Subscriptions



Identities without a Reference:

Towards a Theory of Posthuman Identity

1The process of modernisation can be understood to have contributed to a radical loss of collective and individual orientation, by depriving geography of identity, and replacing ‘place’ by ‘space’. "Space", writes Klapp, "robs identity. Place, on the other hand, nurtures it, tells you who you are" (28). If the replacement of place by space is an achievement of modernity, the replacement of space by time can be considered a postmodern hallmark. The fact is that cultures are now bounded as entities more in time than in space, and "time depth now prevails over field depth" (Virilio 24). It is, in other words, the unfolding of time that reflects change more immediately than does spatial distance. In fact space itself is now defined by time.

2The 200-year development course of the meter as the unit of length, for example, displays an interesting parallel to the space-time transition. In 1793 the French government decided the unit of length to be 10-7 of the earth's quadrant passing through Paris and to be called meter. It became clear in further examinations that the earth's quadrant had been miscalculated, but this discovery did not stop the use of the unit. Initially referred to as "meter of the archives", the unit was announced in 1799 to be based on a measurement of a meridian between Dunkirk and Barcelona, embodied by a rectangular platinum bar with polished parallel ends. This bar, which was supposed to equal one ten-millionth (10-7) part of the quadrant of the earth, went on to serve as the international standard of length throughout the 19th century. In 1872, the length was set as the official definition of meter by the International Commission of the Meter, even though it was admitted that "its relationship to a quadrant of the earth was tenuous and of little consequence anyway"1. The original bar was then replaced by another platinum-iridium line tool which was christened "the international prototype meter" and its 'copies' were distributed between member countries of the International Metric Convention in 1889. This definition was to serve as the reference of length until the mid-twentieth century. In 1960, following decades of deliberation, meter was redefined in the Eleventh General Conference on Weights and Measures as "1,659,763.73 vacuum wavelengths of light resulting from unperturbed atomic energy level transition 2p10 - 5d5 of the krypton isotope having an atomic weight of 86". This is an interesting development, because now the concept of length is removed from a geographical reference like the distance between Dunkirk and Barcelona to a 'virtual', non-geographical space like the distance between the peaks of the sine waves of a certain type of light. Finally in 1983 the meter was redefined once again. This time the definition refers directly to time as the unit for measuring space. The meter is defined currently as "the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second". A fast glance at this history reveals the absence of 'real' reference for what we have come to accept as the 'standard' unit, and the unstable nature of this unit. More intriguingly, the course of development of this definition portrays the gradual progression of reference from geographic place to virtual space and from there to time.

Shrinking Time

3If the modern question of identity concerned locality and spatial reference, what informs the question of identity in the postmodern condition is primarily defined by temporal locatedness and virtual geography or even virtual space. This progression then causes speed to inevitably inform the issue of identification reference. The speed of environmental change is gradually approaching a point where identity could lack a reference, a precedence with which to identify oneself. The conflict is fundamental: if self-identification has traditionally always already implied a reference in time, then acceleration is inherently the enemy of identity, by continuously curtailing the ‘stuff’ identity is made of. It is not a coincidence perhaps that the concerns of social sciences have gradually moved from being able to predict the future to being content with simply explaining the present, as the high speed of change leaves little room for the luxury of prediction.

4If the modern question of identity concerned locality and spatial reference, what informs the question of identity in the postmodern condition is primarily defined by temporal locatedness and virtual geography or even virtual space. This progression then causes speed to inevitably inform the issue of identification reference. The speed of environmental change is gradually approaching a point where identity could lack a reference, a precedence with which to identify oneself. The conflict is fundamental: if self-identification has traditionally always already implied a reference in time, then acceleration is inherently the enemy of identity, by continuously curtailing the ‘stuff’ identity is made of. It is not a coincidence perhaps that the concerns of social sciences have gradually moved from being able to predict the future to being content with simply explaining the present, as the high speed of change leaves little room for the luxury of prediction.

5If we describe the postmodern condition as a condition where ‘the critical referential distance’ of identity approaches zero (the contraction of time), then the increase in speed of change can, theoretically at least, lead to a reversal of the orders of reference (see above). This may in fact be conceptualised as a reversal in the order of signification, so that the signifier precedes the signified. Though extremely important for a theory of posthuman identity, the possibility and implications of such reversal are not within the scope of the present paper. Presently applicable, however, is the more-or-less current postmodern predicament, within which self-identification seems to be running short of reference. To imagine a system of meaning wherein the act of self-identification (as traditionally done by humans) is unfeasible is to imagine a constant state of flux, a seamless ocean of meaning, a state traditionally considered pathological and diagnosed schizoid: a "smooth space," which is "in principle infinite, open, and unlimited in every direction"; and which "has neither top nor bottom nor centre" (Deleuze & Guattari 476). It is not difficult to realise that the ‘self’ native to this environment cannot be the human self we are familiar with. In the words of Gergen, the postmodern self resides in "a continuous state of construction and reconstruction", a fluid landscape where "each reality of self gives way to reflexive questioning, irony, and ultimately the playful probing of yet another reality", a reality where "the centre fails to hold" (6). While such conception of a posthuman to come may appear fantastic, the undeniable fact is that the postmodern condition is constantly expanding its reach, erasing boundaries, transforming nations, and dissolving temporal horizons. "Here as elsewhere, in our ordinary everyday life", writes Virilio, "we are passing from the extensive time of history to the intensive time of an instantaneity without history made possible by the technologies of the hour" (24-5).

Conclusion

6As the progression of speed renders space and time as constituents of human reality less inflexible, it becomes imperative for any new theory of identity to accommodate a conception of ‘identity’ ultimately unconstrained by these grids. Such theoretical argument, however, needs to be accompanied by serious political considerations. Despite the specific philosophical perspective endorsed through the language of this paper, and while accepting Bauman’s suggestion that "identity is a name given to the sought escape from uncertainty" (82), I would insist nonetheless that political and clinical concerns demand certain concepts-to-work-with, certain constructions meant to ‘translate’ Being into the human reality. True, such translation spells ‘violence’, but the fact is that in a final analysis violence appears as the ‘other’ name for being, and any semiotic construction of the world always already exists through a systemised (if partial) negation of Being. That is to say, a philosophical appreciation of the void behind the term "identity" does not necessarily render a conceptualisation of identity futile. The challenge, however, may lie in gradually freeing the concept, so as to move as far as possible from positivistic reification towards the least rigid conceptualisations permitted within the current discourse of a given era. Currently, for example, the notions of change and fluidity championed by postmodern thinkers may provide useful metaphors towards such liberation of the working concept.