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". 
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.  "I don't think there is one Western culture", insists
Jacques Derrida - who gave us deconstruction, the word and the strategy -
"It's plural". 
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. 
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". 
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.  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. 
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.  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. 
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
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."  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
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.  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
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. 
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. 
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".  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". 
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.  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. 
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".  Hawking suggests that
"imaginary time is really the real time, and that what we call real time
is just a figment of our imaginations".  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". 
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. 
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". 
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  and the
Other.  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;  and the "Imaginary" and the "Symbolic". 
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:  a smidgen of John
Wayne here, some Ava Gardner there, now a little Tom Cruse, then a pinch
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. 
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
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'.
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".  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".  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. 
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.  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
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".
 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". 
In a particularly revealing statement, Kiefer himself has said: "I think a
great deal about religion because science provides no answers". 
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
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
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
 Suzi Gablik, Progress in Art (New York: Rizzoli, 1977), 81.
 David Carrier, "The Deconstruction of Perspective: Howard Buchwald's
Recent Paintings', Arts Magazine, 60 (1985): 28.
 Quoted in: M. Stephens, "Deconstructing Jacques Derrida', Los Angeles
Times Magazine (21 July 1991): 14.
 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).
 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.
 Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century
Art (New York: Oxford U.P., 1972), 82.
 John Passmore, Recent Philosophers (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court
Publishing Company, 1985), 18.
 E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science
(Garden City, 1954 revised), 105-6.
 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.
 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).
 Ibid., 33.
 Anthony Wilden, "Lacan and the Discourse of the Other', in The
Language of the Self (Johns Hopkins U.P., 1968), 178-9.
 Philip Garrison, Augury (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia
Press, 1991), 116-17.
 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.
 Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in
the Age of Industrialization 1800-1890 (New York: Atheneum, 1985), 24.
 Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena (Evanston: Northwestern U.P.,
 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).
 Ibid., 111-15.
 Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to
Black Holes (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 139-44.
 Ibid., 139.
 Richard Stengel, "American Myth 101', Time, 138, no. 25 (December,
 John C. Gilmour, Fire on the Earth: Anselm Kiefer and the Postmodern
World (Philadelphia: Temple U.P., 1990), 163.
 Jacques Lacan, Television: A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic
Establishment, ed. J. Copjec, trans. J. Mehlman (New York: W.W. Norton and
Company, 1990), 108.
 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).
 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).
 Lacan, Television, 108.
 Mellard, "Flannery O'Connor's Other', 632-3.
 Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History (New York:
Oxford U.P., 1986), 5.
 Rudolf Arnheim, The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in
the Visual Arts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982 revised),
 Quoted in: Steven Henry Madoff, "Anselm Kiefer a Call to Memory',
Artnews, 86, no. 9 (October 1987): 129.
 Quoted in: Gilmour, Fire on the Earth, 157.
 Ibid., 55.
 Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth, trans. S. Langer (New York:
Dover, 1946), 8.
 Ibid., 82.
 Ibid., 168.
 Ibid., 92.
 Gilmour, 36.
 Mark Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of
Art, 1987), 26.
 Edmund Leach, "Michelangelo's Genesis: A Structuralist Interpretation
of the Central Panels of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling', Semiotica, 56-1/2
William V. Dunning, Art Department - Randall Hall, Central Washington
University, Eliensburg, Washington 98926, USA.