Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity, and Politics between the Modern and the Postmodern

By Douglas Kellner | Go to book overview

Chapter 7

Television, advertising, and the construction of postmodern identities

According to anthropological and sociological folklore, in traditional societies, one’s identity was fixed, solid, and stable. Identity was a function of predefined social roles and a traditional system of myths which provided orientation and religious sanctions to define one’s place in the world, while rigorously circumscribing the realm of thought and behavior. One was born and died a member of one’s clan, of a fixed kinship system, and of one’s tribe or group with one’s life trajectory fixed in advance. In premodern societies, identity was unproblematical and not subject to reflection or discussion. Individuals did not undergo identity crises, or radically modify their identity. One was a hunter and a member of the tribe and gained one’s identity through these roles and functions.

In modernity, identity becomes more mobile, multiple, personal, self-reflexive, and subject to change and innovation. 1 Yet identity in modernity is also social and other-related. Theorists of identity from Hegel through G.H. Mead have often characterized personal identity in terms of mutual recognition, as if one’s identity depended on recognition from others combined with self-validation of this recognition. Yet the forms of identity in modernity are also relatively substantial and fixed; identity still comes from a circumscribed set of roles and norms: one is a mother, a son, a Texan, a Scot, a professor, a socialist, a Catholic, a lesbian—or rather a combination of these social roles and possibilities. Identities are thus still relatively fixed and limited, though the boundaries of possible identities, of new identities, are continually expanding.

Indeed, in modernity, self-consciousness comes into its own; it becomes possible to continually engage in reflection on available social roles and possibilities and gains a distance from tradition (Kolb 1986). One can choose and make—and then remake—one’s identity as one’s life-possibilities change and expand or contract. Modernity also increases other-directedness, however, for as the number of possible identities increases, one must gain recognition to assume a socially validated, recognized identity. In modernity, there is still a structure of interaction with socially defined and available roles, norms, customs, and expectations, among which one must choose and reproduce to gain identity in a complex process of mutual recognition. In this way, the other is a constituent of identity in modernity and, consequently, the other-directed character is a familiar type in late modernity,

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