Identity: Make It, Don’t Buy It

Gender, Race and what it means to be human are being questioned. Don’t let suits dictate the answers.

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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.

Dunkirk: Abandon War

“You must imagine you are securely tied to a post, being menaced by a man swinging a heavy hammer” Ernst Jünger, a famed German lieutenant from WW1 wrote. “Now it’s cleaving the air towards you, on the point of touching your skull, then it’s struck the post and the splinters are flying – that’s what it is like to experience heavy shelling in an exposed position”.

The concept of shell shock was new to the world in 1918. Society had never experienced war to this degree, what was ‘the great war’ was vowed to never happen again. Now it is 2017, and we have since witnessed waves of depression and PTSD wash over our soldiers. These traumas have been internalised, and what once was horror is for many a macabre cliché, and in Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan revisits these tropes and jabs at the conscience of any who valorise these clichés.

The central question posed by the film is simple: how can it be worth it? Nolan accepts the beauty of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ of mutual aid that history has thus far highlighted in its accounts of the three days of evacuation. Thousands of civilians sailed into war to rescue their nation’s sons; more than 300,000 of them.

Nolan requires the audience of Dunkirk to reconsider the tales their father passed on to them of the heroism of battle. The courage and bravery of all involved should not be discredited, but it shouldn’t be overstated either, here we are told to forgive the heroes that turned to cowardice as we are reminded that war is a machine designed to break men. From the very first scenes of the film, we are taught to fear what is to come (although we already know the events of Dunkirk, Nolan places us in a very claustrophobic world). Hans Zimmer’s score is the engine of the film, it maintains the momentum, and its constant ticking percussion is designed to make us feel as if time is running out.

We follow three young Privates as they flee for their lives, we see them rescue an injured man on the beach, to be denied a ride home on the first line of transport. Nolan creates a nightmare when a U-boat sinks their second attempt at escape. We see darkness and hear only struggle, screams, sobs.

As we follow the Privates we see good intentions devolve into cowardice, strong men leave people behind, and the Dunkirk Spirit is nowhere to be found. The escape from land is a Lynchian realm of fear. The German menace is here a spectre: we never see their face, only the machines they operate. This fear is manifested in Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of a shell-shocked survivor of a U-boat encounter. He is found, stranded in the English Channel by a civilian rescuer, his son and a teenage crew member named George.

 

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Cillian Murphy: Shellshocked and Manic

Here Cillian Murphy Channels Ernst Jünger’s cowering victim, every disturbance is a hammer. Here the character’s path diverges from the usual trope. There is no patronising sentiment regarding how we should support our veterans, Murphy’s character is manic, and we both fear and pity him. The crux of this arrives when he strikes down George in a panic, blinding him and eventually killing the boy. Often directors use this character to construct a context of care, of an obligation to assist. But Murphy’s character is alone, floating in a dissociative misery, and the consequences of trauma are bared naked.

 

The only character arc that resembles the classic Hollywood approach to war is a spitfire pilot played by Tom Hardy. We see him valiantly fight off a bomber and save hundreds of lives, all while running out of fuel and flying alone. But as the film progresses we see his fate as it was for thousands of heroes in the war: in a pivotal final scene we see his plane burning, and as he stands alone with no gratification for his heroism, the silhouettes of hostile Nazis surround him, guns toted.

Our tendency to valorize war often stems from a curiosity towards the evolutionary instincts of man to survive. The post-modern man fetishises tales of heroic survival to the degree where they forget the contextual tragedy that needs to underpin every one of these tales: that they should never have happened in the first place.

Of course, this curiosity is natural, we are animals, we will die, and those who have already confronted this proposition appear to hold wisdom regarding life and death. Perhaps the violent context of war needs to naturally be repressed for society to collectively function without an overwhelming burden of guilt. But this curiosity requires transference; it needs to be directed towards a greater narrative of peace.

War is the state of the world as it is now, but peace is the goal we ought to achieve. The men and women that have shaped our society all espouse this belief. Thomas Hobbes famously declared the natural state of man to be a state of war, order and planning had helped tame the interpersonal war mankind waged before it was subjected to the rule of law, government, and later on further developments such as the democratic process.

Hegel too purports an abolition of interpersonal violence. In his philosophy of history, he declares that all events that have passed, and what are yet to come, are part of a historical process towards the ultimate freedom of people. Freedom itself is a contentious word, but we can understand that an incredible barrier to freedom is the threat of violence from others. When disagreements between nations result in organised violence, we are slowing the progress of humanity towards our ultimate goals.

On the beaches of Dunkirk, men are portrayed as helpless beasts in a dangerous and primitive place. We leap backwards in time to Hobbes’ state of war. Men remain silent and alone, and the social element of humanity is absent (which has been the main complaint from film critics). Our social capacity is by far humanities greatest asset and is why we have evolved so successfully. Our ability to co-operate and engage in mutual aid is what has accelerated change, and as that capacity expands so too does our ability to flourish on this planet. The information revolution, despite its growing pains, is allowing cooperation on the greatest scale ever seen. We are evolving faster than ever.

Dunkirk is a significant change in direction, as cultural production is what dictates our desires as a society. For too long our culture has almost exclusively produced apologist pieces for war. And part of the reason for this is that we must respect and remember the men who died at war, but Nolan reminds us that they should never have been there in the first place and that the years of violence and atrocities are a stain on what will be the long span of human history.

Some reviews have stated that Dunkirk lacks context, an emotional core, a reason to care. But this misses the point; Dunkirk is an anti-war film par excellence. It completely disregards any interest in war, it shows the bravery of humans to be muted in the face of violence and is a major turning point in building a culture that is intolerant of the horrors of war.