Category Archives: Blog

Blogging and my Twitter vacation


I wanted to write about my Twitter vacation because I wanted to think about the interaction between Twitter and my blogging activity (and I’m someone who needs to write in order to think). In an earlier post, I described how, after a few years of blogging, I’d come to think of my posts as falling into two categories. One I called hey-look-at-this posts — short, quick references to interesting things I’d recently read. The other type was longer and, ideally, was more reflective and — dare I say — substantive.

I felt that writing quick posts was distracting me from writing longer ones. It occurred to me (this was in 2011) that I could simply tweet the items that interested me rather than blog them. What I hadn’t anticipated was that, once I started tweeting frequently, I practically stopped blogging. After a few months, I felt a need to explain my absence and wrote a post called On sabbatical. I assume my decline in blogging was due to both the time I spent on Twitter and Twitter’s ability to satisfy my desire to communicate. Read more


My Twitter vacation


On December 22 I pinned a tweet to the top of my tweet list saying I was taking a vacation from Twitter. I didn’t speculate, publicly or privately, on how long this would last. It was an experiment. I linked to a nice post by Adam Brault (@adambrault) called I quit Twitter for a month and it completely changed my thinking about mostly everything. My own vacation was less earth-shaking, but it did get me thinking about my digital habits.

On January 8 I came across a review of a book whose author I follow on Twitter (A History of Lung Cancer: The Recalcitrant Disease by Carsten Timmermann). Since I wanted to share this with my Twitter history of medicine colleagues, I broke my Twitter fast and unpinned my vacation tweet.

So it turns out I went seventeen days without Twitter. Subsequently I’ve found myself only gradually resuming my typical Twitter behavior. It’s too soon to say whether this vacation permanently altered either how active I am on Twitter or the nature of my tweets. That’s a definite possibility. The main reason I haven’t resumed my prior behavior is that seventeen days seems to have been enough time to acquire a new set of habits. Read more


A self-indulgent account of my journey from ‘Vanity’ to the nature of the contemporary self

identity-self-vanity-nikolas-roseI started this blog because I was interested in understanding the history of the self. Based on the reading I’ve done so far, I can see that various academic disciplines (philosophy, sociology, critical and cultural psychology, cultural and intellectual history) have substantially different “explanations” for how and why the self has changed. I can identify explanations that seem compatible with my intuitive preconceptions (not the most objective approach, I know), but it’s clear that the underlying assumptions of any one explanation are open to legitimate criticisms — most of which I’m not even aware of.

As a result, I hesitate. I am a complete novice with respect to this particular subject matter, and my background in these disciplines is the result of an incomplete and haphazard self-education.

Nevertheless, I seem to have arrived at a strong preference for the explanations offered by Nikolas Rose. Many (though certainly not all) of Rose’s fundamental ideas are indebted to Foucault. I am not a student of Foucault, but — thanks to Rose — I have come to appreciate such concepts as problematization, governmentality, responsibilization (an extension by Rose of governmentality), normalization, techniques of the self, and the conduct of conduct.

I would much prefer to avoid using terms such as these in what I write. I appreciate the efficiency of communication that academic terminology provides, but unfortunately it limits one’s audience. The nature of the self is potentially of interest to anyone, not just to those who engage in academic investigation and debate. Fortunately, Rose writes with the intention of being understood by a broad audience. Read more


And in conclusion …

When I decided to write some introductory posts that explained my personal interest in the subject matter of this blog, I didn’t anticipate that I would write 24 of them and not post them until I’d finished the last one. But once I started down that path, I decided to follow it to the end. This is the end.


So now I ask: What have I learned by writing these posts?

One thing I was a bit surprised to find was that, when I reread what I’d written over 30 years ago, I still identified strongly with that author. I still have the same questions, the same aspirations, the same intellectual and emotional responses to a certain set of ideas. Given that I lack a ‘motive force’ that tells me what to do next — which means I find myself moving on from one thing to the next without any obvious theme or reason — I would have expected more change in my life than continuity. It seems I’m still attracted to what the sociology of knowledge/social construction can tell me about everyday life and the taken-for-granted, which may mean I’m still trying to understand whay they can tell me about my own life.

Critical psychology and the social determinants of health

I also hadn’t anticipated that I would find a strong connection between the social determinants of health – which I’d been writing about at The Health Culture — and critical psychology. Why is it so difficult to get the medical profession and public policy makers to acknowledge the importance of the social determinants of health and take appropriate action? I know that fundamentally there’s an economic explanation, but I don’t find that sufficient to explain why we care so little about inequality and social disparities. Read more


Bibliography 1.0: Can I escape the judgment of psychology?

da-vinci-the-selfI decided to make a list of the books I’ve recently read, browsed, or added to my reading list. This turned out to be a thought-provoking process. Although this may sound naïve, when I first imagined this blog, I didn’t anticipate that psychology would be such a major category in my bibliography. My main interest, after all, was the social and cultural history of the self. But of course the self is a subject of considerable interest to academic psychologists these days. The ‘psy’ disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis — have been incredibly influential in how we think of ourselves. That’s something I’m now beginning to appreciate more fully.

Recurring questions from my Chinese horoscope

The actual process of making the list was probably more valuable for me than the list itself. And the list may not be particularly valuable for anyone else, since I can’t recommend these books the way I recommended books on the history of self-help. That’s because I’m not sufficiently familiar with most of them. Plus, the categories turned out to be imprecise and unsatisfying: Should Jerrold Seigel’s The Idea of the Self: Thought and experience in Western Europe since the 17th century go under Self, Philosophy, or History? Read more


Self-help as psychological healthism

Photo: Paul Ruscha/© Ed Ruscha/Courtesy of Ed Ruscha and Gagosian Gallery (“Me”, 2001)
Photo: Paul Ruscha/© Ed Ruscha/Courtesy of Ed Ruscha and Gagosian Gallery (“Me”, 2001)

[W]e are in a new era of mass self-help, wherein the laboratory and the writer work together to teach us how to change ourselves, rather than our world. (Boris Kachka)

I’m interested in self-help for the same reasons I’m interested in healthism. “Self-help is the psychiatric equivalent of healthism,” I once wrote. Healthism is an anxious preoccupation with one’s physical health, encouraged by those who profit financially from inducing anxiety. Self-help is an anxious preoccupation with one’s psychological self, encouraged by an abundance of self-help literature, personal seminars, and tell-all TV shows. (More fundamentally, of course, the proliferation of self-help advice is the result of a profound twentieth century change in how we understand ourselves, which is the subject of this blog.)

Both healthism and self-help assume that individuals are ultimately responsible for their problems, whether medical or psychological. Personal responsibility relieves society of the expense and inconvenience of creating healthier, more equitable lives for its members. Robert Crawford pointed this out in 1980. That early glimmer of a potential trend has done nothing but escalate. Read more


Critical psychology – a new home?

critical-psychologyAnthropology, sociology and history – disciplines that consider a variety of cultures, social conventions, and historical times – make a valuable contribution to understanding the self (along with the many other valuable contributions they make, of course). They force us to acknowledge that what is true for one specific culture, society, or historical time is not universally true.

Because psychology considers itself a science, with theories based on empirically validated findings, it lacks the benefit of the self-reflective qualities intrinsic to humanist disciplines. This leaves psychology open to criticism.

For example, there’s the charge that psychology has been guilty of assuming that what it observes in Western (North American and European) cultures must be true for other cultures, as well as for our ancestors. In an excellent article on this point, The Weirdest People in the World (PDF), the authors point out that those who live in Western societies not only differ psychologically from people in the rest of the world. WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) people are in fact quite exceptional compared to other cultures and to their ancestors. Americans, in particular, are so unusual that they stand out as “outliers among outliers.” (See also on this: Ethan Watters, We Aren’t the World.) Read more


My so-called writing life

girl-writingIt seems that the best way for me to figure out what I actually think about something is to write about it. This is true not just for personal matters, but for almost anything. Thoughts alone are too ephemeral and ill-behaved. This is the sense in which, for me, writing is research on the self.

This post contains a history of my relationship to writing. There’s probably more personal information in this post than will ever appear anywhere else in this blog. This is a blog on the self, not a blog about my self. Although, of course, indirectly and unavoidably, it is.

Invasions of privacy

When I was eleven, my mother read my diary. Not only did she read it. She read it out loud to the neighbors, apparently featuring the passages she found most amusing.

I found out about this when I was teased by a neighbor girl about something she could only have learned from my diary. She was the youngest of those neighbors who regularly lounged on the lawn of our apartment complex (and apparently not old enough to realize she should have been more discrete). I subsequently wrote nothing except assigned school papers until I left home, when it felt safe enough to write in a journal. Read more


Basic research on the self

lopate-your-audience-is-your-friendThe name of this blog, Basic research on the self, comes from an essay by Phillip Lopate. The essay is an introduction to his edited collection of essays, The Art of the Personal Essay.

A number of qualities characterize the personal essay, according to Lopate. These include the author’s willingness to write in the first person and to speak directly to the reader, allowing the reader to identify with what the author reveals. The personal essayist conducts a dialogue with herself in which she drops her psychic defenses, reaches a deeper level of honesty, and – ideally — arrives at a tentative truth.

There is something heroic in the essayist’s gesture of striking out toward the unknown, not only without a map but without certainty that there is anything worthy to be found. One would like to think that the personal essay represents a kind of basic research on the self, in ways that are allied with science and philosophy. … [T]he writing of personal essays not only monitors the self but helps it gel. The essay is an enactment of the creation of the self. [emphasis added]

Are blog posts personal essays? Occasionally, but not usually (certainly not when following the advice of Andrew Sullivan and the Huffington Post). When they are, however, they can have an impact on the author’s ongoing self-understanding. Read more


The social and cultural history of the self

ConfuciusHave human beings always had a self? Has there always been an “I” who reflects on a “me”? We’ll never know what it was like to be alive at the origins of self-consciousness, but that doesn’t keep us from speculating.

Charles Taylor imagines the following scenario in Paleolithic times: As a hunting group is closing in on a fierce woolly mammoth, the beast suddenly charges at Hunter A. In that moment, Hunter A thinks something like “Oh no, I’m really in for it now.” At the last moment, however, the beast changes course and kills Hunter B. Hunter A then experiences a mixture of relief for himself and grief for his companion.

Julian Jaynes, author of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, would have a somewhat different take on the situation. For Jaynes, Hunter A would not have thought “I’d better run for it.” He would have heard a voice from the left side of his brain saying “run for it,” and his right brain would have interpreted this as a message from the gods. Read more


More thoughts from the past

When I was originally thinking of writing this blog, it didn’t occur to me to include chapters from my 1981 book on anxiety. But as I was writing the last post, I saw a connection between my past and this blog. I’m still intensely interested in the things I wrote about over 30 years ago. I hadn’t realized until just now how much I’ve wanted to get back to those ideas. It seems surprising to me, actually, to find that I am still that same person.


The next two posts are additional chapters from that book. The first post, a chapter I’ve renamed The flexible self and the inflexible individual, applies social construction to identity formation, the illusion of self-creation (the belief that who we are comes from within, not without), and the belief that identity persists over time. The point I was trying to make relates to what I find liberating about social construction: that despite socially shared beliefs on what is socially acceptable, there is no one way to live that is correct, permanent, or guaranteed to be satisfying. Our self-concept is more flexible than the scientific studies of research psychologists might lead us to believe. (I discuss this in another chapter of the book, The Problem is You). I also briefly relate all this to anxiety, which, after all, was the subject matter expected by the book’s publisher. Read more


The sociology of knowledge

In the late 1970s, an acquaintance to whom I am forever grateful (Peter Gruen) recommended two books: Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia: An introduction to the sociology of knowledge and Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge.


The sociology of knowledge – the idea that our ability to know the world is influenced by the social and cultural context in which we have conceptualized the world – was very appealing to me. I was already open to the idea that reality was not something I should take for granted. The sociology of knowledge provided me with another clue as to the nature of reality.

Social construction, at least as presented by Berger and Luckmann, is the application of the sociology of knowledge to everyday life, including how we come to have a sense of our selves. To say that something is socially constructed simply means that it’s not set in stone for eternity, but depends on shared social attitudes that prevail at a particular location in time and space. To say that normality or marriage, for example, are socially constructed means that being normal or placing a certain value on marriage is subject to change and thus open to question. Read more


Reality shock

DerealizationWhen I was eleven, I had what I later decided to call a “reality shock.” The world suddenly seemed unreal, as if I were having a dream. I remember going up the street to the home of a friend and standing with her in the backyard by the swing set. I kept asking her: Is this a dream?

Today psychiatrists call this derealization. Evidently it’s frequently accompanied by depersonalization, a sense of detachment from the self. But I wasn’t dissociating. I still knew who I was. I just couldn’t understand how the world could all of sudden become unreal. It was particularly difficult for me, I suspect, because none of the adults in my environment recognized or acknowledged I was experiencing something gone terribly wrong.

This altered state of mind, triggered by a profoundly disturbing event, lasted from early-afternoon until I fell asleep that night. I have no recollection of the next day. In retrospect, I thought of this experience as waking up from the daily dream of childhood into the reality of adult life. While the world resumed its quality of being real, there’s a sense in which my life was never the same. Read more


Learning in public

As mentioned in the last post, what follows is something I wrote over a year ago. I decided not to publish it then because … I don’t know, I guess because the subject made me uncomfortable. It asks the question: Is it OK for me to be a complete amateur in public? The answer when I originally wrote this was no, but I might want to do it anyway. The answer now is yes, let’s get on with it.

Sitting in lecture

How students learn best

Back in 1990, a physics professor at Harvard (Eric Mazur) noticed that his students were learning “next to nothing.” After studying physics for an entire semester, their erroneous conceptions of how the physical world actually worked were firmly intact. So one day Mazur tried an experiment. After several unsuccessful attempts to clarify a concept, he suggested to the class (of 150 students) that they discuss the matter among themselves. It worked. He reports: “within three minutes, they had figured it out.” Read more


The self-conscious blogger

I blog therefore I amBlogging makes me uncomfortable, but it’s a discomfort that interests me. It’s not the discomfort itself I find interesting (especially my own), but the experience of being a self in a public space, the self-consciousness that engenders, and the reflection that provokes on what it’s like to be a conscious self.

When I first started blogging, I didn’t feel self-conscious. I was probably too preoccupied with identifying and pursuing my subject matter. Within the first year, however, the idea of “the self-conscious blogger” started to appear regularly in my private journal. Why am I doing this? Should I be accomplishing something? How much should I care about not accomplishing what I only vaguely perceive as my intention?

Self-consciousness is usually associated with self-presentation: How am I perceived by others? How does that make me feel? I had no interest in blogging about my personal self, i.e., my private life. By the time I’d accumulated a year’s worth of posts, however, I could see that 1) my choice of subject matter revealed my interests and 2) what my interests conveyed was an incomplete picture of how I understood myself. Read more


Why the self?

As I mentioned in the last post, it was my personal experience of healthism that motivated me to start a previous blog. When I now ask myself why I want to start a blog on the self, I find multiple motivations.

I decided to write a few initial posts where I talk about this. I’m admittedly not aware of all that motivates me, but I should at least be able to reveal some of the personal prejudices I bring to the subject matter. As it turned out, the idea of a “few initial posts” got a bit out of hand, and I now have 24 “introductory” posts. To help you locate what might be of interest, I’ve summarized those posts below.

Washing hands

The self-conscious blogger
Blogging makes me uncomfortable, but it’s a discomfort I find interesting. To blog – to participate in social media — is to be a self in a public space. This creates self-consciousness and stimulates reflection on self-presentation. It turns out what I needed to do to alleviate my self-conscious discomfort about blogging was to acknowledge that learning in public is the best way for me to learn new things. That doesn’t make it any more comfortable, but – I tell myself – it’s only a blog.

Learning in public
For me, writing is a way to pursue new interests and incorporate new knowledge – a type of active learning. As an ex-academic, however, am I willing to be seen learning in public — warts, insufficiencies, and all? After considerable initial hesitation, I’ve changed my mind about this. Read more


Starting a new blog

Century of the SelfWhen I started the Health Culture blog in 2008, I was interested in the question Why was there such an increase in health consciousness (healthism) in the last quarter of the 20th century? I had a personal interest in that question because, in retrospect, I could see that healthism had had an impact on my own life.

I ended up writing mainly about external influences on attitudes towards health: an increased emphasis on risk that proved an irresistibly lucrative opportunity for pharma and other financial interests; neoliberal ideas in the 1980s that created an economic and political climate conducive to holding individuals personally responsible for their health.

I doubt, however, that healthism happened solely in response to external influences. We don’t all of a sudden turn into a herd of sheep just because direct-to-consumer ads proliferate or neoliberal policies prevail (you may respectfully disagree, of course). Those of us in advanced Western countries must have been ready and willing to believe we were personally responsible for our health and therefore obligated to adopt healthy lifestyles. Read more