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Mark Saban. Performing the Self


The challenge of postmodernism and the much-vaunted death of the subject have made any attempt to think the self deeply problematic. It is no longer possible to refer to the self as if it were a known thing, or indeed a thing at all. While postmodern anti-metaphysical thinking, and particularly twentieth century theories of deconstruction may be said to have fatally wounded the concept of the unitary self, it has in fact been under attack since the nineteenth century. In the wake of Nietzsche’s explosive undermining of the subject, depth psychology revealed that what had previously been considered a unitary self in fact masked a seething cauldron of conflicting drives, feelings and ideas. The contribution of the Jungian tradition, to which I belong by training, has been to extend this vision of the self into a multiplicity of part-souls or sub-personalities appearing in dream and imagination as relatively autonomous persons, such as the shadow, anima/animus, puer aeternus, wise old man, etc. Jungian analysis encourages communication between these figures and the ego, and in this sense one might see common ground between Jungian ideas and those around the dialogical self.

Nonetheless, in other ways the two traditions seem worlds apart. On the whole depth psychology has a tendency to value the inner world over the outer. Although this may be seen as a compensation for the historic dominance of extraverted thinking in the west, the process of individuation, which is the goal of Jungian analysis, can nonetheless be read as an approach which, through the withdrawal of projections and valorising of inner movement as opposed to outer achievement, runs the risk of cutting the individual off from the possibility of the other as encountered in the outer world. Integral to this one-sidedness is a tendency to underplay the importance of our embodied worldly existence. An approach which I have found helpful in rethinking, re-embodying and re-worlding analytical psychology is that of theatre and performance. I believe it may also make a contribution to thinking about the dialogical self.

As I hope will become apparent, this approach, which utilizes the metaphor of theatre and performance, possesses a phenomenological richness and capacity for ambiguity which makes it particularly fitting from a dialogical perspective. It is able to steer the self past the Scylla of fragmentation and even erasure which postmodernism threatens, without succumbing to the Charybdis of the monolithic essentialism which modernism offers.

In Hermans’ words the dialogical self “is a theoretical effort to extend the self from a self-contained entity to a process that is extended to the other person and to the society at large of which the self is a part.” (Hermans, The Dialogical Self in Psychotherapy, 2004 p.14) If we revision the self through a performative metaphor we start to see how such an extension might be seen in action.

Hermans has also pointed out that dialogue “assumes an embodied actor located in space together with other actors”. (Hermans, Voicing the Self: From information processing to dialogical interchange, 1996, p.44) Our essential embodiment is something which Nietzsche first insisted upon, but it is a notion that has been most thoroughly developed by Merleau-Ponty. For Merleau-Ponty the body is not to be set dualistically against the mind: embodiment is our primordial way of being in the world, and it involves us in a profound entanglement and intertwining with not just other people but with our environment as a whole. A key word here is responsiveness: for Merleau-Ponty we are always already seeing and seen, hearing and being heard, touching and being touched. Thus our dialogue with world is profoundly intimate.

One implication of this fact is that our experience of ourselves is inextricably bound up with how we experience ourselves as expressive to and for others. For example: very young children, with no conscious sense of their own selfhood, unconsciously imitate adults’ facial expressions. They imitate long before there is any real focus to their own identity. Thus not only is mimesis, by which I mean an embodied engagement with the world through imitation, a primordially human activity, but it would seem that the very seeds of our selfhood are situated precisely in this kind of bodily awareness of oneself as someone who takes on the roles and expressions of others. The depth psychological tradition sometimes gives the impression that the process of becoming a self is something that happens somewhere in our dark deep interior, eventually to blossom forth into the light of exteriority, but it would appear that from the very beginning it exists in and amongst others, and unconsciously takes into account they way they are, the way they are toward us, and the way we appear to them. However it is important to emphasise that at this stage the process is entirely unconscious. It is only when this mimetic theatre-like engagement becomes conscious that it will become a ‘performance’.

Merleau-Ponty says that our mimetic involvement extends to everything around us: He says we ‘sing’ things: with a quiet thing we grow silent in order to hear it, with a noisy thing we shout to make ourselves heard. With a small thing we make ourselves small, contracting our body, squinting, unconsciously imitating it as small as we perceive its smallness. In Role Playing and Identity: The Limits of Theatre as Metaphor (1982) Bruce Wilshire points out that in the company of other humans this participatory mimetic involvement is even more apparent - we are absorbed in the smile or frown of the parent when they look at us, we feel held by their holding of us, their rigidity or distrust become our habitual rigidity or distrust. In fact, we are constantly slipping in and out of states in which we lose ourselves in others: there is a sliding scale of awareness from a, relatively rare, stark awareness of separateness to moments of stress, drift, boredom in which, despite a residual sense of own-ness and self, we are profoundly involved mimetically with the other.

To use one of Wilshire’s examples, I cut my leg severely, and bystanders rush over. I see one of them grimacing as he sees the wound and this reinforces my grimace, filling out my body image through the image of his face. At that point my image of my body and my image of his body are not distinct. So I feel the distress of the experience not just in my cut leg, but in our common grimace. Added to this grimace there are the shouts, the gasps the actions, the gestures around me, in all of which I partake mimetically, becoming an integral part of my lived experience.

The problem is that this engulfment in the other, this mimetic participation which depends upon my losing myself in the other’s awareness of me, easily shifts into self-deception. The kind of self we have achieved easily becomes non-self. And in this state there can be no question of true dialogue. We are engulfed by our roles, which means we lose the possibilities which can emerge only from a full awareness of ourselves in present time, open to the future. This engulfment is a kind of choice - a choice to escape into a warm safe cocoon inuring us against the anxiety that autonomy would bring. Another word for this kind of engulfment is neurosis.

Jung says, we escape neurosis by achieving conscious selfhood, a process he calls individuation - Nietzsche’s art of “becoming what one is”. The way out of this bind of engulfment must then be for us to become aware of our mimetic behaviour as mimetic – so we know when we are doing it, and then to choose our performance in the full knowledge that this is what we are doing. However, this is where we can encounter problems if we are working within a dualistic framework. it is crucial that we do not gain this awareness by taking up an objectifying distance. We might for instance imagine that were we to achieve a sufficiently objective position we might be able to transcend our performance altogether, on the assumption that our ‘real’ self would thereby emerge in all its purity. However, such an attempt is doomed because it reinstates the very dualism we have been attempting to elude. The audience member who stands up I the middle of the play and shouts out, “Hang on… You’re not Hamlet, you’re an actor!” may believe he has achieved an important realisation, but in reality he has profoundly misunderstood the context he finds himself in. That reaction would be understandable if there were only two possibilities: either one is Hamlet, or one is not. But the whole point of theatre is that it manages to maintain a third possibility, in which the actor is Hamlet, but also is not. The theatrical approach is then one which transcends crude either/or thinking. If we can maintain it, it holds the possibility for us of preserving an embodied dialogical openness to the world and to psyche.

But the question remains: how do we begin to realise our behaviour as induced by others and yet as our own as well? How, for example, is the child, born into engulfment in the mother, to find a way to gently and safely make the necessary space between the two of them? Wilshire points out that the characteristic way for the child to deal with this problem is to play, to play the mother, to mimetically enact the mother in fiction, and through this enactment asserts herself as an individual. It is then through imaginative, dramatic play that the child distinguishes herself from engulfment in the other, the mother-in-the-child which now becomes merely an element of the self, one of many possibilities. She has thus opened up a world of choice. As Susan Sontag puts it, “The theatrical is the domain of liberty, the place where identities are only roles and one can change roles” In classical Jungian language she has begun to detach herself from the mother complex so that she is no longer identified with it.

This psychic movement is intrinsically embodied: it is the child’s body which freely reproduces the other in a fiction, at a moment when the other need not be there, and this brings home to the child that her body can be fully present to itself in contrast to the absent other. This is not a cutting off – the bonds with the mother remain, if anything more present. And indeed it creates the possibility for a true dialogue between them. The fullest way for a body to realise itself as an individual self is for it to be conscious of the many ways it belongs to the world: drawing attention to the attunements and involvements that are usually relatively unconscious, and the way to do this is to enact such situations in their absence. The body thus simultaneously belongs to the world and transcends it.

The first philosopher to develop the notion of a performative self was Nietzsche. He did so in the context of a much wider project: the undermining of Western metaphysical concepts of truth. For him this necessitated the erosion of belief in self as a stable object. If truth is to be created not discovered, then the same is true of the self. But there is no final state of selfhood to be aimed at, no true self awaiting realization. The self can only become.

Concomitant with this is his understanding of the self as plural: “The assumption of one single subject is perhaps unnecessary; perhaps it is just as permissible to assume a multiplicity of subjects, whose interaction and struggle is the basis of our thoughts and consciousness in general?” (Nietzsche, The Will To Power, 490) Nietzsche anticipates psychoanalysis when he portrays our thoughts, desires and actions as constantly in conflict. To the extent that we maintain any unity, it is because in order to act some kind of coherence is required. If so it is our actions which give rise to the unity of the self, such as it is, rather than the fact of a single self unifying our disparate drives and thoughts. Paraphrasing Descartes we might say “I act therefore I am”.

Indeed Nietzsche believes that the western tradition has fatally undermined the central importance of action in favour of essence. He questions the rigid distinction between agent and action, actor and act. This is a distinction based upon the idea that who we are is somehow different from what we do. “There is no such substratum,” Nietzsche says, “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming’ ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything” (Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, I, 13). It follows then that we cannot separate actor and action. As Hannah Arendt says, it is in speaking and acting that “men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world.” (Arendt, The Human Condition, p.178)

Alexander Nehamas rightly points out that this conception of the self places Nietzsche “within the great tradition that has been working out the consequences of the metaphor of the theatrum mundi” (Nehamas, Nietzsche, Life As Literature, p.253 n.20 ). As we have already seen we are in the world in a theatre-like way: to be in the world at all means to be entwined in a complex knot of appearance and awareness of appearance in which we fall easily into mimetic engagements. We only achieve freedom through our conscious performance of self through action, and only this performance can bring our inevitably fragmented nature into some kind of individuation. However when I use the word ‘individuation’ here I do not mean a movement towards a monolithic self, but rather a process leading to a relative coherence of multiplicity. The unity we achieve is not one grounded in an identity of immutable sameness, but one which emerges from a dramatic and dynamic play of perspectives.

Finally, I should like to summarise the four most important contributions of the performative perspective to the theory of the self.

First, The actor as performer neither loses himself in his role, nor looks on from outside in detachment. He or she maintains both approaches to the performance at one and the same time. As we have seen this process is paralleled in the audience’s simultaneous awareness of the actor as performer, and as Prince of Denmark. This is a dual consciousness in which one perspective is achieved through the other. So, the performative self is achieved through a doubleness of vision: in which we play the part, but know that we play the part. We might characterise such a stance as one of detached engagement. It resembles that of the child engaged in imaginative mimetic play.

Second, To enact on the stage is essentially to embody. Performance necessitates inhabiting the flesh. While the performer may utilise language (the script) to convey meaning, it is a corporeal language which can emerge viscerally and be received viscerally by the audience. The script is merely the skeleton of the performance, enfleshed with a gestural vocabulary of immense range and subtlety. As we have heard from Merleau-Ponty the performative self is thereby situated inevitably amongst the world and in relation to embodied others.

Third, To perform is to be in dialogue. The performer is not only in dialogue with other performers but always and crucially with the audience. This is the conversation which is necessary to theatre. Without an audience there is no theatre. So merely by appearing on stage, and sometimes by not appearing, one engages in dialogue with the necessary other which the audience represents. One might also describe the engagement with the role as a form of dialogue, one which occurs not only during the performance, but also over the course of a sequence of performances. In this it reflects our dialogical existence. We live in conversation, and these conversations are put down and taken up over the span of a life.

Fourth, theatre is a radically de-centered form. While the heroic epic, for example tends to be a single story told of a single figure by a single poet, and even the novel maintains to an extent a mono-centric focus by virtue of the single authorial voice, the theatre necessarily maintains multiple focuses by virtue of the multiple figures of the various performers, any one of which the audience may choose to focus on and empathise with. To the extent that each role is fully enacted by the performer, the audience is presented with a gallery of rounded portraits each presenting its own perspective. Moreover, each performer can choose from numerous potential masks, each of which more or less reflects aspects of the self.

To enact the self through performance means then to take on a conscious, embodied, playful, dialogical stance, and one which allows for multiplicity. I have already touched upon the therapeutic implications of the theatrical model. The ancient connections between healing and theatre go back to Aristotle and beyond. In the 20th century they have been overtly taken up in psychodrama and dramatherapy. Therapies which acknowledge, with Nietzsche, that the psyche consists of multiple subjectivities which co-exist non-pathologically may find much of interest in a model which encourages communication between different centres of awareness. If neurosis is a disease of limited repertoire, a therapy which allows individuals to access sub-personalities that they may not even know exist has much to offer. It is significant that when Jung writes about active imagination, a technique which encourages such psychological exploration, he chooses the theatrical metaphor to express his thoughts. However, the theatrical metaphor is not only therapeutic intra-psychically. It also performs the salutary service of locating self and psyche in an arena which transcends the opposition of interiority and exteriority. As I hope I have indicated, to the extent that the alienating effects of a predominantly dualistic conception of the self have contributed to the pathology of individuals, a revisioning of self through the lens of performance is itself therapeutic in that it decisively re-situates human existence in a world of embodiment, participation, community and dialogue.

Works consulted:

Hermans, The Dialogical Self in Psychotherapy, 2004

Hermans, Voicing the Self: From information processing to dialogical interchange, 1996

Nehamas, Nietzsche, Life As Literature, 1985

Nietzsche, The Will To Power

Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals

Wilshire, Role Playing and Identity: The Limits of Theatre as Metaphor, 1982