Anthony Elliott: Rise of Anti-Self

…territories of the self – both positive and negative – are being powerfully reshaped by our world of intensive globalization, and indeed it is my view that processes affecting the globalization of self are likely to intensify.

– Anthony Elliott,  Concepts of the Self

The notion that the Self, Subject, Subjectivity have a history may be a commonplace in out post- whatever age of transformation, but the notion of an Anti-Self suddenly displacing the older sense of individualism, freedom, and the moral ethical version of Kantian notion of the autonomous individual moral Subject is another thing entirely. As Anthony Elliot states it contrary to received opinion the task of a reflective social theory of the self, broadly speaking, is to take apart the received wisdom that globalization creates a flattening or diminution of lived experience and to probe the complex, contradictory global forces that shape our current ways of life and trajectories of self. In this sense, recent social theory has had much of interest to contribute to debates on selfhood, since various social analysts have detected signs that contemporary identities are moving in a more cosmopolitan, post-traditional or global direction.1

With the rise of such strange modernities as Zygmaut Bauman’s now classic Liquid Modernity we have come to know the self not as some well defined cognitive bastion of the western imagination, but as something different, more liquid and open, changing, metamorphosizing into otherwise unknown perimeters of a fragile, fragmented self with no solid identity. Instead we are entering the age of the anti-self which as Elliott suggests referring to such theoreticians as John Law (see Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices)

To acknowledge the chaos of the world is, according to this viewpoint, to recognize the centrality of heterogeneity and dissemination of social fabrics, and to give the slip, once and for all, to our culture’s narcissistic over-estimation of self, identity and agency. Our present social order, it is argued, is based on connections, attributions and distributions of the non-human as well as the human – and this precisely is what is overlooked in many social theories of the self. On this view, what is now needed is the replacement of the self as privileged actor by, instead, the conceptual recognition that the self is just one actor (or, another actor) in a network of actors – human, non-human, technical and semiotic. Only through recognizing that the self is not pre-given, but is, rather, something that emanates from an external web of entities, connections and distributions, can we grasp what John Law (an acolyte of such anti-self theory) has dubbed ‘heterogeneous orderings in networks of the social’.

On the continent such social theorists as Bruno Latour see the Self as actants – that actors – at once human and non-human – interweave, net, lace, twist , cross and tangle across many dimensions. As Latour states it:

An actor … implies no special motivation of human individual actors, nor of humans in general … There is no model of (human) actor in ANT nor any basic list of competences that have to be set at the beginning, because the human, the self and the social actor of traditional social theory is not on its agenda. (‘ On actor-network theory’, Soziale Weld 47, 1996, p. 373)

As Elliot remarks Anti-self theory might arguably best be seen as a form of theory which corresponds to an age of advanced globalization, where the conceptual language is that of actant rather than actor, connections rather than creation, mechanics rather than meaning. Actor-network theory, at least in the hands of Latour (though not those who slavishly mimic his conceptual departures), has produced some critical commentary on the self of considerable importance.(193) Yet, even as Latour admits there are problems with this new view of the Subject:

Latour himself notes that the ‘complete indifference’ of ANT for providing a model of human competence is a major limitation. It is certainly that ; yet the matter may be far more politically consequential than any mere intellectual reckoning of analytical adequacy or inadequacy might suggest. For subjectivity and the self at its most searching is a reminder that forms of life are always, at root, the upshot of creation in the deepest sense, and thus that the social order of things is always open to revision and transformation, no matter how seemingly secure a form of life might appear. Anti-self theory, however, has nothing to offer in this connection: while it is at home with the non-human or inhuman, it is embarrassed on the whole by the thought of self, feeling, representation and desire. It is not hard to find in this whole discourse an academic distaste for ordinary human experience; and indeed it is my view that such anti-self discourses are unlikely to speak directly to (or energize) contemporary women and men in their daily strivings and struggles in today’s world.(193-194)

A final aspect of our conceptual changes in Self and Identity reflect the sense of the self primarily in terms of ever-increasing dynamism, speed, change and reinvention. From compulsive consumerism to therapy culture, from corporate life to cosmetic surgery, the concept of a durable sense of self has been largely dismantled and replaced by the mantra of ‘instant self-reinvention’. Here there is a direct line between the fragmenting world of globalization and the fragmented state of people’s lives: the ‘want-now’ consumerism promoted by global corporate culture is held in thrall to a notion of immediacy which lies at the core of today’s reinvention craze. And it is this reinvention craze, from self-help to psychotherapy, that is viewed by many as the way of the future for thinking about the shape of our lives and possibilities for the self.(194)

As Elliott remarks in closing:

My quarrel with advocates of the new individualism is not whether these changes at the level of self are happening; clearly, these social changes are well under way and increasingly so across the polished, expensive cities of the West. My argument is that such changes are not necessarily positive; they also carry debilitating consequences for self-identity and the search for freedom. Indeed, exploration of the emotional consequences of the new individualism remains a core political challenge in our own time of globalization and widespread social uncertainty.(194)

1. Elliott, Anthony (2013-11-12). Concepts of the Self (Polity Key Concepts in the Social Sciences series) (Kindle Locations 3359-3363). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

1 thought on “Anthony Elliott: Rise of Anti-Self

  1. just started Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such as Full Sea:
    ” But more and more we can see that the question is not whether we are “individuals.” We can’t help but be, this has been proved, case by case. We are not drones or robots and never will be. The question , t hen , is whether not being an “individual” makes a difference anymore. That it can matter at all. And if not, whether we in fact care .”

    Like

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