Topology of Self

Is there anything general to be said about the comparative merits of proximity and distance in enacting roles? Should we strive for the one or the other? I have touched on these questions already by linking role-distance with the scope of personal norms, such as autonomy and responsibility, and add here a speculative reflection that ties the comparative merits of proximity and distance to the kinds of general structural considerations to which I have alluded at the outset. These structural desiderata are implicit in a familiar cluster of metaphorical evaluative expressions we commonly apply to ourselves and to each other. We often experience ourselves and others as more or less substantial: we describe people as heavyweights or lightweights, as deep or shallow, as complex or simple, as having or lacking heft. Within the imagery I have sketched, it is natural to associate these qualities with the “core” of the self, and so conclude that forming the self’s core, proximate roles give us substance and solidity. Failure to occupy proximate roles would result, at the limit, in an “empty” self. Another constructive danger this imagery highlights is the possibility of occupying mutually incompatible proximate roles, resulting in a split or multiple self, one that is lacking inner unity and a center of gravity. Forming a self accordingly requires the availability of a range of mutually compatible proximate roles with which one identifies. But the structural merits of proximity have a downside as well, rigidity and vulnerability to change: greater damage to self results from losing a proximate role than from losing a distant one. A substantial alteration in or loss of any proximate role will have repercussions throughout the self, affecting other constituents of one’s identity. Seen in these terms, proximate roles, which give the self substance and solidity, also make it brittle, whereas distant roles are sources of versatility and resilience. One can assume or discard a distant role without significant repercussions in other parts of the self.

This tradeoff between the structural virtues of solidity and pliability and the other contrasting merits of proximity and distance suggests that the optimal topography of the self would contain a gradation of distances or some combination of proximate and distant roles. Put in terms of the collectivities involved, this conclusion underscores the contrasting benefits (and risks) of membership in both communities and organizations. Membership in a community promotes the constructive advantage of role proximity. To be sure, not all roles, and so not all proximate roles, are collective; one can draw meaning and heft from being, say, a poet or a hermit. But collective roles, and so affiliations, are among the most common and significant constituents of identity, and so their proximity is particularly important. This conclusion has special significance in light of the recent ascent of a communitarian ideology, which in effect endorses community as the ideal form of collective affiliation. Communitarians are right to underscore the importance of community, especially in a world in which distance-engendering organizations predominate while many traditional forms of communal proximity have withered. But endorsing community must be qualified by another salient feature of modern life, a high level of change, which suggests a caveat to the communitarian agenda. Where the level of change remains high, forging communal ties—as well as encouraging other forms of role proximity—may become a trap to selves whose resilience will be weakened in the face of inevitable changes, increasing their vulnerability to identity-shattering experiences. The upshot of these considerations is accordingly not the wholesale endorsement of one or another form of collective affiliation; the aim is rather to accommodate change by correlating different social formations and the roles that constitute them with the varying tendencies toward stability or change in different spheres of social life.

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