Monday, 4 June 2007

The Story So Far...

My blog postings so far have explored the origins and some of the dimensions of the paradigm change currently in progress. We began with the roots of the change in the dynamics of population demographics, and explored the nature of paradox and orthodoxy to better understand the ground within which the change is occuring. We then explored how the change affects us in our individual make-up and our immediate social relationships, with intimates, family and friends.

In the next series of postings, I want to shift the focus somewhat, to examine the socio-economic implications of this on a broader canvas. I want to address issues such as the huge inequities that persist between the rich and the poor of our planet, and how these come into the picture. What is the nature of the economy that must struggle to come into being in a world of near zero economic growth? How must business change?

What is government and how will it be affected, as a major institution? What new forms of government are emerging?

What about the shadow side of the picture? How might the recognition that we are multiple and inconsistent change how we deal with the shadow self and the shadow side of social relations? What possibilities exist for new social forms as a result?

Are there impacts on religion and spirituality of this change? How will these aspects of our humanity mutate? They have already undergone tremendous change in the 20th century, but they are due for much more in the 21st.

Another area I plan to address is the issue of human health. Our understanding of health and our relationships to our bodies will also likely change as a result of the paradigm change in progress. I shall be exploring some of these issues as well.

Finally, we shall need to bring these different strands together and examine our living patterns, how we build communities, and on what basis might they exist in the "post-sustainable world".

The main argument throughout this discussion is that, although the overall focus is within the context of sustainability, the underlying fabric of our societies is changing and hence the issue of sustainability must be understood within a new grounding, rather than on the old one.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

More on Identity

I spoke at a meeting organized by the students in the Museum Studies program (Muséologie) at Laval University this past Saturday, on the nature of identity and the change currently in progress. This allowed me to consolidate and further develop these ideas.

In an earlier post, I describe a shift in how we view identity in three areas - from a focus on history to a valorisation of the now, from a focus on identity as a centre to the idea of identity as peripheral, and from a single, coherent entity to a multiple incoherent entity.

One of the ways of highlighting the latter is the shift from the idea that one may have a single national identity to the idea that one may have passports from many different countries. I remember reading about a journalist (Wilfred Burdett) in the 1970s who carried 24 passports with him... although still an exceptional case today, the idea of having several passports is no longer as strange a concept as it once was.

Some people wonder if the difference between having one identity and one of having many isn't just "a question of semantics", of how one defines identity. Of course, this may certainly be true, but I believe there are differences that go deeper. Essentially, I believe that the self, the whole of who we are as individuals, encompasses many more states of being than we usually recognize or acknowledge, or even than we can know. Modern neurology tells us that the brain is modular, that it is organized into a large number of distinct units, each with a particular function, and that the whole behaviour of the brain is an emergent property of the interaction of all these different parts. What, then, is identity and how may we define and understand it? Is it the complete collection of all these elements as they manifest themselves in behavioural expression?

But we know that, from a certain perspective, the self is not only the brain and the body, but it is also our interaction with the environment. We do not simply act on the environment, the environment acts upon us through our interactions and changes us. Different environmental interactions allow different possible behaviours for the self to emerge, even to come into being. So to be complete, we would have to define a "full identity" as including all the behavioural components, beliefs, values, etc. stored and expressed in the brain, the body and the environment. But this definition makes the self very large indeed - it incorporates most of the universe!

If we agree to separate the self - as - identity from the environment, then we may already have several selves with different behavioural characteristics, depending upon the environment within which they function. These selves may be viewed as sequential, that is, as an evolution or transformation of the self over time. This is often how we find a way to reconcile the idea of multiple selves within an individual - that is, we allow for the possibility that the individual may evolve over time. But this is not so very different from accepting that one may have several functional identities "in parallel", that is, they function in different environments over the same time span. Hence the notion of multiple identities within a single "self" is commensurate with modern cognitive theory.

Once we accept the idea that we may have more than one identity, more than one set of characteristic behaviours, values, strategies, beliefs and representations of the world, then it becomes possible for these different sets to contradict each other - in values, in strategies, in beliefs or in the representations of the world that we use. Indeed, if we go back to the argument that the self is larger than any given identity, then inconsistency is necessary. We know inconsistency is part of what it is to be human, the effort to enforce a "consistent human image" has failed whenever it has been attempted. Humans rebel against consistency, sometimes murderously, violently.

There is another reason it is necessary to view humans as fundamentally inconsistent. Essentially, we embrace death within our beings, but death is by its very nature inconsistent with the rest. Part of our current culture is to deny the existence of death within us, to exorcise the idea of death from our beings, another way of enforcing orthodoxy. Such a program is doomed to failure. We all die, and sooner or later, we must confront this fact of our existence. The introduction of death and its awareness into the psyche, into the self, means that we must necessarily embrace a form of inconsistency. A healthy response to accepting our eventual death is therefore to accept that we are multiple, inconsistent, and larger than we can know.

As indicated above, the nature of our being is fundamentally fragmentary. The idea of integrity, of us being single, is an illusion. The cognitive system is very good at maintaining such illusions - it fools us into thinking we are single, that our vision is complete and has no holes, that our perception of time is continuous, that we are eternally alive, that our consciousness is most of us, and so on. These are all illusions.

This idea of the self as fragmentary and as multiple actually leads us into this other observation about how our perception of the self is changing - that we are not determined by our history but that we determine ourselves through our actions in the now. The problem with the history argument is that it requires a simple and single definition of the self - otherwise, who's history are we discussing? Also, for the self to change, no change is possible without action. We change ourselves through our actions. For this to be true, it cannot be the case that we are determined solely or even primarily by the history of our interactions with the world.

Hence every action we take constitutes an activation, a reinforcement, even a mutation of some characteristic of the different parts that make us up, some transformation of one or more of our identities. We take responsability for ourselves when we act. This moves us away from the socio-cognitive model of morality we have adopted for the past several decades, into a more embodied, direct form of morality. In the socio-cognitive model, our values and actions are determined by what we learn from our parents and our social and cultural environment at an early age, and these determine what moral behaviour we shall adopt. It is an argument of "history determines who you are". But under the new paradigm, I determine who I am by the actions I take. This allows for exceptions, it allows individuals with a common history and family to take on radically different moral stances. Although this is not common, it happens, and it is perhaps more common than we have been led to believe.

Not only does our history no longer define who we are, but our sources of authority are changing. Within the older idea of identity, authority was centralized into key and significant individuals - parents, prime ministers, school teachers, bosses, and so forth. The notion of expertise is also rooted in the idea that particular individuals may become "central authorities", simply because they have the right credentials, not necessarily because what they have to say is right or useful or valuable. In today's world of the blog, although central authorities get some coverage, this does not make what they have to say important, unless it makes sense. Within the purview of collective intelligence, what we each have to say contributes, but does not determine, global awareness. There is no centrality, no credentials, unless what one has to say reflects the collective understanding. Authority has become peripheral, and expertise, communal.

Finally, our old sense of identity was delimited by our belongings, by the groups to which we belonged - Canadians, Christians, academics, westerners, professors, men, etc. to name but a few that circumvent my identity. In today's world, however, we belong to fewer and fewer long term groups. Instead, we participate in networks, but networks are not defined by belongings but by flows. Within networks, relationships are constantly changing, and our presence is actualized by our activities, our actions in the now, not by our histories. We are constantly moving from one network to another. We do not "invest" in networks the same way we invested in groups in which we were members, rather we engage with networks and then switch or move on to new ones. The process is more dynamic, more fluid, less static, and our identities change likewise with each new participation.

To come back to the context of museum culture, about which I shall have more to say, to survive in the coming decades as our sense of identity continues its transformation, museums among many other institutions, will be called upon to change. Museums as promoters of culture and identity, as questioners and challengers, will continue to be needed, even more so now than in the past. But museums as centralized collections of artefacts will diminish. The notion of holding onto artefacts, material, tangible things, must be rethought within the new paradigm, or the collections will be disrupted and disbanded for lack of funds. Artefacts will have a role to play in the new identity structures, but only if ways are found to valorize them within the new arrangements, not by holding onto and defending old ideas about identity and culture.

These comments are, of course, valid for other institutions which will also need to change if they are survive. More on this another time.