The Unstable Self

Thomas Hylland Eriksen & Elisabeth Schrober (eds) Identity Destabilised (Pluto, 2016)

This is a powerful book. It moves Cultural Anthropology right out of the Twentieth Century. This thematic, edited collection is already a benchmark classic of its discipline. But like equally great Anthropology collections – Locality and Belonging, edited by Nadia Lovell, for instance, in 1998 – it works equally well as a book for anyone interested in the shape of human meaning in their time.

It is properly politicised. It looks to the global surface, rather than treating fake indigenousnesses with curatorial white gloves. The sub-title of ‘Living in an Overheated World’, as Hylland Eriksen has demonstrated elsewhere, means overheated subjectivities on an overheated planet. Overheated in terms of the ever faster flows of raw materials, goods and labour, processes that produce ‘short-termism’. Processes that uproot families, lives and mental states, all over the world, not just in small pockets of it. The ethnographies collected here include Manchester, Sierra Leone, Montenegro, Australia…

But the subtext of ‘overheated’, of course, is global warming. This is Anthropocene-Anthropology. The Anthropocene posits that mankind’s emergence as a shaper of his environment, right through to his late capitalist phase, his whole voracious transformation of the ecosphere – and I gender this intentionally – is just another stage in the planet’s shifts. Of course, by positing this, right now, The Anthropocene also suggests that we may be on the edge of a seismic shift into another ‘cene’.

I strongly embrace some parts of ‘The Anthropocene’ as a theory, but strongly reject others. Key to this is the fact that The Anthropocene appears only now, and not in, for instance, the nineteenth century. We cannot escape our fundamental species difference as a very particular kind of language animal. The fine details of this will provide a written argument for another time and place, but what is captured unequivocally here is the fact that as the global circuits begin to heat up, glow and blur dangerously, so do the circuits of the psyche.

What we might call ‘identity creep’ is not new, but as Stuart Hall pointed out, the so-called ‘fluidity’ of identity in no way halts the solid political and cultural conflict which contemporary identity fuels. This isn’t just a concealed nod to fundamentalist religion either, as the chapter on Manchester United and its relatively recent, global, fluid nature shows.

This book pulls no punches. It contains what is essentially a second, politicised introductory chapter by Jeremy MacClancy, titled ‘Down With Identity! Long Live Humanity!’ Another big problem I have with The Anthropocene is that it dovetails neatly with Posthumanism. I side with Marcus Morgan, who is laying out a kind of post-foundational humanism for social philosophy. Here, Jeremy MacClancy includes a picture of a piece of Delph pottery in the shape of a bible from the Ashmolean. A book that isn’t a book, bearing a message that he decodes poetically for our era: ‘Earth I am / it is most trew / disdain me not / for soe are you.’ Identities aren’t people and people aren’t identities. But nor are humans dogs and neither do dogs drop bombs or produce television shows.

However, resistance to global capital might be rooted in practices of identity. MacClancy goes so far as to suggest the use of ‘Anon’ as a radical political identity, like a kind of pacifist ‘Spartacus’. Like some sort of identarian Jedi Knights, we might develop a form of Being resistant to our performative subjectivities, meshed into capital through its online manifestations: That’s how good this book is.

But MacClancy is careful to point out that he is not advocating fundamentalist identities. Here, my mind turns back to all that is good in Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man and Uses of Disorder. Because MacClancy is interested to stress the importance of forms of social identity that act as juncture points in the social world, face-to-face. The dialectical otherside to online wigs and masks, anonymous, open, honest and agonistic meetings in the real world.

Amen.

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