By way of an introduction to this column, I’d like to say a few things about myself and my idea for the series that I hope might help you decide whether this piece is the one that finally proves you can no longer justify reading another word printed in The Michigan Daily, even for the low, low price of $Free.99.
My name is Adam DePollo, and I’ve held several editorial and columnist positions during my time at the Daily while writing on a wide range of topics in a healthy smattering of sections. But despite all of that work, my many character tics and neuroses, the critical stances I’ve tried to take in my writing, my relationships with friends and family and the many hobbies I’ve been frantically cultivating over the years have yet to coagulate into anything I would feel comfortable calling a stable self-concept. Or, in other words, I’m still eluded by the intangible somethingness toward which all of my efforts to date have vainly aspired: namely, Objective Knowledge of the Self and a concise answer to the Question of Questions, “What is the Meaning of Life?”
Fortunately, however, I’ve been afforded a rare opportunity this semester to leave my home, friends and family back in the callous Michigan tundra and spend the better part of six months in Santiago, Chile, exploring life on the planet’s much-discussed other hemisphere. There, I will embark on one of the perennial undergraduate quests that our University describes as a “study abroad program,” but which I have already subconsciously designated “The Search for Self and Brief Glimpses of Universal Truth 2k16: Santiago Edition.” This column will, I hope, serve as an amusing, inspiring and at times heart-wrenching record of the Search, and, if we’re lucky, I might even come across a few instances of what the Wikipedia article on novelist David Foster Wallace describes as “earnest, unselfconscious experience and communication in a media-saturated society” — the lack of which might, for all I know, be what’s preventing me from figuring it all out, landing my book deal and spending the rest of my life bumming around a villa somewhere as a much less confrontational version of David Duchovny’s character from “Californication.”
Now, in feeling compelled to write this, I also assume that you (The Reader) want to read about how a guy like me goes about “finding himself,” which I think means that, like me, you haven’t got it all figured out yet, either. But, let’s not fool ourselves, that’s kind of a weird way to go about figuring yourself out, don’t you think? Why not just go out and be yourself instead of reading about how someone else does it? What are we really getting out of stories like these? Why, as a culture, do we feel compelled to subject ourselves to this sort of syndicated navel-gazing?
I can only imagine there’s a very complex and multi-faceted reason for it, but, for my part, I’ll say that my fascination with stories about self-discovery stems from a combination of the fact that I’m a big fan of avant-garde story-writing (shouts out Daniil Kharms) and that stories of the self-discovery variety are one of the few underground literary genres still widely produced, even among non-literary-inclined people. Everyone has one and we come up with them, more often than not, in the privacy of our own heads, our skulls providing a calcium-rich cushion between these stories and the creativity-squashing influence of logic and fact-checking.
Because these stories are very rarely shared in any sort of public setting, strange things happen when people are asked to recount them out loud. Just ask any stranger in your nearest coffee shop how they “found themselves” (I have tried this) and the answer you’ll get will likely be a sprawling collection of sporadic anecdotes that sounds something like an absurdist combination of a presidential candidate-style stump speech and an emotional J.D. monologue from “Scrubs.” It’s somewhat off-putting at first, but that really is, I think, a pretty close approximation of what those stories we tell ourselves sound like when they’re bumping around in our brains.
The funny thing, of course, is that formally scatterbrained self-discovery stories of that sort work perfectly well to get you through the day and effectively do allow, who knows, maybe millions or even billions of people to get through their days without collapsing into a puddle of wrecked nerves. That fact alone — in my eyes, at least — pretty definitively demonstrates that:
a. Any time you read a coherent “self-discovery” narrative on a news site like this, you’re dealing with a literary construction, i.e. a fiction, i.e. not objective reportage of any kind of “self” that exists in any tangible way.
b. Whatever literary-caliber stylistics or narrative inventiveness you might find in a person’s “self-discovery” story says absolutely nothing about their intrinsic value as a human being (which should be equal across the board) and very close to nothing about their “depth,” since what you’re trying to crawl into there is a drawing of a well and not an actual well (i.e. whatever “depth” might be there is a sort of optical illusion produced by the skillful manipulation of perspective).
I should clarify, however, that none of this critique is meant to discredit the art of the “self-discovery” narrative as such. What I’m trying to get at here is that a highly wrought “self-discovery” narrative is more like a Ferrari than you’d think. Like a Ferrari, each fine-grain narrative is a commodity, which requires a not-insignificant amount of mechanical skill, conscious tinkering, access to raw materials, labor hours and, yes, capital to produce. If you read Daily Editorial Page Editor writer Claire Bryan’s recent piece “Generation PS: The evolution of the personal statement,” however, you’ll see that, especially in recent years, American universities have begun to resemble “self-discovery” narrative Ferrari factories in certain important ways. Before students even get into the door at a place like U of M, for example, they’re expected to produce a polished personal statement which, demonstrates their life’s value as raw material to be molded into the finished narrative/Ferrari. That initial requirement primes them for four undergraduate years in which they’ll be expected to engage in some profound self-reflection with an eye toward gradually working that initial narrative into a fully functional vehicle complete with doors and windows, a V-12 engine, hand-stitched leather seats and many other finely tuned, aesthetically pleasing parts. When you’re done, you get a wonderfully articulate luxury-class narrative/person that can get you into some very nice dinner clubs and attract much more positive attention from peers, potential employers, grad school admissions offices, grant disbursement committees, etc.
So part of the reason why we’re so fascinated with personal statements, “self-discovery” narratives and other sorts of creative non-fiction, I think, is that they can help you get into very nice dinner clubs (i.e. allow you to hang with the upper crust, the 1 percent, the aristocracy or what have you). They’re the sort of thing we assume that a person picks up at university, so they suggest that the person writing/reciting them has a certain degree of learning, sophistication and respectability that the uneducated masses don’t.
But, of course, the problem with using a narrative/Ferrari to get into a fancy dinner club is that the Ferrari doesn’t make the gotdamn dinner club more inclusive! All they do is get you in the door, and once you’re in, your friends who never made it through the personal statement draft round are stuck outside in their 2002 Toyota Camrys, leaving you with nothing but your “self-discovery” to get you through a lifetime’s worth of gilded cocktail hours.
So is our obsession with “self-discovery” narratives really a productive obsession? Does it do anything to improve the world we live in?
At the very least, I don’t think it’s all bad. Indeed, it might even be good in a sort of 1776-vintage liberal sense. Cultivating self-awareness and self-reflection should, in theory, also require you to question your place in the world around you. Questioning your place in the world around you, of course, requires that you not be the same thing as the world around you, which is to say that your “self” is something distinct from the various socioeconomic systems and communities within which you are otherwise hopelessly embedded. Having “found yourself” in this way, you’re immediately provided with a platform — your “self,” which has its own subjective experience of communal life and likes to demand things like “personal freedom” — from which to critique the terms under which you’re expected to participate in society. This is why things like labor unions don’t exist without first having people who view themselves as “labor,” why you can’t have gay rights without first having “gay people,” why you can’t have rap music without first having a “rapper” who makes it, etc.
But maybe — and this is the troubling part — there’s a point at which “self-discovery” ceases to have any kind of redemptive feature, where the “self” no longer functions as a platform from which to effect change in a society, where “self-expression” ceases to be counter-culture and instead becomes a practice that reinforces the status quo. When I watched the earlier rounds of the presidential debates this election cycle, for example, I was a little disconcerted by the amount of time even establishment candidates like Hillary Clinton and John Kasich spent talking about their life stories. Not too long ago, that sort of thing was reserved for memoirs and posthumous biographies; the Powers that Be were expected to be more-or-less empty suits and the art of governing was less art and more science. There were obviously problems with the old cold-blooded model (see: Henry Kissinger, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Cold War-era spats/proxy wars over “spheres of influence,” the partitioning of Africa in the 19th century, etc.) but, I don’t know, somehow I’m bothered by the idea of an election going one way or another based on a candidate’s ability to craft an entertaining narrative. I also got a C- in the only PoliSci class I’ve ever taken, so maybe these are waters I shouldn’t be swimming in.
In any case, my deadline is fast approaching and this introduction has gone way beyond the sort of word count that makes my editors want to quit their jobs and join the Peace Corps. The last few thousand words have been about some of the problems I see with the idea of “finding oneself” and putting that fictional process into writing, but I’ll shut up and conclude this discussion with a quote from Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own.” The quote, I think, pretty accurately (and succinctly) describes the merits of an admittedly fictional “self-discovery” narrative and I’d like to try to let it justify my decision to write a narrative of this sort. Anywho, here it is:
“At any rate, when a subject is highly controversial … one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker. Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact.”