The self as painting: we become who we are through repetition and representation. Encumbered only by our imagination and the culture in which we find ourselves, we craft ourselves through iterated projects of self-representation. We might find the materials available to us limiting, in which case we might seek out a more diverse palette of cultural ideas through which to express that which we are and wish to be. We might also seek to refine our technique, extending the range of our potential selves by expanding our capacities to represent them. But the process is fundamentally repetitive. We begin within constraints but once we start painting, it’s up to us what we do. The freedom exercised through this is one of redescription, in Richard Rorty’s sense, something which Roy Bhaskar once critiqued as relying on a ‘free-wheeling’ conception of freedom: it doesn’t hook on to the world, to the definitive ways in which things are at any given point in time, with all the constraints and limitations which this entails.
Its appeal rests on the prospect of everlasting freedom. We can dispense with any one painting once we grow dissatisfied, throwing it away to restart in pursuit of ever richer and more vivid representations of our self. But there is an element of fantasy in this, refining our representation of self potentially at the cost of losing touch with the reality of who we are and where we are at any given moment. To craft the self as painting represents a private project of self-creation. It approaches the challenges of existence in an aesthetic register, one which cuts us off from our selves and from others in an ever-so subtle way, while holding out the (always retreating) promise of endless freedom in inner life, whatever the world out there holds for us and what we care about.
The self as sculpting: through a sustained engagement with the material we find in our selves and our lives, we gradually produce the person we aim to be through our crafting of self. The process is subtractive, rather than additive. We select, refine and remove in a way that is path-dependent, often finding unexpected limitations which follow from the whole sequence of past choices we have made. The further we go in this process, the less room for manoeuvre we have because our form becomes progressively more concrete with time. To become who we are depends on what was latent with us, but how this comes to take the form it does depends on the world we have found ourselves in and how we have chose to make our way through it.
We shape the clay but we do not choose it and our understanding of the range of possibilities latent within it will always be constrained by circumstance and experience. When the promise of the protean self is ubiquitous, tempting us with the idea that the only limit on who we can be is our imagination, the limitations of the clay can seem suffocating. But there is a freedom within these constraints. A profound, challenging and subtle freedom which refuses the reduction of existence to aesthetics.