Exploring the phenomenon of Identity in modern culture offers a fascinating key towards understanding the present era. ‘Identity’ has been a crucial concept in – particularly - western thought and culture, and it has been the issue of many dispute: what constitutes identity? Is it substance, is it coherence, or is it persistence in time? The “Principle of Identity” determined Western Metaphysics from its very beginnings, finding its anthropological articulation in Descartes famous “I think, therefore I am”, leading to the proclamation of the autonomous rational subject in the 18th-century Enlightenment. But Identity was also a crucial claim in 19th-century Romanticism, now being more specifically orientated towards the identity of a People or a Nation. The strive for personal and cultural identity is still a prominent feature in the 20th century, encompassing besides personal and national identity, phenomena like cultural identity, ethnic identity and gender identity. Stable, recognizable and respected identities have become issues worth living, fighting, and even dying for. However, recent scientific, social, political and technological developments have challenged the self-evidence and even the very ground on which identity was built.
Studies in psychology and sociology, not only of a Marxist, psychoanalytic, and structuralist stance, have shown how our identities are profoundly shaped and formed, predicted (genetic identity) or even produced. Moreover, in our current globalizing world, we simultaneously live in different worlds, even having ‘virtual identities’ on the internet. On the one hand, the focus on a stable identity (personal, social, cultural etc.) remains a distinctive feature in the 21st century. Finding or establishing a stable identity is not only an aim for individuals; groups, nations and even companies (‘corporate identity’) also strive to be autonomous, distinguish themselves, and reach for their ‘true’, ‘authentic’ self. At the same time, the complexity of the social world, globalization and information technology challenge these fixed, stable identities. How much in all these identities is ‘real’, and how much illusion, mask, and persona?