Los Angeles Times Magazine

August 23, 1992, Sunday

LENGTH: 3781 words



BYLINE: By Mitchell Stephens, Mitchell Stephens is a journalism professor at New York University and the author of A History of News. His last article for this magazine was The Death of Reading.

PICK A LATE-20TH-CENTURY CITY, BETTER AN AMERICAN CITY, EVEN BETTER A CALIFORNIA city, and study one of the inhabitants. Note the range of people this individual is exposed to: the different ethnic backgrounds, the different lifestyles, the different beliefs. Then observe the variety of behaviors the subject exhibits: from vegetarianism to weightlifting, or from bungee jumping to helping the homeless. And note how often and how easily these behaviors change.

Now move in closer, close enough to hear the specimen's thoughts. A jumble of voices will become audible: some bold, some whiny; some mature, some immature; some naive, some cynical. You'll pick up echoes of parents, friends and talk-show hosts; rapper-like boasts and Woody Allen-like anxieties.

Keep listening and eventually you will hear a question. Perhaps it will arrive during a session with a therapist or a heart-to-heart with a friend, perhaps in some lonely moment late at night. (The older and the more self-satisfied the subject, the longer you may have to wait.) But at some point that person will wonder: "Who am I?" And if you have been paying attention, you will understand why no good answer comes.

"Who am I?" Snuggled up behind this question is a comfortable, mostly unnoticed assumption: that we each have a kernel of identity, a self. It is a supposition that has long lain at the center of Western culture: "Know thyself," advised the Delphic oracle, classical Greece's version of self-help therapy. "To thine own self be true," Shakespeare counseled.

However, mutating lifestyles and changing intellectual currents have led a group of increasingly influential psychologists -- postmodern psychologists seems to be the name that is sticking -- to the conclusion that we have no single, separate, unified self. They maintain that we contain many selves and that the proper response to the suggestion "Get in touch with yourself" or "Be yourself" is "Which one?"

Hazel Rose Markus, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, calls this "the most exciting time in psychology in decades and decades." We have begun to realize, she says, that "there isn't just one answer to the 'Who am I?' question."

Consider, as an example, the individual named Mick Jagger. The Rolling Stones' lead singer was and, if the tabloids are to be believed, remains a classic libertine, but he is also a father and, until recently at least, a family man. Jagger is a rock 'n' roller, a bohemian, whose songs and lifestyle challenge traditional standards of behavior; yet he travels in upper-class British circles, hobnobbing with dukes and princesses. Jagger can be coarse and crude, yet he knows his nonfiction and his vintages.

Which is the real Mick? His answer: all of the above. "People find it very hard to accept that you can be all these things at almost the same time," Jagger has complained.

Relax, Mick. The times seem to be catching up with you once again. This new group of psychologists starts from the assumption that there is no single Mick, just a rotating bunch of possible Micks, changing as the people you are with and the situations you are in change. And, these psychologists believe, similarly disparate groups of selves, if less wealthy and less famous, inhabit us all. Like Walt Whitman, we "contain multitudes."

Healthy multitudes. We are not talking here of those who suffer from "multiple personality disorder." That nightmarish condition (chronicled in popular books and movies) is characterized by dissociative states in which a personality "splits" into different selves with different memories, some of which appear to know nothing about the other selves. No, we are talking about healthy people, like Jagger, who don't blank out, who are quite aware of everything they are doing, but who have, quite naturally, created different selves to relate to different aspects of their multifaceted lives.

"There are people who can live very comfortably and successfully with a multiple vision of who they are," says Cal State Northridge psychology professor Edward Sampson. "And they don't go to traditional therapists unless they want to get that knocked out of them."

This is not, its proponents contend, just another provocative theory. It is a response to some feelings that, in this fractured, complicated, media-saturated, post-"Ozzie and Harriet" world, are very much in the air. There is the sense that we are often, if not always, playing -- at work, at our relationships, even at parenthood; the sense that each of us can switch roles as easily as we switch costumes -- from business person to jock, from backpacker to sophisticate, from nurturer to sex object.

The implications of the theory are large: It's not just that we each have different sides to our personality; it's that we have no central personality in relation to which all our varied behaviors might be seen as just "sides." We are, in other words, not absolutely anything.

"The true self is dead," proclaims Walter Truett Anderson, author of "Reality Isn't What It Used to Be," a primer on postmodernism.

IF YOU FIND THIS SOMEWHAT DIFFICULT TO SWALLOW, you're not alone. Some psychologists consider the whole issue a waste of time. "It doesn't matter if it's one self or two or three or 5,000," scoffs Robert Zajonc, director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan and Markus' husband. Zajonc, who has spent much of his life in Europe, finds this preoccupation with the self -- or selves -- typically American. "I don't think of my self, as such," he says. "I may think of my schedule, my obligations, my meetings, but I don't really spend too much time asking, 'Who am I?' "

Others who do spend time asking are disturbed by the suggestion that there isn't one answer. After all, the idea that we each have a single identity, one true self -- just as we each have one true nose and one true medical history -- does have a certain seductiveness. Our friends and acquaintances don't seem to have much trouble dealing with each of us as if we were a constant, consistent entity. Why should we?

"People certainly are capable of experiencing themselves as having a relative unity," says Louis Sass, a Rutgers clinical psychology professor who has been critical of some of these new ideas. "They have in the past, and I doubt that has changed much."

Kenneth Gergen, a Swarthmore psychology professor whose book, "The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life," provides the best introduction to postmodern psychology, notes a similar resistance to his postmodern perspective among some of his students. " 'It's just empirically wrong,' they say, or, 'That's just your point of view.' I've had students who've complained to the deans that this idea was really so antithetical to their values that they felt it was injurious to the student body."

Gergen, who is wont to question traditional notions of truth and reality as well as identity, understands his students' disquiet. Belief in a single self is so basic to our culture, to the ways each of us has of thinking and talking about what we call "ourself," that it cannot be easily surrendered.

Gergen "himself," however, began having trouble with the "Who am I?" question, and therefore came into conflict with this language, when he was only 9. "I grew up in a family that was very educated, very cultured," Gergen says. His father was a professor and one of his brothers is David Gergen, the former Reagan media wizard, now a MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour commentator. "I had a whole way of being in that family which was virtually required, but then I got deposited in a county school in rural North Carolina. And there was no way I could be the person I was at home in that school system, so I kind of fought to stay alive by changing my whole accent, my way of talking, my way of being." That made two selves: the self Gergen used at home and the self he used in school.

"Then there was another transition," Gergen recalls. "This time to a city school, which had a whole different set of concerns, which again weren't the ones in my family. And then I went from that city school to Yale, which required that I leave the Southern thing behind." So Gergen had to "make" yet another identity for himself.

While in graduate school at Duke, he read the psychological literature that argued the importance to our mental well-being of maintaining a unified, centralized, coherent self. "But it just made no sense, given my experience," he explains. "Now I could either say, 'I'm very sick,' or I could say, 'This literature has got to be wrong.' " Gergen has been challenging the traditional psychological understanding of the self off and on ever since. And lately he has had lots of help.

A group of counselors and therapists, for example, has begun noting that we all must "create" other selves as we leave our families in search of friendship, success and love -- and then move on to new friendships, new successes and new loves. Social psychologists have begun studying not only our "child selves," our "professional selves," our "friendship selves" and our "parent selves," but also what Hazel Markus labels our "possible selves," our "feared possible selves," our "ideal selves," our "fleeting selves," our "tentative selves" and our "chronically accessible selves."

Philosophers have pointed out that the self divides the moment we start looking for it: There is the self that we're trying to find plus the self that is doing the looking, plus the self within which this game of hide and seek is being played. Even the practice of placing an alarm clock out of reach in the bedroom implies that we have at least two selves -- a responsible nighttime self and a lazy morning self.

But perhaps the most interesting support for Gergen's position has come from those philosophers of mind, cognitive psychologists and biologists who investigate the workings of consciousness. When they examine the gray matter or interrogate their computer models in search of something that might pass for a self, they come up empty. It's not there.

"Our common-sense notion is of the self as a sort of inner boss, a sort of puppeteer inside the body, who is in charge," says Daniel Dennett, author of "Consciousness Explained." "So that, for instance, when I talk my vocal apparatus is being controlled as if there was some homunculus, sitting at a mighty theater organ, making the words come out, as if my body speaks on behalf of this sort of central meaner on the inside. But as soon as you look closely at this notion of self, it seems to break down."

Dennett's research into the workings of consciousness has convinced him that there is no "homunculus" or little person, no "central meaner," no "ghostly supervisor," no "benevolent dictator," sitting there at the center of the brain, making decisions for the rest of the mind and watching consciousness like an audience might watch a movie. There is, in other words, no point of pure Dennettness, no "brain pebble," somewhere in Dennett's head that contains his identity or self. Consciousness, instead, is a rather sloppy, multilayered thing in which various takes on reality, supplied by our various perceptual and cognitive organs, supersede each other.

But if there is no kernel of selfness inside our brains, why do we all seem to start with this common-sense notion of a single, separate, unified self? The answer may be that not all people do. Here Gergen's view has gotten some support from anthropology and our increasing awareness of other cultures.

"I took a trip to Japan," says Markus, "and that, as a social psychologist, is a journey that alters your world altogether. That's where I really saw great differences in the answer that gets given to the 'Who am I?' question." The Japanese, Markus learned and confirmed in subsequent research projects, do not look upon the self as being nearly as separate and self-contained as Americans do.

"Here, there's a real press to individuate yourself, to be special and unique, to separate from others, to be your own person," Markus says. "It's encoded in all our sacred texts and documents: We want independence and liberty and to be free. As Americans we're absolutely fearful of showing that we're a social or a group product in some way. We need to see ourselves as bounded wholes. But in Japan, the common view is that the individual is just a fraction. You can only be whole there when you fit in with groups.

From an anthropological or historical perspective, it is the American conception of an isolated, unified self -- the conception most of us take for granted -- that may be the exception. "Our view of the self has a history," says Philip Cushman, of the California School of Professional Psychology in Berkeley. "It comes from a tradition of self-contained individualism." That I-gotta-be-me! tradition, a compulsion to do things "my way," may never have been stronger than it has been in 20th-Century America.

An escape from this exaggerated individualism is, for Gergen, one of the major benefits of the theory of multiple selves. Gergen defines those various selves as "the capacities we carry within us for multiple relationships." We have, for example, selves for relating with our bosses, selves for our subordinates, selves reserved for our friends and selves that come to life only in the presence of certain someones.

These selves, despite what we like to think here in America, are not our property alone. They are not just "discovered" within us. They are "created" in our relationships with other people. It probably will take a child, or at least the thought of a child, to help you create yourself as a parent. You may never have an opportunity to create a certain romantic, moonstruck, poetry-writing self unless you pick up the scent of Mr. or Ms. Right. "You can't be a self by yourself," Markus concludes.

Our selves are the product of what Gergen calls -- with a nod to the Japanese -- "relatedness." And Gergen (exhibiting a hopeful self) believes that acknowledging our various selves and accepting our "relatedness" is a route to the psychologist's ever-present goal: improved mental health.

THIS SAN DIEGO WOMAN WAS frazzled, anxious and depressed -- "at times really anxious and deeply depressed," reports psychologist Maureen O'Hara. "She exhibited, in other words, typical late-20th-Century symptoms."

The woman worked in the Navy, as a medic. She went home to a husband and three children. And on holidays she returned to the village in Mexico where she had been reared. Tough sailor one moment, gentle, nurturing mom the next, deferential daughter every few months -- perhaps not the typical late-20th-Century life, but characteristically wide-ranging and scattered.

The woman's problem, it soon became apparent, was the tension, the conflict, between her disparate roles. Which of these selves was really her? "She couldn't reconcile them," O'Hara says. She had no good answer to the "Who am I?" question.

O'Hara, president of the Assn. for Humanistic Psychology, is one of those who have begun to use the ideas of postmodern psychology to treat patients. She says acceptance of multiple selves turned out to be the key to relieving that San Diego woman's anxiety and depression. "We worked for a while, and she realized she didn't have to reconcile the three worlds she lived in," O'Hara says. "She didn't have to worry about being consistent. She could honor all these different selves. The woman described it as 'allowing each personality to get out of the way of the others.' "

Sass, of Rutgers and author of the forthcoming book "Madness and Modernism," acknowledges that there might be some "rigid" people for whom learning that they can allow themselves to express different sides of their personality might have therapeutic value. "But," he asks in a recent critique of "the postmodern turn in contemporary psychoanalysis": "What of those who suffer from problems of a different sort -- for example, from feelings of emptiness, meaninglessness and unrelatedness; from the inability to form stable relationships, or from a lack of sustaining interests or continuing goals, values and ideals?" These problems, too, as Sass notes, are "characteristic of our age." By surrendering our belief in a true self, don't we risk aggravating them?

Maybe not. Maybe it is the separate, unified self -- the one that traditional psychotherapists are still trying to help us "find" or "realize" -- that is causing these feelings of "emptiness, meaninglessness and unrelatedness." Maybe our feelings of inadequacy have grown with the inevitable frustrations of the effort to locate and bolster this mythical "true self." Maybe we have spent too many hours on too many couches trying to determine who we really are. Maybe by accepting, as that San Diego woman did, the idea that our identities come from our relationships, we could find a way out of the psychological desert in which some of us now wander.

THE WORD POSTMODERN HAS been stretched over a lot of different ideas, but the central one seems to be that our way of looking at the world is not a given, that we create what we see as "reality" through language. This view has at least as many detractors among academics as supporters. Berkeley philosopher John Searle, for example, has debated angrily with Gergen at academic conferences whether "reality" is in fact just a creation of language. "Science is based on the supposition of an independently existing reality," Searle maintains. "If you don't believe in that then you're out of business."

Gergen, however, argues that we "construct" reality through the stories -- the narratives -- we tell about it. Other societies, for example, have told other stories about such seemingly basic matters as mental illness, emotions, and thought -- and therefore these concepts had a different "reality" for them. Our identities, too, Gergen maintains, are constructed -- products of different stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Postmodernism is based on some difficult theories (poststructuralism, deconstruction, etc.) hatched, for the most part, in France, but somehow this new view of psychology seems most at home in America, particularly California. In an insular, homogeneous Old World town it might have been possible for people to define themselves in terms of a single belief, a single way of life, but not here. Not where we are tugged at by so many possible belief systems and lifestyles -- each of which presents us with new "possible selves."

"California has always been where the idea of the possible came from," says Markus, who grew up in San Diego. "There is a bit of Hollywood in everyone in California -- the sense that you can be other than who you are now, that you can kind of create yourself."

And why settle for creating just one self? Indeed, how could you settle for creating just one self in a world where even adults are encouraged to play, a world where we can trade in our one "true" nose for a shorter version, a world where we can move from one identity to another -- with a change of clothes, a change of channel, an unexpected phone call -- as easily as we might move from Main Street to Adventureland at Disneyland?

Gergen and friends say they did not invent this new postmodern world. They are just trying to help us adjust to it. Don't agonize over consistency or authenticity, they advise. Enjoy yourselves!

But if this is indeed where we're headed, some questions must be answered. Questions about ethics and morality, to begin with. Sass, for one, is not at all sanguine about this acceptance of inconsistency and inauthenticity. "There are clearly dangers in giving up that notion of a single self," he notes. "You absolve the person of responsibility for making judgments." Imagine the excuses people might make: "Hey, it wasn't my fault. One of my other selves did it."

Absolving people of responsibility for their behavior, however, is not at all what O'Hara has in mind for postmodern psychology. Instead, she hopes these new views of identity will cause us to reopen "the ethical conversation" and produce some original ideas on how people -- multiselved people -- can be held "accountable to each other." The issue might not be who we really are but whether our various selves can ethically share the same body.

Gergen attempts to construct an ethics of postmodernism upon a slightly different foundation: He places his faith in the concept of "relatedness." If we become aware of the extent to which our selves are created with others, Gergen contends, perhaps we'll be more, not less, responsible in our dealings with those others -- more aware of the debt we owe them, less likely to think we can "find ourself" by leaving them behind.

Perhaps. Still, the issue of how our various selves are going to deal with others' various selves in this new postmodern world remains problematic. If everybody is plural, how do we decide whom we like and whom we dislike? How, if our identities are constantly subject to change, do we know whom it is we're talking to, whom we're taking a shine to? These questions might be combined into one question: How can two people who know all this be, gulp, in love?

"My wife and I went through this painfully at first," confesses Gergen, whose wife, Mary, is also a psychology professor. "This is a second marriage for both of us, kind of a romantic thing: We ran away from the world. So, early on in our marriage, she'd frequently ask me whether I still loved her." And Gergen, who was trying to think out some of these psychological issues, didn't know how to respond: "What exactly as a psychological event could love mean? And how could I do an introspective examination of all my interior to know whether it was still there or not?

"Finally, she said, 'Look, when I ask you whether you love me, don't go through these tortuous questions of what's really real about love and how you'd know. Just say the words meaningfully, and I'll be a lot better off.' "

And that may be the key to life in the postmodern world. We will have to do our best to say words like "I love you" meaningfully -- even though we sense there are dozens of "I's," not all of whom can be in agreement on anything, even though we know we'll never pin down whom "you" really might be. We will have to learn to make do, in other words, with rituals and approximations.

"I don't think we need someone to love all 93 of our selves," Markus says. "If someone just takes three or four of them real seriously, that's enough to keep most of us going on most days."