Monday, 17 May 2010

The I in Ourselves

I used to have a Virginia Woolf quote attached to this blog. It was from my favourite book of hers, The Waves, and since I can't seem to find the book this very second, I have to paraphrase: it is only through the illumination of the eyes of others that we can see ourselves. I got to thinking about this after I finished reading Siri Hustvedt's The Shaking Woman the other day. It seems that there is some biological foundation to Woolf's claim.

I had never thought of this before, but the word "I" appears late in children's speech. They refer to themselves in the third person ("Chris wants chocolate." rather than "I want chocolate". - although trust me, we both do), and their first words and expressions come about in a process of copying those of parents. Like Hustvedt argues, "the beginnings of language are in imitation. We are mirrors of one another." It is almost as if we have to copy others in order to become aware of ourselves.

I wonder whether this tendency to copy could be at the heart of our body image issues. After we learn to think of ourselves as subjects, we soon learn to abstract, objectify and generalize. We begin to create and re-create memories once we learn to speak. We cut and paste familiar words, environments, norms and people in order to create meanings for ourselves. And we keep doing it. Hustvedt says that "[a]ll meaning is generated through repetition." However we see ourselves and our bodies, it is a mash-up of what we have learned, chosen and keep choosing every day.

I guess that despite us having the biological tendency to copy our surroundings, we still need to seek out the material we copy, and we still somehow choose the meanings we create. We could be surrounded by fashion magazines that tell us that we don't look good enough, but we would still have to make the jump to letting it influence us. We construct and re-construct our lives, our memories, and all the meanings that surround us. It doesn't necessarily make us weak because that is how we are. Being influenced by the world is probably how the humankind has learned to survive. But it would be fatalistic to assume that we didn't have any say in the matter.

I know I am simplifying something very complex here, but if meaning is something we make and create for ourselves, and if human beings have free will, we should be able to create the very mental framework of the world we inhabit. Essentially our societies are made of individuals. Group dynamics and the development of societal norms and practices are tough to pin down, and a lot of times these things seem to exist somewhere beyond our grasp. I don't believe this is the case though.

My guess is that what is lost is the voice of "I", the subject. Our positivist, science-loving minds have tended to disregard our own personal narratives for a long time. Maybe we just stopped listening to our own voices at some point because there was something out there that seemed so much more meaningful. One human being is so small, so fragile in the big framework of our universe. We have, at some point in time, begun to reject "I", and what "I" has to say. We easily forget that essentially, without "I", there'd be no meaning. Maybe that is why I love the blogosphere. We are all "I"s, and we all have things to say. We are not creating new science here, but I do think we are changing the way we see ourselves and each other. We have the right to create narratives in order to make sense of the world. And not just create, but also to say them out loud.

Now for something completely different: I feel awful for not having had the time to visit people's blogs recently. I just wanted to give a shout-out to all of my lovely readers. You mean the world to me! And then to a brief Q&A:

Charlotte asked me a while back whether my friend Lynn has an Etsy shop: she used to, but she wasn't able to find an audience. At the moment she is only selling her jewelry at local craft fairs, at-home-parties and in a small art gallery in Johnson City, NY. I hope that she will give another go at online sales at some point, because her stuff is amazing! I also wanted to thank Charlotte for suggesting essay writing. I will certainly look into it!

Modesty is Pretty asked me if I had decided what I was going to do about my hair... and as you might be able to tell by now, I haven't! I am just letting it grow until I get the urge to do something about it.

Velma Vex commented on my faulty use of personal pronouns, and I was relieved to hear that my "language ear" wasn't completely wrong. Ever since I got advice on "X and me", it hasn't always sounded right to me. Thank you for clarifying what the problem was! For future reference: I LOVE receiving comments regarding bad grammar and/or mistakes as weird as that might sound. It is always exciting to weed out my persistent mistakes and try to figure out where they come from. More often than not there is an explanation!

One last thing: in case you haven't already, check out my last week's guest post at Sal's Already Pretty. Sal is such an inspiration, and I felt really lucky to be able to write something for her.

T-shirt: H&M
Skirt: second hand / Salvation Army
Shoes: Steve Madden
Necklace: Lynn's grandmother's old


mirattes said...

i like, that you always creating photos of details, because sometimes details are the most fabulous thing in all outfit.

Sal said...

How completely fascinating. A friend's daughter had such trouble with pronouns as a youngin'. She referred to herself as "you" for AGES because, well, that's what everyone else called her.

As a fiercely independent person, I rebel against the idea that I need others in order to exist myself. But it resonates.

Thanks again for the amazing guest post. People were blown away by it, as you can see by the comments!

Charlotte said...

OK, NOW you have to read Siri's husband's book THE INVENTION OF SOLITUDE. Paul Auster takes on the whole "I/he" issue as he writes this memoir about coming to terms with who his father was, as he's coming to terms with who he is. The first part of the book is written as a first person narrative, the second (which is also all true, a memoir as well) is in third person perspective. I was writing about something else, but I think I'm going to look at pre-verbal memories on my blog, after reading your post. (great necklace!)

Modesty is Pretty said...

Thank you for writing such awesome posts! and taking the time to answer questions! I love your shirt,I actually thought it was vintage. =)

Rad_in_Broolyn said...

Really thought provoking (as usual). My friend's baby does the same thing as Sal's friend- he calls himself, "You."
I do see how we form ourselves and our identity within social contexts, even if the context is very limited. And it's amazing how much of this is done unconsciously too. Even with the style/fashion blog communities, you see many norms/conventions/similarities pop up, the result of of all us looking at eachother.
Thanks for your comment about your experiences with University. When I debated this subject with some of my advanced students a couple years ago, they said something similar. Even though their degrees in politics wouldn't be applicable to future work, they appreciated that college had helped learn how to think better and more clearly.
I love the polka dot skirt, by the way!

A-Dubs said...

Hmm. This is a very interesting post. Have we lost the "I," or must we acknowledge that there is no stable, authentic, autonomous self, or "I." And if we acknowledge that we have no self without other/s, to how, then, must we read so many modern cultures' preoccupation with individuality and individuation?

Hannah said...

Actually your blog is where I first came across that Virgina Woolf quote, and I loved it instantly. It encapsulates one of the things I feel about blogging in a way I can't really describe; you managed it perfectly, though. Many thanks!

(I need eyes on me to draw out these frills and furbelows. To be myself (I note) I need the illumination of other people's eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self. - V Woolf)