If the modern problem of identity was how to construct an identity, the postmodern problem of identity is how to avoid fixation and keep the options open. If the catchword of modernity was creation, the catchword of postmodernity is recycling.
The main identity-bound anxiety of modern times was the worry about durability; it is concern with commitment-avoidance today.
The photograph was the medium of modernity, all set in bound books with yellowing pages, the video-tape the medium of postmodernity – today’s recording only exists until something deemed more significant emerges to replace it.
Modernity built in steel and concrete, postmodernity in biodegradable plastic.
Identity as such is a modern invention – it is the name given to the escape sought from uncertainty, from the modern ‘problem’ of freedom of choice which arises with social change, and of not knowing for certain where one fits in to the order of things; the modern ‘quest’ for identity is a response to the inability of people to clearly project who they are to others so that we may all ‘go on’.
Identity is always a process, a critical projection (typically?) into the future – it is an assertive attempt to escape from the experience of under-determination, or free-floatingness , of disembeddnsess, which is the ‘natural’ condition of modernity.
Identity in modernity is presented as an individual task, but there are experts to guide us as to what identities are possible to achieve – experts such as teachers and counsellors, who are supposed to be more knowledgeable about the task of identity construction.
Modern life as pilgrimage
Modernity gave the pilgrim a new prominence and a novel twist.
For pilgrims through time, the truth is elsewhere, always some distance away. Wherever the pilgrim is now is not where he ought to be, not where he dreams of being. The glory of the future debases the present.
The pilgrim is not interested in the city, the houses tempt him to rest, he is happier on the streets, for they lead him to his destination. However, even these are perceived as a series of traps which may lead him from his path. The pilgrim feels homeless in the city.
The desert is the place for the pilgrim, who seeks a hermetic way of life away from the distractions of city life, away from duties and obligations. The desert, unlike the city, was a land not yet sliced into places, a place of self-creation, which is not possible when one is ‘in place’ in the city, which calls upon the individual to be certain ways (through the commitments of family and polis).
You do not go into the desert to find identity, but to lose it, to become ‘god like’.
The Protestants changed this by becoming ‘inner-worldly pilgrims’ – they invented the way of embarking on pilgrimage without leaving home and of leaving home without becoming homeless. In the post-Reformation city of modernity, the desert started on the other side of the door.
The protestant worked hard to make the dessert come to him – through impersonality, coldness, emptiness – protestants expressed a desire to see the outside world as null, lacking in value, of nothingness waiting to become something.
In such a land, commonly called modern society, pilgrimage is no longer a choice, pilgrimage is no longer heroic or saintly, it is what one does of necessity, to avoid being lost in the desert; to invest in walking with a purpose while wandering the land with no destination.
The desert world of modernity is meaningless, the bringing-in of meaning is ‘identity builiding’ – the pilgrim and the dessert-like world he walks acquire their meaning together. Both processes must go on because there is a distance between the goal (the meaning of the world and the future identity of the pilgrim) and the present moment (the station of the walking and the identity of the wanderer.)
Both meaning and identity can exist only as projects. Dissatisfaction with the present compared to the ideal-future and delaying gratification to realise greater pleasure in that future are fundamental features of the modern-identity building project, as is marking and measuring one’s progress towards one’s goal through time.
Time is generally perceived as something through which one progress, in a linear fashion, and modern pilgrims generally had trust in a clearly identified future state (however fantastical) – and saving for the future was a central strategy of future oriented identity-building.
Pilgrims had a stake in the solidity of the world they walked, a kind of world in which one can tell life as a continuous story – moving towards fulfilment – The world of pilgrims, of identity-builders must be orderly, determined, predictable, but most of all it must be one in which one can make engravings in the sand so that past travels are kept and preserved.
The world inhospitable to pilgrims
The world is not hospitable to pilgrims any more. The pilgrims lost their battle by winning it: by turning the social into a dessert, ultimately a windy place where it is as easy to erase footprints as it is to make them.
It soon transpired that the real problem was not how to make identity, but how to preserve it – in a dessert, it is easy to blaze a trail, but difficult to make it stick.
As Cristopher Lasch points out identity refers to both persons and to things, and we now live in a world of disposable objects, and in such a world identities can be adopted and discarded like a change of clothes.
In the life-game of postmodern consumers the rules of the game keep changing in the course of playing. The sensible strategy is to keep each game short, and ‘live one day at a time’, depicting each day as a series of emergencies.
To keep the game short means to be wary of long term commitments, not to control the future, but to refuse to mortgage it. In short, to cut the present off at both ends, to abolish time and live in a continuous present. Fitness takes over from health – the capacity to move where the action is rather than coming up to a standard and remaining ‘unscathed’; and the snag is to no longer construct an identity, but to stop it from becoming fixed.
The hub of postmodern life strategy is not identity building, but avoidance of fixation.
There are no hooks on which we can hang our identity – jobs for life have gone, and we live in the era of personal relationships. Values become cherished for maximal impact, and this means short and sharp, because attention has become a scarce commodity.
The overall result is the fragmentation of time into episodes. In this world, saving and delaying gratification make no sense, getting pleasure now is rational.
In this world, the stroller, the tourist, the vagabond and the player become the key identities, all of these have their origins before postmodernity, but each comes to be practiced by the mainstream rather than being marginal in postmodernity.
In the postmodern chorus they all sing, sometimes in harmony, but more often with cacophony the result.
In modernity this is Walter Benjamin’s flaneur – strolling among crowds of strangers in a city, and being in the crowd, but not of the crowd, taking in those strangers as ‘surfaces’ so that what one sees exhausts what they are, and above all seeing and knowing them episodically – each episode having no past and no consequence. The distinction between appearance and reality matter not. The stroller had all the pleasures of modern life, without all the torments.
In the postmodern world, the stroller is the playful consumer, who doesn’t need to deal with ‘reality’. Shopping malls are the domain of the stroller – while you can shop while you stroll. Here people believe they are making decisions, but in fact they are being manipulated by the mall-designers. Malls are also safe-spaces, where undesirables are screened out.
Originally malls were merely physical, now all of this is intensified in teleshopping, in the private domain.
The vagabond was the bane of early modernity, being master-less, out of control. Modernity could not bear the vagabond because he had no set destination, each place he stops, he knows not how long he will stay. It is easy to control the pilgrim because of his self-determination, but not the vagabond.
Wherever the vagabond goes he is a stranger, he can never be native, he is always out of place.
In modernity the settled were many, the vagabonds few, postmodernity reverses the ratio as now there are few ‘settled places’ left – jobs, skills, relationships, all offer no chance of being rooted.
Like the vagabond, the tourist is always on the move and always in the place but never of it, but there are seminal differences.
Firstly, the tourist moves on purpose, to seek new experiences. They want to immerse themselves in the strange and the bizarre, but they do so in a safe way, in a package-deal sort of way. The tourists world is structured by aesthetic criteria. Unlike the vagabond, who has a rougher ride.
Secondly, the tourist has a home, the vagabond does not. The problem, however, for the tourist, is that as the touristic mode of life becomes dominant, it becomes less and less clear where home actually is, and homesickness sets in – home lingers both as an uncanny mix of shelter and prison.
In play there is neither inevitability nor accident, nothing is fully predictable or controllable, and yet nothing is totally immutable or irrevocable either.
In play there is nothing but a series of moves, and time in the world-as-play is divided into a succession of games, each self-enclosed. For the player, each game must have an end, it must be possible to leave it with no consequences once it has been completed, leave no mental scars.
The point of the game is to win, and this leaves no room for compassion, commiseration .or cooperation.
The mark of a postmodern adult is to embrace the game wholeheartedly, like children do.