A Blank Page: The Protean Self in Liquid Modernity

Hey beautiful people,

A few updates in our wisdom gym …

Collective Presencing is having three sessions now, each recurring every second week:

  • Tuesday @ 3 AM ET restarts on July 6th. RSVP here

  • Friday @ 8 AM ET restarts on July 2nd. RSVP here.

  • Friday @ 12 PM ET restarts on July 9th. RSVP here.

If you have no idea what Collective Presencing is, you can watch Ria talk about the practice here, and you can watch an actual practice session here. I also recommend you check out Ria’s book, which can be found here.

Also, our daily Collective Journalling sessions, originally meant to run for the duration of Rebel Wisdom’s Becoming a Live Player course, will be continuing for at least another month. You can RSVP to those via The Stoa’s Patreon.

Tomorrow’s events:

  • Collective Journaling w/ Peter Limberg. Daily @ 8:00 AM ET. Patreon event. 90 mins.

  • Collective Presencing w/ Ria Baeck and Co-Hosts. Every Second Friday @ 8:00 AM ET. RSVP here. 90 mins

Newly posted events:

  • Self-Abidance: A Contemplative Performance w/ Andrew Taggart. July 27th @ 6:00 PM ET. RSVP here. 90 mins.

  • Death Nesting w/ Anne-Marie Keppel. July 28th @ 12:00 PM ET. RSVP here

  • Solarpunk: A Narrative Strategy for a Broken Present, a Memetic Engine for a Better World w/ Jay Springett. August 17th @ 12:00 PM ET. RSVP here.


July 1st, 2021

I was suddenly called to write last night. Words just started to flow, and the following entry felt like it was channelled...

One word is needed to make a blank page no longer blank. 

The page was blank a moment ago. It is not blank now. I was staring at a blank page for a while, not knowing what to write, and the word “one” was the one word that ended a blank page. One word without another seemed kind of lonely, so I added another word, and then another.

More words came, and more words are coming now. I do not know when the words will end, nor do I care. I do not want to care about that kind of stuff. I like writing like how I am writing now. I do not know if this is good writing. I just want to write plainly today. 

This letter will arrive in people’s inboxes. Some will never open this letter, and some will open it but not read it. Some people will be reading this, like how you are reading this right now. Some people may enjoy reading this, some may not. I am curious if you enjoy reading this. 

This curiosity makes me want to write like there are no words between us. Writing plainly seems like a good way to do this. The thing is here now. The thing that visits when two people are together, really together. Staying with this thing makes me want to cry, and I do not want to cry right now. 

The page still feels blank, like the word “one” was never here. I could delete all of the words now, making it seem like none of them were here. The page would be blank again. I do miss seeing the page blank. 

I did not know what to make of this. I was called to send it out last night, but it was strange, so I asked Camille what she thought, and she also thought it was strange. It is strange, and probably too strange, so I opted not to send it.

These channelled words did have a therapeutic effect on me though. Something felt lighter after allowing those words to flow, and an existential opening happened. I am glad, because I felt stuck recently, and I was looking for an opening.

The Becoming a Live Player course that I co-designed and co-facilitated started on May 13th and it ends today. It was a good experience overall, but now I am ready for a blank page. A live player should always have a blank page nearby.

I have been thinking about the course, and two terms are coming to mind, which I am holding tightly together: “liquid modernity” and “the protean self.” The former comes from the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, and the latter from the psychologist Robert Jay Lifton.

Bauman contrasts liquid modernity to “solid modernity,” which is the phase of modernity that presented itself with certainty and order, and had a utopian telos, promising a perfect world on the horizon. Science was supposed to be the panacea for all the ills that organized religion brought, and technology was supposed to lead to a utopia where we did not have to work.

In contrast, liquid modernity, which started to come online after the Second World War, is defined by endemic uncertainty, and characterized by "ambient insecurity, anxiety and fear.” There is no final state for us to collectively chase after, we just have an endless series of improvements, short-term projects, and casual connections. The praxis of consumption has replaced the praxis of tradition, and nothing has time to solidify to offer a base for coherent meaning-making.

To quote Bauman from his book Liquid Modernity:

Forms of modern life may differ in quite a few respects – but what unites them all is precisely their fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change. To ‘be modern’ means to modernize – compulsively, obsessively; not so much just ‘to be’, let alone to keep its identity intact, but forever ‘becoming’, avoiding completion, staying underdefined.

This passage gets at the heart of endemic uncertainty:

To put it bluntly, under conditions of ‘liquidity’ everything could happen yet nothing can be done with confidence and certainty. Uncertainty results, combining feelings of ignorance (meaning the impossibility of knowing what is going to happen), impotence (meaning the impossibility of stopping it from happening) and an elusive and diffuse, poorly specified and difficult to locate fear; fear without an anchor and desperately seeking one. Living under liquid modern conditions can be compared to walking in a minefield: everyone knows an explosion might happen at any moment and in any place, but no one knows when the moment will come and where the place will be.

Yeah, we are swimming in liquid modernity, and Bauman captures the precariousness of this swimming pretty well. I am not a fan of the negative valence that his framing brings though. I sense being a good Stoic here is the right move. Let us amor fati this, aka love thy fate, and lean into liquid modernity. Robert Jay Lifton’s writings on “the protean self” share a lot of Bauman’s assessment of endemic uncertainty, but his framing provides a positive valence, and his proposal for a protean self is optimistic in nature.

As Lifton writes:

Without quite realizing it we have been evolving a sense of self appropriate to the restlessness and flux of our time. This mode of being differs radically from that of the past, and enables us to engage in continuous exploration and personal experiment. I have named it the 'protean self' after Proteus, the Greek sea god of many forms.

The path of the protean self does require constant change and reinvention. It requires one to be a shapeshifter. We do not have to shapeshift in a superficial and glib way though. The logic of late-stage capitalism wants to turn us into consumerist fuck bodies, and that may be the default for many, but it does not have to be for us.

Endemic uncertainty is kind of wonderful actually, as it prevents us from turning to comfortable narratives, and provides an opportunity to become intimate with the state of fear itself, and not the proxies for fear. This state of fear is what predators capitalize on, and this state is what philosophers (the real kind) encourage us to get into the right relationship with.

We are all becoming protean selves, whether we like it or not, and if we want to be artful in swimming in liquid modernity, we need to have a blank page nearby. Sometimes we have to stare at this blank page dumbstruck, overwhelmed and terrified at the potential in front of us.

Infinite possibilities are found in the blankness, and sometimes it takes courage to put down one word. It is worth it though, because one word is often what is needed to start an adventure.


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