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Identity and Life as Art

Today I visited the local library to read a music magazine. They had an article interviewing both Sanna "Litku" Klemetti and Jukka "Gutsi" Gustavson. The double-interview was about progressive rock, for Jukka Gustavson is known as one of the pioneers and icons of Finnish prog, and Sanna Klemetti is a famed indie musician who mixes progressive influences into her music, and has listed Gutsi as one of her influences. (This is also mentioned in a somewhat autobiogiographical piece Progetyttö.) The article was good, offering a view over the generations of musical evolution and re-finding and re-defining the way one wants to make music. Also, glimpses of how the ebb and flow of musical fashions affecting personal lives - despite being a talented musician, in 1980's Jukka "Gutsi" Gustavson went working as a janitor for prog went out of fashion and there simply weren't gig opportunities available for him. Litku said she has also been pondering the option to adopt some other occupation, in case she gets fed up with the side-effects of the music business.

Well, the magazine had also an another article on progressive rock. That was equally semi-autobiographical article of a music journalist, describing how for him, as a teenager, becoming a prog fan was also a statement, differentiating himself from the mainstream. And there were those descriptions how the music genres also create communities with shared aestethical ideals. So that suddenly this group identity becomes a major factor, sometimes weighing more than the actual musical content itself. And when defining a (musical) identity, it is only partially about "this is what we are" - all the rest is about "this is what we are NOT!". The phenomenon, of course, is general and seems to be universal. When I studied basics of Folkloristics at The University, this was one of the central elements of the common theoreties about group identity; "who we are is largerly defined by distancing ourselves from who we are not". This theme pops up here and there, all so often. If you support conservative cultural values, you are probably also supposed to distance yourself from some or most of the progressive phenomenons for they are perceived as a threat and an insult towards the traditional values. Similarly, if you identify as a progressive, you are often supposed to avoid all signs of being friends with anyone expressing a slightest sign of bigotry. This is something I can kind of a undestand on a theoretical level, but it corresponds to very little of my own personal experience.

I don't know, maybe I fall somewhere on the milder end of the autistic spectrum, for I feel alien to some of the most central elements of typical social behaviour of human beings. As usual, this is not a problem for me, as I anyway think that all I can do is to find my own ways to navigate the world and life the way I find it in my personal experience. But back to that later on in this post. Let's first examine the theme on a more general level.

Let us assume a story about Western culture. After the Middle Ages the Western Culture has produced two great philosophical innovations. The rationality. The individual. The idea or Rationality states that instead of merely repeating the old myths handed down by past generation, you can question everything, make experiments, free yourself of dogmatic thinking, be innovative and learn to decode the secrets of workings of nature. That has lead to the triumph of science and technology, accumulating wealth and well-being like never seen before. The idea of individual is, I'd guess, somewhat rooted in the Christian theology - namely the idea that after physical death your individual soul is either saved or condemned by God, based on the individual choices and decisions you made; not based on your belonging to this or that group, not based on your status in a group hierarchy. No matter if you were a master or a servant, no matter if you were a member of the rich elite or a poor layman, in the eyes of the God your individual soul is weighed based on your individual decisions. Yes, I know, similar ideas exists in many Oriental philosophies, too. But paired with Western cultural rise of market economy and scientific world-view assuming the cosmos being made up of separate elementary pieces, there somehow developed this culture where individual freedom is often valued above the burden of collective duties. The idea of individual states that you are free to pursue your personal success and happiness, that your background shouldn't define your opportunities but based on your own talent you are free to keep what you gain by your own effort. And that you shouldn't be punished because of what others did - it is only your own choices which matter.

So, given these great myths of Western culture, is there any more room for a traditional group identity? Seems like there isn't. If we are all made up of molecules, and the molecules are uniform and standard all around the globe, then it doesn't make a difference if we are born here or there (whereas the old mythological tribal identity comes with a strong feeling that the blood and the soil have a sacred connection, that being born in a certain territory gives you natural rights and obligations towards that territory and towards the fellow tribesmen born on the same territory). If we are all individuals and only to be evaluated based on our personal choices, then should we all distance ourselves from the uniform crowd, to state our individuality by being unique and different? And, ultimately, if the Rationality and Science seem to explain all the workings of the nature so that we can ditch all the superstition and myths, then how do we define moral values and aesthetical preferences? Are they also subject to individual freedom and choice? But if anyone is free to choose what ever moral values one wants, doesn't that deteriorate the core idea of moral values? If there is no room for myths and mysteries, then doesn't a scientifically explained life become hollow and empty? If abandoning the myths leaves a void, then how do we fill that void? By consuming more and more goods, by accumulating more and more luxuries, by becoming more and more invidual and unique, by becoming addicted to extreme experiences?

I don't know but to me it seems that a lot of people don't want to let go of the ancient and traditional group identity. It is probably not intentional, it just surfaces again in countless forms, for deep down we still have a hunter-gatherer brain, an intrinsic need to belong to a group. And, interestingly, the group membership isn't just that, but often gets manifested in a few regular ways. These include 1) shared myths and values, 2) shared aesthetical prefences, and 3) distancing ourselves from who we are NOT. All of these were clearly present in that rock-magazine essay by a music journalist. People who found their identity via progressive rock shared certain aestethical ideals about what a proper prog should sound like. And, certainly, what prog is NOT (it is not overtly simple, not commercial, not mainstream). Musical genius and techical virtuosity were valued to the point of playing near-endless solos. All of this led to a sense of elitism, prog heroes defining the scene, and what once was progressive innovation quickly became repetition of the established aesthetical norms. Until Punk came and smashed all of that.

Again, on a more general level, to me it seems that the ideas of The Rationality and The Individual are only partially developed in Western culture. If their love-child is Postmodern void and hollow consumerism, many people don't want that and seek remedy in taking a step back to tribal group identity. This can mean either embracing The Order and Security provided by honouring the age-old Our Traditions - or celebrating The Mystery and Magic of all-that-which-is-not-fully-rationally-explained, be it New Age or more conventional forms of religious practice. Or, on a somewhat poetical level of metaphors; the post-modern individual liberalism of "instead of strict categories we all individuals just fall somewhere on a great spectrum, and our position in that spectrum can vary from time to another" there seems to be a rise of "instead of a broad spectrum, and instead of the old binary classes, there is a plethora of sub-groups and small minorities, so that via self-identification every individual is free to find which box they belong to, and to celebrate their in-box identity with fellow box-dwellers". Such is the call of the ancient hunter-gatherer mind, the need to belong to a group with shared aesthetical preferences, values and myths which are unique and different from other tribes.

So, what is my personal stance on these matters? Should we ditch postmodernism as a failed attempt, acknowledging that we have a natural need to belong to a group with shared myths? Or should we fight tribal identities like we have fought superstitions, attempting to replace them with scientific rationalism and modern individualism? Or maybe I'm a centrist, offering some sort of watered-down compromise between these two extremities? Well, as some of you might already guess, none of these descriptions connects with the way I feel and think. I think that instead of merely going back to stone-age tribal identities, and instead of getting stuck in the quackmire of postmodernism we could simply venture onwards exploring the new horizons beyond postmodernism. And, yes, this might mean re-thinking the notions of The Rationality and The Individual. (OK, sorry, I said 'we could'. But, strictly speaking, I'm trying to express the way of thinking which works for me. I'm not that interested in getting others to adopt my views. Yet I say we instead of I for I think that if this way works for me, it might also work for someone else. Just as I don't have a need to belong to a group of likeminded people, I don't have a need to be a totally separate unique individual with solitary ideas and thoughts that no-one else has.)

Let's start with an easy example. Probably because I'm rather illiterate when it comes to theory of music, I never asked the question "what genre is this music?". So, in my life I've always only been listening to good music. And only occasionally reading about the backgroud, the historical context and the views and ideas associated with the band or the album or the piece. Which means that in my early twenties, as I liked Jethro Tull a lot, it never occured to me that it could also define what kind of music I shouldn't like. If some 90's Eurodance hit on radio made me feel like celebrating the joy of life then let it be so. When I went to The University to study Philosophy, I quickly learned that in 1900's there has been some tribal division between English-speaking philosophy and the Continental Philosophy (mostly German and French). I was mostly interested in some thinkers of the Continental movement, but I was never interested in taking sides in a tribal tug of war. When English-speaking analytical philosophy had good ideas, I was eager and willing to understand and to ponder over them. To me it seemed that often the non-collaboration between these two traditions was more because of tribal prejudices and less because of the actual content of their philosophical ideas. Oh, hey, but is this an easy example like I thought it to be? Like, if I don't want to take sides, doesn't that mean that I'm a lousy centrist? Or that I'm an outside spectator, not fully subscribing to this or that movement? I'm afraid we need to dive head-first into the big questions of the 20th Century Western Philosophy.

Seen from my perspective, one of the big questions of 20th Century was Solipsism. The idea that each subjective consciousness has direct access only to the content of said consciousness. What happens inside another mind is forever unreachable by others, and we can only communicate over language and other medias. Or, if we want to avoid talking about 'subjective consciousness' and only restrict ourselves to talk about the language we use to desrcibe propositions we believe to be true (this is one of the central themes of English-speaking 20th century philosphy, and the so-called linguistic turn in the Continental philsophy), then we easily end up with the idea that what makes sense and is comprehensible in vocabulary A must be totally incomprehensible in vovabulary / language non-A. Because, if a translation exists, then non-A is not really a NON-A, but just another version A' of A, so that both A and A' can be reduced back to a common vocabulary. So, for another set of vocabulary B to be genuinely different, that would also render it incomprehensible for us speakers of A, so that we could not distinguish between B and nonsensical noise. But what does all this mean? That conservatives speaking the conservative vocabulary can never undestand the progressives speaking the progressive vocabulary, and vice versa? That prog fans can never share a language with pop or punk fans, for they have fundamentally different ideas of what 'music' means? Or that none of these differences are real, as when it comes to the bottom of it all, we are speaking about the same stuff just using different words? Or that white is black and black can be called white, depending on who describes it seen from what point of view?

Well, I think that the whole question of solipsism is a trap set up by the language / framework we have been using. Change the language and your philosophical problems appear differently, some of them vanishing altogether (an idea advocated by Richard Rorty, for example). My favourite Western philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty studied the very genesis of human consciousness, and concluded that the mind is not altogether nor essentially bound by the structures of language nor the concepts of cognitive mind. For the meanings like 'danger' and 'safety', 'passable' and 'unpassable' or 'within-reach', and 'out-of-reach' aren't born out of cognitive deduction but out of bodily intentionality, the body-minds pre-cognitive ability to assess the situation in relation to bodily capability to act in the world. Sounds self-evident, right? But, to me, this seems like a strong objection to Wittgenstein's famous "if lions could speak we couldn't undestand them" - for (at that time) Wittgenstein supposed that lions live in a different world so that if they spoke, their language would be incomprehesible for us. But I'd guess notions like danger and safety, hunger and food are very likely be shared among lions and humans - only that there are more or less differences both between species and idividuals in the details of what we experience as safety, yet we still share a general understanging that there are dangerous situations and there are safe situations. All of this means that beyound language there is a layer where we share a surprisingly lot with another living beings. And, as Rorty points out, beyound our current vocabulary we are, at least sometimes, capable of grasping the creative power of poetry, widening our horizons, re-arranging our previous ideas so that we get a glimpse of something new, suddenly we start to understand something which was alien to us. This presupposes an ability to be not-fully-restricted-to-the-current-set-of-ideas-and-beliefs. That the solipsism might actually just be an unnecessary conceptual construct, as on the level of first-hand experience we are capable of momentarily getting immersed into something which is slightly beyound our individual sphere. "The relation of the body and the consciousness is as intimate as the sea and the shore", wrote Merleau-Ponty in his working notes, some time before his work was left unfinished due to his sudden death. And there is a powerful metaphor there. Merleau-Ponty wanted to redefine looking as 'palpating the world with eyes', suggesting that when we gaze we aren't a totally separate subject observing an external object, but that in the moment of seeing we necessarily are intimately connected with the world. Simply, that we are a part of the world, not a mere solipsistic observer outside the world. (Now, if you are horrified that this could lead to the idea of human consciousness being a mere clockwork machinery of the mundane nature, please don't panic. Merleau-Ponty sees intentionality as a fundamental intrinsic characteristic of all forms of life. Yet, what this exactly means, remains a subject of study for generations of scientist and philosophers to come.)

I try to rephrase myself, approaching from another angle. When I was a kid in the elementary school, I early on adopted a role of a clown. First three years of the school I hardly leant anything knew, for I had already learnt a lot from my elder brother. So I didn't need to take the school so seriously. On top of that, at home I had already learnt that it is not necessarily wise to express my real thoughts to others. So, a role of an entertainer, a weirdo, or a village idiot offered a safe way out, and proved to be an effective coping method. Not even trying to fit into the group, deliberately doing things differently, yet often aiming to be funny and entertaining instead of arrogant and annoying - that gave me a degree of freedom, and offered a dose of phantasy to escape the boredom of being-trapped-in-a-place-where-I-do-not-feel-like-belonging-to. In my early teenage years I started to read about zen-buddhism, because of my more serious and rigoroud ponderings about how to solve the basic questions of human life. My self-assumed role of a village idiot grew to be more like a statement, questioning a lot of the restrictions of the conventional traditions I perceived around me, and celebrating the individual freedom to be true to the deep personal experience. Not to find The Truth in the tradition nor in the teachings of the authorities, but in a deep, direct inner experience, helped by meditating, allowing the previously learned prejudices to fade away so that the deeper truth could reveal itself unfiltered. And expressing this freedom by walking barefoot in the snow, simply to show the authorities that I can do this if I've practiced to do this. Or, more generally, this led me to the idea that (my) life is not about fullfilling the expectations of others, not about climbing the social ladder of success, not about being same or different as the crowd. My life is about finding an inner connection with the infinitive creative Beauty of The Life, which is there in every cell of my body, and then learning to express that in the daily activities of my life. So that ultimately my life could become a piece of art, an expression of Beauty which in itself can't be captured by any final and total expression. It is all about endless flow of creation, the mystery of the beauty constantly re-expressing itself.

Okay then, but does not the Western idea of artistical performance presuppose a disticntion between the artist and the audience? Is there any point in a piece of art no-one gets, or should artistical expression always aim at being comprehensible by the audience? In my early childhood, when I adpoted the social mask of a clown and entertainer, wasn't that aimed at hiding my true inner self, instead of honestly and geuinely expressing the vulnerable depths of my soul? Should genuine art always be honest and authentic, an unfiltered expression flowing out from the core of an artistical soul without any calculations? Or, if a piece of art is always a performance tailored for a certain audience, does that require ditching the ideal of authenticity, so that the imago, how things seem like becomes more important than how I feel deep inside?. Now guess what? I think we are back to the questions orbiting the philosophy of solipsism. And here my personal solution is something like this: Fundamentally, I don't believe in any strict separation of subject and object, performer and audience, for deep down we are all waves of the same great Totality of Existence. Which also means that I value the sense of connectedness - be it a moment of feeling connected with fellow human beings, or trees, or the horses, or the distant glimmer of the stars. Somewhere deeper than language, and sometimes on level of the language, we feel connected. And sometimes it is not probably a mere feeling, but actually also a rare moment of minds temporarily touching each other, blending into each other. No, I don't think there needs to be a supernatural or magical or tribal explanation to these moments. Maybe it is all just electricity and chemistry running in our cells. For, the way I think about it, no matter what the theoretical explanation is, it is bound to explain how there are degrees of feeling and being dis/connected with the world and others. And I hope all the ealier philosophy helps to back my idea that even between humans, this sense of connectedness doesn't always come via propositions expressed in logical language. Often it is those moments like when Sanna 'Litku' Klemetti leaps down from the stage to dance and to sing together with the audience, when the lyrics don't necessarily make any sense, and it is all about this collective ritual of opening ones mind to the joy and celebration of the carneval of being-there-together. The way I experience those moments, it doesn't matter how people look like, for we are all connected in the moment of how it feels like to be there. When people get immersed in a shared flow, ones body is no more an object on display for the eyes of others - the body becomes a medium of being-there, dancing and experiencing first-hand some of those primitive qualities of being-alive which are probably equally understood by humans, lions, horses and the weasels.

What does all of this mean? Here I'm trying to vaguely express the way I feel. That I advocate science, rationaly and critical thinking, yet that doesn't leave me in a post-modern void, for I see no problem in enjoying those deeper-than-words moments when one feels connected with others, celebrating the sheer joy of music and dance, or being moved to tears by the beauty of fragile flowers blooming early on a summer morning. I see this profound Beuty of Existence as deeper and more solid than any of my own personal choices and preferences - yet that primordial layer doesn't yield any logical proof for a set of rules to follow, no set of dogmas to believe in. When it comes down to it, The Truth is being-connected-with, and that in itself is beyound any final explanation, for The Existence in itself is a mystery - we can't capture it in a set of dogmas, yet it isn't completely beyound our reach, for our mind is like the water washing the sand on the shoreline of The Mystery. We can Touch and to-be-in-touch. This gives me a sense of meaning, and a sense of direction to navigate my personal life without getting lost in the postmodern void nor without seeking refuge in pre-critical tribal dogmatism. Also, this is a sense of being-connected-with, yet without a need to define 'who we are not'. We are all alive because of the energy the Sun bathes down on the Earth. We are all a great cosmic dance of molecules - actually, the carbon which is an essential building block of our organic molecules, was once formed in distant starts which then exploded spreading the carbon all around the interstellar space. To be connected with this deep sense of The Dance of The Existence does not come with a need to tell your tribe apart from other tribes. It doesn't come with strictly defined set of aesthetical rules. Maybe one could say that it comes with a sense of discovery, adventure, honesty, freedom and joy which once energized progressive rock before it turned into a yet another form of tribal identification with a static set of aesthetic ideals.

It also means that 'life as art' can oftentimes be not comprehended by human audience. Just like humans so often merely clear-cut an area of forest, seeing the forest as a mere supply of raw recourses to be exploited, instead of connecting with the inner beauty of the forest which keeps us all alive (yes, there are ways to utilize forest without brutally clear-cutting, but more like harvesting some years every so often, so that the forest constantly stays alive and growing. This is a techically possible solution, and in the long run it is sometimes economically more profitable than the clear-cutting method, yet this constant-growth method isn't applied that often. Probably because of too many people working with forest industry are still mentally stuck with their traditions, not daring to broaden their horizons and to question their dogmas.) Life as an art can often go unnoticed by any human audience. It is temporary, situational, passing and constantly in the process of re-birth. Like the moment you enjoy the fragrance of a solitary flower deep in the woods - there is no human audience for who you'd perform this experience, yet the experience is valuable in itself, and it noursihes your inner sense of beauty and wonder. And, just like any art, sometimes you fumble and fail, sometimes you learn by your mistakes, you never master it all and the adventure goes on as long as you keep exploring and learning. The way I see it, not because of seeking applause of the audience, but merely to celebrate the joy of being-there, the mystery of participating in the great flow of life.

So, personally, I start to panic the moment I feel I'm becoming a part of a group which would then evaluate and judge my moral and aestethic preferences. I feel a need to stay away from such group identities. Yet I don't feel myself being a totally alienated outsider, for I embrace those moments when people just dance together. And those moments when the northern lights dance on the night sky and I marvel at the miracle of palpating the lights with my eyes. To put is simple, personally I feel that it is entirely possible to find a sense of Meaning, Direction and Belonging in life, without reverting to the old dogmatic tribal group identity, but merely by celebrating those moments when a sense of connectedness runs so deep that you are no more connected to this or that group of fellow hunter-gatherers, but find your personal consciousness grounded in the deep mystery of All That There Is. And, I'd guess that all-that-there-is isn't that much described as a set of things, but more as a process, a flow, a cosmic dance. Be it progressive rock, punk, pop or new-wave punk, or Yenisei-punk.

As a final note, let me remind that these are just my personal thoughts which help me to navigate my own life. I don't assume these thoughts to be any sort of an universal answer which should be adopted by everyone. As a more spesific example, I recently read an article where someone said that instead of seeing everyone as individuals falling at different places on a broad spectrum, it is actually empowering to find your own box, a definition, a shared identity so that you are not alone but belong to a group. On some level I can uderstand that other people feel like that. It is just that I feel differently, I prefer to see myself and to meet others without any too strict defintions and assumptions. This works for me. If more tightly-packed tribal identities work better for other people, I'm not trying to prove them wrong. (I only wish they don't start fighting each other over which tribal identity is superior to others. But I do believe it is completely possible to maintain a tight tribal identity while fully respecting the other tribes' right to exists.) Hehe, and no pictures this time, for I didn't plan to write this blog post. This just happened, as I decided not to store these thoughts in my mind, but to spontaneously type them out without too much polishing.

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Comments

This essay reflects my thoughts for the past few months. I have noticed that around the School Campus, people are confining themselves to unspoken set of groups. I am more of a person who takes pride in individuality, but even I, sometimes, hang out in a group.

This is probably not due to our conscious choice, but due to our need to be part of a group, since in the ancient world, you had the best chances of surviving if you were part of a group.

Yes, I agree that it seems plausible to assume that group behaviour is something like a sub-conscious need which we don't need to learn, as our mind rather inherits those traits from the evolutionary past of the mankind.

And there is nothing bad in group behaviour as such. I think it only becomes a problem when we allow it to affect our reasoning and judmenent too much (again, this often happens without a conscious choice, so it isn't always easy to recognize how our reasoning tends to be biased because of our internal need to defend our own group.)

Well, but individuality is a tricky question, as well =) At least in my own life I've ran through this kind of thought patterns: "If there is one group wearing only black clothes with rivets, and another group wearing only blue jeans, and there is some sort of rivalry between these groups, then what should I wear if I'm an individual who doesn't want to associate with these groups? If I avoid wearing jeans and black clothes with rivets, does that still mean that my individual choice of clothing is still defined in relation to what others wear? That I define my identity by being different from others? Or can I just totally ignore the aesthetical preferences and the associated tribal identity badges, if these things don't matter to me personally? If I wear blue jeans simply because I like them as a practical choice, does that mean that others start to treat me as I were a member of the jeans-wearing group, assuming that I share all the rest of their values and traits?"

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