Lebenskünstler

The art of self-fashioning – “Take care of yourself, attend to yourself.” – Crafting disposition

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/15/2013

Self-Fashioning in Society and Solitude – Nannerl O. Keohane

Self-fashioning is part of the age-old purpose of higher education, particularly in the liberal arts and sciences. The key point is to be aware, sometimes, that this is happening—to deliberately engage in fashioning—not just let events and experiences sweep you along without your conscious participation.

There is another thought-provoking maxim related to but distinct from “Know thyself,” also grounded in the Greek and Roman classics: “Take care of yourself, attend to yourself.” This variant was highlighted by Michel Foucault in a lecture called “Technologies of the Self.” Foucault insists that this “taking care of yourself” is “a real form of activity, not just an attitude.” It’s like taking care of a household or a farm or a kingdom. That’s what we are talking about in discussing “self-fashioning”: paying deliberate attention to your “self,” taking good care of it, tending and developing it, not just taking it for granted.

This all sounds appealing, but like most young people, and most people across history, you are more likely to be self-absorbed than self-abandoning. What we may all need most is reflection on the importance of community, of other selves. I’m going to link the two in this essay because I believe firmly that we fashion our “selves” both in solitude and in society.

For most of us—certainly those of us on a university campus—solitude is a relatively rare experience. If we are to fashion ourselves, we will be doing so in the presence of other people, most of the time. We develop as selves through our interactions with other human beings—through relationships, beginning with the family and then the school and the neighborhood, through art, music, language, culture, ideas. Our selves are never, and cannot be, purely isolated beings: we are the products of our experience and our environment, and we need to understand the self in and through society, not as a stand-alone cardboard cutout.

The warnings of Montaigne and Rousseau about how this experience can deform us, pull us away from our true selves, misshape our selfhood, should be in our minds. But we should also recognize that most of what is best about us comes from our interactions with other individuals.

So the formation of selfhood that depends on having someone else shape you like a work of art falls short of forming a successful human being. And it’s not surprising that theories of education since the eighteenth century rely much more on individual choices and taking a significant responsibility for your own intellectual development.

In college, you have an exceptional amount of freedom to choose from the bewildering variety of great courses listed in the catalog, and the amazing proliferation of extracurricular activities, including both those that are already established and those that you might help organize, as so many Harvard students do. If you sometimes think, as you make these choices, about what kind of self this seminar (or this sport, or this club, or this office) will help you to become, you may find guidance here. Does this activity promise to make you a deeper, fuller, more interesting person? Does it expand your life in new ways, or build on what you have done before in ways that make you stronger? Does it challenge you to develop new mental or emotional muscles, so to speak?

According to these pieces of advice, you should think about society not as a kind of zoo or curiosity shop where you can pick up a persona that suits you, but as the source of inspirational exemplars, diverse possible ways of shaping yourself, fascinating models. This means reading biographies and history, novels and essays, and paying attention to how people you admire handle challenges as they come along.

Yet society is not only a source of inspiring examples: it is even more often, as Rousseau said so well, a source of profound pressures to behave in certain ways. Society will surely shape you, the opinions and preferences and activities of your family, your friends, your classmates and professional colleagues, everyone with whom you spend any considerable amount of time. But too often the pressures are negative and will not help you in your self-fashioning, as all of us know when we reflect on peer culture, websites, TV shows, and movies. For worthwhile self-fashioning, you need a surrounding society that speaks to what is most importantly human, and brings you together with others in rewarding collective activities.

In the fifth chapter of her powerful work of political philosophy, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt discusses the connections between individuals and political communities. She notes that each human being is “distinguished from any other who is, was, and ever will be”—which is a vivid way of thinking about selfhood. Yet precisely because each of us is a distinct individual, we need speech and action to communicate; I cannot just sense instinctively what somewhat else is thinking. In speaking and acting, we “disclose ourselves” and thus expose ourselves to possible misunderstanding or exploitation by others, but also to the rich possibilities of communication.

Speech and action, in Arendt’s sense, cannot exist in isolation; they are meaningful only within human relationships. By the same token, “human nature”—as distinct from our more animal qualities—depends precisely on our capacity for speech and action: it is in fact through speech and action that each of us constitutes our self. This is Arendt’s distinctive contribution to our discussion of self-fashioning: the self is created not by each of us as individuals in isolation, but through the activities we share with other human beings—language, creativity, striving, politics. If your goal is to fashion a worthwhile self, you should be mindful of your surroundings and choose companions and activities that will give you opportunities to develop your language, creativity, striving, and politics in more depth.

…But if you are to have a whole, integrated, complete self, you must resist becoming totally immersed in private spheres. You must see it as part of your self-interest and your moral duty to play your part in society, to give something of yourself away to others who are in need, to help sustain the common structures that make up our public life. If you fail to do this, you will become a shrunken and diminished self. Recognition of this fact is what Alexis de Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood,” or “enlightened self-interest”: not pure egoism or selfishness, but caring for yourself in the context of acknowledging your responsibilities to others, which brings with it significant moral commitments and deep rewards.

So whether they have too little solitude or too much, women have often had a different experience of solitude and society from men. Men can leave the house and go off on a journey in many societies where women can never travel alone. Women in most cultures have had much less opportunity than men to explore the world, follow their adventurous inclinations. And they have been less likely to have a place or time where they can enjoy solitude. It’s worth keeping this in mind when you read authors who write about self-fashioning. You can sometimes stop and ask: Would this advice have worked for a woman in the society this author is describing? Or are these generalizations accurate only for the men? What, after all, were the women doing in this society?

Let me close with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on “Self-Reliance”: “It is easy to live in the world after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

This is the image I want to leave you with: developing the ability to maintain “with perfect sweetness” the independence of solitude—the integrity and wholeness of the self—in the midst of the crowd. Your education should give you the capacity to shape and sustain your selfhood. It should both furnish richly the back shop of your mind, and prepare you to be a productive member of whatever society you live in. And at best, it should also give you the ability to retreat into yourself even in the midst of a busy life when you need to get your bearings, refresh your spirit, reaffirm your integrity, and confirm what is most important to your self.

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  1. jaisgossman said, on 12/18/2013 at 07:30

    Bravo. If it could be written over again, but remain different, I would read it again. Currently at the south pole with many paths seeming to lay out in front of me, and this tells me to take comfort in any of the decisions I make. (Maybe?) met you last year at the summer forum, but was perhaps to lost in the crowd to make conversation. So I suppose I’m (sort of) making it here.


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