#2 The Space Within Us

In this second attempt at understanding the mind and self, we leap onto the concepts of space and others — to peer into the construction ‘social selves’, and to see how we are never ourselves by our own definition, as we also witness in Philip Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’.

Introduction

There is a sequence at the end of Ghost in the Shell, both its anime original (1995) and the live-action remake (2017), where Major dives off a building in a backward somersault, ‘fading’ into the background of the cosmopolis that is future Tokyo. We are attempting a symbolic reading because we already know this to be Major’s stealth suit at work – a disguise – yet both films as a whole tell us a lot more about the inseparability of space from the self:

The three-minute aspect-to-aspect interlude… forces us to consider the parallels between city and body, network and ghost. To drive this home, the rest of the film is framed with characters set against the city they live in. Yes, spaces are made by humanity, but humanity is made by its spaces too. It’s a feedback loop, a cycle made virtuous or vicious based on the choices we make together. Ghost in the Shell (1995) wants to show us that the dynamics of our selves and our spaces are one and the same.

Identity and Space

In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). the sociologist Erving Goffman uses the motif of theatre to depict our social lives: on the front stage, we perform our projected or public selves in front of an audience and that is often tailored to the audience’s expectations; back stage, we inhabit a more private self freer of external demands, and in some sense, truer to our own perceived self. The setting (space) is an object of control and so, an expression of multiple selves. Put another way, “The store is, in a sense, a part of the pharmacist. Just as Neptune is pictured as rising from the sea, while at the same time being the sea; so in the pharmaceutical ethos there is a vision of a dignified pharmacist towering above shelves and counters of bottles and equipment, while at the same time being part of their essence.” The extended-mind thesis, developed by David Chalmers and Andy Clark, posits that “when bits of the environment are hooked up to you rcognitive system in the right way, they are, in effect part of the mind, part of the cognitive system” (Baggini 227). The concept of who we are is internal to our own minds, the limits of which are never clear, not even to ourselves.

Where the self seems illusory to some, spaces feel by comparison quantifiable, real, definite. The shelves of a pharmacy, the books we fill our bedrooms with, or the arrangement of furniture in our living rooms tell a story about who we are, or purport to do so in these expressions of identity. In the absence of an actual self, these expressions or projections are all we have to decipher the identity of Mr. Bleaney.

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‘This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.’ Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,

Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered. ‘Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand.’
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

Behind the door, no room for books or bags

.

Larkin seats the reader right from the opening line in Mr Bleaney’s room, leaving us no more than a second-hand account of Mr Bleaney’s presence to accompany the unembellished description of his furniture. The reader’s understanding is thus limited to, and contained within this enumeration of flowered curtains, a garden, a “bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook” and the dearth of “books or bags”. Stripped of adjective and character, these items themselves represent a vapid, banal existence that we imagine Mr Bleaney’s. He has little personality, he leads a meagre, routine life and he is satisfied with the way things are. At the same time, the sparing language destabilises this facile conclusion. It communicates the precise unreliability of setting to reflect identity; telling us barely anything, Mr Bleaney’s room tells us that we barely know anything about Mr Bleaney.

The poem may not go so far as to suggest the symbiosis of space and identity as posited by Goffman and visually portrayed in Ghost in the Shell. What it successfully does is remind us that we are identified by the space we live in, even if we consciously accept or reject it as part of our identities. In the persona’s mind, Mr Bleaney is his room, because there is nothing else but the room. Our mind can only ever access the signs of another self, be it a word, a loose tick or a piece of furniture. In the poem’s own words, our minds rest on the idea that what we see is what we get, because ‘how we live measures our own nature’.

Identity and Other Selves

Our nature is equally measured by the people we identify with. Baggini relates that “The people we are really close to become so deeply part of our lives that they do, in a real sense, become part of our selves. It is common for people to describe the loss of a loved one as like having a part of them ripped out, and the hole that’s left sometimes never heals.” Todd Feinberg adds that “we partially merge with another person’s mind” when we identify with another person (Baggini 226). We observe a similar logic in one of e. e. cummings’ most popular poems:

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)

If the coalescence of two selves seems a step too far, we can consider the presentation of the multiple selves within Susan in Woman in Mind. Susan wakes up at the start of Act One as a ‘blank slate’, seemingly unable to recall where she lives, who Bill Windsor is, or who lives with her. Re-using Goffman’s theatre metaphor, Susan plays the role of patient.As Act One continues to unfold, she inhabits the roles of mother (to Lucy), wife (to Andy) and sister (to Tony), patient again (to Bill) and in a curious turn of events, disgruntled wife to Gerald and snide sister-in-law to Muriel. Goffman’s theory would hold that Susan’s identity is the sum of her roles, each dependent on another person. Without Lucy, Andy, Tony, Gerald and Bill, Susan would be identified as, well, nothing more than the name ‘Susan’.

The dependency of one’s self on other selves to exist only gets really interesting in Act Two when it is increasingly obvious that Lucy, Andy and Tony exist only in Susan’s imagination. That is to say, Lucy, Andy and Tony are Susan, manifest as parts of her self-image as a mother, wife and sister as loving as Susan is well-loved by them.

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SUSAN  I should have thought that was fairly obvious.
GERALD  Yes. I suppose so. All the same. All the same, I don’t think it’s fair to lay all the blame at your door…
TONY  What?
LUCY  What?
SUSAN  What? […]
GERALD  Now, Susan, I’m not going to start on this. We have argued our lives away over that boy and we’re not going to do it any more. I refuse to become involved —
SUSAN  You smug–
LUCY  Self-satisfied–
SUSAN  Self-satisfied–
TONY  Conceited–
SUSAN  Conceited… bastard!
Lucy and Tony cheer and applaud this last effort of Susan’s. (Act Two, 34)

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Susan, Lucy and Tony speak as a collective voice – Susan’s voice – opposed to Gerald’s affront that Susan has to bear some blame for their son Rick leaving the house. Effectively, Susan relies on her ‘other selves’ to nullify the threat to her identity as mother. The imaginary ‘selves’ are both a part of her mind and outside of it acting on her behalf. What we can deduce is that Susan’s sense of self is reliant on these fictive figures; to exist as a mother, wife and sister, she needs to conjure Lucy, Andy and Tony repeatedly… until that is even they work against her own narrative in the closing scenes.

The persona in ‘Mr Bleaney’ exhibits a denial not very different from Susan’s. Typifying Mr Bleaney into the room, he acknowledges to “lie / Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags / On the same saucer-souvenir”, slouching into an offhand confidence of “know[ing] his habits”. The persona’s actions in stanzas 3-5 mirror that of Mr Bleaney’s in the past. Stanzas 6-7 imagines Mr Bleaney’s actions mirroring the persona’s actions in the present – to “stand and watch the frigid wind / Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed / Telling [myself] that this was home, and grinned, / And shivered, without shaking off the dread…” The “he” of stanza 6 is in fact “I”, the persona’s mind relying on a projected Mr Bleaney (like the fictitious Lucy, Andy and Tony) to voice his own fears. Where the reader was previously told of the persona’s distaste towards Mr Bleaney’s “habits”, stanzas 6-7 hint to us that Mr Bleaney and the persona aren’t as different as the middle of the poem affirms to be.

Significantly, the persona’s introspection ends on “I don’t know”. Selfhood, as we previously reflected, is a process. There may be, quoting Derek Parfit, “still a difference between my life and the lives of other people”. Our identities however very much rely on the spaces we live and work in, and the people we see as a part of our lives. The “I” may exist in our minds, and it is also never free from context. It belongs to a “we”, it sits next to a “he” and “she” and must always be somewhere. To pin down the “I”, take a seat and glance at the other people in the room. That much we know.

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