The “Me” Syndrome

A few months ago, I had been feeling sick with symptoms that were unfamiliar to me. The most troubling symptom had been a morbid self-fascination. It was like biofeedback gone haywire. I was constantly monitoring myself to the exclusion of all external stimuli so that the sheer act of communication felt like an unbelievable nuisance — do you mind? I’m trying to hear the blood coursing through the veins in my ears. Wait — was that a palpitation? Ultimately I became so preoccupied with myself that I had to go to the doctor. The doctor could find nothing wrong with me; she told me to take some ibuprofen and try to relax.

This started me thinking that self-awareness itself could be the very definition of illness, the core symptom that underlies all experiences of being sick. Whatever your ailment, you are thrown back upon yourself in a way you aren’t in health. You are forced to think of yourself and your body first before you can choose any course of action or have any social exchanges. If that’s true, then the degree to which our society encourages self-awareness, self-monitoring (c.f. Weber’s argument in The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) is the degree to which ours is a sick society.

There may be no greater freedom than the freedom from thinking constantly about yourself, which is basically the definition of insecurity. Our culture, however, is an insecurity-generating machine, with the consumer economy rooted in selling commodities designed to assuage the insecurity carefully engineered not only by omnipresent ads, but by the very discourses that structure the way we conceive of ourselves (the law, medicine, education, etc.). Sickness is an awareness of a lack. Or at least we’ve come to see it that way, because so much of our life experience revolves around perceiving our lacks and trying to rectify them. We are missing some right, some piece of clothing, some feeling of self-possession. Every moment of self-awareness seems like a moment of owning ourselves, but it’s really a furtive admission that we don’t have self-possession. Our desperate self-inventories merely catalog the ways in which we are dependent on the structures around us to feel an illusion of completion, of security. We all yearn for life stories that are at least somewhat conventional, to provide protection from the very real fact that we could randomly contract some fatal disease on any given day and die. No conventional story our culture tells plays out that way.

When I went to the doctor, I was trying to shift the burden of my self-awareness onto her, make her become aware of me instead of it being my sole responsibility. In her office, while narrating my symptoms, I tried to sell her on my illness, choosing piquant details to make my condition more convincing, more compelling. I felt like I was telling a story and telling it wrong, and badly (I felt like an MFA student all over again). I had an urge to embellish it with more colorful symptoms, with more exciting syndromes. I didn’t want to disappoint her. In some ways I was confessing, in other ways I was offering a defense for myself.

Once we decide to participate in the medical-discourse game by going to a doctor, it becomes important that all the symptoms we decide to mention fit the etiology of some disease. The details of self we share must conform to the story of some sickness, otherwise we will not experience the closure we’re looking for, we won’t be liberated from the panic that is the random ebb and flow that really is our life by having a formulaic plot to conform to.

Hyper-self-awareness becomes a real problem then. As I dredged up more and more symptoms, they became more and more difficult to fit into the narrative. Did I want to scrutinize myself into a special case, transcending the formula that I yearned for? Mine was a familiar contradiction of modern life: I wanted a predictable, conforming life to save me from the terrors of uncertainty, the chance that I might be somewhere unpredictably awful tomorrow. Yet at the same time, I wanted to be more important individually than any formulaic story that could be told about me. Our species wants to believe it is capable of anything, even of having a uniquely personal illness the likes of which no one has ever before seen. Hence, hypochondria as a social norm, and the secret fantasy of having a syndrome named after you.

So I was in the doctor’s office, explaining the Me Syndrome, the special complex of symptoms I’ve been singled out with. But I was acutely aware that the “me” I was describing in laying out my symptoms was not the “me” I live with day-in-and-day-out in my consciousness. Nor was it even the me that had been so health-paranoid. How could this inane chit-chat do anything to resolve my health concerns? Shouldn’t they be sticking me into the CAT scan machine? Drawing blood or something? I heard myself talking in this utterly phony voice, a voice I use when I’m talking to bank tellers or barbers. I sounded like I was on TV.

Suddenly I understood reality TV a little better. What people are doing in trying to get on TV or by making films of themselves or by vicariously projecting themselves into reality shows is nothing different than what I was doing in the doctor’s office: they are trying to share the burden of their self-regard by becoming aware of how much others are regarding them. There’s something fundamentally healing in having someone else listen to you talk about yourself. In a commercial society, the recognized and socially sanctioned way of procuring this attention is to package yourself as a commodity, to transform yourself into entertainment.

After my doctor’s visit, having had the doctor’s benediction, I was finally free to think about something else other than my symptoms. Nothing had changed, but yet everything was different. All she needed to do was not seem especially alarmed by what I was telling her, and I was suddenly free to move on. It’s amazing what that moment of attention can do.

So it would seem that the feat of narrating oneself, of constantly recasting one’s own experiences as a coherent story, is both a necessity and a burden, and the pursuit of having that story perpetually validated will dictate our social lives. Is there no way out? In “Against Narrative”, in the 15 October 2004 Times Literary Supplement, Galen Strawson suggests an alternative, arguing against the notion that one must narrate a life story to oneself in order to live a meaningful, fulfilling life. By rejecting self-narrativity, one can eschew the kind of self-fashioning that consumerism relies upon and exploits.

The problem with crafting a personal life story is that it allows marketers to insinuate their stories for one that might have emerged organically. Marketing provides us with the counter stories and excuses, the rationalizations and consoling fictions to help us rewrite our personal history, conform it to social expectations while evading the responsibility to be honest with others. Living without narrative seems akin to the radical prescription for a life in the margins, in the interstices of an indefeasible hegemony. When the “systems of oppression” can’t pin you down as an individual, they can’t define you and oppress you, the way, say, ads do when they call you out and grab your attention, like Williamson describes in Decoding Advertisements. It’s like this: you’re not an asshole until you turn around when someone yells “Hey asshole!” Then you confirm that social view of you, and internalize it. But to ignore all of society’s calls would be to lead a fairly lonely life.

Modern commodities have little in the way of pure utility: few are truly necessary. Instead, as anthropologists Baron Isherwood and Mary Douglas argue in The World of Goods, they constitute a kind of material language that serves to facilitate our making a narrative of who we are. We define ourselves by the story of what we own, the goods remind us of the story. Under capitalism, this discourse of goods becomes the master discourse, the only authorized way to express and thereby discover truths about one’s inner life.

If Strawson is right, we can dispense with that story, and perhaps, too, the goods. The problem is that Strawson also advocates living only in the present moment: “in the midst of the beauty of being”. We should not stop to think about who we are or what limits we might have decided to set for ourselves through an overarching autobiography in progress. Having no limits sounds nice, a total existential freedom that is our birthright. But this life without limits, this wallowing in solipsistic hedonism is likely to be even more materialistic as well as profoundly antisocial, since another of the purposes of a personal life story is to make oneself legible, accessible, and thereby reliable to others.

These are prerequisites for any kind of relationship. Refusing to narrate oneself is to refute the very logic of cause and effect: you refuse to connect incidents in your past to where you are now. Not only would this leave you prone to repeat the same fruitless choices the way addicts do, but it’s a profoundly anti-social refusal to recognize and assess what effect you’ve had on others. And the social dimension of life is ultimately where the rewards of being emerge. Of course, this story will be sentimentalized in accordance with current cliches and genre tropes, of course, this story will be largely fictional as it relates to the actual past. But it might be absolutely necessary in order make someone available to another in a way that permits more than purely sensual interaction, to make people something more to each other than strange ships passing in the night.

It’s another iteration of the contradiction I experienced in the doctor’s office, where I wanted to be unique but be rationalized via a comforting explanation. We want the ‘no boundaries’ imposed by our identity, but we don’t want to be completely alienated. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville offers the classic articulation of this dilemma: “In democratic republics … the body is left free and the soul is enslaved. The master no longer says, “You shall think as I do or you shall die;” but he says, “You are free to think differently from me and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but you are henceforth a stranger among your people…. Your fellow creatures will shun you as an impure being; and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they should be shunned in their turn.” The cost of non-conformity, the price of the Me Syndrome, is the living death of social alienation.

Reality TV, in its endless dramatization of the casuistry of mitigating circumstances — such as how certain lies becomes necessary to move on to the next round of Survivor, or certain humiliations are unfortunately avoidable in the pursuit of plastic-surgery perfection — may strive to erode all faith in moral certainties to the point where obvious evil can come to seem justified and excused on its own terms without need for forgiveness. Hence, as Lee Siegal argued about The Sopranos in an “The Attraction of Repulsion” from the December 13, 2004 New Republic, on television all Americans appear to be “beings driven by appetite and enticed by America’s promise of absolute gratification on just about every front,” and that “the endless contemporary revelations of inner life and private life … neutralize our attempts to make sense of right and wrong.”

As it continually rehearses how to plumb interior depths to rationalize behavior; TV becomes a training course in how to rationalize inappropriate behavior. What commercial TV does, it’s raison d’etre, is provide viewers with arguments that justify purchases of unnecessary goods. It’s meant to slowly eradicate the resistance that might come from common sense, or abstract logic, or conservative traditions. Psychological interiority is a means to that end.

Typically we presume our depth preexists the ads, and the programs cater to it, dignify it, enshrine it as the storehouse of our essence. The space of our rich inner life constitutes our real self, we think, and the larger that space is, the better. But it may be that that inner-life space is carved out by the very pitches that presume its existence, that the rich inner life is in fact a retreat from life (which consists primarily in social engagement, not withdrawal) and a collapse to a far more vulnerable state where the lack of social connection makes one prone to all sorts of insecurities about oneself and one’s place. The glamorization of the rich inner life is the primary achievement of the culture industry, since what it sells is the kind of ripe fantasy that only one with a rich inner life would prefer to actual living. The rich inner life is the space where passive entertainment happens. It compensates for a stifled life; liberating the interior life, encouraging the imagination to be more free — these aren’t increases in freedom but the signs of one’s being deprived of it, of having one’s real scope limited. The “deeper” we are, the stronger are our chains.

As with the story we tell our doctors to try to get better, we believe this interiority is necessary to understanding ourselves and our deeper motives. But we don’t understand ourselves only when we are isolated from social involvement, as we are to an increasing degree. Interiority makes that alienation worse while it masquerades as its cure. Siegel points out how The Sopranos dramatizes that inwardness is no protection from the vagaries of “real life”. Emotional rationalization suddenly appears “absurd” when contrasted with the more powerful explanatory logics of exploitation and greed. This highlights the function of interiority: to mask exploitation and encourage individuals (newly minted by capitalism’s enormous emphasis on the atomized consciousness) to assume personal responsibility for how they have been shaped by systemic forces much larger than they. When we all assume total personal responsibility for our unique life stories, this nicely protects our economic system, which dictated the story’s most crucial details from scrutiny and protest while ensuring for that system the more insecure, pliable and compliant populace it requires to function.

So in the absence of social life we develop an inner life, which seems feeble, barren even as the advertising and entertainment cultures insist that it is always integral, boundless, the core of our being, the purpose of our consciousness. To stock this inner life, our new responsibility, we participate with new fervidness in consumerism, as this provides us the tools with which to articulate that inner life in the way recognized as authentic, to write a history of our interiority, to ground that interiority in material things. The richness of our inner lives is an illusion, an effect rather than a cause of the way commodities are perceived. It is, in fact, the commodities that have the rich inner life, which they transfer to us. We buy goods thinking we are expressing an inner life through them, but really we are trying to stock the fictitious, nebulous inner life with the qualities we see in these goods.

Unlike our actual real lives, which are limited by mortality, our inner lives are entirely unlimited, can grow and grow perpetually deeper and richer, which suits the capitalist economy, whose sole purpose is to grow larger for the mere sake of it. The ceaseless labor of building that inner self, of forging an identity, is the best possible compensation for the lack of meaningful work in the society at large. Who cares if you spend your day processing medical bills or unloading trucks or answering someone else’ phone? The real work you’re doing in life is getting to know the real you, buying the products that will help you discover what you can really do. As long as you’re afflicted with Me Syndrome, the doldrums of modern life won’t ever trouble you too much.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.