Sunday, February 20, 2011

what stuff means

Seems to me human existence is dominated by two questions: who am I? and what does that mean?

Don't think you can answer the second without somehow resolving the first. Questions about what stuff means are useless unless one figures out who is asking.

Of course the first question is easily, but superficially, answered by ideas about belonging. Philosopher and writer Julia Kristeva imagines societies as providing a symbolic order to which all humans long for a place to live in. Humans are what they do in the symbolic order of things.

Kristeva is of course describing a more or less systematic ordering of expectations in social structures, where identity is satisfied by the discharge of a set of obligations delineated by custom, and sometimes also by legislative force.

Some traditional structures are, of course, a one-stop shop. A Priest, for example, has a formal place in an institution structured around answers to questions about what stuff means. The factories of Western society's now vanished industries produced a literate working class that engaged with identity and meaning based on ideas about science and economy rather than creation stories.

I always thought tram drivers had it good, because they always know where they are going, and where they came from. I guess driving a train might also solve multiple existential issues at once, but trains are less bounded by familiar neighbourhoods, and all that empty space outside (or outback) cities introduces an air of uncertainty that is markedly absent in metropolitan suburbia.

But for most of the rest of us, and especially those in the new economy of impermanence, temporary contracts and casual employment, finding a place in the symbolic order of things, and the sense of identity that  it comes with, is fraught. And paradoxically, in the information age, answers have become that much harder to find.

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