Oh baby, now
You’re such a drag
– Plastic People, Frank Zappa. 1967
Think about how you can turn your activity into something liquid. Liquids flow, they fill all available spaces, they adapt to the shapes of the environment.
– We’re Going To Be Living In A Liquid World, Enrique Dans
For our culture is one marked by plastic people who believe they can make and remake themselves at will; and by a liquid world in which, to borrow a phrase from Karl Marx, all that is solid seems continually to melt into air.
Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, by Carl R. Trueman
Trueman’s story thus far: the major contours of the modern self include: the emphasis of the authority of our inner feelings; the centrality of sexual desire in this; the personal is political; various cultural and technological factors have served to promote all of the above.
Some general concepts that will better provide a framework for understanding:
The first is the nature of personhood; the second is the politics of recognition; and the third is the power of imagined communities.
These will help us better understand the distinctive nature of the culture in which we now find ourselves – ranging from a culture of identity politics and the rights of the diverse alphabet gender soup to the growing impatience toward the niceties of the freedoms of religion and speech.
What is a person: the chemicals constituting my body and the genetic code that provides my nature make clear what I am. But they are not who I am. To be a person is to be something more, someone in a particular place and time. It is to consider my life and the people, places, actions and events that have shaped my sense of identity.
We all like to assume that our identity is a monologue. After all, we feel intuitively free. Our lives are full of decisions we have made.
Not so fast. Yes, we are intentional creatures. But we also act in dialogue with our surroundings. To be born in France in the eighteenth century as opposed to England today, or China a thousand years ago. In each case, vastly different “persons,” shaped by the story in which they live.
Our intentional decisions are made in societies that provide the means by which our actions have meaning. How often do our intentional decisions result in our conforming to the society around us? Even the most radical among us all show up at Woodstock doing the same things, wearing the same clothes (or not), listening to the same music. We wish to be free; we also wish to belong.
The teenager who wants to express her freedom does so by wearing the uniform of the group to which she wishes to belong.
Which brings us to the politics of recognition: by recognition, Trueman means the recognition given to us in the act of belonging to a community by having our identity as part of the community recognized.
Societies as a whole have frameworks for recognition. We might call this their ethical structure: the set of cultural standards and expectations to which individuals need to conform in order to be considered full members of a particular society or community.
Refusal to conform to such norms leads to a refusal of full membership in the society. Jonathan Pageau has commented on this notion when examining a talk given by Tim Cook of Apple. Cook is describing the system of today – the one being examined by Trueman. But where Trueman sees vice and harm, Cook sees virtue and glory.
The system described by Cook will have perfect inclusion; you cannot question this system. Everything is to be included, nothing is to be excluded. Unless you reject this system – then you will be excluded. Everything is to be allowed…except for questioning that everything should be allowed. The only sin is to not accept this system. This is the 666 notion, per Pageau: you cannot question this system, else you can be fully excluded from the public space – including the ability to buy and sell.
Returning to Trueman: all such systems of recognition have those who are included and those who are excluded. The nation-state requires acting in accordance with principles of patriotism; the family has expectations of behavior from the children; the church offers excommunication for those who do not conform. The traitor, the delinquent child, the heretic: each are denied recognition because each has acted outside the accepted norms and moral framework of the respective communities.
[This is why] tolerance was never going to be enough for the LGBTQ+ community and why cake bakers and florists who refuse to serve gay weddings have so easily been turned into villains by the wider culture.
And here Trueman offers what I think is a brilliant insight: tolerance isn’t enough. There must be recognition – and recognition requires acceptance and participation.
Finally, Trueman comes to the idea of imagined communities: even the idea of nation-state is an imagined community – something in the imagination provides a coherent identity. Only in the smallest principalities will the population know enough of their polity such that they don’t have to “imagine” themselves in community.
Instead, it is a national narrative that holds the nation together. While knowing only a handful of the polity, the narrative binds strangers into a nation.
What happens when the narratives that provide us with our traditional identities lose their authority and become highly contested? …If the perennial need to belong persists, where do human beings find that “belonging” in a world where the traditional forms of such belonging are no longer plausible…?
Trueman see that in the way the technology of the pill undermined traditional sexual codes, then the technology of the internet helped to weaken traditional narratives.
Which brings me to a couple of thoughts that I have had regarding this notion. First, if the traditional narratives were built on a firm factual basis, they would not have been so easily overrun by technology. For example, every national narrative is built on some mixture of fact and myth (and the line between the two is a blurry one). But when the national narrative is built on lies and myth, it easily crumbles when the light of a thousand bloggers is set upon it.
Second, I recall this idea that the internet was our version of the Gutenberg Press. Yes, Gutenberg ushered in great advancements for society. His press also tore apart the previous narrative in Western Europe (which, unfortunately, was also built on a few lies of its own), and following this came the wars of state-building (falsely labeled wars of religion). Not a good sign for our generation and our near future.
Returning to Trueman: where national narratives once brought unity, they now have become battle zones. And in this battle, like in all wars, truth is the first casualty. If the objective truth of sex and gender is plastic, then there is no such thing as truth. Period. To confront this enemy with truth is pointless, because there is no such thing as truth.
The remaining unifying narrative – the one that Tim Cook wishes for the rest of us – is the narrative that we each have the power to choose our individual identity.
Which then comes back to recognition. The narratives have devolved to those of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. Each one as malleable and divisible as plastic. And this is why the social justice narrative sees systemic racism in every established institution: it is because the established institutions are constructed around a different understanding of identity.
That last sentence is worth a couple of readings.
And, in my opinion, this is why Christianity and the Church is the most important institution to destroy. The unifying message of Christ and our identity in Him is precisely the opposite of the narrative of today’s social justice and our identities in…ourselves. Each of us our own yardstick by which we measure ourselves.
It is regularly said throughout history: we are living in unprecedented times. But this time it might really be the case. We live at a time when the very issue of identity is unstable, volatile, and highly contentious. Trueman offers that it is two things that make our current moment singularly challenging:
These two things are the plastic conception of human identity to which expressive individualism tilts; and the liquification of the world around us with regard to the traditional frameworks (national, religious, familial, geographical, even physiological) by which human beings have previously defined themselves.
Today, the self is entirely plastic, and the external world – right down to our bodies – is liquid.
Or, as offered by Jean-Paul Sartre, man is condemned to be free. This has come to pass via the high levels of depression and suicide in the plastic, liquid, free west.
Do you think covid had nothing to do with this, that the timing is mere coincidence?
If one thing is clear from observing the highly disruptive impact COVID-19, it’s that we are heading toward a liquid world, one characterized by the virtues of flexibility, versatility and resilience.
– We’re Going To Be Living In A Liquid World, Enrique Dans, May 25, 2020
And more from Zappa:
Take a day
And walk around
Watch the nazis
Run your town
Then go home
And check yourself
You think we’re singing
‘Bout someone else . . . but you’re
. . . Plastic people!
One would have to call Frank Zappa prescient.
Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.