Wednesday, 6 May 2009

838 - Multiplicity

is the title of last year's book by Rita Carter exploring the phenomenon of multiple personalities. Not multiple personality disorder, but the idea that, if one's personality at any given time is a neural map of memories related to a particular situation, and if the situations one is exposed to are sufficiently distinct from one another, one might develop several distinct personalities, to a greater or lesser extent aware of one another, as a normal, indeed adaptive, response.

Rita Carter's argument is that this is normative in today's globalised society. We are parent, student, worker, bully, pleaser, lover, clown, and so on, and the personality we show, say at a party or at work, is simply one of several responses we could call upon. Today's society is transfixed both by role-playing and by celebrity personalities. So identity is defined by obsessive tick-boxing, but also by the philosophy that given the opportunity we'd all shine uniquely in the spotlight. And these influences, together with the freedoms given to us by new technologies, city anonymity, and exposure to multitudes of people, drive us, now more than ever, individually to create and refine new personalities - somewhat in the manner, I guess, that living things specificate as genetic populations.

Wow. That's controversial. Of the book, then, by way of validation: ‘A tour de force -- a compendium of anecdote, research and speculation that is quite breathtaking’ NEW SCIENTIST.

I am interested in this thesis for many reasons. Here are a few:

1. As someone with an interest in theology, I notice that religious myths fluctuate between monotheisms and polytheisms. A God will be fixated upon, raised to the status of Sky God, then left to drift away, to be replaced by a pantheon, out of whom a new Sky God will in time be chosen. It intrigues me that as Christianity loses favour in the West, it is replaced by neo-pagan pantheons. This is happening at just the point in history that our concept of a unique self, to the fulfilment of which we are enjoined to work, may be replaced by the concept of multiple selves.

2. For me, the journey into multiplicity began when, on leaving Church, I was approached one day by a man who struck me on the arm and said (speaking, I felt, of the voices within as much as outside himself) "You are now one of us." I have blogged about this, and my conviction, as it happened, that I had dreamt of the event months before, here. So untangling the meaning of what happened has for me a prophetic aspect to do with my vocation as a post-Church leader. If increasing numbers of us experience an increasingly diverse sense of self/selves, and if this is natural, one would expect those of us pastoring in such communities to have a positive experience of the same phenomenon.

3. Multiplicity, if true, strikes a mortal blow to any hope that we might be able to encapsulate the essential facts about a person's nature on a database, let alone an ID card. This isn't an argument against or for ID cards - just a recognition that the facts they could contain would be limited, and could not dependably state anything categorical about personality or criminal tendencies. Some might find that relief enough to assent to the process of state identification, whilst others might see in it the potential for huge miscarriages of justice, the definition of which we are only beginning to find words for, let alone legal case history.

4. The book Multiplicity explores some of the raw materials out of which the art of storying is fashioned. Storying, as I imagine it, is the conscious creation of narratives of one's own choosing out of the stuff of one's life. At one end of the spectrum such a narrative might be seen to have unfolded over a lifetime, but at the other one might choose to create a narrative over a day, or even over the course of a chance encounter, split second, in a street. Personality, character, is precisely where such storymaking starts: 'Once upon a time there was a boy called Jack.... '. And if multiplicity is true, then the calling up and shaping of a new personality, or refashioning of an old one, might be approached with the same degree of artifice a painter might bring to painting technique, a poet to choices of word and form, and a free-runner to cityscape acrobatics. A storyer would deal in neural networking the way a draughtsman deals in pen and ink, or an actor in script (or its absence).

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