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.

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16 responses to “Identities in Crisis”

  1. InfiniteWarrior says :

    The real clash of civilisations…is not between different areas of the earth (a space-biased and space-oriented thinking), but between different eras of time, past and future.

    It’s not solely between times, however. There is also the aforementioned struggle between interior and exterior. I believe the problem there is that, while the true definition of “exterior” is not “other,” far too many of us believe it is.

    Rosenstock, Gebser, Almaas and other contemporary authors focus strongly on the aspect of time (and the eternal now) because it’s been utterly neglected in favor of spatially-oriented thinking and action. That it has been so neglected, however, doesn’t mean we that we can now ignore the spatial altogether.

    This conflict is not only social, it is also intellectual and psychic.

    Though, again, not solely intellectual and psychic. The terms in which I’ve cast the interior-exterior struggle in the past is between the heart and the mind. A perfect example of this is what’s happening beneath the irresolvable “science vs religion” debates. Such debates (along with all others as far as I can tell) are purely intellectual and symptomatic of exactly what you describe, but beneath that surface are the hearts of these disciplines, struggling mightily to be heard over their respective “heads,” the supposed “leaders.”

    The trouble in certain religious circles is not that the religions incapable of serving their communities’ needs. It’s that their leaders have placed all their emphasis on the heart to the exclusion of the mind (and body, in some cases). The trouble in science is precisely the reverse.

    The same is true of nations. Governments most decidely do not represent their peoples, but the two are all too often equated in the mind.

    More than ever before, I feel that if people were paying more attention to the patterns and movements occurring below the surface, the story unfolding before us would be much less dark and foreboding than it appears.

    That pall of darkness must be disspelled if humanity is to “progress.” To focus on it — especially exclusively — would be a mistake, lending it even more power than it already has, much less deserves.

    • amothman33 says :

      It is is not a question of time or space, nor it is a question of psyche or intellect, heart or mind. It is a struggle, ever since the begining, between those who have faith in goodness and those who are badly oriented. We are so programmed that somr are faithfull and some are faithless. History is filled with the stories of this struggle. The end result is always for the faithful to win . We need not be in haste, The question is who stick to the end.

    • Scott says :

      “It’s not solely between times, however”

      Nothing much is ever a question about “solely”, but about “emphatically”.

      Also, the dimension of whatever conflict currently exists between science and religion also highlights the time element of future and past, rather than that of objectivity and subjectivity, respectively. Religion becomes perverse when it comes to think of itself as ideology, or as a narrative discourse competing with science — as an objective accounting of reality.

      The time element, here, takes note of the truths of the mythic narrative represented in religion (the mythical structure of consciousness), but not confusing this with the indicative character of scientific discourse (mental-rational structure of consciousness), which is a later development.

      The perversity of much fundamentalism is that it is actually Newtonian in orientation, and is a confused mishmash of the mental-rational and the mythical (and even magical) orientations, for a) thinking of itself as an ideology and b) as an objectively oriented perspective and narrative competing with science.

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        the dimension of whatever conflict currently exists between science and religion also highlights the time element of future and past, rather than that of objectivity and subjectivity, respectively. Religion becomes perverse when it comes to think of itself…as an objective accounting of reality

        And science becomes perverse when it comes to think of itself as a subjective accounting of reality. Precisely my point. The subjective and objective (in both senses of the term) are as much at odds as the future and past elements of time. And what’s ignored? Here and now.

        • Scott says :

          Rather, when it comes to think of itself as also accounting for subjective reality.

        • InfiniteWarrior says :

          Rather, when it comes to think of itself as also accounting for subjective reality.

          I meant what I said.

          There is one (whole) Reality. Subject and object are aspects — a useful distinction, but otherwise useless. Religion and Science are narratives. Science becomes perverse when it comes to think of itself as a subjective accounting of reality.

    • Scott says :

      I should add to the foregoing reply, that by choosing the word “emphatically” rather than “solely”, we are highlighting that “co-present” character of all Gebser’s structures of consciousness — the archaic, magical, mythical, mental-rational, integral — in various degrees of emphasis or articulation, which becomes defining of the character of the civilisation where they are most active or emphatic.

      Consider… it may be a moot point whether religious fundamentalism attempted to emulate scientific reductionism in attempting to base itself upon a few axiomatic and irreducible principles. In any event, when you begin to examine them from an integral view, they reflect each other and share far more in common with each other than they think — the mental-rational structure of consciousness, and that is the stamp of their character. Religious fundamentalism is Newtonian.

      It is, therefore, a contentious point whether we can get scientific reductionists and religious fundamentalists to recognise their close identity, mediated through a shared structure of consciousness — the perspectival, the analytical, the abstractly dialectical and ideological, and the mental-rational. For them to actually recognise their kinship, they would have to activate the integral and holistic, which they refuse to do. This is what gives them the character of being “reactionary”. The integral mode is the irruption of the future within the present, and the present is still defined largely by its commitment to the mental-rational values and the narrowly perspectival mode of perception. In fact, the “narrowly perspectivist” mode is why things like fundamentalism and reductionism come about in the first place.

  2. amothman33 says :

    when the real internal foe is turned into an external foe crisis sets.Let us not waste our time in these mrental deranged fabrications. It is honest faith that saves.The cosmos joins those who are seeking truth for change.Silence the thinking machine, let the spirit inside speaks

    • Scott says :

      “Silence the thinking machine” and “badly oriented”…. two great phrases, amo. Thanks. Taken together, they are precisely the thing that Jean Gebser wrote in a poem as a young man

      “We always lose our way/when overtaken by thinking…”

      Maybe “overtaken” could have been better rendered as “overrun” (but I don’t have the original German poem).

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      Silence the thinking machine, let the spirit inside speak

      Reminded me of a quote someone posted yesterday:

      Open the window in the center of your chest,
      and let the spirits fly in and out.
      ~ Rumi

  3. amothman33 says :

    Let me add that those who divert the attention of the people to the external enemy, actually they want to cover themselves from being scrutnized. The Assange story is a case in point.

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