We hear much nowadays about "The Big Society," a - perhaps conveniently timed with the requirement for cuts to public services, but not necessarily pernicious on that account - reconception of social responsibility, as increasingly devolved upon communities and smaller groups within them rather than the property of The Big State. Society, on this vision, is far less an achievement of central administration, and far more the concrete, experimental, piecemeal, and much more meaningful and effective, process of people in cohort engaged in their own lives and those of others around them. Aside altogether from matters of political ideology, which have too preemtively tarnished this new vision with the old wire brush of Thatcherism, there is a very pressing question of whether The Big Society is possible in the country of The Big Self.
No doubt, the Enlightenment expectation of the coherent self, constituted by the by definition reconcileability of its various, and changing, components, has long been subject to suspicion; Freud's notion of the unconscious, for instance - a deeply divided and divisive force in the human psyche - is so accepted an account of the self as to have entered the set of tacit assumptions that go to make up our very basic understandings of ourselves and others. And yet, it is not wrong to say that some sense of a unitary self, however shifting and difficult to maintain, often continues to regulate our lives: it lies at the root of efforts to overcome various of our impulses because of the difficulty of making them coexist with characteristics of ourselves that we would like to flourish; it explains our sustained attempts to reconcile others' views of us with the views we would have them hold; and it of course solves the conundrum of why a society so fed up on Freud would continue to try to make one of what are almost, on his account, of necessity in tension. Doomed and all as these efforts may be, prejudiced and all as they undoubtedly are by the traditional expectation that Reason conquers all, they do have some positive effects, not least of which is the manner in which the striving after some kind of coherence for ourselves makes us, to some extent, independent of the whips and scorns of time, of place, and of other people: one is not, though it takes effort, merely three - or ten times three - sheets in the wind, but a force of at least partial resistance to changes, to misunderstandings, to attempted cooptions, to prejudices, to people; one has something - some one thing - to present to people, to have them try to understand, to tread upon their presumptions, and, yes, to stimulate their own conceptions of themselves and others.
True, all of this means that human association is less a "There's room for everyone in the pot" scenario that postmodern fluffiness would have us believe is a desirable condition, but one can look at the situation also from another angle. Not striving for this sense of self, not working at a version of oneself with which to meet the world and those in it, can give rise to a kind of lazy subcontracting of oneself out to various interests, commitments, values, occupations, and groups; with no effort made to gather together these subcontractions, to prioritise some over others, to negotiate a deal between them so that no one of them becomes definitive of, or even necessary to the continuation of, one's sense of self, one is, in a sense, everywhere and nowhere. Being nowhere, one becomes rather odd in association with others, with little to present, with nothing to defend, generating a feeling in one's potential, but unrealised, interlocutors, of a strange dislocation, of a virtual encounter, of a shady deal, in short of anything but a fair exchange; but, being everywhere, one is then also always at stake, so that the views of others on a disparate and unpredictable range of even apparently neutral topics can, without warning, tread upon something so essential to a local shard of self - which, without some centralised administration, is free to run amok and feel itself to be of central significance - that one is constantly being trodden on by innocent interlocutors who did not even know there was anyone nearby. Postmodern fluffiness - and the cotton wool "isn't everything lovely" that is its everyday representative - is therefore trumped by the existential anguish of encounters with no one and the unmanageable outrage of unpredictable annihilations.
Many avoid the novels of Dickens on account of their being peopled largely with characteristics, interests, foibles, eccentricities, virtues, vices, and tastes, rather than with actual characters; those who like their novels realistic are turned away. And yet, British society is riven so through and through by strata and their categories - class, sex, race, being the three big ones of course - that trump what might have seemed the untrumpable human self, that novels filled with identifications rather than identities have a strange, and inverse, realism about them after all. But not even Dickens could imagine the full horror. Martin Chuzzlewit, early on, reports on a sudden and fraught meeting of the extended Chuzzlewit clan, who anticipate the death of their relative and expect some benefit therefrom. Around the table sit the usual splendid array of identifications, in precisely the kind of discord that can result when one's self is all in one, very local place. But among the crowd is also one whose visage is so uncertainly drawn as to give one, Dickens says, the impression that his maker sketched his outline but forgot to fill him in; he is a strange presence, necessarily (it seems) linked with another more fulsome and contributing nothing in particular to the discussion but a moment, and a chair, full of a strange kind of absense. What Dickens did not predict, however, is the grotesque coincidence of strong identifications with the outline of a self that comprises many of this country's wandering souls; what he could not have seen is the strange, and horribly unsettling, experience of meeting one who seems not to be there and then all of a sudden, and inevitably unwittingly, seeming to have killed them with one blow. The outlined man is also, today, the outlying man; you will meet him everywhere and nowhere, and though you will never see him before you, you are bound to wound him to one of his cores.