A few weeks ago, Rod Dreher spent a post reflecting on “From Pilgrim to Tourist- or a Short History of Identity” by Zygmunt Bauman as part of his continuing articulation of “the Benedict Option.” A made a copy of the essay and stashed is away to read later. I got to the piece a bit ago and was pleasantly surprised with what I found.
Walker Percy once said that an era, an age, is over long before the people living in it realize. And so the task for many of us today is to figure out (quite literally) what in the world is going on. Bauman begins his essay by considering a shift in the way personal identification has been constructed/discerned between the modern and postmodern periods.
From the outset, Bauman is clear that “if the modern ‘problem of identity’ was how to construct an identity and keep it solid and stable, the postmodern ‘problem of identity’ is primarily how to avoid fixation and keep the options open.” It would be the difference between “teacher for life” and “teacher for a season.” Where, though, does one’s identity come from?
This is of particular interest to me, mostly because I straddle all kinds of lines in life. I’ve now spent more time away from home than not. I am in my fourteenth year of a career that I would like to think of as a calling and vocation (though I think the concept is bigger than that). As a single guy, I have not status signifiers like husband or father, which makes things deceptively simple. And my understanding of the Christian faith means that who I am “in Christ” theoretically trumps every other form of self-identification you might find on any given survey form.
One things of identity whenever one is not sure of where one belongs; that is, one is not sure how to place oneself among the evident variety of behavioral styles and patterns, and how to make sure that people around would accept this placement as right and proper, so that both sides would know how to go on in each other’s presence. ‘Identity’ is a name given to the escape sought from that uncertainty. . . Identity entered modern mind and practice dressed from the start as an individual task. It was up to the individual to find escape from uncertainty. Not for the first and not for the last time, socially created problems were to be resolved by individual efforts, and collective maladies healed by private medicine.
I can’t help but think back to the narrative Yuval Levin traced in The Fractured Republic concerning culture and individuals moving from a consolidated “Great War” mentality to the expressive individualism that followed (and that is now in full bloom). Bauman continues:
Not that the individuals were left to their own initiative and their acumen was trusted; quite the contrary- putting the individual responsibility for self-formation on the agenda spawned the host of trainers, coaches, teachers, counsellors and guides all claiming to hold superior knowledge of what identities could be acquired and held. The concepts of identity-building and of a culture (that is, of the idea of the individual incompetence, of the need of the collective breeding and of the importance of skillful and knowledgeable breeders) were and could only be born together. The “disembedded” identity simultaneously ushered in the individual’s freedom of choice and the individual’s dependency on expert guidance.
The talk of identity is groundwork laid for the better task of Bauman’s essay, which takes the image of the pilgrim and rethinks it in light of the postmodern question. More on that tomorrow.
(image of the Camino de Santiago from inquisitr.com)