Writing the Self

My friend Tom Abel comes and meets with me on Tuesday afternoons.  The purpose for our meetings, ostensibly, is to read Martin Buber’s I and Thou, but we make remarkably little progress week over week.  We begin with the text, but it always takes us elsewhere, which is, as I have argued many times, exactly what reading should do.

Yesterday, one of the ricochets in our conversation struck the question of how we come to define ourselves as human beings in our social and cultural landscape.  More plainly, we were wondering exactly how we managed to enter highschool with very little idea of who we were and exit it with an idea of ourselves that has remained largely operative ever since.  What, we asked, was the catalyst for this self-realization.

As we proceeded to tell the stories of this experience in our lives, it became obvious that the central element in both narratives was the role of writing.  Both of us identified our increasing ability to define ourselves with an increasing ability to express ourselves through language, particularly in its written forms.  For both of us, it seemed that our growing linguistic ability allowed us to define ourselves precisely as people who had this ability, and also provided us with the tools and the vocabulary to express this self-definition to ourselves and to others.

Now, there are those, perhaps, even probably, whose aptitudes and interests produce an experience of self-definition that is not primarily linguistic.  There are also those, almost certainly, for whom this experience of self-definition does not occur during highschool.  There are even those, I suspect, unfortunately, who never have this experience at all.  Even so, I am interested in the degree to which both Tom and I found this self-defining process to be interrelated with a coming to writing.  I am curious to know how common this experience is and to understand more fully how writing and self-definition are related.

My very preliminary thoughts on the subject would include a strict insistence that a linguistic facility can never be adequate to the self as such, but can only ever define the self sufficiently for my own needs.  Though my linguistic self-definition certainly bears a relation to the self that I am, I would argue that this relation is not essential.  Its function is not to reveal the self, but to translate, construct, produce, define, delimit the self in ways that permit me to function in the world.  Beyond this, however, I am uncertain how to proceed, and I would welcome the contributions of others on the subject.

  1. I wonder if the ability to understand one’s self as an understanding of language/writing improves isn’t just a small part of the increased ability to understand anything as our understanding of language grows.
    It’s a lot like Orwell wrote in 1984. Limit a person’s language and you limit their ideas. Likewise, expand their language and you expand their ideas.
    I think it’s natural that writing allows us to communicate to ourselves who we are, and also what the world is around us. As we can create definitions in our words they register in our minds. These include definitions of self or of any observation, internal, external, whatever.
    Perhaps thats a given in your point, but it’s a favourite subject of mine.

  2. Jordan,

    You are right, of course. Though we might have have a very definite sense of self apart from language, our ability to articulate this to ourselves will always be dependent on our linguistic facility, our ability to use words, language structures, ideas in appropriate ways.

    This implies that there are at leas three modes of approaching the writing of the self:

    1) By ignoring this process entirely, choosing to live the self apart from a conscious articulation of what defines this self in the world;

    2) By making the self into the object of writing, choosing to use writing solely as a tool for the purpose of defining the self as it appears to the self; and

    3) By identifying the self with writing, choosing to use writing to define the self precisely as the one who uses writing.

    An increasing facility with language will have almost no effect on the first mode, but will have a tremendous effect on the second two modes, for the reasons that you have already suggested. However, now that we have established this much, I think I can articulate my question more clearly:

    What is the catalyst that provokes people to move from one mode to another? What causes people to begin consciously defining themselves through writing? What motivates them to begin consciously defining themselves as people who write?

  3. Tom Abel said:


    I’m glad you posted on this, as I’ve been reflecting for the last couple days on how much I enjoyed that conversation.

    I wonder if the answer to your last question has anything to do with our Western drive towards individualism and specialization. Generally speaking, before societies industrialized, people were veritable “Jacks of all trades”: pretty good at everything, but not really good at one thing. As a number of technological and scientific advances were made, economies began to diversify, and people began to focus on one “trade”. Because modern capitalism relies on people being ultra-efficient “cogs in the machine” (with Ford’s assembly line being an extreme example), individuals’ success and worth to society began to be based on their ability to complete the task that they specialized in.

    I think the capitalist mentality is old enough that it has become engrained in our minds, to the extent that we start to apply it more broadly to our “selves”, even in situations that don’t directly relate to economic activity. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that it was during high school – the first time in our lives that we start to realize our roles as “responsible members of society (or the economy) – that we start to derive identity from the things that we have a natural talent for. If it’s our special talents that give us worth in the capitalist paradigm, why wouldn’t we define ourselves by those talents? It’s a rather depressing thought to me, to be quite honest – but I think there’s something to it.

    Only a subtle hint of Marxist historiography there ;). You can always count on a history student in the modernist tradition to bring it back to economics! I’m sure that there’s more to it than that; the Continental philosophers would probably have my head for event suggesting it as a primary explanation! Undoubtedly, I’ll wake up tomorrow morning and disagree with everything that I just said.

  4. Tom,

    I certainly think that the factors you identify have contributed to a tendency in people to define themselves according to a particular occupation or expertise. There are many who define themselves as writers in precisely this professional sense, of course, but I wonder if this is the same thing as defining oneself as someone who writes, as such, professionally or otherwise. If I do define myself as someone who writes, this definition very well might involve the sort of considerations that you describe, but I would hope that I might also choose to practise writing in ways that are not primarily determined by these factors. Would you see a space for this kind of writing, or would you understand it to be as economically implicated as professional writing?

  5. Matthew Harrison said:

    I discovered myself after I discovered God. These days, if I need writing done I will contract Mr. Vetro. I have ideas, but my writing achieves average marks of around 85%. Hardly the sort that will make an impact. I like to outsource a good writer for an idea that deserves perfect essays to propogate it.

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