Editor's Choice

The pleasure of multiple selves

In the Atlantic, Paul Bloom has an article about the ways in which having multiple personalities is not a disorder so much as it is a natural part of our psychological apparatus. (The disorder comes when our multiple selves grow unruly.) Bloom is interested in how this proliferation of identities relates to the sorts of questions that often come up in behavioral economics, the conflict between short-term gratification and long-term rational prudence.

We used to think that the hard part of the question “How can I be happy?” had to do with nailing down the definition of happy. But it may have more to do with the definition of I. Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another. This theory might explain certain puzzles of everyday life, such as why addictions and compulsions are so hard to shake off, and why we insist on spending so much of our lives in worlds­—like TV shows and novels and virtual-reality experiences—that don’t actually exist.
The latter part is what caught my attention, because I've had an interest in the concept of vicarious pleasure from when I studied 18th century novels. Bloom notes the ubiquity of vicarious pleasure and it's centrality to modern life:
The population of a single head is not fixed; we can add more selves. In fact, the capacity to spawn multiple selves is central to pleasure. After all, the most common leisure activity is not sex, eating, drinking, drug use, socializing, sports, or being with the ones we love. It is, by a long shot, participating in experiences we know are not real—reading novels, watching movies and TV, daydreaming, and so forth.

Enjoying fiction requires a shift in selfhood. You give up your own identity and try on the identities of other people, adopting their perspectives so as to share their experiences. This allows us to enjoy fictional events that would shock and sadden us in real life.

I always figured the roots of that primacy of vicarious pleasure were in the development of the novel, since the novel, the printed book, was the first reified form of that elusive pleasure that comes with being able to escape into fantasy, to become another self for the sake of entertainment. For the first time, the kind of self-fashioning became a product that could sit dormant on a shelf instead of an elaborate experience that required social engagement. Typically this pleasure that novels reliably supplied on demand was condemned as "escapism" -- and it is an undeniably antisocial pleasure to withdrawal from company into a guided tour of your own imagination.

Novels were also condemned for setting bad examples, for divorcing experience from moral responsibility; as Bloom points out, fictions allow us to experience as pleasure the sadistic doings of a Tony Soprano. Lots of early novels, especially during the "age of sensibility" in the second half of the 18th century, made this their explicit subject -- they investigated our ability to sympathize with others and in a way become them, and they encouraged readers to experience vicariously such dignifying scenarios as giving alms to the poor and protecting innocent virgins and so on. Adam Smith founded his moral philosophy on this notion of sympathy in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

But the special pleasure of fiction is that you can imaginatively experience both the side of the hero and the villain simultaneously and vicariously derive pleasure from both, nullifying the presumed moral edification that was supposed to be involved. Fiction doesn't yield just one new self, but multiple selves simultaneously. This proliferation is rightly recognized as a subversive form of pleasure, though early entrepreneurs quickly seized upon it, and used it as the foundation of marketing, which in turn spawned the profitable market for mass-manufactured consumer goods. In trying to sell these goods, the entrepreneurs, proto-Barnums all of them, took their cues from how novels worked on their readers; they presented the goods as opportunities for buyers to imagine new selves for themselves, not mere opportunities to simply acquire useful household items. Goods were transformed into implements of a fantasy lifestyle, less useful in and of themselves than as prompts for deeply imagined fantasies. (Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch offers an extreme illustration of this. In the novel, workers who are marooned on a inhospitable planet are supplied with miniature, doll-house versions of the comforts they have been forced to surrender and a drug that lets them project themselves into the universe of the doll house, and imagine a whole luxury-filled life based those miniatures. The drug proves irresistible and highly addictive.) The early middle class's experience with fiction, with the forced fantasy of moral sympathy and sensibility, prepared them for the pleasures of lifestyle marketing, whose efficacy helped grow the consumer goods market. From our handling of fictional narratives, perhaps, grows our facility with maintaining multiple selves in a way that is pleasurable rather than psychotic. But do we become addicted to the procuring of new selves rather than developing and integrating the ones appropriate to our situation in society?

Typically, critics of vicarious pleasure (me included) argue that it robs us of the opportunity to experience some true, authentic pleasure, that would presumably reflect our true natures. But if the research that Bloom highlights is correct, it substantiates what postmodern theorists have also suggested, namely that there is no one authentic self whose pleasures and desires need to discovered and privileged -- no master self whose integrity is threatened by the simulacrums offered through vicarious experience. Instead we are by nature a plurality of possibilities, anchoring our sense of self in contextual clues, in the exigencies of the moment, and delighting in the freedom of being whatever we can imagine in the circumstances that present themselves, whether it prompted by prepackaged entertainment or by the sort of situations we manage to blunder into in our lives.

In fact, the fantasy of a master self whose authenticity is sacrosanct and unalterable, is one of the appealing fictions that marketing most masterfully exploits. It is always promising us what we "really" want, encouraging us to find and gratify our true desires, to become who we really are, to get in touch with our nature. This "true self" may in fact be the best fictive creation of advertisers, their most pleasing fantasy on offer -- the "real" you" that knows no contradiction or insecurity or indecisiveness about what it wants. Perhaps it is no accident that shopping has become the primary forum in which we seek to discover the authentic self; that may be the only habitat in which such a creature exists.

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