Multiphrenic Identity

I stumbled across a word today courtesy of @alicetiara: ‘multiphrenic’, which she defined as ’multiple identities pieced together from the multiplicity of mediated messages in our environments.’ This sounded so much like my recent musings on networked identity that I did some searching.

Turns out the term was coined by Kenneth Gergen, a well known psychologist and author, first used in The Saturated Self (1991), which I have ordered from the library and hope to read soon.

I also found an essay online by Karin Wilkins that defines Gergen’s notions fairly concisely, and confirmed that he is indeed talking about a postmodernist identity of the same sort that I have been thinking about [emphasis mine]:

Karin Wilkins, Moving Beyond Modernity: Media and Multiphrenic Identity among Hong Kong Youth

Implications for Multiphrenic Identity

Identities connect individuals to larger social groups, constituting boundaries used to include and exclude members. Whereas in earlier development communication theory media were believed to promote national identity, an autopoietic framework would hold that media might promote multiple and diverse identities related to maintaining the boundaries of communities. Recent communication literature has moved away from an interest in a spatially-determined national identity, instead focusing on cultural identity, not equivalent to a particular space or territory.


[Kenneth] Gergen conceptualizes a new sense of self, contending that “the social saturation brought about by the technologies ofthe twentieth century, the accompanying immersion in multiple perspectives, have brought about a new consciousness: postmodernist”. Thus, Gergen believes that the proliferation of communication modes and of mediated products have contributed to what he terms the “multiphrenic self.”

Further, “cultures incorporate fragments of each other’s identities. That which was alien is now within”. In other words, the self may be interpreted not as a monolithic construction, but as a set of multiple socially constructed roles shaping and adapting to diverse contexts (cf. Weick). Rather than assume multiple identities pose a deviant condition, I prefer to assume their existence, moving toward an understanding of how these are constructed and supported within a media-saturated setting.

Exactly what I have been arguing with regard to our use of social tools online. We invest ourselves into relationships that are shaped by the affordances of the tools and the particular social contracts of the contexts. Through these relationships new and perhaps unexpected insights into others and ourselves arise. And we participate in dozens of these social environments, possibly with non-overlapping constituencies, each focused on different aspects of the greater world: entertainment, food, news, social causes, health, religion, sex, you name it. We become adept at shifting registers, just like polyglots shift from Italian to Corsican to Catalan without even thinking about it. We are multiphrenic.

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