“The past is a foreign country,” wrote the British author L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel, The Go-Between. But almost before Hartley’s words acquired the status of proverb, something curious happened. Thanks largely to the dizzying pace of change that technology has made almost routine, the present itself became a foreign country—alien, but in the most deceptive of ways. In this curious present, we discern only with difficulty how things that seem familiar and fixed are actually, upon closer investigation, strange and unsettled. One day, for example, we think the reality of “reality TV” is anything but real; the next day we discover that it most shockingly is—and maybe has been for much longer than we realized. If we have not quite arrived at Orwellian Newspeak, in which war is peace and love is hate, then we are somewhere not far off. In this here and now, where meanings and norms shift shapes right before our eyes, we are strangers in, and to, our own time.
That strangeness is in no respect more unsettling than in relation to the very selves we are becoming. Every individual self is unique, of course, but all selves are also inescapably shaped by beliefs, norms, ideals, and meanings that make up the totality of a specific culture at a specific time. Until now at least, those underlying and defining elements of a culture benefited from a certain stability—or at least the appearance of such amid what might be described, more precisely, as gradually changing continuity. In the increasingly alien present, however, the very character of our culture (some would even say our anti-culture) is the absence of such stability and continuity, both having been displaced by the discontinuous, disruptive, and destabilizing force of change, a force that is now celebrated, and even idolized, for its own sake.
So, then, what sort of selves are we becoming in this age that we call, for lack of a better word, post-modern? That is the question our contributors explore in The Post-Modern Self, the theme of our spring issue.
We will be releasing a select number of essays and reviews from this issue on a rolling basis during the coming weeks, starting with the following two:
For subscribers, the complete issue is available now, whether in print or ePub form. In our thematic section, the essays include David Bosworth’s “Knowing Together: The Emergence of the Hive Mind,” Wilfred M. McClay’s “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” Mary Townsend’s “The Walking Wounded,” and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s “The New Old Ways of Self-Help.” Our non-thematic essays range from Nadav Samin on jihadist fiction and Regina Mara Schwartz on love and justice to Chad Wellmon on the fate of general education. We also review a series of key recent titles in our book review section.
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