I spent part of the summer re-reading a few Philip K. Dick novellas; specifically the ones in the new Library of America edition. Shaky prose aside, Dick was a genius at examining the seemingly paper-thin constructs that comprise individual (and group) identity.
Of course, he did have a head full of amphetamines and a predisposition to mental illness.
But what if perceiving one’s lack of fixed selfhood didn’t result in madness? Is such awareness even worth pursuing? Most people are loathe to even approach the idea, especially in this culture, where ownership and entitlement are the essence of self-definition.
My friend Jebson, who is currently in Amsterdam pursuing a graduate degree in Hermetics and Western Esotericism (or is he gobbling fresh mushrooms and taking baths in hash oil?), recently wrote me with the advisement that even art needn’t be proprietary:
In Western literature and art, there is a salient emphasis placed on the creator and not the created… Eastern art tends to be devoid of author, or painter or musician. I’m not saying I prefer it that way, but in our culture I think the artist is far too hard on himself for not accomplishing certain financial and/or commercial goals.
That made me think back to a profile I did on sound artist Greg Davis, who, in the course of our chat, stressed that he always tries to “let go” of a piece of music once he’s finished with it. Playing the devil’s advocate, I suggested that art is necessarily egotistical, being the imposition of one’s aesthetic will on reality. He countered that he thinks of it more as “putting a frame around something” — an attitude not dissimilar from John Cage, a lifetime Zen acolyte and one of Davis’ chief inspirations.
Hitting the cushion (with my ass, not my fist) every day has served to re-remind me of these points, to the degree that I can’t believe I ever forgot them in the first place. Ego is one tricky bitch.
In any case, it’s interesting to see things from the perspective of relative freedom. Struggles and hardships continue to occur, but with less fixation, they’re less enduring. Ideas about oneself are more or less like cloud formations in a semi-clear sky. Kind of whoopty-fuck, you know? Selfhood becomes like a wardrobe. This one might be all you can currently afford, but it fits well enough. Tomorrow, maybe you’ll even wear a vest — who knows?
Still, there are downsides to fluid identity. Those unwilling or incapable of observing their states of being may find themselves the victims of dangerous delusions. A recent post on Undead Molly references an article in the latest Wired about an internet relationship involving multiple levels of identity fraud. The spookiest thing about the story is the degree to which the principals fooled themselves. So be sure to stay mindful when you’re self-swapping, k?
Nothing may be true and everything indeed permitted, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be plain nasty business.
Stay tuned for your regular programming…