One of the most pressing issues we face today is a crisis of the self, which just happens to also be a crisis of being, time, faith, morality, family, society, culture, you name it––a crisis of everything, really. I recently discovered online the recorded lectures of a colourful “West Texan” philosopher from the 1990’s, sadly now deceased, who gives a wonderfully concise and highly entertaining account of the otherwise somewhat depressing story of this crisis.
The title of one of these lecture series is “The Self under Siege.” In it our West Texan, Rick Roderick, considers the various developments of the last century that have influenced our notion of the self. Foremost among these developments are the contributions of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, dubbed the “masters of suspicion” by philosopher Paul Ricoeur.
Nietzsche unmasked God’s social and cultural irrelevance (i.e. “God is dead”). Marx convinced us that religion is little more than a salve for suffering that produces more ills than goods. Freud’s discovery of the unconscious has largely discredited the claim that there is anything meaningfully transcendent within bodily and sexual life. Their effect has been to radically unsettle former claims about a self who is truly free and in possession of itself.
But the first point to make is that these thinkers are not simply heretics who dreamed up false ideas in their spare time just for kicks. No, it’s rather that in their own way they each consummate, unmask and deconstruct a self that was already in crisis long before they arrived. In other words, the self that they deconstruct is the Cartesian self, the Enlightenment self, the “rational” self, the purely cognitive self––the self that exists in your head in isolation from body, other, time, context, and God; the self that thinks it can get along just fine on its own, thank-you very much.
What our masters in fact correctly point out is that the self (if we can still call it that) really does have only a relative grasp on itself. Without a community, without a “god,” without something more than blind forces and processes, the notion of a self that is solid, possessed, free, and the like, really is under siege. The masters in this sense simply point out that, positively or negatively, the self really is deeply contingent, relative, and mediated––subject in deep ways to that which is not the self.
Yet, we of course in all likelihood prefer to resist this suggestion. The self, we might say, has a solidity that belongs to its “substantial” mode of its existence. It’s a reality, a presence, an essence, regardless of the particular conditions that mediate its existence.
This may of course be true, at one level. But on another, it’s the worst kind of abstraction. For it might suggest that who I am is only secondarily related to others. In other words, it risks making the mode of “gift” (being-from, being-for, being-with) a merely derivative and second-level description, rather than one that goes all the way down. In fact, it could be argued that the purely autonomous Enlightenment self is in some sense correlative to a somewhat overly abstract metaphysical account of the self in the Christian tradition.
Either way, however, all of this is now a moot point to the culture unmasked by our masters. Invocations of a selfhood shaped by both classically Christian and classically modern notions of God, nature, and reason are increasingly lonely, desperate, and for most who hear them, incomprehensible. Meanwhile, as Roderick effectively points out, belief and faith that remain now find themselves mediated by a deep complexity, insecurity, and confusion. Doubt today suffuses belief in a way that easily paralyses conviction, action, and wholeness. If before it was the atheist who had to justify unbelief, today it’s the believer who has to justify belief––not just to others, but to himself.
Moreover, something even more unsettling has happened in the context of postmodern modes of technology and communication. The classical believer was most concerned about belief in God; the classical modern about belief in the self. But for the postmodern consciousness, neither God nor the self even really compute anymore. For the being (you can’t really call it a self) shaped by the pure possibility increasingly made actual by “hyperreality”––as Matthew Tan has already observed in one of the posts on this blog––is increasingly a projection, an image, a simulation.
For example: is there a real Kim Kardashian beneath the simulations; beneath the image, the projection, the brand, the icon consumed by her millions of “followers”? Or has the simulated Kim become the “real” Kim? Perhaps the hypereal has now outrun the real, consuming and assimilating it.
Maybe, in the end, we’ll all end up in the Matrix (or maybe just in Las Vegas), so totally ensconced and entrapped in the fabricated, the produced, the simulated, that any remaining referents to a supposed “real” beyond the hyperreal will come to appear thoroughly superstitious and mythological––the “real” will be what we make it; or rather, what the machine tells us to make. Perhaps the new real, then, is the pure possible: if we can do it, we should, and we will. And if we do it, that is now “real.” And so on ad infinitum.
Thus Roderick thinks that the fundamental question of the future will be whether there will be any selves left at all. I think Roderick made a remarkably compelling case for this possibility. And he was making it before the Internet, before Facebook, before Instagram, before smartphones, before online porn and gaming, before Kim Kardashian, before sex reassignment surgery, before the “fake news” world of simulations so pervasive and so subtly invasive that I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that most of us are probably already living in the Matrix.
Is the situation grim? Surely. And yet, it’s remarkably instructive. For what it shows is the necessary outcome once the self is uprooted from its original sources in the radical relativity, contingency, indebtedness, and investedness of being from, with, and for the other. In other words, the masters of suspicion and the omnipresence of the hyperreal culture they prophesied show us the self’s true “reality” if it has not love: nothingness.
With this clarity comes the possibility of rediscovering what, from its earliest beginnings, was Christianity’s most original and radical element. As for the pagan self faith confronted there, what today’s simulated or hyperreal self needs more than anything today is death. It needs a death so that it can be remade in a new world of the real. Before it’s life, baptism is precisely this death. It’s the exorcism strong enough to cast out the demons of the possible, strong enough to reconstitute, reground, and recreate a self in the only “real” that truly saves.
Conor Sweeney is a Canadian by birth, born and raised near Vancouver, B.C. He has a licentiate and doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Roman session of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family. He is the author of Sacramental Presence after Heidegger: Onto-Theology, Sacraments, and the Mother’s Smile (Cascade, 2015), a book that explores the intersection of sacramental theology and postmodern philosophy in light of the postmodern critique of the metaphysics of presence. His current work focuses on deepening the baptismal-sacramental foregrounding of theology and philosophy. Conor lectures in sacramental theology and continental philosophy at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia.