“De-Socialized” Self-Identity and Liberating Self-Awareness

The unexamined life is not worth living.

— Socrates

From our earliest years, we are over-socialized.  An organized regimen of daily activity, we are taught, is the basis for a “productive” life.  Such “productivity” — unlike immeasurables such as deepening self-awareness — is later concretely identifiable in such acquisitions as university degrees, “positions,” “achievements,” and so on.  Of course, Calvinist-Puritan Europeans feared that “idle hands did the devil’s work” (sensuality, adultery, drunkenness, etc.).  To “keep busy,” by contrast, was to produce tangible results often beneficial both to self and community.

But what of our highly active, even frenetic, daily lives in the early 21st century?  Of course, substantial effort is expended to develop “marketable skills” — in order to “earn money” and survive. Yet, within the oppressive constraints imposed on us every day, each person may nonetheless nurture an inner, contemplative space — perhaps ultimately unshareable but all-the-more uniquely individual for that.  In fact, as mega-corporate structures have tightened their control of people’s daily habits and inclinations (as in “algorithms,” “nudges,” surveillance, etc.), it becomes all the more imperative that each individual not only “choose-to-refuse” but also steadfastly cultivate an integrated self-identity (cf. my article, “The Sanctum of Self-Identity.”) Notwithstanding the prevailing ideology of “identity-politics” — in which unique individuals are reduced to mere social roles (of “race” and “gender”) — self-identity consists of one’s carefully-shaped values, ideals, critical intellect, and developing emotional/aesthetic temperaments.  In my earlier article “Marcuse: Art and Liberation,” I also insisted that the experience of humanistic art broadens and enriches individual awareness beyond the degrading limits of current social-economic status.

De-socialization — the replacement of externally-imposed behaviors with radical non-compliance and carefully chosen goals of enlightenment and social-political activism — is facilitated by frequent moments of self-observation.  Some quick examples:

  1. Why am I anxious?  Was it something in ‘the news’?  Is it really necessary to follow the daily regurgitation of the ‘media’?”
  2. Why do I feel the insistent need to do something?  Is it fear that global crises are accelerating to the point-of-no-return?  Is this entirely true — or does fear-mongering by the media keep us glued to commercial-driven screens (and various forms of chemical and/or entertainment ‘escapes’)?”
  3. “Is my constant anger and resentment being manipulated and misdirected?  Am I becoming poisoned with hate — and toward group-label abstractions (“fascists,” “liberals,” etc.)?  How else might I confront human ignorance and bigotry?”

Such observations may lead to the recognition of possibly self-destructive and/or anxiety-driven patterns.  (And, as well, the recognition that much of one’s daily activities are unnecessary.)

Notwithstanding our ongoing historical struggle for an egalitarian-communitarian social order, each of us will remain substantially alone.  Indeed, this feeling of inner “privacy” — and thus, a modicum of “alienation” from others — is the price of self-directed autonomy and critical-thinking perceptions of others.  And with it, the enlightened self-realization which constitutes the most intimate form of liberation.

Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.