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The ambiguity of ‘self’: romantics in the marketplace

I have always been wary of ‘the self’ as an object of enquiry: I recognise ‘myself’ in what I do but have the very strong sense that it is not my job, so to speak, to recognise other peoples’ selves, since that is something they can only do for themselves.

Marilyn Strathern, 1995


In this essay I explore some aspects of the divided modern self in its comparative cross-cultural applicability, through a consideration of the early theses of Daniel Bell, Daniel Miller, Colin Campbell, and others on the romantic ethos, or ‘self’, which has supposedly informed the emergence of a consumerist society. I have been inspired into this endeavour by some issues in the ethnography of the Hmong, a people of southern China, Burma, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, who since their involvement in the Indochina conflicts have become a refugee population scattered widely through the developed world. In the US, for instance, their traditional medical system which involves the shamanic treatment of a multiplicity of souls or self-substances known as plig or ntsuj, has struggled to come to terms with a system of biomedicine based on fundamentally different ontological principles (Fadiman 1997; Cha 2003). My concern here, however, is with a more general and comparative reassessment of some of the relevant literature on the historical evolution of notions of selfhood, and the emergence and dissolution of what is taken to be a modern ‘self’, or what Maurice Bloch (2011) has recently dubbed ‘The Blob’.[1]

As theory, and modernity itself, have shifted from a dominant focus on production towards one on consumption, so these Hmong refugees have moved from a subsistence economy based on shifting cultivation in the mountainous highlands of Southeast Asia to become part of the global consumer society. A Hmong friend of mine in North Queensland, brought up in a small village in Laos where opium, dry rice, and maize were the main crops, still knows how to build a house from raw materials, clear the forest to make new fields, stitch a cloth and forge a knife. Yet he is also familiar with Australian import and export licences, co-owns a business with a close affinal relative in Canada, and generally forms a part of the modern Australian life. Such people are on the very cusp of the modern divide between production and consumption, as indeed of the traditional and the modern, the developed and developing. In order to understand what kind of changes might be occurring within Hmong society as a whole, and to the orientations and inclinations of particular individuals, it seems important to attempt an anthropological understanding of our own cultural and social backgrounds in the Euro-American tradition, in which not only a particular kind of self, but also a particularly divided kind of self, has been posited. We are in need of a framework which might help us to conceptualise the coexistence, for example, of participation in a world of shamanic healing ritual at the same time as participation in a postmodern world of virtual communications across compressed time-space. In order to achieve this, we may turn in the first place to a consideration of some aspects of the cultural history and psychology of our own contemporary societies.

In 1958, the eccentric writer Gordon Rattray Taylor traced the outlines of a dramatic difference in the later eighteenth century between the inhibited, authoritarian and pessimistic personality-type of the Puritan, and the uninhibited, democratic and optimistic personality-type of the Romantic. Taylor’s view of history was one of a ceaseless war between the savage natural instincts of the Id, and the various systems of taboo and inhibitions developed to contain them. It exemplified a dualism deep-rooted in the Western psyche, running back through Freud on the one hand and Durkheim’s Homo Duplex on the other, as Sallnow (1989) well showed. One cannot wholly reduce this opposition between puritan and romantic ‘moralities’ (as Taylor sometimes calls them) to quite such clear-cut dichotomies, since he recognises that both are individualist, which implies a common and nearly unilineal ancestry; he saw the Puritan type as an economic individualist, while the individualism of the Romantic expressed itself in a moral sphere. Yet the very distinction between an ‘economic’ and a ‘moral’ sphere returns us precisely to those contrasts between a collective morality and an individual egotism which concerned Sallnow (1989; cf. Lukes 1973). 

The notion of some self, or ethos, or personality-type, in counterpoint to the dominant Western ‘self’, and yet inextricably connected with it, has proved a popular and persistent one. The critic Lionel Trilling, influenced like Taylor by Freud, and writing at approximately the same time, famously described the self which emerged at the end of the eighteenth century as an ‘Opposing Self’, quite unlike any which had gone before it. Trilling (1955) wished to understand ‘the adversary intention, the actually subversive intention, that characterises modern writing’, and to explain our puzzling general assumption that ‘a primary function of art and thought’ is to liberate the individual ‘from the tyranny of his culture’. Again and again in recent history, he argued, what he called the ‘effective, utilitarian ego’ had been relegated to an inferior position, while praise was bestowed on the ‘anarchic and self-indulgent id’ by romantic poets like Shelley, and philosophical writers like Schlegel. 

These discussions of puritan and romantic personality-types, anarchic or utilitarian egos, show us how what Trilling calls new ‘ways of conceiving of the self’ must constitute an essential part of some representational order associated with a certain understanding of society/culture and the relationship of the ‘individual’ to it; an episteme, to use Foucault’s (1970) term. The many ethnographies dealing with questions of self in a cross-cultural sense have tended generally to avoid such historical questions.Yet they raise the question not only of how a particular bounded modern self may in certain cases be imputed to other societies, but also of how translatable these shifts in the understanding of the modern self are to other societies undergoing similar historical transformations.

My concern here is not only to lay out a position from which we may be able to interrogate, for example, some Hmong sense of self in its diasporic or transnational positionings (see Kuah-Pearce 2006 for a fine example of this with regard to the overseas Chinese), but also to go some way towards interrogating the nature of those ‘anthropological’ endeavours in which we have been complicit. For anthropology itself, despite its enlightenment heritage, has also often been located within this apparently rebellious romantic tradition of reaction against the mores of capitalist, secular, industrial society (Schweder 1984; Stocking 1989; 1987; Murphy 1993). And so to understand this ‘romantic self’, and also the possibility it raises of alternate or conflicting selves, is doubly important since it implicates not only those who have historically been the objects of an imperialising, colonising gaze, but also we who may have been the gazers, within a single historical moment of selfhood, a single ‘representational order’.


In sociology the contrast between puritan and romantic selves was taken further by Daniel Bell (1978). Bell argued for a fundamental incompatibility between what he saw as the romantic, or hedonistic ethos of bourgeois consumerism, and the puritan work ethic still demanded of the proletariat. Bell was perhaps the first to trace the origins of twentieth century modernism directly to the romantic movement, and describes, somewhat similarly to Trilling, how the idea of the ‘untrammelled self’ became gradually opposed to the norms of industrial society.[2] Since the 1920s, he contended, the ‘consumption ethic’ of Freudian expressivist theory, shown in the unbridled self-indulgence of the modern consumer, a ‘ consumption economy’ which ‘finds its reality in appearances’ and ‘a world of make-believe’, had come into increasing conflict with older Puritan repressions, with an ascetic kind of frugalism associated with the realm of production. So that cycles of ascetism and hedonism recurred throughout twentieth century history, the puritan ethic of production pitted against the hedonism of consumption in an increasingly contradictory social structure which bore within itself the seeds of its own destruction.[3]

For Bell (as for Trilling, 1972), it was the concern with the ‘authentic’ self which distinguishes modern consciousness, and the power of modernism was seen to derive from the ‘idolatry of the self’; modernism is now exhausted, and has been replaced by the ‘post-modern’ (sic), which is typified by the ‘decomposition of the self’ in a (hedonistic) attempt to ‘erase the ego’ (for example, through psychedelia). The figure of the bourgeois entrepreneur was thus contrasted with that of the artist, but both these figures of modern individuation had common roots, as Bell points out; both were ‘aspects of the same sociological urge towards modernity’. In quite a similar way to GR Taylor, romantic and puritan streams, or urges, were sharply distinguished, yet both were acknowledged as aspects of an individualism which is seen as a particularly modern project. We start, then, from general assumptions of a peculiarly modern self associated with individualism, yet that self is nonetheless one which is very sharply divided between a romantic and a puritan stream. And we find an almost direct line established from some of the ideals of nineteenth century romanticism, to the ideology of consumerism, and the magic of advertising.


Despite critiques of the overall thesis, Bell’s account of the modernist emphasis on the ‘singularity’ of individual experience and the search for ‘novelty’ of sensation[4] was convincing and foreshadowed much later work (for example, Bauman 2000). It was linked with a related, more sociological, argument, which has also formed a frequent feature of inquiries into the ‘modern’ self; that a high degree of occupational specialisation has made it impossible for the ‘common symbols’ of culture to adequately reflect society, so that ‘culture itself becomes private’. This raises the crucial question of the extent to which current theory applies only, or specifically, to current conditions – the problem of what we might call theoretical anachronism.[5] Can we be so very sure, that cultures have not always been relatively complex in relation to the social structures with which they are associated, when we think of esoteric forms of knowledge and the exclusion of unprivileged social categories from certain types of knowledge in many traditional societies, such as the Ok (Barth 1987)? Perhaps consciousness was always multiple, decomposed, divided or decentered, as some historians have suggested (cf. Greenblatt, 1980, on the 16th. century concern with ‘self-fashioning’).

Still there has been great appeal in the notion of two countervailing modern selves, the one authoritarian, repressive, ascetic, puritan, the other irrevocably opposed to social norms, anti-institutional, imperial in its (private) outrage, untrammelled in its flight from social realities – this image of a perpetual counter-culture in a relatively autonomous domain of ‘culture’.


If it was Bell who opened the way towards a consideration of romanticism as the lineal ancestor of modern consumerism, after others had traced distinct lineaments within the modern self of puritan and romantic tendencies, it was Daniel Miller a decade later who took much further forward the disjuncture between the realms of production and of consumption emphasised by Bell, Lasch, and others, in terms of the relationship between social forms and cultural expression. Here too, notions of the self were implicated in a way which raised important questions for the comparative understanding of societies.

Like Bell, Miller (1987) was concerned by the disarticulation between production and consumption, and he similarly sought to account for that disarticulation in terms of a contrast between society and culture. He argued (in Hegelian mode) that while Society, as humanity, as the Subject, is forever seeking to reappropriate (‘sublate’) the cultural forms it has alienated from itself, such reappropriation had now become problematic. This was because of the complexity of the division of labour and the multiple diversity of cultural objects. In Hegelian terms the subject is seen as attempting to transform itself into a new form through a dialectical series of externalizations and incorporations of the externalized ‘object’ in a new way, but such incorporation has now become virtually impossible.

For Miller ‘culture’ stands revealed as the object of ‘society’, neither is logically prior to the other, both are ‘mutually constituting’. For Bell, the disjuncture between society and culture typifies two separate selves or ethoses; the puritanic ethos of production (and social structure generally), and the romantic ethos of consumption (or culture out of control). For Miller too, cultural form is importantly ‘out of control’ of social forces which are seen as primary, yet for Miller consumption is precisely the way the social ‘subject’ seeks to reappropriate its rapidly diversifying and multiplying cultural ‘objects’ (cf. Carrier 1990).

Miller, at that time, saw material goods as essentially a form of cultural expression, and aimed to account for what he saw as the increasingly material form taken by modern culture – in contrast, he maintained, to the thoughts and social structures of people like the Australian aborigines. Like Baudrillard (1981) and others since, Miller criticised Marx’s concentration on the realm of production, and the general theoretical neglect there had been of consumption.

Yet Miller approaches notions of the self in a quite different way from Bell. If society can be seen as a subject, then this greater subject has become lost among the bewildering multiplicity of material cultural forms which nonetheless define it and in which consumption (as in shopping; cf. Miller 1998) becomes an almost desperate attempt to regain control over material culture. For Miller the central ‘contradiction’ of capitalism is not that between a puritanical and a romantic ethos, but that labour has now become the consumption market for capital goods – so that reappropriation is a problem of agency and signification, and it is here that the death of the author, or even the producer, may be located. Miller thus complained that the general attack on the figure of the subject in sociology mounted by Foucault and Barthes had failed to lead to a corresponding ‘birth of the reader’ (although it might be argued that this is just what has happened since then).

To approach what he sees as the non-linguistic affinity of objects with the unconscious, as he sees Bourdieu’s habitus as also doing, Miller appeals to psychological theories of projection and introjection put forward by Piaget and Klein. He concentrates on how ‘our notions of self and society’ are created in terms of an (alien) world of objects, and how ‘our identity has become synonymous with patterns of consumption which are determined elsewhere’. These intimations of the alienation of the modern self in a world of commodity exchange have been persistent in anthropological contrasts between different types of exchange since the days of Mauss (and of course date back further to Marx and beyond).

The point is that the diversity or fragmentation of the modern self may, under this view, be seen as an adequate response to the diversity and specificity of modern mass material culture; a ‘positive response to a necessarily contradictory world’.  Miller has perfected the art of the apt illustration; he gives as examples the idiosyncracies of ‘a life devoted to racing pigeons, or medieval fantasies played out on a microcomputer’. Miller’s point is telling, though; there really need be nothing ‘pathological’ about such diversities, such fragmentations; the ‘return of the repressed’ (Giddens 1991) may be seen as a simple response to increasing social complexification and abstraction. Recent Hmong history provides an exemplary case of a largely unasked for complexification of a division of labour through their rude expulsion (as involuntary refugees) into the mystifications of an advanced consumer society, and some current work among them has begun to inquire into what extent this has been matched by a fragmented or dissolute sense of self (Julian 2004; Tapp 2005). Julian, for instance, considers local, national, regional, and global levels of Hmong ‘identity work’, arguing for simultaneous tendencies towards traditional purity and hybrid ‘translation’.

Miller, though, is particularly clear in his dislike of the tendency ‘to assume a linear evolution towards the autonomous self‘ (my italics), and indeed sees it as a ‘Romantic tendency to dichotomise’ which would deny this kind of individualism to non-capitalist societies![6] It is with this question that we approach the heart of this inquiry, the question of a particular kind of self thought to be associated with a capitalist, and perhaps with the transition to a consumption-oriented economy, and its denial to members of what are seen as traditional societies in the developing world such as the Hmong of Asia – and then, of course, the question of how (and whether) a transnational diaspora may in effect find itself at the very caesura, or juncture of these two opposing ‘selves’. Is the movement in economic theory and history from production to consumption, that is, necessarily one from some puritanical ethos of self-restraint, towards one associated with hedonism, romanticism, and the private (or quite the opposite, as Bataille argued)?


It is on the grounds of his dislike for evolutionary models that Miller takes issue with Mauss’s account of the emergence of modern notions of the self. He bracketed this indeed with ‘objectivist’ accounts which seek to confine discussions of the self to a particular bourgeois self associated with capitalism, and also with anthropological attempts like Marilyn Strathern’s early view that a transition from ‘brideservice’ to bridewealth marked a ‘profound symbolic shift’ in a process of the separation of labour from the person and the evolution of notions of property and personhood generally (Strathern 1985). It was of course Mauss (1938) who first traced for us what has now become an almost excessively familiar trajectory; the development of the modern self from tribal roles through legal notions of the person in Roman law to the Christian notion of the moral individual, and then its development through the ideas of philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza, and schools or movements such as the Puritans and Pietists, into the modern idea of ‘self’. As with many subsequent formulations (cf. Taylor 1989), Mauss can be seen as on the one hand relativising our notion of the ‘self’, in that he shows clearly how it was transformed at different historical epochs, at the same time as suggesting that this unilinear and evolutionary path was somehow specific to the forms of western modernity.

Miller’s general argument that ‘society may construct itself in the appropriation of culture as much as in the transformation of nature’ must still I think be acceptable, as is his subsequent point that both subject and object are in this sense cultural forms, not natural forms. It follows that the self must itself be a cultural form, which allows Miller to argue that we need not necessarily conceive of the self as an ‘essentialist natural self’ which is then, therefore, ‘masked by the artificial nature of culture as commodity’, like a naked face (thought to reveal a real self) is believed to be masked by cosmetics and cultural adornment in, for example, contemporary British society. Miller contrasted this essentialist view to Strathern’s (1979) description of how, in New Guinea, it was the unadorned face which was seen as arbitrary in its representation of the self, the nature of which was better represented by the painted, cultural form; hence the use of face-painting, for it is only when painted that the New Guinea self is ‘most naked’. The Hagen Islanders, said Strathern (1979), ‘do not believe that decorating the body hides the inner self’, since that is just what is ‘ordinarily hidden’. This was because, Miller argued, for the New Guinean the self was not conceived of an essentialist one but was conceived from the start to be socially and culturally constructed. Where a Briton assumes an ‘essentialist given self’, the New Guinean assumes a ‘culturally constructed self’. Geertz (in a debate on the self prefacing Schweder and Levine, 1984) claimed much the same for the Balinese self, in what has almost become a common anthropological assumption which accompanies the critique of the subject as bearer of a western form of modernity.[7]

This sort of argument was taken much further in Strathern’s The Gender of the Gift (1988) where she argued, using Marriot’s (1976) notion, for the ‘dividual’, a Melanesian self which was not unitary but rather ‘partible’, conceived as composed of separable substances which could be alienated from one in the construction of others through exchange. The person is not the agent, the subject or author of her actions in this view, but motivated by another, or others, who are thereby the causes of one’s actions (see Martin and Barresi, 2006;32, on the lack of the idea of the agent as a source of action in ancient Greek thought). Cause and agency are separated; constituted in social relationships, the person is not at the ‘centre’ of them as is conceived in the Western view, in which subjects necessarily act on others as objects. There has now been a considerable literature on how gift exchange economies may differ from those based on commodity exchange, in that  the absolute distinction of people from things, the alienability of the object and autonomy of the individual, the concealment of human relatedness, all taken to be characteristics of (capitalist) commodity exchange, may not apply to economies based on gift exchange where the object is not properly alienable but remains part of oneself in a system of what Mauss (1954) called ‘total prestation’. So that it is aspects of one’s own person which are being exchanged, rather than separable ‘objects’, and relatedness between subjects is foregrounded rather than obscured. Yet it now seems clear these are general processes, or capacities, which become inflected or marked in different cultural settings and under different orders of representation (see Rumsey 2000).[8]  Such contrasts are based on universal experiences, which become foregrounded in different ways in different cultural contexts and with regard, presumably, to different types of social and economic exchange. The questions are, then, what is foregrounded, and when.


Sociologist of religion Colin Campbell (1987) avoids both Bell’s dualism between the passionate romantic and rational puritan, and the rigorous opposition (which Miller shares with Bell) of society to culture, through a historical consideration of the romantic ethic and its ‘ironic facilitation’ of the ‘hedonism’ of modern consumerism and advertising culture. In a sense this marries GR Taylor’s (optimistic) romantic with his (pessimistic) puritan strain though emphasising, persuasively, their common roots. For Campbell the ‘passionate self’, which survived into modern consumerism through the Bohemian, rather than either Dandy or Aesthete tendencies of romanticism, and the ‘repressive self’ of the original Calvinism examined by Weber, must both be seen as complementary aspects of our (modern) society.[9] In an extraordinary leap of imagination, Campbell concludes by relating these differences to differences both between the sexes, and between the generations. Thus he points to the connotative association of women with nature and the arts, and of men with the ethic of the workplace and emotionlessness– and he also sees them as reflected in recurrent generational differences, so that a romantic ethos becomes instituted as the outlook of the younger generation in its opposition to the repressive authoritarianism of their elders; so, he argues, the middle-class life-cycle embodies both a Bohemian youth and a more bourgeois middle age, and middle-class families thereby transmit both ‘rational utilitarian and romantic values’ to their children. However dubious we may feel about such general propositions, it is important that for Campbell we live in an essentially dynamic society, with the ironic tension between these opposed impulses powering the forward movement of history, rather than a society tearing itself apart through its own contradictions, as for Bell or Lasch.

Campbell talks about his initial concern, again shared with Bell and Miller, to come to terms with and explain the extraordinary outburst of creative rebelliousness which marked the romantic ‘counter-culture’ of the 1960s, as well as, he notes, the 1920s and the 1890s. While referring to historian Stone’s (1977) description of the seventeenth century struggle between two ‘personality types’ – the puritanically ascetic, and the ‘secularly sensual’, Campbell’s work is more akin to that of GR Taylor, who had already shown how the eighteenth century was not as immoral, nor the nineteenth century as moral, as had previously been supposed, and outlined such clear differences between the romantic (‘matrist’) and puritan (‘patrist’) personalities.

Campbell himself (1987) was working in a field of economic history, and locates his work particularly with reference to McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb’s seminal 1982 The Birth of A Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England.[10]  Campbell set out to challenge McKendrick’s thesis that the late eighteenth century middle classes were emulating an aristocratic ethos of hedonism in responding to new consumer goods, since it was, as he notes, precisely these middle classes who were also the bearers of the puritan ethic. McCracken, in his 1988 (1991) Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities was to talk frankly of the disagreements there had been over when to locate the emergence of modern consumer behaviour – Williams (1982) locating it in 19th. C. France, McKendrick (1982) in 18th.C. England, and Mukerji (1983) in 15th and 16th C. Britain.[11] Other disagreements, Craig Clunas (1999) points out, have concerned whether there was an actual consumer revolution in the eighteenth century at all, and the particular role of emulation in transmitting consumer preferences. In a wider context this reflects more general debates about the nature of capitalism, its age, and its relationship to economic markets.[12] There are further historical battles here which we need to be aware of, between this idealist emphasis on psychology as an explanation of Polanyi’s (1957) ‘Great Transformation’, and other explanations which emphasise more material factors, such as colonisation and the arrival of new goods from overseas from the sixteenth century onwards. But Campbell sees his own work as complementary to Weber’s; where Weber (1903-4) had associated the Protestant ethic with the emergence of capitalism, a ‘production ethic’ as Campbell describes it, Campbell will show how romanticism, associated with a ‘consumer ethic’, legitimated the hedonistic ethic of modern consumerism.

The main argument was again (like Bell) that an ethos of hedonism emerged which is precisely that of modern consumerism, although there is a difference for Campbell between traditional hedonism, which focused on the senses and immediate gratification, and the fantasy, or particularly daydreaming, associated with modern hedonism, which has become instead focused on emotions and the imaginative recreation of deferred gratification. The insatiability of wants is seen as a specifically ‘modern’ characteristic, unlike needs-based traditional societies which Campbell assumes are all characterised by Foster’s (1965) image of the ‘limited good’. Modern hedonism is quite unlike the traditional variety, for Campbell; it possesses the ability to ‘conjure up stimuli in the absence of any externally generated sensations’. Wanting becomes more important than having, and day-dreaming intervenes between the desire and its consummation. It is ‘autonomous, self-illusory hedonism’ which for Campbell characterises modern consumerism, the spirit of which cannot, therefore, in his view, be materialistic.

So Campbell describes how 19th century romanticism emerged from the decline of the Sentimentalism which flourished between 1750 and 1770. It was at that time that the emotional fervour of evangelism gained ground among the new middle classes, who were also the bearers of the Puritan ethic. It could not have been, then, that the middle classes were emulating an aristocratic ethos, as McKendrick (1982) had averred since, as Campbell shows, the original ‘cavalier’ ethic of the Restoration was one of of virility and neo-stoicism, a mannered  ‘ethic of restraint’ which, he argues, was partly inherited by the Dandies and later the Aesthetes. In a precursor to Charles Taylor’s (1989) more detailed later work on the same subject (considered below), Campbell unpicks the various strands in 17th century Protestanism which contributed to the sentimentalism which flourished towards the end of the next century.

Campbell’s account of the ‘sentimental Pietist’ side of Protestanism, and how the eighteenth century  cult of benevolence came together with the concern of the Calvinists themselves to regulate and take account of inner emotional states, to form a new field of the emotions, is valuable.[13] He shows very clearly how emotions which were particularly associated with the Puritans, such as anxiety, enthusiasm and morbidity, met ‘in a common concern with the pleasures of feeling’ which became a Sentimentalism diametrically opposed to the values of Utilitarianism. This new ‘sentimentalism’ was expressed in the prevalence of fashion[14] and the desire for novelty, the valorisation of romantic love, the new readership of fiction, and a new aesthetic generally. Both sentimentalism and utilitarianism, then, could be seen as emerging from Puritanism, but sentimentalism was modified by the optimistic philosophy of Liebnitz and the various schools of thought, or tendencies, mentioned above.

The cult of sensibility which peaked between 1750 and 1770 is illustrated by Campbell in such appropriate passages as Marianne’s speech, in Sense and Sensibility, on leaving Norland; ‘when shall I cease to regret you! – when learn to feel a home elsewhere! O happy house, could you know what I suffer in now viewing you from this spot, from whence perhaps I may view you no more! And you, ye well-known trees!..’. There was a kind of ‘inner-directedness’ about this excess of emotion, Campbell points out, which could be seen as a development of Puritan asceticism…..and then there was the ‘romantic’ relinquishing of worldly goods, in favour of the new ideals of romantic love which triumphed over the values of marriage; ”What has wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?’ asks Marianne rhetorically of her sister. A direct connection between pleasure and virtue had been made by this time; taste had become the sign of sensibility, and sensibility a mark of grace. Campbell finds in the character of Marianne the direct implication that ‘because an action is pleasurable it must be right’. The standard of morality had become one of taste; if you lacked taste, you might be thought to be lacking in virtue – and taste was demonstrated, at least partly, through fashionableness. This was the result of a new kind of aesthetic, linked (Campbell argues) with the importance of changing fashions and the appreciation of novelty.

With the disenchantment of the world which occurred throughout the eighteenth century, emotion had now become defined as interior, ideas of character and disposition had been internalised, resulting in a new kind of self-consciousness and a ‘new internal psychic world’. Individualism was directly implicated in this new romanticism as the source of creativity became the creative genius of the sensitive, artistic personality with its direct access to the truths of a newly spiritualised nature. This was linked with the ceaseless desire for novel sensation, the thirst for new experiences which would at least be remote from any normal experience. The image of the Genius then derived from a notion of creativity originating in the Divine as a diffused supernatural force, a kind of Pantheism with a ‘personal drama of redemption and salvation’. We had the appearance of the Self as divine, a unique creative genius, soon linked with beliefs in the rights to self-expression.

There was, then, an exaltation of the aesthetic above all moral values, a deliberate delaying of and distancing of immediate gratification which constitutes a virtual space of desire and imagination. It is this virtual space demarcated between the actual and ideal which is precisely where the modern self is supposedly constituted and where Virginia Woolf’s (1927) lady dons the dress which will transform dream into reality (or is it reality into dream?) for her; a private world of imagination, then, which is also, importantly, a virtual space. We recall here Spiro’s insistence (in the Schweder and Levine 1984 debate referred to above) on the distinction between the actual and the ideal self-representation, in what one may see as the implication of notions of subjectivity in a particular order of representation. But what is most important is that for Campbell we have a single, ‘purito-romantic’ personality system characterising modernity, rather than a divided self of the kind argued by Bell and implied by Miller.

It may be reasonable to assume there is some difference between a puritanical and a romantic stream in the modern western consciousness, an ambivalent relationship of complementarity perhaps. There may indeed be some strong and strange psychological and philosophical association between romantic values and the hedonism of modern consumer culture, and how then is it possible to doubt that there was some hugely important shift, which for England does seem to have been most marked in the eighteenth century, from an older medieval conception of the self which was linked with ideas of divinity and a hierarchy of beings (Foucault 1970; Josipovici (1971); Mâle 1958; Huizinga 1938), towards more isolating and solitary notions of the individual which the puritans seem to have shared with the romantics. The role different classes took in these shifts, the significance of imported goods from overseas in supplying other than psychological explanations of these social changes, the relative weight to be accorded to a consumption ethic in facilitating the industrial revolution, are all historical questions we may be able to leave to one side. But Craig Clunas (1999) correctly points out that the upshot of these intellectual histories of consumer ideology has been to confirm a unique conception of modernity as western, and therefore (I would add) a unique conception of the modern ‘self’; a universalistic claim, rather than a relativised one. Speaking of the increasing theoretical focus on consumption over the previous two decades, Clunas remarks that ‘consumption has become…a major prop of the argument…for an exclusively ‘Western’… modernity’.


For Charles Taylor (1989; 1991) it is very clear that a wrong turn has been taken in the emergence of the modern self. Reasons of space forbid a proper consideration of this magisterial work which has become the most prominent representative of this school of intellectual history, and in generalities it is close to the outline Campbell presents. However, there are some notable differences in their approaches.

In his major work on sources of the self, Taylor (1989) emphasises what he sees as the anti-Romantic, anti-aesthetic thrust of modernism, and its links with ‘political reaction’. He traces a slippery path (a ‘slide’) from high Romanticism to the divorce of the moral from the aesthetic which occurred through the nineteenth century. This perversion of the original tenets of romanticism is above all for Taylor a moral problem which confronts us today; if we do think of nature as a ‘vital force running through the world’, which ’emerges in our own inner impulses’, and ‘if this impulse is our only access to this force”, then ‘we can only know what it is by articulating what these impulses impel us to’. And here Taylor leaps straight to the ‘flower generation of the 1960s’, demonstrating a common unity of purpose with Bell, Lasch and Campbell in their determination to understand an apparently amoral hedonism. Rousseau had, as Charles Taylor sees it, rescued from St. Augustine a sense of interiority, a notion of inwardness, which was otherwise largely absent in the line from Plato to Descartes. This was a language of inwardness in which we find the roots of the modern centrality of ‘reflexivity’ to the moral understanding. The Augustinian in Rousseau is in essence, as Taylor puts it it, the notion that we might willingly commit evil, that humans were capable of two loves, two ‘basic orientations’ of the will, and there is in such formulations a ‘denial of self-transparency’; we become separated from nature by the dense web of socially informed opinions – as nature becomes seen as a voice within, a form of conscience which ‘speaks to us in the language of nature’.

For Charles Taylor the modern self is distinguished both by this romantic belief in the importance of ‘expressive articulation’, and in the ‘power of rational control’ which he traces to Locke and Descartes. The Augustinian ‘inward’ has been central to both. In the huge transitions which, Charles Taylor concurs, took place through the eighteenth century, from an earlier pre-modern identity ’embedded in an ontic logic’, to a ‘new identity of disengaged reason’, as a ‘providential order of reason’ replaced a ‘hierarchical’ one,  Taylor stresses the importance of Locke’s ‘punctual’ (or detached) self, the ‘notion of a punctual disengaged subject exercising instrumental control’. Here we find the ‘growing ideal of a human agent who is able to remake himself by methodical and disciplined action’, which represented, in Taylor’s view, a kind of neo-Stoicism. This was what Taylor calls a kind of ‘radical reflexivity’, or a ‘radically subjectivist view of the subject’, which he sees as ancestral to the Freudian ego, which was paradoxically related to a radical objectivism. So that finally we have a (modern) sense of self defined not only by the powers of disengaged reason, but also by those of the creative imagination. Taylor is arguing somewhat similarly to Campbell on the complementarity and inseparability of puritan and romantic/hedonistic ethoses. Yet the concoction from which this has emerged is complex, and delineated with greater authority than Campbell.

The power of this modern idea of the inner, as Taylor paints it, can be accounted for in terms of two types of ‘radical reflexivity’ which went to form ‘nascent modern individualism’; there was the articulation of Augustinian notions of inwardness through the recognised particularity of Montaigne, together with the self-responsible independence of Descartes and Locke, but the yeast in this leaven was a third strand, one of ‘personal commitment’, associated with the Puritan notion of a community founded on personal devotion and contract, which Taylor terms a ‘civil humanist’ view of society. Moreover, a fourth major theme is thrown in which combines with these; the ‘affirmation of ordinary life’ which springs from Bacon and which Taylor finds in the Puritan ‘theology of work and ordinary life’. It is this which will explain what Taylor sees as the ‘instrumental stance in modern culture’.

The ‘two big constellations of ideas’ which for Taylor ‘helped generate forms of unbelief’, were on the one hand the scientific view of the universe, and on the other, the later romantic vision of art, which focused on our powers of creative imagination and linked these directly to a sense of nature as an inner moral source. The Romantics could share with the radical Enlightenment their ‘naturalism’, the rejection of the religious, and affirmation of the goodness of nature, while opposing its materialism. Yet both Enlightenment naturalism and Rousseauesqe expressivism were in some form a reaction against the Deists of the eighteenth century, the first objecting to its ‘rosy, optimistic view of the world’, the latter objecting to ‘too simple a view of the human will as simply concerned with happiness’.

But something, for Taylor, has gone wrong here, in this process of searching for the voice of God in our internal conscience or in the workings of Nature, and historically this can be located in the mid-nineteenth century. As art is understood no longer as ‘imitation’ but rather as ‘expression’, in the sense of making manifest, or fulfilling and ‘completing’ an unrealised tendency towards perfection, it is once the artist finds himself imitating the author of nature rather than nature itself, that ‘instrumental reason’ becomes opposed to the expressivist understanding of nature, and the power of rational control becomes antithetical to expressive articulation. Nature and inner nature (the two ‘frontiers’) are related differently in Enlightenment humanism and in (romantic) expressivism, and the subsequent battle between the heirs of the Enlightenment and those of romanticism continues today in the conflict, Taylor avers, between the technological and the ecological. For Campbell, then, it is the generations and genders which oppose the romantic to the puritan, while Taylor sees the romantic response to the Enlightenment in the politics of achieved identities. Somewhere in the nineteenth century the original vision of nature as intrinsically good (not a romantic vision alone, but one which early romanticism importantly endorsed) becomes challenged by another image of nature as wild and amoral, an image Taylor finds particularly in Schopenhauer’s Will.

Taylor sees the ‘traditional idea of the unitary self’ as the ideal of both disengaged reason and of Romantic fulfilment, and both narratives as, ultimately, optimistic. While disengaged reason spawned a vision of history as progress, romanticism led to a view of history as decline, but yet this was one moving in the end towards a reconciliation of reason with feeling. Modernism, however, is for Taylor a turning away from ‘epiphanies of being’ which ‘show some reality to be an expression of something which is an unambiguously good moral source’, and this is why we find a decentring of the self which is complementary to the sense of inwardness in modernist art, for this is a search for an escape from the unitary self of previous narratives. The anti-epiphanic focus on ‘the text’ we find in Foucault and Derrida, drawing on Nietzche, implies a disclaiming of any notion of the good in favour of ‘the potential freedom and power of the self’. This may seem to be a paradoxical argument in view of the rejection of the authorial subject by both Foucault and Derrida, yet Taylor is suggesting it is the unitary traditional self alone which is rejected here, in favour of a ‘modern multi-levelled consciousness’. It is this rejection, or ‘escape’, this ‘refusal of depth’ and this new belief in the ‘merging of the separate rational ego into the deeper flux’, which has now come to be seen as seen as the ‘condition of a true retrieval of lived experience’. It is a slippery path indeed which Taylor traces for us, down from the unitary traditional ego the sources of which Taylor locates both in Enlightenment humanism and the romantic turn, both informed by notions of Augustinian inwardness. It is a path which became deeply perverted in the course of the nineteenth century.


Yet many, like Miller and Clunas, throw doubts on the evolutionary trajectory of the modern self altogether. The New Historicism, as Roy Porter (2003;16) pointed out, sought precisely to avoid ‘traditional tellings of the ascent of man’ through talking of ‘self-fashioning’ in Renascence man rather than of ‘self-discovery’.

Not only in the posthumous Flesh in the Age of Reason (2003), but more clearly in his (1996) introduction to the seminal Rewriting the Self, Porter pours scorn on ‘Narratives…of how the West discovered a unique self unknown to former times, an inner psyche unfamiliar in other cultures…’, and accounts which depict the ‘heroic struggles of the old escapologist self’ – an ‘epic in which the heroic self is portrayed as surmounting ridge after ridge until it reaches the peak of perfection in our own times’ (Porter 1996; cf. Nisbet 1989; and Clunas, 1999, above).

Porter summarises for us the ‘standard way of telling the story of the self’ ( a way based on an ideal of self-realization that assumes ‘some real ‘inner self’, and one that is ‘whole”); it emerged out of communal tribalism with the Greek philosophers and ‘ideals of inner goodness and conscience’ and then, despite the Christian doctrine of the soul which inspired martyrs and Augustine’s Confessions, the self-denial of the Catholic Church (the ‘annihilation of self’ we find in medieval artistry), was finally vanquished in the Renascence with its new emphasis on human values. For we have Montaigne in the sixteenth century (‘Que scais-je? – What do I know?’) and the importance of introspection in ‘the room behind the shop which is all our own’, the kind of introspection expressed in Hamlet’s brooding soliloquies. Yet Hamlet still has to die, says Porter – we are not quite there yet, for despite Weber’s argument for the association of Protestantism with notions of individuality, Calvinism too was  guilt-ridden, so that it was not really until Nietzche proclaimed ‘God is Dead’ that ‘man could fully come into his own as a truly liberated autonomous being’ (Porter 1996).

The seventeenth century is seen as the great divide, with Descartes’ ‘dream of the uniqeness of human interiority’ (foreshadowed only a little earlier in Pollonius’ ‘To thine own self be true’) finally reversing the ‘medieval’ viewpoint and leading to (associationist) psychology through Locke’s argument against innate ideas and the new stress on experience. Rousseau’s Confessions led the way to novels and a new fascination ‘with baring the soul’ so that the ‘odyssey of self-discovery’ became the ‘key Romantic metaphor’. In association with political theories of the freedom of the individual, and economic theories of the private property-holder, we come to the Robinson Crusoe figure of the Enlightenment; Porter says both Mandeville and Hume praised the ‘rational hedonism of homo economicus‘, and this journey culminated in the ‘revolutionary era’, Bohemianism, the notion of life as a ‘journey’ of self-discovery and self-development gathering quasi-religious aspects, until the ‘discovery of the unconscious’ and the new underminings of rational understanding which took place in the last century, which ‘opened up new horizons of selfhood’ and, finally, the ‘me’ generation.[15]

His is a nice 7-page summary to which I can do about as much justice to as he does himself to the theories he considers, and it works well as a general overview of these related theories, and to show how as he says the ‘odyssey of self-discovery’ became the ‘key Romantic metaphor’, although one cannot help noting how everyone has their own ‘take’ on these and emphasises slightly different thinkers, movements, phenomena. But Porter is merely setting this up as a straw man which he then wishes to demolish (while not denying some truth to it). And he very ably summarises some of the main underminings of this dominant theory of progress towards a ‘modern’ self.

Substantively, Porter (1996) points to a general loss of confidence in the reality of progress after the ‘horrors of the twentieth century’ (cf. Lyotard 1979).[16]  As he says, there is something very Victorian about the ‘linear and inevitable’ ascent of man which is so constantly charted. Locke’s emphasis on the malleability of man, however progressive his ideas were at the time, played ultimately into the much later hands of Skinnerian behaviourists. However, Porter emphasises that even as Freud compared the shattering of self-esteem brought about by the discovery of the Unconscious to the Copernican revolution and to the discoveries of Darwin that man was not unique, Freud still believed in an essential inner truth, a self which could be healed. Even as ‘Shakespeare and others’ wrote comedies of impersonation and mistaken identity, they still believed that true identity would eventually be revealed. Now, however, Porter continues, we have deconstruction, post-modernism, and in particular Foucault’s championing of the ‘death of the author’. The Nietzschean ‘death of God’, Foucault also argued, was also the ‘death of man’; conventional understandings of subjectivity and free will were deluded, ‘we are but the bearers of discourses, our selves are discursively constructed’ through social codes so that ‘we don’t think our thoughts, they think us’. Most important, as Porter sees it in Foucault’s theories, was the argument that our ‘prized individuality’ was in fact a ‘tool of social control’, the new individualism was the very way the state ‘locked subjects into bureaucratic and administrative systems’ (cf. Rose 1996). Moreover, Porter continues, rigorous feminist critiques have also assailed ‘the saga of the self’ showing its gendered nature. So, ‘Traditional liberal-progressive tellings of the ascent of man have…been critiqued by those who suggest that the esteemed liberal self is just a construct, a trick of language, a rhetorical ruse’. Porter foresees the end of the whole ‘tradition’ of the self, with the introduction of character-modifying chemicals and artificial forms of intelligence.[17]

Other essays in the collection support Porter’s points. Dollimore (1996), for instance, argues that the crisis of the subject has always been with us, and is indeed constitutive of the subject. He traces this constant crisis in notions of self from Augustine’s agony and self-doubting to the Renascence fascination with desire as death, through Schopenhauer (who talked of death as intrinsic to life) and Freud (who turned to the idea of Thanatos), suggesting that there is a kind of continuing fascination with the ‘Fall’ in this continual interest in the decentring of a unified self which is supposed to have emerged in the Renascence and flowered in the nineteenth century. Thus ‘the so-called ‘unified subject’ is in part a retrospective projection of contemporary theory’, and ‘in the Western tradition the self is always in crisis…’ (my emphases). This exemplifies the kind of theoretical ‘anachronism’ I mentioned.


Most of the ‘post-modern’ theorists, however, like Baudrillard, seem to rely basically on a tripartite approach to historical process, rather than the simpler binary opposites we have considered above, while remaining uncomfortably posed between ‘evolutionary’ perspectives and those which emphasise more universal processes.  Jonathan Friedman, for example, neatly demarcates the spaces of the pre-modern, modern, and post-modern according to the notion of narcissism propounded, among others, by another notable critic of consumer society, Lasch (1979). For Friedman (borrowing from Lacan and Freud), the autonomous self of modernism is produced through a cultural process of socialisation by the slow internalization of the Other’s view of oneself during the ‘mirror stage’ of early childhood development (Friedman 1992).[18] In the post-modern era, something similar to the pre-modern is occurring; individuation has failed, the ‘mirror stage’ image is only weakly internalized and a ‘secondary narcisissm’ occurs. Thus there is originally a natural dependency on the Other, on an external world, for identification, which is a sign of what Freud called ‘primary narcissism’ and described as a universal state in which the ego is not clearly separated from the world. This is a state of primitive, magical omnipotence; the infant is sovereign and the figures of the mother and father exist to do its bidding. But this Other, on which we now again narcissistically depend in order to become ourselves, is now pathologically located in the commodities and sign values of consumer capitalism, rather than in the holistic cosmologies and symbolic networks of the pre-modern. Both the premodern and postmodern nevertheless reveal a ‘common human narcissistic foundation’, and the ‘lack of inner experience’ in terms of which a genuinely autonomous self could be defined.[19]

From such a point of view, it could conceivably be argued that in an ‘order of representation’ as that of traditional Hmong tribal society, the self remains caught somewhere inbetween what Lacan (1966) saw as the plenitude of the (always lost) Real and the Imaginary encounter with Otherness, prior to its entry into the linguistic realm of the Symbolic? For the Hmong, the patrilineal clan system still forms the basis of the social order, even in diaspora. Through classificatory kinship, in a way which my anthropological friend Dr. Gar Yia Lee emphasises to me is not well understood by the theorists of kinship systems, there is an absolute identity of substance which unites all clan members as fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and so on. A Hmong male of my generation with the same clan membership as myself whom I visit in China, even if I come from Thailand, IS my brother; it is not that he is merely called by the same term as is used for ‘brother’ (and I can live in his house for as long as I want). Can we argue, from such evidence, for radically dissimilar notions of individuality? Might some pre-modern Hmong self be seen as narcissistically antecedant to the successful sundering or subsequent internalization of the Other or of otherness, unclearly distinguished from the world but scripted in terms of an exterior symbolic order and cosmology as perhaps the self of medieval man was scripted? And might the ‘self’ of the post-modern Hmong (who may indeed be the same person in a single biographical  trajectory from a mountain village in Laos to an urban life overseas) indeed be similarly unclearly distinguished from the world of commodity fetishism and the magical arts of advertising in which, as Miller and others contend, the subject is now lost? This would seem the logical outcome of such views.


For Stuart Hall, it was Saussure’s (1916) insistence on the arbitrary nature of the relation between the signified and the signifier which first eliminated the subject as the author of meaning, and allowed for the release, the ‘unfixing’, of endless meanings and ‘trans-codings’. As Hall (1997) avows, trans-coding (‘taking an existing meaning and re-appropriating it for new meanings’) is only possible because meaning is never fixed by representation. In a series of easy elisions between notions of the personal, and the cultural or national, self, Hall charts how the modernist conception of a unified self has given way, through the various decentrings of it which as he sees it had occurred though Marx, Freud, Saussure, Foucault, and Feminism, to a conception of the self as made up of myriad consciousnesses, a plurality of multiple consciousnesses – very like, one might think, those which inhabit the persona of Saleem Sinai in Rushdie’s (1981) Midnight’s Children, who is all India in himself. Similarly, for Hall, the connecting processes of globalisation – for example as shown in mass migrations – integrating communities and organisations across national boundaries, challenges and dislocates the centred, closed identities of a national culture. So Hmong nationalism, always predicated on an originary loss of power and autonomy and statehood which is attributed to Chinese oppression, now uprooted globally from soils where it had never in fact taken root, might be seen to supply a future-oriented image of sovereign autonomy which denies the historical facts of hybrid ambivalence in favour of a utopian dream of unconditional freedom and purity. Periodic Hmong messianic movements seek to establish a Hmong state, and the Hmong are now represented in UNPO (the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples’ Organization, attend meetings of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and so on. But it is still a specifically ‘Western’ self which is seen as disintegrating here, under the onslaught of cultural diversity and the shock of relativism, and the process of its decentering is one which implies a recognition, perhaps acceptance, of its contingency and historicity (Rorty 1989).

For social psychologist Gergen (1991), both modernist and romanticist conceptions of the self implied a view of ‘the individual as autonomous agent’. With our ‘immersion in multiple perspectives’, however, both the romantic ‘deep interior’, with its ‘vocabulary of moral feeling, loyalty and joy’, and the ‘rational, well-ordered, accessible self’ of modernism, become subject to a ‘multiplicity of incoherent and unrelated languages of the self’, corresponding to a multiplicity of ‘incoherent and disconnected relationships. There is then, according to Gergen, a new ‘populating of the self’ by the characters of others, so that ‘we become pastiches, imitative assemblages of others’ who express themselves in internal voices and alternative viewpoints within us – resulting in a crisis of doubt and an eventual ‘abandonment of the concept of objective truth’. Selves become constructed ‘artifacts of hyperreality’, with their texts built upon those of previous eras and ever more distant discourses, and ‘claims to sincerity evaporate’ as the distinction between real and presented selves collapses.

As I noted, in this (post-modern) assumption of the decentring and fragmentation of a unified modernist self, there is yet the assumption of a bounded self which needed to be dissolved; and there must be some theoretical anachronism here, if we argue that the self has always been multiple, plural, multivocal, fluid, ambiguous, divided, and fragmented rather than unified, solitary, unique or individual (see for instance Rose 1996)! In effect, the ‘post-modern’ view buys straight into the assumptions of modernism, by setting up the straw man of a Cartesian Ego which needed to be demolished. Here again is the beleagured Freudian Ego threatened by the dark forces of the Unconscious, and here too the integrity of the nation-state is actually reaffirmed in the very act of its disavowal. Jameson (1991) put this well when he contrasted the ‘radical poststructuralist’ position, denying that a centred subject ever existed in the first place, to the ‘historicist’ view that a ‘once existing centred subject…has today…dissolved’. We may just need to make our minds up (cf. Eagleton 1996).

One may note that those who wish to emphasise the historical disintegration of a unified modern self in this way cannot reasonably entertain any serious notion of that self as itself fractured or divided in the way that Bell or Campbell, following Freud, Lacan and others, would have us do. At the same time they are proffering a view of a distinctive and unilineal trajectory of a modern self linked with the course of Western development which they appear to deny to others such as the Hmong, however critically they may approach that notion.


It is significant that Miller (1987) should have so clearly related the question of reappropriation to that of recontextualization, since (as Miller recognised) this locates the understanding of consumption within the framework of linguistic analyses of the sign. The dislodging of the self in its guise as privileged author of meaning, the ‘authorial self’, is seen to match precisely the producer’s loss of authority over the products of labour. The view which emerges from such generalised conflations of the economic with the linguistic is one of the infinite capacity of human agency to recode, recontextualise, ‘trans-code’ (Hall 1997), just as the interests of the author can (no longer) be taken to determine the meaning(s) of a/the text, for this process of semiosis requires an endless succession of indeterminate reinterpretations, with no necessary ‘closure’. I note here, in the context of Hmong ethnography, and the many instances of messianic uprising which have occurred among them, that this process of recoding is an essentially messianic process, turned towards a future as yet unrealised (Tapp 1989).

We might wish to ask, again, how much such a viewpoint genuinely reflects a particular current phase of current social and economic processes, and to what extent theories of the past simply failed to realise, say, the enormous importance of consumption, the role of human agency in economic affairs, the significance of consumers’ recontextualisations of commodities, or the recursive reinterpretation of texts?[20]

There is a kind of moral panic inherent in these accounts of the dislodging of the authorial self, like a schoolteacher confronted by warring interpretations of his texts, which even Eco (1992) seems to have experienced, and which he refers to as ‘unlimited semiosis’.[21] This is the terror of what Baudrillard (1981) calls the hyperreal,  a wholly mediated and reflexive world of simulation in which the sign neither reflects reality (as it might have done in the pre-modern) nor disguises it (as under commodity capitalism), but now reflects nothing but the loss of that infinitely recursive real.[22] There is, as Michaels (1980) puts it, a very real fear of the ‘anarchic self’ indefinitely re-authoring texts, a fear of endless semiosis and the dislodging of the authorial self as ‘the ultimate guarantor of unified meaning’ (Clark and Holquist 1984, in Gardiner 1992). Michaels’ argument is that this fear of the anarchic self itself depends on a particular, Cartesian, model of the self as wholly autonomous, reacting in isolation to an autonomous text, and he finds in Peirce’s view of the self as inferred, a way to consider the self as itself a sign, embedded in a system of signs and dialogic relations, never totally free to impose its meanings on all texts (Tapp 2001).

It is in particular the comparative status of this challenged authorial self I am concerned with here, in relation, ultimately, to the diaspora of the Hmong and others like them to all quarters of the modern world, an essentialised self largely denied by modern psychological and linguistic theoreticians, the site of the private and interior, the imperial self perhaps shared by romantics and ‘puritans’,which tends to be persistently located in a Eurocentric model of individualism reaching back, for Burckhardt (1860) and subsequent scholars, to Italy in the 14th century.[23]

Morson and Emerson (1990) relate this authorial self directly to the Freudian model of the self, in which the ‘real’ is opposed to the world of fantasies, dreams, or art, and they suggest a solution to the repressiveness the Freudian model implies in the ‘Bakhtinian model of the creative and responsible self’; ‘the Bakhtinian self’, they say, ‘is never whole, since it can only exist dialogically. Now here we do not quite have a puritan and romantic self, but we find on the one hand the divisive model of a mentalist (‘Cartesian’) and Freudian model of the self, which implies a rigorous suppression of the passionate, a suppression of the kind Gordon Rattray Taylor depended on for his descriptions of the puritan and romantic personality types. This oppositional or divisive model is itself countered, on the other hand, by another model in which the creative and responsible are imagined to be united.[24] This is what is talked of as a ‘Bhakhtinian’ self, which has been proffered as another alternative to the increasingly unacceptable notion of a stable, consistent, repressively individual ego, rather than denying the importance of the self altogether as in the general attack on the subject. This is somewhat similar to the views of Gergen (1991), who saw the post-modern admission of multiplicity as opening the way to ‘a free play of discourse’ and a dialogical sense of the individual as constituted through relatedness. ‘We are manifestations of relatedness’, he argues (cf. Chodorow 1986; A.Rorty 1994; Seigel 2005), and this notion of a socially, relationally constituted self has in general proved attractive to anthropologists in their inquiries into alternative notions of self.

These questions of the ‘authority of the author’ are also important in another way in the ethnography of the Hmong, since they implicate the impossible voice of the subaltern and their right to an authorial voice, and therefore the increasingly contested notions of Hmong history which are emerging today, with arguments about their relationship to other ‘Miao’ groups in China and their possible origins in the Yellow River basin, Siberia,or even Mongolia, not only in the sense that we as anthropologists, as film-makers, as journalists, as development specialists, as politicians concerned for example with allegations of chemical warfare made by Hmong refugees from Laos, may take it on ourselves to ‘speak for’ people like the Hmong, robbing them of the authentic voice they might have had if only we had not spoken, but also because the history of the Hmong is not theirs alone, but belongs to a number of others and, in a sense, to all of us.[25]


We may refer to this view, generally, as the ‘dialogic’ view of the self, noting its roots in both Bakhtin and Peirce, but also its relationship with wider psychological and phenomenological themes comprising both those views of the process of individuation which emphasise the encounter with the other, the mirror image, or the extroceptive and introceptive experiences of the body (Merleau-Ponty 1974), and those which explore the status of the individual self in relation to intersubjectivity. It is also what is often referred to as a relational theory of the self (see A. Rorty, 1994, Seigel 2005), with roots in symbolic interactionism (Mead 1913). Such a ‘dialogic’ view of the self stands in mute opposition to both the (repressive) Freudian model of the self, and to the mentalist Cartesian model of the cogito which informed the Freudian model.

From a view of the self as constituted essentially through linguistic processes, we have moved to a view of the self as constituted somehow through interactions with others. The purely linguistic grounding of subjectivity has subsequently had to be severely amended in the light of recent work on pre-linguistic processes of self-other interactions.[26]

In any case, it is this dialogic model, we will recall, which has been seen as a solution to the ‘fear of the anarchic self’ and of ‘endless semiosis’, which is the fear of the bounded, solitary, isolating self for itself, confronted by its own annihilation and dissolution. Yet it is precisely that latter lonely, bounded, autonomous self which we have located both in the Puritan, and the Romantic traditions of our past, and implicated in the emergence of consumerism. Can we impute such a crucially divided self to the members of other societies who similarly find themselves at the cusp of production with consumption? Or should we persist in seeking shadows and alternatives to the bounded selves we think we have dissolved, in more ‘traditional’ selves located elsewhere? The question remains open, but could surely form a more conscious part of current ethnographic investigations.


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  1. [1]This is an original article, which was however drawn on in chapters 1-3 of my book, The Impossibility of Self.
  2. [2]Veysey’s (1982) critique of Bell notes Anderson’s (1971) work on the ‘imperial self’ in American history was a precursor.
  3. [3]There was a lineage to these idea, as Lasch (1979) traces; Reisman, Potter and Watson (1960) had talked of a ‘present-oriented hedonism’ replacing the middle-class work ethic, and in 1950 described how an ‘inner-directed’ personality type was being supplanted by a ‘peer-oriented’ one. But for Lasch, unlike Bell, this hedonism is ‘a fraud’; the pursuit of pleasure is in fact a pursuit of power, and ‘contemporary hedonism’ originates in a ‘war of all against all’ (cf. Sennett 1977).
  4. [4]Bell traces this back to the Savoyard Vicar in Rousseau’s (1762) Emile who declares (at length) that ‘to exist is to feel’.
  5. [5]One might like to think of this as ‘reverse anachronism’ in terms of the more common usage of ‘anachronism’ to refer to the use of things later than their proper time, but in fact the dictionary definition of the term refers to any kind of mis-dating. To talk of globalization as a purely modern phenomenon, for example, would be a genuine example of anachronism.
  6. [6]This is a position with clearly romantic antecedants in general discussions of progress versus degeneracy (Peacock 1837), the relative and universal. See Stocking (1987), for example, on Herder. The debate continued, in a sense, through debates between anthropologists and philosophers on the nature of ‘rationality’ (Wilson 1970; Hollis and Lukes 1982) and into the 1990s with the discussion of alternative modernities (see Public Culture; Daedalus 1998, 2000).
  7. [7]In this 1984 discussion of ‘problems of the self’, Geertz takes issue with Spiro to argue (in a very Southeast Asian way) that the natural, experiential fact, may be one of discontinuity; the illusion is the Western one of continuity and stability. See Bloch’s much earlier critique of this kind of thinking. (Bloch 1977)
  8. [8]See also critiques and extensions of dualistic interpretations of Mausian gift versus commodity economies in, for example, Gregory (1982), Carrithers (1985), Carrier (1991;1995a;1995b).
  9. [9]Bell, to whom Campbell barely refers, had certainly recognised this, but the whole thrust of his work was to draw out the conflict between them.
  10. [10]As McCracken’s  (1990) review of Campbell notes.
  11. [11]McCracken (1990) was later to criticise him for being unfamiliar with whole bodies of literature in anthropology and psychology of hedonism, American studies and semiotics and even consumer behaviour. Since then there has been massive work on this. See inter alia Brewer 1993;1995a;1995b (reviewed critically by Clunas 1999) and 1997.
  12. [12]McCracken’s review notes the common concern of these authors on the history of consumer culture to explain the modern transformation of Western societies in terms other than the industrial revolution, a concern he traces back through McKendrick (1982) to Braudel (1973) , where Braudel differs from Wallerstein’s later accounts of feudal agrarian transformation in extending capitalistic features to the great empires of the past and to fourteenth century Italy.
  13. [13]Again he cites a much earlier historical writer, Draper (1929), as saying that between 1660 and 1760, the middle classes reinterpreted Protestantism on a sentimental rather than a Calvinist basis.
  14. [14]Although Macfarlane (1978, p. 171) cites sources talking of how English men and women changed their fashions every year in Elizabethan England!
  15. [15]Like Ci Jiwei (1994;146), who says it is a ‘short step’ from the consequentialism of (individualist) hedonism to (collectivist) utilitarianism, Porter sees utilitarianism as hedonist; my own view is that the rational self of Bentham and Mills is radically different from the ‘romantic’ self of a Baudelaire or Verlaine. Utility may be pleasurable and result in happiness, but ‘of use’ is also a primary concept here, which is diametrically opposed to the valorization of the unnecessary, the luxurious,  the wasteful, by the decadent predecessors of consumerism.
  16. [16]Porter (2003) supplies a much more detailed account of historical transformations in conceptions of the relationship between the body and soul, or self, yet in many ways the account is an expanded version of Porter (1996)), seeming somewhat oddly to argue, despite repeated disavowals, for a single ‘standard model’ of the self up to the eighteenth century, based on ambivalent Christian doctrines towards the flesh, which then became displaced by a new psychology (Porter 2003;470).
  17. [17]Although currently we may be witnessing something like a ‘recovery of the subject’ (Delanty 2003).
  18. [18]Merleau-Ponty (1960) shows how an ‘extroceptive’ experience of the body is imposed on an inchoate ‘introceptive’ one, and by defining consciousness as a ‘relation to the world’, denied the assumptions of classical psychology that the psyche is ‘radically inaccessible’ to others . Language itself is a gesticulation, a reaching towards the world (Merleau-Ponty 1974).
  19. [19]Baudrillard (1981) similarly distinguishes the ‘symbolic exchange’ of  pre-modern society from the production orientation of the modern, and both from the primacy of ‘simulation’ in the post-modern. For both Bataille (1947) and Baudrillard, there seems to be a sense in which the ‘production ethos’ represents an unnatural restraint on man’s original wild, extravagant, creative spirit.
  20. [20]See Ricoeur (1971) for an original comparison of social action (rather than the product) to the text. Bourdieu (1984) also remarks that ‘Consumption is…a stage in a process of communication…an act of deciphering, decoding’.
  21. [21]Eco (1992) argues almost plaintively for more attention to the intention of the text, rather than that of the author or interpreter, and in the final analysis appeals to Gadamer’s ‘interpretive tradition’ for criteria to limit (over-) interpretation (Tapp 2001).
  22. [22]While this is seen as a process of the endless future generation of significances, it is also paradoxically a process of infinite recursion towards an ever-vanishing point of original loss.
  23. [23]We may also relate this figure of authority to the ‘presence of the original’ on which, as Benjamin (1936) pointed out in his famous essay, notions of authenticity depend.
  24. [24]The dominance of the ‘Cartesian’ model is noted by most commentators. Rumsey (2003) notes that a theory of subjectivity as grounded in linguistic usage and relational contrast of the type propagated by Benveniste (1939) is ‘at variance’ with the Cartesian model and is more akin to phenomenological approaches.
  25. [25]I am thinking of Spivak (1988) here; for the controversy over Hmong claims of chemical warfare see Seagrave 1981; Evans 1983.
  26. [26]See Rumsey (2003), who points out how Merleau-Ponty’s embodied view of consciousness supplied an early corrective to Benveniste’s view. The question of both pre-linguistic and non-linguistic consciousness (Bloch 1991) is crucial. Contrast Rorty (1989;21), whose pragmatic rather than his existentialist views lead him to assert that ‘we have no prelinguistic consciousness’ and insist on this as essential to his arguments (for example, that ‘truth is a property of sentences’).

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