Defining You (Pt. 2): Pick your poison

This might read better if you put on a tinfoil hat first. :)

The Self: Eastern and Western

The first Defining “You” post contrasted typical Western and East Asian understandings of the self as explained by psychologist Richard Nisbett in The Geography of Thought. To briefly recap, here are some excerpts:

…Westerners and Asians literally experience the world in very different ways. Westerners are the protagonists of their autobiographical novels; Asians are merely cast members in movies touching on their existence (87).

To the Westerner, it makes sense to speak of a person as having attributes that are independent of circumstances or particular personal relations. This self – this bounded, impermeable free agent – can move from group to group and setting to setting without significant alteration (50).

But for the Easterner (and for many other people to one degree or another), the person is connected, fluid, and conditional. As philosopher Donald Munro put it, East Asians understand themselves “in terms of their relation to the whole, such as the family, society, Tao Principle, or Pure Consciousness.” The person participates in a set of relationships that make it possible to act and purely independent behaviour is usually not possible or really even desirable (50-51).

…For early Confucians, there can be no me in isolation, to be considered abstractly: I am the totality of roles I live in relation to specific others… Taken collectively, they weave, for each of us, a unique pattern of personal identity, such that if some of my roles change, the others will of necessity change also, literally making me a different person (5).

I wonder, for example, how individualistic Western assumptions about self-validation and self-actualization sound to people not raised in an individualistic culture?

Prescribing You

Anyway, I recently came across a documentary making the sobering case that the identities of individualistic Westerners are highly externally defined — deliberately, and not with our benefit in mind. It doesn’t contradict Nisbett’s psychological sketch of Westerners because it’s speaking in a relevant but different sense of the terms. In fact, I think you can see Nisbett’s explanation of the individualistic Western self embedded in this question posed by writer/director Pria Viswalingam in his documentary Decadence – The Decline of the Western World:

We’re led to believe that money gives us choice, status, and, increasingly, an identity. But there’s something hollow about all this. Who’s meaning or identity is it? Am I really defined by where I live, what I wear, eat or drive? Or am I just another willing victim of our sophisticated market?

Decadence argues that, in the absence of a new renaissance, Western civilization is doomed to collapse due to its own internal cultural rot a la the ancient Roman Empire.

One major instance of this fatal rot is how our lives and identities are shaped by the market to the point that our identities have been psychologically colonized by imperialistic market forces. If I understand it right, we’re basically peons, programmed puppets manipulated in our actions, feelings and ideas, desiring and working to consume things because we’ve been bred and brainwashed to anxiously need them.

It’s not merely the idea that good advertising makes me desire a newer car or makes me feel like I need products I actually don’t; it’s the psychological state in which my identity, sense of meaning and purpose, emotions and anxiety, all revolve around and are determined by the dictates of marketing forces that benefit from our relentless consumption. The market tunes our subconscious, tells us who we want to be and then provides means via consumerism to pursue our choice of the available options. We’ve been bred to seek fulfillment through consumption — subconsciously, automatically, unthinkingly; it’s the default posture we take to most aspects of our existence, including our relationships and beliefs.

We’re offered a choice of identities to assume, all of which depend on an unending stream of consumption, but the available options are empty at their core; it’s not possible to be satisfied in them, and it’s in the market’s interest to keep us unsatisfied and anxious. And we’re distracted away from this fact by our noisy entertainment culture and the over-worked lifestyle required by our treadmill consumption. The result is hollowed-out people, superficial husks of humanity who behave as cogs in the market machine, whose lives and activities are ultimately determined by and dedicated to the economic benefit of corporations.

As Westerners, we think of all this almost entirely in hyper-individualistic terms; we’re seeking identity in stuff rather than in people and relationships. There’s a critique of our extreme individualistic understanding of self, such as this quote from ANU social analyst Richard Eckersle, that ties directly back to Nisbett’s sketch of the Western self:

The result of construing the self as kind of independent and separate from others — and the evidence suggests that men tend to do this more than women — does mean that we are more likely to feel isolated and lonely, even in company, in the bosom of the family you get this effect.

I see no reason why this picture of parasitic market forces that colonize our identities for profit doesn’t also just as corrosively apply to East Asian conceptions of self, though I expect the dynamics are different. Whether Chinese or Western, collective or individualistic, are we all just willing peons of a psychologically imperialistic market?

Anyway, I’m not articulating any of this as well as Viswalingham does in the Money segment, but I found most of the episodes on YouTube:

  • Episode One — Money (YouTube: 1, 2, 3)
  • Episode Two — Sex (couldn’t find a working copy online)
  • Episode Three — Democracy (YouTube: 1, 2, 3)
  • Episode Four — Education (YouTube: 1, 2, 3)
  • Episode Five — Family (YouTube: 1, 2, 3)
  • Episode Six — God (YouTube: 1, 2, 3)

The documentary is about more than consumerism, of course, and it’s interesting to note that it manages to explain the possibly fatal condition of Western civilization without reference to China or any other outside competition.

If this is as good as it gets in the West, well then, we’re destined to drown in this abundance of nothing, and become the final chapter in this ‘Good Book’ of our modern life.

These big-picture takes on our own culture are usually interesting, but even more so when you’re living overseas in a culture so very different from your own. I wonder if we’ll be seeing an increase of comparisons to ancient Rome in the coming years — both Decadence and The Hunger Games independently make significant use of the “Bread and Circuses” idea.

Here’s an interview with director Pria Viswalingam about the documentary:

Other stuff about identity:

4 thoughts on “Defining You (Pt. 2): Pick your poison

  1. There’s a guy at the Shanghai Expat site that has a great analysis of this. He comes to the exact opposite conclusion: that Asians are actually MORE likely to get caught in the consumerism trap due to their culture’s views on status and face.

  2. Do you have a link for that? I’d like to see it.

    And I think maybe you missed this part:

    I see no reason why this picture of parasitic market forces that colonize our identities for profit doesn’t also just as corrosively apply to East Asian conceptions of self, though I expect the dynamics are different.

    The different ways different people hook in to consumerism are interesting. When I think of Chinese consumerism, the most immediate thing to my mind is the conspicuous consumption in the cities — the BMWs, luxury brand goods, my 17-year-old student just bought his girlfriend a 20,000kuai LV bag… But it seemed like conspicuous consumption as a means to display status started the moment they were given an opportunity, back in the 80’s and at the beginning of Reform and Opening, when first it was a big deal to have a watch, and then non-cloth shoes, and then it moved up through TVs, colour TVs, fridges, cars, etc. I don’t think anyone could deny that the Chinese are at least if not more susceptible to consumerism as Westerners. This reminds me of my old R.A.’s Chinese girlfriend from Macau — she would tell us straight up, unapologetically, “I want one thing: money.” I’ve only had someone check my shoes once, and they were temporary migrant workers brought in to prep for the Olympics.

  3. Is the western concept of the self as an individual open to market exploitation as you have noted (or is it the other way around?) and the Confucian philosophy of the self as part of the state open to manipulation of the state? I think both are and are failing and flailing. We need a third construct of the self as both an individual and yet part of a larger whole, not necessarily that of, and in fact should be far from, the narrow ideology of a state.

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