The Ungrounded Self: Are we witnessing a breakdown in the transmission of culture and subjectivity?

‘Growing up is harder than ever—young Americans on how they see themselves’, announces the cover of a recent issue of Time, which devotes several stories to the phenomenon that is now so unavoidable that even that legacy publication has noticed it. It’s also significant that the article is paired with a feature on ‘Next generation leaders’. The first article is full of kids with school refusal, autism or spectrum divergence, depression, ADHD and all the other stuff. These are kids who are very clearly not integrating a selfhood to meet the world in any uncomplicated or forthright way. The article on new leaders catalogues a number of those who might be termed in the Australian vernacular ‘sucks’. They are the young adult version of kids who it might be said are ‘super-integrated’—who became confident, self-knowing, outwardly directed, purposeful persons acting in and on the world at an early age. What is noticeable about the juxtaposition of these two articles is the degree to which the specific issue of self—of becoming whole and adult, or failing to—is central to notions of success. And how problematic that process has become, such that a magazine like Time, the brief of which would once have been wholly outwardly directed to world matters, puts it at the centre of an account of the world.

Time magazine is hardly alone. As David Ferraro and Mark Kelly explore, the vicissitudes of subjectivity and selfhood in modernity have come to the fore, especially in the wake of long COVID lockdowns, which have served as a forcing-house of contemporary crises, especially in the young. For the broader culture this has staged a confrontation between two contradictory ideas of the self, which have been contending for some time. The first is that of the ‘uncomplicated self’, derived ultimately from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century cultural shifts, the birth of capitalism and the coming of the first stages of modernity. This self is held to arise automatically, to be transparent to itself and oriented to the world, and, in a market-capitalist society, to make all but its childhood familial relations through contractual exchange with others. This is still the self of the Victorian poem Invictus: ‘I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul’!

Yet at variance to this public ideology of the self there has arisen, especially in the past thirty years, a vast social and cultural machinery, spread through the education, health, policing, care and human resources sectors, that assumes the opposite as a practical necessity. In these practices, the self is a vast and complex piece of machinery, subject to easy disaster, malfunction or failure to come together, its maintenance needing continual attention.

The expressions of selfhood of the composed self, often known as the bourgeois self, were partial and limited, channelled into ‘making a life’—creating a business and a home, participating in civic organisations, making alliances with individuals. We have inherited that baseline idea of the self, together with the necessary complement that arose with it in the twentieth century, in psychoanalysis and its successors, repeatedly domesticated via ego psychology, cognitive psychologies and the self-help movement.

In parallel with this composed self was another self, one held to be fully self-determining in adulthood—the self of the tiny sections of society known as ‘bohemia’, consisting of artistic and free-living individuals who had departed class life and established themselves in inner-city communities from the 1830s on. Because they took it upon themselves to radically determine who they were, what they valued and what they did, in matters of love, sex, nation and crime bohemia became a reliable source of contemplation, horror and fascination for the emerging mass society. It also became an incubator for social values that were steadily transferred to middle-class life, especially after the First World War.i

This process became generalised to some degree after the Second World War, after transformations in the basic social frame occurred, arising from the continuation of the total war economy that integrated state, science, capital and education and the introduction of new media, which transformed the character of social life. This multi-dimensional modernisation led to the rapid decrease in dominance of ‘abiding face-to-face communities’—known neighbourhoods and small country towns—and routinised ways of life in the formation of self and values. What we call the 1960s was the event whereby not only did the values of bohemia become generalised to all society via those processes of rapid modernisation, so did its ‘meta-values’: the systemic process of ‘stepping back’ from one’s given, received, selfhood and role and character.

Thus the creation of the odyssey of the last half-century, in which the conception of selfhood as prior to anything else in the world has become utterly dominant. Further transformations of social and cultural life have made one dimension of this, but only one, a real fact in the world. The adult self making a life in the world is no longer bound or oppressed by visible constraints such as the factory, office or wifely life or the dominant neighbourhood—those institutions that limited access to other ways of life or possibilities. Quite the contrary. Such institutions have been steadily removed, even as an option. From adolescence onwards, the person must actively make their life, putting it together from available parts. Work is dynamic and ever-changing. Fewer and fewer jobs are Taylorised routinisation in enduring workplaces. Not only must ever greater numbers of people make and remake their working lives and living arrangements, the character of the work they do is ceaselessly remade, and they must remake themselves in turn in relation to it. The education system has changed to accommodate this. The regimented school with its classes, years and exams that mirrored the discipline of factory and office is yielding to an education system that emphasises training in project management, self-maintenance and self-management, and the negotiation of values and social conduct between disparate groups.

For the children and adolescents moving through such schools, this shaping is only one factor in their formation as ‘selves’, where it was once of equal dominance with the family. Now both these yield to the rise of networked flows of media and abstracted exchange, into which the child is drawn from an early age. Such flows, arising from the development of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s and its supercharging by the simultaneous creation of social media and the fully universalisable smart phone around 2005, are qualitatively different thanks to quantitative threshold-crossing from the post-Second World War world of network television, pop music and cinema with its limited, ‘channelled’ impact (the 1980s were a transitional time, when television channels and music sources started to multiply beyond any limit; this process, rather than late capitalism per se, is the real material substrate of the cultural movement of pastiche known as postmodernism).

With such devices, and their total networked flows, entering children’s lives as their subjective structures were still forming, the demand on the self and the transformation of its fundamental structures were underway. The post-Second World War generations had grown up in a period when a relatively fixed substrate of earlier social forms remained. Connections and friendships were made through schools and neighbourhoods. New ideas and possibilities circulated through physical-artefact culture—records, comics and magazines—and channelled media. The challenge for a rising generation was to get out of these fixed frames of life and access the expanded possibilities promised by the new media. This yielded a distinctive set of cultural objects—the ‘generation gap’, the teen rebellion, the identity crisis, the road movie, the music festival, low-cost global travel—all of which celebrated the seeking of new possibilities, risk, danger and transformation as the chief path to true becoming and self-realisation. That this was frequently joined to a radical and socialist politics was, essentially, the full realisation of the contradictory and impossible possibilities put forward by two Berlin bohemians in their Communist Manifesto: that the ‘conditions of the free development of each, should be the condition of the free development of all’. For two generations, the adventure of this era was, during adolescence, of undoing a selfhood that had been largely bolted together during childhood—a process of getting more, and new, ideas, experiences and possibilities in.

The material shift in cultural transformation in the last two decades has totally reversed this. It constitutes a greater material shift in human culture than the 60s, but this has yet to be fully realised. The generation that came of age with the Internet and then the universalised network of social media and mobile phones is now so deluged with multiple streams of text and image that the primary task of the constitution of their selves becomes that of a vast process of synthesis, categorisation and construction, conducted at an ever greater velocity. Where an earlier generation sought, these generations—Millennials, Z and the new (and still in childhood) Alpha generation—must sort. Launched into an infinite flat hierarchy of images and texts unanchored to any less abstracted social relationship, many aimed at interpellating them as subjects of a certain type, they understandably seek tools and practices by which this flood can be tamed. This is the cause of the reversal that appears absolutely incomprehensible to so many Boomer-era commentators, and is only half sympathised with by Gen X: the seeking of ‘safety’ from the vast nettle of dangers which that flux of media presents itself as.

This process lands differently in different familial-social frameworks, to be sure. Those growing in secure and happy families, in stable communities with real place, in economies of secure employment and societies with a secure welfare systems—those coming from a context of greater security—may well experience this new media differently, and be able to handle it.

But that is not the fundamental reality of our time, and the conditions that have produced the digital flux as we now have it have produced a similar deconstruction of the settled life. Mobile lives in mobile cities, fractured extended families, high rates of socially isolated single and divorced parents, underfunded schools that mix online and in-person learning, universities and colleges that have ceased to be anything worthy of the name, the gradual creation of an all-gig economy and more form a world fractured at every level of social interaction. When COVID hit, even these attenuated possibilities for physical encounter and enduring association were curtailed, and this was clearly a source of the many problems that began to present in the post-lockdown period.

In assessing this historical process in which a new type of self is emerging, it is important to be neither falsely novel nor excessively bound by history. It is clear that the steady transformation of social relations that has occurred several times. Rural dispossession combined with the train, telegraph and photograph from the 1820s to the 1840s; the telephone, ocean steamers, cinemas, globalised trade and empire in the 1880s to 1900s; global Taylorisation, radio and planes in the 1920s; the totally integrated economy, television, the car and suburbanisation from the 1950s on: each has produced generational disjuncture and the emergence of the ‘shockingly new’ in culture, values and selfhood. But equally, one must take a longer perspective on the fundamental shifts in the ontology of human relations over our species history, which takes in the emergence of language itself, of writing, of mass printing—each of which, over millennia, then centuries, then decades, produced fundamentally different frameworks of being human.

What makes the digital revolution likely to be one of those basic shifts is the combination of the peer-to-peer capacity of the hardware and software engineering that underlie ‘social media’ with the production of the cheap handset, a combination that maps the abstract network and the network form onto humanity itself. Everyone is a node; any person can communicate with any other person from any point to any point, on and beyond earth. That has never happened before, just as a flood of books not written by any hand had never happened before it began occurring in the 1500s, or the absent presence of another human via symbols pressed into wet clay which created a whole new realm of human being five thousand years ago, and so on. In each case, a new type of human subject emerged, with what we call ‘the self’ a subset of that, and the fundamental way of being human changed.

This current process has only just started transforming all the other social relations and institutions that connect with it. But it is happening much faster than any other transformation, and so the transformation of subjectivity can be observed in real time. It is this framework that has put the dilemma of the radically auto-assembled self—or, importantly, the apparently auto-assembled self—at the centre of our cultural discussions.

Prior to considering such dilemmas as they present, it is worth saying what these new forms of social relation offer (though they are spruiked by the techno-utopians so often and uncritically that it barely seems necessary). The new subject of digital modernity is capable of an indefinite degree of ‘stepping back’ from the givenness of inherited processes, values, prejudices and so forth in a way that makes possible a genuine ethical revolution in human conduct and is the material process by which a practice of fusing the ethical with the actual can become universalised. The relatively sudden emergence of a culture of radical ethical demand in the 2010s—for the sudden, urgent addressing of the inherited inequalities of race, gender, identity and global inequality—was a product of this material irruption. The digital universal network is the material form of the practice of critical reason, which had been hitherto bound in the grove of one school in Athens, or of Jena—a free city with a good university—or the connected milieu of the universities in the postwar West.

Thus, however one judges these practices to be sometimes foolish, overblown and so forth, one cannot but recognise in them the continuation and elevation of the process of radical demand, which is a necessary feature of the drive towards the ethical absolute. That is complementary to the universalisation of the possibility of a degree of self-fashioning in the pursuit of a better life, however judged—essentially, the bohemian opportunity generalised to ever wider groups of people. The culture of our time is cutting with the grain of this transformation. The stories of an earlier era of modernity—of getting out, breaking free from an orthodoxy that was within oneself as much as surrounding one—suddenly start to look archaic. As Mark Kelly makes clear, the hero stories of our time are those of ‘finding one’s people’—often online—by making an identity from the infinite materials the flux offers.

But it is the other side of this process that increasingly presents itself to us at the moment, and increasingly in a form that is understood simultaneously as pathology and as liberation. In the passage of adolescence, attention is given to increasing manifestations of shaming and non-physical bullying, of isolation and lack of abiding face-to-face friendships, of early-onset deep depression, suicidal ideation, body-image disorders, affective disengagement (often self-labelled as autism), the inability to pursue drive and desire over time (self-labelled as ADHD) and heightened stress reactions (increasingly self-labelled PTSD). Many of these behaviours, definitions and self-labellings are increasingly common in adults, as onset-phenomena and as ‘catch-up’, whereby someone redefines their life as having been characterised by this undiagnosed condition (often manifested by the exclamation, after self-diagnosis, that ‘it explains so much!’).

Taken together, and in the framework described above, this can be seen as the inevitable mass occurrence of a failure to complete or adequately navigate the process of subjective self-synthesis that is now made mandatory by the indefinitely open process of self-formation in a cultural flux. Those from psychoanalytic or post-structuralist traditions would talk of this process in terms of ‘discourses’. That has many useful aspects, but it is, in the last analysis, a focus on the shifting significations of self which lacks the framework needed to understand the deep material changes—the changes to being itself—that determine what settings, what possibilities, any given discourse will have. The very notion of ‘discourse’ cannot be thought of outside of a social form in which signification and image-circulation dominate, in a way they did not for most of human history.

Thus an account, within the framework I am presenting, of these multiple emergency pathologies, would go along these lines. It seems likely that people labelled with, or self-labelling with, claims of such conditions fall into three groups. The first would be those with genuine neurological divergence (largely in the case of autism), who have been present in all previous societies, their social roles defined by certain mythical designations such as the moonchild or the changeling. The third group is those who have a mix of personality traits and behaviours that would not have been pathologised in earlier societies but who now reach out to those labels for reasons of identity definition, ego compensation or the sheer weight of medicalised ideology dominant in social self-understanding today.

It is the second group—those who genuinely have major developmental and self-construction problems arising from the changed structure and texture of social life—that is of interest here.

These ‘three groups’ are obviously heuristic for any given individual case. But it seems clear that a society that is ungrounding the basic processes of a child’s social life from a very early age will produce an increased number of people who are deprived of a basic developmental scene in which abiding face-to-face social connection is the basic social form—one which allows for the internalisation of a world and selfhood models grounded in the full bodily presence of others. With the entry of the screen and the network at an ever earlier age, the withering-away of extended family networks in fixed place, the higher mobility of living places such as urban neighbourhoods, the fluidity and mobility of parental presence in the home due to dual-waged, blended and single-parent families, the increased use of Zoom and online teaching by schools and the decline in organised child and youth activities, it seems entirely possible that we have created—without, at this stage, much reflection upon it—a social form in which the standard transmission of selfhood and subjectivity has been so altered that it is starting to break down for significant numbers. The simplest way of putting it is that our social process now demands that childhood and adolescence be centred around the repeated act of self-synthesis—that is, choosing from, shaping the self in, sorting and limiting the signifying flux, in relatively ungrounded social conditions—while at the same time this very process removes the ‘laying down’ of the basic social-psychological processes necessary to that task.

Such an account seems the best explanation for the emergence of the ‘middle group’ of conditions: people who are genuinely socially dysfunctional and are labelled autistic; people who lack the capacity for sustained attachment to projection into the world and are labelled as having attention deficit disorder; people who, lacking a ground of fixed meaning-frames associated with internalised abiding others, find that prolonged unhappiness becomes annihilating of the possibility of imagining life being meaningful, which becomes a certain type of highly prevalent depression.

Identifying these conditions as real and psychologically structural refutes the common desire to make them physical and biological in origin, while also avoiding the trap of seeing them as nothing other than self-medicalisation for problems of subjectivity that could be addressed through reflection alone. It’s clear that a certain amount of self-labelling is a form of ‘bad faith’, using Sartre’s conception of the human subject as condemned to be free (in conditions of modernity in any case; Sartre universalises what is a particular historical condition). In bad faith one reaches out for a form of fixed being to adopt—whether that of a waiter, a chair or a fascist—so as to avoid the demands of freedom and the chagrin of failed projection. Much labelling—self-labelling and labelling by professionals and ideological advocates—appears to have elements of this bad faith: if one is awkward, disconnected and obsessive, it is easier to label oneself as autistic and create a heroic narrative from it than to square up to sets of layered negative traits, address them and transform them to whatever degree possible. Recent books such as Matilda Boseley’s The Year I Met My Brain exemplify this. A Guardian journalist whose video-news features have given her a cult status, Boseley presents an ADHD existence as a distracted and disjointed passage through youth—a voyage upon a sea with no training in how to steer a boat. But this might serve as the existential metaphor for any modern life course whatsoever. The neurological approach, which ‘others’ one’s negative traits almost as a form of possession, forecloses possibilities of reflective action.

To do such is to admit that, for whatever reason, one is failing where others are succeeding. This is the necessary first step in a reflective and reflexive ‘practice of self’, which has to incorporate a degree of world-understanding: a realisation that the social framework in which such incomplete subjectivities are coming to be is a historical and material product, not a given, and one which the afflicted person must not ‘take for granted’. Making visible this ungrounding of the social by technological change prioritises certain strategies: for the afflicted, the finding and making of community and the making within themselves of the capacity to make community; for social policy, a steady reconstruction of social life—a return to the abiding face-to-face and other forms of social interchange less abstracted than the global network and the world it produces. The rise of the heroic self-labelled autistic is but one example. It would seem likely that, as object-relations theorists say, attention deficit disorder is really attachment deficit disorder. What is experienced as a reduced ability to attach to complex ensembles of acting-in-the-world—reading a book and making notes, completing a multi-stage task steadily—is really an inability to confidently act in the world, and make life within the field of given objects. Labelling this as a cognitive processing disorder is a way of not facing up to the need to address such a process of failing as a project in itself. Similar accounts could be given of some types of depression. The ever-present anxiety that many millions now lay claim to is the background hum of an ungrounded society—a million tiny moments of imminent non-being, endlessly repeated.

One response to such a material-categorical account of these very visible manifestations of disordered cultural transmission is that people have been talking about this for 2000 years, complaining about youth in Ancient Greece and so on. That may be partly true. But it is also true that the ceaseless transformation of everyday life by technoscience does not have any outside limit to it. Powered by capital and national military open-ended development, such technologies not only have no limit, their development in the social sphere assumes the total malleability of the human person—the idea that the child and adolescent will successfully psychologically integrate under any given conditions.

This denies the near certainty that a biological species that developed in conditions of high sociality and band or pack behaviour must have certain conditions of social reciprocity fulfilled in order to develop—that this social reciprocity must play a central role in the abiding face-to-face, the fully and continuously present, embodied being of others. Since every new technological revolution in human affairs is of a qualitatively new power, there is no guarantee that we will not eventually create a society in which the cultural transmission of the structures of selfhood break down absolutely. There is no guarantee that this has not already begun in this latest technological transformation of the human condition. Addressing this will require more than, for example, removing screens and phones from primary school classes and revising the ‘all screens all the time’ rush of recent decades of educational practice, something Sweden has started to do. It requires, eventually, the more fundamental and reflexive construction of multi-levelled, multi-dimensional human sociality, which makes possible a form of better-realised human being that integrates the liberating possibilities of the most abstract developments and technologies with the necessary grounding of revived prior relations.

Note: This article has drawn on discussions with George Halazs, Andrew Firestone, Graham Hocking, Paul James and Simon Cooper, though all opinions are the authors.

i The everyday idea of human history is that the interior, individual bounded self has always existed—something naturalised by the emergence of modern philosophy with Descartes and Locke in the seventeenth century. The classical sociological and anthropological tradition can be seen, in one respect, as a rebellion against and critique of such, whether through Marx’s historicisation of social forms as superstructure, or Durkheim’s identifying of the ‘social fact’ and the fundamentally different forms of social and individual being in ‘tribal’ or ‘kinship’ societies compared to ours. Psychoanalysis partakes of both traditions of thought, varying between different schools.

Foucault’s notion of discourses and epistemes projects the academic process back onto the real historical process in a manner that does not reflect upon the specific material condition of the intellectual—that is, existing wholly within the textual-interpretative process as a practice. The approach here draws on the ‘constitutive abstraction’ approach of Geoff Sharp and other Arena writers, which is in turn influenced by ‘real abstraction’ approaches as present within, among others, the anthropology of Levi-Strauss and the ‘real abstraction’ Marxism of Alfred Sohn-Rethel. Some of this radical critical thought is present within the ‘self studies’ approach developed by Richard Sennett and Charles Taylor in the 1980s, but these approaches over-emphasise the movement and changes of thought in the shaping of the modern self. The psychology of Donald Merlin in The Origins of the Modern Mind, and the technology studies of Lewis Mumford in Technics and Civilisation and Siegfried Gideon in Mechanisation Takes Command are also of note.

About the author

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle was founding co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series). He is a well-known essayist and is writer-at-large for Crikey. His most recent book Practice: Journalism, Essays and Criticism was published by Black Inc. in 2019.

More articles by Guy Rundle

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