jan 8th 2021

I'm not myself today. If I read back this sentence, it doesn't make much sense. After all, I cannot be anything else than myself. I'm reading this sentence aloud, and it is definitely not my self who is speaking.

jan 5th 2021

The materials gathered in this page deal (mostly) with the word 'self'. And, tangentially, with ideas of sameness, identity, continuity, systems, whole, parts, circularity, recursion, feedback. When I started to think about the self, I had some difficulties. No matter where I looked, I had the feeling that the self was always escaping. Somehow, the self was always elsewhere. Today I encountered this article by Ernst von Glaserfeld, and I found enlightening his idea of the self as a 'relational entity' that 'resides in no place at all'. He also connects ideas of self and continuity with concepts from cybernetics and feedback in a quite beautiful way.

As a metaphor—and I stress that it is intended as a metaphor—the concept of an invariant that arises out of mutually or cyclically balancing changes may help us to approach the concept of self. In cybernetics this metaphor is implemented in the “closed loop,” the circular arrangement of feedback mechanisms that maintain a given value within certain limits. They work towards an invariant, but the invariant is achieved not by a steady resistance, the way a rock stands unmoved in the winds but by compensation over time. Wherever we happen to look in a feedback loop, we find the present act pitted against the immediate past, but already on the way to being compensated itself by the immediate future. The invariant the system achieves can, therefore, never be found or frozen in a single element because, by its very nature, it consists in one or more relationships—and relationships are not in things but between them. If the self, as I suggest, is a relational entity, it cannot have a locus in the world of experiential objects. It does not reside in the heart, as Aristotle thought, nor in the brain, as we tend to think today. It resides in no place at all, but merely manifests itself in the continuity of our acts of differentiating and relating and in the intuitive certainty we have that our experience is truly ours.

There is one kind of self that manifests itself inbetween differences and relations.

The self is not felt to participate in the doings of the false self or selves, and all its or their actions are felt to be increasingly false and futile. The self, on the other hand, shut up with itself, regards itself as the 'true' self and the persona as false. The individual complains of futility, of lack of spontaneity, but he may be cultivating his lack of spontaneity and thus aggravating his sense of futility. He says he is not real and is outside reality and not properly alive. Existentially, he is quite right. The self is extremely aware of itself, and observes the false self, usually highly critically. It is characteristic of the organization of a false self or persona, on the other hand, that one way in which it is usually incomplete is in its very imperfect reflective awareness. But the self may feel itself in danger from the overall spread of the false-self system or from one particular part of it (cf. David's dread of female impersonation). The individual in this position is invariably terrifyingly 'selfconscious ' (see Chapter 7) in the sense in which this word is used to mean the exact opposite, namely, the feeling of being under observation by the other. These changes in the relationship between the different aspects of the person's relation to himself are constantly associated with his inter-personal relationships. These are complex and never quite the same from person to person. The individual's self-relationship becomes a pseudo-interpersonal one, and the self treats the false selves as though they were other people whom it depersonalizes. David, for instance, referring to a part he played which he found was disliked, said: 'It had a nasty tongue.' From within, the self now looks out at the false things being said and done and detests the speaker and doer as though he were someone else. In all this there is an attempt to create relationships to persons and things within the individual without recourse to the outer world of persons and things at all. The individual is developing a microcosmos within himself; but, of course, this autistic, private, intra-individual 'world' is not a feasible substitute for the only world there really is, the shared The embodied and unembodied self 75 world. If this were a feasible project then there would be no need for psychosis. Such a schizoid individual in one sense is trying to be omnipotent by enclosing within his own being, without recourse to a creative relationship with others, modes of relationship that require the effective presence to him of other people and of the outer world. He would appear to be, in an unreal, impossible way, all persons and things to himself. The imagined advantages are safety for the true self, isolation and hence freedom from others, self-sufficiency, and control. The actual disadvantages that can be mentioned at this point are that this project is impossible and, being a false hope, leads on to persistent despair; secondly, a persistent, haunting sense of futility is the equally inevitable outcome, since the hidden shut-up self, in disowning participation (except, as David's case, by appearing as another persona) in the quasi-autonomous activities of the falseself systems, is living only 'mentally'. Moreover, this shut-up self, being isolated, is unable to be enriched by outer experience, and so the whole inner world comes to be more and more impoverished, until the individual may come to feel he is merely a vacuum. The sense of being able to do anything and the feeling of possessing everything then exist side by side with a feeling of impotence and emptiness. The individual who may at one time have felt predominantly 'outside' the life going on there, which he affects to despise as petty and commonplace compared to the richness he has here, inside himself, now longs to get inside life again, and get life inside himself, so dreadful is his inner deadness. The crucial feature of the schizoid individual of this type that we have to understand is the nature of the anxieties to which he is subject. We have already outlined some of the forms these anxieties take under the terms engulfment, implosion, and the dread of losing inner autonomy, freedom; in short, being turned from a man with subjectivity to a thing, a mechanism, a stone, an it, being petrified. We have yet to study how these anxieties are potentiated by the development of the schizoid organization. When the self partially abandons the body and its acts, and withdraws into mental activity, it experiences itself as an entity perhaps localized somewhere in the body. We have suggested that 76 The Divided Self this withdrawal is in part an effort to preserve its being, since relationship of any kind with others is experienced as a threat to the self's identity. The self feels safe only in hiding, and isolated. Such a self can, of course, be isolated at any time whether other people are present or not. But this does not work. No one feels more 'vulnerable', more liable to be exposed by the look of another person than the schizoid individual. If he is not acutely aware of being seen by others ('self-conscious'), he has temporarily avoided his anxiety becoming manifest by one or other of two methods. Either he turns the other person into a thing, and depersonalizes or objectifies his own feelings towards this thing, or he affects indifference. The depersonalization of the person and/or the attitude of indifference are closely related but not quite identical. The depersonalized person can be used, manipulated, acted upon. As we stated above (Chapter 1), the essential feature of a thing as opposed to a person is that a thing has no subjectivity of its own, and hence can have no reciprocal intentions. In the attitude of indifference the person or thing is treated with casualness, or callousness, as though he or it did not matter, ultimately as though he or it did not exist. A person minus subjectivity can still be important. A thing can still matter a great deal. Indifference denies to persons and to things their significance. Petrification, we remember, was one of Perseus's methods of killing his enemies. By means of the eyes in Medusa's head, he turned them into stones. Petrification is one way of killing. Of course, to feel that another person is treating or regarding one not as a person but as a thing need not itself be frightening if one is sufficiently sure of one's own existence. Thus, being a thing in someone else's eyes does not represent to the 'normal' person a catastrophic threat, but to the schizoid individual every pair of eyes is in a Medusa's head which he feels has power actually to kill or deaden something precariously vital in him. He tries therefore to forestall his own petrification by turning others into stones. By doing this he feels he can achieve some measure of safety. Generally speaking, the schizoid individual is not erecting defences against the loss of a part of his body. His whole effort is rather to preserve his self. This, as we have pointed out, is pre- The embodied and unembodied self 77 cariously established; he is subject to the dread of his own dissolution into non-being, into what William Blake described in the last resort as 'chaotic non-entity'. His autonomy is threatened with engulfment. He has to guard himself against losing his subjectivity and sense of being alive. In so far as he feels empty, the full, substantial, living reality of others is an impingement which is always liable to get out of hand and become implosive, threatening to overwhelm and obliterate his self completely as a gas will obliterate a vacuum, or as water will gush in and entirely fill an empty dam. The schizoid individual fears a real live dialectical relationship with real live people. He can relate himself only to depersonalized persons, to phantoms of his own phantasies (imagos), perhaps to things, perhaps to animals. We suggest, therefore, that the schizoid state we are describing can be understood as an attempt to preserve a being that is precariously structured. We shall suggest later that the initial structuralization of being into its basic elements occurs in early infancy. In normal circumstances, this occurs in such a way as to be so conclusively stable in its basic elements (for instance, the continuity of time, the distinction between the self and not-self, phantasy and reality), that it can henceforth be taken for granted: on this stable base, a considerable amount of plasticity can exist in what we call a person's 'character'. In the schizoid character structure, on the other hand, there is an insecurity in the laying down of the foundations and a compensatory rigidity in the superstructure. If the whole of the individual's being cannot be defended, the individual retracts his lines of defence until he withdraws within a central citadel. He is prepared to write off everything he is, except his 'self'. But the tragic paradox is that the more the self is defended in this way, the more it is destroyed. The apparent eventual destruction and dissolution of the self in schizophrenic conditions is accomplished not by external attacks from the enemy (actual or supposed), from without, but by the devastation caused by the inner defensive manoeuvres themselves. 5 The inner self in the schizoid condition You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, this is something you are free to do and is in accord with your nature, but perhaps precisely this holding back is the only suffering that you might be able to avoid. FRANZ KAFKA In the schizoid condition here described there is a persistent scission between the self and the body. What the individual regards as his true self is experienced as more or less disembodied, and bodily experience and actions are in turn felt to be part of the false-self system. It is now necessary to consider the two elements in this split in more detail, and also the relationship of the one to the other. First, we consider the mental or unembodied self. It is well known that temporary states of dissociation of the self from the body occur in normal people. In general, one can say that it is a response that appears to be available to most people who find themselves enclosed within a threatening experience from which there is no physical escape. Prisoners in concentration camps tried to feel that way, for the camp offered no possible way out either spatially or at the end of a period of time. The only way out was by a psychical withdrawal 'into' one's self and 'out of the body. This dissociation is characteristically associated with such thoughts as 'This is like a dream', 'This seems unreal', 'I can't believe this is true', 'Nothing seemed to be touching me', 'I cannot take it in', 'This is not happening to me', i.e. with feelings of estrangement and derealization. The body may go on acting in an outwardly normal way, but inwardly it is felt to be acting on its own, automatically. However, despite the dream-nature or unreality of experience, and the automatic nature of action, the self is at the same time far from 'sleepy'; indeed, it is excessively alert, and may be thinking and observing with exceptional lucidity. The inner self in the schizoid condition 79 The temporary estrangement of the self from the body may be represented in dreams. A girl of nineteen, the date of whose marriage was fast approaching, a marriage she had come to dread for various reasons, dreamed that she was in the back seat of a car, which was driving itself. This girl was not a basically schizoid person but was reacting by a schizoid defence to a particular situation. R. had a dream shortly before starting treatment. He was on the footplate of a bus. The bus had no driver. He jumped off and the bus went on to crash. One is tempted to regard a dream he had after four months of psychotherapy as a measure of some change in a desirable direction. 'I am running after a bus. Suddenly I'm on the footplate of the bus, and at the same time, I'm running after it. I'm trying to join up with myself on the bus but I can't entirely catch up on the bus. I felt frightened at this.' One could multiply instances of this common experience of temporary dissociation. Sometimes it is intentionally induced; more often, it occurs without the individual's control. But in the patients here considered, the splitting is not simply a temporary reaction to a specific situation of great danger, which is reversible when the danger is past. It is, on the contrary, a basic orientation to life, and if it is followed back through their lives one usually finds that they seem, in fact, to have emerged from the early months of infancy with this split already under way. The 'normal' individual, in a situation all can see to be threatening to his being and to offer no real sense of escape, develops a schizoid state in trying to get outside it, if not physically, at least mentally: he becomes a mental observer, who looks on, detached and impassive, at what his body is doing or what is being done to his body. If this is so in the 'normal', it is at least possible to suppose that the individual whose abiding mode of being-in-the-world is of this split nature is living in what to him, if not to us, is a world that threatens his being from all sides, and from which there is no exit. This is indeed the case for such people. For them the world is a prison without bars, a concentration camp without barbed wire. The paranoic has specific persecutors. Someone is against him. There is a plot on foot to steal his brains. A machine is concealed in the wall of his bedroom which emits mind rays to soften his brain, 80 The Divided Self or to send electric shocks through him while he is asleep. The person I am describing feels at this phase persecuted by reality itself. The world as it is, and other people as they are, are the dangers. The self then seeks by being unembodied to transcend the world and hence to be safe. But a self is liable to develop which feels it is outside all experience and activity. It becomes a vacuum. Everything is there, outside; nothing is here, inside. Moreover, the constant dread of all that is there, of being overwhelmed, is potentiated rather than mitigated by the need to keep the world at bay. Yet the self may at the same time long more than anything for participation in the world.

dec 27th 2020

My fascination with the term 'self' comes from one of our first meetings, when we noticed that autonomous systems (especially in the cybernetic sense) are often described using the prefix 'self-': self-organization, self-regulation, self-observation, self-referentiality, self-adaptation, self-sensing, self-performing, self-generating, self-determining. Maybe the 'self' can provide an altered access to ideas of autonomy, systems, emergence. How can I get to know a self that is other than my self? Maybe it helps also to think of the contrary: the unself, or the nonself.


To and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow

From impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither

As between two lit refuges whose doors once neared gently close,

once away turned from gently part again

Beckoned back and forth and turned away

Heedless of the way, intent on the one gleam or the other

Unheard footfalls only sound

Till at last halt for good, absent for good from self and other

Then no sound

Then gently light unfading on that unheeded neither

Unspeakable hom

Self has a nebulous, scattered identity. I find funny that the the word 'self' sounds so much self-referential, indivisible and solid, but at the same time a 'self' cannot be defined without a reference, a relation. And without a subject.

She's not herself today

What is this self, anyway?

jan 3rd 2021

The Divided Self, Ronald Laing.

The central split is between what David called his 'own' self and what he called his 'personality'. This dichotomy is encountered again and again. What the individual variously terms his 'own', 'inner', 'true', 'real', self is experienced as divorced from all activity that is observable by another, what David called his 'personality'. One may conveniently call this 'personality' the individual's 'false self or a 'false-self system'. The reason I suggest that one speaks of a false-self system is that the 'personality', false self, mask, 'front', or persona that such individuals wear may consist in an amalgam of various part-selves, none of which is so fully developed as to have a comprehensive 'personality' of its own. Close acquaintance with such a person reveals that his observable behaviour may comprise quite deliberate impersonations along with compulsive actions of every kind. One is evidently witness not to a single false self but to a number of only partially elaborated fragments of what might constitute a personality, if any single one had full sway. It seems best, therefore, to call the total of such elements a false-self system, or a system of false selves.

In 2011 I was a psychology student at the University of Padua and I stumbled upon 'The Divided Self', the first book by british psychiatrist Ronald Laing. At that time I remember being impressed by two things: first, the originality of his approach, which was quite revolutionary when the book was published (1960), and that was much more appealing to me than all the authors we were reading in our classes. Second, the omnipresence of the word 'self', that appeares almost everywhere in the text. Indeed, searching for the term 'self' throughout the whole essay gives 1261 results. When I started working with the term self, this came back to my mind and I decided to do something with it. The result is 1261 self (s), which is a typographic transposition of the ideas presented in the book. It is also a browser-based piece that, due to the nature of its recursive implementation, has the side effect of algorithmically curing the divided self. It's a closed loop that always goes back to itself, rewriting it(s)self with its self(s). The eternal repetition cancels out differences and let invariance emerge.

jan 9th 2021

Last night I was watching the movie La Moustache directed by Emmanuel Carrère and adapted from Carrère's own novel. Even though I believe I appreciate Carrère more as writer than director, I think the story has many interesting insights about ideas of self, sameness, identity and others.