Time and the Self
Psychoanalytic theories of the development of the self suggest that key events in the development of sexuality or personality occur at a fixed point in time. Freud, for example, argued that the first five years of a child’s life determined sexual orientation and personality. In particular, Freud considered that at about the age of five the young child had to resolve her/his sexual identity. Lacan used the metaphor of mirror to
describe the stages of identity formation. A sense of self does not happen immediately but ‘it is during the mirror phase that the child begins to acquire language. And it is through the entry into language that the child is constituted as a subject’ (Sarup, 1996: 36). This fixity of timing is also evident in more recent work in the development of the plural self. Rowan (1999) explores the development of sub-personalities in terms of a specific time frame. Stage One occurs pre-birth when the child is in the mother’s womb. ‘At this stage there is nothing wrong. Whatever is needed is given, without the need to ask. The self is OK, and the world is OK, and there is no need to differentiate between the two’ (Rowan, 1999: 14). Stage Two occurs ‘maybe pre-birth, maybe during birth, maybe some while after birth – an event happens which indicates that I am not in control of my world’ (ibid.: 15).
Lifespan developmental psychology expands the interest in the psychological development of individuals in childhood to that of adulthood. This work is often described in terms of stages through the life cycle or life course. The life cycle is conceptualized through the emphasis that is placed on ages and stages in life (Allatt and Keil, 1987). Life course theorists focus on individuals’ transitions through these stages (Allatt and Keil, 1987). Allatt and Keil indicate that life cycle theories have generally been critiqued for their over-deterministic overtones as they portray the individual as inhabiting a world of biological and social inevitability. In contrast, approaches that utilize the life course are considered to allow for much greater recognition of issues of agency. The earliest feminist critiques of life cycle and life course analyses highlighted how research in this field was based on men’s experiences and, as Fisher comments, ignored the particular experiences of women:
The literature alternately refers to transitions as rites of passage, movement through life stages, bridges connecting the old and new, crisis events and, more generically major life change. While the study of adult transitions has been carried out by various scholars and writers representing wide-ranging views, most research on the subject seems to have incorporated the developmental perspective on adult maturation. This perspective outlines a linear, mostly chronological sequence of tasks and changes, and assumes a series of life cycle events, which implicitly ignore the possibility of distinctiveness in women’s transitional experiences. (1989: 141)
The male model offered a picture that suggested that the experience of transition from one stage of life to another was sporadic and short term. It was, moreover, bounded by extensive periods of stability. Yet Fisher’s experiences of teaching these models of adult development to women ‘returners’ indicated that these women ‘would conclude that they have been psychologically ‘‘in transit’’ almost all of their adult lives’ (ibid.: 141).
There are therefore two points that can be made in relation to the perspectives of time that underpin these developmental models of the self. First, time is conceptualized as linear. Child and adult development is charted predominantly in terms of chronological age. For example, Erikson (1980) set out eight stages of psychosocial development. These begin in early infancy and end in late adulthood (see Arnold, 1997, for a useful summary of psychological models of adult development). Second:
Irreversible time dominates in studies of the life cycle. This applies irrespective of whether the life cycle is conceptualised as a cumulative development of growth and decay or in terms of unidirectional successive stages; whether time is understood as internal or external to the system; whether a ‘time in’ or an ‘in time’ approach is used; whether we theorise life as being lived along time-tracks or whether we analyse social age. . . Despite the emphasis on moments of return, irreversibility and change are central to the cycles of life since no repetition is the same in its recurrence. (Adam, 1990: 99-100)
Recent work on selfhood has begun to incorporate more complex conceptualizations of time. In addition, these have also sought to go beyond the dualism of female and male time that has been a particular feature of earlier feminist work. The view of subjectivity in these conceptualizations is much closer to one ‘that anticipates subjectivity as already embedded in and through time ‘events’ (Knights and Odih, 1995: 221). In particular, the fluidity and simultaneous nature of past, present and future time have been seen as important aspects of how selfhood is constituted. For example, Battersby (1998) offers a critique of the linearity of Gilligan’s (1982) model of selfhood to illuminate the changing and diverse nature of femininities and masculinities. She does this through noting that some of the events of childhood time may inhabit the present but these are neither as unitary nor as determining as Gilligan would suggest:
The self that I am interested in does not emerge as a ‘unity’ or a ‘thing’ in a particular slice of linear time that constitutes ‘childhood development’. Instead, the self is continually established as self through responses, repetitions and habitual movements over time. It does not know itself through conscious thought, although it does, in Henry James’s words, learn about itself through ‘The terrible fluidity of self-revelation’ (James, 1909, p. 11). Of course, during childhood some of the key dispositional responses are established; but the child’s relation to the mother is not determining of later responses in the way that Gilligan’s model would seem to suggest. A ‘feminine’ response to a situation is not to be understood via Gilligan’s monocausal account, which uses the childhood relation to the mother to explain the ‘under’ – or ‘other’-development of the adult moral subject. Selves (‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’) are more diverse and rich than Gilligan’s model would suggest. (Battersby, 1998: 207-8)
Griffiths’ (1995) discussion of the authentic self similarly draws on the past as a feature of the present. To this Griffiths adds the significance of the future. Griffiths notes that although feelings of being authentic occur spontaneously, there is more to being authentic than a momentary feeling. Indeed, spontaneous feelings might rather be aspects of sentimentality or shallowness. As feelings of the moment they may be just momentary feelings. Authenticity requires something more than a momentary concern. As Griffiths (1995: 175) notes, ‘the feelings of ‘‘really me’’, ‘‘true to myself’’ and ‘‘being myself’’ . . . seem to be indications of something more lasting than a snapshot’. The authentic self occurs because of what has happened in the past and what might happen in the future:
the self may be experienced as feeling, acting and being, authentically, in the here and now. But there is no such ‘here and now’ for a self that is not a result of what has happened in the past – and what is expected in the future. It may be that we may act authentically in the present, but, if so, that authentic, spontaneous, immediacy is in fact firmly rooted in time, especially in past social interactions. (Griffiths, 1995: 176)
Moreover, Griffiths emphasizes the authentic self is not static. For Griffiths, selfhood is understood as constructed through time and as such is always in the process of construction. Thus, those aspects that are ‘really me’ are reconfirmed through time and also change over time:
So, finally, what is ‘authenticity’? It is to be understood in relation to agency and becoming. To be authentic requires acting at one’s own behest both at a feeling level and also at an intellectual, reflective one. The feelings are the spontaneous enactment of the agency. The context of that agency in terms of the wider context needs to be taken into account. This is the intellectual reflection on the action, which may well change what future feelings arise spontaneously. So the present time remains important, but authenticity has to be achieved and re-achieved. Each action changes the context and requires understanding if authenticity is to be retained. Simply acting on what you feel will not answer. Nor will acting on what you think. Both are required, and it is difficult to know which to emphasise at any stage. (ibid.: 179)
The issue of the relationship between time and agency that Griffiths raises here is also a concern of McNay (2000). McNay views the addition of a temporal dimension as essential to overcoming some of the more deterministic elements of structuralist and poststructuralist theorizing. Time is a central aspect of McNay’s analysis of a conceptualization of autonomous agency that she argues allows for a greater recognition of the creative dimensions of individuals’ responses to changing social relations. Specifically, McNay argues that time has been a neglected aspect of poststructuralist work on the subject. In particular if, as poststructuralist theory would suggest, subjectivity is a process then how do we explain the coherence that we feel in our experiences of selfhood? She comments:
A gap in constructionist accounts of subjectification is that, while suggesting that identity is composed of a multiplicity of subject positions, the coherence of the self is not really explained beyond vague and top – heavy ideas of ideological fixation. This lacuna arises partly because poststructural work on the subject is not adequately situated temporally, so that the coherence of the subject is viewed, in one-dimensional terms, as the externally imposed effect of power. (ibid.: 27)
Within poststructuralist accounts a sense of a unified identity is perceived to be an illusion of power. Yet McNay argues that the incorporation of temporality helps to explain why we might say to a friend ‘I’m just the same person as I was 20 years ago’. The incorporation of time as an explanatory framework enables McNay to develop a generative account of agency and identification that is designed to overcome the dualisms of domination and resistance and identification and dis – identification that contemporary ideas of agency are caught between. The impact of the past, for example, not only continues in the present. It also enables us to experience our identity as coherent:
Although subject formations receive their shape from prevailing social conditions, certain predispositions and tendencies may still continue to effect embodied practices long after their original conditions of emergence have been surpassed. This durability partly suggests that a coherent sense of self is not just an illusion but fundamental to the way in which the subject interprets itself in time. (ibid.: 18)
In accord with both Battersby and Griffiths, and in contrast to psychoanalytic accounts outlined above that suggest that selfhood is formed at certain key points, McNay is also arguing for an understanding of identity that is dynamically constituted through time. Yet she stresses that a sense of unity and coherence are key aspects of the dynamic configuration of self. Unity is achieved by locating aspects of change about oneself as moments of disjuncture or temporal flux:
A generative paradigm of subjectification and agency helps to [conceptualize] the coherence of the self as a simultaneity of identity and nonidentity. Through a temporalization of the process of subjectification, the generative model suggests that the self has unity but it is the dynamic unity of progress in time. In other words, the identity of the self is maintained only through a ceaseless incorporation of the non-identical understood as temporal flux. (ibid.: 18-19)
McNay argues that one way of understanding how this occurs is through the narrative construction of identity. Referring to the work of Ricoeur, McNay draws attention to how the different time strands in a story that one might tell about oneself are often incompatible. This has two important implications. First that ‘male’ and ‘female’ time is not experienced in terms of discrete and separate elements. Rather, different forms of time such as clock time and task time are more fluid and in flux. Second, and relatedly, the multitude of times that exist (Adam, 1995) are actively configured and reconfigured in the stories that we tell about ourselves into a coherent narrative. Thus ‘Narrative is the mode through which individuals attempt to integrate the non-synchronous and often conflictual elements of their lives and experiences’ (McNay, 2000: 113).