A self is not true or false when it is illegible, uncontained
“One’s incommunicability with oneself is the great vortex of the nothing.”
—Clarice Lispector, A Breathe of Life
I have a recurring dream: I stand centered in an enclosed space surrounded on all sides by mirrors. My likeness, multiplicitous and overcrowding, begins to overwhelm me. My eyes dart to either side and always meet my own. Adrift in a sea of its own image, its own making, my body begins to reel, unfastening me. I can no longer separate my reflection from my flesh. I have many reflections, but no face. The dream begets a nightmare of unknowability, of self-estrangement—as if a stable identification established sanity, or seriousness, as if, God willing, I wasn’t ultimately unknowable but simply unseen.
Joan Didion wasn’t afraid to stare back at the mirror. “Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best,” she writes in her often-cited 1961 essay, “it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect.” For Didion, self-knowledge begets self-worth; you know the value of your choices by facing their consequences. Without it, “that notoriously uncomfortable bed”—the bed of our own making—is plagued with nightmares.
Self-respect, in Didion’s eyes, isn’t granted; it isn’t even taught. Instead, it is a discipline, a routine that can be developed but “can never be faked,” a “ritual” delivering us time and again back to ourselves, helping “us to remember who and what we are.” Without self-respect, Didion warns, we will give ourselves to anything, for anyone. What may seem like ceaseless empathy, an ability to accommodate others, is just evidence of an “alienation of the self.” Empathy is driven by an inner emptiness. “One eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.” When you can be just about anyone, it turns out you’re no one at all.
I find Didion’s conclusions chilling, my own nightmare a plague. Considering the implications, my Gemini complex creeps in. I fear—does my multiplicity give away an innate duplicity? And yet there’s something about Didion’s charge that’s suspect. Why have we developed so many rituals and practices—meditation, therapy, confession, social media, wearable technology—to reflect and project an authentic interiority? What’s at stake in making sense of our “self”?
This truth about the self isn’t simply unearthed or divined, scraped from our bowels. It is produced. The self-respect ritual Didion describes is akin to what Michel Foucault called “technologies of self”—techniques we enact upon our corporeal and conscious energies to transform ourselves, to dominate ourselves. They are our forms of self-care. Foucault traces these self-actualizing techniques to late antiquity, where the call to self-care wasn’t benign encouragement but what he calls “a network of obligations and services to the soul.” Self-concern became coupled with maintaining a perpetual writing habit: keeping a notebook of truths to be revisited, writing letters, advising friends, constantly taking note. One’s self, one’s subjectivity, became the object of analysis, a prompt, a theme.
Our own techniques of self, like Didion’s, borrow more heavily from Christian dogma than these classical methods. Christianity is, according to Foucault, “a ‘truth’ religion,” vested in its legitimacy by obligating followers to place their faith in the veracity, the sanctity, of its practices and texts. But more insidiously, it obliges each person to look within to know themselves, their sins, desires, faults, temptations, and fears, so that they can confess them to God and “bear public and private witness” against themselves. The self is not a terrain to master but a tainted, nebulous space in need of suspicious inspection. Our murky souls require purification attainable only through self-disclosure.
John Cassian, a theologian and monk who wrote about confessional practices, likened the work of confession to a moneychanger examining each coin to distinguish authentic from counterfeit currency. Like a moneychanger inspects the effigy imprinted on the coin’s face or considers the purity of its metal, so too must we take stock of our interiority and suss out the “true” thoughts—those coming from God—from fake ones, the corrupt temptations. More than their content, we search for the origins of our thoughts. As Foucault explains, the question asked is not “Am I wrong to think such a thing?” but rather “Have I not been deceived by the thought which has come to me?” This practice raises the sinister possibility that there is someone other than the you in you that you must unmask discursively: The only way to determine between “true” and “false” intentions is through speaking them. Purity expresses itself willingly, while corruption hides and resists enunciation. Through confession, we drag Satan, the other within us, into the light. We must renounce our selfs to save our soul.
If confession implies a hidden truth we must illuminate to redeem our spirit, psychoanalysis involves its own discursive practice of reflection and questioning, to attain self-knowledge and mastery over our repressed wishes. Here again, self-knowledge is coupled with self-care; analysis takes “weak” egos unable to cope with society’s demands and “strengthens” them by normalizing them. Freud assumed a stable ego capable of mediating between the id and the superego, but Lacan overturned that conception, theorizing the ego as fundamentally split from the moment of its emergence in the “mirror stage.” Lacan argues that as newborns we experience wholeness with the (m)other; we don’t recognize a separation between our selves and the world. But the mirror stage shatters that. Once we see our reflection, once we are forced to see ourselves as separate entities, we are also forced to acknowledge our mother’s absence. Our subjectivity is evinced by lack, by loss.
Following the mirror stage, the child coalesces her reflection into an identity—she identifies with the image she sees, which in turn, identifies her. But the image of oneself is and isn’t oneself; the child identifies itself with a reflection that is at the same time also the likeness of an other. This ambivalence toward one’s own reflection is key to Lacan’s understanding of subjectivity: The self is always already divided, always already alienated. Identity becomes a mistaken recognition of the other as the same, the ego a product of internalized otherness.
Constituting a self implies a double loss: We experience a severance from the mother and from our own perceptual self-awareness. The self both begets sight and is seen. We become both subject and object. This loss defines the adult psyche, according to Lacan, leading to the perpetual disorientation of continuous mis/recognition. When we feel seen, we are spun into a cycle of jubilant self-affirmation; otherwise we maintain a paranoid suspicion that we are constantly unrecognized.
Lacan’s theory redeems my nightmare as an endless re-enactment of the mirror stage; the dream does reveal self-estrangement, but this mis/recognition isn’t due to some lack of Didionesque self-respect, or to my incapacity to produce truth. Rather, if Lacan is right and our ego is intrinsically alienated, there is no natural core that constitutes “identity,” no deep-seated or secret truth to reveal through confession. Rather, we are always in a hall of mirrors, tangled within our own reflections, constantly chasing a phantom authenticity.
This chase helps explain our desire “to know ourselves,” and our willingness, or even eagerness, to hand over any scrap of data we can regarding our every thought, our every activity, when we woke and what we ate, how far we’ve walked and how often we shit in hopes that it will produce a true discourse about us. Like Cassian’s moneychanger, by policing our truth, we search for a self that is governed by laws, by dictums of what is appropriate and what is improper, what is authentic and what is counterfeit.
This form of social control requires one to produce, not repress, desires. This, as Foucault warns, is power’s most insidious ploy: By making confession seem a road to salvation, we have come to pursue liberation from within the means of control we may have hoped to escape. Self-reflection may undo repression and deliver our “truth,” but that truth has already been determined for us. The only authentic self is a servile one.
This is the point when Foucault takes his leave. He concludes that the self is nothing more than a “historical correlation of technology built in our history” and suggests that we should just abandon all these truth games. But I’m not satisfied with this renouncement. I’m still driven by this suspicion—is it a pretense? some sort of incantation?—of my “unknowability,” both to the world and to myself. It’s a similar suspicion that has, for example, driven the feminist practice of consciousness-raising, which aims to topple the universal subjectivity of men in order to reclaim and restore an individual sense of self for each woman and a collective sense of self for woman as subject.
Women’s subjectivity remains “mysterious”—just ask Lacan. Unlike Freud, who explains women’s sexuality only in male terms, Lacan assigns women a jouissance beyond the phallus. Unfortunately, according to Lacan, whatever constitutes jouissance remains impenetrable. It’s unclear whether Lacan thinks that jouissance is inherently inarticulable, or whether women just don’t quite get it. Either way, women’s desire becomes an indecipherable enigma, unknowable even to her self. Lacan offered the image of Bernini’s Saint Teresa—radiant in her ecstasy, but frozen in her intensity, cold marble, unable to speak—as a figure of the supposedly unspeakable jouissance.
Hélène Cixous challenges Lacan’s mystification, writing that women are often blamed for their unknowability “even if pleasure is derived from always wanting to expose her.” She counters with an image of jouissance as generative:
For me, the question asked of woman, “What does she want?” […] conceals the most immediate and most urgent question: “How do I pleasure?” What is it—feminine jouissance—where does it happen, how does it inscribe itself—on the level of the body or of her unconscious? And then, how does it write itself?
Jouissance isn’t a riddle alluding decryption; rather for Cixous, it becomes the springboard for discourse about the self. Like the Greeks of late antiquity, or like Didion, who writes “entirely to find out what [she’s] thinking,” we return to writing as the practice that constitutes subjectivity.
But this still doesn’t sit right. Our ceaseless discourse, the chunks of data we’re carelessly churning into the Internet every single day, don’t render us as subjects. They render us as consumers. Identity has become a selling point, often preceded by the word brand. “Personal essays” have become bits of content parked next to rented ad space, producing an economy of links that circulate value among social-media accounts. Our watches have become our watchers. We’re not getting to know ourselves better; we’re just better known.
As writers, as subjects, we can no longer ignore the fact that our souls have been put to work, that our desire, our affect, our intellect has entered the market. We’ve become peddlers of self-knowledge, selling ourselves to servers. Our self isn’t just produced; it has become our product.
If we tune out the deafening indictment to appraise our self-worth, we can start listening to Saint Theresa’s ecstasy. Luce Irigaray gives voice to the saint’s tremor:
And if “God” has already appeared to me with face unveiled, so my body shines with the light of the glory that radiates it. And my eyes have proved sharp enough to look upon the glory without blinking. They would have been seared had they not been that simple eye of the “soul” that sets fire to what it admires out of its hollow socket. A burning glass is the soul who in her cave joins with the source of light to set everything ablaze that approaches her hearth. Leaving only ashes there, only a hole: fathomless in her incendiary blaze.
In Irigaray’s imaginary, Saint Theresa’s rapture leaves us with a fathomless hole, the great vortex of the nothing. Her total access, her total participation, her total ecstasy doesn’t create. It destroys. Little wonder her desires fell silent to Lacan’s deaf ears. Contrary to “the self-absorbed, masculine narcissism, making sure of its own image, of being seen or seeing itself,” Cixous imagines Saint Theresa as she “goes away, she goes forward, doesn’t turn back to look at her tracks. Pays no attention to herself.” In Saint Theresa’s flight, Didion’s warnings about the dangers of discovering that we amount to nothing turn into a false fear. If we refuse to produce authenticity, if all we amount to is a pile of ashes, we aren’t empty. It just means we’re worthless to this economy. And maybe that’s a good thing.
To the sham of the self-same, I say, let it burn. Reduce me to ashes, to (no)thing, to no(t) one—unintelligible, incalculable, multiple, luminous. Loose me to my fathomless depths. Drown out the dictums of truth and listen to my “other tongue of a thousand tongues” sing. Bask in my mis/recognition. Melt my flesh into my reflections, not out of inevitability, but with a playful and perverse purpose, a refusal to make sense. Write me so as to never be read.