Temporal Identities?

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Reading “You Had to Be There” gave me intense flashbacks to my thesis. My thesis was about the contemporary revival of Confucianism in China. Comparing the Confucian revival to other religious and nationalist revivals around the world — including the boom of spirituality in the West since the 1980s– I conclude that they all stem from the same phenomenon: globalization in the age of neoliberal capitalism.

One of the most interesting academic fields I encountered in my research was the study of postmodernity. Because of the spread of technology and mass media, our world is more globally uniform than ever before. This means that we have become unmoored from geography– the place in which we live matters less to who we are than ever before. On top of this, our world is changing faster than we have ever known it to change. Many of the scholars I read talked of the sense of existential dread and anxiety that results from the combination of these two phenomena.

Reading the Atlantic article made me think about this unmooring in a different way. Madrigal states that things are changing at a breakneck speed in our present world– of course, anybody could see that. “Everything’s speedin’ up!” Shock. Anxiety. Dread at how things are changing faster than ever before. But then Madrigal began to write of the “sweetness” of being able to “join the club” of those who have lived through the same thing. You had to be there– a body in a culture at a point in time. 

In my thesis, I conclude that the revivals of nationalism and religion in the past half-century are driven by attempts to alleviate the perpetual feeling of existential anxiety that accompanies life in today’s world. To anchor oneself in a religious or nationalist community provides feelings of groundedness and safety that are missing from the lives of many. Madrigal’s article suggests another way that people try to anchor themselves– by establishing their identities in a slice of time, being able to join the “club” of “90s kids,” for example.

Having become unmoored from geographical space, perhaps we are trying to put down roots in temporal space. After all, even in the digital realm we cannot escape time.

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