Meaning through multiplicity (aka fluid selves in fluid cultures)

digital natives like Molly
have power over their self expression
they are constantly recreating themselves on line
but simultaneously leaving behind traces of their past selves behind
(from Re:Born Digital, ref. below)

This is Berkman School Interns describing what it is to be a digital native.

Is multiplicity possible only through new media?  No, it is, of course, an ancient engine of creativity and (as we now prefer to call it) innovation.  This summer saw the publication of a Secret Historian by Justin Spring.  

Drawn from the private archives of Samuel M. Steward, Secret Historian is a sensational reconstruction of one of the more extraordinary hidden lives of the twentieth century. An intimate friend of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Thornton Wilder, Steward transformed himself into Phil Sparrow, tattoo artist, and then into Phil Andros, erotica novelist. Secret Historian is a moving portrait of homosexual life in the years before gay liberation.

Is multiplicity for "secret" identities only?  No, increasingly it’s the logic of life lived "en plein air."  Last week I was corresponding with Shira Nayman about a research project.  I mentioned my interest in multiplicity as a theme and she replied

And wow, about the multiplicity of the modern self—my background is an almost embarrassing pot pourri, as I hinted at (my studies alone–B.Sc. in physiology, a year of medical school, a one-year diploma in religion, a doctorate in Clinical Psych, a MA in Comparative Literature, a 2 year post doc in psychiatry), and now being a consultant, a fiction writer, and a professor (I teach in the Program of Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, both to Medical Students and to doctors and other professionals).  And geographical–in the past eight years, I’ve lived with my husband and kids in Mexico, Spain, France, US, and I’m Australian (I just realize that in my lifetime, I’ve held three citizenships….).  Help, it’s sounding scary…  (And I also just realized that we have close family members in four continents, and visit them not infrequently).  Guess I’m kind of a poster child for all this….  (Don’t mean to catalog ‘myself’ in a narcissistic way…just kind of wowing on your point, and realizing that I’m a living instance of it….)

A couple of years ago while living in Toronto and Cambridge, and figuring out how to be an anthropologist in business and a businessman in anthropology, I wrote a book called Transformations.  It opened to no notice.  Had it been a Broadway play, it would have closed the next day. 

It turns out our culture didn’t need an "instruction manual."  The multiplicity continues anyhow.


Anonmyous. 2010. “Re:Born Digital, in Video: 2010 summer interns take up "Born Digital".”  Berkman School for Internet & Creativity. October 1. here.  (Accessed October 5, 2010).

Linn, Denise, Paul Kominers, Molly Sauter, and Sunanda Vaidheesh. 2010. YouTube – Re:Born Digital, in Video: Identities.  On YouTube here. (Accessed October 5, 2010).

McCracken, Grant. 2008. Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture. Indiana University Press. on Amazon here 

Nayman, Shira.  2010.  Personal correspondence.  September 24.  

Nayman, Shira. 2009. The Listener: A Novel. Scribner.  on Amazon here.  

Spring, Justin. 2010. Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. on Amazon here.


Mr. Spring will discuss his book today at 4:00 at the Beinecke Rare Book Manuscript Library, Yale University, 21 Wall Street, New Haven, CT. This event is free and open to the public

One thought on “Meaning through multiplicity (aka fluid selves in fluid cultures)”

  1. funny how now everybody is an immigrant of some sorts. whether cultural, geographical or since recently technological..


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