I know I’ve taken months to respond, but I want to start by saying how much I appreciate your awareness of certain behaviours and codes of ethics, and your turning on its head what may sound good and even utopian but doesn’t work for your sense of what it means to be and perform yourself. You say that there is a necessary and “normal” holding back parts of oneself from others, that we curate ourselves, and present the aspects that we know (maybe even without knowing) are acceptable or attractive or necessary or seductive to the other. So you ask me how I propose to judge the difference between that and a more terrified and incapacitated form of witholding or hiding. Well, the kind of splitting I’m addressing is the one in which it would be too scary to know, to show a part of oneself, and so that part is effectively partitioned, rejected, unacceptable. The poor sea cucumber in the poem is not jettisoning a part of itself because it wants to present a cuter or sexier version of itself. It’s feeling so endangered that it can see no escape other than self-division, a savage sacrifice in other to preserve some remnant of itself. Bare survival.
What I am urging us to attend to are not the ordinary playing of different roles that we do in everyday life, but the dissociative moments in which it does not feel safe to show parts of yourself to yourself or to another. When that part is too terrifying or disgusting or weak or vulnerable to expose. I think our task is to try to know, as much as we can, the ways in which we are constrained by others or by what we imagine others to think of us. We are oppressed by others because they are scared of ways we present, and we oppress others for the same reason.
However, this makes me sound wiser than I am, as if I am totally outside of the neoliberal ideology of subjectivity, in which the self is coherent, self-reliant, and knowable. In fact, I have a split in my own thinking, and I simultaneously inhabit two contradictory things at once:
How much can any of us live on a daily basis not thinking of ourselves as a coherent self? Ideologically, our culture is all about the affirmation of a self that knows what it wants, says what it means, and is self-aware and expressive. Our language is filled with ideas about self-knowledge that assume an inside, a depth, an inner wisdom, a movement towards “knowing oneself.” In fact, it has become a responsibility. We are supposed to know what we think, behave accordingly, be productive versions of ourselves, and feel empowered as we do so. There is little room in our legal, political, educational, or affective systems to be confused or driven by contradictory desires or by unknown fears, and we are expected to know our minds.