I have two groups of friends, and they don’t intersect.
The first group are my fellow Amherst College alumni–intellectual, career-oriented, hard-working, and thriving in the most prestigious positions. The second group are perpetual travelers, bicycle-tourists, and digital nomads–unrooted, non-materialistic, free-wheeling, and content in their unconventional careers.
I belong in both–and neither. I find intellectual discussions about social theory more gripping than travel tales. I am a minimalist who prefers to spend his money on adventure. I strive towards the passion and productivity of my New Yorker friends. I revel in the unpredictability of the road.
I’m not special. In my contradictions, I am not particularly different from any other inhabitant of modernity. All of us contain such fragmented identities, which we pick up as we work our way through a complex and ever-changing world.
At the turn of the twentieth century, only 13% of the world’s population lived in urban areas. Most people would die not far from the place that they were born. In your village everyone would know you, for a long time, and across many different contexts. The worldviews of everyone around you would tend to be very similar, usually organized around religion.
This all changed with modernity. As urbanization, industrialization and capitalism swept across the globe, our lives have become increasingly diverse and fragmented. As Austrian-American sociologist Peter L. Berger writes in his book The Homeless Mind, “Different sectors of … everyday life relate … to vastly different and often severely discrepant worlds of meaning and experience. Modern life is typically segmented to a very high degree.”
In our daily lives, we step in and out of many different settings, each with its own worldview and system of knowledge. You go to work, hang out with friends from college, join online communities, call family back home, visit the doctor… As modernity fragments, these different settings increasingly do not overlap.
AS THE CULTURAL AND SOCIAL WORLDS IN WHICH WE ROOT OUR IDENTITIES SPLINTER AND DRIFT APART, OUR IDENTITIES MOVE WITH THEM.
The fragmentation of our daily lives has fragmented the communities we live in. In that village a hundred years ago, people would know you across multiple contexts, understanding you as a complex, multifaceted being. In modernity, people might only come to know specific sides of you, from within specific contexts. Thus, each small group of friends may only be able to fulfill a small slice of your personal totality.
Georg Simmel, the classical German sociologist, describes this well in his book
The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies
, “The modern type of feeling inclines more to differentiated friendships; that is, to those which have their territory only upon one side of the personality at a time, and in which the rest of the personality plays no part. … These differentiated friendships … bind us to one man from the side of sympathy, to another from the side of intellectual community, to a third on account of religious impulses, to a fourth because of common experiences.”
Berger posits that modernity’s fragmentation goes beyond social relationships, “It is important to understand that this segmentation … is not only manifest on the level of observable social conduct but also has important manifestations on the level of consciousness.”
This view of identity is consistent with the postmodern turn in social theory. As the cultural and social worlds in which we root our identities splinter and drift apart, our identities move with them. Stuart Hall, one of the founders of the field of cultural studies, writes, “The subject, previously experienced as having a unified and stable identity, is becoming fragmented; composed, not of a single, but of several, sometimes contradictory or unresolved, identities. … Identity becomes a “moveable feast”: formed and transformed continuously in relation to the ways we are represented or addressed in the cultural systems which surround us.”
“IT SHOULD NOT BE A SURPRISE THAT MODERN MAN IS AFFLICTED WITH A PERMANENT IDENTITY CRISIS” – PETER L. BERGER
Hall scoffs at the idea of a core self, writing, “If we feel we have a unified identity from birth to death, it is only because we construct a comforting story or ‘narrative of the self’ about ourselves. The fully unified, completed, secure, and coherent identity is a fantasy.”
In the end, this all leads to an existential crisis. As modern society becomes more fragmented, more complex, and more unstable and fluid, the individual turns inwards to look for consistency. The Greek aphorism “Know Thyself” is waved vigorously in our faces, as the first step to successful careers, authentic passions, fulfilling relationships, and just happiness in general.
But, as Berger writes in The Homeless Mind, “On the one hand, modern identity is open-ended, transitory, liable to ongoing change. On the other hand, a subjective realm of identity is the individual’s main foothold in reality. Something that is constantly changing is supposed to be the ens realissimum. Consequently it should not be a surprise that modern man is afflicted with a permanent identity crisis, a condition conducive to considerable nervousness.” That’s pretty bleak.
Or is it? Must our identities splinter with our social worlds? The fact that we behave differently in front of different groups of people, might not be contradictory to an integrated inner self. danah boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, protests in her MIT Master’s thesis, “These theories fail to recognize the agency of the individual to separate their internal and social identities, fragmenting only the latter without creating a crisis for the former. Suggesting that an individual is inherently fragmented and undergoing an identity crises is problematic. In a society where people play many different roles and must constantly adjust for different social contexts, their presentation may appear to be fragmented, but this does not imply that they are.”
Ultimately, the coherence of your identity may come down to your story telling skills. Our identities could be seen as self-constructed narratives that weave together the disparate events of our lives. While Hall might scoff that these narratives are ‘fantasies’ and ‘comforting stories’, as Dumbledore told Harry Potter, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Identities portrayed as such are indeed inventions, but all social institutions and systems are inventions in the same way. Being inventions though, do not mean that these institutions do not have real impacts on the people they interact with.
Additionally, it does not mean these institutions are completely within our control, or even that we create them intentionally. Through external interactions with a complex world, and the inner turmoil of our own subconscious, we can easily lose control of our identities.
IDENTITY FRAGMENTATION MIGHT NOT ACTUALLY BE THAT BIG OF A DEAL.
The reality of the situation then, probably lies somewhere between Hall and boyd. We must admit that in modernity, developing an integrated identity is increasingly difficult. As the characters and settings of our lives multiple and become more diverse, weaving a coherent narrative that reconciles all of them might be impossible. Slowly, we are all becoming Third-Culture Kids, as we are forced to straddle multiple cultures and locales. Hopefully though, depending on the skills of the story-teller, there can be varying degrees of narrative coherence.
It could also be true that identity fragmentation might not actually be that big of a deal. The generation that has grown up in this complex world is increasingly used to fragmentation and change, and more readily tolerate complexity within their worlds and within themselves. As Japanese cultural theorist Hiroki Azuma writes in his book Otaku, “The younger generations that grew up within the postmodern world image … do not need a perspective on the entire world that surveys all.” Indeed, many now embrace internal complexity and contradiction, seeing them as signs of uniqueness and maturity.
Personally, I don’t see my two divergent friend groups, and identities, as a big deal either. The two groups were born of disparate passions, in social theory and in perpetual travel, which both stem from the same root–curiosity. In my daily life, I attempt to conjoin these two passions by applying the lens of the former towards the experiences of the latter, writing articles such as
Nonetheless, Georg Simmel’s problem remains–the differentiated, specialized friendship. That in modernity, each friend may only understand and fulfill a fragment of your inner complexity. Simmel remains hopeful of the differentiated friendship’s potential, writing that it “leads ideally toward the same depths of sentiment, and to the same capacity to sacrifice, which undifferentiated epochs and persons associate only with a community of the total circumference of life.” From personal experience, I wholeheartedly agree.
Still, I sometimes wish that I knew more people who sit at the intersection between my two selves. Drop me a mail if you are a world-traveling postmodernist, would you?
For more articles on meaning, philosophy, and identity, visit David’s new blog, Living Meanings.