Identity is how we talk to people about ourselves and show ourselves to others. It is not done for fun but is strategic, to position ourselves for making our lives actually work—to get the resources and social relationships we need or want for ourselves and our families and communities. But identity statements can be checked so limits are usually drawn as to what can be said.
In earlier times your ‘identity’ came very much automatically from your family and your life position, but with the advent of modernity (1800s), when the majority of our relationships shifted to strangers (non-kin), the social properties or logic of identity also changed. On the one hand, you now needed to try harder to convince strangers as to your place in the world and what you can do and what you should receive, but it was also now more difficult for strangers to check what you said about yourself so you could invent more if you were persuasive. As one more example, strangers could ignore what you say about yourself or disagree and there was no network of family to back up what you say—strangers could ignore you with impunity.
Because of these new social properties of living in stranger relationships, we now need to spend more time constructing our identities and positions in this modern world, to get what we need. This often seems like time wasted on paraphernalia, talking about ourselves incessantly, accessorizing, obsessively finding out what others are doing, and constructing stories about ourselves to give other people. Even those who think they do not worry about or spend time on self-identity are spending time presenting this very image to others. But this is now the very stuff of life and we need to do this to achieve our resources and places.
So the sad thing is that with the advent of modernity and the colonization by capitalism of all the things we need in life, we all need to do a lot of image-presentation and self-identity talk in some form or another. But this form of identity is recent and a direct result of capitalism and the social relationship changes occurring in modernity.
In reading the creative literatures of the period 1800-1950 you can see the rise of these new self-identity behaviours, when our resources for life stopped coming through family and this was replaced by convincing strangers about who we are and why we should get what we need (for jobs, reputations, relationships, kudos). Even marriage became less about your family and more about presenting yourself in a way to convince strangers and their families to join your lives together in some ways. But even more telling, achieving concrete outcomes—what you have actually done in your life that is good—became less important than using rhetorical skills to convince people of who you are and what you deserve.
Finally, the shift to persuading people of your identity rather than showing it through family or through actions, meant that those who were privileged in society had even more privilege now. They could afford to present important or personally-useful identities. Those who were less privileged (women, the poor, the less educated) had to give up trying or spend a lot of time on cheap ways to make an impression on strangers.
Below is a nice example I found by Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) writing about Nietzsche. Notice that what has changed for Nietzsche in this new modernity is that the audiences for his talk have changed (to strangers) and he no longer gets the same effects as others had previously doing the same behaviours (primarily writing philosophy and linguistics). The outcomes now depended more on convincing publishers and others through rhetoric that you were writing good stuff, rather than on the truth of what you were writing (which now has less currency). Thus, argues Zweig, he became more and more exaggerated in his self-presentation.
[For understanding mental health in modernity, notice that all this so-called ‘inner’ drama of Nietzsche is really about the way that audiences for behaviour were changed in modernity. The behaviours were shaped by external audiences (or lack of in this case).]
“Gradually the solitary actor grew disquieted by the fact that he was talking into the void; he raised his voice, shouted, gesticulated, hoping to find a response even if it were no better than a contradiction. He invented a special music to accompany his words, an intoxicating, Dionysian music; but no one heard his minstrelsy. He tried to be blithe and gay, but his mirth was forced, and piercing to the ear; he gave his sentences twists and turns, hoping that these antics would attract disciples to listen to his deadly earnest gospel, but not a hand was raised to applaud him. Then he invented a dance, a dance between crossed swords, and, stabbed and bleeding, he practiced his new art before a public which had no inkling of what such pleasantries were meant to convey, nor did any suspect the mortally injured passion that lay concealed beneath his strident levity. Thus the drama was played to a finish before empty seats, and no one guessed that the mightiest tragedy of the nineteenth century was unrolling itself before men’s eyes. Unwitnessed were the last gyrations of his thoughts as they spun upon a dizzy mountain peak, and, with one final and magnificent whirl, tumbled to earth exhausted, “dead before immortality.””
(from “The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche” by Stefan Zweig)