Although the overall tone of the piece strikes me as needlessly impetuous and polemical, I agree with a central point in Brendan O’Neill’s essay on identity politics at the spiked review. He’s right in saying that subjective experience is one of the primary factors in the formation of identity and worldview among my generation. The internal world — a world of feeling, self-identification, and introspection — has displaced communal, external touchstones of identity formation, such as belonging to a particular nation, class, or religious community.
To use the example upon which O’Neill spends the most time grinding his axe, the old idea of two distinct genders — male and female — each with its own set of expectations and obligations rooted in the given, objective nature of one’s body, has been to a large degree delegitimized and replaced by a notion of gender rooted in interior experience: regardless of my given body, what gender do I feel that I am? Do the duties and modes of expression traditionally assigned to my biological sex resonate with or stifle my authentic self? The “authentic self” that is liberated in this development is one that can pick and choose fragments from the rubble of traditional gender roles, as well as create an array of new, more nuanced and particular genders (genderqueer, gender fluid, pangender, transmasculine, etc.) This free-floating, ambiguously gendered self resembles Nietzsche’s “ideal of a spirit who plays naively…with everything that has hitherto been called holy, good, inviolable, divine” (The Gay Science, Aphorism 382). And what is true with gender, O’Neill argues, is true in other arenas of our lives: the ethical, political, and religious realms once rooted in objective, communal forms of life have ceded ground to a fragmented multiplicity of of sub-sub-sub-cultures that hear no other voices but their own.
O’Neill is critical of this rise of subjectivity in modern life. Following Christopher Lasch, he credits this rise with the creation of a generation of “individuals whose sense of self [is] ‘weak, ungrounded, defensive, insecure’,” individuals who are essentially narcissistic.
There is something to this analysis. The loss of robust forms of local community in the modern world is a major impediment to the full development of the human potential inherent in each person. This impeding often takes the form of individuals wrapping themselves in cocoons — cultural, conceptual, spiritual — of their own making, hindering opportunities for connection.
Yet I also think this analysis misses something. The Gods of Nation, Class, Religion and Sex have indeed died and been replaced by a proliferation of self-made gods. This development can and does often lead to a form of narcissism, yet also carries in it the potential for something else. It enables us to become explorers of a new, uncharted world. The objective, shared world of nature having been exhaustively mapped, developed, and understood, we can now direct our energies towards what Mickey Foley calls “the unknown territories of the mind, body, and soul”. These inner worlds, the oceans of our unconscious selves, have been plumbed with increasing sophistication since the advent of modern psychology. One unusual and exciting discovery so far has been that of the kaleidoscopic nature of the way we experience and embody gender. The new, often confusing, vocabularies of the gender nonconforming community can be seen in this light as a new map of this new world, new terrain in which to engage and discover.