file-selves

Sheila Fitzpatrick:

‘Man lives in the real world; but there’s also a parallel world: a paper one, a bureaucratic one. So the passport is the person’s double in this parallel world.’ The comment comes from a Russian woman in her thirties interviewed as part of a study in St Petersburg in 2008. She might have been channelling the philosopher Rom Harré, who called these bureaucratic doubles ‘file-selves’. It mattered a lot to Soviet citizens what their file-selves looked like: the wrong social class or nationality entered in an internal passport, or a notation restricting movement, could be a disaster. But file-selves matter elsewhere too. The Anglosphere – the UK, Canada, the US, Australia – may have eschewed the Russian/Soviet path of a compulsory internal passport, distinct from the passport required for foreign travel, but drivers’ licences and credit records often serve the same functions, and electronic identity cards may not be too far away. The British, while skittish about mandatory ID cards, have the largest number of surveillance cameras per capita of any country except China.

This is good … but maybe not as good as my essay on passports?

W. H. Auden, writing in The Griffin (February 1959): 

For several centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, Greek culture was unknown to the West except through the Latin culture it had permeated. When the humanists of the Renaissance made contact with its literature at first hand, their admiration led them to believe that, by imitation, they could turn themselves into Greeks. This belief was fantastic, but the intense study of a past culture which it inspired initiated a new process of intellectual discovery. It is not really his technology which distinguishes “modern” man from his predecessors, but his historical consciousness. The discovery of the mind by itself is discovery in a unique sense. To discover something normally means to become aware or to understand the nature of something which was already there waiting to be discovered, but the discovery of the intellect is an act of creation: “The self does not come into being except through our comprehension of it.” The most significant intellectual advance of the last two hundred years has been the discovery that by reliving the stages through which we have come to be what we are, we change what we are. 

Thesis: Our current lack of historical consciousness — indeed, it is a refusal of historical consciousness, a shunning of the past — causes a loss of what the rise of historical consciousness provided to us: an understanding of how we came to be what we are. The fully presentist mind can have no self

More on this possibility in future posts….