On pg 57 of George Packer’s Unwinding, he describes how Oprah Winfrey’s rhetoric of authenticity and openness co-exist with a pronounced tendency to exercise control over representations of herself:

She exalted openness and authenticity, but she could afford them on her own terms. Anyone allowed into her presence had to sign away freedom of speech for life. She bought the rights to every photograph of herself and threatened to sue anyone who infringed the inviolability of her image. She withdrew her autobiography just weeks before publication after friends warned that it revealed too much about some parts of her life even as it falsified others. Her face underwent drastic alterations year by year.

At risk of stating the obvious, the capacity to make this demands is unevenly distributed. But so was the impulse to do so, at least pre-digitalisation. Only celebrities incited a sufficient proliferation of representations to make such a demand coherent. However once digitalisation becomes ubiquitous, the predicament of the celebrity begins to generalise throughout society for two reasons:

  1. More representations of individuals will tend to be produced
  2. Past representations are progressively less likely to decay

What might have been purely the prerogative of the celebrity under past conditions becomes a predicament faced by increasingly numbers of people, still with wildly different capacities to exercise control over representations of themselves. The capacity to exercise such control is going to become ever more important with each passing year, as well as ever more unequally distributed.

In his book about Richard Rorty Neil Gross makes interesting use of the notion of self-concept, understanding it as the totality of things an individual thinks and feels to be true about themselves. Our investment in a self-concept shapes our interaction by engendering tendencies towards its preservation:

Beyond suggesting that actors are motivated to protect the integrity of their self-concepts against efforts to “spoil” their identities and lower their self-esteem, social psychologists argue that there is a “motive to act in accordance with the self-concept and to maintain it intact in the face of potentially challenging evidence. People behave in a fashion consistent with the pictures they hold of themselves and interpret any experience contradictory to this self-picture as a threat […] David Demo reports that “people selectively interact with others who see them as they see themselves . . ., actively choose roles . . . and social environments . . . that are consistent with their self-conceptions . . ., selectively attend to self-confirmatory feedback . . ., and reinterpret, devalue, or dismiss discrepant feedback.

Neil Gross, Richard Rorty: The making of an American philosopher

However I think it is important to draw an analytical distinction between self-concept and the self-presentational strategies which may emerge from a concern to preserve this in particular situated contexts. In analysing the relationship between the former and the latter, we encounter three distinct elements: the self-concept, the situation and the self-presentational strategies arising from the former in the context of the latter. Unless we draw this distinction, we run the risk of conflating what is a response to the situation from what is an impulse emerging from the self-concept. To use an academic example, I tend to avoid talking about critical realism when I’m in a sexuality studies context whereas I talk about critical realism a lot when I’m in a social theory context. Being a critical realist is part of my academic self-concept but this divergent self-presentation is much more a response to divergent situational dynamics than it is an expression of the self-concept itself. How I see myself doesn’t change in the two settings but how I orientate myself towards interaction with others in particular settings does – by distinguishing between self-concept and self-presentation, it becomes much easier to get a grip on what is making the difference here.

The notion of self-concept helps anchor that of self-presentation, foregrounding how a personal property (the totality of beliefs about the self) plays itself out in relation to a social property (the characteristics of the situation in question). It helps avoid the temptation to think in terms of serial reinvention, which Craib ably critiques:

it is important to consider under what conditions one might be able to prescribe, erase and rewrite one’s identity. It is a way of thinking perfectly appropriate to short communication on the Internet. Once I am seen my ability to revise my identity is limited: I cannot become a blonde teenage girl or a man who is 120 years old; I cannot become a muscular giant or a dwarf. And contact must be short-lived. With regularity of contact comes a recognition of the patterns in characteristics, languages, ideas, etc. It is a way of being that is only possible within the imagination, can bear little contact with an external reality, and cannot outlast anything but the most cursory human contact.

Ian Craib, Experiencing Identity, Pg 7

What Craib identifies here are the social constraints/enablements upon self-presentation. I’m suggesting that ‘self-concept’ is a useful way to theorise the personal constraints/enablements upon self-presentation. My self-presentation is always enacted within a social context (with the limitations Craib elucidates) and within a personal context (with the affective restrictions emergent from my past history) but is also shaped by the interaction between the two. In this sense self-presentation should be seen as a personal power, exercised in relation to personal constraints/enablements and social constraints/enablements, which can bring about a change in the person themselves. Part of what conditions our self-concept now is how past trajectories* of self-presentation and our negotiation of the responses of others to them. These in turn will contribute, in part, towards our future self-concept.

In my next post I want to consider how personal identity and social identity fit into this picture. In Margaret Archer’s account of identity, drawing on Harry Frankfurt and Charles Taylor, my personal identity is constituted by my elaborated constellation of personal concerns: we are what we love. Our social identity is constituted by the social roles in which we invest ourselves, which we deem to be worthwhile or not in virtue of our personal concerns. In this sense, personal identity shapes the acquisition of social identity but also conditions how we personify the roles in which we invest ourselves.

I think self-concept and self-presentation are useful in helping to flesh out this account. The former provides a psychological grounding and the latter an interactive grounding to her account of identity acquisition. I think this evaluative understanding of personal identity in turn helps flesh out the notion of self-concept. Rather than ascribing a uniform impulse towards the preservation of self-concept to human beings as such, we instead start to crack open the intra-active dynamics and get a sense of the variable motivations underlying threats and affirmations to self-concept. Not all aspects of our self-concept matter to us equally – I don’t think I’d care less if someone argued I wasn’t really a critical realist whereas I think it would provoke me (to say the least) if someone said I wasn’t really an animal lover (as my internalised vegan sometimes say when berating myself for continuing to eat dairy out of expediency and a hatred of soy milk). Both are aspects of my self-concept (critical realist + animal lover) but gaining traction upon how one matters to me but the other doesn’t necessitates the concept of personal identity in Archer’s sense.

*In the sense that self-presentation is not something that can be seen as an ‘act’. Though I think there are nodal points, ‘fateful moments’ though we need to be careful with that idea, which shape our self-presentation. Particular situations which changed our self-concept (positively or negatively) and shaped future trajectories of self-presentation.