They call it bumper car diplomacy in international relations–the idea of decisions made not because of an over-arching grand plan, but due to political exigency, the needs of the moment. These days it could seem our lives are practices in this art. We feel we might lack that unifying force which would lend to our everyday actions a hint of nobility, of grandeur. A musician named Emily Haines sings it frankly, “We moderate, we modernize till our hell is a good life.” We do what the moment requires of us: we shift and settle, and change accordingly– and to what end? And why?

Of course, this is far from hell. I will spare you the hyperbole. What does it all mean? It is a question of tactics. It is a strategic enterprise: how does one find or invent a motivating force? And it is just this question that we seek to answer under the guise of the great, the magnanimous, the impossible, “What is the meaning of it all?” bit. Meaning is grittier. It takes too long. And the last thing we have is time. What we need is direction, and we can only hope the direction we find will point us in the right direction, toward meaning, toward whatever.

So far our answer has been possession. Because, I’ll tell you, independence is a farce. I don’t mean in just that whole we all belong to a community and we’ve got to help each other idea or that we are all fundamentally connected–I don’t know if any of that is true, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Anyhow, it has no bearing here.

What matters: to make our lives more than a chain of successive events. So we have become a people possessed. It is much more far-reaching than ownership. In that respect, we are correct. Nobody owns us. We aren’t slaves. We’re human beings bent on belonging totally to one another. Ownership is the attempt and failure of a hegemon to create another’s identity. Possession is when one’s identity is successfully constructed by another and often, with the consent of both parties. Nowhere is possession more clear than in romantic relationships.

In the punctuation of modern romance, the period is a veritable non-entity. Nobody has closure anymore. Rather, we drag along our attachments through the dirt of our everyday life, like Linus with his security blanket. It isn’t so hard to get over somebody: but we make sure we don’t get over people. We nurture our connections to them. We analyze and criticize and we rehash and review until the person we thought we had lost is forever a part of us. A song reminds us of him, a time of day, a shirt you were wearing…

Furthermore, we do not want to be forgotten. And so even as we reinforce memories of those we have parted with, they “come to the door of our memories,” as Susan B. Anthony once said. And it is in this way that who-we-actually-are dwindles to a non-issue. Because the majority of our major encounters with those we love and care about but lose, are in our imaginations. They have no say in the matter of what they are built up into, what they become. We are just refractions and mirrors and rebounds of perceptions: “What we do in dreams we also do when we are awake,” Nietzsche writes. “We invent and fabricate the person with whom we associate — and immediately forget we have done so.”

And this is the ultimate possession. We do not create ourselves; we are branded products, created through a series of perceptions. And sometimes this is a very good thing: for the people we call publicists, it’s a livelihood. Is it so strange that we have all become publicists and image makers? Not just for ourselves, but for the people with whom we interact? And as we veer deeper and deeper into the realm of total possession, we lose veto power. We are what others see in us.

Oscar Wilde said that the “nineteenth-century dislike of Realism was the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass”; the twenty-first century reaction to postmodernism may very well be the same thing. The “meta” culture of reality t.v., the news media’s obsession with itself is the crystallization of identity possession. “We use you,” one advertiser said in an interview with a news reporter. “The media loves to talk about itself, do news stories on itself.” The reporter, enjoying the analysis immensely responded hungrily, “Should we feel bad about this?” The advertiser paused for a moment in thinly veiled distaste, “I don’t know if you should feel bad. I’m not your priest.”

Not fully immersed in the postmodernism of our time, “the rage of Caliban” has not been fully articulated; in fact the opposite seems to be the truth. We are captivated, we are held in trance: to see ourselves, to be utterly possessed by the other. But I contest that the haunting questions underlying this reaction are less sanguine. As a motivating force, possession is a poor solution. To be endlessly possessed by another is dependence so utter as to be destructive. If we do not learn the value of closure—the value of cutting off—we will abuse memory until it becomes nothing more than a political tool, an exigent force.

And if the example of romantic relationships seems too trivial to merit your attention, I suggest you look to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The greatest problem in the situation, the major stopping point is not rooted in the present, but in the past. It is a conflict over history: neither side will accept the other’s narrative. It is not just a disagreement over what happened it is a disagreement over identity. Who was the victim? Who was the underdog? Who is the enemy, the aggressor? Was it a war, or was it ethnic cleansing? Each party has built a story where fact is only an occasional interloper. The result is the ultimate consequence of a century of postmodern possessive politics: the relativism of identity. In the postmodern age, both the Palestinians and the Israelis are right. They have successfully crafted the identity of the other. And now, a whole cast of equally valid identities are being pitted against one another. Is it any wonder the situation is so intractable? Is it any surprise, the endless nature of a war between ghosts?

How could they agree? In the postmodern age, nobody has a history anymore, nobody has a fact: there are no periods, only ellipses. There are no histories, only narratives. There are no identities, only refracted images: and what is truth in the postmodern world? How do we de-possess ourselves? How do we re-enter the modern world self-possessed?

But this is bumper car diplomacy, and we don’t have time. We do only what the moment requires: we moderate, we modernize…

Do you enjoy reading the Nass?

Please consider donating a small amount to help support independent journalism at Princeton and whitelist our site.