Ontological security and identity

In The Consequences of Modernity sociologist Anthony Giddens rejects the idea that there has been a epistemic break that has initiated the postmodern era, seeing in contemporary conditions (globalization, affective individualism, informatization, consumerism, etc.) an intensification of the modern era’s governing principles. The foremost of these in his view is “time-space distanciation” — disembedding practices so that continuity can be maintained across space and time rather than depending on copresence in a particular place. In Giddens’s words: “By disembedding I mean the ‘lifting out’ of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite spans of time-space.”

I had no idea what he meant by that until he presented some examples — basically “abstract systems,” based on faith in expert knowledge, are disseminated across society and replace localized modes of trust and continuity. The “systems of technical accomplishment or professional expertise … organize large areas of the material and social environments in which we live today” and allow us to venture forth into the world with some confidence. We enter an elevator in any city, or an Italian restaurant in any American town, and understand what to expect. We can use money to get things we need everywhere. Thanks to our belief in money’s universal value, we trust that don’t necessarily need a personal relationship with the pub owner to get a pint.

The social rules for us, in other words, are not contingent on the quirks of every particular locality; we can leave our home base and continue to feel comfortable enough and confident enough in our surroundings to act like ourselves. We garner “ontological security” (“the confidence most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action” — that we have a seld) from abstract systems (ways things work in modernity across places; the distributed brands and chain stores; the universally recognized authorities; celebrities, etc.) rather than from being fixed in a time and place.

The “distanciation” makes our identities portable — makes them seem like our own rather than belonging to the town in which we were raised. No longer are we fixed by a set of local traditions (unquestioned routines, rituals) that we must rely on to operate in the world. Instead our local practices are linked to globalized social relations through disembedded (nonlocal) institutions, e.g. we eat at McDonald’s, we shop at supermarkets — the stores are more comforting and familiar to us than the people around us, who are indifferent strangers who signal their benevolence by studiously ignoring us.

The distanciation and disembedding processes bring about “reflexivity” — a self-consciousness about social processes and about the self. “What is characteristic about modernity is not an embracing of the new for its own sake, but the presumption of wholesale reflexivity.” We are curious about the social processes in which we are operating, and we modify them through our engagement with them on the meta-level. We “appropriate claims to knowledge” (some of us more than others, thanks to power differentials) and this extends the social field in which we operate, expands our conception of our identity, and what we can control.

Tradition had been grounded in a particular, often naturally given time-space (how things are done here); once this is disrupted, as social environments become more human-created (and natural space regarded as “empty”), individuals are free to ascribe personal reasons for routines that were once “simply what is done” and investigate the ways in which things work. This investigation then alters the processes observed. “The point is not that there is no stable social world to know, but that knowledge of that world contributes to its unstable or mutable character.”

By wanting to know about social processes, we set in motion the means by which they evolve; the cycle then feeds on itself, intensifying the conditions of modernity. This circularity (along with the diminishing of tradition and religion that goes along with it) generates a widespread sense of dis-ease, existential angst, even as it makes possible self-cultivation, self-fashioning, self-actualization. Modern identity is born of acute self-consciousness, the alienation of watching ourselves be ourselves makes the self seem an actual, discrete thing.

To ease this angst, modernity has developed reembedding mechanisms anchored in facework — access points where we see a human representative of an abstract expert system. These people help build our trust in abstract systems, or if they are corrupt or incompetent, they set in motion our desire to build up our own knowledge of the system to allay our distrust. Trust, generally, Giddens suggests, drawing on Winnicott and other object-relations theorists, ameliorates the anxieties of self-consciousness, the ontological insecurity that stems from having the nature of our being problematized.

The open-ended nature of modern identity means we have a constant need to have trust refreshed. We get some of this from the continuity of the social world — the familiarity of the buyosphere from one town to the next. But this is ultimately unsatisfactory:

The routines which are integrated with abstract systems are central to ontological security in conditions of modernity. Yet this situation also creates novel forms of psychological vulnerability, and trust in abstract systems is not psychologically rewarding in the way in which trust in persons is.

Identity requires interpersonal trust, not just faith in impersonal systems and infrasructure. An intimacy deficit opens up, and we demand more of personal relationships than was expected in premodern times to close the gap, to guarantee our ontological security, which relies on personal recognition of others, not merely the ideological interpellation by institutions. Friendship becomes less pro forma (a matter of tribal loyalty) and more intimate, dependent on “personal affection.” Giddens argues that “authenticity” becomes important in this regard, as a marker of the new type of friendship bond.

Relationships become an ongoing project of manufacturing security-giving personal trust: “Trust on a personal level becomes a project, to be ‘worked at’ by the parties involved, and demands the opening out of the individual to the other” through “demonstrable warmth and openness…. The work involved means a mutual process of self-disclosure.” The crux of my critique of online social networks is that this process of trust-building reciprocity has been encroached upon by commercial interests, inhibiting its function, compromising it. We are losing the sources of personal “authentic” (i.e., noncommercial) trust that have made modern life tolerable. Hence social networks increase our sense of isolation while seeming to remedy it, much as consumerism exacerbates our yearnings while seeming to cater to them. The basic trust from friendship that is supposed to compensate for our having to draw ontological security from abstract systems is now being assimilated into an abstract system itself. Less cryptically: we have to make our identity out of globalized markers, brands, practices determined by institutions out of our control, etc. One thing that seems in our control totally is the intimacy and intensity of our friendships, our relationships. But Facebook wants to co-opt that reciprocity, that project of trust building, and make it into another public, self-aggrandizing, commercialized project.

Giddens raises a good question: “Is the search for self-identity a form of somewhat pathetic narcissism, or is it, in some part at least, a subversive force in respect of modern institutions?” I think we can rule out the latter. But identity making is not merely pathetic narcissism; it’s also big business, a source of life-style innovation that can be used to drive the turnover of trends and social meanings, generating new profit opportunities. It helps accelerate the cultural throughput, exhausting cultural meanings more quickly.

Modernity is the result of having the familiar no longer be the local but merely the local manifestation of something global, removed, abstract, transcendental. This is the clearest expression of how Giddens relates modernism with consumerism, positing how consumerism has managed to anchor itself by providing an abstract sense of the familar (chain stores, etc.) embeddable anywhere:

The sense of the familiar is one often mediated by time-space distanciation. It does not derive from the particularities of localized place. And this experience, so far as it seeps into general awareness, is simultaneously disturbing and rewarding. The reassurance of the familiar, so important to a sense of ontological security, is coupled with the realization that what is comfortable and nearby is actually an expression of distant events and was “placed into” the local environment rather than forming an organic development within it. The local shopping mall is a milieu in which a sense of ease and security is cultivated by the layout of the buildings and the careful planning of public places. Yet everyone who shops there is aware that most of the shops are chain stores, which one might find in any city, and indeed that innumerable shopping malls of similar design exist elsewhere.

We are integrated into a globalized community even as we are estranged from the local ones that our ancestors knew. Shared experience is not a local phenomenon but something that happens in virtual communities linked by shared experiences and understandings and knowledge of how life works, shared tastes and affinities developed through personal choice rather than assigned by fate of locality. Community has been displaced and made virtual, rendering identity a perpetual work in progress, a striving to reach a home that may have no fixed reality as a particular place but is instead a state of mind, a realization of some ideal self and ideal community that nurtures that self. It may be an unrealizable fiction.


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