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« RE: The Fear of Being Fooled | Main | A New Kind of Church »

September 27, 2006

Identity--Critiquing Modern and Postmodern Notions

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called The Self: Beyond the Postmodern Crisis. It’s a compilation of authors all adding their own voices to the notion of the self. Paul Vitz, one of the editors ,begins with a brief history of the notion of self, or identity. Descartes first popularized the idea of personhood as an autonomous notion. The selfhood of the modern age can be summed up in “I think therefore I am.” It is not interested in the self in relation to the other. The postmodern self on the other hand is “no longer coherent and integrated. It is a self without a center...” It is polyvocal (having many voices depending on the environment we find ourselves in); it is plastic (continually re-presenting itself), and it is transient. (pp. XIII-XIV). Citing postmodern psychologist Philip Cushman, Vitz documents how the concept of self has shifted:

A hundred years ago people still lived in small towns or on farms where they had reliable traditional family lives. Everybody knew who the Smiths were: they had lived in Elmwood for three generations…People knew one’s uncles and aunts, the quirks and characteristics of one’s family. Because of the stability of interpersonal relationships, there was a stability to the self as well. But as we moved into the modern city, we lost that stability, and the self become empty. In the city, nobody knew who the Smiths were, they didn’t know where Elmtown was, and people couldn’t talk about their family: it had no meaning to other people. In this environment, we began to search for a new identity….

Increasingly, what filled that void was a new identity formed through consumerism. The image branding of the modern age has become a new identity currency in which we trade. But the consumer self is constantly a dis-satisified self, since consumerism continually creates new wants. (This fits in with my post yesterday and with Albert Hsu’s new book The Suburban Christian where he also critiques and offers practical advice for living in such a culture.) The other notion of self that became popular was a therapeutic self. “Psychology gave us a self because we discovered who our family was and what our early childhood experiences…[it] gives us an indentity constructed from our own, often painful, childhood and family memories. This identity is largely negative.”

What I like so far about the book The Self: Beyond the Postmodern Crisis is that all of these notions are critiqued. And there is the exploration of what it would mean to look beyond modern and postmodern conceptions, to the Bible, for how we should even begin to think about the notion of selfhood. But more on that later…

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