Monday, September 19, 2016

A Clarissa rethink?

Some years ago I wrote a series of posts (here and here) about a liberal academic blogger called Clarissa. She followed the liberal script in an orthodox way, believing that inherited identities are oppressive and should be thrown off in favour of self-defined ones:
modernity is destroying old certitudes, identities and ways of being. Modernity is liberating in the sense that we are a lot less tied to collective identities ascribed to us at birth. Gender identities, normative sexualities, class origins, religious backgrounds still exist, of course. Nevertheless, they are nowhere as binding as they used to be before the advent of modernity...A society that strictly prescribes its collective identities offers people a great degree of freedom from the irksome necessity to make their own decisions. At birth, you are handed a set of norms that you are supposed to observe as a representative of your gender, social class, religious denomination, etc. You accumulate enough of these collective allegiances and you can guarantee that pretty much every aspect of your life will be defined for you

It's a clear message: liberal modernity is a good thing because rather than our identity already being defined for us, it is now self-defined.

I have argued against this view numerous times at this site. If our identity can't be based on predetermined qualities like our membership of an ethny, or our sex, but only on things that we can define for ourselves, then our identity becomes more shallow - it is based on lifestyle choices rather than on deeper aspects of our created nature.

I took a look at Clarissa's site again this morning and I was surprised that she now has a more ambivalent attitude toward the modernist project. In a review of a novel by Philip Roth she writes:
If you cut off your roots in search of freedom, will you find it or will you wither and die? Now that we have shed our oppressive, restrictive familial and cultural bonds, has fluidity given us anything in return? Or are we, like the novel’s protagonist, floating around in limbo, incapable of making a connection with anybody?

This still has a liberal bias in that she describes the ties of family and culture as being oppressive, but at least she is questioning the quality of the "freedom" the individual has, once he or she has been reduced to an atomised existence.


  1. Destruction is never constructive. Once traditional identities are destroyed, there will be nothing but their remains. This sad person seems obsessed with familial oppression. She may be an unfortunate exception, a daughter of a wholly dysfunctional family, I have no idea of her life history. For most people, if they're in trouble, family is their only hope. Friends and acquaintances generally turn out to be fair weather types. Maybe Clarissa doesn't (yet) know what hardship is?

    1. Good point. I know that there are exceptions, but most people have the experience that their blood relations are their most secure form of support in life (some young people who are in the process of asserting independence from their parents might have the sense of familial ties being oppressive, but as we go through life it will often be a parent or sibling who shows the most steadfast loyalty to us).