Identity, identity, identity. We can’t stop talking about it. Consider the journal that publishes this blog. Identity was the theme of its inaugural issue, appearing in the fall of 1999, and several issues have circled back to the topic in the years since. “Call it the blessing or curse of modernity, destroyer of all certainties and fixities,” the editor writes in the most recent number, “this compulsion to characterize and define who we think we are, individually and collectively.”
While the business of self-definition remains an inescapable part of the modern condition, perhaps our strategy for handling it can change. So concluded the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in his 1996 essay “From Pilgrims to Tourists—or a Short History of Identity.” Bauman saw the late twentieth century as a significant moment in that history. I propose returning to his analysis to gauge where we are today.
Bauman’s history of identity has three parts. The first addresses the creation of identity itself. Back in the village or old neighborhood, our pre-modern ancestors seldom asked who they were or where they belonged; the facts were plain. Identity, Bauman argued, is the byproduct of the mobile world of modernity. Uprooted from their ancestral haunts, our modern ancestors could not fall back on the traditional coordinates of life, the various givens. Finding themselves in new places, they had to work out who they were on new terms and, in turn, make similar determinations about others. Bauman summarized the new condition:
One thinks of identity whenever one is not sure of where one belongs; that is, one is not sure how to place oneself among the evident variety of behavioral styles and patterns, and how to make sure that people around accept this placement as right and proper, so that both sides would know how to go on in each other’s presence. Hence “identity” is a name given to the escape from that uncertainty.
Identity is thus a social problem from the beginning; it’s a meaning that one has to work out in relation to and in conversation with others who are facing the same questions about where they fit.
Here begins the second part of Bauman’s story. The classic “escape” strategy was to build identities. Not achievable in a day, a year, or even a decade, it was a lifelong project, guided by some larger hope for, or vision of, one’s self. In so many ways, identity-building seemed to Bauman an updated version of the ancient Christian understanding of life as pilgrimage, though this was a pilgrimage very much of this world.
In making the world hospitable for modern pilgrims, however, earlier generations inadvertently revealed the utter pliability of everything, identity included. “The easier it is to emboss a footprint, the easier it is to efface it,” Bauman wrote. He continued:
It soon transpired that the real problem is not how to build identity but how to preserve it; whatever you may build in the sand is unlikely to be a castle. […] It becomes virtually impossible to patch the trodden stretches of sand into an itinerary—let alone into a plan for a lifelong journey.
Accordingly, Bauman saw a new stage in the history of identity emerging in the late twentieth century, which he first called “postmodernity” but later dubbed “liquid modernity.” Inhabitants of this stage fled from the sorts of commitments that pilgrim-style self-construction projects required. Liquid moderns would not, or could not, be “tied down” to the old anchors of identity—fixed addresses, professions, relationships (like spouses and children). Their lifestyles mirrored the world they inhabited, one of “disposable products designed for immediate obsolescence.” The world of the pilgrims was passing away; denizens of the new dispensation survived by keeping themselves mobile, flexible, unattached.
Who would take the pilgrim’s place? Bauman proposed four types: tourist, stroller, vagabond, and player. Collectively, they provide “the metaphor for the postmodern strategy moved by the horror of being bound and fixed.” As their names suggest, the four types evince differences in mentality and station—the player lives from game to game, the stroller shop by shop, the tourist exotic locale by locale, while the poor vagabond gets swept along by the shifting tides of the liquid world. Yet all share a resistance to investing in the plodding daily work of building a resume, a business, a family. Life for them is a series of episodes—each, it is hoped, more thrilling than the last—rather than a carefully plotted journey. If establishing a stable identity was once the point of life, it was now to be avoided at all costs.
Bauman didn’t declare this the final stage in the history of identity-making, although I suspect he believed that his types would be serviceable for some time. On my last reading of the essay six years ago, they still stood up. I saw tourists, players, strollers, and vagabonds in the news, among my friends, and even in my family. I saw their features in my students. I recognized the urges embodied in the types in myself.
Returning to the essay more recently, however, I found far less correspondence between the world Bauman described and the present one. The stroller’s pastimes were shopping at the mall and channel-surfing, not navigating, browsing, or ordering from Amazon, Facebook, Google, or Netflix. Bauman’s tourist never went through a TSA pat-down or a pandemic. The vagabond—Bauman’s figure for the displaced and unemployed—had not yet heard of the gig economy. Bauman’s types, I now see, are deliberate outsiders. The stroller and tourist, in particular, are content to stand (or mosey) at the edge of the action and watch the social world flow by. If they join in, it is not for long. That restlessness is part of how they manage to avoid attaching themselves to anyone or anything too firmly. None of Bauman’s characters would likely engage in the associations and communities that command our attention and engagement now. They would be unlikely to join a protest or LinkedIn. They had no idea of what it is like to be “liked” or “poked” or “friended” on social media. They had no followers.
Rereading the essay highlighted how different the architecture of our social world is only twenty-five years later. Such conspicuous changes suggest that Bauman’s concern—strategies for identity-making and unmaking—is worth revisiting. I would not dismiss Bauman’s characters entirely, however. His types still have purchase as metaphors for possible “life strategies” in our times. I would even argue (pace Bauman) that quite a few pilgrims of the modern and ancient varieties can still be found in our ranks. But the typology—the stock of metaphors—needs renovation. What might an updated or expanded typology include?
I propose that question as a thought experiment or even an invitation to others to take up Bauman’s search for illuminating types and metaphors. To start the conversation, I nominate two candidates: the I-marketer and the strider. The strategies represented by those types certainly do not exhaust the possibilities; there are surely others for dealing with the modern demand of defining who we are and where we belong. But like Bauman’s quartet, my duo does illustrate a larger point: that identity-construction as an ongoing and, equally important, public activity is back in style.
Bauman’s postmodern figures preferred the role of spectator to that of participant. The tourist comes to town to see what the natives do differently before jetting off to the next attraction. The stroller depends on changing shop displays and proliferating TV channels to quench her thirst for novelty. Those desires remain with us. Yet what Bauman could not see in 1996 was how household and handheld technologies then in development would allow us all to be producers and publishers of content, not only its viewers or consumers. He could not see, moreover, that more often than not we would use these devices to share images of ourselves. We are still having the sorts of consumerist, in-town-for-the-weekend experiences that Bauman saw as a hallmark of “liquid” modernity, but the difference is that now we turn the camera on ourselves so that others can consume our experiences (and reward us with “likes”). Bauman’s stroller watches the “telecity” (his term) from the safe remove of her couch. We have entered it and become its stars.
Bauman argued that videotape—erasable and “calculated not to hold anything forever”—was the symbolic medium of postmoderns. I propose the social-media account as its successor. Postmoderns recorded over yesterday’s news, engaging in a process of endless self-recreation. We incessantly update our content, stacking one experience, post, or link on top of another. The operation recalls Bauman’s symbol for pilgrims—the photo album—yet what is being mapped here is not the stages of a planned itinerary. The platform is far too pliable and capacious. There is no need to have a permanently fixed identity; you can change courses at any time. Indeed, the story would seem to demand some plot twists if you are going to add followers.
The follower, that hint of an audience, is, of course, the key to the whole system. Having followers signifies that there is value in the person that you project on the screen. Unlike the pilgrim who marked her success in identity-building by reaching the next life milestone, we can now measure the value of our efforts in real-time, like by like, retweet by retweet. Life has become a marketing campaign in which the product is you.
That is not just a metaphor. Successful self-promotion on social media, we now all know, can translate into cash (or cryptocurrency) or even high political office. Building a brand used to be something that companies did; then athletes and celebrities turned themselves into brands. Now anyone can do it. Indeed, you may have to do it, as employers frequently turn to social media as a way to get to know (and to weed out) applicants. The resume and cover letter you submitted are good first steps; but now your identity needs to be confirmed with a few searches on Google, Facebook, etc.
My “strider” descends from Bauman’s stroller, whom he characterized as the postmodern reincarnation of the nineteenth-century urban flâneur. The stroller is deliberately “marginal,” having withdrawn from the rat race, and thereby freed himself to take in the social world “as one goes to a theatre.” His strolling, Bauman explains,
…means rehearsing human reality as a series of episodes, that is as events without past and with no consequences. It also means rehearsing meeting as mis-meetings, as encounters without impact: the fleeting fragments of other persons’ lives the stroller spun off into stories at will…
Most tellingly, Bauman describes the stroller as “in the crowd but not of the crowd.” The movement now, by contrast, is toward engagement. Bauman saw his contemporaries strolling to escape identities; we striders march on behalf of them.
Yet marching is not our only purposeful stepping-out. Every weekend, striders also run for cures and walk for charities. The point of all of this exercise is not just to gather with the likeminded. It is to be part of the public witness of the crowd. Where the stroller rambled aimlessly, striders follow carefully mapped routes that often pass, by design, through the heart of downtown. Like the I-marketer (who is probably livestreaming the event), the strider is defining who she is—which groups, communities, causes she identifies with—by being seen in action. The stroller was the witness; the strider is part of the show.
Yet as in the case of the I-marketer, I wonder how far the strider has moved beyond Bauman’s world. The key issue is the episodic nature of such events and the looseness of the affiliation with the others in attendance. You went to the march. You finished the 5k. You attended the rally. You have added your voice. You feel as though you are part of something. But then the event concludes and the crowd of strangers disperses. What to do until the next one forms? How strong or stable is this identification? Sociologists who study the “activist identity” have raised all of these questions, and I suspect that many of us are asking it about ourselves in light of recent events. As with the I-marketer’s self-projection, we may wonder how closely our striding relates to our everyday walking.
If the I-marketer and the strider are successful in gaining admission into the typology, they surely will not be the last additions. And even as new types emerge, none of the “life strategies” of modernity, liquid or otherwise, ever fully disappears. The business of finding, shaping, and blending identities is the protean task of our age.