Frames / Sing’s discussion of copies, formative influence, history, originality and Latour pings another set of my thoughts on identity. Here’s a tangentially-relevant section of the work in progress that sets the scene for my comments there, in which I’ve begun to talk about how original objects (e.g. selves) emerge from processes in which none of the elements or dynamics are even slightly original (nb that I am technically using ‘fractal’ incorrectly and have not yet found a language that accurately captures the dynamical complexity I’m getting at) (citations omitted):
I. Developmental Psychology: Processes and Images
It is awfully tempting to think of infants as ‘naturally’ selfish, reading back into them the accomplishments and organized emotional responses of adulthood. Famed developmental psychologist Jean Piaget captured the greater subtleties of the question when (reacting to Freud) he described the infant’s as a “narcissism without a Narcissus,” that is, a demand for attention without awareness or intent. Infants do not have selves yet.
What they do have, as every parent knows, is a disposition (or ‘temperament’) on a continuum of attention-getting strategies with happy at one end, cranky at the other. Both smiles and wails attract attention, but in different ways under different conditions. Parents vary quite a bit in their willingness and preparation to provide care, which after all is optional, inconvenient, and sometimes detrimental where their own survival is concerned; but infants must be attended to if they are to survive. Evolution, including cultural evolution, has not left this important matter solely to some nebulous maternal or parental ‘instinct’, and our frequent observation of bad parents should indicate the wisdom of this strategic diversity (other backups include extensive socialization in ‘mothering’, which would obviously be unnecessary if it were natural or instinctual, and social/ political pressures to provide care). For infants each attention-getting strategy has its evolutionary advantages, and the diversity along the continuum is useful at the species level, creating a built-in survival adaptation to diverse initial conditions (including parental attitude) across at least part of a given population of infants.
There are two key points here. The first point is that the strategy deployed by any particular infant need not be ‘conscious’, hence meaningfully ‘selfish’, at all. Mood dispositions are at the outset a relatively simple function of brain chemistry. Your happy smiley baby’s brain is producing good chemicals for happiness; your cranky waily baby’s brain isn’t. Parents can take neither credit nor blame for this at the outset (which does not stop them from doing just that).
Soon, however, they can accept their measure of responsibility with better reason. The second and more important point is that the infant’s disposition instantly structures her participation in a cycle of interactions with ‘significant’ others — those persons and things which respond to the smile or the wail. It is through interactions with others that the growing infant goes from a basically happy/ basically cranky bundle of chemico-physical attention-getting behaviors to a more sophisticated participant in social arrangements — an emergent self.
Early on this can only happen by chancing upon refinements of the original routine that produce more or less satisfactory results. Experience begins to pile up about when, where, and with which objects (such as people) various refinements succeed and fail (memory becomes crucial here). Experience also begins to pile up about different forms of success and failure, so that desirable and undesirable outcomes expand from the physical essentials to include various kinds of more abstractly ‘personal’ rewards and punishments like retrieval or removal of a pleasantly familiar object (including persons). Especially meaningful interactions are further abstracted as rules of conduct that later may serve as foundations for calculations of self-interest or for ‘morals’, depending on what is valued in the interactive milieu.
In the process these interactions, depending on their content, frequency, and intensity, may strengthen or weaken the original chemical disposition. But more significantly for the emergence of self, interaction normally adds dimensions to the original disposition. These dimensions then ongoingly interact with each other, the physical makeup of the person, her ‘environment’ in its many internal and external dimensions, and other persons, to create an incredibly complex interactive field. This interactive field builds and is built into selves — not just ‘internalized’ but embodied — as a necessary consequence of learning and adaptation. Selves are correspondingly complex.
At this point a couple of images may be helpful for visualizing the process of self development. One familiar image of the developing self is a house to which rooms (skills, knowledge, character traits) are added as situations calling for them arise, and materials for their construction become available. This image seems appropriately developmental, and satisfies a minimal definition of interactivity by its reference to perceived needs and possibilities. Plus, houses are comfortingly solid. However, the development of houses by room addition is not very dynamic; rather, it is merely cumulative and linear. We certainly know people who stay rooted to the same spot, always eat in the same place, and can’t sleep in anything but their familiar bed — dreaming of a rec. room or a screen porch. But such stolidity is highly dependent on unchanging environmental conditions, since building new rooms is slow business, tearing down old ones is a major, structurally dangerous enterprise, and when the flood comes, the whole house can’t be moved to higher ground no matter what. The self that fits the house image is accordingly produced by and best suited to stable, unchanging times.
Another common image of self is a crystal. We often talk about people as having ‘facets’. New experiences cut new facets, which both reflect and refract the surrounding environment. Such faceting is nicely dynamical, because each new one rearranges the reflection and refraction of the whole, as does the specific rotation of the facets with respect to the world. The main problem with this image, dazzling though it may be, is that its complexity is all on the surface. The interior of the crystal (the depth of the self) is solid, simple, and unchanging, never touched by the play of light at the edges, never transformed by the rays ‘just passing through’. Like the ‘house self’, the crystalline self had better hope there are no drastic changes of environment, or it may wind up shattered.
Another possible image of self, and the one that most closely approximates the full range of human possibilities as emergent, situated, and fractal beings, is the Calder mobile. Mobiles are durable, stable structures, but unlike houses and crystals they have no particular ‘core’ or solid configuration. They are highly interactive, both with themselves and with their surroundings. Like crystals, they can be rotated to present different facets to situations; and which facet is presented has tremendous impact on how the mobile receives and delivers interaction. They are not infinitely malleable but they can be added to, subtracted from, and reconfigured on the fly, with spectacularly beautiful results if care is taken with balance, with spectacularly bizarre results if not.
Each of these images has something to recommend it, and each can be misleading if taken too literally. Just so with our most common image of self, the body. The singularity of the body (strange to think so when it has so many parts), its apparent stability (actually it’s dying and being rebuilt cell by cell all the time), and its clear normal association with a single mind, encourage the common sense notion that the self is a singular entity. So far, O.K. The danger of this image is in the small conceptual step from singularity to simplicity. It is well to remember that many things called single for the sake of convenience, like countries, planets, and bodies, are actually complex manifolds. So too is the self.
Whether visualized as rooms, facets, mobile elements, or even melody lines, dimensions of self are added as experiences and reactions to them become habits. William James (1842-1910) was perhaps the first modern psychologist to call attention to the importance within the self of habits as mediators of complex yet ordinary experience. If we actually had to think about every detail of our lives (will I put my shoes on sock-shoe-sock-shoe or sock-sock-shoe-shoe today, or even wear shoes at all; will I drive on the right or the left of the road today; will I dare to eat a peach) we might never get out of bed. “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision….” James concluded from this obvious fact that our selves are, and must be, bundles of habits with a thin layer of reflection on top to handle unfamiliar situations and transcend the ordinary. For people with restricted, routine lives (‘house selves’), that layer of reflection may be very thin indeed, but even for creative geniuses the dimensions of self that handle ordinary situations without the distracting bother of reflection must necessarily be legion. Of course, we get the habits that fit the conditions of our lives; indeed, those conditions can be read back off of our habits, if, that is, we can suspend judgment long enough to do so.