Identities in Crisis
It seems that very many people are experiencing a crisis of identity in our post-modern world, a crisis that comes to be felt and expressed in terms of anxiety, Angst, and paranoia about the self and its relations to the world. What is under stress and in distress, though, is only the self-image. The anxiety arises only because we try to cling to a notion and clutch at an image of self which is no longer tenable, or even comfortable for having become anachronistic.
I have to thank Mr. Samuel Huntington for that insight. The author of The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, and promoter of “the clash of civilisations” as a substitute for the good old days of the Cold War, inadvertently provided me with my first real insight into the meaning of human narcissism when he lamented that the collapse of the USSR had also left him (not just Russians) bereft of a sense of purpose, meaning, and identity. The “peace scare” had arrived. Americans, Mr. Huntington mused, (and not just Americans, one concludes) needed a new evil enemy through and against which to define themselves and their identity as the morally good. The commies had served that purpose very nicely.
But, alas, now the commie/pinko/fags were gone and all the old moral and political horizons had been suddenly and surprisingly wiped away (along with a lot of Cold War budgets and positions which had become redundant after 1989). And to top it off, along came Mr. Fukuyama’s absurd, triumphalist announcement of “the end of history” to even outdo Mr. Nietzsche’s “death of God.” This did not sit well with Mr. Huntington, and he told Mr. Fukuyama so. No. We need new enemies. We need a new “clash of civilisations” — a broad, planetary-wide culture war.
No one, apparently, thought about a broad planetary-wide dialogue about values. Probably because there was no money in it.
Meanwhile, in another part of the Conservative Universe, Mr. Osama bin Laden and his associates were feeling and reasoning in exactly the same way. The Ummah was in crisis in the East just as “Christendom” was in crisis in the West. They were tailor-made for each other — soul-mates for a new dance of the deranged dialectic. And they sought each other out.
If that strikes you as absurd — possibly insane — you’re probably not far wrong. The reasoning behind it is cunning. But its success as a new formula for a “clash of civilisations” rests upon one fundamental pillar — that human beings are narcissistic and need an evil other against which, and through which, to define themselves and their identity. It’s what they call a “co-dependent relationship”. But it is realised and modeled upon that abstract dualistic dialectics of thesis and anti-thesis that historian Jean Gebser declared to have now become “deficient rationality” and evidence of the breakdown of “the mental-rational structure of consciousness”.
In other words, post-modern, post-Enlightenment.
The “clash of civilisations” (which the terrorist Mr. Anders Breivik also wanted to helpfully push along) is not an adequate response to the new planetary era, however. It rests on dubious assumptions that were barely relevant in the past and only for a certain historical period. That period called “Modern Era” passed away with the First World War. For this reason, it is a reactionary response to our changed historical circumstances. The mind, unable to adequately master its new historical circumstances because it lacks the necessary tools adequate to the task, reverts to using old tools. Suddenly, a permanent state of “crisis management” has become the chief order of the day, and that is because the assumptions and premisses of the Modern Era, and the real requirements of the Planetary Era, are in conflict.
The real clash of civilisations, which Mr. Huntington and his conservative colleagues don’t understand, is not between different areas of the earth (a space-biased and space-oriented thinking), but between different eras of time, past and future. This conflict is not only social, it is also intellectual and psychic. It brings about a real Jekyll and Hyde situation. It is not only what I have referred to earlier as a “crisis of consciousness,” it is also a crisis of historical identity.
That we are really dealing with a conflict of times, and not geo-political spaces, and therefore with a crisis of identity, is indicated by the propensity these days to preface all older terms with the prefix “neo-“. We have “neo-conservatism,” “neo-liberalism,” “neo-Marxism,” “neo-socialism,” and even “neo-fascism”. These are indications of identities in struggle and crisis, attempting to retain old relevancy, legitimacy, and identity in the face of the new Era presently in formation. They are also indicative of the mind of “deficient rationality” trying to attain mastery over the new circumstances by reverting to earlier modes and habits of perception that are of questionable use or no longer adequate. It’s just like jetlag, in some ways. Basically, as Shakespeare put it, “the times are out of joint.”
All these deficient perspectives are only self-images and self-concepts. We become narcissistic, though, when we define ourselves through these self-images and self-concepts as if they were the very essence and nature of what we are. But ideology is not consciousness. It is even the contrary of that, being more like a computer programme (or a god) that animates the human machine so that it hops around this way or that way. Ideology is also unstable, especially during times of rapid change, and this is felt as anxiety about the self and its security, and as a crisis of identity.
The solution Jesus proposed as cure for the narcissistic delusion was to “die to oneself daily.” It seems like a superhuman task (and it is. It belongs to Nietzsche’s “transhuman” self-overcoming). The narcissist goes in the opposite direction from this, attempting to find some permanent and even immortal thing or image in which to invest his or her identity absolutely. This is called “idolatry.” And there isn’t really anything to distinguish narcissism from idolatry. One great big idol that serves this purpose is the nation-state. Another great big idol that serves this purpose is race.
And, of course, in the Planetary Era, these are the very things that are coming under stress.
In times of great stress, like today, people of faith often have greater resilience than “worldly” people (and by “people of faith” I don’t necessarily mean “religion,” which can also be a great big narcissistic idol). People who feel that their identities are a “gift of God”, and not of the nation-state idol or the race idol, have no reason to feel their sense of individuality and true identity threatened by change or even mortality.
It is important to emphasise that faith is not belief. Belief belongs to ideology and not to faith. Faith and ideology have nothing to do with one another, and even “God” can be a great big idol if simply an idea or concept in the mind, or just another narcissistic self-image writ large and grandiose. Faith has nothing to do with thinking, which is why so many spiritual practices even seek to suspend thinking through meditation or contemplation. That’s what dying to oneself daily refers to. And it is well-known that the hardiest and most enduring Jews in the Nazi concentration camps were those who knew that their very Being came from God and from nowhere else, and is even the very thing that we call “God” itself. Faith really has nothing to do with religion at all.
It is a “faithless” age, in that sense, that resorts to reactionary politics and violence. Many people have crippled themselves for any true spiritual life or understanding by confusing faith with ideology or belief systems. Faith is the power that bears us like a ship upon uncharted seas and into an unknown future. The key link between faith and future was given by Jesus in Luke 12:22:
“Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on.
The life is more than meat, and the body is more than rainment…
And which of you, by taking thought, can add to his stature one cubit?….
Thoughts, too, can be idols and devils of the mind. And identities (the ego-nature) which are merely thought constructs have no more reality than Narcissus’s own image in the reflecting pool which captured his mind and destroyed his body. To fall under the spell — the fascinum — of the ego-idol is narcissism, and sometimes it seizes hold of entire peoples and nations.
And that is the story of Mr. Breivik’s reactionary pathological narcissism, too.