Friday, September 13, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Is There an Authentic Self?

Rather than start this post with rhetorical theory (sorry! I know how excited you were to see some, but you're going to have to wait!), I'm going to talk about movies. Two, in particular. Knocked Up and The Butterfly Effect. (And I will definitely spoil the ending of both, so don't read any more if you care about that kind of thing.)

On the surface, these two might not seem to have much in common. Knocked Up is a lighthearted comedy with a feel-good conclusion complete with sappy song montage. The Butterfly Effect is so dark that an alternate ending in which the protagonist strangles himself with his own umbilical cord in the womb is supposed to be a good thing.

At the heart of both films, though, is a common theme: do we have an essential or authentic self, and can it be tampered with by the interference of others.

In The Butterfly Effect, Ashton Kutcher's character, Evan, repeatedly travels back to different points in his childhood to try to create a different future, particularly for his friend Kayleigh (played by Amy Smart). Over the course of several failed attempts to create a future in which everyone is happy, Evan realizes that in order to save Kayleigh, he must give up the idea that he is supposed to be with her.

In one particular version of the future, his interference with the past creates a version of Kayleigh who is a drug-addicted prostitute, signaling the depth to which his own selfishness in wanting to be with her had pushed him. There is another possible future where his actions actually lead to Kayleigh's death but--in some ways--the representation of her as a desperate and depressed prostitute rings as more tragic. He has, the film seems to suggest, radically altered who she is supposed to be.

In Knocked Up, a similar tension exists, albeit not in quite as dramatic a form. When Alison (Katherine Heigl) becomes pregnant after a one-night stand with Ben (Seth Rogen), the two begin an unlikely relationship. Ben's fratboy-like antics and stoner culture become incompatible with his future role as father and committed partner. At one point, Alison leaves him because she thinks it is unfair of her to ask him to become something that he is not. When this prompts him to realize how much he wants to be in that role, he gets a job and works to win her back (cue sappy music).

So, what of this idea? Was Ben essentially a stoner who wanted to sleep all day and watch movies for boob shots with his friends? Was Kayleigh authentically a good girl who innately deserved that dream wedding she gets in the end of the umbilical cord clip? To put it another way, was the Ben who cleaned up, moved into his own apartment, and got a job a fake? Was the Kayleigh who was also a prostitute an imposter?

The Authentic Self

Here's the thing. I think the idea of an "authentic self" is bullshit. (If I end up using this in my dissertation, I'll find a more delicate way of saying that.) 

We don't have an authentic self. We are always a product of the interactions with people around us. They aren't interfering with the production of our identities; our interactions with them are the production of our identities. 

This is relevant to rhetorical theory because identity is intimately tied up with language. We use language to create our identities and to project those created identities to the world. It is through language that we develop a sense of self and determine how that self we've developed interacts with others' developed and projected selves. 

I've talked about this in the past, particularly when it comes to labels and clothing. I am a lot of things. I am a wife, a mother, a friend, a student, a teacher, a feminist, a humanist, a liberal, a daughter . . . Each of those identities is important to me, and each is dependent upon other people for their very existence. I am not a teacher without students. I am not a feminist without a collective society in which the concept of gender exists. I am not a liberal without a political system that creates the need for such thinking. It is through interacting with the other people in the social world around me that I find these things in the first place. 

Other people, to put it rhetorically, are the exigence for identity construction. They are the reason that we have something to say, and it is that something that makes us who we are. 

Reading Debra Hawhee's Bodily Arts has been the catalyst for this particular discussion. In it, she argues that the Greek concept of agonism is tied directly to the Greek conception of athletics. She gives a thorough explanation of agonism from its ancient roots to its contemporary application, including an interesting discussion of how the term is used in pharmacology:
the term 'agonism' designates the bonding of a drug chemical with what is termed a receptor, a special area on the outer surface of the cell membrane. The agonistic bonding then triggers a change in cellular activity. In other words, agonism denotes an encounter, the production of a response, and a subsequent change in both substances
Counter to the concept of pharmacological agonism is that of antagonism:
By contrast, a drug that produces the opposite effect--i.e., blocking a receptor or inhibiting response--is termed antagonistic
We don't have many layman conceptions of agonism, even though the actual act of agonism occurs around us constantly. I'd be willing to bet that some of the people reading this have never even heard the word before, but we've probably all heard of antagonism. In American culture, in particular, I think we are very suspicious of agonism because it calls into question our individualistic ethos.

We want to believe that we are rugged individuals who work to "find" our authentic selves in the face of great adversity. (Think of all the times you've heard of people who are going to "find themselves" or those who have "lost their way" or "lost themselves to temptation.") Typically, we believe that there is a "self" to lose or find, an authentic, raw, unaltered, real identity that can be tampered with, hidden, or sullied, but that is ultimately true and pure beneath those threats.

We antagonistically put on the armor of individualism in order to "protect" our "true" selves from the influence of others.


We are (as a recent conversation with a professor pointed out) incredibly leery of advertisements because we feel as if they are trying to "trick" us. We call people "fake" or "sell outs" for talking professionally in one setting while using slang in another. We wonder if Ben really should give up his pot smoking ways just to please his nagging baby mama and cheer Evan's selfless act of letting Kayleigh go because it allows her to be her true self. And we worry a lot about our own sense of authentic identity. Are we being true to ourselves? Have we found ourselves? Have we lost our way?

If, instead, we were able to recognize that there is no "authentic" self without the influence of others that, in fact, our identities are constructed agonistically, we'd be able to do a better job of "protecting" our selves from truly negative influence.

Alison really did change Ben's identity by entering his life. She became pregnant with his child, and that situation served as an exigence for him to write a new layer to his identity. Did he kill off his former self? The film doesn't show us their post-baby life together, but I'm confident in saying no. The "self" that used to smoke pot and watch movies for flashes of boobs is still there. It's just that now he has another set of external concerns to become the primary exigence for the identity he puts forward most forcefully.

And he changed Alison, too. The film shows this when Alison is having fun with his roommate's, pausing a film and yelling "boob, boob!" to show that she has enthusiastically joined in their habits. When two people interact, they both change. It is an agonistic exchange.

Recognizing that this kind of interaction is simply part of the process of identity construction (not a sullying of our "true selves" that must be avoided) gives us a lot of power. Once we see that our interactions with others are agonistic and deeply important to our layered and complex sense of self, we are able to pay more attention to who we interact with and why. We are also able to recognize that no sense of self is ever complete. If we are unhappy with our current sense of identity, we have the power to change it by seeking out new exigences, new settings, new interactions.

Photo: Craig Loftus


  1. You might want to check out the mimetic anthropology of Rene Girard and others. At its heart is an anthropological understanding of desire as essentially mimetic, and thus the self is constituted by the desires received from others.

    I blogged an extremely brief summary of mimetic anthropology last year; and I also heartily recommend the work of Rebecca Adams,

    Adams, Rebecca, “Loving Mimesis and Girard’s ‘Scapegoat of the Text’: A Creative Reassessment of Mimetic Desire,” in Violence Renounced, Studies in Peace and Scripture 4 (Telford, PA: Pandora, 2000), 277–307.
    which I plan to blog soon.

  2. I should also add, I'd never heard the words "agonism" or "agonistic" before reading your blog; and I'm interested that rhetoric leads you to a similar understanding of the self, but not too surprised, because Girard's work began in literary analysis.