Being Human, Personal Identity and Biography

This is the last of a series of posts in which I’ve looked at Archer’s account of the emotions in Being Human. She sees the internal conversation as rooted in the  ongoing and situated affectivity through which we unavoidably find ourselves connected to our environment. These first-order affective responses are clustered around nature, practice and social interaction. However we also have second-order emotions which emerge through our coming to terms with the implications of these first-order responses. The key concept here is transvaluation through which our first-order emotions actually change, as do we as persons, because the concerns in relation which our unreflective emotional reactions emerge have themselves changed. It’s important to understand how Archer sees this process as unfolding biographically:

To begin with, durable and effective transvaluation is an achievement: not one which can be accomplished straight away and not one which can necessarily be sustained. Not everyone attains to second-order emotionality: some remain confined, at least for long periods, to the first-order. For children and young people, the establishment of a stable second-order is a virtual impossibility because they know insufficient about themselves, the world and the relations between them. Certainly they have an internal conversation, but it is exploratory in nature, confined as it were to the moment of discernment. First-order commentaries vie for precedence amongst one another and often achieve it. Thus minors often go through a succession of short-lived enthusiasms; in parental vocabularies, ‘it’s only a phase’. Since what we are is what we love, nothing guarantees that we love in due order of worth. (Archer 2000: 246)

So in an important sense we can see this process as both situated and experimental. Our affectivity acts in relation to the novelty we encounter as we move, over time, through different social contexts to dispose us towards certain ideas of things we could do or be.  We can conceive of ideas beyond the boundaries of our immediate context (in fact this is integral to Archer’s later notion of meta-reflexivity) but this is the exception rather than the rule. This possibility rests on the objectivity of knowledge, such that someone can always encounter ideas through their codifications in material culture which change how they see their context and the possibility within it and to transcend it. However as I understand her account, the more quotidian source of innovation is simple temporality: people move through the world over time and it’s in this process of exploring possibilities and coming to understand our circumstances that we elaborate ourselves as persons and, in doing so, develop what she terms second-order emotionality.

Young people often conclude just that: that there are limits to the full investment of self in ponies or pop, but it can only be concluded by trying it. These are like dry-runs at a second-order which are inherently unstable because new encounters drive proto-deliberations back to re-discernment. Schooling allows for a progressive exploration of our practical skills, a pinpointing of internal satisfactions (which are often institutionally pre-judged and over-directed because of formal achievements), but the school years are the same ones in which we are also exploring the social relations which give us self-worth, and the two processes rarely run in synch. The first serious love affair can have such first-order precedence, just as can the first essay into a social movement, that any nascent modus viendi is overturned. (Archer 2000: 246)

However the biographical pattern here is not a linear one of ever-increasing self-understanding. In Being Human she talks about ‘drift’ – this is a concept she doesn’t use in the later work on reflexivity, though it clearly manifests itself in the account of fracturing. This is a shame because I think this notion has relevance beyond the fractured reflexives:

Some can remain at the mercy of their first-order pushes and pulls, drifting from job to job, place to place and relationship to relationship. Drift means an absence of personal identity and the accumulation of circumstances which make it harder to form one. Its obverse is not some kind of generalised conformity: its real opposite is the personal adoption of a distinctive lifestyle. The downwards spiral of homelessness and addiction, is downward precisely because it condemns people to being pre-occupied with the satisfaction of first-order commentaries – the next night and the next fix. There is no inevitability here either, because reversal is possible, but it seems it entail subduing the primary of first-order concerns (literally a detoxification), before the internal conversation can truly begin to emerge since it cannot be conducted in the present tense alone. (Archer 2000: 247)

However biographical events can also prove destabilising, as occurrences beyond our control undermine the continuity upon which our modus vivendi had previously rested and we are forced to reconsider what matters to us and what we can and should do about it:

The most obvious and universal are those associated with the life-cycle, where for many people milestones consist in children going to school, leaving home, retirement, bereavement and ageing, which may preclude certain activities and, finally, entail entering care. Common contingencies include involuntary redundancy, chronic illness, bereavement, changes of political regime, economic recession, enforced migration, scientific transformations and so forth. In all of these cases a commitment may be unsustainable because its object has somehow changed or gone. These are nodal points which prompt a re-opening of the internal conversation. Sometimes there is resistance, rejection and disorientation associated with a new phase of discernment, as the person hankers after the status quo ante, often experiencing not just grief but anger and recrimination towards the cause of its disruption. Thus the bereaved are counselled not to make major decisions immediately. Those made redundant often go through a period of intensive job applications which, if unsuccessful, can lead to a radical disorientation in which there is no reason to get up in the morning, to dress or not to run day into night. Things can become so dark that we cannot see there is a drawing board to which to return. (Archer 2000: 247)

However this destabilisation can be brought about in different ways. These are instances where it is the properties and powers of the social which undermine our modus vivendi. But the properties and powers of the personal can also be involved here: “we may simply have got it wrong in our assessment of concerns and costs” (Archer 2000: 248).

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