“I Contain Multitudes” — The Protean, Polymorphic Shape Shifter

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The idea of the “shape-shifter” evokes many different images, some of them aboriginal, some trans-personal, and some trans-human. “The post-modern condition” has sometimes been described as protean, polymorphic, and shape-shifting. How has this happened?

Today we are exposed through radio, television, movies, videos, books, magazines and of course the internet to a wide variety of cultural traditions, societal conditions, worldview perspectives and ways of life. Geographical mobility through “planes, trains and automobiles” combined with multiple career changes has produced a modern nomadic society in which many of us spend our lives living in different cities (or even different countries) employed in a variety of different occupations and careers. Economic necessity in the so-called “late capitalist society” has meant that many of us are required move away from our home-towns and our families-of-origin as we grow into adulthood, and to continue moving to new places from time to time. We may live in several different cities throughout our lives, and our grown children may need to life and work in cities and towns far away. This has become “the new normal” for millions of Americans. If we seek to experience anything like “family” and “community” we must create it ourselves in new places again and again. In the midst of this process we learn to “re-invent our selves” in each new place where we live and in each new career that we pursue.

But there is a “protean, polymorphic, shape-shifting influence” that is even more radical than the city we happen to live in and the career that we happen to pursue. Others may identify us by “where we live and what we do for a living,” but for most of us our sense of an increasingly complex and multi-sided “identity” runs much deeper. In today’s “polyphrenic saturated world” we are exposed to a multitude of different world views and ways of life. As time goes by we may be inclined to “try on” different ones for size, much like trying on different fabrics, styles, sizes, colors and fits of clothes. We may even decide to purchase a whole new wardrobe and wear it for a while until we decide again that it’s time to go for yet a new look as popular fads and fashions change.

It is no surprise that we often take on the character, style, attitudes and values of the community and culture in which we live. If we live among conservatives whom we find likable sorts we may be unconsciously inclined in that direction.  If we live among liberals whom we rather like then we may be unconsciously included in that direction as well. This identity fusing process is called enculturation and socialization. Most prefer to “fit in with the crowd” rather than “stand out like a sour thumb.” It takes a stong individual to “march to a different drummer” or “swim against the tide.” Relaxed conformity to the dominant mind-set and life-style produces less cognitive dissonance.

One distinctive feature that characterizes the post-modern  mindset is patch-quilt eclecticism and global fusion. We take scraps and pieces of concepts and artifacts from different cultures that we have visited in the past or with which we have once identified and we re-assemble them in novel, imaginative, ironic and idiosyncratic ways. We may even turn imitative “knock offs” and  “whimsical kitsch” into a post-modern art-form. Post-modern “players” like to decorate their homes with art and enjoy music that is eclectically Americana, Latino, Anglo-Celtic, European, Middle-Eastern, Asian, African and Oceanic. The world has become our playground. We may also construct our own multi-cultural and globally eclectic “therapeutic and aesthetic spirituality” rather than identify with one and only one historical faith tradition. Our we may vaguely identify one tradition as primary and several others as secondary and tertiary. Most Americans are not becoming atheistic or irreligious so much as “spiritual but not religious.”

It now appears that Walt Whitman was prophetic of our times when he declared, “If I contradict myself I contradict myself; I contain multitudes.” Emerson felt what millions now also experience, that “a small consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” It now seems that ambiguity, plurality, irony and paradox have come of age. Is not “the post-modern turn” a recovery of the “both-and” artistic, metaphorical, eclectic and paradoxical right-brained sensibility after three hundred years of the left-brained “either-or” rationalistic, literalistic, objectivist and scientistic sensibility?

The “trans-modern turn” simply takes the eclecticism and global fusion of the “post-modern turn” and creatively arranges it into multiple ways of knowing, multiple levels of being, and multiple stages of development. In this way the inner multitude of counselors is preserved while organizing them like the parts of an orchestra. The cultural messiness and chaos of “the post-modern turn” may have been a necessary pre-condition for the historical emergence of “the trans-modern turn.” They work together “in concert” as global eclecticism displaces cultural imperialism, radical empiricism displaces reductive empiricism, and the magnetically attractive polarity of integrative pluralism learns to peacefully coexist in dialectical tension with the repellent polarity of incommensurable difference.

The post-modern, protean, polymorphic shape-shifter may be a necessary but transitional phase of our evolutionary development. It may be that we will eventually learn to manifest the many sides of a larger and more integrative and encompassing identity with greater simultaneity, rather than need to “jump” and “shape-shift” from one patch-quilt self to another. The left-brain is concerned with the assemblage of parts. The right-brain is concerned with the integration of the whole. “The whole brain, whole mind” will live in the dialectical tension “between” the earlier developed right-brain “image language” of paradoxical non-linear “both-and” and the later developed left-brain “word language” of logical linear “either-or.” Neurologically speaking, the philosophical “non-dualists” and “dualists” both appear to be partly right. The only question is which hemisphere with its distinct orientation and methodology is calling the plays and running the show.

We all contain multitudes. That does not mean our inner multitude of sub-personalities and ego-states must succumb to a chaotic and confusing cacophony. There always remains before them the harmoneous opportunity to sing together in a great chorus.


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