...Jen’s father had been born into a culture whose parenting style explicitly intends the humbling of the individual self in favor of the needs of the broader collective. (Parents engage in short, selective conversation with their children, emphasizing “proper behavior, self-restraint and attunement to others.”) What this “low elaborative” parenting style aims at instead is the creation of an “interdependent self,” defined not by its sense of inner autonomy, but by its sensitivity to the social roles it must play depending on the context in which it finds itself. The scholars of cross-cultural cognition, who reject the universality of Western models of the mind, maintain that this emphasis on social context translates into a measurable divergence in how Easterners and Westerners literally see the physical world.
I sense the Confucian resonances immediately, perhaps because I have here, sitting on my desk, Roger Ames's book, Confucian Role Ethics, a philosophical reflection on the construction and reproduction of interdependent selves.
My expectation is that the strength of Jen's writing will be its personal anecdote: she is reflecting on the irony that she has become a novelist, a person devoted to the cultivation of autonomous, inwardly defined characters, quite the contrary of interdependent selves. This suggests that these purported cultural differences are not immutable. In a single life time a person can, and does, move between a more independent and a more interdependent self. Indeed, if we think further we may have reason to question the permanence of any sort of self, independent or interdependent.
An example of such malleability popped up in the NYT magazine the same day: Linda Logan's piece on her bipolar disorder. In it, Logan notices that psychiatrists and psychologists have only recently sought to consider how to reconstruct a patient's sense of self during and after acute phases of mental illness. Her personal experience was very much a sense of loss of self; but treatment tends not to take this into account:
I would try to talk to my doctors about my vanishing self, but they didn’t have much to say on the subject. Instead they focused on whether I could make eye contact or how much expression I showed in my face. They monitored my lithium and cortisol levels; they took an M.R.I. of my head. I received an EKG, was exposed to full-spectrum lighting and kept awake all night for sleep-deprivation therapy. Nurses jotted down their observations; my scribbled lines in art therapy were inspected. Everything was scrutinized — except the transformation of my self and my experience of its loss.
Interestingly, the rebuilding of her self, though she does not frame it in quite these terms, appears to rely upon certain interdependencies: her reconnection to her family; her assumption of social and professional roles. And this would seem to agree with another point by Gish Jen:
She concludes that “we need both the interdependent and the independent self” and calls each one to recognize the claims of the other, while silkily suggesting that interdependent selves, more accustomed to striking balances, may be better equipped at finding the unity in apparent polar opposites, and thus at effecting this reconciliation of East and West.
I would, however resist classifying interdependence as an "Eastern" or "Asian" value. I find it alive and well in the "West," where it has always been. Of course, it is modernity that brings the independent self into the social (and by that I also mean cultural and political and economic) scene. Americans may like to think of themselves as rugged individualists, but they are, most of them, committed to a variety of social roles and networks and obligations that they would not give up. Conversely, as is demonstrated by some excellent recent research, Chinese society is becoming more individualized. The old distinctions of "East" and "West" really do not hold up anymore.
And that brings me to a larger question: why do we assume there is something like a stable, continuous "self"? We may want to believe that there is something, either deep inside or firmly outside, that defines us in a consistent and quasi-permanent manner, from birth (or at least adulthood) to death. But Zhuangzi is not buying it.
I like the way Hinton translates this piece from chapter two:
No other and no self, no self and no distinctions - that's almost it. But I don't know what makes it this way. Something seems to govern, but I can't find the least trace of it. It acts, nothing could be more apparent, but we never see its form. It has nature, but no form.
Zhuangzi, in chapter two, is asking us to give up distinctions, and he wants us to go all the way down: why hold on to a firm difference between self and other? In Way, we are subject to a myriad of unknown forces. Anything could happen at any moment, and what we thought we were - whether that definition is generated from within or without - can be swept away. We might lose our families or lose our minds. Or maybe we will gain something we never could have foreseen. Whatever the change, we should know that circumstance is impermanent, transformation inevitable. Way (Dao) - in all of its fullness and complexity - is not mentioned in the excerpt above, but that is the thing that governs. It has being (有情) but no form (無形). We might do well to see our selves in the same manner: formless.
It is interesting that the third and forth characters above - 無我 wuwo- which Hinton translates as "no self," are used to express the Buddhist idea of anatta, "not-self" or "no-self," in Chinese. We have to be careful of anachronisms here: Zhuangzi was written before Buddhism came into China (or at least that is the conventional wisdom). So, the idea of "no self" here is probably not quite what is meant in Buddhism. But it may be similar in some ways. It may be warding us away from holding on to the very idea of self, for if we grasp it too tightly, whether we understand it as independent or interdependent, we may well suffer as is shifts and melts away.
If you're self-less, you can simply be yourself. That, in any event is what Daodejing 22 (Hinton) might be telling us:
Give up self-reflection and you're soon enlightened.
Give up self-definition and you're soon apparent.
Give up self-promotion and you're soon proverbial.
Give up self-esteem and you're soon perennial.
Simply give up contention and soon nothing in all beneath heaven contends with you.