What do you and I have in common with Lady Gaga, Andy Warhol and Where the Wild Things Are?
In the summer of 2008, I read a fascinating article in The Atlantic Monthly entitled “First Person Plural” by Paul Bloom. The author looks at the latest findings in neuroscience and the implications for how we understand human psychology. He argues that each of us is a multiplicity of selves that “are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control — bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.” Blooms contends:
We used to think that the hard part of the question “How can I be happy?” had to do with nailing down the definition of happy. But it may have more to do with the definition of I. Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another. This theory might explain certain puzzles of everyday life, such as why addictions and compulsions are so hard to shake off, and why we insist on spending so much of our lives in worlds—like TV shows and novels and virtual-reality experiences—that don’t actually exist.
A few months ago, Bloom’s article was cited by David Brooks in a review of the film, Where the Wild Things Are. Brooks piggybacks on Kwame Anthony Appiah’s argument that the philosopher’s approach to ethics has been replaced by a psychologist’s approach to ethics. Namely,
According to the psychologist’s view, individuals don’t have one thing called character.
The psychologists say this because a century’s worth of experiments suggests that people’s actual behavior is not driven by permanent traits that apply from one context to another. Students who are routinely dishonest at home are not routinely dishonest at school. People who are courageous at work can be cowardly at church. People who behave kindly on a sunny day may behave callously the next day when it is cloudy and they are feeling glum. Behavior does not exhibit what the psychologists call “cross-situational stability.
The philosopher’s view is shaped like a funnel. At the bottom, there is a narrow thing called character. And at the top, the wide ways it expresses itself. The psychologist’s view is shaped like an upside-down funnel. At the bottom, there is a wide variety of unconscious tendencies that get aroused by different situations. At the top, there is the narrow story we tell about ourselves to give coherence to life.
Last week, I found two further echoes to the arguments of Bloom and Brooks. I read a new short story by Thomas Lynch entitled “Apparition”. The main character, Adrian Littlefield, an associate pastor at a Methodist church in Findlay, Ohio, experiences the end of his marriage and is adjusting to life as a single-parent. Lynch writes that Littleton “had become in Findlay a man of parts, none exactly known entirely.”
Later in the week, an article appearing in The New York Times describes Lady Gaga similarly:
Lady Gaga makes no bones about assimilating the lessons of celebrities who built careers by tapping into the talents of other and even larger talents (Madonna leaps to mind). But her singular innovation on the sincerest form of flattery has been to barge right past imitation to outright larceny.
Lady Gaga mashes up. She patches together what she finds in the cultural image bank. She takes her own rather nondescript (but pretty) person and subjects herself to a real-time version of Photoshop, studiously and at times laboriously conjuring up an over-the-top creation built from bits of Bowery and Nomi and Jones and Bowie, but also Liberace, Joey Arias and Kylie Minogue.
Although Andy Warhol died just a year after Stefani Germanotta came into the world, and decades before Lady Gaga was willed into being, he was correct as usual in forecasting a time when there would be “new categories of people” being “put up there” as stars. Those people, he wrote in “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again),” would be made up of parts. And their fans, freed from the obligation to idolize a “whole person,” could choose which dimension of a star they wanted to love. Lady Gaga is rigged for that stardom: her persona is an amalgam of surfaces, faceted though not truly 3-D, addictive in the way video games are.
Like an emissary from a parallel world familiar to Second Life types, she is a real-life avatar.
Taken together, these voices are suggesting something like this: it used to be that people acted “out of character”; now, we act out characters, various roles we play throughout the course of a lifetime, if not, in fact, the course of the same day. For these roles can shift rapidly, like a quick-change artist suiting up for a different scene in the same play. Depending on who we are around and the situation, some particular aspect of our personality is brought out – more than simply a different interest or a hobby, but a different identity or character quality.