What a confusing period the average punter is going through. Politics is going down a different path in 2017, one that will alter the concept of identity forever. “Identity politics” (everyone has their definition of this) has enraptured both the left, and the right side of politics and fundamental concepts of human history: gender, sexuality and race are being questioned in a way never seen before.
Regardless of your stance on these issues, the world is responding to their questioning, and travelling into uncharted territories, and the identities we grew up with are facing an uncertain future. The most contentious area today in the sliding roles of gender, which will continue to change as history progresses. This begs the question, ‘what will happen to our identities?’ A question not only on the lips of people seeking to genuinely assert a grounds for existence but also from this who would try to profit from the confused and displaced.
Gender, race, sexuality; their perception and integration into society are dictated by the social conditions and ideological beliefs of any given society. Alain Badiou’s latest offering muses on “the end of gender” and questions how we can adapt to a society that desires to move onto newer forms of identity.
Perhaps Badiou is suggesting the end of gender as we know it, but even this is a daunting thing. What is left is a void which must be filled, how it is filled is up to the individual.
What is suggested is a turn to ‘the true life’ which uses Badiou’s set of truth principles (I wrote about the ethics of truth here https://therestissilencesite.wordpress.com/2017/04/27/a-fidelity-to-what/) to give life a prescriptive order to pursue a good cause: an honourable blueprint for 21st-century chivalry. In other words, who you are is constructed by the good that you do.
There are many problems with this. Firstly, Badiou’s system of ethics is obscure and unknown to most of the world, and what it requires of the individual is hard (this applies to any way of ‘living the good life’). It requires people to reject a passive life and carve something out for everyone’s gain; the good life has many barriers to entry.
The second problem is much harder to reconcile. The good life is immensely difficult to achieve; we are constantly distracted by those that wish to take advantage of us. Companies and financial institutions all compete for your space in the attention economy and go to great lengths in order to make our lives fit their agenda.
Genuine identities are free; they are based on action and virtue of character and take time to develop out of a culture. They benefit many and spread their profits amongst many. This directly contradicts the corporate philosophy where benefit must be concentrated, and an open solution earns no one, in particular, any money.
This makes constructing new identities very difficult. The current set of accessible identities have arisen out of the historical process, and are built up from cultural influences (this is not to say that they are perfect). A void in identity leaves space for new identities to be constructed in genuine ways, yet it also opens up the most vulnerable to predatory corporatism.
Companies trying to sell an identity is hardly a new thing. We have ‘the American dream’ with all its failures of materialistic tendencies. Films and television shows like Mad Men show us that this identity based on possessions cannot assimilate into human life, it is a hollow way of existing.
Alienation is the only result of this, as was pointed out by Marx; an identity based on material possessions is the embodiment of the relationship between people being reduced to a relationship between things.
Let’s take masculinity as a case study. While it is near impossible to give it a concise definition, we can point out sliding cultural tendencies that indicate a change in social identity. Stereotypes of men until recently focussed on a lack of care for grooming, clothing, shopping and even personal hygiene. Increasingly we are seeing men participate in these areas, particularly shopping.
Mark Simpson, the man who coined the term ‘Metrosexual’ in 1994 stated that they would be ‘the most promising consumer market of the decade’. Now in 2017, the global market for men’s fashion has experienced a higher nominal growth rate than the women’s market for the first time in history. The Financial review themselves stated, “where once the metrosexual was mocked as a pretty peacock, today he is being hailed as the salvation of the retail economy.”
The commodification of Identity is already underway, and symptoms like the story of men’s fashion increasingly lean towards a conception of people as what they buy, and identity as purchasable.
Furthermore, our current ideological circumstances don’t place the blame on companies or any external forces at all. We saw the birth of ‘the Hipster’ (who everyone loved to hate), a social identity that was entirely based on material possessions. The blame often falls on the individual here, poor taste is often criticised, yet corporate interests are often the mould from which these poor people are cast. The outrage and subsequent passivity directed towards the hipster represented our initial rejection and subsequent timid acceptance towards an artificial identity.
This is all too often a direct result of a society that is open to relentless marketing. Hipsters are the product of the fashion industry; the indebted are the product of relentless credit card and loan marketing. Our capacity to ‘say no’ withers as we are relentlessly pursued by those who wish to profit from us, yet ultimately society deems it that we are to blame.
The ‘identity market’ is booming, and the void that is opening up in identity will be filled with hollow, empty promises that we must reject. We must find our own ways of constructing who we are so that we may at least attempt to live a good life.