Friday, February 3, 2023

Plastic People, Liquid World

Plastic people

Oh baby, now

You're such a drag

-          Plastic People, Frank Zappa. 1967


Think about how you can turn your activity into something liquid. Liquids flow, they fill all available spaces, they adapt to the shapes of the environment.

-          We're Going To Be Living In A Liquid World, Enrique Dans


For our culture is one marked by plastic people who believe they can make and remake themselves at will; and by a liquid world in which, to borrow a phrase from Karl Marx, all that is solid seems continually to melt into air.

Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, by Carl R. Trueman

Trueman’s story thus far: the major contours of the modern self include: the emphasis of the authority of our inner feelings; the centrality of sexual desire in this; the personal is political; various cultural and technological factors have served to promote all of the above.

Some general concepts that will better provide a framework for understanding:

The first is the nature of personhood; the second is the politics of recognition; and the third is the power of imagined communities.

These will help us better understand the distinctive nature of the culture in which we now find ourselves – ranging from a culture of identity politics and the rights of the diverse alphabet gender soup to the growing impatience toward the niceties of the freedoms of religion and speech.

What is a person: the chemicals constituting my body and the genetic code that provides my nature make clear what I am.  But they are not who I am.  To be a person is to be something more, someone in a particular place and time.  It is to consider my life and the people, places, actions and events that have shaped my sense of identity. 

We all like to assume that our identity is a monologue.  After all, we feel intuitively free.  Our lives are full of decisions we have made.

Not so fast.  Yes, we are intentional creatures.  But we also act in dialogue with our surroundings.  To be born in France in the eighteenth century as opposed to England today, or China a thousand years ago.  In each case, vastly different “persons,” shaped by the story in which they live. 

Our intentional decisions are made in societies that provide the means by which our actions have meaning.  How often do our intentional decisions result in our conforming to the society around us?  Even the most radical among us all show up at Woodstock doing the same things, wearing the same clothes (or not), listening to the same music.  We wish to be free; we also wish to belong.

The teenager who wants to express her freedom does so by wearing the uniform of the group to which she wishes to belong.

Which brings us to the politics of recognition: by recognition, Trueman means the recognition given to us in the act of belonging to a community by having our identity as part of the community recognized.

Societies as a whole have frameworks for recognition.  We might call this their ethical structure: the set of cultural standards and expectations to which individuals need to conform in order to be considered full members of a particular society or community.

Refusal to conform to such norms leads to a refusal of full membership in the society.  Jonathan Pageau has commented on this notion when examining a talk given by Tim Cook of Apple.  Cook is describing the system of today – the one being examined by Trueman.  But where Trueman sees vice and harm, Cook sees virtue and glory.

The system described by Cook will have perfect inclusion; you cannot question this system.  Everything is to be included, nothing is to be excluded.  Unless you reject this system – then you will be excluded.  Everything is to be allowed…except for questioning that everything should be allowed.  The only sin is to not accept this system.  This is the 666 notion, per Pageau: you cannot question this system, else you can be fully excluded from the public space – including the ability to buy and sell. 

Returning to Trueman:  all such systems of recognition have those who are included and those who are excluded.  The nation-state requires acting in accordance with principles of patriotism; the family has expectations of behavior from the children; the church offers excommunication for those who do not conform.  The traitor, the delinquent child, the heretic: each are denied recognition because each has acted outside the accepted norms and moral framework of the respective communities.

[This is why] tolerance was never going to be enough for the LGBTQ+ community and why cake bakers and florists who refuse to serve gay weddings have so easily been turned into villains by the wider culture.

And here Trueman offers what I think is a brilliant insight: tolerance isn’t enough.  There must be recognition – and recognition requires acceptance and participation.

Finally, Trueman comes to the idea of imagined communities: even the idea of nation-state is an imagined community – something in the imagination provides a coherent identity.  Only in the smallest principalities will the population know enough of their polity such that they don’t have to “imagine” themselves in community.

Instead, it is a national narrative that holds the nation together.  While knowing only a handful of the polity, the narrative binds strangers into a nation. 

What happens when the narratives that provide us with our traditional identities lose their authority and become highly contested? …If the perennial need to belong persists, where do human beings find that “belonging” in a world where the traditional forms of such belonging are no longer plausible…?

Trueman see that in the way the technology of the pill undermined traditional sexual codes, then the technology of the internet helped to weaken traditional narratives.

Which brings me to a couple of thoughts that I have had regarding this notion.  First, if the traditional narratives were built on a firm factual basis, they would not have been so easily overrun by technology.  For example, every national narrative is built on some mixture of fact and myth (and the line between the two is a blurry one).  But when the national narrative is built on lies and myth, it easily crumbles when the light of a thousand bloggers is set upon it.

Second, I recall this idea that the internet was our version of the Gutenberg Press.  Yes, Gutenberg ushered in great advancements for society.  His press also tore apart the previous narrative in Western Europe (which, unfortunately, was also built on a few lies of its own), and following this came the wars of state-building (falsely labeled wars of religion).  Not a good sign for our generation and our near future.

Returning to Trueman: where national narratives once brought unity, they now have become battle zones.  And in this battle, like in all wars, truth is the first casualty.  If the objective truth of sex and gender is plastic, then there is no such thing as truth.  Period.  To confront this enemy with truth is pointless, because there is no such thing as truth.

The remaining unifying narrative – the one that Tim Cook wishes for the rest of us – is the narrative that we each have the power to choose our individual identity. 

Which then comes back to recognition.  The narratives have devolved to those of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc.  Each one as malleable and divisible as plastic.  And this is why the social justice narrative sees systemic racism in every established institution: it is because the established institutions are constructed around a different understanding of identity.

That last sentence is worth a couple of readings.

And, in my opinion, this is why Christianity and the Church is the most important institution to destroy.  The unifying message of Christ and our identity in Him is precisely the opposite of the narrative of today’s social justice and our identities in…ourselves.  Each of us our own yardstick by which we measure ourselves.


It is regularly said throughout history: we are living in unprecedented times.  But this time it might really be the case.  We live at a time when the very issue of identity is unstable, volatile, and highly contentious.  Trueman offers that it is two things that make our current moment singularly challenging:

These two things are the plastic conception of human identity to which expressive individualism tilts; and the liquification of the world around us with regard to the traditional frameworks (national, religious, familial, geographical, even physiological) by which human beings have previously defined themselves.

Today, the self is entirely plastic, and the external world – right down to our bodies – is liquid.

Or, as offered by Jean-Paul Sartre, man is condemned to be free.  This has come to pass via the high levels of depression and suicide in the plastic, liquid, free west.


Do you think covid had nothing to do with this, that the timing is mere coincidence?

If one thing is clear from observing the highly disruptive impact COVID-19, it’s that we are heading toward a liquid world, one characterized by the virtues of flexibility, versatility and resilience.

-          We're Going To Be Living In A Liquid World, Enrique Dans, May 25, 2020

And more from Zappa:

Take a day

And walk around

Watch the nazis

Run your town

Then go home

And check yourself

You think we're singing

'Bout someone else . . . but you're

. . . Plastic people!

One would have to call Frank Zappa prescient.


  1. Great, The way you organize thoughts always blesses me. In my world of Trade workers, the top guys are respected not because of their position but because of their love of the trade. Love for the trade makes the best Tradesmen. Sure many guys will just abuse the system and get book smart and have the know how to sell. It is the same for you . You do not appear to be like many of the "smart people" my self has met.
    You have substance not just facts and Data.
    One thing does seem apparent in this thread is ALL the world wonders after the beast.
    In this world we will have trouble.
    Jesus said once if the world hates me they will most likely hate you.
    Take heart He has overcome the world.
    Take heart yes. Take heart.
    It is good to "understand" how things work.
    Also God did not create "persons".
    He made mankind from the elements of the earth.
    Then He breathed into him the breath of life and HE became a Living Soul.
    We became Persons after our spirit Died.
    Thanks Bionic.

    1. Thanks, Kevin. Regarding my writing...I am learning and exploring as I write and I hope that always comes through. Perhaps this is why you and others read it - as an exploration, not a sermon or manifesto.

      I know I could do a better job of editing. It never fails that if I read a post after it's been published, I find instances where even I am not sure what I am saying!

  2. Am not clear on the so called tri part nature of Man being made up of 3 separate parts, body ,soul and spirit. Only because of my limited understanding of the Genesis account. It reads Man became a Living soul. That is all debatable and also has caused much division in the Kingdom going way back.
    Ok so for this point will assume it is correct the 3 part nature.
    The number 666 is tossed about a lot and many have given sermons about it.
    But let's just say Man is a whole. 100 %.
    Who is "Antichrist" ?
    If we take the 100 and divide it by 3 we get 33.3
    Each third of man.
    Wen Man chose to disobey it seems He (we) lost 1 third.
    Leaving us a 2 third's what we were.
    Who is "Antichrist'?
    Man with a dead spirit.
    Any one not "In Christ" is anti Christ.
    2/3 is 66.6
    Jesus "The Christ" Not his last name came that we "might be saved".
    The curtain in the temple that Hid God for centuries was torn from the top down and He poured out his spirit on ALL flesh.
    Just some thoughts.
    Opinions and ideas are my own and for general informational and educational purposes only.
    They are current and subject to change at any time without prior notice.
    Please consult you own religious or political professiona.l
    These thoughts are not to be taken as Spiritual advice on what to do.
    Work out your own Salvation with fear and trembling.
    Peace on your House!

    1. Kevin, I love your disclaimer at the end. Allow it to apply to this thought as well: As to your thoughts on anti-Christ, I can only add...there have been many anti-Christs in history, there are some living today, and there will be others in the future. I think anyone who blasphemes God and tyrannizes His people and even the broader population, I would consider anti-Christ. There will eventually be visible the anti-Christ over all anti-Christs.

      Then again, as Solzhenitsyn wrote: "The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts."

      We each have to be careful about that little bit of anti-Christ in each one of us.

  3. Yes and Amen to that, about evil always being present when our desire is to do good. If we can keep that in mind it can eliminate much of the discord.

  4. Interesting that he uses the word plastic. In material science plastic means moldable into a different shape and the material holds that new shape. The opposite is elastic which can be deformed unto pressure but returns to its original shape when the pressure is removed. Humans are elastic along the lines of natural law. Not plastic. It basically an anti-human idea.

    The liquid world surrounding the plastic man is a way to describe the move toward perspectival philosophy which is subjective. In classic philosophy the mind conforms to the object it is trying to comprehend. In modern philosophy the object conforms to the mind as it comprehends the object.

    What you are reading about it aiming that philosophical framework to the object of mankind.

    1. RMB, your distinction of plastic vs. elastic is helpful in understanding why he uses plastic.

      You write: " Humans are elastic along the lines of natural law. Not plastic. It basically an anti-human idea."

      Plastic humans permanently change their shape (physical, physiological, etc.) in many ways. As you say, this is anti-human.