A Question of Identity

Earl R Smith II, PhD


(Read More From My Blog)

According to many modernist social theorists, questions of identity center on an ‘authentic knowledge’ of the ‘self’ and of the shelves of others. It was generally accepted that there was a unique core within each person which formed the very foundation of who they ‘were’. According to these theories, most of that foundation was laid down during the early or ‘formative’ years. Those early ossification constituted the fountainhead from which the mature individual arose.

Accepted theory very often described the journey to adulthood in terms of a distancing or estrangement from the ‘authentic self’ that had come into being during early childhood. The metaphor of a constructed and presented mask was often used to describe this process of distancing. Adults were said to be prone to construct a synthetic versions of their ‘selves’ – a face that they presented to the world – one which they saw as more acceptable – effective – and more seductive in a sense.

At some point – whether as a result of an epiphany or disenchantment with keeping up appearances – so the theory goes, the individual would turn inward and seek to reunite with their ‘authentic self’. This inward turn and resulting reconnection with the ‘true self’ was the basis of the idea of being ‘born again’ – once from your mother and a second time from the inauthentic world that you have constructed and falsely accepted as real. According to accepted theories, this journey back to the core was one that every individual had to make in order to become a person in their own right.

Much of the self help literature of the last decades is focused on helping with that journey. With the idea of a guide or guiding light center stage, many authors produced volumes designed to help people towards the path which would lead them to a reunion with their ‘authentic self’.

But these theories have seemed to have a false ring to them lately. The first decade of the 21st century seems to have solidified a radical shift in reality – a true paradigm shift – which turns this approach to questions of identity on its head.

The rise of the virtual world – the advance of the information age – and the march of technology with the new capabilities that it brings – the death of traditional societies – the post-modernist tendencies toward devaluation of all values and sanctification of some – have resulted in a shift of the priority balance between the ‘authentic’ and ‘virtual’ definitions of reality. In fact the very term ‘authentic’ as been appropriated by the virtual world and re-manufactured into an entirely new and counter intuitive meaning – counter intuitive, that is to say, from the perspective of the authentic as defined in the modernist tradition. That which is considered authentic within the post-modernist world is the very definition of inauthentic in the modernist one.

There are some echoes of modernity which remain in this new – post-modernist – definition of authenticity. There are also echoes of the concerns that drove the efforts to drop the masks and return to a more authentic relationship with self. In fact, authenticity (in its particular incarnation) is venerated in both the modernist and post-modernist perspectives as the holly grail of personal growth and fulfillment of one’s destiny. The words used can sound eerily similar while their meanings are jarringly different.

Perhaps an example might serve to highlight what I am getting at. The whole idea of identity theft comes to mind. In modernist terms, identity theft was defined in terms of the self-induced or society-induced estrangement from self that modern society forced on the forming of adult – either you gave your identity away in some arrangement with the world as you found it or it took that identity in exchange for your continual participation in society. But at some point you could complete the journey back – reunite – reclaim your true self. So the struggle that every human was engaged in was one to reclaim that identify and become their authentic self.

But the virtual world has successfully promulgated an different set of ground rules – an entirely new definition of what constitutes identity – one that relates to the residual, cumulative detritus of the life of an individual. Personal identity is linked to an avatar – a synthetic and entirely digital version of a person – which is taken by the post-modernist world to actually be that person. Like modernist society, post-modernist society insists that an individual ‘create’ a synthetic self which ‘stands in’ for the real person in virtual space. But the post-modernist world goes one incredible step further – it then insists that this virtual avatar is the authentic self of the person and that the details of the actual person are irrelevant or simply inconvenient distractions. In post-modernist lingo, “Sure you can set out on a journey of self-discovery. Go ahead and ‘find yourself’. Just remember that none of that really matters when it comes to your identity – who you really are. And, by the way, don’t bother trying to recover your virtual identity – you don’t own it – it is the property of others now.”

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