Scarface ‘talks’ identity: A question for the arts and other human interests

This is an email (apology) to my friend Joe Patti, followed by the rant (comment on his blog) that provoked it.


Hey Joe,

I just reread my comment on your identity essay and am shocked at how strident I must have seemed. Oops! I don’t want to make excuses, but I guess its a topic that strikes a nerve with me. I DO see it as vitally important that we get clearer about issues like this, and I probably go ballistic far too easily. I see it as a parallel issue to our pervasive amnesia about issues of value. Its like we have been dropped into a human life with all its attending values and identities, and we know perfectly well what we need to do, but we have no understanding of how we got there. Our understanding of using values and identities was born fully formed, as it were……

And these things crop up on the periphery of so many issues we talk about. And occasionally they are central, but because we understand them so poorly they are perennially neglected. Everything from toilets in rural India to ““I never was a part of that process” quickly became “I understand our shared goal and I want to help.”” (Where the separate “I” gets miraculously transformed into the collaborative “our”) How we see ourselves and what we believe we are supposed to do, or are just capable of doing, is always an issue of identity for us. And our own capacities are mirrored in the way the world makes sense for us. The stuff that matters is always what makes sense in particular to ourselves. Toilets in rural India, for instance……

But I apologize if my sorting through those notions in my blog comment came off a bit ranty. Talk about ‘values’ and how ‘things’ are identified! I’ve been struggling to make sense of and communicate these ideas for a number of years, and there are only a handful of folks who care about these issues even tangentially to their own concerns. I guess my frustration with the arts field in general was due to boil over at some point, and I’m just sorry if it caused collateral damage on your blog. I’m just not sure the best way to communicate these ideas at this point, except to, you know, wade in with guns blazing when the topic comes up……

So I’m sorry if I went overboard yesterday. Its only because I care about the arts field and what we do that this stuff even matters enough for me to express myself. And because I care I get uptight about our baffling inability to get our collective heads around some of these issues. But I guess it isn’t baffling in the end. Other than you, no one has been arguing against a reliance on instrumentality as a persuasive case for the arts. Most other folks don’t get it. And you have been at it and been public about these ideas for far longer than I have. I don’t know how you persevere so calmly in this sea of unwashed ignorance….. You are a damn hero in my book!

Well that all probably sounded ranty too! Darn it! Passion gets in the way at every turn!

Better stop here, but I just felt the need to apologize and to thank you, again, for being at the forefront of so many of these issues. The arts are so lucky to have you! And I’m always grateful of your efforts to challenge us to do better and to be better. Keep up the good work!



So, my friend Joe asks another of his penetrating question, a good question, about the fallout from our confusions about identity. He poses it as “a question about the ethics of presenting a group with a famous name which is comprised of few, if any, of the original members.  Just because a group has the legal right to use a name…. when does it become an issue of misrepresentation when it comes to audience expectations?….What if the conductor who is closely identified with an orchestra and creating their distinctive sound moves on?  Or even going back to the original idea, if there are 80 odd musicians who were part of the ensemble that created the signature sound of the orchestra, as each departs over the years, what is the tipping point where a new orchestra exists?”

I had this to say (if it counts as ‘saying’ that words are spoken in the midst of flying bullets) :

This is a big question, and my feeling is that we are continually tripped up by finding only simple answers. The idea that what we look for in identity is something real out in the world makes perfect sense in only some circumstances. Its not a universal calling card, however, as you rightly point out. Having the same constituent parts gives some things their identity and others not. We make a mistake when we imagine identity can be approached only on a physical basis. This is not a question of doing natural science on cultural objects. It works for us in some cases but not all.

And because this is a powerful image, that identity is located ‘out there’ somewhere, in the things themselves, we are seduced into thinking that our attention need only focus on the objects in question. We imagine, for instance, that Art is some particular thing, and that occasional things qualify and others do not entirely as a matter of measuring up, having appropriate art qualities in their make up. We appeal to this objective seeming identity when we typically answer these questions. As if the artness were located in the things themselves.

What we lack in such cases is an awareness of the functional nature of identity, how things count as something for whom and in what circumstances. Identity, it turns out, is significantly conditional on criteria of who its supposed to matter for.

So if we can’t simply look at the things themselves to tell us ‘what’ they are, we need to uncover the other conditions where identity becomes manifest. Not everything that has an identity exemplifies nature being “carved at the joints”. Rather, there are practices of identifying some things this way at some times and other ways at other times. We are not talking about identity as a manifestation of the things themselves, but as what counts when and for whom. We can’t decide that in all cases by appealing to the objective nature of things themselves, but must instead refer to the conditional nature of who says what about which things.

Identity may have a huge basis in the solidity and permanence of how things in the world come to us, but it ends up often being less about the things than what we are inclined to do with them. Its not what external ‘things’ cause us to think as much as what we think about them.

This is a big question, and as long as we are mired in imagining some necessary objective reference we will be endlessly confused about how others can see things differently and why they would do so. Agreement only means that some things matter similarly for a number of people. And the source of that agreement is not a universality of external objective qualities but a harmony between people caring about similarly grouped things. It is the human practice of mattering that stands at the foundation. We treat them the same, not because they necessarily ARE the same, but because to us in these conditions we behave as if they were. WE behave.

It may turn out that the important question is not why we treat some things the same as the understanding that we do. The foundations of human behavior and culture in general is humans navigating the world. Natural science rightly looks to the world to carve up natural things at their joints, but the navigating part is infinitely more complex and human than that. We are obsessed with looking for natural causes, and one side effect is that we presume the things which interest us are all exclusively natural entities in themselves. We lose sight of the fact that human decisions and human values exhibit a non-necessity that has spawned many ways of doing things and have evolved over history. That, in fact, is the defining moment of contingency. And we had better make peace with that if we want to get clear about some specifically and uniquely human interests.


“Say ‘Hello’ to my little friend.”

The end. Or not. YMMV. Do with it what you will. And sorry for all the spilled blood.

Peace all!

Make beauty real


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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