Saturday, February 11, 2017

On Forgetting Yourself

“I had forgot myself; am I not king?” – Shakespeare, Richard II

There are some things (or somethings) that matter more than happiness. Forgetting oneself is one of them.

To remember that one is king – as in, His Majesty the Baby, the primary narcissistic representation at the very start of life – is also to be constantly apprised that one is living under a tyranny, even if it is one’s own.

To value oneself too highly is to live under a one-person dictatorship, with an underground torture chamber for the dissenting remainder. There is death in this. The death-drive, on the other hand, is a regicide plot: and, to that extent, is on the side of living.

It is an irony that when we disappear from the picture, when the self seems to die for a moment, that is when we feel most alive. When we play, as children, we get to forget who we are for a while. Once we are assumed to be adults, we have to find acceptable substitutes for childhood play – the thrilling abandonment of oneself through love, sex, creativity, adventure, or even just the joy of surrendering to a novel and cancelling everything else.

It is a cliché of certain ‘self-help’ literature that we should learn to forget ourselves more often, although they don’t exactly put it like this. Winnifred Gallagher recommends a state of being ‘rapt’, a ‘focused life’ for the sake of thriving. Cal Newport extols ‘deep work’, the state of disappearing into serious work for long periods, detaching from the distracting ‘shallow work’ of answering email and managing social media, in order to be more productive. Usually, this literature has buried in it the idea that you will be happier if you pursue this course. The promise of self-help literature seems to be inherently geared toward the happy-ever-after: self-help books are stories of secular redemption.

Whether or not this has anything to do with happiness seems almost to be beside the point. Indeed, that might precisely be its status: it is adjacent to the purpose, potentially a contiguous by-product, not the goal itself. If we live as though happiness is the goal, we’ll have a greatly impoverished life, forgetting everything else that we live for, including unhappiness. Indeed, having happiness as a goal might be a source of depression. But even if the proposed solution of self-help does make us happy, or at least not unhappy – a self-made anti-depressant, one weird trick, a life-hack – it still isn’t obvious what it is about being absorbed, wrapped up in some great work, going deep, that is so satisfying.

To answer that you get a chance to forget yourself only invites the question, what’s so good about that?


"By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history. Being someone is all very well for smart parties where everyone is telling their story, it's all very well for psychologists' consulting rooms. But isn't being someone also a social obligation which trails in its wake - for one has to be faithful to the self-portrait - a stupid and burdensome fiction? The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life." -- Frederic Gros, A Philosophy of Walking, Verso, 2016, pp. 6-7.

The term ‘rambling’ partly derives from the Middle Dutch word, ‘rammelen’, referring to the night-time meanderings of animals on heat. It later became a metaphor for incoherent, wandering, nocturnal speech or writing. As if the thoughts were just wandering around looking for others to bump into, and copulate with. The coherence of the self that we present to others precludes such amorous digression, such free association, in normal conversations. We usually have to go to analysis, where it is the rule to fall apart, to have these sorts of excursions.

To ramble now is to walk aimlessly, not so much to copulate as to see what in ourselves we might bump into: to encounter our thoughts like strangers. Writing and walking are connected by a language, and an experience. We set out, initially wary, leaving behind a certain comfort, focused on how unpromising the terrain is and how long there is to go. As we get deeper, and the blood warms up, and thoughts start moving, we start to get an obscure satisfaction. If you’ve done it many times, you’ll recognise this as the early echo of a kind of mild euphoria that you will encounter mid-way through, just after you’ve snacked, when you happen upon something that surprises you with its simple beauty. By this point, you’ve gone so deep that you’ve forgotten the comfort you left behind.

Comfort, it turns out, was nothing other than habit. One of the worst things you can do to something that is truly, ravishingly sublime is to make it into a cliché. That is to destroy it or, more precisely, to destroy your pleasure in it. The creature of habit, who builds a life around a ritualisation of what was once sublime and is now clichéd, is engaged in an unconscious war against pleasure. And the self is nothing other than the organisation of certain habits, “the etcetera of the subject,” as Lacan once put it. By their repetitions shall you know them. Walking and writing, at best, are two ways of digressing from habit, hopefully on heat. We trace out, through the marks we make, not patterns of habit, but routes of desire and its deflections.

Solitude is essential to both. Hunger amid plenty ruins the pleasure in moderation; loneliness amid many ruins the pleasure in solitude. Deprivation makes you want more than you can take pleasure in. But get far enough out of the way, and you begin to recalibrate your sense of plenty. There is something paradoxical about this. For many people, one of the worst things that can happen is that they might be left alone with their thoughts. Any displacement activity, from a worry to a row, is better. A distracted life, overcrowded with stress and hyper-business, is their way of forgetting. But whatever it is they’re forgetting, it isn’t the self: the self is always there as the official business representative.

The capacity for solitude, Winnicott observed, is a sort of power. A child who is never left alone, never finds out about her personal life, or what she might do with independence. Without solitude, she never develops the power not to respond to stimulation, to withhold or delay a response according to her preferences. She never gets the opportunity to cultivate fantasy. And she never finds out that – as Anthony Storr suggested, using the analogy of prayer and mystic states – isolation can be reparative, even a source of revealed truth.

This implies that self is something we need to be occasionally alienated from, in order to think and be creative: as if the observing ego was a kind of terrifyingly efficient system of surveillance and preventive censorship. Logically enough, nowhere is this self more mandatory, and yet more fragile, fragmented and transient, than in that peculiar form of writing we call social media.


“The model of ownership, in a society organized round mass consumption, is addiction.” – Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism.

Everything we do on Facebook and Twitter is about, in part, cultivating, tending and refreshing daily, a self-portrait that we can take pleasure in. Far from escaping from the self, we would be horrified to find ourselves digressing too much on these platforms: too many people are watching.

It’s easy to criticise online narcissism, but that is not the problem, as such. However, the kind of narcissism that is encouraged by the ecology of likes, shares, retweets and so on, is the fragile narcissism of the mirror. You find out what you’re like by constantly evaluating the coded and quantified reactions of others.

This form of narcissism was anatomised by Christopher Lasch back in the anti-radical reflux of the Seventies. Lasch was interested in the individualist, consumerist solutions that ex-radicals found to their existential anguish. Building on tendencies already present in counterculture, they individualised and medicalised their problems, looking to est, gestalt, hypnotism, tai chi, and health food, much as your average post-millennium hippy looks to The Secret.

Losing interest in political change, they retreated to the self, just as – so Lasch thought – the traditional bourgeois self was being hammered. The self of mass consumption, (and what are the hippy solutions but variants of ‘one weird trick’ snake oil?), was necessarily ever more fragmented and ever more frail.

This had to do with the experience of being a consumer. Capitalism produces the demand for an object. The demand appears to have something to do with desire, but the two operate at a different level: desire is always more elusive and strange than the formal demand to which it is tied. You might say “I’m hungry” when in fact you’re unloved. So, the object is usually advertised in such a way as to make totally irrelevant links between object and satisfaction through fantasy: so that it is offered as a solution to problems it can’t possibly solve. It is never the object we were looking for, and it can never satisfy us for long. The perception of time therefore contracts: there is only this moment, then the next; this satisfaction, then the next.

Since capitalism says your desire need never be frustrated as long as you have at least a little money, because there is a limitless choice of things even at the bottom of the market, you can be constantly satisfied for extremely short bursts of time. The form of narcissism that began to take root in the Seventies, according to Lasch, was structured by this transience. The ex-radicals imagined that, in their political retreat, they had found a source of wised-up resilience. But their cynicism had in fact deprived them of any project by which they could have any real engagement with the world or hope to change it. Instead, engendered in a war of all against all by capitalism, they became far more dependent on the approbation of peers and authorities, and far more invested in their reflection in the media – the short burst of satisfaction even here was recognised in the idea of fifteen minutes of fame – and in grandiose fantasies of omnipotence. By a strange dialectic, the supposedly weakened self had become more imperative, better at monopolising all the attention, all the energy.

Social media operates on a similar logic. You can, with a small investment of labour, 140 well-chosen characters, generate a predictable flow of satisfactions for a period of time. The exchange is that in so doing, you produce content that will attract eyeball attention for advertisers, who comprise 85 per cent of Twitter revenue. Rather than being paid to write, as you would be if your content was published in traditional media formats, you are offered gratifications of the self.

Of course, the difference between the satisfactions offered by most firms, and the ones you negotiate on social media, is that rather than endlessly flattering you, the latter very often turns into what The Thick of It called ‘the shit room’. Far from being validated, you are execrated. This is something that Twitter CEOs are worried about, although I’m not sure they need to: up to a certain point, it probably feeds the addiction.


“The Great Work Begins.” – Tony Kushner, Angels in America

You create a carefully curated self in the form of an online avatar, with its regularly updated photographs and bio lines, and feed it as regularly as possible: and you get your hits. This might be why so-called ‘identity politics’ has taken on new valences on social media. Often, anti-‘identity politics’ is a kind of straw-manning, a way of belittling anti-racist and anti-sexist struggle as forms of particularism. This is obviously true of the alt-right, and there is a crude ‘alt-left’ whose economism tends in this direction. But supposing ‘identity politics’ came to mean, not political identifications around specific forms of oppression and the lived experience thereof, but a politics of the self and its munification?

Only in this context could alt-right taunting about ‘virtue-signalling’ have any meaning – and even then, of course, it would be entirely hypocritical. It is never going to be straightforward to work out how much this is a real tendency, in part because there is a performative dimension to any form of political speech. And self-aggrandisement has many ruses: violent self-hate can be a particularly obnoxious form of self-love; self-punishment can be self-fortification. Nonetheless, it seems obvious that whatever your social media politics, it is all harnessed to roughly the same sets of dynamics, within the same profit model. To deny that this has effects which we cannot simply opt out of, would indeed be to retreat into grandiose fantasies of omnipotence.

Above all, social media engages the self as a permanent and ongoing response to stimuli. One is never really able to withhold or delay a response; everything has to happen in this timeline right now, before it is forgotten. To inhabit social media is to be in a state of permanent distractedness, permanent junky fixation on keeping in touch with it, knowing where it is, and how to get it. But it is also to loop the observing ego into an elaborate panopticon so that self-surveillance is redoubled many times over.

The politics of forgetting oneself would be a form of ‘anti-identity’ politics. It would be a politics of resistance to trends which force one to spend too much time on the self (which, in fact, would include not just the monopolisation of one’s attention by social media, but far more saliently all the forms of racism, sexism, homophobia and other kinds of ascriptive oppression that necessitate exhaustive work to redefine the self). It would begin with deliberately cultivating solitude and forgetting. It would acknowledge that all labour spent on the self is potentially displacement activity, wasted energy. And that, with that effort conserved, some sort of great work could be done.