The Naturalness of Our “Unnatural” Selves
I’ve been thinking a lot about the negotiation of personal and professional online presence(s) since an impromptu 2am Google Doc chat conversation on the topic during #moocmooc. After several days of mulling it over, I realized that the topic perfectly fit the (more in theory than in practice) aim of this blog: to draw together conversations about Romanticism with conversations about the digital humanities.
My WordPress and Twitter handles (myownunnaturalself and @myunnaturalself, respectively) are drawn from one of the odder lines at the beginning of William Wordsworth’s long poem The Prelude:
. . . I breathe again—
Trances of thought and mountings of the mind
Come fast upon me. It is shaken off,
As by miraculous gift ’tis shaken off,
That burthen of my own unnatural self,
The heavy weight of many a weary day
Not mine, and such as were not made for me. [1805 ver., ll. 19-25]
“My own unnatural self”—a phrase that simultaneously connotes both ownership and alienation—seemed the perfect descriptor for what’s going on with our various online avatars. If we read Wordsworth against the grain here, we could argue that this “unnatural self” is, perhaps, the most proper self precisely because it is “unnatural.” In “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” Paul de Man aligns Romantic allegory with an awareness of the self’s unnatural, temporal, contingent state:
Whether it occurs in the form of an ethical conflict . . . or as an allegorization of the geographical site, as in Wordsworth, the prevalence of allegory always corresponds to the unveiling of an authentically temporal destiny. This unveiling takes place in a subject that has sought refuge against the impact of time in a natural world to which, in truth, it bears no resemblance. (206)
An “authentically temporal destiny” is not, however, a route to an “authentic self,” as de Man’s later comments on irony underscore:
ironic language splits the subject into an empirical self that exists in a state of inauthenticity and a self that exists only in the form of a language that asserts the knowledge of this inauthenticity. This does not, however, make it into an authentic language, for to know inauthenticity is not the same as to be authentic. (214)
Which, to bring us back to the question at hand, suggests that our online “unnatural selves” might show up the general “unnaturalness” of our “empirical selves.” It also begs the question of whether the unique temporalities of the internet might increase the already disruptive influences of our linguistic selves.