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Identity: Post-Modernism



The central source of human unhappiness is that empty space inside. The driving force in our lives is the need to fill the void within. Philosophers, theorists, and religious figures identify this feeling of separation from our fulfilment as 'alienation'. The Hebrew prophets, Buddha, Socrates, Plato, the Taoist masters, Jesus, Mohammed, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, the Anarchists, Nietzsche, Jung, and the Post-modernists all regard our state of alienation as the fundamental source of our dissatisfaction, and have suggested answers.

But what are we alienated from? For Karl Marx, the capitalist system has alienated industrialised humanity from its creativity and ability to work. The Taoist masters say our self-centred egos alienate us from our place in the holistic unity of creation. In the teachings of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets we have become alienated from God, the creator. What is the answer? For advocates of nationalism, alienation is overcome through complete submersion within the identity of an ethnic group. For Plato, Hegel and Jung, overcoming the alienation between the physical and meta-physical worlds provides the dynamic and meaning for all life. And for Nietzsche, modern atheism has freed humanity by alienating it from all traditional meaning and value systems.*

The newest arrival on the map of belief is Post-Modernist non-theory. Post-Modernism mocks the belief that history is a process towards a rational scientific utopia. It is a 'non'-theory because it represents a fracturing of all theories and accepted norms. Building on Nietzsche's declaration of the death of God, Post-Modernism has declared the death of all grand theories and ideologies, and of the very concept of progress - history has no direction.

In its extreme form, Post-Modernism describes a life that is unbearable - each individual living in their own unique, fragmented isolation, forced to create a personal framework of meaning from the events happening around them, or be crushed by the enormity of meaninglessness. Yet Post-Modernism also describes aspects of contemporary reality. For people caught in the complicated webs of broken families, for those who go through redundancy and retraining in their work life, for immigrants or minorities struggling to combine two identities, fragmentation is a reality. And in the ideological confusion of the 1990s, many of us are disillusioned with grand theories - with the arrogance of the Western concept of progress. We are recognising the wisdom of other cultures, traditions and value systems.

Post-Modernism urges us to come to terms with our alienation. It demands that we shock and surprise ourselves into recognising our blind conformity to values that others have established. In so doing, it provides an important critique of the so-called 'developed' world. Post-Modernist films, art and novels offer fragmented glimpses, disjointed events, doors leading nowhere, a riot of images, in an attempt to jolt our fundamental assumptions. But, because it insists that only we can judge what is good for us, Post-Modernism is the ultimate 'non-theory' of individualism, non-conformity and relativism. Disillusioned with the myths of modernity, it rejects the concept of objective truth. Yet why should we conclude that truth does not exist outside our individuality and consciousness, simply because no-one has been able to grasp the whole truth? Post-Modernism is like an adolescent, angry and self-piteous because its cherished illusions have been exploded, and who has therefore thrown overboard all possibility of universal truth or meaning. Maturity requires that we recognise our illusions for what they are - a means of avoiding facing our alienation. The challenge is to face our alienation without losing our belief in truth.

Janet and Jeroen Gunning, New Zealand/Netherlands

*Drich Fromm highlighted six basic practical responses to alienation:

1) Escapism through short-term pleasure;

2) Conformity to the ways of an individual, group or society;

3) Immersion in work;

4) Creative pursuits;

5) Intimate love with another; and

6) Spirituality.

(Don't we need a combination of these for a meaningful life?)


To say something is MODERN is to imply that history is going in a particular direction, that what is modern is superior to what came before. In the Middle Ages, history was understood in religious terms, and had meaning in the context of God's will for the world.

In the post-modern world, in which we apparently live, there is no single perceived meaning. Instead, there are many truths and meanings and it is up to us to weave them together in a way which suits. No one thing fundamentally matters; there is no longer any particular direction. This has its merits: it sets us free from the shackles of one way of looking at things. But it can become relativism which means there is no final authority by which to judge anything, except perhaps the authority of my own understanding of truth. Even that is in doubt, for total relativism poses a terrible problem. Where there is no fundamental meaning, there is no essential self by which to make judgements. The post-modernist is totally adrift as to how to make moral decisions.

Two influential writers reveal the post-modern position. Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist, noted: 'You are free, therefore choose - that is to say invent. No rule of morality can show you what you ought to do. Man makes himself. If I've discarded God the Father, there has to be someone to invent values. Before you come alive, life is nothing; it's up to you to give it a meaning, and value nothing else but the meaning that you choose.'

Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, expresses this view in an extreme form: 'From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think there is only one practical consequence; we have to create ourselves as a work of art'. In other words, there is no 'me' at my birth. It is my responsibility to create myself through life. I am my own God. That is the burden humanity faces at the end of the 20th century, as advertising offers a competing range of identities from which to choose.

The Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his famous Nobel Prize Lecture, highlighted the nature of the burden: 'One artist imagines himself the creator of an independent spiritual world, takes it upon himself to create and populate this world, and accepts full responsibility for it. But he breaks down, because no mortal man, even a genius, is capable of bearing such a burden.' The ALTERNATIVE, Solzhenitsyn suggests, is to accept God's world: 'Another artist knows that there is a higher force above him, and finds joy in working as a young apprentice under God's heaven... This world was not created by him and is not ruled by him.'

What does this mean in PRACTICE? It means letting go of ourselves, and learning to put ourselves in the presence of God, so that He can change, shape and create our lives. Just as a stained glass window can only be seen when light shines through it, so our true identities are only revealed as we allow God's light into our souls.

The Scottish natural scientist, Henry Drummond, in his essay, 'The Changed Life', declares that 'the clockwork of the soul is called the Will'. It is NOT UP TO US, he says, to make ourselves virtuous, or to search desperately for our identities. We cannot discover the will of God through our own efforts. It is our work to put ourselves in the presence of God, so He can do it. Prayer, time alone in quiet and living by absolute moral standards are indispensable for this process. Then, mysteriously, a change starts to take place.

The post-modern philosophy very easily becomes an up-to-date version of an age-old temptation: that we must put ourselves first. This temptation actually offers an intolerable burden. The answer is a strange paradox: by LETTING GO of control, and trusting God to guide and provide, we actually become more human and more fully ourselves.

Philip Boobbyer, UK

Last update: 2000-02-12 20:21:12 (EEST).
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