The Modernity Mindset – Part 6: Identity

One of the most important quotes – at least in my opinion – to come from all of the Hermitix interviews, is one by Dmitry Orlov about identity, to paraphrase, ‘Most people these days are simply a collection of their vices, if you took them away, what exactly would you have left?’. Now, I don’t want to fill out the meaning of Orlov’s quote and try articulate exactly what he means by this, but I will use it as a springboard for my own thoughts on identity, especially as I think the quote is the perfect encapsulation of where we’ve gone wrong with respect to how we ‘identify’ ourselves.

A vice is generally considered to be a weakness in someone’s character, excessive drinking, over eating, a hot temper, sassyness etc. I guess it could be fairly subjective as to what one considers a vice, but I would add a consumer purchases and empty virtues to the list of things which help build an identity. The definition of identity isn’t exactly helpful either:

  1. the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.

  2. the characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is.

Maybe it’s this rather loose signifier, which is reliant on increasingly looser signifiers, which is the reason our-selves have become a bit unstuck. When someone first meets someone, after saying the general pleasantries such as ‘Nice to meet you’ and ‘How are you’ the next question is generally ‘So, what do you do?’ or (though more rarely) ‘What do you do for a living?’. It’s of no surprise that this is our go-to question really, we all work, and our day-to-day jobs take up the majority of our existence, often taking up far more time than that which we spend with our families of friends. So to a certain extent, one can see why one might make work and identity synonymous. The problem is of course, we have mistaken the way in which we earn money with out very being. Our work-life has become our existence, outside of this we have a few addons, but these are seen as quirks and additions as opposed to actual characteristics.

Let’s push Orlov’s idea to its limit. Remove your consumptive habits, your quirks, outgoings, vices, social virtues, brands, aesthetics and material likes, an what do you have left? Where is your self beneath all of these things? Of course, one could argue that these things do culminate in what we generally consider to be a self or identity, and yet, many of them are so empty at their heart, that our very identities are riding on nothingness. I’m going to sound a tad romantic or soppy here, but I don’t particularly care, and I think it’s telling that these are often used as accusations as opposed to thought positions, anyway… When you ask someone what they’re into they’ll usually state they’re into a certain genre of film, like a certain cuisine, enjoy certain brands or makes etc. and outline their very existence via various material and consumptive habits. When one is asked this question, of ‘what it is they are into…’ what happened to stating pastimes and functions outside of material, consumptive patterns. Sure, walking could be given as a rather cliché example, but what about sitting in front of a lake, or drawing trees, or reading old French texts, anything really, our identities have become constrained by the limitations of what is considered normal within Western consumerist society. Maybe there’s little more to this piece than that, do not allow your-self and who you consider yourself to be to be constrained via material limits, especially material limits of consumerism.

This isn’t anything new of course, people have always held to certain idea of normality or social etiquette, it’s nice to be accepted and it would a lie to say otherwise. But it’s not a question of acceptance, it’s a question of submission. Most, if not all modern identities are submission to a big-Other, or a they, or an elusive herd mentality which haunts everything, but it’s only our own acceptance that this haunt actually exists which keeps us from exploring possible alternatives within life. An unconscious attachment to an abstract fluxing ideal which supposedly resides in all social functions, events, processes and happenings. As if at all moments in life we’re collectively trying to impress the Other collective, which always eludes and outflanks us, and as such, our journey towards some form of coherent identity never ends, we’re always reliant on the next item or purchase to bolster our belief in our self, one which we deep down understand to have very little supporting it.

Ultimately we live in a highly atomized society. Everyone and everything is at atomized as possible, fragmented and splintered into the smallest controllable lumps, the smallest morsel which capital can latch onto and control. It’s difficult to outline what modern identity is because it’s so utterly dispersed, it has deconstructed any overarching value into a useless pulp; God, family, nation, state or nature are good examples of values which people used to put before themselves, but now nothing is put before the self and everything comes after our individual purchases, wants, needs and desires, the modern identity is one of an a priori selfishness. We are reluctant to give into the idea of something greater than us precisely because it is greater, and thus proves our notion of individuality is rather superfluous and is something we’re not as in control of as we’d like to think. I could blither on and on here, but I think the premise is so clear, once we begin to look, what exactly is it which our identities are built on? And if it is as I argue, that there’s very little there of substance, then I have little more to write about here, so actually, I think a practice would be of more worth here…

Think on what exactly it is that makes you you. This is one of the biggest questions one could ask themselves, so it might take some time. But I would begin with you recent purchases and why it was you bought them, what compelled you? What do they actually say about you? In what way do they inform your identity? Keep going until you reach a block, is there anything there that can’t be moved? That hasn’t been built or created by some Other force?

4 thoughts on “The Modernity Mindset – Part 6: Identity

  1. Maybe we could include signalling into the discussion.

    I think that part of what you wrote could be summarized into something like: “in a consumerist society, people end up trying to signal themselves as good products”. When games of status and products dominate the world, that seems like an obvious way to try to belong. It doesn’t matter who you are, but who you appear to be. As social networks have taught us.

    About vices… I prefer quirks, which you also mentioned. When you think about personality, identity and uniqueness, you indeed realize this: when you travel to another place, you don’t go to see the same you see in your city, eat the same you eat in your city, do the same things you do in your city. You go to another place to see how different and weird and quirky things and people are. The more different they are, the more unique they are, the more interesting the travel. So, I’d say that’s how we perceive identities, at the most shallow level. You might also define identity as those parts of us that are different from others. That’s indeed what separates us and makes us unique, differentiable, identifiable. And it can be anything. And here we can go back to vices: as they are seen as non-desirable, they occur less frequently, and therefore they have more power to make you unique. Manerisms, ways to speak and ways to dress are also obvious candidates for the most easily visible parts of identity. I still think that the biggest part of identity is how one thinks, but that being much harder to communicate might end up going mostly unseen. So, maybe we could talk about the integral identity and the visible identity. I guess some identities are more visible than others.

  2. What qualifies the substantiality of consuming the ideas of king and country over spiked hair and communal living? Am I missing your point or are you arguing that what predicated ppls identity before was substantially greater in essence or in widespread adoption? This is where I get confused about the critique of reification, like how forced is it to think that you can quantify the value of all things without something as meaningless and volatile as a market?

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