Technology of the Self

Such a conception of the self, however, can be understood as the result of a long development in Western societies. As we have seen, Foucault as well as Medium Theory affiliate this conception with writing as a “technology of the self”. This conception is amplified and “democratized” – that is, made accessible to ever-expanding numbers of people – with the development of the printing press as the (then) new media technology that helped fuel the Protestant Reformation and the Protestant emphasis on the individual soul and salvation. These conceptions are then philosophically refined and secularized in figures such as Descartes. Making real such a conception of the self further appears to depend on the wealth generated through industrialization.

By contrast, in classical Confucian thought (and elsewhere, as we have seen), human beings are understood first of all as relational beings: we are who we are always and only as we are taken up in specific relationships with others. For me, this means that I am always – and only – someone’s son, brother, spouse, father, uncle, friend, employee, boss, beneficiary, etc.; and how I am – i.e., my choices, attitudes, behaviors, etc. – is always shaped in specific ways by each specific relationship. And so, how I am in relationship with my parents is different from how I am in relationship with my spouse, my siblings, my own children, my students, etc. To continue with Henry Rosemont’s organic metaphors, in classical Chinese thought, human beings are like onions, not peaches: each of our distinctive relationships with others – including the larger social and political communities and, finally, the natural order at large (Tian) – constitutes one of the multiple layers that in turn make up who we are as human beings. In contrast with the peach-pit model, however, if we remove the layers of relationship from the onion, there’s nothing left.

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