Journal of Modern Literature 25.3-4 (2002) 1-13
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Modernism's Global Identity:
On the Dogmatic Imagination in Yeats, Freud, and Beyond
Daniel T. O'Hara
The question of identity is never a purely academic matter. As we see every day, in America's War Against Terrorism, civilizations clash over identity, with great violence. This is especially true in the modern world, in which technology has fostered the power to lay waste to combatants and civilians alike on a massive scale without precedent in human history. How identities are formed, what shapes they take, how they defend themselves once formed, and how they change, if they really do, are all questions embedded within a larger philosophical question of identity, particularly with the global advent of modernity, which early in the last century struck the minds of leading Western intellectuals with considerable force. This larger question, traditionally phrased, is: "What is man?" By which, I mean here, what does it mean to say that a person, a culture, a world or historical period, hasan identity? The question of identity is really the question of possessing an essence. 1
However that may be in general, W.B. Yeats and Sigmund Freud conceive of human identity as being substantially dependent, for its "essence" (whatever that may be), upon the operation of a comprehensive and coherent system of symbols whose cultural power they call, respectively, "myth" or "illusion." Although Yeats thinks that all myth is true in some fundamental sense, and Freud thinks that all myths are illusory and so false if pandemic, both agree that the system of interlocking symbols constituting the cultural machinery of a society works by means of great coordinating mythologies, or the manifold illusion to produce and enforce identity. What is striking to both of them about modern society, especially after the First World War, is the absence of any master symbol to stitch together the symbolic strands or to forge, into a significant whole, the [End Page 1] chain of elements now making up cultural identity. Not only "God," but every other candidate for the position of master symbol appears outmoded, disposable, if not already disposed. Despite their considerable differences, Yeats the occult intellectual, and Freud, the Enlightenment enthusiast, view this unparalleled situation in human history — in which the totality of a culture's resources to create and sustain identity appears to function without any authoritative central symbol — as apocalyptically dire and potentially destructive of the entire species. To them, in sum, humanity is in danger either of losing its essence, of becoming inessential, or, worse, perhaps, of recognizing its essentially essence-less or purely contingent nature, and so of becoming completely disposable.
One of the defining features of the contemporary cultural moment is the global reach of this modern situation of symbolic destitution. It is important that we understand precisely what this situation means for our culture, as well as why it is now so prevalent and seemingly ineradicable. A positive way of looking at the modern phenomenon of symbolic destitution, of course, is to see it as a potentially liberating by-product of the spread of political democracy to more and more countries and concurrently to the various strata of international cultural production, the telecommunications industry, and so on (contemporary cosmopolitanism). This is no doubt true, as far as it goes, ideologically speaking. However, I prefer to look at the situation from the materialist point of view of the old Marxist question: "Whose interests does the situation of modernity serve?" Admittedly, the "who" in this "whose" may be more often a class or elite groups of people rather than specified individuals; nonetheless, I believe that answering this question will clarify the situation more effectively than other critical approaches to modernity.
As we know from Marx's famous analysis in Das Kapital of the conditions of labor under capitalism, the situation most favorable to it is one in which the worker stands before the capitalist virtually without any resources other than his or her own...