There are many interesting paths that unfold from that point, but I want to offer this one subsequent stab at defining what we (sometimes) mean by authenticity: Authenticity is a seamless continuity between the self, time, and place. It is a sense of complete at-homeness in the world. For this reason, then, we might see nostalgia as another manifestation of the problem of authenticity. Nostalgia — first in its literal sense as longing for spatial home, and then its more contemporary form as longing for a home in time — is a symptom of the rupture in the continuity between self, time, and place that generates an awareness of the self as a problem to be solved, an awareness that constitutes the problem of authenticity.

Framing the discussion as matter of at-homeness (or a lack thereof) recalled to my mind the work of the medical doctor turned novelist cum philosopher, Walker Percy. Percy went from being a diagnostician of physical maladies to one of existential maladies. With his acute Pascalian eye, Percy made a literary career of diagnosing the modern self’s inability to understand itself. This was the theme of his send-off of the self-help genre, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.

Percy chose the following passage from Nietzsche as an epigraph for Lost in the Cosmos:

“We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves … Of necessity we remain strangers to ourselves, we understand ourselves not, in our selves we are bound to be mistaken, for each of us holds good to all eternity the motto, ‘Each is the farthest away from himself’—as far as ourselves are concerned we are not knowers.”

A little further on, in his inventory of possible “selfs” (or should that be “sevles”), Percy offered this description of the lost self:

“With the passing of the cosmological myths and the fading of Christianity as a guarantor of the identity of the self, the self becomes dislocated, … is both cut loose and imprisoned by its own freedom, yet imprisoned by a curious and paradoxical bondage like a Chinese handcuff, so that the very attempts to free itself, e.g., by ever more refined techniques for the pursuit of happiness, only tighten the bondage and distance the self ever farther from the very world it wishes to inhabit as its homeland …. Every advance in an objective understanding of the Cosmos and in its technological control further distances the self from the Cosmos precisely in the degree of the advance—so that in the end the self becomes a space-bound ghost which roams the very Cosmos it understands perfectly.”

Percy was writing in 1983. Centuries earlier, St. Augustine wrote, “I have been made a question to myself.” The problem of authenticity is much older than we sometimes realize. Perhaps we might say that it is a perpetually possible problem that is more or less actualized given certain historical or psychological conditions. Perhaps the problem of authenticity is not a problem at all, but as C.S. Lewis once wrote of nostalgia, the “truest index of our real situation.”

“Liking” and Loving: Identity on Facebook

By one of those odd twists of associative memory, John Caputo’s little book, On Religion, came to mind today. Specifically, I recalled a particular question that he posed in the opening pages.

“So the question we need to ask ourselves is the one Augustine puts to himself in the Confessions, “what do I love when I love God?,” or “what do I love when I love You, my God?,” as he also puts it, or running these two Augustinian formulations together, “what do I love when I love my God?”.

I appreciate this formulation because it forces a certain self-critical introspection. It refuses us the comforts of thoughtlessness.

A little further on, Caputo takes the liberty of putting his words to the spirit of Augustine’s quest:

“… I am after something, driven to and fro by my restless search for something, by a deep desire, indeed by a desire beyond desire, beyond particular desires for particular things, by a desire for I-know-not-what, for something impossible. Still, even if we are lifted on the wings of such a love, the question remains, what do I love, what am I seeking?”

Then Caputo makes an important observation:

“When Augustine talks like this, we ought not to think of him as stricken by a great hole or lack or emptiness which he is seeking to fill up, but as someone overflowing with love who is seeking to know where to direct his love. He is not out to see what he can get, but out to see what he can give.”

Not too long ago I posted some thoughts on what I took to be the Augustinian notes sounded in Matt Honan’s account of his time at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. In that post, “Hole In Our Hearts,” I employed the language Caputo cautioned against, but I’m now inclined to think that Caputo is on to something. His distinction is not merely academic.

Plummeting, perhaps, from the sublime to the … what to call it, let us just say the ordinary, this formulation somehow triggered the question, “what do I like when I “Like” on Facebook?” Putting it this way suggests that what I like may not, in fact, be what I “like”. The question pushes us to examine why it is that we do what we do in social media contexts (Facebook being here a synecdoche).

Very often what we do on social media platforms is analyzed as a performance or construction of the self. On this view, what we are doing is giving shape to our identity. What we like, if you will, is the projected identity, or better yet, the perception and affirmation of that identity by others. This, of course, does not exhaust what is done with social media, but it is a significant part of it.

There are, remembering Caputo’s distinction, two ways we might understand this. Caputo distinguished between love or desire understood as a lack seeking to be filled and love or desire understood as a surplus seeking to be expended. This distinction can be usefully mapped over the motivations driving our social media activity.

When we think about social media as a field for the construction and enactment of identities, we tend to think of it as the projection, authentic or inauthentic, of a fixed reality. Perhaps we would do well to consider the possibility that identity on social networks is not so much being performed as it is being sought, that behind the identity-work on social media platforms there is an inchoate and fluid reality seeking to take shape by expending itself.

The entanglement of our loves (or, likes) and our identity on social media has, it turns out, an antecedent in the Augustinian articulation of the human condition. Caputo went on to note that the question of what we love is also bound up with another Augustinian query:

“Augustine’s question — “what do I love when I love my God?” — persists as a life-long and irreducible question, a first, last, and constant question, which permanently pursues us down the corridors of our days and nights, giving salt to fire to our lives. That is because that question is entangled with the other persistent Augustinian question, “who am I?” …

What we love and desire and who we are — these two are bound up irrevocably with one another.

“I have been made a question to myself,” Augustine famously declared. And so it is with all of us. The problem with our talk about the performance of identity is that it tends to tacitly assume a fixed and knowing identity engaging in the performance. The reality, as Augustine understood, is more complex and whatever it is we are doing online is tied up with that complexity.

Hole In Our Hearts

Writing for Gizmodo, Matt Honan describes his experience at the massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and it reads like a passage from Augustine’s Confessions had Augustine been writing in the 21st rather than 5th century.

The quasi-religious overtones begin early on when Honan tells us, “There was ennui upon ennui upon ennui set in this amazing temple to technology.”

Then, a little further on, Honan writes:

“There is a hole in my heart dug deep by advertising and envy and a desire to see a thing that is new and different and beautiful. A place within me that is empty, and that I want to fill it up. The hole makes me think electronics can help. And of course, they can.

They make the world easier and more enjoyable. They boost productivity and provide entertainment and information and sometimes even status. At least for a while. At least until they are obsolete. At least until they are garbage.

Electronics are our talismans that ward off the spiritual vacuum of modernity; gilt in Gorilla Glass and cadmium. And in them we find entertainment in lieu of happiness, and exchanges in lieu of actual connections.

And, oh, I am guilty. I am guilty. I am guilty.

I feel that way too. More than most, probably. I’m forever wanting something new. Something I’ve never seen before, that no one else has. Something that will be both an extension and expression of my person. Something that will take me away from the world I actually live in and let me immerse myself in another. Something that will let me see more details, take better pictures, do more at once, work smarter, run faster, live longer.”

Here is the confession, the thrice-repeated mea culpa, alongside a truly Augustinian account of our disordered attachments and loves complete with a Pascalian nod to the diversionary nature of our engagement with technology.

I call this an Augustinian account not only because of the religiously inflected language and the confessional tone. There is also the explicit frame of an unfulfilling quest to fill a primordial emptiness. Augustine’s Confesssions amounts to a retrospective narrative of the spiritual quest which takes him from dissatisfaction to dissatisfaction until it culminates in his conversion. He famously frames his narrative at the outset when he prays, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” The restless heart knows its own emptiness and seeks, often heroically and tragically, to fill it. It loves and seeks to be loved, but it loves all the wrong things.

Pascal, writing in the shadow of Augustine’s influence, put it thus:

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

In a post titled “Making Holes In Our Hearts,” Kevin Kelly agrees to a point with Honan’s diagnosis, but his interpretation is quite different and also worth quoting at length. Here is Kelly:

If we are honest, we must admit that one aspect of the technium is to make holes in our heart. One day recently we decided that we cannot live another day unless we have a smart phone, when a dozen years earlier this need would have dumbfounded us. Now we get angry if the network is slow, but before, when we were innocent, we had no thoughts of the network at all. Now we crave the instant connection of friends, whereas before we were content with weekly, or daily, connections. But we keep inventing new things that make new desires, new longings, new wants, new holes that must be filled.

Yes, this is what technology does to us. Some people are furious that our hearts are pierced this way by the things we make. They see this ever-neediness as a debasement, a lowering of human nobility, the source of our continuous discontentment. I agree that it is the source. New technology forces us to be always chasing the new, which is always disappearing under the next new, a salvation always receding from our grasp.

But I celebrate the never-ending discontentment that the technium brings. Most of what we like about being human is invented. We are different from our animal ancestors in that we are not content to merely survive, but have been incredibly busy making up new itches which we have to scratch, digging extra holes that we have to fill, creating new desires we’ve never had before.

Kelly is on to something here. Discontentment is generative. Dissatisfaction can be productive. When Cain, having murdered his brother, is cursed to be forever a wanderer alienated from God and family, he builds a city in response. Here is an allegory to match Kelly’s observation. The perpetually wandering, alienated heart builds and makes and creates.

But does it follow that we should then celebrate discontentment, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness? I don’t see how. It is hard to cheer on misery, and it is a certain misery that we are talking about here. Perhaps the more appropriate response is the kind of plaintive admiration we reserve for the tragic hero. They may posses a real nobility, but it is finally consumed in despair and destruction.

The narrator of Cain’s story tells us that he built his city in the land called Nod, a name that echoes the Hebrew word for “wandering.” This touch of literary artistry poignantly suggests that even surrounded by the accouterments of civilization the human soul wanders lost and alienated – never satisfied, never home, never secure.

There is at least one other reason why we need not celebrate generative misery. Misery is not the only fount of human creativity. Love, wonderment, compassion, kindness, curiosity, beauty — all of these might also set us to work and marvelously so.

Augustine understood that finding rest for his restless heart in the love of God did not necessarily extinguish all other loves. It merely reordered them. Having found the kind of satisfaction and happiness that our stuff (for lack of a more inclusive word) can never bring does not mean that we can never again create or enjoy the fruits of human creativity. In fact, it likely means that we may create and enjoy more fully because such creation and enjoyment will not be burden with the unbearable weight of filling the primordial vacuum of the human heart.

The simplest and only way to enjoy penultimate and impermanent things is to resist the temptation to invest them with the significance and adoration that only ultimate and permanent things can sustain.

Saint Augustine by Phillippe de Champaigne, c. 1645

Vast Palaces of Memory and the Wonder of Being Human

I come to fields and vast palaces of memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images of all kinds of objects brought in by sense-perception.  Hidden there is whatever we think about …. When I am in this storehouse, I ask that it produce what I want to recall, and immediately certain things come out; some things require a longer search, and have to be drawn out as it were from more recondite receptacles.  Some memories pour out to crowd the  mind and, when one is searching and asking for something quite different, leap forward into the center as if saying ‘Surely we are what you want?’ With the hand of my heart I chase them away from the face of my memory until what I want is freed of mist and emerges from its hiding places.  Other memories come before me on demand with ease and without any confusion in their order.

This passage is from Augustine’s chapter on Memory in his Confessions, and to some degree it resonates with our own experience of memory.  I suspect, however, that at the same time it may seem as if Augustine’s memory is more expansive than our own and that he has achieved a greater organization and mastery over his memory than what we would claim over ours.  And this is probably about right.

In The Art of Memory,Francis Yates wonders,

It is as a Christian that Augustine seeks God in the memory, and as a Christian Platonist, believing that knowledge of the divine is innate in memory.  But is not this vast and echoing memory in which the search is conducted that of a trained orator?

The “vast palace of memory” that Augustine describes suggests to Yates a memory that has been trained in the artificial memory tradition associated with classical rhetoric.  It is a fascinating tradition that Yates elegantly chronicles in her classic work and which Joshua Foer has revisited in his recently published, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. You can get an article length taste of Foer’s book in his piece for NY Times Magazine, “Secrets of  a Mind Gamer.”

This may become a well-worn topic around here in coming days, weeks, months, so I’ll apologize in advance for that.  At this point, though, I’ll only throw out the observation that in his rather dense, Memory, History, Forgetting, Paul Ricoeur considers various abuses of memory including artificial memory.

Coming back to Augustine, he goes on to write of memory,

It is a vast and infinite profundity.  Who has plumbed its bottom?  This power is that of my mind and is a natural endowment, but I myself cannot grasp the totality of what I am.  Is the mind, then, too restricted to compass itself, so that we have to ask what is that element of itself which it fails to grasp?  Surely that cannot be external to itself; it must be within the mind.  How then can it fail to grasp it?  This question moves me to great astonishment.  Amazement grips me.

This is a remarkable observation of the inability of memory, and the mind more generally, to encompass itself.  His wonder at the complexity and opaqueness of the “inward man” is one of Augustine’s most significant and enduring contributions to the Western tradition. The recognition that there is an element of itself that the mind fails to grasp, that “the mind knows things it does not know it knows,” predates the Freudian unconscious by a good 1500 years.

Finally, this astonishment and amazement also lead Augustine to question why we are not all equally amazed by the mystery and wonder that is a human being:

People are moved to wonder by mountain peaks, by vast waves of the sea, by broad waterfall on rivers, by the all-embracing extent of the ocean, by the revolutions of the stars.  But in themselves they are uninterested.

A good reminder that the most amazing thing about the universe that contains such wonders may be the creature who is able to contemplate them, be moved by them, and hold them in memory.

I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine

I had to come across this in a somewhat obscure scholarly journal, so assuming you may not come across it there, I’ll put in your way here, an even more obscure blog.

“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” by Bob Dylan:

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive as you or me
Tearing through these quarters
In the utmost misery
With a blanket underneath his arm
And a coat of solid gold
Searching for the very souls
Whom already have been sold

“Arise, arise,” he cried so loud
In a voice without restraint
“Come out, ye gifted kings and queens
And hear my sad complaint
No martyr is among ye now
Whom you can call your own
So go on your way accordingly
But know you’re not alone”

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive with fiery breath
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death
Oh, I awoke in anger
So alone and terrified
I put my fingers against the glass
And bowed my head and cried

Copyright © 1968 by Dwarf Music; renewed 1996 by Dwarf Music

There is a version on YouTube by Joan Baez, no slouch to be sure, but not quite the inimitable voice and feel of Bob Dylan.  If you want to hear Dylan, you’ll have to find the song elsewhere.