The Rise of the Social Self and the New World Orderby
It was Aristotle who wrote in Politics, “Man is a social animal,” some 2500 years ago. It’s taken us about this long to realize that society is not just a construct necessary for the stability of our systems of governance but also the source of our identity.
Whether you subscribe to the view of communitarians like MacIntyre, Taylor and Walzer who reject the idea of the individual as having an a priori identity prior to society; or buy into the view of the “unencumbered self” espoused by liberal social theory that suggests that identity is inherent and (to some extent) primordial, you cannot escape the fact that both––opposing––camps, agree on the formative role social groups play upon identity.
“In premodern times,” according to Taylor, “people didn't speak of ‘identity’ ... not because people didn't have (what we call) identity ... but rather because [it] was too unproblematic to be thematized as such” (Taylor, 1985, p. 262). The suggestion here is that in the transition from the past to the present we have ‘lost’ something that enabled us to understand who we are.
Modernists speak of the fragmented self as if it’s a de facto
construct, its shards evident to analysis. Nothing could be further from the truth. In getting from the uncomplicated past to the present we have also transitioned from a time when identity was ascribed to us by a combination of birth, family and occupation, to a moment when we feel that we can contextually be anything we want to be.
The key here is the word, contextually. The fragmentation of self the modernists decry is nothing more than the adaptive mechanism of modern man facing novel situations. In each case, in every case the answer to the eternal question of Who are you? evolves out of the moment and its situation.
All things being equal the modernists might have got away with a point here. Contextualize us enough and we begin to get a little thin. Our sense of self lost in who we have to be and who we think we are (or can be). From a mental health point of view this is not the best situation to find ourselves in.
What saves us here is our technology. The connectivity revolution and the wide adoption of social media have enabled the fragments of the self, for the first time ever, to come together in a way that makes sense out of our inherent contradictions. When the whole world is indeed a stage and we realize we are all players upon it, the shards of who we are in any context become data nodes, the edges of the connection of each node side by side with the others, and all connected with the supposed center of us, so as to give rise to a semantic identity that redefines us. The notion of the self of old, who we were, was rooted in frameworks of conflicting values. Family. State. Religion. Society. Each made demands predicated on duty and offered a token of identity, a named role, in return. Is it possible we really no longer need that?
Maybe, for the first time in history we can balance the demands of contradictory frameworks, delicately picking our way amongst them, not because we do not care, but because we can now choose what to care about. It is a liberating experience.
Aristotle was right. We are social animals. Free to choose, unconstrained by the frameworks that shaped our sense of self in the past, we make the choices that define us, controlling both who we are and who we become.
The process is transformative. Changing our selves. By association, we begin to change the world.
Taylor, Charles. (1985). “Legitimation Crisis?” in Philosophy and the Human Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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About the Artist:
José Toledo Ordoñez is a Guatemalan sculptor, painter, movie producer, and art and literature promoter. This multifaceted profile has allowed him to expose his sculptures in 22 individual exhibitions, in places as prestigious as the José Luis Cuevas’s Museum and Diego Rivera’s Museum, both in Mexico, the Art Gallery of the International Development Bank in Washington, D.C., and now at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. He has also unveiled 10 urban sculptures in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Guatemala.
In his Geneva exhibition, the Ambassador of Guatemala, Carla Rodríguez Mancia, stated: “No better place could have been chosen for this première than the city of Geneva which is internationally known for its commitment to peace, security, and development, seat of the Office of the United Nations, a global message for a global city and a global word. Many have also approached me for an explanation on the title of the exhibition: Dangerous Sculptures. I can really assure you tha
t the only danger that you might face while admiring these sculptures is the danger of changing your mind and your attitudes in a way that will surely contribute to a better world for all.”
Finally, the artist quoted: “My message goes against the destruction of nature and the degradation of human relations in all senses: violence, war, injustice, and of course, the destruction of art itself associated with truth and human values. Hence the name of this expo: Dangerous Sculptures, because truth hurts and the search of freedom threatens human race oppressors."
You may contact the artist by email at:
The photograph of the sculpture that introduces this article is entitled, "Scream."