More and more, it has become obvious that our society is sick, and has been sick for a long time. Such a statement sounds dramatic, politically loaded, and horribly subjective. Yet, I insist that this a verifiable fact; and I am not trying to be hyperbolic.
As a society, as a collective culture, it is easy to see that we are unhappy. We are fighting each other left and right (even fighting each other within the left and right).
We have no balance.
We are sick.
We are lost.
This unhappiness, this unbalance, this sickness, is not at the individual, but the collective level; and if we don’t figure ourselves out, everything loses meaning… including art.
Right now, I am supposed to be writing a paper that discusses my work/methodology (or the work/methodology of another artist) within (or purposefully without) the umbrella of Identity Theory. And to be sure, I will get there. But it won’t be done in the usual way. Not because I don’t want to, not because I want to be different, but because I can’t. I can’t write the usual, focused paper that is self-aware and knowledgeable of its purpose at beginning, middle and end. This is because I am still finding out—I am still discovering what I think about society, the art world, yet alone my, or any one work of art. For now, I need to set aside being able to understand the umbrella of identity at any of these distinct levels, and start with what I understand and believe about society and culture.
To be sure, what is writ here will be a winding journey; but this, I think, is the way of healing, and the way of life. Intuitively, I understand that this will be my purpose. This paper will track my process of finding a useful knowledge of art through identity theory, while simultaneously translating this understanding of identity into practical uses that lead to healing—because I do believe that healing is what art can, and should, do.
I will say this, my current body of work has lead me to a ribbon of research investigating Native American culture, beliefs, and medicine power. Broad, I know… And without getting too bogged down by descriptive discussions of this research, what I have found in terms of practice and metaphor has been instrumental in me being able to rediscover voice and purpose in my art after feeling hopeless and silenced by the personal and political situations of my life.
There is a Seneca ceremonial tradition called the “Pathway of Peace” (Steiger 113). It consists of using one’s “spiritual eyes,” to walk through the “spiritual light.” Setting aside commentary on spirituality, I believe that the ceremony of the “Pathway of Peace” can function as a highly appropriate metaphor/ structure for the journey I am taking you on right now. Brad Steiger recounts Twylah’s (a Seneca wise-woman) explanation of this ceremony as follows:
This is what you need to do in order to feel the creative essence flowing within your physical body…
There are seven stones. Each stone will have a certain radiance. As you step upon the first stone, which has seven sides, you will stand there, and you will request the assistance of a messenger… the spiritual hand is always there to assist you.
You step upon the first stone, and color will come to you. You remain there until you feel you are ready to step onto the second stone. Each time you step on a stone, another color will manifest itself.
As you step from one stone to another, you will eventually reach the seventh stone. This stone will be radiating a color similar to violet.
You are at the doorway of entering the Silence… when you reach the seventh step, you have opened yourself up to the flow of the Infinite Spirit, and you are then ready for any revelation or gift to be presented to you… (113)
So then, let’s start with stone one, the first of seven, and see what colors reveal themselves along the way…
I close my eyes and instantly I am taken there—an ever-expanding desert pulsing with the rise and fall of clay undulating breath after breath. The light here is a deep, dusty pink.
In “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey insists that “there are three different looks associated with cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion,” (25). While I agree with Mulvey, I argue that there is actually a fourth “look”/vantage point. On top of the “camera,” the audience and the characters, there also sits the vantage point of the cultural eye.
Jeff Chang defines culture as “the realm of images, ideas, sounds, and stories. It is our shared space. It is the narrative we are immersed in every day. It is where people find community, and express their deepest-held values…” (5). As a point of observation, this “shared space” (what I insist is the fourth vantage point), closely aligns with what psychoanalytic theory terms as the unconscious.
Before I move on, it’s important to note that Mulvey saw “this complex interaction of looks,” as something “specific to film,” (26). Without derailing the flow of this conversation, I do not think that the distinct views of audience, characters, and camera (literal or metaphoric) are exclusive to film; I also think it is important to note that I believe that all three “looks” Mulvey identifies, plus the fourth view that I identify, are present in all art/interpretations of the world.
Mulvey identifies psychoanalytic theory as a “political weapon” (14). She also terms the unconscious as a structure of “patriarchal society” (14). So then, the fourth view, the cultural eye (or the unconscious, according to psychoanalytic theory) becomes an important vantage point that every artist must be conscious of because it is one of the greatest weapons society uses against its participants. In being conscious of the overarching cultural lens, the artist is able to speak to, challenge, and change the traditional and pervasive constructs culture utilizes.
The clay dermis honors my presence as I honor hers. We step forward together, native to one another, and the color of our light is the color of the blossoms on the creosote bush.
In reading Mulvey, it became increasingly obvious to me that the symbols of our cultural unconscious become increasingly relevant the more one is exposed to pervasive culture. This is how culture maintains its dominance; because without exposure one does not have access; yet, with more access comes more understanding. This is how we begin to learn and understand ourselves outside of ourselves; surely one cannot argue that this phenomenon is something that happens automatically, almost immediately after birth…
The sinister side of this automatic phenomenon is the fact that the subversion of anything outside the cultural norm, anything deemed as other, is automatically and incessantly subverted by the normal; this increases the visibility and exposure of normative symbols and interpretation, while also sending clear messages about the malevolence of their inverse. This is why the language of psychoanalysis and phallocentricism constantly interprets and presents the symbol of woman as synonymous with lack, or as Mulvey phrases it, “in relation to castration,” without providing any way to transcend it (14).
Chang identifies this phenomenon in relation to race, stating, “For whites, historically, skin tone and physiognomy signaled not only difference, but notions of superiority and inferiority. This was the way racial power worked” (3). The power of race/racism is in the relentless exposure to the dichotomy of superior and inferior.
And in speaking about this cultural phenomenon in relation to minority sects under the umbrella of woman, Audre Lorde discusses what is in, and what is outside, the realm of “acceptable women,” in “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” insisting that those “who have been forged in the crucibles of difference,” those “who are poor, who are lesbians, who are black, who are older,” intuitively understand how culture downgrades and villainizes non-normative players and their symbols.
Psychoanalysis’s phallus/lack, Chang’s superiority/interiority, and Lorde’s acceptable/unacceptable, rightly identify the language of the problem, and in in doing so, describes the way culture uses persistent exposure to pervasive symbols which re-emphasize and validate these dichotomies. Yet, identifying the cause doesn’t solve the problem; so what is the solution/remedy?
Chang believes that the solution to this cyclical phenomenon is asking the right questions; he states:
A book or a work of art—culture—cannot by itself change the world, but by asking the questions that matter, it might attempt to be an act of articulation against violence, both the brutal and the casual kinds. It might aspire to starting a conversation through which together we might find common meaning, and words that free. (12)
And while this is a nice thought, I find it lacking. We know that people tend to ignore questions that they don’t want to answer, especially questions for which they have no clue as the where to find the answer(s). How much more would society as a whole want to resist these lines of questioning?
At first sight, Lorde’s solution sounds more productive; or at least more practical. Lorde insists that the solution lies in resisting the use of the “masters tools.” She hints that we must use different tools in the resistance of cultural intrusion as a way to dismantle it; but what exactly does that mean? Lorde mentions that while using the master’s tools against the master might “allow us [to] temporarily beat him at his own game,” this will not bring about genuine change (27). She goes on to state that “the failure of the academic feminists to recognize difference as a crucial strength is a failure to reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. Divide and conquer, in our world, must become define and empower (27).” Lorde insists in the celebration of difference as a practical way to combat, and bring about change. Yet, as practical as it sounds, this still remains abstract in nature. It seems concrete to identify the tendency of patriarchal thought to “divide and conquer” (or to put it more bluntly, distract people with the preoccupation of drawing differences), and to insist that we must “define and empower” instead; but the question remains as to what this practically looks like.
The question here is, how does one define and empower the subverted other without using the tools/language of the pervasive culture?
The sun pushes down. The clay pulses up and down. Everything persists between these two sources of heat. Like the color of water starved life, the light is a greyish green.
I want to revisit for a second, the diagram of the four views; this time, broadening the labels of each circle to fit the broader category of representation itself (not just film).
At the center of these four circles are symbols. Most people think that symbols are the highest level of abstraction, however, I posit that they are the opposite—being the highest level of concrete. As we move out from this inner circle, things become less concrete. The conscious event (the individual’s exposure to the representation) begins the spiral toward the more abstract. As we move out toward the larger consciousness (authorial intention) and into the sphere of the cultural eye, discussion and understanding become increasingly more abstract (if not meta, precisely because discussion and understanding become more and more self-referential).
Again, this counters common thought which insists that the symbols of our unconscious are within the realm of the most abstract, and the closer we get to ourselves and our perspective, the more concrete…
I’m going to push this counter-argument one step further and posit that the unconscious actually isn’t a way we understand society; instead, it is all the ways we are told by society/ the cultural eye to interpret ourselves. Likewise, I don’t believe that the unconscious, or at least the cultural unconscious is unconscious at all—it certainly isn’t the magic we are told it is—instead, I see it as a manifestation of an immaturity in our society that has refused to move on from the obsession of self-reflection. This is what has created and perpetuated the sickness in our society.
I bring this all up, only to state that, if we want new ways to understand ourselves, we must change the abstract assumptions/auto-references of the cultural eye. In doing so, we open up the possibility to identify and change the pervasive symbols of the cultural eye.
Let me borrow a term from psychoanalysis in order to illustrate this point another way, that of the “mirror phase.” Mulvey has a pretty adequate definition for the mirror phase; she states:
The mirror phase occurs at a time when children’s physical ambitions outstrip their motor capacity, with the result that their recognition of themselves is joyous in that they imagine their mirror image to be more complete, more perfect than they experience in their own body… the mirror moment predates language for the child. (17)
I am convinced that fiction and art hold their power precisely because, as a society (and perhaps as an individual), we’ve never outgrown the tendency to interpret and understand ourselves in relation to the “perfected” versions of ourselves we see reflected in the pervasive cultural symbols we see shining back at us. And while I am highly suspect of psychoanalysis (because it is a master’s tool, and because it is part of the reflection we are forced to see and accept), I do think it is helpful in identifying the immaturity within ourselves and our society.
At the risk of being overly general, there seems to be a strong tradition within Native American medicine that addresses this very-same immaturity.
Brad Steiger, in Indian Medicine Power, explains that the Seneca view immaturity as part of the “secret of communication,” (101), where immaturity can be identified as a breakdown in communication, and ultimately something that stands in the way of happiness. The “secret of communication” can be understood through four statements, all part of a literal and symbolic circle, which “embodies spiritual harmony:”
Communicating is understanding.
Understanding leads toward peace of mind.
Peace of mind leads toward happiness.
Happiness is communicating. (101)
Steiger explains that the Seneca believed that if a problem arose in one’s life, often the blame could be placed “on a lack of communication,” or a tendency for “immaturity” to react in four possible ways, through “… anger; withdrawal from the person or the situation that influenced the breakdown; flight, running away from the person or situation identified with the breakdown;” or “the creation of excuses for not facing the situation in order to solve it” (101)
Immaturity was seen by the Seneca as the “basic reason for failure in life.” I find this wisdom very apt for explaining the current and historical failure of our culture as a whole. Surely we can see how communication within our society has been disrupted… Furthermore, one cannot deny the “emotional chaos, self-degradation, and depravity,” evident in our society; all these things identified by the Seneca as being fostered by immaturity (101). Steiger goes on to state:
The question is, what can we do about immaturity? The first step is to recognize that a problem exists. If a breach occurs in your lifestyle, there is a problem. A breach is any rupture that causes a situation, a separation, insecurity, or disharmony.
Carefully study the four reactions. Can you identify them as belonging to you? If you can, the first step has been faced. At this point, you have recognized that an inner force is available to help you reinforce your desire for making an honest self- analysis (101)
This careful study of the “four reactions” needs to happen at the cultural level. I posit that the historical and current rupture in our culture is a breakdown in communication; or put in slightly different terms, an immaturity stemmed by the fixation of our society on its reflection in the mirror. As a collective whole, we are stunted by our communication, halted in the metaphoric mirror phase, instead of taking steps toward self-actualization. If we are going to heal as a society, we need to navigate the abstract of our self-reference; this will, in turn, allow us to redefine or supplant the pervasive symbols at our core.
The pressure drops. Moisture kisses everything in a torrent. Some might think that the color of the water stone might be blue, but here, the color of the light is the same color of brown as the skin of the ground.
In her discussion of film, Mulvey uses the term “omnipotence” to explore phallocentric society, and to explain the pervasive and persistent reflection and focus on the symbol(s) of male. Of course, this omnipotence is a myth, but in buying into this mythos society sees the idealized (white, heterosexual, masculine man) as its perfected form; this surely accounts for why is why male actors, male artists… male anything, in the concrete world, overshadow their female counterparts. We may be female, or feminine, or gay, or colored, or none of these things… yet we are taught to see ourselves in comparison to the white, straight, masculine mirror form. This is currently what it means to be cultured; and this is why culture is oppressive and currently causing sickness.
What are practical ways the individual can participate in fixing this? Once again, I find value in using Native American medicine as a metaphor. Steiger identifies four questions that traditional Seneca wisdom uses as guidelines for self-discipline; they are as follows:
- Am I happy in what I am doing?
- Is what I’m doing adding to the confusion?
- What am I doing to bring about peace and contentment?
- How will I be remembered when I am gone?
These questions become increasingly important to the artist who wants to bring about social change, because where unity is a law of nature, society is becoming increasingly disconnected.
After the storm, puddles settle in the low land and the color of the light is blue because the slick mirrors on the ground reflect the fabric of the sky.
If there is one thing we are taught, and one thing that is constantly reinforced by society and our notions of morality, it is the idea that the individual is their own person, that the actions of the individual are good or bad, and praised or punished accordingly. This makes it easy to blame the current social and civil unrest on individuals. We can call out racists, label groups of people as deplorable, or as baby killers, or as super predators… (the list could go on). Except, at some point, as a society, we must accept a sense of collective responsibility instead of individual accountability; especially when it comes to issues like racism, sexism, and homophobia. The fact is, the social ills of things like racism and sexism, while they are animated by the actions of individuals, are perpetuated by a collective complacency, allowed to grow in the environment that we, as a society, foster. Racism, sexism and homophobia exist because collectively we have given them purpose, and have indulged in the confusion they have created.
In “Nothing Personal,” James Baldwin, in reference to the tendency in society to blame an individual/ individual group for its problems, states:
Nothing more sinister can happen, in any society, to any people. And when it happens, it means that the people are caught in a kind of vacuum between their present and their past… It is a crisis of identity. And in such a crisis, at such a pressure, it becomes absolutely indispensable to discover, or invent—the two words, here, are synonyms—the stranger, the barbarian, who is responsible for our confusion and our pain. Once he is driven out—destroyed—then we can be at peace: those questions will be gone. Of course, those questions never go, but it has always seemed much easier to murder than to change. (54)
It really is an easy distraction to blame… anyone else but ourselves. It is easy to distrust one another, or to identify subsets of people as the problem, than it is to change the what is really wrong with the apparatus of our social conscious and unconscious.
But healing requires the hard work. We can’t just claim to be a post-gender or post-other society (sorry Donna Haraway), without assessing exactly what this means and how to get there. Not to mention, a change in society requires much more than a change in the individual. Individuals might claim to live a life with a post-other understanding, but the solitary individual is within a whole other realm of reality and abstraction. It is the cultural realm that needs healing, not the individual… and in terms of effectiveness, healing the cultural realm instead of attempting to heal the individual one by one, would yield a greater outcome, considering the persistent and uninvited presence of culturalization upon the individual.
Of course, finding the practicalities of this becomes the issue.
Maybe it is through questioning… but these questions can’t be asked of, or by, the individual, they must be asked of, and by, the collective culture itself. As agents of change, artists and self-aware citizens must find ways to infiltrate the abstract realm of the cultural lens and force the larger society to ask of itself:
- Am I happy with what I am doing/presenting?
- Is what I’m doing adding to the confusion? If so, how?
- What can I do instead so that I can bring about peace and contentment?
- How will these adjustments to who I am and what I am doing be perceived in the future?
Combined with this cycle of questioning must come an awareness and insistence of love. James Baldwin speaks extensively about love in “Nothing Personal,” and while it seems juvenile and simplistic to think that love conquers all, it’s hard to think of conflict, unhappiness, violence, confusion, or pain existing where there is love. So then, love must also infiltrate the abstract realm of the cultural lens if the pervasive symbols we hold at our center are ever going to change; and in this infiltration, as Baldwin insists, “love will simply have no choice but to go into battle with space and time and, furthermore, to win” (59).
The last of the water is absorbed; it is stored away like the gift that it is, and the color of its light is white.
In “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” Audre Lorde insists that one can eliminate the “fears which rule [one’s life],” through the “intimacy of scrutiny” (1). She is speaking of poetry, which she defines as “the revelation or distillation of experience” (1). This definition of poetry seems closely aligned to the Seneca concept of “spiritual harmony” already mentioned. Lorde goes on to state:
…We must constantly encourage ourselves and each other to attempt the heretical actions our dreams imply and some of our old ideas disparage. In the forefront of our move toward change, there is only our poetry to hint at possibility made real. Our poems formulate the implications of ourselves, what we feel within and dare make real (or bring action into accordance with), our fears, our hopes, our most cherished terrors. (2)
Lorde’s concept of poetry as a way to eradicate the fear and control caused by the ills of our society, is undoubtedly beautiful and meaningful. Yet it speaks to the realm of the individual, not the cultural. I have no doubt that poetry, real poetic perspective, has the power to heal the soul, yet the sickness we are faced with is not personal, it’s cultural.
Yet, if we can find a way to translate the individual practice of poetic perspective (which can lead to self-actualization) into a process that can be applied to the realm of culture, real value would lay there.
Part of the job of agents of change is to find a way to distill the practice of poetry/ “spiritual harmony” into a language and process culture understands. In short, we have to find ways to demystify poetry. According to society, poetry is something along the lines of mythical magic, something outside the mirror image society accepts. But if we can find a way to term the use of poetry as something culture understands, I think it is possible to simultaneously lift the mythical illusion that surrounds the master’s tools, and reveal them for what they are—nothing more than an elaborate smokescreen, not unlike the wizard of OZ who has tricked even himself into believing in his own power.
The color of the light here is healing. It is a vibrant, violet pink.
One last point we must contend with is a very real and threatening immaturity in society that is used to safeguard the powerholders of our culture. I am speaking about the phenomenon that happens when a pervasive social structure/ symbol is challenged; society utilizes its greatest defense mechanism, and makes the brash decision to downgrade the structure/symbol/tool that is being attacked. The clearest illustration of this phenomenon at work is when a respected occupation begins to be infiltrated or represented by women or another minority. Teaching, and healthcare are good examples of occupations that lost status and prestige as women began to occupy them (I argue that this very same phenomenon accounts for what has recently happened with the prestige and seriousness of the US presidency).
Admitting that this defense mechanism is present should not signal defeat. Certainly we should not say women should not run for the highest office in the land because, poof, there goes its prestige… Instead, we should do our due diligence and study this mechanism further, and find ways to utilize it as a medicine that can be methodically applied where and when needed.
All of this is well and good; but what does any of this mean practically? What does this look like in terms of art practice?
This is the question I cannot answer yet.
All I can say is the following:
In partaking in this ceremony of the “Pathway of Peace,” my journey through the seven stones has revealed to me that my identity as an artist, more than ever, is that of the healer. The flipside of this is, I find myself, less and less, identifying as the other. This does not mean that I have traded my set of personal experiences, pains, or perspectives, for a sterilized view of the world… This means that I am setting aside the stress, self-concern and downward spiral of finding a voice that advocates my causes in a way that people will listen to; and instead, devote myself to finding ways to infiltrate the abstract realm of the cultural lens, with the hopes of finding real ways to heal what is broken there.
I do believe that this trend was something set in motion about a year ago, but the full revelation of this is something new to me.
- I have moved from representations of sex/ raw sexuality
- To finding way to synthesize my personal struggles into a universal metaphor
- To my present concern of using this metaphor, not to give voice to my struggle, but to set in motion a ceremony of healing.
Baldwin, James. “Nothing Personal”
Chang, Jeff. “Color Theory: Race Trouble in the Avant Garde.”
Lorde, Audre. “Poetry is not a Luxury.”
—. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House.”
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.”
Steiger, Brad. Indian Medicine Power. Whitford Press, 1984.