‘identity’ has now become a prism through which other topical aspects of contemporary life are spotted, grasped and examined
Established issues of social analysis are being rehashed and refurbished to fit the discourse now rotating around the ‘identity’ axis. For instance, the discussion of justice and equality tends to be conducted in terms of ‘recognition’, culture is debated in terms of individual, group or categorial difference, creolization and hybridity, while the political process is ever more often theorized around the issues of human rights (that is, the right to a separate identity) and of ‘life polities’ (that is, identity construction, negotiation and assertion).
Martin Heidegger gave a new twist to Hegel’s aphorism in his discussion of the priority of Zuhandenheit over Vorhandenheit and of the ‘catastrophic’ origin of the second: good lighting is the true blindness – one does not see what is all-too-visible, one does not note what is ‘always there’, things are noticed when they disappear or go bust, they must first fall out from the routinely ‘given’ for the search after their essences to start and the questions about their origin, whereabouts, use or value to be asked.
Anxiety and audacity, fear and courage, despair and hope are born together. But the proportion in which they are mixed depends on the resources in one’s possession
Marx and Engels praised the capitalists, the bourgeois revolutionaries, for ‘melting the solids and profaning the sacreds’ which had for long centuries cramped human creative powers
Alexis de Tocqueville thought rather that the solids picked for melting in the heat of modernization were already in a state of advanced decomposition and so beyond salvation well before the modern overhaul of nature and society started.
‘Predestination’ was replaced with ‘life project’, fate with vocation – and a ‘human nature’ into which one was born was replaced with ‘identity’ which one needs to saw up and make fit.
‘Men can do all things if they will,’ declared Leon Battista Alberti with pride
‘We can become what we will’, announced Pico della Mirandola with joy and relish
. A few decades later Jean-Jacques Rousseau would name perfectibility as the sole no-choice attribute with which nature had endowed the human race; he would insist that the capacity of self-transformation is the only ‘human essence’ and the only trait common to us all
As Immanuel Kant insisted, we are all – each one of us – endowed with the faculty of reason, that powerful tool which allows us to compare the options on offer and make our individual choices; but if we use that tool properly, we will all arrive at similar conclusions and will all accept one code of cohabitation which reason tells us is the best
Perhaps people need to be forced to be free, as Rousseau suspected? Perhaps the newly acquired freedom needs to be used for the people rather than by people? Perhaps we still need the despots, though ones who are ‘enlightened’ and so less erratic, more resolute and effective than the despots of yore, to design and fix reason-dictated patterns which would guarantee that people make right and proper uses of their freedom?
Incompleteness of identity, and particularly the individual responsibility for its completion, are in fact intimately related to all other aspects of the modern condition.
‘individualization’ consists in transforming human ‘identity’ from a ‘given’ into a ‘task’ – and charging the actors with the responsibility for performing that task and for the consequences (also the side-effects) of their performance;
Needing to become what one is is the feature of modern living
It is not just the individuals who are on the move but also the finishing lines of the tracks they run and the running tracks themselves
the quandary tormenting men and women at the turn of the century is not so much how to obtain the identities of their choice and how to have them recognized by people around, but which identity to choose and how to keep alert and vigilant so that another choice can be made in case the previously chosen identity is withdrawn from the market or stripped of its seductive powers.
The main, the most nerve-wracking worry is not how to find a place inside a solid frame of social class or category, and – having found it – how to guard it and avoid eviction; what makes one worry is the suspicion that the hard-won frame will soon be torn apart or melted
Either Erikson’s opinion has aged, as opinions usually do, or the ‘identity crisis’ has become today more than a rare condition of mental patients or a passing condition of adolescence: that ‘sameness’ and ‘continuity’ are feelings seldom experienced nowadays either by the young or by adults
the grip on the present, the confidence of being in control of one’s destiny, is what men and women in our type of society most conspicuously lack
Less and less we hope that by joining forces and standing arm in arm we may force a change in the rules of the game; perhaps the risks which make us afraid and the catastrophes which make us suffer have collective, social origins – but they seem to fall upon each one of us at random, as individual problems, of the kind that could be confronted only individually, and repaired, if at all, only by individual efforts.
Our dependencies are now truly global, our actions however are, as before, local.
The fast globalization of the power network seems to conspire and collaborate with a privatized life politics; they stimulate, sustain and reinforce each other. If globalization saps the capacity of established political institutions to act effectively, the massive retreat from the ‘body politic’ to the narrow concerns of life politics prevents the crystallization of alternative modes of collective action on a par with the globality of the network of dependencies.
Eric Hobsbawm recently observed, ‘never was the word “community” used more indiscriminately and emptily than in the decades when communities in the sociological sense became hard to find in real life
The frantic search for identity is not a residue of preglobalization times which are not yet fully extirpated but bound to become extinct as the globalization progresses; it is, on the contrary, the side-effect and by-product of the combination of globalizing and individualizing pressures and the tensions they spawn. The identification wars are neither contrary to nor stand in the way of the globalizing tendency: they are a legitimate offspring and natural companion of globalization and, far from arresting it, lubricate its wheels.