Bauman: Identity
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︎Bauman: Identity

Histories and Theories of Environment
December 2014

Instructor: John May
In Zygmunt Bauman’s interview “Identity”, Bauman argues that the idea of identity stemmed from the need for a sense of belonging and security, and that the existence of identity is only applicable to the modern society that is ‘liquid’ – constantly changing and transforming. Identity became a new problem and task because it wasn’t one before mankind entered “modernity”. Bauman states that “the thought of ‘having an identity’ will not occur to people as long as ‘belonging’ remains their fate, a condition with no alternative. They will begin to entertain such a thought only in the form of a task to be performed, and to be performed over and over again rather than in a one-off fashion.” 1

Bauman quotes Philippe Robert and states, “or most of the history of human societies, social relations have stayed enclosed firmly in the realm of proximity.” 2 Before identity became a foreign problem, it was, “for most people, ‘society’ as the uppermost ‘totality’ of human cohabitation....[it] was equal to the immediate neighborhood”.3 People used to identify themselves with their immediate neighbors, because the neighborhood is where one lives and belongs, the thought of oneself being apart from, or outside that neighborhood was thought of abandoning one’s roots. Bauman’s argument of slowly disintegrating neighborhoods and transport revolution – which is the development of infrastructure – was able to facilitate movement between neighborhoods, cities; thus one is able to travel away from one’s home more easily, and the problem of identity arose.

Identity is tied with the idea that one belongs everywhere and nowhere. Bauman suggests that “one can even begin to feel everywhere chez soi, ‘at home’ - but the price to be paid is to accept that nowhere will one be fully and truly at home.” 4 Bauman continues to argue that “Identity is revealed to us only as something to be invented rather than discovered; as a target of an effort, ‘an objective’; as something one still needs to build from scratch or to choose from alternative offers and then to struggle for and then to protect through yet more struggle.” 5 Identity, adapted as a mobile form of a sense of belonging, requires one to ‘invent’ because it is no longer tied to the environment one was gave birth into. Identity can be summed up as the ‘mixed past’ of a person, and because modern people are often well traveled and multi-culturally exposed from globalization, one’s identity became a unique addition to one’s traits. However, if part of one’s identity is stemmed from backgrounds that are not in sync with those of who one is currently in, “the truth of the precarious and forever incomplete status of identity needs to be, and tends to be, suppressed and laboriously covered up”. 6

Identity may be a new way of defining one as an individual, but according to Bauman, identity is not absolute and can possibly just be a by-product of the advancement of mankind. Bauman argues that “It is indeed a puzzle and a challenge to sociology - if you recall that only a few decades ago ‘identity’ was nowhere near the center of our thoughts, remaining but an object of philosophical meditation. Today, though, ‘identity’ is ‘the loudest talk in town’, the burning issue on everybody’s mind and tongue. It would be this sudden fascination with identity, rather than identity itself, that would draw the attention of the classics of sociology were they to have lived long enough to confront it.”7 Bauman also argues that identity, when paired with nationality, can twist its true meaning. “Let me repeat: the ‘naturalness’ of the assumption that ‘belonging-through-birth’ meant, automatically and unequivocally, belonging to a nation was a laboriously construed convention; the appearance of ‘naturalness’ could be anything but ‘natural’.” 8 Bauman argues at length that one’s identity should not be tied to where one is born because it defeats the purpose of inventing an identity, and that it will bring the modern society into the degression of which one is once again bound by the environment where one was born or raised in.

Bauman felt that the terms ‘modernity’ or ‘postmodernity’ are no longer fit to describe the constant changes in sociology. He therefore moved on to introduce the term ‘liquid modernity’ – which describes the impermanent state of the current society, which he thinks is mobile, ever-changing and highly adaptable. In liquid modernity one is not tied to one’s birthplace, past or societal conventions because these rules cannot be applied to the current state of the society. This includes the ability to be constantly ready and the willingness to change and adapt to transforming environments rapidly.

In contrast with liquid modernity, ‘solid modernity’ – the old form of relationships and identities was in a more stable and predictable state. Bauman believes that “we seek and construct and keep together the communal references of our identities while on the move - struggling to match the similarly mobile, fast moving groups we seek and construct and try to keep alive for a moment, but not much longer.” 9 Liquid modernity has adapted the somewhat inhumane qualities of the digital age, and the multi-faceted qualities as a result of globalization. This change to Bauman, however, has radically changed the meaning of identity from when it was first introduced. The ‘liquid modern’ state has not only grew to the extent where one no longer needs to be connected to the environment one was brought up in; it has also evolved to a phase where one can be completely disconnected with one’s immediate surroundings. Just as Bauman writes “to do so, we don’t need to study and master Goffman’s code. Mobile phones will do. We can buy them; complete with all the skills we may need for the purpose, in a high-street shop. With a headset attachment securely in place, we parade our detachment from the street we walk, no longer needing the elaborate etiquette. By switching on the mobile, we switch off the street.” 10

1-10. Zygmunt Bauman. Interview: Identity (Psychology Press, 2005), 1-10.