A Soul-Searching Critical Perspective about Identity Crisis in Art
(Last Revision 7/7/13)
“Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation.” Rumi
Kwang Ho Shin
At long last I have found a moment and have enough resources in mind to comment on a popular painting trend today. I call this fashionable technique “Facial Obliterati” because as an aesthetic current, it’s as common as safety-pin piercings or parachute pants in the 80s, and is surely tied to our times.
A crowd pleaser, it comes with an easy tickle of surprise and discomfort. Who can say how much of the brain is committed to facial recognition? Turning the human face into smears of paint or the center point of a pigment explosion is not entirely new. Any student today can find these in the great institutions of art, the pioneers of this anonymous sort of portraiture elevated. As a patriarch of this trend, Francis Bacon wears the double crown of a painter-pharaoh, of the upper Nile of provisional grit, and the lower Nile of the questionable yet exalted identity of the civilized.
Is it enough to call this kind of work Contemporary and leave it at that, given its broad appeal? I asked one painter, a recent graduate in their mid 20s, what they thought about this approach to the portrait, or anti-portrait if you would. “Well it represents alienation, uncertainty, the loss of identity in the face of consumer culture.” I asked an art writer in their 30s what they thought. “This is definitely about identity politics, an aftermath of the first waves of Feminism, and the erasure of cultural markers in the face of globalism.” I asked my uncle, a truck driver, what he thought: “That’s what I call a lazy painter.”
With the speed and agility of our imagination to change direction at will, I have always found the idea of a watertight interpretation for anything to be absurd, even when I have felt prey to one. Not only is an opinion about art something like the leaky and limited grasp of cupped hands scooping river water, the very subject is swiftly moving, assuring that each scoop is from a constantly refreshed body of water.
I do feel I am not alone in this implementation of art, finding I have aligned myself with certain ersatz philosophies concerned with liberation. We may be discussing the basic old tenets of equality, predicated on the biological truth that no birth or situation can change the basic, generally untapped potential of human sensitivity. Or it may be the deconstructive impulse in semiotics, now matured to an understanding that the mechanisms of oppression are delivered in speech and media, transmitted by the use of language much the way dirty water carries typhoid. It could even be the sophisticated if motherless post-structural views, which claim their wisdom from the collapse of an Enlightenment (slave-based economic) cultural system but have yet to fully grasp how ordinary and timeless their suspicion of the human mind really is, being required socially to put the name above the work. Perhaps you’ve delved into neuroscience, and you know that the leap forward in evolution involved a extended forebrain of mirror neurons, that our intelligence is the fact of increased modeling and prediction of the actions of others. We are humans because we are able to carry our imitations of each other around wherever we go, almost inseparable from the way we experience our own presence.
Something is in the air, and books are being burnt, not in the outside world this time, but quite on their own, spontaneous literary combustion, will-o-the-wisp’s haunting our intellectual landscape and making every human certainty spooky with conceit. People see books and start to sweat, their element has changed to fire, their covers are ajar and home to salamander nests, evaluating one is like reaching in to a woodpile.
So let’s take the facial obliterati trend at face value, for it is every bit as charmingly copycat as hi-top tennis shoes and urban punks wearing farmer’s work-clothes. Let’s say the grad school take of identity loss through consumerism mixed with living in the cave of global angst projection has a grain of truth to it. And that the bashful relational activist in us all is on to something, but choosing our own outfit is hard when our personal shopper society has loaded our arms up to the chin with things to go and try on in our mental dressing room. And let’s say my uncle is also right, and artists who embrace this trend are just plain lazy.
Facial obliterati is for me, now and possibly forevermore, an illustration of the anxiety (or hollowness, isolation) that results from the belief in a personal soul, even an isolated ego.
I take pains to remind the reader that this is about anxiety. As an object the soul belongs to unmapped territory, a frontier, and is even subject to be fixed as a physical point where the deepest anxiety is said to be carried. Whether the soul is tangible or virtual, beyond the cognative phenomenon it belongs firmly to the territory of language – object oriented programmatic language… its every sounding is a light tap on the bell of marketing. And it may be that the bell is being sounded more frequently than in history, in a curious way laying bare a context by which this treasured notion of the seat of the self is experienced, as a feeling, primarily as the slipping away of one’s own sovereignty.
In what Bataille elegantly describes as excess, the redundant, relentless language of marketing has escalated from the door-to-door salesmen, to replicating itself in every media platform, we see ads when we look at the phone, we see ads next to the latest baby picture status updates of our loved ones. It’s so widespread it has become a philosophy of success, that it is right and smart to broadcast as wide and far as possible, and people hand over their internal language engines to it in the anxiety of not being on point with colleagues at all times. Everyone knows the tone of marketing voice, many of us bring it home and it makes eating a meal in peace quite hard. It is the surrendering of the will to the dominant paradigm, the modern equivalent of the obedient slave or the silent woman that Timothy and Paul recommend in their letters to the early Christians – meaning that this way of being has social, spiritual merit.
In consideration that the programmatic language systems are widespread, we can expect to see at a peak state of excess fissures, cracks, and eventually a collapse of the system before it will quickly reform into a new, modified system. It is at the point of excess that we now can observe strong, widespread resistance to any reference of language programming humans, or the suggestion that marketing in many cases is a kind of trespass, a violence along the lines of noise pollution. The wounded, sensitive topic raises alarms and reinforces clans against outsiders.
In the hands of the artist perhaps there is a noblesse to the obliteration of the face. But this is hardly soul deep. Even accepting that language as a virus, we can at least maintain that our personal mental life is a solid, cohesive source of being that can presumably be protected and kept distinct by some equivalence of healthy living. But I think the anxiety that gives the facial obliterati their wow factor comes from an even more cthonic spring than the critique of language alone. It’s a suspicion, after digesting these theories on language, that ideas as thought objects themselves are implicated in the deception of who’s in charge. The anxiety really becomes understandable at that point – what is solid and sure if ideas themselves are also external lifeforms, arch-organisms, that sprout language to pollinate and cast seed on stranger, friend and family? That ideas and concepts themselves are just so much a filler to shape out an intellectual existence, that a personality has more in common with a fishtank than a sailing ship on a sea. We’re more than a little terrified of this direction, which walks the critique of language through a morass of hesitation. As target markets or marketers targeting, as fatigued students with masters degrees or masters of running down their game in a hunt, the suggestion that our whole being is something along the lines of a scarecrow is indeed the stuff of nightmares for the modern, cosmopolitan human.
I’m tempted to offer my ideas why this is, but it might be better to look at the attempts of others to penetrate this subject. I’ve long upheld the existence of a poorly defined, ad-hoc group of characters, many of them artists, that seem motivated to continue despite the discomfort. I’ve starting to call them renunciants, to avoid the labels, so we can cross time and culture more easily. A renunciant simply rejects part or all of a social structure, presumably in a quest for a more honest understanding of life.
Despite the inheritance of greed, war, jealousy and confusion that humans have yet to shed from our primate ancestors, people are born who are curiously content, and when pressed, will simply wander off to get away from the red-faced baboons of power conflict. Immature, they receive hell and give hell in their own human ways; matured, they occasionally survive the panic mobs and the bad translation, and we cling to their words and romance like shipwrecked sailors cling to driftwood. They even do battle among themselves, devolving into legacies of well-meaning corruption, before being overthrown and refreshed periodically by rare bulls of such mindfulness they are best considered historical aberrations. At least that is the perennial view.
Those born to host living anti-virus engines have a knack for unsettling everyone, because people naturally cultivate as a social whole a kind of pragmatism that involves holding two ideas without contradiction – that we mean well, and that we ought to strive to succeed. No one sensible finds it good for business to speak otherwise. For the most part, we hold these ideas of our duty to success and our own good intent throughout our life, and this is accomplished by an entire virtual world – a constant support structure of language. Work tone, self help, radio hosts, forums, debates, institutional training from childhood to maturity, entertainments, fashions, we all maintain channels we subscribe to, that define and uphold our professions, it’s a no-brainer.
Renunciation is, at least in fits and starts, the opposite direction of dreams, ambitions and goals, and is apt to be nipped in the bud as a purely preventative measure. If a civilization is built of living words, renunciation accompanies a midlife crisis, or it is a criminal outburst of vagrancy, or it is medicated as a tangle of depression. It is certainly not going to be promoted at the the office, and rarer still by parents.
It remains present in the discourse no matter which direction of complexity one heads… because its fuel is internal, its causes and rewards are internal, it requires nothing more than to consider a view of being free of views. In a sense, the renunciant’s freedom comes from a vegetative state, ever present as the potential to rewild, while social structure is more of an environment of perpetual landscaping.
Renunciation is born of a biological drive to self-reflection. Its bare ethos is simple – remove your ideas, your language, your concepts, your skills, your tragedies, your plans for the future… all the things which you know can change. What is left that does not change, that in being unchanging is clearly identifiable as you? What can be purely said to be you, that does not come from interactions with others, from the experiences you have faced? Encountering this inseparable link between the concepts of self that we live within day to day is a form of knowledge that belongs entirely to the self-taught, no matter how rigorous the guidance. Does it sound bleak, or is that just the sudden change in elevation? Welcome to the vertiginous lip of de-programming yourself of the viral structure of language.
Unfortunately, wherever complication is reduced, paradox arises. Contemplating this deceptively simple situation is part of the mystique of no-self (really about as mysterious as Schrödinger’s Cat) but is better described as even less than a philosophy – it is an action. Perhaps being prepared for it by different cultures comes to different effect, but for those raised with mainstream Western ideals, no-self is actually rather toxic to our crucially held beliefs that we attach to the object “individual”. What appears to be a challenge to truth in a battle for identity that was waged on paper, is in fact a misunderstanding… the idea of no-self is until experienced a strange sort of concept that has no intellectual application. In fact, the ability to experience anything but the relentless presence of “self” requires considerable effort, so any panic is purely existential – indeed, our familiar existential dilemma is simply the intellectual suspicion of a situation that cannot be observed with the intellect. Rest assured, a sense of self will be present at all times, do nothing at all.
Our fundamentalism recognizes individuals as separate entities with personal destinies, the ability for singular purpose, genius as a form of originality, and a distinct worth that can be distinguished from all the others around us. For those who believe this is contained in a spiritual body, the individual can even transmigrate to another body, or a different realm, intact and still ourselves. Metaphysical or not, for our civilization each person’s being is a finite unit that belongs to a whole that is not visible, yet we are distinctly separated from each other, and all aspects of the natural world, by what is visible (our measure, our differences, our enemies). Having a soul means that we are in the world, but not of it. This gets subtle, doesn’t it? Subtle is, after all, a distinction made within increasing simplicty.
Our social system is rooted in this idea of the person as an divisible and distinct unit that interacts with the whole only through a mechanism of will, a political unit within a meritocracy: your fortunes at birth are part of a paternal plan that somehow recognizes you, the individual, as a distinguished form of information.
As the meritocracy legend goes, each individual possesses the same ‘base core value’ defined by an amorphous soul attached to one egalitarian shot at fulfilling an specific, individual destiny. At the same time there are downgrades for everything around the individual – ‘insubstantial values’, variables of social class, gender, health, time and place of birth, which are believed to be irrelevant to the soul that has most fulfilled its promise of destiny. One’s task in life is seeking to appreciate the soul by working hard under the gaze of the paternal authority, receiving nods of merit means being properly aligned and increases the soul’s value. Any concern for impact beyond the gaze is to be rejected, unrighteous.
Thanks to literacy we have developed over time a very expansive, rationality-cloning belief system in which success is a mark of spiritual superiority, instead of prevailing social factors: your success is the result of your efforts alone, while your failings are the result of some shameful deficiency within your being. This idea has become the evangelized, global economic phenomenon of our time.
Ruprecht von Kaufmann
Another factor often overlooked but central to meritocracy – a people conquered meant the religion of the conqueror was just as superior as their numbers or technology. Thus it was considered traditional and devout that women were to take their own lives in obedient companionship to the passing of their husband’s soul, or those born outside of the system entirely (read those most recently native in a conquered land) were useful to society only for the handling of their dead. Thus it is today that the rural youth will happily toss their community practices out the window in favor of the growth-based pyramid model that has lit the nightline in this age of cities. The gods of globalism are undeniably stronger even than the social idealisms of the 20th century for a simple reason that requires little analysis – they provide more of everything. Compared to prayers at the village temple, personal spiritual merit pays off bigger at the car dealership.
In response to the absurdity of the primal meritocracy that drives any organized society, renunciants have always used a simple response like a prybar: there is no such thing.
With enough understanding of how this philosophy is applied, the exercise of calling attention to the fact that humans live most of their lives according to rules that are made up intellectually to support larger structures of ideas uses less mental energy than any imposing structure they may face. And that is the fulcrum in this timeless balance of power, this very old state of difference bourn within the basic social unit. It is functionally the tactical edge within guerilla warfare, the inherent advantage of reductive simplicity to outlast the constant organizational energy required to direct human force.
Ask a westerner, or look at a bumper sticker, and you’ll see the most common misconception applied to no-self. ”Oh, they think reality isn’t real, isn’t that silly and exotic?” Those are the watchwords that neutralize the discomfort of no-self. They rely on an understanding of the other as alien. It might help to respond to this impulse by explaining no-self means no-separation. There is no such thing as caste, not really, ask any child. These concepts come from rulers, traditions, concepts that shape and program people’s lives. There is no such thing as superior and inferior class – try renouncing the use of money (otherwise known as camping) for a while, and it will be clear – a poor person’s gift of a little rice is no less than a wealthy person’s endowment of a great feast. But in our civilization’s perspective comes what is easily the strangest, is contemplating that there is no such thing as self.
And such talk enflames the ego, responsible for maintaining a sense of self as it navigates between the outer world of the senses, and the virtual word of understanding. Yet after the complex, rich, fascinating and powerful quantum computer of the mind is through running its ballistic self-defense programs, a thorough consideration of the question, there is nothing left that can be called self, which does not rely on something outside of self, to justify a belief in its own reality.
This is the anxiety I believe we see illustrated by the facial obliterati. This is the concern that makes people flatly refuse to sit still. This is the chilling, timeless power of wearing the mask, the first lesson around the tribal fire that we have expanded into vast, magnificent, emerald cities ruled by laws on emerald tablets, all built brick by golden brick in the heavens of our mind’s powerfully networked virtual engines.
This chill is the nagging feeling that comes after winning an argument by force instead of understanding. The shadow side of being on top of the game, which requires constant protections against being robbed, cheated, polluted or interrupted by the jealousy of others, as the number of those who are lower escalates the higher one climbs the social ladder. This is how addictions reveal the uncertainty of a self that makes decisions, and why treatment requires the self be reprogrammed with language to remap, at the very least, a less physically taxing form of program. The survivor self becomes a new self-story assembled by actions that refocus to serve a new virtual host, with no less a bottomless appetite, but rhetorically speaking, at least the opposite of self-destruction.
There’s one more way in which the subject of soul is a sign of anxiety: we cling to our idea of self at every turn, because the majority voice of our society is built on each of us believing we are in some sense deeply alone. This is the dark side of coupling the efficiency of an advanced culture with the soul-taxing of meritocracy. Our existential dilemma is in part the result of sitting on an intellectual fence between the paradox of being isolated as a single lonely soul, and the threat to sense of self that comes from a view of no-separation.
We’re reminded that we are separate at every turn. At a glance, any given advert might promise one person increased social esteem with through ease of purchase, but condemns a half dozen others for their failure to sufficiently belong, feelings of jealousy and longing. Our society is full of seductive messaging which constantly reminds people of their social limitations in the same stroke. Much the way an untrained self is quick to fight at any mention of no-self, the moral high ground is handed over to the marketer, which drives the economy. This popular view is a belief structure, one where the soul must endure a world to which it does not belong, so likewise any ugly necessity in this world does not transgress.
But it does transgress, because no person is alone, and each action does carry the responsibility of both seen and unseen impacts. There is nothing in this universe, not even a single atom, that can be said to be isolated and alone. So what could be said, if the soul, however in virtuality tangible, isn’t adequate to describe our being as separate?
Total interdependency. Constant change. Complete connection, a weaving of all things in every sense, in which we are more like an instance of energy process within timespace. What we have learned is eternal about timespace, is that nothing remains unchanging but the interconnection of all energy and matter, it means that nothing is ever lost. While the virtual world of our imagination dies with the brain, and the longevity of remembrance, the real world continues in lossless, ever changing form within a massive, subtle field of energy. This all-field’s latest name is in part after a ship’s bosun, who drops the weighted lines into the abyss and sounds its unseen depths with measuring instruments.Total interconnection is a philosophy of simplification in order to measure, in order to embrace full responsibility and in order to read the book of nature that is placed before all of us, no matter our nationality, gender or character.
But what does that make of the self, which certainly does not feel like nothing? Indeed how could we be so bold as to claim any measure, bound as we are to measure it with the very self we are questioning! It sounds like a good question, but put to the context of renunciant practice, one eventually finds this is an inevitable rhetorical game. Yes, the self is very present, ask the experts – it takes years of mastery to even experience glitch flickers of its absence. But anyone from the start can hold the idea – this so-called self is in fact a massive jumble of limbs and branches, forks and folds, a heap, a mound, a basket filled with all that you deigned to gather, the dog of reputation and karma nipping at your heels. The self is a reality of aggregations of all the elements of time and place that went into being. This sense of being that prefers itself through rapturing thought, dream possessing, night captivating and workforce motivating concepts, it lives and even when we doubt its authenticity, we at least see ourselves as trying to ride it. This timeless something that is able to race backwards and fret forwards at will, is so virtually convincing it routinely, all day without tire, jealously overwhelms any awareness of the light, simple and empty present moment we could enjoin at will.
With a bit of higher education, we are taught to encounter this bizarre yet progressive Contemporary multi-disciplinary topic by try to hold both, or by merging it with other practical pursuits. Or we try to accept the reality of our inner life, and the reality of a shared self-evident knowledge – as a wonderful Platonic mystery. But this contradiction leaves us susceptible to believing anything. We divide the conflict into ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ and that seems to have carried us very far, but the lack of integrity has been refashioned into third party holistic objects that are analytically abstract, allowing today’s newly adapted predatorial language systems to ride us like donkeys.
Our civilization thought this was impossible, and divorced non-theist civilizations ages ago over the subject of the soul as the ideal ground for empire building. Mind you, soul and theism are not mutually inclusive, indeed many early theistic competitors that did not make the cut today offered various equations in which soul was not a requirement for theism. We have simply come to believe this, and are disempowered to negotiate it. Moreso, it is inherent to the process to challenge divergences of any kind. We continue to either deny the existence of other operating systems, or label competing theistic variations as enemies unworthy of consideration.
In fact, the business of the soul as the foundation of eco-politics has as one of its trademarks a kind of cleansing warfare, that identifies enemies as a yet imperfect equal that requires redemption, by force, on the basis of their being morally corrupt by having the wrong ideas about the soul. This as also a topic Paul wrote to his followers at the dethroned central goddess sanctuary of Ephesia, about the insufficient merit of public debate, or the sexual equality of women: “do not waste your time considering their pointless pursuit of knowledge, nor consider for a second their absurd questioning of the traditional roles of marriage.” The slave was taught to be obedient to the master, because obedience is merit, will raise the value of the the soul to be more likely to merit reward (in the afterlife). The wife obedient to the husband is correcting her insufficient merit by serving her family. The soul’s measure is its service to the higher good, which is explained by the higher authority.
The contemplation of no-self, on the other hand, makes everyone equal (too uncomfortably for most) as merit becomes a communal affair, and diminishes in every stroke of simplicity the power of authority on which our pyramid of society relies.
Renunciants are likely as old as the first fireside debates, as old as art and music. And in this age of aftermath, a good word for our times, the stunned philosophers who had enough moisture in their throats left to speak after the last few centuries of global colonialism and war, have began to question the Word in renunciant fashion themselves. What is left after the structure? Think a moment, to our latest myths in movies, even the summa prima prophecy of the primary religion – wherein lies merit after total collapse? Post-structuralists of all disciplines are looking not only at the definitions of words – but the sounds of the words, the shapes of the idea, the silhouettes of the promise, the exaltations of one human over another, one method over another, the pre-judicial laws of a given culture or race or gender over another. And perhaps it took a world at war to risk the new context – perhaps it takes setting our own house on fire to realize what is most valuable among our possessions.
There is no self that can be said to be completely separate from all those you love and even those you hate.
It means there is no only-you that could take credit for your success. It means there is no only-you to take the blame for all your burdens. It means you are never alone in your suffering, and can never be separate from the struggles of others even if you choose not to look. It means you have no right to say you are superior to another person, there is only more or less awareness, maturity, or wisdom. It means you have no excuse for condemning other people for struggling and failing. The panic of the ego at suggesting the absence of a self, even as an exercise, is the only roadsign we need to visit our own personal Absurdville.
Here’s your reward if you made it this far: