Who Do You Think You Are – Galen Strawson and Life Online

One of the most often repeated complaints and criticisms around literary theory is that it lapses frequently into obscurantism and obfuscation. Whilst this is nothing but deeply unfair and inaccurate it has to be acknowledged that there is a great deal of theory that it often difficult to apply to the realities of modern life.  The effort of applying the abstract and removed language of the academie to the mundane details of existence is a hermeneutical exercise that we don’t always have the time or the energy to do.

This doesn’t mean that theory is irrelevant as how we construct and understand our lives are questions that theoretical writing directly concerns itself with – issues of identity, consciousness and perception are all areas that theorists have sought to understand. These complex issues are further problematized when one examines the shift in how the self finds cultural and social expression. It used to be that the predominate mode that this occurred in was face to face. We understood ourselves in the context of relationships, be they professional, familial or social. With the rise of technology and the now ubiquitous ‘social media’ that web of relationships has shifted online.

We have friends.

We have followers.

We get likes, RT’s and re-blogs.

Essentially, things have changed. Before I go any further this isn’t a plea for a return to a more idealistic and less technology driven social experience. The two modes of existence both share the same prevailing ideological model of how the individual understands themselves. We, speaking generally here, make sense of ourselves by constructing a narrative – one of the things that social media has done is make this process more obvious. One only has to look at facebook timelines to see the explicit construction of your subjectivity, your life as a coherent narrative, designed to make us look our very best.

To quote Dan Dennett;

 ‘We are all virtuoso novelists…We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character…of that autobiography is one’s self’

Contained within the quote are two inter-related theses, which the great analytic philosopher and theorist Galen Strawson identified as the ‘Psychological Narrative Thesis’ and the ‘ethical Narrative Thesis.’

Let me explain – the Psychological Thesis is a descriptive and empirical argument about how we see the world, a way of understanding life that is integral to human nature.  The ‘Ethical Narrative Thesis’ is an argument coupled to the first which posits a narrative understanding of life – that having or conceiving one’s life in a narrative sense is necessary or essential  for developing true or full personhood.

Now, one can think that these two interrelated ideas are some combination of true or false but it’s worth examining how these two lines of argument operate online. The desire for narrative reflects our desire for coherence – we want desperately for the things we encounter online to make sense, to cohere in some way so it should come as no surprise that is how we treat others online.

The majority of the time this isn’t really an issue and one of the upsides of online culture is that it tends to treat people as whole and cohesive individuals. Basically, viewing people through the lens of a Narrative works out quite well most of the time – it allows us to make quick and generally fairly reliable judgements about the other and present ourselves in such a way that we can be easily comprehended too.

However, there is an issue here – the narrative thesis is a totalising one, a structuralist way of viewing the world and each other. The vast majority of the time it may be sufficient to view ourselves online as a seamless cohesive whole that tells a singular narrative story but this quickly runs into a problem – diachronic consistency.

To explain that in less technical sounding words, the idea that persistent through time is a recognizable thread of consciousness within one individual just doesn’t hold up. It is not the disconnection within online life that irks, but the flawed drive for all of this to make sense, for all of our lives to be tied together in one neat package. We become authors who edit on the fly, making ourselves the neatest and tidiest selves we can be, desperate to excise the disparate and the different and the dysfunctional.

This isn’t a new problem – to quote the great Virginia Woolf;

Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being “like this”. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old…Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.

Viewing these neat and tidy profiles, those expertly curated twitter streams and Woolf’s quote takes on fresh resonance. Life, indeed, does not seem to be like this. If social media and internet living is where we will all increasingly be it must become a place where the honest expression of the many different internal selves can find a place. Perhaps we need less narrative – less desire to be a coherent singular story that others *like* and more spaces where the individual can change, be contradictory and experience anew.

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