Here’s what I gleaned from Giddens’s Modernity and Self-Identity, which is an elaboration of his argument in The Consequences of Modernity: modernity erodes tradition by instituting abstract, non-local systems that organize and explain everyday life. Our trust in these scientific systems is much shakier, not compelled as trust was in traditional explanations of folk life. This makes modernity a “risk culture” — we are always consciously calculating the open-ended outcomes offered by our environment. “To accept risk as risk, an orientation which is more or less forced on us by the abstract systems of modernity, is to acknowledge that no aspects of our activities follow a predestined course, and all are open to contingent happenings…. Living in a ‘risk society’ [Ulrich Beck] means living with a calculative attitude to the open possibilities of action, positive and negative, with which, as individuals and globally, we are confronted in a continuous way in our contemporary social existence.” We can’t opt out of modernity, withdraw into a kind of internal exile of localness. Traditions are phased out, and lifestyles take over. “The more post-traditional the settings in which an individual moves, the more lifestyle concerns the very core of self-identity, its making and remaking.”
The reflexiveness of modernity’s systems of mastery (the way they evaluate themselves and feed that knowledge to reshape the social fields they survey) comes to characterize self-perception; the self becomes a modern abstract system itself in this sense, and we try to operate and master it, become responsible for it, maximize its potentiality. But the opportunities in the reflexive self come with “ontological insecurity” — a sense that life is meaningless and the that self is an endless project, never quite secure. We don’t get to enjoy having a self, being embodied; we must always be tending to identity in a state of remove from ourselves, a ongoing alienation.
One way we try to stabilize the self in such conditions of modernity is through imtimacy. “Trust, interpersonal relations and a conviction of the ‘reality’ of things go hand in hand in the settings of adult life.” We need others we understand to confirm our sense of what is going on, our narrative. But social networks take away some of the space in which “pure relationships” (disinterested, yet reflexive intimate relationships) can occur — instead identity is mobilized in commercialized spaces.
Nevertheless, Giddens remarks that identity is “not to be found in behavior nor the reaction of others but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going.” This involves self-monitoring, bodily control, displaying a competence in sustaining social normalcy, knowing how to enjoy the rules. We must be able to perform what Goffman calls “easy control.” Some of these are “regimes” of diet, dress, grooming, etc — everyday modes of self-discipline that reflect a willingness to play the game of social life by its rules. These are a basic backdrop to the narrative of self. But reflexivity with regard to these regimes gone awry produces eating disorders, etc.: “anorexia represents a striving for security in a world of plural, but ambiguous, options. The tightly controlled body is an emblem of a safe experience in an open social environment.”
In general, the protective cocoon of normality depends “on the coherence of routines… as they are ordered within the reflexive project of self.” These, in Max Weber’s theory, present a field of action for us that is “calculable”.
Still “the responses of the other are necessary to the sustaining of an ‘observable/accountable’ world, and yet there is no point at which they can absolutely be relied upon.” Hence the modern condition: “Quite often, paradoxically, the actor subjects his behavior and thoughts to constant scrutiny. Self-scrutiny in this guise is obsessional; its experiential outcome is much the same as in the other instances, a feeling that the living spontaneity of the self has become something dead and lifeless.” We have a morbid self-awareness that forces us to renarrate experience and assess it rather than lose ourselves in it. We are always seeking to have ourselves confirmed in our sense of ourselves.
In my view, the strategies for producing the self (and for problematizing it in the first place) are governed in our time by specific requirements of consumerist capitalism, which prompts insecurity, and the sense that momentous decisions confront us — what Giddens calls “fateful moments”. These moments of vulnerability leave us open to external influences, to reinscribing new sets of values and purposes for our lives. Giddens sees these as times of “reskilling” — reappropriating knowledge from the abstract systems as it pertains to the crisis. I am more skeptical, and think these reappropriations may take the form of prepackaged goods — clusters of commodified solutions that have the effect of reinforcing the social relations suitable to the existing order (or at least one of its competing factions). The mere fact of personal change can make this reinscription seem like autonomy, liberation, power, but the values are not organic to the individual but are the individual’s means perhaps of reharmonizing with hegemonic ideas and owning them — learning to operate the society from a position of agency even as society dictates the goals. Also, re-skilling becomes an identity signifier rather than an acquisition of knowledge for its own sake and for what it can practically achieve, so it reinscribes the idea that identity trumps the flow of experience.
I wonder if seemingly fateful moments are deliberately manufactured by consumer capitalism because they destabilze our sense of self, opening us to the potential of new purchases to launch a new lifestyle, to uses purchases as the means of imagining more avenues for how we may develop our identity.
The disappearance of the concept of fate makes everything a matter of subjectively assessed risk, which increases our general level of insecurity. This (along with the proliferation of expert systems) is another reason that there is no escape from the experience of modernity, from the sort of identity-based defense mechanisms and traps we fall into. This constant awareness of risk could theoretically produce a financialization of everyday life — we assess our moment-to-moment life chances with the tools of risk management and hedging, with obvious consequences to “disinterested” pure relationships.
Cites Sennett, The Fall of Public Man on modernity: In Giddens’s paraphrase, “any sense of personal dignity or civic duty tends to evaporate. Authenticity substitutes for dignity: what makes an action good is that it is authentic to the individual’s desires, and can be displayed to others as such…. Social bonds and engagements increasingly thereafter recede in favor of an endless and obsessive preoccupation with social identity.” Giddens rejects this, but I agree with Sennett.
Cites Zygmunt Bauman on the necessary conditions for consumerism: “The market feeds on the unhappiness it generates: the fears, the anxieties and the sufferings of personal inadequacy it induces releases consumer behavior indispensible to its continuation.” Sounds right to me. Through marketing demography, lifestyle packages are offered as solutions to the inadequacy, the ontological insecurity, that offer readymade sense of belonging — like joining the goth scene by one day getting the right clothes at Hot Topic.
The summation, I think, of Giddens’s ideas in this book, on “the looming threat of meaninglessness”:
The best starting point for understanding why this should be so is the pervasiveness of abstract systems. Day-to-day life becomes more calculable than it was in most premodern contexts. Calculability is expressed not only in the provision of stable social environments but in the chronic reflexivity whereby individuals organize their own relations to the encompassing social world. The threat of personal meaninglessness is ordinarily held at bay because routinized activities, in conbination with basic trust, sustain ontological security. Potentially disturbing existential questions are defused by the controlled nature of day-to-day activities within internally referential systems. Mastery, in other words, substitutes for morality.