The Beginning of the End: Selfhood

The Beginning of the End

originally published at Suvudu—June 7, 2010.

So, what else do we need to know in order to understand the artistic impulse toward apocalypse? Well, lots—apocalyptic sentiment is a crossroads for a number of studies: psychology, sociology, history, religion, and information . . . to name a few. Really, one could achieve a full liberal arts education just by following all the interconnected social science threads that have something to do with understanding the apocalyptic impulse.

But seriously. What else do we have to know?

Selfhood.

Selfhood, or consciousness, is a huge can of worms—and has been for millennia. Most philosophy has concerned itself primarily with “being.” I could write blog posts about selfhood and cognitive theory until it makes us all barf (it’s one of my academic concentrations), but that would be both boring and gross. Let’s dodge the issue of what a “self” is and look instead at what it does—as represented by an artistic apocalypse.

The Cliff’s Notes version:

You are not yourself*. Not in the way you think you are. See, selfhood is situational—how it’s shaped, how it behaves, is based on context. We’ve all heard versions of the nature vs. nurture argument, regarding the formation of a self. The circumstances of your upbringing play a huge role in how your brain (nature) behaves (nurture). I mean, if you grew up as a feral child in the woods, your “self” would be much different than it would be if you grew up in a stable suburb, in a comfortable house, surrounded by friends, family, and . . . oh, you know—language. Like an infant, you’d be aware, but not self-aware.

But that doesn’t take the idea far enough. Your “self” is still situational after it’s been established—after you grow up. For example, when I’m at home watching my shows (this season it was Glee, Modern Family, Castle, and The Big Bang Theory, mostly), I am not managing my political inclinations, my religious stance, or my position regarding arboreal thermodynamics. I’m just watching TV—a way of suppressing “selfhood” (one of the more benign ways, in fact). I am “less” myself in this context than I am when all of the aspects that comprise “me” are engaged—like when I’m teaching. Further still, I think and behave differently when my wife and I plug in the PS3 than I do when I’m called in to a meeting with the boss. The situation determines who I am.

Groovy. Bring on the apocalypse.

When a character (a representation of “real” human behavior and cognition) finds himself or herself in an apocalyptic situation, the author/creator asks us to consider a great many things. If you think about it, a world that requires you to spend all day hunting for (or cultivating) food and avoiding enemies leaves very little time for you to sit around and ponder things like your favorite contestant on American Idol, your irritation with this or that political party, or even which types of people are “better” than others. These ideas, these conflicts (which shape a great many of today’s social inequalities) are luxuries. Apocalyptic art, at its best, exposes the fictional/situational nature of most of what we, as a race, conflict about. It asks you hard questions: how far would you go to feed yourself? How far would you go to ward off threats? How much of your identity is just the convenience of a largely stable/comfortable social existence?

The answer to the latter is, like it or not, “most”—most of your identity is a convenience. Does this mean you aren’t a special snowflake? No, because “you” are just your brain’s fiction anyway, and it’s very unstable.

When you apply this idea to the formation of survival groups and the subsequent rise of nation-states, things get creepy fast. This is the premise behind Noise, and we’ll get into it next time.

*a line from Noise


Food for Thought:

Stanford Prison Experiment