The Saturated Self by Kenneth J. Gergen, Basic Books (Perseus); 1991; 2nd edn. 2000; 320 ff.
`The thesis of this book is that the process of social saturation is producing a profound change in our ways of understanding the self.' It is written by a psychologist who is Senior Research Professor at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania.
Gergen's idea is that we are now being subjected to excessive social stimulation, both at work and in our `relaxation' hours by the demands of our work itself and work colleagues, who are continually making greater demands upon us for their satisfaction and professional advance; by our partners and children, who also want to lead full and active lives; and even in the time we set aside for relaxation because commercial enterprise has endeavoured, in its quest for profits, to tempt us with ever more exciting opportunities for enjoyment.
Our self-image is continually under review as new opportunities for work, play and belief present themselves. We are becoming overwhelmed even by the technologies provided for our benefit - telephones, computers, television, CDs, DVDs . . . Even some relatively recent inventions, such as video and tape recorders, are already obsolete. Instead of real relationships with actual people we have vicarious relationships with characters on our TV screens, or virtual relationships on-line with `friends' on social networking sites.
We now have 24-hour radio and television channels and 24-hour shopping. Sunday used to be a day of rest in Christian countries but now is little different from any other day of the week. When the whole of society around you is immersed in such activity, it becomes more difficult to remove yourself from it. Marriages, close-knit families and lifelong friendships have now become replaceable by transient relationships. In the absence of meaningful human interaction, we are now increasingly attracted to relationships with these material things.
The result has been that many of us are experiencing social exhaustion. Gergen believes that this is a prime factor in the development of the New Age movement, where people are increasingly attracted to eastern mystical philosophies of quietude and reflection. Nostalgia for simpler past times is a feature of this same mind-set, because the dreamy ethos of Romanticism in the 19th century has been replaced by hard-edged scientific and technological realism in the 20th. For the romanticist conception of the self `is a perspective that lays central stress on unseen, even sacred forces that dwell deep within the person, forces that give life and relationships their meaning.' Depressingly, Gergen feels that this process of social saturation is far from complete.
This is a challenging and thought-provoking book. The author says his aim is `to offer insight into current academic debates to those outside the tower.' However, the breadth and depth of this monograph make it best suited to graduate students in a wide range of disciplines - philosophy, psychology, sociology. There are even perceptive comments on Romantic to postmodern art, music and literature. For the non-academic, this level of scholarship may prove intimidating. For those who stay the course, there are copious Notes and an Index at the end of the book.
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Howard Jones is the author of The Tao of Holism