On the Fluidity of Selfhood: An Interview with Dr. Steven Taubeneck

By: Eileen Chen

Photo credits: Steven Taubeneck

Is it possible to truly know who you are in a world that lacks definitive boundaries?

steven taubeneckDr. Steven Taubeneck, professor of Philosophy and Central, Eastern and Northern European Studies (CENES) at the University of British Columbia, provided us with a discourse on the theme “Know Thyself,” paired with anecdotes about self-discovery.

Naturally, the dialogue opened with the question of what “know thyself” entails. Dr. Taubeneck explained that the phrase first appeared as a Greek maxim (γνῶθι σεαυτόν) inscribed above the entrance of a Delphic cave. It served as an admonition for those who sought out the oracle there to know themselves before entering. As Socrates was known for saying, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” But how exactly do we examine our “selves”?

Before we even get to the “how,” many schools of thoughts have been divided by just what constitutes the self. Is there a core self within us, waiting to be cracked open at an epiphanic moment like a ripe acorn? Or are we, in our very cores, split – as Carl Jung proposes with his theory of personality dimensions? The millennial investigation of the self is not only a theme in Western philosophy, but a similarly prominent one in many Eastern schools of thought. Buddhism advocates seeing past an individualized self, but Lao Tzu claims that self-knowledge is enlightenment. Today, in an age of social media and advanced information circulation, the quest for self-discovery is surprisingly difficult. “We’re invested in a self; yet, what self is is becoming more and more perplexing and disturbing,” Dr. Taubeneck commented after his brief but eloquent survey of major philosophical perspectives.

To Dr. Taubeneck, the idea of having a “core self” that one must discover in order to be happy lends itself to certain dangers. He cited psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s “mirror stage” theory: as infants, we are confident about who we are until we are exposed to a mirror as toddlers, after which we become aware of external perceptions of ourselves and learn to shape our own images accordingly. Dr. Taubeneck extended this theory by applying it to our current society, where “we live in a proliferation of mirroring selves.” Social media has heightened the importance of imaging and self-branding in our lives. As a result, many now examine their mirror selves too seriously in hopes of discovering happiness through the imitation of happy appearances, which can lead instead to narcissism and paranoia. Dr. Taubeneck added that modern society has a “tendency towards compulsory happiness.”

“If you’re not happy, you must be sick, and if you’re sick, you must be in need of medication or therapy.” In reality, nobody can stay in a state of happiness for a prolonged amount of time. Dr. Taubeneck himself believes that compared to forcibly upholding internal harmony, “working with the negatives” is in fact a more productive method of self-realization. Citing Hegel, he said, “In thinking and experiencing, the moment we assert something positive, we assert a fixed perception or identity. It is in recognizing moments of friction, tension, and oscillation that we transform.”

To Dr. Taubeneck, “mental selfhood begins at a moment of resistance.” He himself, the eldest of nine children in a German-American Catholic family, grew up in sharp resistance against his father, whom he described as a “typical American businessman” and a “powerful little guy” who held dominance in the family. Although Dr. Taubeneck joked about Freud’s preoccupation with the role of sexual drives in family dynamics, he acknowledged that the notion of resisting the father is valid at least in the context of his family. Even his father had rebelled against his grandfather, who taught American history in a high school. Dr. Taubeneck found his weapon of resistance and self-articulation in the family library after discovering Kafka at ten years old. From there on, he proceeded to acquaint himself with the writings of Nietzsche, Hegel, Heidegger, and several other important philosophers during his teenage years, which set the foundation for his love of philosophy.

Following this story with a more dramatic example of negation, Dr. Taubeneck said that he had once hated school so much that during his high school graduation ceremony, he had vowed to never return to school again. Having read Marx, Lenin, and Hegel, young Dr. Taubeneck was repelled by how the suburban Pennsylvanian high school he went to was brainwashing students and reinforcing class differences. Not wanting to become another “pompous fool,” he moved across the country and worked as a cab driver, grocery store clerk, and graveyard-shift stockperson at a meat warehouse. “Good money, but brutal work,” he summarized.

Simultaneously, Dr. Taubeneck had been busy starting a family and taking classes at various schools (despite his previous antagonism towards educational institutions). Over the decade, he had gone to nine schools and explored six different majors, which exposed him to concert piano, creative writing, history, philosophy, English, and French, before he finally graduated with a BA in German language and literature in 1981. Looking back, he said that it was through continuous negation and critical reflection that he was able to explore and appreciate different ways of living. “We learn the most from tarrying with the negative and thinking about what is most negative for us,” he said.

Negation is not the only aspect of defining mental selfhood, however.

rainy shadow
Image Source: https://www.stocksy.com/29661/man-walking-in-rain-reflection

On a rainy day on Granville Street when he was around the age of fifty, Dr. Taubeneck saw a shadow to his right that looked and walked like his own father. It was not long before he realized that it was in fact an image of himself reflected in the glass panels. “I am my father!” he realized at the climactic moment. While negation is necessary, Dr. Taubeneck spoke of the importance of allowing the “co-existence” of different elements within selfhood, and of applying sympathy and understanding to what we negate. It is then when “antagonisms one may have created becomes accepted and internalized.”

As Dr. Taubeneck himself noted after telling his stories, the process of shaping mental selfhood is highly cyclical as well as relational. Here, he referred to Hegel’s disturbing claim that “self-consciousness only exists in and for itself when it is acknowledged by another.” In other words, the construction of selfhood is entirely based on the acknowledgement or recognition of another. Although this attitude may sound cynical, Dr. Taubeneck turned it around and emphasized that we exist not as isolated individuals, but “in close relation to otherness.” Regarding the circularity of selfhood formation, he pointed out that we can trace our patterns of reading, thinking, and interacting to understand what our obsession is. “The circularity is a bit depressing, but it’s also a source of strength.”

While on the subject of circularity, Dr. Taubeneck elaborated on his full return to the school environment as a professor. To him, it is a remarkable opportunity to indulge in his obsessions and share them “to the point of getting other people obsessed.” “To go into life as a faculty member is a sign of deep neurosis,” he said with a straight face. He claims that the image of “professors as […] beings with enormous fountains of knowledge that they pour into student vessels” is unfortunate. To him, knowledge in the classroom is exchanged, not one-directionally conveyed.

Dr. Taubeneck noted that today’s students are “generally quite ambitious, aggressive, driven,” compared to students from several decades ago. “The saddest part is their tremendous anxiety over their planet, nation, culture, and family.” Looking back, he “[didn’t] remember being anxious,” but remembered “being mad at everything” from the wars that were going on to the state of his family. He laments the fact that young people are “anxious to the point of paralysis these days…so filled with uncertainty and self-doubt.” Indeed, the trends Dr. Taubeneck observes, such as self-consciousness and stress from overwork, seem to be the defining traits of today’s young adults, as suggested by a recently popular Buzzfeed article on the relationship between millennials and burnouts. Even the expressions “burnout,” “adulting,” and “no problem” as a replacement for “you’re welcome,” are more ubiquitous today than ever before!

Conditions contributing to anxiety don’t just affect millennials, however. When speaking of postmodernism, Dr. Taubeneck cited philosopher Jean-François Lyotard in saying that the postmodern era is defined by “incredulity towards meta-narratives,” and stated that the condition still carries on today. Science, Marxism, democracy, Christianity, Islam…all these grand narratives have become suspicious. Dr. Taubeneck named three major crisis points in recent postmodern history: 1) the Berlin Wall’s effective end in 1989, which led to the hybridization of European nations under the European Union; 2) the 911 attack in 2001, which prompted the US to attack Iraq and Afghanistan; and 3) the economic crisis of 2008, which resulted in tremendous economic losses to millions and gains to 1% of the population. Each of these episodes triggered some form of collective negation. In addition, Dr. Taubeneck also named Black Lives Matter, #metoo, and Trumpism as examples of patterns of resistance against the status quo. According to Dr. Taubeneck, we live in a time that calls for “high authority control” to quell our growing collective anxiety. He said, “People seek security in authoritarian promises and make compromises to surveillance. This leads to tremendous restriction to individual resistance.”

Regardless of – or perhaps, especially because of – the state of our environment, Dr. Taubeneck would like to remind everyone that “we are all much freer than we think we are.” The awareness of our ability to construct our own narratives grants us enduring freedom. After joking about his drawing abilities, he borrowed Sartre’s view and proposed that “we are all artists.” Citing Kant, he defined a sublime experience as being awe-struck by a force in nature – something beyond individual power. The fact that we can recognize the sublime reveals the sublimity of reason, and despite all the uncertainties in our world, Dr. Taubeneck believes that “we live in a time marked by the sublime.”

Two or so hours breezed by with Dr. Taubeneck divulging insights interspersed with the words of famous philosophers. Without the need for predetermined questions to be asked, he had fluidly directed the discourse from one theme to another in a nearly unbroken flow. For those interested in hearing more from Dr. Taubeneck, come to the upcoming Art-Science Dialogue on January 26th!

roundtable know thyself

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