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Why modernity and personal identity?

Transformations in self-identity and globalisation, I want to propose, are the two poles of the dialectic of the local and the global in conditions of high modernity. Changes in intimate aspects of personal life, in other words, are directly tied to the establishment of social connections of very wide scope. I do not mean to deny the existence of many kinds of more intermediate connections -- between, for example, localities and state organisations. But the level of time-space distanciation introduced by high modernity is so extensive that, for the first time in human history, `self' and `society' are interrelated in a global milieu.

Various factors, in circumstances of high modernity, directly influence the relation between self-identity and modern institutions. As has been stressed in the preceding pages, modernity introduces an elemental dynamism into human affairs, associated with changes in trust mechanisms and in risk environments. I do not think it is true that, as some have suggested, the modern age is specifically one of high anxiety, as contrasted to preceding eras. Anxieties and insecurities have plagued other ages besides ours, and there is probably little justification for the assumption sometimes made that life in smaller, more traditional cultures had a more even tenor than that of today. But the content and form of prevalent anxieties certainly have become altered.

The reflexivity of modernity extends into the core of the self. Put in another way, in the context of a post-traditional order, the self becomes a reflexive project. Transitions in individuals' lives

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have always demanded psychic reorganisation, something which was often ritualised in traditional cultures in the shape of rites de passage. But in such cultures, where things stayed more or less the same from generation to generation on the level of the collectivity, the changed identity was clearly staked out -- as when an individual moved from adolescence into adulthood. In the settings of modernity, by contrast, the altered self has to be explored and constructed as part of a reflexive process of connecting personal and social change. This is a clear emphasis in Wallerstein and Blakeslee's study, and their work is not only a document about such a process, but also a constitutive contribution to it. The `new sense of self' which, as they say, an individual has to cultivate after marital separation, is built as part of a process of pioneering innovative social forms, such as those involved in modern step-parenting (the very term `parenting' is a relatively recent invention, helping to constitute what it now describes). The process of `reaching back to one's early experiences' which Wallerstein and Blakeslee analyse is precisely part of a reflexive mobilising of self-identity; it is not confined to life's crises, but a general feature of modern social activity in relation to psychic organisation.

In such circumstances, abstract systems become centrally involved not only in the institutional order of modernity but also in the formation and continuity of the self. The early socialisation of children, for example, tends increasingly to depend on the advice and instruction of experts (paediatricians and educators), rather than on the direct initiation of one generation by another -- and this advice and instruction is itself reflexively responsive to research in process. As academic disciplines, sociology and psychology are thus bound up in a direct way with the reflexivity of the self. Yet the most distinctive connection between abstract systems and the self is to be found in the rise of modes of therapy and counselling of all kinds. One way of interpreting the development of therapy is in purely negative fashion, as a response to the debilitating effects of modern institutions on self-experience and the emotions. Modernity, it might be said, breaks down the protective framework of the small community and of tradition, replacing these with much larger, impersonal organisations. The individual feels bereft and alone in a world in which she or he lacks the psychological supports and the sense of security provided



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by more traditional settings. Therapy offers someone to turn to, a secular version of the confessional.

I do not want to say that this standpoint should be dismissed altogether, since no doubt it contains elements of validity. But there is good reason to suppose that it is substantially inadequate. Self-identity becomes problematic in modernity in a way which contrasts with self-society relations in more traditional contexts; yet this is not only a situation of loss, and it does not imply either that anxiety levels necessarily increase. Therapy is not simply a means of coping with novel anxieties, but an expression of the reflexivity of the self -- a phenomenon which, on the level of the individual, like the broader institutions of modernity, balances opportunity and potential catastrophe in equal measure.

This point will be amplified in the chapters that follow; but before expanding upon such issues, we have to take up some general problems to do with the self and self-identity. These considerations, together with the notions developed thus far, will form a general conceptual backdrop to the study as a whole.


Date: 2016-04-22; view: 263


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