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A Fluid and Transcendent Self

…..A question that has troubled philosophers and other academics throughout history is whether or not a true, single self exists.  But when looking more closely at questions of gender identity, race, and other aspects of a person that are often implied to be natural things we are born with, it is clear that the concept of a static self is problematic.  There is a tendency to see the self as something that naturally exists at birth and motivates all decisions that one makes.  Instead, the self should be defined as something much more fluid, such as the different ways in which we create and recreate who we are in relation the situation we’re in or who we are talking to.  Believing that the self is something unchanging and final is a burden when thinking about society’s issues, because there are no absolute rights nor wrongs in these scenarios.

…..In today’s world, there is an opportunity to build a new life in a space that allows those who dwell there to be whoever they want to be: a choice of any appearance, gender, hair color, body type, skill set, skin tone, personality type, and even species in some cases.  This type of new world exists through the Internet and video games.  Here, we are able to be whoever we wish to be without the restrictions that our physical appearance puts on us.  Technology has allowed us to create a place where we can safely experiment with different selves and different ways of presenting who we think we are or want to be.  Zones created online and games that require an avatar to be a certain character are usually designed to give a large range of choices of how you want your self to be represented in this particular game.  It is said by many that the online world has finally brought to us a place where we can all truly be free to represent ourselves in any way we choose, and interact with one another in a utopian vision of equality no matter what someone’s physical appearance is unlike the way we interact in the physical world.

…..Moving beyond the idea that there is a single natural self also helps when trying to think about labels and categories in life on a spectrum rather than as strict binaries.  Beyond being able to go between labels that are traditionally strictly defined such as gender is not something that is completely impossible in the physical, real world.  Technologies like plastic surgery and hormone therapy have made it possible to alter one’s appearance and biological body to match the gender one perceives himself or herself to be.  By changing the definition of the self from something that is a natural and unchanging part of who we are, we will also be able to eliminate the binaries that cause a lot of anxiety in social settings.  For it is these binaries and strict categories that create dissonance in the minds of those who do not believe that they fit in anywhere.  Because they are unable to reconcile the way they feel about themselves with the way that society wants them to define themselves or fit in a category, a conflict can break out in these people’s minds.

…..One solution to the dissonance between one’s appearance and the problem of not fitting into a category is plastic surgery.  A main motivator for people to undergo plastic surgery, whether it is for a sex change operation or a rhinoplasty, is the idea that they believe that what is seen outwardly does not match their true self.  Giving up the idea that there is a true self and instead adopting the idea that physical appearance is just one representation of who we are then changes the motivation for surgeries or procedures like these.  Perhaps one would still seek out plastic surgery, but it wouldn’t be for the pressure to conform to a certain societal norm.  Rather, the procedure would be done as a form of adornment or art, using the body as a canvas in the same way that tattoo artists do.  Rather than for desperate or pressured reasons, procedures would be done for medical or creative reasons only.

…..One of the other problems with the idea of a natural self is that things which are actually social constructs, such as gender and race, are often misinterpreted to be biological categories.  Assumptions are made about the person based on their biological characteristics such as their genitals or skin color because of the overlap between cultural constructs and biological constructs.  It is not necessarily true that someone who has a penis identifies as male – similar to how not every person of African descent is a natural athlete.  But assumptions like these are made every day, and I think it is because this too is contingent on the idea that there is a true self.  The belief that there will always be a natural underlying set of characteristics that a person has creates a strong platform upon which one can also state that people can’t be different than what their biological characteristics, such as skin tone, tell them they should be in other non-related aspects of their life.  With a more fluid definition of the self, there would no longer be a need to assume things about a person based on their appearance.  Knowing that appearance is only one representation and not an indication of a single true self could do a lot to help alleviate the problems of making assumptions based on gender or race.

…..In many ways, the concept of the self that I would like to replace the idea of one true self with is related to the image of a computer uploading and downloading information.  In this example, the human brain is a computer.  This computer downloads programming from other computers and machines that it comes into contact with. Once the computer has been programmed with the information it downloaded, it is then able to upload the information to other computers that come and after downloading the information, subsequently start the chain all over again.

…..When this image is applied to the human process, it can be used to describe a fluid concept of self that relies on learning the social scripts that exist in the world around someone and choosing which of these scripts will be appropriate to use again at a future time as a form of representation.  Social scripts are like programming in that they encompass all of the possible reactions to certain social situations.  It is important to remember that each time a person is represented in some way, it is only one representation of them.  There can be no one true representation of a person’s self if what is shown outwardly is simply a way of using a social script to react to the situation they’re in.  An upload, then, is the representation of the self that appears at the time – it can be anything from a Facebook profile page, to an outfit to wear, to an avatar in a massive multi-player online game.  The download is what is taken away from situations or from learning about situations from other people.

…..Actually turning a human into a computer is something that is outside the realm of technological capabilities today.  It is, then, impossible to test whether or not a human could be fully programmed to function as a computer-like machine, programmed and representing through uploads and downloads.  But in a situation like this, looking at science fiction can always bring a new perspective for consideration.  Often, science fiction is an author’s attempt to take an idea or story that is purely hypothetical and try to see what would happen if it were to actually play out.  In the new television show “Dollhouse”, the concept of programming a human to do whatever you want it to do – a real life doll – is explored.  The premise of the show is that young men and women volunteer to have their minds wiped and be used and programmed as dolls (called Actives in the show) for five years of their life, after which they will be released back into the real world again with a large sum of money.  The Actives are programmed with a persona that is an amalgam of different personalities, memories, and experiences of people in order to fit the needs of the client who is paying for the use of the doll.  After each assignment, called an engagement, the Active’s mind is completely wiped and then he or she will go back to existing in a dream-like, impervious state.

…..The very premise of the show itself fits the discussion of the computer-like aspect of the workings of humans perfectly.  The first season of “Dollhouse” is ultimately about what happens to a person’s self when they are stripped of their memories, thoughts, and experiences – in other words, supposedly made into a blank slate – and then imprinted with new personas on top of that blank slate.  At the start of the show, routine programming and wiping of the Actives was going very smoothly.  But as the show progressed, many of the Actives began to “glitch” – they were not performing the way they should have according to their programming, and it happened because of unresolved needs or trauma in the Active’s life before coming to the Dollhouse that needed to be given closure.  Later, one of the Actives, Echo, began remembering small things from her engagements after the mind-wipe process, and in one episode was even able to figure out what the Dollhouse’s purpose is while in her blank-slate state.

…..There are many levels on which this show can be understood.  The show can be read as a reflection upon the creation of the television program itself, and the creation of scripted media in general.  In many ways, the actors are programmed like the Actives are.  They are given scripts telling them what to say, and the director tells them where they should be or how they should be acting.  If “Dollhouse” is seen as a meta project, it is not easy to discern what the creators intended it to say about this practice.  The absurdity of programming people to do what you want is explored, perhaps reflecting on the unease the show’s creators have at telling stories by using other people to act out characters they wrote.  However, the owner of the Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt, is shown in a sympathetic light in the program.  It is clear that she is not conflicted by what her job entails, and justifies the Dollhouse’s existence by saying on numerous occasions that she is just giving people what they want.  Comments like these by her show that she is an opportunist who is simply seizing upon the moment to give people what they need as an altruist and not as a woman out to make millions by running a highly illegal and immoral operation.  Whether or not the show’s creators wanted to use the show as a metaphor for creating the television program itself, the do parallels exist. …..While many were turned away from this show at the beginning of its run because of the subject matter, as the show evolved so did the themes that the show was exploring.  The show quickly became a challenge to many notions of what the self is.  What would seem like a simple enough process (especially in a science fiction TV program), the process of wiping and programming brains, actually develops into an elaborate commentary on the state of the self and its transcendence above our physical presence (both mentally and physically).  In one of the most poignant moments of the show, the Active Echo comes face-to-face with another woman imprinted with her original personality, Caroline, from before she came to the dollhouse.  This scene shows very clearly that there is both something transcendent from the body, in that a person does not need to necessarily be tied to one body if their thoughts and experiences live on elsewhere.  But the show’s most powerful statement is that no matter how someone is being presented, whether it be in another person’s body, or without a fully functional brain, or even after they have passed away, there is some sort of quality about them that will persist from situation to situation.

…..In the final episode of the season, when the antagonist and former Active Alpha appears, it is clear that the reason he is crazy is that he was convicted for attempted murder and was taken out of jail and put into the Dollhouse before becoming an Active.  So even though Alpha has his original thoughts, experiences, and memories removed from his mind, he still continues to experience the impulses and feelings that he did before being caught and put in jail.  When the same accident that happened to Alpha, which led to his escape and descent into madness, happens to Echo, she does not feel anger about it.  Carrying over from her original personality, Echo handles the situation in a very positive way and does not display the same behavior as Alpha.  Even though the circumstances leading up to the accident for both Alpha and Echo were very similar, it is clear that there is a difference between the ways the two Actives handled themselves.  The statement being made by the creators of the show is that even in situations where human life and spirit is not immediately apparent, it will still be there, lingering on somewhere just waiting to be expressed.

…..In this paper, I myself have created a very utopian vision of what our lives would be like if we could redefine how we see the self.  While I do believe that the online world can be a place where it is simple to just play with different representations of oneself without damaging repercussions, most online worlds today are not the utopia, boundary-less space that they could have been.  There is still an argument about how different these online worlds end up being from the real world, in terms of how important the insertion of your self into an avatar character is.  While some are comfortable with representing themselves differently online, others feel as if they are uncomfortable playing characters that have no relationship to them whatsoever.   And within some online worlds, the same gender binaries are still attached, causing women to get preferential treatment when they need help and gold within the game.  Similarly, fluidity between binaries such as on the gender binary often requires that those who wish to make a change play right into the societal ideal of the other gender in order to pass.  So while I like the utopian vision I get when I think about a fluid definition of self, in light of the reality of the situation, I don’t think that this utopian vision can be the right story to tell when it comes to the self.

…..How about the image of the self that “Dollhouse” presents?  I personally am uncomfortable with the idea of viewing humans as either mechanical things or dolls at all in the first place.  Try as I might to see my life as a series of uploads and downloads, I am unable to attribute my whole life to technical processes like this one.  What I got out of “Dollhouse” is that there is something special about the human spirit that persists no matter what kinds of machines get near our heads.  Maybe what makes us different than the average machine is that we are somehow able to decide how we are going to represent ourselves; our programming does not take us over nor define us completely. Technology plays a very important role in allowing us to explore this complicated concept of the self in a very different way.  But ultimately, it is how we use the technology, and why we created the technology in the first place, that makes technology important to our lives at all.  I started this paper defining the self as the different ways in which we create and recreate who we are in relation the situation we’re in or who we are talking to; while I still think this is the definition of the self that we should hold, I know it is worth acknowledging that there must be some permanent sort of human spirit that will persist no matter what may happen to our bodies or minds.