There perhaps has never been a more exciting—or confusing—time to be alive. Admittedly, the excitement is of the cerebral order, but—excepting a few extreme sport Paleo-enthusiasts—not too many of us would prefer the heart-pounding thrill of being chased into the cave by a thundering herd of hungry megafauna. Ok, so that probably never happened quite like that in the primitive world; outside of an episode of the Flintstones, that is. So what? Should a metaphor yield to reality?
It’s a question of keen interest to many, especially as these metaphors enact themselves in our bodies, proper and politic. When should we submit to biology? What about culture? How much should public opinion and social approval guide us? How can we grow and become within the social constraints imposed on us from without, when we are unable to effect their removal? Is it possible to self-create and to know oneself, in the absence of a social mirror?
While some people seemingly have carte blanche to create and recreate themselves, dipping their brush with impunity into a vast palette of tropes and memes, others spend a lifetime trying to escape the narrow confines of the class, race and gender bequeathed to them by birth and circumstance, and yet they fail. Their failure is palpable, as they are gunned down in the streets or relegated to the zero sum game that prevails inside our institutions and on our streets, and increasingly in our workplaces and markets, a logic that makes solidarity and human community nearly impossible.
Some of us spend our lives trying to shuck off identities forced on us, constructs that make no sense and feel alien to an inner being that seems to whisper “I am” but is denied reification by contemporary scientific dogma, which denies anything vital or essential to the self and relegates it to a kind of political and social nihilism—while at the same time enthroning the corporate citizen or brand in the self’s former seat, and ascribing to this power the rights and dignity once conferred upon the self. In this madcap world, the moment a conflict surfaces responsibility is suddenly thrust back upon the heretofore non-existing self, the most obvious example of this being our criminal justice system, where accountability is suddenly demanded from an individual who has never been allowed any agency.
The fraught self
Sigmund Freud, who peered so deeply into the stuff of the psyche (or at least a cross-section of the middle-class Viennese psyche) at the turn of the century, famously used Greek myths and other cultural materials to shine a light into the human psyche and illuminate its mechanisms. One of the impulses he discovered in the formation of the ego was the desire of the child to destroy the father, typified by the story of Oedipus. This desire was rooted in ambivalence: the child loved the father, and longed to emulate him, but this love crossed over into a tortured kind of murderous wish to replace and efface the father, particularly in regards to the mother. This anxiety, at one time generational and familial, has become more diffuse and more ubiquitous. It has become profoundly social.
Historically, the self developed along a continuum, facing its most intense crisis in adolescence and middle life, and forming a relatively stable identity that changed little over a lifetime. Each individual knew who they were and how they fit into the social fabric. This has changed. Today’s self doesn’t become just once along a developmental arc, but is always becoming, and thus always vanishing. Each and every moment the self must prove its existence. Each and every moment the self is threatened with annihilation. Its primary antagonist is not the father, just as its primary object is not the mother. The social and the material has replaced the family, and the self is both the audience and actor in a mirrored theater of unprecedented complexity and anxiety.
For many people, identity has become incredibly precarious and perilous: the self flounders along, keenly anxious, and finding only moments of security and rest. This existential battle isn’t epic, it’s momental. A self that wishes to have agency, to act willfully, must seize the moment. But a profoundly anxious, fragmented, and energetically low self cannot act in the moment; it cannot act at all.
We live in an age of profound disruption and dislocation. We are politically, psychologically, economically, socially and historically dislocated. This dislocation isn’t a natural event or an accident of progress, it’s rather a coordinated effort to restrain and shape the emerging self according to a political or social program. At the heart of this is the unique dilemma of our time. Do we accept the biological as the final word, or do we push for the stars? Are we merely animals or is the human condition something special? Do we seek a return to a simpler life, in harmony with the “rhythm of nature,” or do we create a new world, so to speak, in our own image? Can we create a world for everyone, or is it actually necessary to live sectioned off in our own little reality bubbles?
Pushing the bounds of nature and refusing to allow biology to define us or dictate our destiny has allowed civilization to evolve from simple tribes to the marvel of the metamodern city, an organic machine of breathtaking complexity and organization, with a beauty that rivals nature’s own. Though there is much to admire and appreciate in nature, we admire the works of our own hands with equal or an even greater avidity. We sympathize with the poet Oscar Wilde, who adored society as ardently (and as romantically) as Rousseau worshipped nature. Wilde, called to a window to view an English sunset, characteristically dismissed it, wittily denigrating it as “It was simply a very second-rate Turner, a Turner of a bad period, with all the painter’s worst faults exaggerated and over-emphasized.”
Now smartphone cameras, Photoshop and other tools have allowed nearly everyone to edit (improving or not) nature and beauty, each to their own taste. Virtual reality is poised to to take off this year, delivering a hyper-real, immersive experience that will hack reality in a spectacular way. And yet, there are real limits. The physical components of our processing power derive from organic materials. The energy we need to run our machine world comes from natural systems.
At times our reach exceeds our grasp. But only by testing the outer limits of what humans are capable of can we reach our full potential. Overreaching is arguably our species’ raison d’être. It brings about much we deplore, without this tendency, however, we’d have been left, so to speak, in our proverbial cave. It may be, however, that this quality has served us well but has become maladaptive. Changing human character and personality is surely no more difficult than geoengineering a complex biosystem like the earth, but strangely enough, few people admit it can be done.
These days our newsfeed (meaning trough) is filled with stories of awe-inspiring new technologies that promise to reshape and redesign the world. From the ability of geneticists to hack into life at the level of its basic code, to the exploration and colonization of interstellar space, and automation of many menial tasks, the future has never seemed to offer so much hope and, at the same time, bring so much anxiety. Though humankind has pierced the cosmos and is unraveling the mystery of our biology, resources are dwindling, economies are struggling, and many aspects of our metamodern world have become unsustainable. At this interesting juncture, at once a moment of contraction and expansion, humanity is giddy with the possibilities offered by science and technology, and frustrated by the hard limits of the material world. Like Icarus, we risk flying too high and melting our wings. And yet, to return to a simpler time is impossible. Existence is ever upward and onward; we cannot retrace our steps through time and can only ascend the spire, or fling ourselves from its height.
The rise of the social
Even as we push the bounds of physicality, testing the limitations of biology, the evolving self is menaced by a new force, the rise of the social. With it comes ambitious algorithms and formulas that aspire to dictate and censor meaning, defining who we are to each other and to ourselves. There are many examples of this, from predictive policing programs currently undergoing pilots across the nation, to shopping sites that recommend what you might like in the future based off choices you made in the past. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, when he isn’t learning how to park his space rocket on a docket in the sea, is exploring anticipatory shopping, a program that “knows what you want before you do, and sends it to you.” Such programs presume to dictate not just what you wear, but what music you can listen to, what authors you read, and what news you can access.
The body politic is being segmented and differentiated according to demographic, geographic, and social categories denoted by an increasingly distant and removed locus of power. In such a world, class, gender, and race matter tremendously and can determine where you live, who you know, and what version of reality you have access to. In such a world, we are more and more dependent on our group and the discourse that rules it, and more and more alienated from other groups of people. Multiculturalism is giving away to a series of monocultures with officially produced cultural tropes becoming the only concourse between these increasingly stratified spaces, and cultural renaissance implicitly, if not explicitly forbidden.
What kind of world would we live in today had renaissance been prevented? European culture resulted from the synthesis, both sympathetic and antagonistical, of the invading barbarians and incumbent Roman culture, which had become corrupt and atrophied. Barbarian culture imparted the vitality and forward energy lacking in the senescent empire. Both the development of the self and the advance of civilization depend on cultural transfusion and a kind of cross pollination of ideas and memes. Purity, ultimately, leads to sterility and to death.
Science can engineer a world for us to inhabit, it can augment our biology with chemicals, technology and cybernetics, but it cannot tell us how, or who, to be in this new world. It is the province of the artist, the thinker and the iconoclast to shape a new self to inhabit the world it promises.