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Related Topics
The Plural SelfReview - The Plural Self
Multiplicity in Everyday Life
by John Rowan and Mick Cooper (Editors)
Sage Publications, 1999
Review by Katarzyna Paprzycka, Ph.D.
Sep 30th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 39)

"The postmodern individual turns and turns to face the onslaughts of an ever-fragmenting social world" (1), say the editors. They have compiled a collection of articles that will capture that individual's (and others') interest but will fall short of helping to organize it. Most of the contributions will prove worthwhile to psychologists, psychotherapists, philosophers as well as the wider audience of individuals interested in their and others' selves.

The central concern of the collected articles is the plurality of our selves. The underlying belief of all the papers is that the "modernist" view of a person as a unified self needs to be rejected in favor of a "postmodernist" view of a person as composed of multiple selves. The contributors do not agree, however, on how such a rejection is to be carried out. Many authors (including Rowan, Cooper, Rappoport et al.) develop some version of the thought that an initially unified self transforms itself into a plural subject when confronted with an essentially pluralist reality. Others hold that the plurality is an intrinsic feature of a self (e.g. Grotstein and Schwartz). Others still claim that while plurality is intrinsic to being a self, the self develops as the result of a confrontation with (internationalization of) the social multi-voiced world (most notably Shotter and Hermans, both develop Bakhtin's thought). One of the major tasks undertaken by many of the authors is to specify under what conditions such a normal multiplicity transforms itself into a pathological multiplicity (the dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as the multiple personality disorder) .

The articles are divided into three parts concerned with theory, research and practice, respectively.

Part I. Theory
John Rowan ("The Normal Development of Subpersonalities") sketches a developmental path of the separation of selves (drawing. among others, on Hegel!). He argues that an infant's original state is a relatively unified state of "OK-ness." That state can be shattered by a traumatic experience. Following the object-relation theorists, Rowan argues that the infant defends herself by splitting. Interestingly, Rowan claims that it is only in this experience that the infant first experiences herself as an "I". One has to wonder about that last claim, however. In particular, one wonders whether it does not have more to do with the way in which the stages are described, i.e., with the theoretician's attribution rather than with what the individual experiences. After all, this is the first time that the theorist is forced to recognize the infant as concerned with her self. It is not clear, however, that there is a reason to believe that this is the first time that the infant is concerned with her self.

Mick Cooper ("If You Can't Be Jekyll Be Hyde") is concerned with the way that a person experiences (if this is indeed possible) self-plurality. He uses an existential-phenomenological perspective (drawing on the work of Rogers, among others) to examine how a person handles a plurality of self-concepts generated by the plurality of ways of Being-in-the-world. If a person's overarching self-concept excludes too much of his lived reality, she may need to construct an alternate self-concept to account for it. He suggests that we think of a person as a "unified Being-toward-the-world" which can be toward the world from multiple self-positions.

The common thread of the two articles mentioned above was that the plurality of selves is a consequence of the encounter between the (originally unified) self and the multifarious world. This assumption is nowhere as clearly manifest as in Leon Rappoport, Steve Baumgardner and Beorge Boone's "Postmodern Culture and the Plural Self." They sketch an "ideal type" for a pluralistic postmodernist individual, i.e., an individual shaped by the postmodernist world. Such a person is complex, flexible, morally relativistic, diversity-seeking, with a "Monty Python" style sense of humor, whose general outlook is dominated by uncertainty, and who (for not all too clear reasons in view of his nature) is predisposed toward some form of dissociation and escapism. There is some question whether the authors would agree with the above characterization of their view as still being tied to the modernist conception. However, other respects of their view seem to be unintelligible otherwise. For example, how is one to explain the predisposition toward dissociation and escapism? Both seem to be desperate attempts to force order into chaos. The most natural explanation, then, is that the "postmodernist" individual is really "modernist" at heart. Her "postmodernist" features are acquired. They result from her failure to manage her too complex and overwhelming reality. After all, a "postmodernist" individual at heart ought to welcome her head-spinning complexity and have no need for dissociative or escapist tendencies.

James Grotstein ("The Alter Ego and Déjà Vu Phenomena") focuses on the role played by the sense of one's having a double, a stranger, an alter ego, which surfaces in dreams, transference or the déjà vu phenomenon. He traces this notion through an extensive list of classical as well as neoclassical psychoanalytic literature, reaching as far back as Freud's paper on "Mourning and melancholia" and even Freud and Breuer's joint work on hysteria. Grotstein argues that the success of analysis depends on the ability to recognize our alter ego in the stranger.

In an interesting article ("Life Inside Dialogically Structured Mentalities"), John Shotter invites us to appreciate some consequences of a non-Cartesian understanding of the mind developed by Bakhtin and Voloshinov. On that view, our mind (and our self) is itself pluralistic since it is simply an internalization of dialogues with people who have been significant to us. Our mind is thus "out in the world between us." It is intrinsically divided and unstructured as it is constituted by the disorder of multi-voiced dialogues. One of the consequences of this view is that it needs to be investigated by special methods, what Shotter calls "social poetics."

Part II. Research
Against a Baktinian framework, Hubert Hermans ("The Polyphony of the Mind: A Multi-voiced and Dialogical Self") develops what he calls valuation theory, according to which the self is conceived as an "organized process of valuation." He presents an idiographic assessment procedure (the self-confrontation method) and illustrates its application with two case studies. Brian Lancaster ("The Multiple Brain and the Unity of Experience") explores the neuronal conditions necessary for implementing the multiplicity of the self. After surveying some brain research he concludes that the plurality of selves is not only possible but possibly inevitable. Using her extensive experience with cross-cultural fieldwork (especially in South-East Asia), Ruth-Inge Heinze ("Multiplicity in Cross-Cultural Perspective") reminds us that the plurality of selves, which has been considered abnormal in Western cultures, may in fact be considered quite valuable in others. John Altrocchi ("Individual Differences in Pluralism in Self-Structure") experimentally explores the extent to which the plurality of self-structure is subject to variation across individuals as well as within an individual across time.

Colin Ross ("Subpersonalities and Multiple Personalities") challenges the widely accepted hypothesis of a dissociation continuum, with dissociative identity disorder at one extreme and everyday form of plurality at the other. He argues that individuals suffering from the disorder are no more pluralistic than normal selves. Rather what distinguishes the psychiatric condition is the degree of personification of the different personality states, the sense of their separateness, as well as the extent of the conflict and information blockage. He proposes a three-fold classification. Aside from the already mentioned states of psychiatric polypsychism and normal polypsychism (corresponding to the two extremes of the dissociation continuum, respectively) he introduces a middle state of "pathological pseudounity," which he claims to be statistically normal in our culture.

Part III. Practice
Mick Cooper and Helen Cruthers ("Facilitating the Expression of Subpersonalities") survey and illustrate a variety of descriptive, projective and experiential techniques that aim at facilitating the expression of self-plurality. Alvin Mahrer ("The Doorway into the Inner Deeper World Is the Instant of Peak Feeling in the Scene of Strong Feeling") describes and discusses a technique in experiential psychotherapy of focusing on a very short "moment of strong feeling." He argues that it is ideally suited for helping clients to discover their deeper selves. Mary Watkins ("Pathways between the Multiplicities of the Psyche and Culture") argues that since there is a correlation between the inner world and the outer world of a person, so the changes in the inner world must be accompanied by changes in the outer world.

In an interesting paper, Richard Schwartz proposes to view the self in terms of an "internal family systems model." He discusses a variety of ways in which family therapy techniques may be applied in the therapy of an individual.

The proclaimed aim of the book is to assemble papers on the so-called "pluralistic conception of the self." It is hard, however, not to be under the impression that the common threads among the papers are just too loose to warrant classifying them as contributing to a "conception" even though modified as "pluralistic." Or, to put it in another way, to the extent that they convey a single pluralistic conception of the self, it suffers from a multiple-conception disorder (not to be confused with a possibly healthy state of having multiple subconceptions).

Katarzyna Paprzycka is a full-time mother, teaching part-time at the University of Southern Mississippi.


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