Musings on the nature of “self” . . . and Stephen Colbert

René Descartes is often cited as having said, “Je pense, donc je suis” (or “Cogito, ergo sum” if you prefer the Latin . . . or “I think, therefore I am,” if you take “Stephen’s” advice and don’t read any language but English), but just who “I” refers to is a question as complex as almost any other. In his review of Douglas Hofstadter’s new book I Am a Strange Loop, John Allen Paulos (ABC News) addresses Hofstadter’s take on these questions of consciousness and awareness by musing on Stephen Colbert and Sacha Baron Cohen.

Who’s Counting: Hofstadter’s Strange Loops — as Well as Colbert and Borat
Book Says Our Notion of Self Is a Many Splendored Thing
By JOHN ALLEN PAULOS
June 3, 2007

Who are you? Douglas Hofstadter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,” has just written a sequel to that much-acclaimed book in which he focuses on the nature of consciousness and self.

What does it mean to be conscious, to be self-aware? What is a self? What is an “I”? One reason it is so difficult to get a scientific handle on these questions is that we’re too close to them. We can’t employ the usual scientific technique of stripping away the subjective elements of a phenomenon to arrive at an objective account of it since it is the subjective elements we want to understand.

. . .

This all may seem quite esoteric, but questions like these lie near the surface of popular culture from the virtual world of “Second Life” to the surreal world of television news. I just read of a panel discussion held in Colorado, for example, whose subject was the number of levels of reality present if Stephen Colbert, anchor of the faux news “Colbert Report,” were to interview Sacha Baron Cohen, creator of the characters Borat and Ali G. [Editor’s note: We actually reported on that panel discussion here.]

Colbert is, one senses, a very nice guy, but he is also a comedian who pretends to be a self-centered, overbearing blowhard of a television pundit. Cohen is intelligent and thoughtful, but he is also a comedian pretending to be an ignorant, anti-Semitic homophobe. We sit at home watching the interview and forming little ancillary “I” symbols in our minds for each of these men as well as for their ancillary sub “I” ‘s.

This self-referential tangle, being indefinitely extensible and recursive, leads to strange psychological effects, one being that the characters played by Colbert and Cohen can be more truthful in disguise than they can if they present themselves straight.

Full text of article

We’ve often tried to deal with the mutliplicity of Stephens here at NFZ — distinguishing between “Stephen” and Stephen, for example — and we know Stephen himself has often said that he never knows who gets invited to speaking engagements and the like, himself or his character. It is therefore fascinating to me to read about some of the more scholarly discussions of what that layering of personas means, both in terms of how it influences the show’s humor and how we, as individuals, respond to it. The preparation that goes into successfully navigating this minefield of comedic and intellectual challenges on a regular basis can make a person’s head spin. Or, to paraphrase Mr. Paulos’s review, it can make us strange and loopy, indeed.

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