Post-modernism and the construct
of the divisible self.

Journal article by William V. Dunning

Abstract: Postmodernism reflects not the death of the self as suggested by John Passmore, but rather the shift from an indivisible to a divisible self. The notion of an indivisible self was a fairly recent development in European history, dating from about the 16th century, but has become anachronistic in current conditions of fragmentation. The work of artist Anselm Kiefer illustrates the connection between representation and identity with postmodern characteristics such as awareness of collective identity, cyclical view of time, fragmentation, religious or mythic references and a focus on polar opposites.

Subjects: Postmodernism - Philosophy
Self - Philosophy
Multiple personality - Social aspects
Electronic Collection: A13772795RN: A13772795
Full Text COPYRIGHT Oxford University Press (UK) 1993

Current Euro-American society is aware of a profusion of alternative modes of thinking and consciousness, derived from other cultures, as no other people or civilization has ever been. The mere awareness of these other points of view enables this society to investigate many alternative realities - expanding consciousness in a manner that has never been available to any other people. Such expanded consciousness seems to shift the contemporary sense of individual identity: more and more we suspect that the twentieth-century Euro-American sense of self is no longer truly unified or indivisible but is instead composed of parts and pieces common to other people and other cultures.

Late twentieth-century thinking, art, science, and world view, are all eclectic. Our concepts and ideas are littered with parts and pieces from other civilizations, past and present, and Suzi Gablik maintains that the ability to "recognize the existence of a plurality of perspectives . . . is to be already in some sense beyond all of them". [1]

This abiding awareness of pluralist realities - multiple points of view - prompts informed viewers to question the completeness, if not the veracity, of any world view that can be fully depicted from a single viewpoint. [2] "I don't think there is one Western culture", insists Jacques Derrida - who gave us deconstruction, the word and the strategy - "It's plural". [3]

Consequently, the indivisible Cartesian self seems to be an anachronism at the close of the twentieth century. Consciously or unconsciously, current painters and critics insist on a new structure in painting, a pluralist structure of fragmentation that reflects beliefs and understandings which relate to a more timely construct of identity and self. [4]

Modern artists, as a last tribute to their disappearing sense of continuity and their Cartesian sense of an indivisible self, composed paintings in a manner that was structurally similar to traditional composition as practised since the Italian Renaissance. These paintings were designed to be viewed from a specific location; compositions were cohesive and monolithic. Fredric Jameson maintainsmodern artists insisted upon the creation of an image as personal and as unique as a fingerprint: this signifies, he concludes, that the modern aesthetic was irreversibly linked to the concept of a unique and separate self and a private identity, which could "be expected to generate its own unique vision of the world". [5]

One of the major differences between the post-modern image and that of its predecessors is described by what Leo Steinberg calls the "flatbed picture plane". One of the two primary characteristics of the flatbed picture plane is the post-modern tendency to fragment the painted image by structuring multiple perspectives around pluralist viewpoints. [6] These multiple perspectives generate a series of fragmented Derridean apostrophes, digressions - footnotes rather than a unified indivisible central text - each in turn turning away from the main body or text. Each visual apostrophe generates another viewing location, or a separate spectator, thus presuming a divided or pluralist viewer, rather than a single indivisible viewer.

Where did the idea of a single indivisible self originate? In Recent Philosophers, John Passmore explains that the historic European idea of "self" equated personal identity with the continuity of memory: "identity" was linked to our ability to think of ourselves as being one and the same indivisible self at different times and different places. [7]

In the seventeenth century, Rend Descartes offered _Cogito ergo sum_ as an analytical rationale for the existence of the mental self, existence of the physical body was proved by extension of the body in space. [8] This Cartesian concept - the continuity of a thinking "self" - characterized the society of Europe and America and its important painters until the middle of the nineteenth century. European and American paintings, from the Renaissance through the first half of the nineteenth century, presume a Cartesian viewer: the perspectival system of these paintings creates a cohesive monolithic structure that implies they are to be viewed from a specific location by a single viewer. [9]

Then, in the late nineteenth century, Freud split the image of self into multiple facets: the conscious, the unconscious, and so forth. In this century, Derrida expanded on the Saussurean linguistic metaphor to propose a new concept of identity, one which is never fixed or determined, but is forever shifting because it is generated by the individual's perception of the differance between herself or himself and others within a particular system. [10]

Even the concept of ownership depends on the concept of continuity and the indivisible self. Consequently, structuralists and post-structuralists insist that ideas and language can belong to no one. Therefore, Derrid insists, structuralism promotes the end of private property; and John Passmore has taken this notion to its logical, and disturbing conclusion: Post-structuralism portends the "death of the private self." [11] I have returned again and again to this particularly disturbing quotation from John Passmore, and - after lengthy consideration of the implications - I believe it is an inchoate interpretation of the post-structuralist agenda, which instead might better be explained as: the death of the indivisible self.

In this age of pluralism and fragmentation, it is the indivisible self that rings anachronistic. Claude Levi-Strauss insists that any unique sense of self tends to vanish within the social structure in favour of a collective self. [12] Consequently, the concept of a divisible self is the mortar necessary for us to fashion a rigorous and consistent edifice out of recent areas of common interest such as: the relationships between a collective identity, a cyclical (rather than a linear) sense of time, and myth as a replacement for narrative and history.

Historically, one of the principal differences between Western-European- based consciousness, since the sixteenth century, and the consciousness of various tribal societies has been that the European perceived identity as one self, indivisible, communicating with indivisible others; whereas, in most tribal societies - which predate the European, as well as those that co-exist with it - each individual member of that society is associated with something outside the boundaries of his or her own body and mind: an animal, a mountain, or a plant. Thus each individual identity is divided.

The ancient Aztecs were a typical example of such a divided sense of identity, and perhaps the difference between the tribal concept of self and the indivisible European concept of self was most evident and is best explained by the sixteenth-century confrontation between these Aztecs and Cortes.

In Augury, Philip Garrison explains the difference between the Aztec and the sixteenth-century Spaniard: The essence of the Spaniard is a soul, a sliver of existence both immortal and immaterial. The soul is also simple, seamlessly unified, indivisible into further components. But the nature of the Aztec is double: each is not just himself or herself, but is also a nahualli. At the moment of birth, each Aztec gets associated with a specific bit of plant or animal life, or maybe with a few inches of dirt or a glimpse of sky. Each of the gods, even, is bound to this kind of other: to an owl or to an eagle, say, to a coyote or a coati. [13]

To proliferate this divided sense of self even further, those Aztecs who are associated with a particular animal must also associate themselves with all other Aztecs who are associated with that animal; they must also identify with any divine entity who might be associated with that same animal, thus dividing their identities into still more complex parts and fragments. Levi-Strauss tells us most tribal cultures tend to sense an analogy between totem animals and gods or dead ancestors. [14]

Such pre-literate tribal societies gradually translate the narrative of recent history into myth by telling and retelling stories. And myth, with its accompanying sense of cyclic time, tends to compress past, present and future into one inseparable body. Richard Slotkin has observed that what is lost when history becomes myth is the fundamental prerequisite for history - the distinction between past and present. Myth is understood as timeless: it transcends historical possibilities; thus the present emerges as a repetition of "persistently recurring structures identified with the past". [15] And Derrida maintains that to know the present is to know infinity: "To think of presence as the universal form of transcendental life is to open myself to the knowledge that in my absence, beyond my empirical existence, before my birth and after my death, the present is". [16]

John Boslough, writing about "The Enigma of Time", notes that many scholars believe all people once perceived themselves as living in a state of "timeless present"; they did not discriminate between past and future. They pictured time as circular: it turned back upon itself, and all things were possible at all times. [17] Buddhists and Taoists have retained this perception of circular time, and they consider history to be a fiction, because things always return to a former state. Because of differences in human perception, the struggle to affix numbers to the passage of time has been one of humanity's "most elusive and protracted pursuits" and the achievement of this goal parallels our evolution into a "complex modern world". Clocks were devised so that individuals might understand what time belonged to their employers and what was their own. The globe was not divided into time zones until 1884. [18]

Recent changes in concept even encourage scientists such as Stephen Hawking to avoid linear concepts of time, and thus history. Hawking finds "imaginary time" - which is necessary in the unification of quantum mechanics with gravity - to be a more useful construct. He explains that when measurements are determined in real time "singularities" are established that demand a beginning and an end to the universe, and this creates boundaries that breed contradictions in the laws of science.

In imaginary time there is no important difference between going forward and going backward; consequently, recent scientific laws "do not distinguish between the past and the future". [19] Hawking suggests that "imaginary time is really the real time, and that what we call real time is just a figment of our imaginations". [20] In short, recent scientific constructs seem more supportive of the pre-modern and the tribal constructs of cyclical time than of the European construct of linear time. Post-modern cultures have come to accept the fact that history changes with each point of view and have so rejected history as "truth" that Richard Stengel was incited to write in Time magazine: "History becomes a minstrel show glimpsed through a musty lens distorted by tradition, popular culture and wishful thinking". [21]

In Fire on the Earth, John Gilmour explains that universally those cultures that conceive of time as cyclic can easily think of having "contemporaneous relationships with earlier generations": on the other hand, a linear Cartesian construct of time allows individual experiences only in the present. [22]

It is clear that before the twentieth century, the Euro-American sense of identity differed from that of tribal societies in the following manner: the Euro-American perceived an indivisible self existing within one physical body in linear time, while many other cultures inferred a split self that might exist in more than one place or body in cyclical time. But, in the nineteenth century, Freud had suggested that perhaps even this Euro-American identity was not, after all, so monolithic and indivisible. Perhaps the unconscious, with its own separate language, was an entity separate from that consciousness with which humans had associated their identity. More recently, Jacques Lacan, the post-structuralist Freudian psychoanalyst, insisted: "the question of an initial error in philosophy imposes itself a soon as Freud has produced the unconscious . . . and accords it the right to speak". [23]

Lacan goes on to expand Freud's concept of the split self into an even more elaborate and divided concept: the I, the moi, the other [24] and the Other. [25] In short, the self, as Lacan perceives it, is divided between four aspects, permutations and "doublings" (note Garrison also used the word "double" to explain the totemic identity) of the conscious and the unconscious, each complexly compounded by the influence of two oppositionary categories: the "I am" of existence, which is separate from the "I am" of meaning; [26] and the "Imaginary" and the "Symbolic". [27] Consequently, Euro-American identity can no longer be perceived as monolithic and indivisible; nor can Western culture itself: the concept of self must agree with the culture in which it dwells.

Certainly Freud and Lacan were well motivated to understand the fragmentation of identity. Hindsight renders obvious the fact that identity could not have remained indivisible in this late twentieth-century fragmented society. And if - as the post-structuralists insist - art is a legitimate key to the ideology of a period, then the obvious reason for fragmentation in art must be that - in the current Euro-American world view - culture (and thus identity) is more fractured and fragmented than ever before. Euro-American cultures suddenly appear fragmented in terms of race, ethnic background and gender, and each separate group sees the world from a different point of view. The current view of the external world is physically fragmented. Values, stories and myths are volatile, changing, infinitely mutable, new each day.

Even time is savaged - constantly fractured into ever smaller and smaller fragments. The twentieth century has seen the old empires - the Spanish, the British, and the Dutch - gelded and divided. The world has been astounded by the sudden shattering of the Eastern bloc, and we have watched the Soviet Union itself swiftly rent asunder.

Consider for a moment just the visual fragmentation experienced during the time spent driving. People in today's American cities average driving more than twenty thousand miles every year. Speeding down the road, the driver's visual attention is focused on that narrow band of paving laid flat across the surface of the world. Drivers merely glance in other directions. They snatch quick glances out of the right-side windows, out of the left-side windows and out of the back window, then glance hastily into the left rear-view mirror, the centre rear-view mirror and the right rear-view mirror - which has written across the bottom, "OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR'. Thus, the ever-present automobile, perhaps our most common shared experience, offers a myriad of narrow disjointed and distorted views of the world around us.

People in the twentieth century do not experience the world in one piece. Rather than tell the same stories and myths again and again as people did in the past, today's stories and myths are now quickly told and discarded in movies and on television - new ones each day. A movie runs a scant hour and a half, and most rarely watch the same movie twice; stories on television are often completed in a minuscule half an hour, and even this is fragmented into several small increments sandwiched between commercials - a life in a nutshell. This current high-tech world seems to have little continuity. The only constant that can be taken for granted is the accelerating constancy of change.In such a fragmented world, is it any wonder that a writer as alert as Leo Braudy might observe that people now develop their identities by emulating well-known personalities? After making this observation Braudy concludes that late twentieth-century identities are a collage of multiple personalities: [28] a smidgen of John Wayne here, some Ava Gardner there, now a little Tom Cruse, then a pinch of Madonna.

Jacques Lacan was a product of this fragmented culture when he proliferated Freud's split self into a kaleidoscopic collection of fragments. Such fragmentation restores us in some respect to the ancient sense of a divided identity, similar in many ways to the sense of identity prevalent in many tribal societies.Many post-modern paintings reflect such a post-Cartesian sense of self. Rudolf Arnheim explains that the position of the self determines the spatial aspects and accommodations of art works. The self, he insists, is the centre of the forces between the viewer and the work of art. [29]

Arnheim's explanation leads to the conclusion that the concept of a divisible self might help to account for the fact that while many white male modern artists were still defending the status quo and assuming a single viewpoint - thus composing in a traditional cohesive monolithic image, dominated by visual and perceptual aspects - the more revolutionary Hispanic and African-American street artists, as well as women artists, had already started using a more fragmented and linguistic approach to painting in order to lend more impact and immediacy to their political messages.These revolutionary artists shifted their perspectives to generate a pluralist viewpoint, which fragmented composition and shattered the painted image. The growing awareness that identity is divisible accounts for the creation of linguistic and fragmented images, as well as for the art world's quick appropriation of such images into the post-modern idiom.

Gilmour insists that Anselm Kiefer, like many other post-modern painters, links human identity to text and tradition, rather than to creativity and the genius of the artist's consciousness. Kiefer appropriates historical material (visual quotations?), takes them out of their historical context, transmutes them to create conflict and ask questions about his time. Kiefer is not so certain of his single viewpoint and unique identity as were past artists. He uses his medium discursively, to explore his own deeper points of view and sentiments and their relationship to the collective sentiments of his society. In an earlier interview - before he was likely to have encountered recent scientific concepts such as chaos theory, imaginary time, or fractal geometry, with which he might have held more sympathy - Kiefer stated: "In those early pictures, I wanted to evoke the question for myself, Am I a fascist? . . . To say I'm one thing or another is too simple. I wanted to paint the experience and then answer'. [30]

These thoughts and images are an attempt to tap the resources of a collective rather than an individual consciousness. Kiefer insists that his intent "is to perceive as precisely as possible that which goes through me as an example for that which goes through others". [31] Thus Kiefer's discursive approach is a product of his awareness of a collective identity rather than the continuity of an indivisible individual identity. Perhaps this marks an awareness of a new and more linguistic relationship between the contemporary self and its culture, a self defined more by its relationship to other parts within the whole, as Anselm Kiefer's more collective sense of self seems defined by its context and its relationship to others within the culture. Furthermore, Kiefer combines his more linguistic approach to painting with a "tendency to portray a cyclical view of existence rather than one organized according to the causal and linear time structures". [32] This cyclic view allows him, like a tribal artist, to use his historical and mythic images to imply "contemporaneous relationships with earlier generations'. Ernst Cassirer insists that myth, art, language and science are forceful symbols; each functions to produce its own world. [33]

Because Americans and Europeans centre their thoughts and interests around themselves as individuals, separate and indivisible, they see themselves and their acquaintances advancing from birth to death in an irreversible linear direction, from beginning to end; it is difficult for them to comprehend the experience of cyclic time. But people who subordinate their interests to a larger extended family or tribal unit experience that unit as permanent; birth balances death in a continuous cycle, and the unit abides forever. It is unusual for them to understand time as anything other than cyclical.

Gilmour maintains that Kiefer's paintings demonstrate that the chosen mode of representation is related to identity, and he does not trust the modern reliance on reason, visual presence, and the expression of the unique individual. Thus, his mythic images, which spring from a more collective consciousness, imply a more complex relationship between creator and artwork. [34] Gilmour reasons that the human perception or premonition of such preternatural powers undermines individual identity, because such a Cartesian identity "presupposes the orderly background of a rational world". [35]

Recent emphasis on fragmentation (particularly its relationship to synecdoche, metonymy, and the indexical sign) connected with a renewed interest in mythic structures suggests a return to the mythic principle of pars pro toto, or as Ernst Cassirer explains it: a part has power over the whole; its function is not important. For instance, a piece of hair, a fingernail clipping, or even a person's shadow is enough to grant power over the person's body. Cassirer insists that all mythic thinking, so characteristic of totemism, is "governed and permeated by this principle". [36] This may be seen as further evidence of a fragmentation of identity. Exemplary of the post-modern attitude, Kiefer's approach is less controlled by reason and less scientific than the moderns, who had turned to science and related disciplines - perception, optics, physics - in place of religion; Gilmour labels Kiefer's approach "prescientific". [37] In a particularly revealing statement, Kiefer himself has said: "I think a great deal about religion because science provides no answers". [38]

This interest in religion and myth is inescapably woven into the infrastructure of post-modernism. Post-structuralist strategy - which is the foundation of post-modernism - demonstrates that complete truth is unattainable in any text owing to the specific point from which any issue is viewed. Furthermore, each single point of view is both biased and determined because of the priorities and established hierarchies of the viewing society.

Post-structuralist strategy traces these biases and predetermined positions ferreting out foundational concepts and ideas that are mutually exclusive, binary, or polar opposites (such as absence/presence, linear/painterly, unity/multiplicity); this strategy then indicates which pole of these concepts or ideas society tends to grant a privileged position.strategy of spotlighting opposites quickly focuses attention on that area that separates the two polar opposites, that area that is both or neither: absent and/nor present, linear and/nor painterly, unified and/nor fragmented. And Edmund Leach tells us these areas of aporia, "the boundary, the interface layer which separates categories of time and space, is the zone of the sacred" and thus is linked to magic, taboo, and religion. [39]

Post-modern perceptions appear to be moving away from the Cartesian deterministic scientific rational indivisible self towards a more ancient prescientific stochastic fragmented identity. This pluralist identity is more readily affected by powers that are not entirely rational, and pursues meaning through the following: myth rather than history; religion rather than science; and a sense of time that is cyclic rather than linear. Thus, the well-heralded fragmentation of society, coupled with renewed interests in a collective identity, myth, religion, and cyclical time all demand an idea more complex than the "death of the private self. They demand acknowledgement of the rebirth of a divisible self. Andy Warhol's well known one-liner, "Someday everybody will be famous [or infamous?] for fifteen minutes", was a harbinger of the era now upon us when even celebrity is collective: fame and infamy are as divisible as identity.


[1] Suzi Gablik, Progress in Art (New York: Rizzoli, 1977), 81.

[2] David Carrier, "The Deconstruction of Perspective: Howard Buchwald's Recent Paintings', Arts Magazine, 60 (1985): 28.

[3] Quoted in: M. Stephens, "Deconstructing Jacques Derrida', Los Angeles Times Magazine (21 July 1991): 14.

[4] Walter Benn Michaels explains that the Cartesian self is primary and autonomous; it exists independently. But the twentieth-century construct, as developed by Peirce and Lacan, holds that the self is a linguistic sign, and like all signs it must distinguish itself in relation to some other. That is the nature of a sign ("The Interpreter's Self: Peirce on the Cartesian "Subject"', in Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, ed. J. Tompkins

[Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1980], 194).

[5] Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism and Consumer Society', in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern Culture, ed. by H. Foster (Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983), 114.

[6] Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (New York: Oxford U.P., 1972), 82.

[7] John Passmore, Recent Philosophers (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, 1985), 18.

[8] E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (Garden City, 1954 revised), 105-6.

[9] William V. Dunning, "The Concept of Self and Postmodern Painting: Constructing a Postmodern Viewer', The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 49:4 (Fall 1991): 332.

[10] John Passmore explains that Saussure insisted that both a sign and an identity were defined by distinguishing differences between itself and others, but Derrida replaced the word "difference' with "differance', which suggests both a differing and a deferring. Such identity is never fixed, or determined: "our "nature" is always "deferred"' (31).

[11] Ibid., 33.

[12] Anthony Wilden, "Lacan and the Discourse of the Other', in The Language of the Self (Johns Hopkins U.P., 1968), 178-9.

[13] Philip Garrison, Augury (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1991), 116-17.

[14] Claude Levi-Strauss, "Totemism and the Savage Mind (1960-1)', in Anthropology and Myth: Lectures 1951-1982, trans. R. Willis (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 29-30.

[15] Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization 1800-1890 (New York: Atheneum, 1985), 24.

[16] Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena (Evanston: Northwestern U.P., 1973), 54.

[17] John Boslough, "The Enigma of Time', National Geographic, 177, no. 3 (March 1990): 111. For example, Boslough points out that: "Hopi verbs make no distinction between past and present' (129).

[18] Ibid., 111-15.

[19] Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 139-44.

[20] Ibid., 139.

[21] Richard Stengel, "American Myth 101', Time, 138, no. 25 (December, 1991): 78.

[22] John C. Gilmour, Fire on the Earth: Anselm Kiefer and the Postmodern World (Philadelphia: Temple U.P., 1990), 163.

[23] Jacques Lacan, Television: A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment, ed. J. Copjec, trans. J. Mehlman (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1990), 108.

[24] Hazel Barnes notes that the idea of the other has a long history: it starts with Plato in the Sophist; Sartre expands the concept towards Lacan's, but he recognizes that his concept is still not too far removed from Plato's (Hazel E. Barnes, "Introduction', in Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology [New York: Philosophical Library, n.d.), xxiii).

[25] James Mellard explains that Lacan's concept of the other and the Other involves two forms: "The other is the figure of the double or antagonist in whom we project our worst selves. The origin of this other is the mother. . . . The second form is the [Other] of the unconscious. . . . In Lacan, this Other/Autre resides in the place of the father' ("Flannery O'Connor's Other: Freud, Lacan, and the Unconscious', American Literature, 61, 1989: 626-7).

[26] Lacan, Television, 108.

[27] Mellard, "Flannery O'Connor's Other', 632-3.

[28] Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History (New York: Oxford U.P., 1986), 5.

[29] Rudolf Arnheim, The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982 revised), 240.

[30] Quoted in: Steven Henry Madoff, "Anselm Kiefer a Call to Memory', Artnews, 86, no. 9 (October 1987): 129.

[31] Quoted in: Gilmour, Fire on the Earth, 157.

[32] Ibid., 55.

[33] Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth, trans. S. Langer (New York: Dover, 1946), 8.

[34] Ibid., 82.

[35] Ibid., 168.

[36] Ibid., 92.

[37] Gilmour, 36.

[38] Mark Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1987), 26.

[39] Edmund Leach, "Michelangelo's Genesis: A Structuralist Interpretation of the Central Panels of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling', Semiotica, 56-1/2 (1985): 19-20.

William V. Dunning, Art Department - Randall Hall, Central Washington University, Eliensburg, Washington 98926, USA.

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