The Structure of Selves: An Exploration into the Nature of Selfhood and the Ascetic Experience

The Structure of Selves: An Exploration into the Nature of Selfhood and the Ascetic Experience

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The primary assumption of this study is that there exists a uniquely human selfhood. Consequently, the subsequent assumption, that there are structural and phenomenological similarities in the selves of all persons, necessarily follows. A model of the self which is able to explain a number of different experiences of selfhood will be the one which is best suited to be accepted as an accurate portrait of human selves in general. Therefore, all modes of experiencing the self must be studied in order to gain a greater perspective and deeper understanding of human selfhood.

Although to study every mode of self-experience and model of identity would be ideal it would be impossible for the present study to account for all known modes of experiencing selfhood. The present study has thus focused on the archetype of that which has been conceived of as the ‘religious’ self; namely the ascetic experience of selfhood.

The current endeavor will open with a brief discussion of a few dominant theories of asceticism, and will engage in a phenomenological analysis of the ascetic experiences of self, processes of identification, and modes of subjectivity which such studies of asceticism have come to illuminate as a means of furthering our understanding of the human self. That which will be discovered from our examination of ascetic selfhood is that humans possess the potential for a representational plurality of self-identity. In other words, multiple cognitive representations of self may occur simultaneously in the mind of the ascetic, and hence, this must be accounted for by our model of human selfhood. Moreover, our study of asceticism will demonstrate that a group possesses the ability to function as a single psycho-social entity, retaining not only a homogenous socio-cultural identity but a shared experiential awareness as well. Furthermore, asceticism, in its eremitical forms, is often conceived of as entailing extreme solitude and a identification/dissociation from collective bodies. However, after further phenomenological scrutiny we find that regardless of his/her physical solitude the ascetic’s identification processes and self-concepts become intimately tied to the historical narratives and modes of awareness of the group to which s/he belongs.

Subsequently, I will propose a model of self that can adequately account for a number of the phenomena associated with the ascetic experience in addition to the psychological processes and phenomenological aspects of more common modes of self-experience. Primarily engaging the philosophical and psychological problem of selfhood from the perspective of narrative identity theory, this theory will put forth a synoptic bio-psycho-social model of self which highlights the role of ‘otherness’ in both identity formation and self-representation. While this project will address issues of self-identity I hope that it will be able to assist in the further development of theories of asceticism as well.

At this juncture a précis of a few leading theories of the nature of asceticism will be provided as a basis for understanding a number of the ascetical phenomena which will be explored in greater detail in our subsequent analysis of ascetic selfhood. Although, a number of different analyses of asceticism will be presented this study will primarily be utilizing the definition and theory of asceticism put forth by Richard Valantasis.

Theories of Asceticism
In 2006, in a graduate seminar at Emory University, Valantasis expanded in 1995 definition of asceticism in this way:

Asceticism consists of any performance resistant to an externally projected or subjectively experienced dominant social or religious context specifically intended (almost as a cognitive impulse) and purposefully performed in order to inaugurate a new and alternative subjectivity (understood both inter-subjectively as those people and events constituting the social self of the individual, and intra-subjectively as those with whom the inter-subjective agent interacts beyond the individual social body) whose social relationships must be transformed in order to support the new and alternative subjectivity and whose symbolic universe or construction of reality must be adapted and changed in order to explain and sustain the resistant subjectivity. (Valantasis 2006).

Widening our theoretical plateau, Harpham – though he is concerned with asceticism as the basis of culture, an issue which will not be addressed in the current essay – may be said to define asceticism as a process that entails opposition, cultural translation, self-denial, and empowerment.

Harpham begins his analysis with a brief discussion of consciousness and culture, claiming that a distinguishing feature of culture is self-denial. Consequently, Harpham maintains that critical self-assessment if a definitive aspect of human consciousness and that when taken together as a whole self-denial, self-observation, and self-criticism form the basis of the ascetic life. (xii Harpham 1993) Harpham states that “asceticism is always marked by ambivalence, by a comprised binarism” (xii Harpham 1993) and maintains that in a more general sense asceticism “refers to any act of self-denial undertaken as a strategy of empowerment or gratification”(xiii Harpham 1993). Moreover, Harpham holds that the ascetic individual “can not only conserve the past and give birth to the future, but can also anchor oneself in a community of imitation which both temporally and spatially exceeds the boundaries of the individual life” (xiv Harpham 1993). He concludes by stating that the “Ascetic discipline is a bodily act that points beyond itself, expressing an intention that forms, and yet transcends and negates, the body” (xiv-xv Harpham 1993).

Whereas Harphams definition is grounded upon more traditionalistic notions of self-denial and self-criticism as forming the basis of asceticism, Gavin Flood has postulated a novel theory of the ascetic self in which subjectivity, narrative, history, and community occupy central roles. He claims that “asceticism can be understood as the internalisation of tradition, the shaping of the narrative of a life in accordance with the narrative of tradition that might be seen as the performance of the memory of tradition” (ix Flood 2004). Despite his theory’s historico-narrative and communal orientations, Flood’s account still incorporates the notions of self-denial and self-eradication, yet avoids placing them in the nucleus of his definition. Discussing ascetic practice Flood states that:

Such a performance contains an ambiguity or distance between the general intention to eradicate the will or in some sense to erase the self, and expression, the affirmation of will in ascetic performance…It also expresses a belief that goes against the grain of some contemporary thinking, that there are common features of human being that cut across historical and cultural divides – an insight expressed in earlier centuries as a belief in a common human nature. (ix-x Flood 2004)

Demonstrating his concern for the historico-narrative element of asceticism, Flood maintains that “asceticism is always set within, or in some cases in reaction to, a religious tradition, within a shared memory that both looks back to an origin and looks forward to a future goal. But asceticism only flourishes in certain kinds of tradition that might be called ‘cosmological’” (2 Flood, 2004).

Whereas Flood’s work tends to view religiosity as an ascetical necessity neither Harpham nor Valantasis postulate the religious tradition as a necessary component of asceticism. However, Valantasis’ definition does indeed maintain that a tradition, regardless of whether or not it is religious, is necessary for the formation of the ascetical life. Furthermore, while Harpham’s definition tends to focus on negation and denial Valantasis’ definition maintains a focus on becoming and development. Yet, although distinct all three definitions of asceticism highlight the phenomena of an individual’s immersion in a larger group, a goal-directed self-development, and a level resistance – whether toward of collective otherness or oneself. Throughout the course of our study we will examine the concepts of resistance, transformation, self, community, and narrativity in greater detail, exploring the roles they play in the ascetic’s processes of identification and modes of self-experience.

Selfhood & The Ascetic Experience

Now, that some parameters for our understanding of what exactly asceticism is we shall move to an analysis of the ascetical phenomena mentioned previously. Firstly, I would like to begin with that which serves as the impetus of the formation of the ascetic self; namely, the idea of resistance, which has been raised by both Valantasis and Harpham. Harpham states that “The eremite went to the desert to achieve a self constituted entirely by transcendence-of-self” (Harpham 28) and goes onto state that “Eremites renounced the world; cenobites renounced themselves.” (29 Harpham). However, whether or not this eremitic/cenobitic distinction is accurate what his study aptly points to is the idea of renunciation-of-y and of a resistance-to-x. Concordantly, Valantasis claims that “asceticism involves the articulation and construction of a particular subjectivity that defines the sort of agency and identity toward which the ascetic moves and away from which the ascetic withdraws. The ascetic develops a subjectivity alternative to the prescribed cultural subjectivity.” (795 Valantasis), He also mentions cases of the hermitic endeavor of isolation as a mean of achieving both this journey toward a goal of self-transformation and a dissociation from a given culture, and correlative understanding of self, which he has rejected.

I would like to suggest that that which is being renounced and resisted here is not necessarily a particular collective of individuals, though it may be, but rather, a certain conceptual paradigm held by a collective and the correlative ways of life practiced by that collective. In addition we are presented with another level of renunciation and resistance which does not occur between two separate corporeal bodies but rather occurs psychologically within the ascetic him/herself. The world being transcended or resisted is the world as it is perceived through a specific paradigm and the self being transcended is the psychological representation of self which is associated with that paradigm and way of life. We are presented with a resistance to identify with such a representation of self. As this resistance spawns a moving away from such a self-representation it creates a new developmental trajectory in the psyche of the ascetic.
The ascetic is involved in a process of transforming his mode of subjectively experiencing and psychologically representing his selfhood. Yet such radical shifts in identity, though possible for any human self, are not diurnal phenomenon. Though all human selves undergo a degree of change over time, and as they interact with new places, they are not only gradual but commonly result in an identity/self-experience/self-representation that to a large extent resembles the prior conception of self. On the contrary, this is not the case with the ascetic1. Often such radical shifts in identity require resistance, which in turn requires a crisis, as their impetus. Such a view is not only purported by the aforementioned theories of asceticism but is evident in the analysis of historical change provided by Ortega y Gasset:

[T]he normal change is that the profile of the world which is valid for one generation is succeeded by another and slightly different profile. Yesterday’s system of convictions gives way to today’s, smoothly, without a break…[it] is only slightly modified…an historical crisis occurs when the world change…consists in this: the world, the system of convictions belonging to a previous generation, gives way to a vital state in which man remains without these convictions, and therefore without a world…It is a change which begins by being negative and critical…one only knows…that the traditional norms and ideas are false…But human existence abhors a vacuum…[In] this state of negation…there begins to ferment certain obscure germs of a new set of positive tendencies…there must be germinating in him a [new faith]…This new faith…bursts intermittently from the negative surface of man’s life in a time of crisis, and provides him with sudden joys…[which] take on the appearance of orgiastic seizures. (85 – 88 Ortega).

This analysis is highly relevant to our study of the ascetic self insofar as it demonstrates how crisis is an imperative for the emergence of novelty on the social, historical, and personal levels. Ortega’s claim is in accordance with Valantasis’s theory in that he moves to postulate that “The ascetic develops an alternative set of social relationships usually defined in conflict to the dominant social arrangements…[and] the construction of a symbolic universe capable of supporting these subjectivities and social relationships…that enter into the construction of the ascetic’s reality and truth.” (796 Valantasis). As a result of such a crisis the individual moves to abandon the representation of self which is not only correlative with but enmeshed in a worldview, and socio-cultural system, which s/he has come to view as false.

Consequently, the identity one possessed while immersed in that system is now perceived as false and inauthentic, propelling him/her on a quest for genuineness and a transformation of his/her self-representation into that which is perceived to be truer and or purer. Discussing Origen and Maximus the Confessor Harpham states that “the goal…was…the self made ‘simple’, ‘perfect’, and ‘single-hearted.’” (36 Harpham). The explicit phenomenon here is that as a result of a paradigmatic crisis the human self is able to undergo dissociation from a complex identity-representation which had been definitive of one’s subjective experience and being-in-the-world. We are presented with an ‘other-ing’ of the self, so to speak, as the individual is engaged in an ‘othering’ of the representation of the ‘world’ to which that representation of self belonged.

However, contrary to the inherent individualism of more existentially inclined authors such as Ortega, the ascetic’s transformation does not occur entirely in isolation; and further, this is true even of those adopting a eremitic way of life. Rather, as both Valantasis and Flood duly note, such a transformation of one’s representation of his/her identity is part of a larger tradition, ‘corporate subjectivity’, or ‘collective–identity”, which reinforces a notion that I have endorsed in past2; namely, that otherness plays an integral role in one’s self-identification process, and hence, is intimately intertwined in, and an imperative element of, selfhood broadly construed.
“The ascetic self acts only through tradition…subjugating the self to the collectivity of tradition…Ascetic selves become indices of tradition…The narrative of the ascetic becomes and index for the narrative of tradition.” (13-15 Flood). What we are presented with is the reciprocal exchange of the “I-ness” of an individual and the “I-ness” of a collective in processes of identity formation/transformation which enables a group to achieve a collective mode of subjective experience as implied by Valantasis’ term “corporate subjectivity”. That which is highlighted by the ascetic experience is an aspect of selfhood that is part and parcel of any human self; namely, that otherness is an imperative element of the individual self (this point will be expounded upon further at a later point in our study).
Phenomenologically analyzing Hindu forms of Yogic meditation and asceticism, Flood utilizes them as a means of supporting his claim that “the ascetic self internalises tradition and recapitulates cosmology in inwardness….The ascetic internalises the tradition, subjectively appropriating it and conforms his body, speech and mind to the forms prescribed. He eliminates his individuality, as it were, through a subjective intensification” (72…82 Flood). Directly addressing the ascetical phenomenon of merging with a collective, raising Valantais’ point that a conglomerate is able to possess its own subjective stance, and pointing to the universality of this phenomenon, Flood proceeds to state that:

Human beings are ‘dividuals’ and subject to changes in their ‘coded-substance’ in different social, transactional circumstances…such [tradition-oriented ascetic] disciplines and prescribed rules for ascetic eradicated individual markers…The renouncer was far from an individual in the modern sense…[Thus,] We need to distinguish between the ascetic as an individual and the subjectivity of asceticism. Subjectivity, I have argued, is collective or shared in the sense that it is both constructed by tradition and appropriates traditions. It becomes an index of tradition and the ascetic self…. (88-89 Flood)

Giving further support to the claim that this ‘entanglement with otherness’ is a universal human, rather than merely ascetic, phenomenon, I wish to introduce Mead’s idea of the ‘generalized other’, which is a collective group that not only possesses a distinct identity, or subjectivity if you will, but becomes a constitutive element of one’s own self-representation. Quoting Mead, Mitchell Aboulafia explains that “‘The organized community or social group which gives to the individual his unity of self may be called ‘the generalized other’…the generalized other arises when we internalize the expectations of an organized group. We are capable of viewing ourselves as part and parcel of these groups, and when we do so selves emerge that correspond to them.” (13 Aboulafia). Though, a number of philosophers have proposed similar theories, Mead directly addresses the identity of a corporate body, which we find so explicitly demonstrated in the ascetic experience, and directly relates it to the notion of transformation, which is found in Valantasis’ theory of asceticism as well.

For Mead, the self is a cognitive object that is viewed from the perspective of the generalized other… ‘The self-conscious human individual, then, takes or assumes the organized social attitudes of the given social group or community (or some section thereof) to which he belongs…[and] he governs his own conduct accordingly.’ This does not mean that one is always directly aware of having a self when functioning in a group. (14 Aboulafia)

Hence, we can come to understand both how any human self is capable of undergoing a crisis which will produce a split with a given collective; which will propel him/her to a transformation of self through an identification with a new collective body.

Moreover, we can come to comprehend how a “corporate subjectivity” is possible, if we understand it as emerging from the “I-ness” of a group, which is a product not only of the existence of a collective identity, but which results from the extreme identification of its members with this representational entity. That which we are presented with is a cognitive representational merger, so to speak, of the ascetic’s psycho-social representation of self with both his psycho-cognitive representation of a group and with the social, historical, and physical representations of an identity which that collective exudes. Insofar as theoretical philosophical and psychological identity theory is concerned such a phenomenological find, so to speak, is critical for it alters our modernized individualistic conceptions of the self. Further, it gives tremendous support to my claim that otherness is indeed an integral part of the development and constitution of human selfhood.


To proceed, Valantasis holds that asceticism consists of three definitive aspects: performances, intention, and novelty3. Insofar as the current endeavor is concerned with selfhood, holding a primarily theoretical psycho-social perspective, performances will be recognized as those behaviors that assist in the creative transformation of one’s subjective experiential stance toward the world and represented identity as a self. Further, we can conceive of Valantasis’ performative asceticism as intentional, not only in the common sense usage that it is volitionally intended, but also in the philosophical sense that it is an awareness that is being directed toward an object of thought/consciousness insofar as that which is posited by the individual is:

[A] goal toward which the ascetic performance aims….[furthermore,] the subject of performance is “transformation: the startling ability of human beings to create themselves…” (1993:1)…The intentions call out and structure the performances by virtue of imagining a new self…asceticism rejects precisely in order to embrace another existence…[Hence,] this intentionality has the power – power to create a new person…. (799 Valantasis)

Such a conclusion illuminates the highly existential notion that human selves are self-created beings; that teleology plays a definitive role in the constitution of selfhood; and that such a goal-directedness imbues the human self with a unique reality.

Consequently, that toward which the ascetic intends is novelty insofar as: every action is one of the building elements to someone, something different…[it holds as its ultimate, or at least penultimate telos] the newness of the reconstructed self…Ascetic performances revise the understanding of the self, society, and the universe by directing them intentionally toward an alternative mode of existence within a dominant environment. (799-800 Valantasis)

Hence, we find that the human self must be capable of self-creation and re-creation, and thus, while heightened in the ascetic experience such a phenomenon is indeed an element of the human’s self-identity generally speaking.

To an extent another parallel exists between Valantasis’s theory of asceticism and George Herbert Mead’s work on the self in regards to novelty. Firstly, “…a good deal of its {a self’s} life is spent moving between perspectives or learning new ones. And new perspectives are not just added arithmetically to a prior repertoire; coming to terms with them often entails modifying prior systems (i.e. who we were).” (17 Aboulafia). And secondly, ‘Novelty for Mead is at the heart of diachrony. “A present then, as contrasted with the abstraction of mere passage, is not a piece cut out anywhere from the temporal dimension of uniformly passing reality. Its chief reference is to the emergent event, that is, to the occurrence of something which is more than the processes that have led up to it and which by its change, continuance or disappearance, adds to latter passages a content they would not otherwise have possessed.”’ (121 Aboulafia). Relating this idea to our study of the ascetic self we may postulate that the diachronic existence of any self-identity is by its very nature evolutionary in that it is in a constant process of change. Such a transformation occurs in all human selves, however, it occurs in a much higher degree in the experiential life-world and identification processes of the ascetic individual.

Moreover, this intentionality aimed at a self-transformative novelty synchronically consists of three distinct modes of ‘subjectivity’, or self-representations: the old identity, or that from which the individual is moving away; the present identity, which is entirely in flux and recognizes itself as such; and the new identity, toward which the individual strives and is attempting to bring about. (Valantasis 798)4. Valantasis’ theory illuminates the idea that self-representation is a fractured multiplicity, so that at each given moment humans are able to engage in multiple modes of self-representation. In a previous project on schizophrenia I have endorsed such a view, however, that which the study of asceticism brings to the foreground is that an individual is capable of identifying more overtly with a single representation, while still possessing some identification ties to the others. Indeed, if such links were not held to some extent – if there were no level of identifying with the old representation per se – then the primary impetus for the entire transformative process would cease to exist. Hence, the story of the old identity, the aura of the adversary, that which gave one reason for his initial resistant opposition, must remain a cogent representation in the mind of the ascetic if such a transformation is to be continually fueled and performed, and if that yearning for the novel is to be held and journeyed towards. “the ascetic always moves between the deconstructed and constructing identity, being held by the former while yearning for the latter.” (801 Valantasis). That which we are presented with is the spawning of a new self-represented-identity so that the old representation of the self becomes a ‘not-self’ – an ‘other’ yet an ‘other’ which is recognized as a ‘once-self’, and hence is still representationally enmeshed within, and partially constitutive of, one’s actual fullness of identity as person.

Learning from Asceticism
The two major issues that the study of asceticism brings to bear upon our inquiry into the nature of human selfhood, are the internalization of, or overt identification with, the collective identity of the narrative of a given tradition and the intentional transformation of one’s mode of subjectivity. The transformation that occurs is the reconstitution of one’s self-representation in lieu of the representative identity of the collective that the individual has become associated with. Such a transformation is initiated in lieu of a resistant reaction to another collective with whom the ascetic individual had prior identification or association. What we discover is that his/her renunciation of this prior collective is so strong that it drives him/her to radically alter the mode in which s/he represents himself and subsequently drives him/her to an extreme immersion in the identity of this new collective. That which we are presented with may be said to be the absorption of the collective’s identity by the individual. Having utterly renounced one group the ascetic moves to the other extreme by striving toward a total immersion in a new shared identity. Through the adoption of the habits and beliefs of the group and its tradition the ascetic individual begins to experience the world through the same paradigmatic lens as the ascetical group and begins to self-identify not only as a member of this corporate body but representatively becomes the identity of the conglomerate so that the two identities, that is of the collective and of the individual person, become synonymous in the ascetic’s cognitive representations of self.
Insofar as the ascetic’s reformed identity is concerned, we find that the ascetic undergoes a series of practices as an intentional and volitional means of self-transformation and re-creation. In what has been referred to as a transforming of subjectivity, the ascetic not only begins to create a new representation of him/her self but begins to take on new modes of perception in the present, which enable him/her to reinterpret his/her past experiences and postulate a goal toward which s/he is striving. As the transformation process continues to progress both the past representations of self and world, and the future goals, or representations of what s/he is striving to become are continually revisited and revised. Such phenomena highlight the existentialist concern with ‘becoming’ and stress the importance of new-ness, or novelty, in the structure and identification process of the human self.

Moreover, insofar as the ascetic’s identification with this new collective entails identification with a larger tradition, the issue of collective identities is raised. As is evident form the phenomenon of internalizing, or staunchly identifying with the identity of a tradition, which entails an almost ‘corporate’ conglomerate of individuals whose presence in the world spans spatio-temporality, the question as to what extent the identity of a collective comes to bear upon the self-identification of both ascetic and non-ascetic selves is raised. It calls to our attention the importance that tradition plays in molding and shaping one’s self-identification process. Also, it makes us recognize the integrality of the role that ‘otherness’ plays in the structure of human selfhood.
Furthermore, the extent to which otherness comes to bear upon an individual’s self-identification is again highlighted in an ascetical phenomenon, which may be posited as the converse of that which has just been mentioned: the spawning of a new identity in reaction to/pitted against a particular collective toward which the individual is rebelling/resisting. Such dissociation from one form of otherness, and the self-representation that had come to be associated with it, may be said to be the initial impetus toward the ascetic’s overt identification and entanglement with the identity of the new tradition and collective with which s/he is presently self-identifying.

Therefore, it may be postulated that an adequate model of the self needs to be able to account for these notions. Insofar as becoming an ascetic entails a teleological-based transformation of one’s self-representation and the forging of a new identity, our model of self must account for the concept of novelty. In addition, insofar as the drive toward asceticism is often initiated by a socio-cultural crisis and clash of paradigms, and perpetuated by a resistance to collective in possession of the oppositional paradigm the idea of crisis producing resistance, which leads to such novel modes of self-representation and experience, must be accounted for as well. Finally, identification with a collective, both in terms of representing one’s self as an integral part of the whole of a conglomerate of persons, whose presence is situated both in the present as a distinct group and historically as an on-going tradition, and in terms of representing the identity of this corporate body as intimately constitutive of one’s subjective representation of one’s self as an individual, must find a place within our theory of identity and model of self.

At this point in our analysis I would like to move the discussion in a different, yet highly related direction. Previously I had mentioned my proposed model of the human self which, though it was primarily grounded in narrative interpretations of the human identity, attempted to put forth a comprehensive bio-psycho-social theory of human selfhood and that highlighted the role of otherness in the formation of a self’s identity. To this extent I believe our current analysis informs this theory and in turn that this theoretical model has the ability to assist in our understanding of the ascetic’s self-experiences and identification processes. Thus, a brief explanation of this model of self will be set forth. Once a revised version of this model, drawing on the prior theories and studies of asceticism, is in place it will serve to guide our subsequent analysis of the ascetic self, demonstrating how this theoretical model is able to account for such phenomena.


Drawing upon, synthesizing, and amending the theories of Francisco Varela5 and Daniel Dennett6, I propose that the self is the virtual center of a reflective and mutable narrative, which emerges from, and is contingent upon, environmentally interactive biological systems and socially relational cognitive processes. In alignment with Owen Flanagan7, it is maintained that despite its virtuality the self is real; and, in accord with Paul Ricouer8 it is proposed that otherness permeates the self, playing an integral role in its formation and identification processes. The strength of this theoretical model lies within its bio-psycho-social account of self and its synoptic perspective. Also, unlike other narrative identity theories it does not conceive of a self’s narrative as singular and monadic, rather this model maintains that there are multiple streams of narrative in the composition of one’s selfhood and life-history.9

Introducing the Self
According to Daniel Dennett, at the center of all biological processes there exists a primordial form of self, insofar as all biological systems have the ability to distinguish between that which is internal to a given closed boundary and that which is external to the boundary. According to Varela, a system’s ability to self-organize, and hence, ability to produce a primordial form of selfhood, is called “autopoeisis”. The theory states that living systems exist in an almost dichotomous state of autonomy/dependency: they are self-producing systems that are simultaneously dependent upon their environment for the proper resources needed to fuel such an autonomous existence and self-induced emergence. The living system is self-organized yet the exact structure of that organization is dependent upon its surrounding environment, which, in turn, is structurally affected by the presence of the autopoetic system itself and vice versa in a gradually evolving existence of reciprocal exchange10. I maintain that such a relationship not only exists on the biological level but also exists on the psycho-social narrative level as well. As Paul Ricouer has demonstrated, selfhood is comprised of otherness insofar as it is narratively entangled with others. Such an entanglement comes to define and construct one’s self-representative identity and vice versa.

Aligning myself with a number of narrative-identity theorists I have adopted and amended Dennett’s notion that the self is a “center-of-narrative-gravity”. The human self possesses the ability for self-representation, and hence presents itself to itself and to others, yet does so primarily in the form of story-telling. While this self is the abstract non-localizable center of the various streams and strands of narratives that are produced by and which correspond to the life-history of, the individual, it is real. Drawing on the work of philosopher Gabriel Marcel, and the phenomenological psychiatrist Kimura Bin11, I have amended and expounded upon the prior synthesis of Varela and Dennett’s theories.

Therefore, I have concluded that a uniquely human self is the fluctuating center of a streaming narrative system which emerges from the interactivity of biological and cognitive subsystems and which is fully immersed in a dynamic web of social relationality. Together all of these aspects of the self imbue it with a ‘real-ness’ despite its abstracted and virtual nature. Moreover, it has been demonstrated that ‘otherness’ plays an integral role in the emergence of a person’s selfhood and in his/her unique process of self-identification, not only on the psycho-social narrative level but on the biological levels as well. While one may wish to draw a parallel to the narrative characters of literary stories, such characters lack biological and psychological composition and actual physical and social environmental entanglement and interactivity, thus precluding the reality of literary characters. Furthermore, a human’s self is goal-directed and possess the ability to constantly reflect upon one’s past narrative and re-direct one’s future story, which is an impossibility for literary characters. Hence, such entanglement with otherness makes such narrative selves real. Employing autopoietic and narration in explaining a self’s emergence, this theory has been dubbed an “autopoietic-narrative-emergence” model of self.
Providing a precis of the present model of selfhood; initially, adopting Dennett’s terminology and proposing a synthesis between his theory and Varela’s, there is a primordial-self, or the virtual center of a self-organizing, environmentally-interactive lower level biological system. Cells or immune systems are examples of primordial selves. Built upon, and comprised of, primordial-selves are minimal-selves; or pre-reflective-virtual-centers of lower level cognitive systems, producing felt qualities of experience and possessing the ability of self-regard. Continuing up the evolutionary ladder, we arrive at a narrative self, or an enacted and interactive center-of-narrative-gravity which is the virtual center of the reflective representations of higher level cognitive systems of a human person, functioning by means of story-telling, both in a reflexive mode to oneself, and to and from others.

Furthermore, in alignment with Flanagan, a narrative self is comprised of various sub-divisions. Amending and expounding upon his work I have proposed that initially, there are two modes of narrative-self-identity. Firstly, drawing upon the work of Gabriel Marcel12, there is the objective-identity, which is one’s identity as it is perceived by others in the third person. Secondly, there is one’s self-represented-identity, which is one’s identity as presented to that individual by that individual and corresponds to his experience of “I-ness”.

Adopting and amending Kimura Bin’s terminology, the self-represented-identity is broken down further. Firstly, there exists a “noematic-self”, or the way in which one presents one’s ‘self’ to herself in lieu of how she believes others perceive herself. Secondly, we are presented with the “noetic-self”, which is a purely subjective self-representation. The ‘noetic-self’ refers to, or consists of, the way in which one presents one’s ‘self’ to oneself without conscious consideration for third person perspectives. Finally, it is at this synoptic level that we are presented with one’s actual-full-identity as human person. Now, for the purposes of this study our focus will be with the narrative mode of selfhood.

Exploring the Structure of the Ascetic Self
That which comes to bear on such a theory of self from our prior study is the primacy of the identities of collectives upon one’s subjective self. In accord with this theory’s emphasis on otherness as integral to selfhood, I wish to expound upon this point in lieu of our prior analysis of asceticism. Valantasis speaks of a “corporate subjectivity,”13 which may be thought of as referring to the notion that communities come to be constitutive of identities rather than merely contextualizing them. Moreover, Valantasis’ concept suggests that we are presented with the phenomenon of a single collective possessing a unique experiential awareness of itself and of the world, which phenomenologically parallels the subjectivity held by individuals. Similarly, for Kimura Bin the noematic self is that phenomenological aspect of selfhood that is related to what he refers to as a ‘collective identity’. Such an identity is the overall identity of a group of persons, with which the individual comes to identify; the individual sees himself as a member of this group and hence the characteristics and definitive traits of the group come to influence the individual’s own mode of self-representation. Furthermore, this “collective identity” is highly reminiscent of Mead’s notion that there is an “I-ness” possessed by a group, which then comes to bear upon the self-representative-identity of the individual who is a member of such a collective. Flood emphasizes a similar point when stating that:

The ascetic submits her life to a form that transforms it…[;] to a narrative greater than the self. The ascetic self shapes the narrative of her life to the narrative of tradition…[Hence, we may view] Asceticism as the subjective appropriation of tradition…” (2-7 Flood 2004). “He [, the ascetic] constructs himself in accordance with tradition, subjectively appropriating its aims… These thinkers, [that is to say, these ascetics] particularly Maximus, illustrate the subjection of the self-narrative to the narrative of tradition…. (100…149 Flood).

In our analysis then, asceticism may be construed as the extreme end of a phenomenon common to all human selves: the incorporation of a representation of a collective into one’s self-representation. As an individual, the ascetic so vehemently incorporates this collective-representation into his own self-representative-identity’s narration that there is a conjoining of the noetic and noematic selves in this new self-representative-identity. The cognitive-representational and experiential distinctions between self and group being to fade; yet they do not dissipate entirely; which in turn serves as the foundation for the emergence of a participation in a ‘corporate subjectivity’. In a sense, and for lack of better terminology, there is a ‘selfing’ of other and an ‘othering’ of ‘self-as-monadic-individual’. In other words, the otherness of the group as an object or entity that is distinct from the individual becomes intimately enmeshed in the ascetic’s self-representation. Experientially, the group becomes part of the individual ascetic’s experience of himself as subject rather than object. Hence, the noetic strand of narrative is slowly diffused into the noematic narrative, or vice versa, so that this common bifurcation is less evident in the selfhood of the ascetic than it is in the average individual; this gives rise to the possibility of new modes of collective awareness, and hence, when held by a number of individuals, is that which enables the formation of a corporate subjectivity in the first place.

While an ordinary member of an ethnic group may be said to internalize the story of his people, coming to identify with this group, to a large extent the group is still perceived as an externality, so that his noematic self is not entangled with the group narrative to the extent to which ‘self’ and ‘other’ infuse each other on an experiential level, creating the “corporate subjectivity” of which Valantasis speaks. Such an individual may indeed represent himself to his self via his identification with the group identity, yet his narrative is still merely a part of that group and the group’s merely a part of him rather than it being his sole and/or primary mode of self representation and experiential awareness. This is precisely what distinguishes he who is intimately tied to a group and the ascetic. For the ascetic individual not only is there a lack of distinction between his own narrative self-representation and that of the group but the distinctions between his own individual experiences and those of the group begin to fade as well. There is a shift in the ascetic’s intentionality so that the subject/object distinction is retained yet that which is commonly experienced as other and which one would be an object of one’s awareness ceases to have the quality of alterity as it fuses with one’s subjective intentional states. Nonetheless, even the average individual has as an integral part of his identity an association with at least one collective “I-ness”.

However, in addition to recognizing the influence which a collective has upon the individual, I wish to maintain that the ascetic can affect the collective as well. Consequently, individuals play a role that is just as integral to the identity of a collective as is the collective’s influence upon the identity of individuals. Through his/her own internalization and appropriation of traditional performances the ascetic partakes in a ‘selfing’ of the group’s performances and actions transforming them into one’s own habits. In addition, various members of the group come to imitate the performances of singular individuals that were inaugurated individually and subjectively yet have come to be integrated into the identity and awareness of the collective. As the ascetic performs such traditional practices they become his own habits and actions and hence, although such practices archetypically share in commonalities across various members of the tradition they are given a uniqueness and distinctiveness correlative to the individual who performed them. Each time a performance is imitated it is given its own unique quality. Thus, through imitation the individual ascetic brings his individuality to bear upon the identity of the collective.

Subsequently, we may assert that not only does the collective identity come to affect one’s self identity, as Bin, Mead, and Flood would maintain, but that one’s strands of noematic narrative come to influence the identity of a collective as well. As in the case with the ascetic, despite the primacy of his/her identification with a given collective (in this case an ascetical community) s/he still possesses a uniqueness and individuality which come to bear upon the collective identity.
Partaking in collective identity entails a gradual evolution of representation both on the part of the individual and by the group as a whole. These individual noematic streams of narrative produce personalities that bear upon the dynamics and modes of representations of the group as a whole. This becomes evident when we come to see action as integral to identity formation. “Asceticism revolves around performances…[and] a performance [may be construed] as ‘ an activity done by an individual or group in the presence of and for another individual or group’ (1988:30)” (Valantasis 797). An individual’s behaviors come to influence the performances of others. Through the imitation of certain behaviors and practices, others partake in the performances initiated by the individual. In addition, when such imitation is coupled with the notion and individual’s own unique behaviors have come to bear upon his performance, which is then imitated, his own expression comes to permeate the actions and narratives of others. As such performances become internalized by both members of the group and the tradition itself and through the habituality with which such acts are carried out the behavioral and expressive uniqueness of the individual comes to influence the entire dynamic and constitutive web of the tradition itself. Hence, imitation, internalization, habituation, and most of all behaviors and performances become highly influential in the intentional stance, and consequently the formative processes of identity, of both other individual members of the group and the group’s own collective “I-ness” itself. As individuals of a group imitate and begin to habitualize particular actions, which were initially inaugurated by individual selves, they become enmeshed in both the narratives of individuals and the narrative of the collective.

Consequently, such actions and habits become a part of the representative-identity of both collectives and individual selves. Thus, we discover that, just as the primordial self exists in a fluctuating state of autonomy/dependency with its surrounding physical environment being constantly involved in reciprocal exchange, the narrative self of a human being and the narrative of the collective to which he belongs mutually constrain one another and reciprocally exchange influence in regards to the constitution of their identities and modes of subjectively experiencing the world. Thus, Varlea’s theory of autopoeisis may be said to be applicable to the narrative-psycho-social level as well as to the biological and bio-psychological levels of human existence.

Furthermore, the aforementioned model of self can adequately account for transformation and novelty insofar as it holds that change plays an integral role in the emergence of selfhood. Initially, a human self’s emergence is dependent upon the evolutionary transformation, change, and environmental exchange, or primordial and minimal selves. The ascetical mode of being, which entails a continual resistance to an old representation of self with which the ascetic previously identified and a continual striving for an unattainable continuously morphing goal,14 highlights the fact that human selves exist in a constant state of revising the past narratives of life, and continually revising or re-postulating new goals, which are affected by the experiences of the present and which in turn affect the mode of authoring in the present and the hermeneutic placed upon the current re-reading of the texts of one’s past lived-reality. This becomes most evident in cases of reformed criminals, and rehabilitated drug addicts. Yet, this is also evident to a much lesser degree in the average person, in regards to the fact that an individual may claim that she is no longer the same person she was in high school, or during college. For example, one may have gone to extremes with alcohol or drugs, partaking in high risk activity, and then suddenly after having experienced a traumatic event, such as a crisis, may have rejected his/her entire life-style, possibly becoming very spiritual or becoming extremely work-oriented.

In the average individual prior narratives and correlative psychological states, come to produce one’s self-representative-identity in the present through a chain of mental causation. This causative mental chain creates a psycho-narrative continuum which culminates in a unified representation of self. On the contrary, in the selfhood of the ascetic we witness a severe disjunction in which this psycho-narrative continuum is disrupted. By creating a new self-representative-identity the ascetic begins to author a new story of who he is. The old identity does not evolve into a new version of the same narrative identity/self-representation, as in most cases of human identity formation and re-creation. Rather, a distinct narrative is authored and an entirely new self-representative-identity is created. However, this does not necessarily entail a break in the psycho-narrative chain of causation, for it is indeed the old self-representative-identity which has played an imperative causative role in the forging of this new self-representative-identity. Further, it continues to do so insofar as the ascetic is in a continual state of resistance directed at the old identity. The mental chain of causation is still unbroken yet there exists a discontinuity of the psycho-narratives of this individual’s self-representative-identities. The distinction between the self-experience of the ascetic and more diurnal modes of self-experience is largely a result of the paradigmatic crisis s/he faced which spawned his/her resistance to his/her old identity and was the initial impetus for his/her re-creation. While crisis is indeed present in both the ascetic’s and anyone else’s processes of reforming his/her identity the ascetic rejects not only his/her identity but a socio-cultural collective and an entire conceptual paradigm as well.

The psycho-social crisis creates the schism in the continuity of this narratively forged self-representative-identity insofar as it results in resistance to the prior identity by the latter identity. However, while the psycho-narrative continuum may be disrupted, or even broken, the chain of mental causation is preserved, just as with any human self. In the mind of the ascetic previously held psychological states still play a causal role in the creation of other psychological states and give rise to particular behaviors. For, example the memory of the psychological states associated with his/her crisis continues to fuel his/her ascetic endeavor. Hence, while distinct the ascetic shares in the same structures of self as the average individual; both undergo the same kind of evolutionary processes of self-creativity and psychological causation, however, the ascetic’s developmental processes involves an abrupt narrative rupture (instead of being a smooth transitory process) and involves a higher degree of novelty in his transformative stages. Through the internalization of the tradition the ascetic adopts the narrative of that tradition so that any changes in the his/her story-line are not merely a continuation of the same story yet with new and distinct themes, as is commonly the case. Rather, the ascetic takes on a new story connected to a different series of past events as well as present states and future goals. Not only is an entirely new mode of narration occurring but a new story which is disconnected from the previous one emerges.

Secondly, a narrative self is considered ‘real’ in that it is entangled with otherness and this necessarily involves transformation to some extent: a re-configuration of social relationality and conceptual patterns due to a recapitulation of one’s representative-identity and mode of experiencing reality, and of perceptually existing in the world. This is possible insofar as such an entanglement with the otherness of the world entails a reflective ability to re-conceptualize one’s situated-ness in the world and hence an ability to re-postulate and reform one’s goals and aims, which are themselves constrained by otherness. Therefore, in that human selfhood entails re-representation, and hence an ability to re-write one’s narrative, it necessarily entails a constant emergence of ‘new-ness’; thus, novelty becomes integral to identity via entanglement with otherness.

In accord with Valantasis’ theory we come to see that novelty and teleological transformativity are integral elements not only of the ascetic self but of human selves in general. Human selves are continually setting goals and striving to achieve those goals. That which the study of asceticism illuminates is that fact that a human self not only sets behavioral goals, but also sets goals of who s/he wants to become, and hence creates identity archetypes toward which s/he strives, altering his/her current narrative, creating new narratives, and re-interpreting his/her previous narratives in the process. In addition, crisis and resistance, may be understood as factors which serve to exacerbate the normal mode of self-transformation, self-creation/re-creation, and the self’s inherent elements of novelty by propelling a self to exceed the average transformative limits. Further, crisis produces dissociation with particular collectives while simultaneously spawning association with, and immersion into, the narratives of new collectives. While this is a possibility for any self, given the inherent structure of selfhood, such a phenomenon is precisely that: a possibility, or potentiality of the self, yet need not necessarily be a common actuality. Nevertheless, understanding the role that crisis and resistance play in an individual’s self-representative processes is important for furthering our understanding of the complex psychological structures of human selfhood. Thus, the motivation for being able to account for such phenomena in an adequate model of selfhood does not need to be based of the idea that they are common occurrences but rather that they have and do occur and hence, must be plausible within the conceptual framework of an acceptable theory of self-identity.  

Explaining Ascetic Selfhood

In accord with Valantasis’ theory of asceticism and in lieu of our current model of self we can being to forge an understanding of the selfhood of an Ascetic individual. Harpham’s theory and analysis point to the phenomenon that through the loss of self (or in other words intentional dissociation from a subjective notion of individualized selfhood) the ascetic self gains a self, albeit a new self. In contrast, Flood’s work highlights the idea that through the exertion of his will the ascetic undergoes a loss of will; that through self-effort s/he loses her/his self. When perceived through a synoptic lens both of these conclusions may be reconciled if they are posited diachronically and if we allow the concept of novelty to play a role in this transformative diachronic identification process.
Thus, we are presented with the possibility of the following proposition: through the volitional and intentional exertion of the will the self loses the mode of self-identification, dis-identifying with the self-representation, which it previously had, and in turn gains, or forges, a new representation of self through its identification with a new collective and through its enmeshment in the ideological paradigm of a new tradition which produces an entanglement with an experiential awareness that exceeds the boundaries of one’s individual physicality. In doing so the ascetic’s paradigmatic crisis and resultant vehement resistance to that prior mode of representing his self–identity pushes him in a direction in which he can cognitively remove himself from his previous sense of identification, and correlative subjective experientiality, with the prior self-represented-identity.

Ultimately he comes to spawn a new series of narratives, essentially creating new noetic and noematic strands, which are constantly competing with those which have been set before them. Due to the intensity of the initial crisis and resistance which spawned this schism with the old, the ascetic comes to reinterpret the old streams of narration in a negative manner; hence, causing the phenomenon of dis-identification with them and resulting in the continual resistance against them and intentional directedness toward a new archetypical identity representation. At the time the old narratives need not have been construed as negative in the self-representations of the individual in question; however, post crisis, and thus post-psycho-narrative-schism, we have a continual resistance to that which the individual perceives as dominant, negative, and overbearing on either his “true” and “pure” self, or that which will inhibit and impede upon his quest to attain his goal.

Therefore, in conclusion it is maintained that there exist phenomenological and structural similarities in the selfhood of all human beings regardless of their particular modes of being-in-the-world. Furthermore, we find that crisis can result in a process of transformation that produces an entirely new mode of being-in-the-world, which one may be inclined to refer to as a new ‘self’. Consequently, we discover that human selfhood possess the ability to simultaneously hold multiple self-representations each with its own gradual transitory process of development and formation.

Moreover, studying the ascetic experience has highlighted the phenomenon that collective modes of identification can, and do, result in a conglomerates’ ability to partake in a representational singularity, which has been referred to as a group’s “I-ness” and subsequently, a collective’s experiential ability to possess an ‘awareness-of-…’ as a singular entity with its own subjective and intentional stance. Such a collective identity is both infused and molded by the selves of which it is comprised and works to imbue the selfhood of individuals with characteristics and qualities which it would otherwise be impossible for them to possess. These findings bolster the claim that otherness plays an integral role in the constitution of selfhood and in processes of identity formation. In addition, in that the reality of a collective is dependent upon those individuals of which it is comprised it may be said that this entanglement with otherness is the very element which imbues the identity of such a collective with realness – hence, it is a possibility that this collective identity may be said to hold potentiality for some degree of agency.
Lastly, having employed the ‘autopoietic-narrative-emergence’ model of selfhood as a means of examining the ascetic self we find that this model is able to account for and explain a variety of the phenomena associated with the ascetic experience. Having illuminated new elements in the nature and structure of selfhood and the psycho-dynamics of identification in the ascetic condition, it is maintained that this model of self is able to further our understanding of the self experiences and identification processes of both ascetic individuals and communities, and in turn is able to offer new insights into studies of the selfhood and identity of non-ascetic individuals and collectives as well.  


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1 This is point is made evident by further discussions of the aforementioned phenomenon which are discussed in greater detail in both Valantasis (1995: 796, 799) and Harpham (1987:25-26,31).

2 In: Selfhood: An Emergence of Narrative and Bio-Social Unity (unpublished). Presented at: Building Bridges Conference; Theme: “The Self”. (University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale, Dept. of Philosophy: 3-5 November 2006).

3 This view is proposed, and described in greater depth, in Valantasis (1993:795-797).

4 Harpham also mentions a similar phenomenon in his discussion of St. Anthony’s eremitic experience (1987: 56).

5 Varela’s theory is called ‘autopoeisis’ and is described at great lengths in a variety of works by Varela, Humberto Maturana, and Humberto Mariotti. The theory was devised in the 1970’s and has re-emerged in discussions of mind and consciousness due to Varela’s later works and theories in the philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and consciousness studies. Varela is himself a Buddhist neurobiologist turned phenomenologist and philosopher of mind.

6 Dennett, a philosopher of mind turned evolutionary biological theorist, has proposed that the self is a ‘center of narrative gravity’, endorsing a narrative yet biologically savvy theory of consciousness and selfhood. Detailed accounts of his theory may be found in a variety of his writings and in his books entitled “Consciousness Explained” and “Elbow Room”.

7 Flanagan adopts, amends, and elaborates upon Dennett’s theory, drawing upon the insights of both eastern thought and William James.

8 That which is explicitly being referred to are the insights of Ricouer’s studies in “Oneself As Another”.

9 The theory of self which this author has developed, is referring to, and is outlining here is the product of coursework undertaken at King’s College London. It has been continually developed since 2004 and may be found in greater detail in various works by the author of this essay, including The Structure of Selves: the Nature of Selfhood and the Schizophrenic Experience and Selfhood: an Emergence of Narrative and Bio-Social Unity.

10 This idea is postulated and supported in a variety of works by Varela, Maturana, and Mariotti.

11 Kimura Bin is a Japanese Psychiatrist and Phenomenologist who has studies the nature of self-experience in schizophrenic individuals.

12 Marcel has proposed the existence of an “objective” portion of one’s personal identity which refers to a kind of non-subjective mode of existence, or perception. This author has adopted and amended this concept using it in a distinct and differentiated manner.

13 This concept has been mentioned numerous times in this article which Valantasis has employed extensively in his seminars at Emory University and has elaborated upon in his correspondences with both this author and others.

14 See (Harpham 1987: 43, 82, 84) & (Valantasis 1995: 799).