Saturday, 28 February 2009

893 - Guy Aged Fifteen On The Metro...

...was talking to a couple of friends, and said, "I'm an 'ist'... everything I do is an 'ist'." Then he paused and had a thought, which he sounded out with the others. "That makes me a rapist!" he said.

At the time, I was reading Susan Greenfield's book, i.d. - about the way (possibly) that our sense of identity is changing in the 21st Century. A very pertinent, but very highly-strung book, I'm thinking.

Here's what I had just read:

"If the Seven Deadly Sins are the behaviours through which we each establish our unique identity, it follows that in contemporary societies, where the individual identity is encouraged, the significance and dread of sin are greatly diminished. Conversely, such behaviours would have been, and sometimes still are, perceived as undesirable, 'deadly' indeed, in societies where, and at times when, the significance and nurturing of individual identity were, or are, not paramount, as in fundamentalist societies." (p.153)

I don't want to comment on the validity or otherwise of Greenfield's argument, not yet. I've not read it in full, and the book is controversial. My gut feeling is that any theory which starts by isolating an issue, like identity, from its context, such as a developing cultural trajectory, runs the risk of introducing dichotomies into the resulting analysis, and rendering the organic inorganic (not in itself a particularly original thought!).

But here are some commonalities between the event and the text, as they strike me.

The teenager was concerned with his identity. He felt trapped by his attempts to define himself. Everything had already a word to define it. However he chose to act, it would be fitting a pre-existing expectation pressed upon him by the world around him. He did not want this, which is why, exasperated, he sought the humour in it.

Greenfield has proposed two poles by which identity is defined. The first is individualist, modern, Western. The second is communal, traditional, fundamentalist. The poles are such that what is 'sinful' to one is the acme of identity to the other. She is proposing a moment in Western culture whereby the individualist pole is no longer obviously in the ascendent. The propensity to polarise is itself part of the Modernist identity - part of the 'ist'-ifying identity of which the teenager is making fun.

The teenager jokes that he is even a rapist. He is obviously not a rapist, but again, the joke reveals an insecurity. Listening in, it occurs to me that the way he declares this deduction, twice over, and to an awkward response from his girl friends, which he doesn't handle brilliantly (and why, at fifteen, should he?), suggests he is not happy with pressures either to over- or under- sexualise his identity. Also that there may indeed be something in the way Greenfield, avoiding theology, nevertheless links identity formation to concepts of sin and the structure of societies.

It occurred to me, because I share the guy's awkwardness with labels, that when I reject a label violently, I am being 'ist'-ist. Because of this:

The tail end of Modernism, which, from one perspective, is about atomising the world into its barest components, culturally as well as scientifically, has been left holding a mass of isolated data-units. Every data-unit, or word, has become an 'ist', simple because we've analysed the big 'ists', like Fascism or Marxism, into their smallest constituent parts. No wonder we have become so sensitized to the use of language.

And therefore, perhaps political correctness can be redefined as an aversion to some of these mini-'ists'? As sexism is the arbitrary favouring of one sex over another, political correctness (and its reactive opposite) is the favouring of one arbitrary set of words over another. The mindset sets words against each other. Our culture has become labelist, verb-ist, identity-ist.

The teenage guy gets this. As in the sixties the great civil rights movement was against racism, perhaps what we are seeing now is the birth of a civil rights movement against ist-ism. Against any attempt to pit identity against identity. Or the labelled against the unlabelled. And because it deals with labels, it embraces every single civil-rights movement that has gone before.

I think this is more important, the more I think about it. I think this is very important indeed. I feel as I close this post that I am onto something big.


hectoria said...

Very interesting overheard conversation Steve.We all have to decide what labels we want to embrace.Most of us want to share but also be an individual. The labels in the blogging culture enable us to see other's opinions of things that we want to share. and enables us to look at a distance before we make full commitment. That's not cowardic but a useful tool to those of us who take time to decide.

Steve Lancaster said...

I agree, Hectoria.

There's a lot said about screen-life enabling us to live at one remove from reality.

I prefer your way of thinking - not cowardice at all, but another new tool.