On Becoming: The Futures of Identities

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Cindy Wagner

Cindy Wagner

Review of Beyond Identities by Jim Dator.

It’s been said we can’t read the label when we’re inside the bottle, and perhaps we’re not called on to do so very often. Who I think I am doesn’t come up much, except when I’m filling out an official form or encountering someone clearly different from myself who has already formed an opinion of me. (And I of them, probably.)

As human beings, what we think of as our identity is an artifact of the past—date and place of birth, genetic materials passed down to form a physical and mental profile, and perhaps the chance or choice of religion, education, and community. But these past-directed identities may have little to do with our future selves, especially as we contemplate a future off-planet. It is the nature of our becomings that Jim Dator asks us to consider in Beyond Identities: Human Becomings in Weirding Worlds.

A label does help inform users about the bottle’s “ingredients,” however, as when we identity the author of a new book: Who is this person telling us this? For a book asking us to explore our identities—past, present, and future—we can have no better guide than Jim Dator.

Raised in the U.S. South in a culture from which he felt alienated, James Allen Dator began his teaching career in Tokyo and finally settled in Hawaii, his “forever home.” He is now emeritus professor of political science at University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he directed the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies. He has learned from, taught, mentored, and/or collaborated with a host of futurists around the world for more than half a century, citing a who’s who of modern futurism: Buckminster Fuller, Alvin Toffler, Clem Bezold, Jerry Glenn, Sohail Inayatullah, John Sweeney, Walter Truett Anderson, Harlan Cleveland, Wendell Bell, and Marshall McLuhan, among others.

So who are we really, what were we before, and who shall we become? And what are the consequences of all this? Dator introduces us to his subject:

[W]hat I have written here is an argument for moving beyond identity. Identity as it is most often currently used as the necessary foundation of a true, authentic, non-alienated, essential, culturally/historically/ethnically/biologically-grounded self is pathologically destructive. It is the cause of much individual and collective misery, anxiety, grief, and violence today and for future generations. That concept of one’s identity derived from the past needs to be rejected. One’s identity can and must be derived from the futures, not as a human being but as a human becoming. [p. 1]

Thus, Beyond Identities examines the major, traditional components of identity, including the “big three”: class, gender, and race. More crucially, Dator explores the fluidity of identity and how we are constantly changing, as with individuals who migrate, who are or become disabled, or who become increasingly integrated with technologies (e.g., cyborgs).

Pioneers of this fluidity, who help guide the way to a postmodern world—rather, the postnormal “weirding” world—also include the queer, transsexual, and transracial, as well as biohackers and others, all of whom may have more of the “right stuff” for future non-Earth living than did the homogeneous space explorers of the past.

As a work of scholarship, Beyond Identities is of course thoroughly researched, though I wish Dator had done more paraphrasing than quoting: He’s a better writer than most of the scholars he cites.

Though not an autobiography, the narrative is liberally spiced with Dator’s own journeys of becoming, as well as with inspirational poetry that balances his occasional rantings about toxic forms of identity, such as nationalism, tribalism, and (pointedly) Trumpism. These are the passages that, for this nonacademic reader, bring the book to life.

All the old binaries are gone, or soon will be. The distinction between life and nonlife, between the organic and the mechanical, between animals, plants, microbes, fungi; between intelligences; between the static and dynamic; the environment and environed; you, me, us, others—going, going, gone—in spite of all the blood and tears billions spend now on defending and attacking each other’s claims on identity. [p. 193]


Beyond Identities: Human Becomings in Weirding Worlds by Jim Dator. Springer Nature, Anticipation Series 2022. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-11732-9

About the Reviewer
Cindy Wagner was an editor for The Futurist magazine for 33 years and is now consulting editor of AAI Foresight Inc. She may be reached at CynthiaGWagner@gmail.com.