A second critical aspect of postmodernity is an extraordinary heightening of individuation which can be described as the consequence of the multiplication and segregation of roles available to, in some measure forced upon, the individual. One result is that persons can share a nearly identical portfolio of roles without sharing similar commitments or coming to them from similar origins. More importantly, such persons will have little reason to experience themselves as sharing a common collective identity, except in the increasingly specific categories with which “actuarial” social bookkeeping describes a public (J. Simon 1988). Far more typical of the ways common interest finds expression in postmodern settings is the class action lawsuit, whose participants tend to be and remain strangers to each other.
This is not to say that strong group identities do not exist, but rather to note that most of us experience these identities commonly as partial, where the experiences of collective membership almost instantaneously become occasions for consciousness of difference with other group members, and provisional, where both social life and attachment to such groups lose a sense of permanence. A social landscape emerges where the self and its self-affirming, self-sustaining and self-inventing narratives are recited by an increasingly decentered self that is more than the sum of its current portfolio of social roles.3 As a result, the continuing standardization or apparent uniformities of social life tend to obscure a growing and possibly critical pluralism at the level of individual experience.
More than anything else, the individual experiences postmodernity as a proliferation of choices, choices that are often uncertain in their outcomes and irregular in their availability. As Charles Horton Cooley observed regarding choice some ninety years ago:
Choice is like a river; it broadens as it comes down through history— though there are always banks—and the wider it becomes the more persons drown in it. Stronger and stronger swimming is required and types of character that lack vigor and self-reliance are more and more likely to go under.
What Cooley was suggesting is that the self is not a given within social life, but a continuing production of social life, a production given to change, even at the most fundamental levels, as significant change occurs within social life. The
proliferation of choice must occasion a qualitative increment in the internal dialogues of the self and, in doing so, must also occasion a shift in the politics of the self (Simon et al. 1993).
Choice, once the rarest and most calamitous of human experiences, becomes an everyday experience in all aspects of social life and mandates equally unprecedented occasions for self-reflexivity, the self scrutinizing itself. Let me pose this in its most pedestrian instance. Enormous numbers of us almost daily ask ourselves a question, a question that most of humanity asked, if ever, on only the rarest of occasions, “What shall I wear today?” This question joins conceptions of the self with the individual’s perceptions of the expectations of others; the individual self-consciously anticipating her or his subsequent role as a text that will be read by others. The transparency of coded (costumed and postured) social roles may increasingly render opaque the inner self, often isolating the self, sheltering it and, at times, transforming it (Davis 1992).
The social roles we occupy are increasingly experienced, as Ortegay Gasset (1963) would have it, not as natural and fixed representations of the self, not as we experience the constraints of our skins, but as optional appliances, as costumes that celebrate, and at times disguise, assertions about who and what we have been, as well as what we are and what we desire to be. This enlarged domain of reflexive management of the self is the major source of the development of a more managerial and more abstract self. Though we might speak of an empowering of the self, this does not necessarily mean a more powerful self, except in the sense of the more conscious role it plays in the production of itself.
So then I am the one who looks at himself (myself), a sort of impotent God.
I am not only a watchful eye. I am also the one who experiences the passions, desires, and so forth, which are both myself and not myself. I am within, I am without: the one who makes, who is made, who sees what is done and how it is done, without really understanding…. I have a sort of impression that events are taking place within me, that things and passions are conflicting within me; that I am watching myself and seeing the struggle of these opposing forces, and that now one, now the other follows; a melee, a mental battlefield. And that the real self is the “I” who watches “myself’ who am the scene of these happenings, these conflicts. I am not these passions, it seems, I am the one who beholds them, watches, comments, considers. I am also the one who yearns for a different self.. I am not my passions, I am in my passions.
Where complexity and change at the broad social level and individuation and uncertainty at the individual level create ever-expanding alternatives and uncertainties, other latent sources of individual diversity begin to find increased expression and heightened significance. One such source is the remarkable diversity rooted in genetic variability, which currently may become more significant as individuals become less singularly encapsulated within institutional settings more enduring than themselves. Another derives from the weight of innumerable idiosyncratic, marginally significant events and traumas of life. A relevant insight can be found in Freud’s Three Essays on a Theory of Sexuality (1905), where he notes that the experiences of childhood are of as little significance in “primitive” societies as they are of great significance in modern societies. I take this to mean that in social contexts where there is little choice and little uncertainty regarding the destinies of individuals, where most of the features of everyday existence come in only one model, variations that derive from either inborn characteristics, such as tolerance for discomfort, or the common or uncommon traumas of childhood are of little consequence, having only a limited capacity to influence behaviors already ordered by tradition. In such settings, where there is relative uniformity in expectations about behavior, where others mirror back the nearly identical image of the individual, and where individual and group identities are virtually synonymous, it takes a remarkable person to resist calls for conformity in social worlds where alternative ways of doing things are literally unthinkable.
As Trilling (1972) and Elias (1978) both noted, it is only when there is sufficient heterogeneity in social experience, and a pluralism of mirrored images of the self, that a significant expansion of the domain and powers of psychic reality occurs. This development can be seen as the beginnings of the modern self; an occasion marked by an increase in uncertainty about our ultimate destinies and a diversity of alternatives open to the individual mandates an enlarged internal dialogue as well as a strategic appraisal of the environment.4 A social world that requires that we negotiate for our desires must simultaneously train us to negotiate with ourselves; a complexity of social experience creates a comparable complexity of psychological life. Increasingly, how rare is the characteristic that Riesman (1969) found so essential to worlds bound in tradition, the characteristic of not being able to think of oneself as being anything but what one is? How much more scarce are those who cannot think of the surrounding world as being anything other than what it presents itself as being?