© Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0
More on social media and identity politics.
— § —
We live in an age in which pretty much every one of the traditional ways by which we situate and understand ourselves as members of society and as human beings has evaporated, as Marx once commented, but perhaps didn’t entirely yet understand even as he wrote it.
Already stripped of the power of names and lineages, family has now become non-nuclear as well. It is rather like the purchase of a car; one happens into it, and then, a few years later, one happens out of it. Your inclusion in or membership of a family is by universal consent alone, so even in its growing meaninglessness for the social body, you can’t make claims with it simply by virtue of having been a part of it, much less is this membership seen as definitive (or, indeed, is it even noted) by the rest of society. You are not, and you are in no way permanently related to, your family.
The mobility of labor and of the upwardly mobile portion of consumer society means that community is also now both weak and circumstantial, doubly so in an era of electronic communication and mutual political suspicion in which temporary and circumstantial population aggregates are better described as anti-communities in which people go out of their ways not to have to know one another and not to be seen as directly or permanently associated with one another in any way.
On the level of religion, we see both a falling away of membership and the rise of secularism along with an increase in general (not merely Abrahamian) ecumenism and the loosening of dogma and practice. Religion becomes one more consumer good or service that is forever in less and less in demand, something that is often seen as at best a guilty pleasure akin to smoking or monster truck rallies—not meaning much, not at all a foundational social quantity, and not to be talked about in polite company.
Along with the rise in consumer and information culture has come the decline in civic groups, which are similarly now not so much a matter of strong social ties but of branding, something that one applies to oneself like a label in the abstract for college applications and dating sites, rather than a web of concrete and enduring social relations. The local clubs and lodges and so on see collapsing attendance and interest even as the national rolls see relatively un-involved growth through online signups and mailing list expansions.
The states of education and class, too, have become weak and non-definitive as both have been diluted precisely by their former importance. In a free market in which the degree is a defining characteristic of identity, degrees proliferate as do means by which to deliver them for a price to all, including (and perhaps especially) those that once might have been excluded—eviscerating in the process any means by which education provides a concrete means to position oneself in relation to others. Add to this the rise of the commuter-consumer campus, and the school-hopping (once during undergraduate years, then between undergraduate and masters, then between masters and doctorate), and once again any concrete and enduring web of relations and self-understanding is lost. And while class was once secretly undergirded by distinction in taste, the rise of the highbrow lowbrow and the universalization of social media and electronic media means that there is neither preference nor association correlated in any way to income level, birth heritage, lifestyle, region, or any other quantity.
In short, there is only one quantity left by which to understand and sacralize the self—its very own body. This is the most stable thing in human life that remains. If I cannot stably be any of these other things, I am—at the very least—my body. That much I know.
The secret of identity politics is that its identities are very thin indeed; whereas once upon a time all of the above might have counted for much in “identity” terms, identity now is reduced to begging for scraps where it can find them.
- Skin color (becomes the politics and identity of race)
- Body shape and weight (becomes the politics and identity of fat, diet, nutrition, and fitness)
- Sex (becomes the politics and identity of gender)
- Bodily activity (becomes the politics and identity of sexuality and feminism)
The problem of course is that the langue of the body in most cultures, including our own, has long been rather tiny, yet this langue now must be adequate to valorize and sacralize the distinct individualities of millions or hundreds of millions who wish to be important and to be reassured of their own solidity as selves without reference to anything beyond.
The langue must be expanded if the parole is to be effective at accomplishing this.
One paradoxical result of this is that every category becomes endlessly flexible and “spectral” in ways that destabilize the traditional understandings, while at the same time pitched warfare is fought on behalf of these new terms to ensure that all concede their wished-for stability and durability. Hence “womyn,” “latinx,” “afro-(insert secondary term here),” and the entire LGBTQIA spectrum, amongst other innovations—all new and all of course claiming to be very old and entirely foundational to identity.
Another paradoxical result of this—and here is where the social media comes in—is that the body must be performed publicly for claims about social situatedness and identity to inhere. And yet in the absence of the traditional stable social milieux described above, there is a paucity of audiences at issue. And so social media steps in to provide a “general audience of others” where the body is performed in pursuit of social embeddedness precisely in social media’s uniquely socially disembedded way.
This has the circular effect of reifying the body as the center of identity—the body and the actions that it takes are central to, and virtually the only component of, self-presentation—while further eroding all of the prior foundations of identity; all relationships become transactional rather than foundational because their social import is precisely and only in their engagement with the body.
Social media is both a symptom and an ongoing cause of the retreat of self-identity out of the social realm and into the body. The result is identity, gender, and sexual politics, and the further breakdown of social institutions of all kinds—couples, families, churches, communities, and so on.
Critics often talk about the narcissism of the present age and the way in which “the self” rules the day, but in fact it’s not so much that “the self” is definitive as it is that “the self” has become little more than “the body” and its properties and transactions.