Art by Kate Shaw
Late one August evening in a small provincial town, a woman steps out her front door. In her hand, she holds a slim leather briefcase, probably containing a laptop. When she steps down from the small landing in front of the door, a mild breeze fills the air, gently tousling her long blond tresses. She tries to pull her hair back behind her ears without any luck. From the back pocket of her jeans she pulls out a bandeau and ties those unruly locks into a simple ponytail. Now, with no hair interrupting her vision, she looks first to the right and then to the left before turning around to lock the door behind her. After checking twice that the door really is locked, she rotates to face the street for the second time.
This time she looks to the left first. Actually, at this point, her whole body shifts as she evaluates the possibility of going in that direction.
Is this the right way?
Going left isn’t necessary, of course. She could also turn to the right, and the possibility of going straight is there as well. She might visit one of her neighbors in the building across from her own. For a moment, she doesn’t move. She just stands there, facing left.
There is nothing extraordinary in this scene: a woman leaving her home. Or perhaps there is—for it also depicts a woman standing still.
Now she turns around to face the door. Again. She grasps the handle. Again.
Insecurity? Memory lapse? Obsessive-compulsive disorder?
She looks over her shoulder to the left while facing the door. Then a quick gaze to the right before she opens door and goes in. Again.
She doesn’t come back out.
* * *
Have you ever felt alienated from reality? Perhaps it’s not fair to ask so bluntly. I should be more specific. What does it mean to feel alienated? What is a feeling? Is it really yours, or something that passes through you? What is reality?
Let me reframe the questions by referring back to the classically existential opening scene of this essay: a woman (or a man) not knowing which way to go. Try to put yourself in her shoes. You stand there in front of your front door, incapable of deciding where to go. At that particular moment, it makes just as much sense to jump up and down as to turn left, right, return home, or simply sit down. Is this experience alienating? Frustrating? Perhaps. Feeling frustrated, however, is something that passes, and the woman isn’t conscious of the particular feeling she is experiencing, although it has an undoubted effect on her in this particular situation. She probably feels she can make it go away by returning to a place where she feels more comfortable.
Still, the alienation or frustration becomes more than a passing feeling, to the point at least where she can’t ignore it. It colors her life. As she stands there in front of her door, it overwhelms her, paralyzes her. It’s as if she can’t do what she wishes to do, as if she’s restricted to live within certain zones, to follow only previously outlined paths, to go backward and forward, repeating the same pattern over and over. No wonder she’s frustrated.
Most of us have experienced something similar. Not on a daily basis, of course, and perhaps not in such an extreme way. Nonetheless, at times, we (or I at least) are not sure where to go. We feel lost and somehow estranged, disconnected, or detached from what is happening. The Germans have a word for this alienating feeling: unheimlich. Literally, it is not feeling at home, a feeling that is “not homey,” whereas heimlich conjures up the comfort and security of home.
It was Sigmund Freud who, in An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, brought the unheimlich concept into our psychological sphere as a frightening or peculiar combination of the familiar and unfamiliar. We can find numerous examples of this mixture in literature and art—for example, the moment when an encounter with a new work opens our mind to a new production of sense as well as to questioning how significant what we experience is. Do we dare embrace it and leave behind what we previously took for granted?
The woman encounters or senses something that hinders her forward motion— something unknown that produces anxiety. The uncertainty is shattering. She’s worried because it undermines the pretense that she has control over her life—but of course, no one fully controls her or his life.
The problem with anxiety is that it can’t provide any security; anxiety can’t guide us regarding whether a decision is right or wrong. The same is true for fear. On the contrary, fear and anxiety mostly lead to short-term decisions. Politicians display this every day, but parents are a good example as well. For instance, it isn’t always good to forbid your children from doing certain things out of fear or anxiety—worrying isn’t the same as caring. It may only illustrate your own fears, which you pass on to them.
Apparently, the woman on the doorstep lacks trust. Trust is a bridge to the future. The future is more or less unpredictable, and yet it is in the process of coming into being.
How can we live with it? Become part of it?
* * *
Let’s recapitulate: the woman from our little story is leaving something familiar: her home. To use a common idiomatic expression, home is within her comfort zone. It goes without saying that she may be comfortable with certain unfamiliar things or find them exciting, exotic, unusual, etc.—especially if such exotic elements are freely chosen. As Freud writes, “some new things are frightening, but not all by any means.”
The artist John Cage once said, “I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I am doing.” What makes him different from our woman is that he chose unfamiliarity. However, in other situations, feelings of unfamiliarity or displacement have nothing exotic about them. These feelings can be difficult to accept—as with most things that are beyond our control.
Art is effective at exhibiting the fragility of borders we use to navigate among zones of familiarity, comfort, or distress. It also provides ways of expanding those zones. For example, when Buddhism and mindfulness puts our breath at the center of their philosophy, then each breathe is both similar to all other sentients beings breathing, but at the same time is each breath unique. None of the respirations are identical. We can only repeat what is different—identicality is an illusion.
Breathing to sustain life is something that you and I have in common. The more we acknowledge that we have something vital in common—the air we all share—the larger our shared world becomes. I can only grow as a human being through my relationship with the others. The woman who stands on her doorstep feels alienated because she is alone, unconnected with the world. This is what makes her experience uncanny.
In the book The Uncanny, Nicholas Royles defines unheimlich (or uncanny) as “the experience of oneself as a foreign body.” The woman can’t recognize herself as she stands in front of her door, incapable of making the simplest of decision: left, right, or straight. However, it is not the options as such that paralyze her; rather, it is her relationship with this particular situation where she feels like her body and mind are elsewhere—somewhere yet to be located. She turns around and goes back inside in search of her physical and mental self.
Getting to know yourself better not only requires being capable of taking care of yourself but also knowing your place, that is, where you stand in your particular life and in relation to life itself.
Why do you do what you do and not something else?
What is your relationship with life?
* * *
Philosophy begins by isolating a problem: for example, a feeling of being lost. Art shares this with philosophy. It destroys our tendency to look at meaning as something given; instead, it confronts us with several questions that only the viewer can answer: What does it open us up to? Which feelings does it evoke? Is it meaningful? If so, in what ways?
Philosophy and art do not present any universal model to solve the problems they focus on. This is left for us to do ourselves as we experience, empathize, and interact with a philosophical or artistic work; yet, this ongoing investigation of the perplexities of life and our relationship to them can help us overcome the problems we experience. It can present us with alternative approaches to life, just as when we are lost, we may find out way again by engaging with our surroundings, for instance, by asking for help.
Philosophy is an ongoing exploration that aims at differentiating possible forms of life from necessary ones. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean that it is necessary. Similarly, just because I can be unfaithful to my wife (and vice versa) does not mean that I should. To philosophize is to question what we take for granted. This capacity to wonder goes hand in hand with the capacity to imagine that things could be different. So, when we encounter the woman in front of her door, we wonder; we imagine that she may have forgotten something, she may be going back inside due to a noise, she may even suffer from anxiety, and so forth. We tend to look for a meaningful explanation, although many things in life really can’t be explained. Life doesn’t come to us in neat little meaningful boxes; living is something far more intensive.
“Lived experience,” said the physiatrist Félix Guattari, “does not mean sensible qualities. It means intensification. ‘I feel that’ means that something is happening inside me.” (Chaosophy: Texts and Interview 1972-1977). If the woman is feeling alienated, unnatural, or strange, it’s as if she literally passes “beyond a threshold of intensity with her body.” This experience can be both scary as well as liberating. What scares her is actually her own desire to respond in an already given meaningful way, whereas what is liberating is to be impassive and follow the flow of life.
How can we free ourselves and become what we are capable of being?
* * *
All philosophical and artistic scrutiny takes place in a social and cultural setting. Even the famous philosopher René Descartes, who sat by himself in front of the fire thinking about what it means to be certain, was, at the same time, thinking with and against all the philosophers before him. “I think, therefore I am” requires certain ideas about what it means to think and what it means to be, just as a basic understanding of certainty and doubt is required. Or, take the Buddhist monk sitting alone in a cave; he or she is also a part of a Buddhist heritage and as such is there for a reason provided by it, be it to achieve enlightenment or, at the very least, some peace of mind.
With regard to the social element, perhaps philosophizing or artistic exploration is the best protection from today’s malady of narcissism. It is our own narcissism—our obsessive ego-trip—that alienates us from life. This detachment causes depression and burnout. The woman on the doorstep, for example, would be much more comfortable with her uncertainty and feelings of fear if she could sense that she lived in a world where people were in solidarity with one another. Solidarity is not an agreement about how one should live one’s life; rather, it is a sense of being together in this world, right here and right now. It’s the kind of bond or fellowship among potentially quite different people, perhaps as varied as the hobbits, men, elf, dwarf, and wizard who made up that famous fellowship in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
This solidarity or fellowship stands in stark contrast to the identity politics that dominate our era. Today, nearly every group has or claims to have a special and unique identity rooted in gender, sexuality, religion, etc. This constant branding campaign of identities not only overshadows our commonalities but hinders us—all of us—from making connections. All identities are constructions that can be used for manipulation and seduction as well as for security and belonging.
The first step in dismantling identities is to expose the motive behind them. What impels you toward this identity? Why do you identify with it? Are you a vegetarian due to the moral status, or does your vegetarianism arise out of caring for the environment? Do you seek a prosperous career because it is fulfilling or because it is the easiest way to gain prestige and status?
Once we question our motivation, we gradually come into contact with our intentions for doing what we do. Our intentions are the motives that we are consciously aware of. Nietzsche wrote of the will to power, referring to our creative or innovative will to actualize our potential—a drive marks us with an unquestionable intensity. Such intensity, far from being a spontaneous flirt, is rather based on a thorough examination of the levels of joy and sadness in our lives. We create room for what we are in the process of becoming by being aware of what affects us, how it affects us, with what intensity, and for how long.
This existential scrutiny is characteristic of art. Art, as I see it, is an experience and explorations of what it means to be a human being.
* * *
Today many people live their lives as in what Sartre called “bad faith” by being overly focused on directing their life and career—for some even their art—in ways that would yield status and prestige, not necessarily joy or engagement. Many wants to be loved by everyone and ends up against the dilemma that everyone equals no one.
In Buddhist literature, you will find the idea that if you expect nothing, you are open to everything. It is a creative and explorative approach to life.
Many people who turn to Buddhism, mindfulness, and yoga—as many people do today—have a tendency to turn inwards. It can sometimes be difficult to see whether this transformation is just another form of egoism. For this reason, it can be difficult to implement spiritual change on a public or social level, for example, through teaching. The idea is, of course, that many small cases of change gradually combine to bring about a greater change.
This optimistic outlook notwithstanding, one of the most repeated mistakes when it comes to understanding meditation is to see it as mere navel-gazing. It is decidedly not. Meditation is a method to still the mind—to stop it from drifting hither and thither. This is achieved by withdrawing from our attachments to this world. The problem with our attachments is that they cause suffering due to the underlying metaphysic of change. If everything is impermanent, then even the things we care about and do not want to see change will ineluctably do so. Once we stop the mind’s inclination to attach itself to titles, money, people, products, fame, looks, or various desires, this attachment gradually disappears, and we find ourselves better equipped to follow life and not our desires. It becomes easier to go where life takes us.
In a typical meditation, the meditator focuses on his or her breathing; however, this is not to neglect the surrounding world. On the contrary, it is a way of letting go of your attachment to the “outside” world. This element of letting go is present in art, even the most realistic. What the writer or artist let go of is the dualism that control most people’s life, for example, between right and wrong, good and bad. This is not to say that art per se is immoral, only that it’s not moralistic. Arts job is to confront us, make us aware of things that are also part of life; make us believe in this world full of violence, abuse, sexism, and hate because there is no other world. Here the challenge is to let go of the cliché of simply saying “Make love, not war”; instead try to understand why it can be so difficult to do so. Let go, at least as I see it, also refers to an ongoing quest of overcoming the whole idea of inside versus outside as a clear distinction.
We are all formed by the outside. Each inhalation is a way of taking the outside inside ourselves, while when we exhale, we let our inside turn into something outside. However, when does the air that I inhale shift from belonging to the outside and become a part of my inside, and vice versa? The question can’t be answered, as it would be a suicidal idea to take permanent ownership of the air that you inhale. Without exhaling, you can’t inhale, and without inhaling, you will die.
The moral is: Everything is interrelated.
* * *
The understanding of interconnectivity, or the principle of interconnectedness in nature, is fundamental. If you truly expand your self to include other human beings and living entities, altruism becomes unnecessary. The world becomes part of me. Such ideas are part of most spiritual thinking and various philosophies—especially feminism and eco-philosophies. For example, nature is not something “out there” but rather is a part of us, regardless of where we live. Nature is both everything and nothing; there is no primal state we can point to and say, “That’s nature!”
Art examines how we perceive and construct the world, and I would add—how we can construct a life without identities.
Let me clarify this claim:
All identities are like a prison, said Deleuze. He was right. Identities, regardless how much moral goodwill and status they add to you, are at the same time hindering you from becoming something else. Even yourself!
The problem is that all identities need an out-group to distinguish their in-group from the other. An enemy is created alongside the friendly identity. The banality of evil stems from this dualistic thinking.
Nietzsche held that he was all persons in history. People called him schizophrenic. Instead, they should have reflected on their own incapacity to be more than one. Yes, I may describe myself as a mindful philosopher, feminist, and ecologist, but I am at the same time those I oppose and becoming someone else—at least for a moment.
For example, President Donald Trump is both a sexist and racist, two things I can’t accept because they are founded in pure stupidity. No gender or race is better than any other. Still, I have to understand what made so many people put him in power. I will have to identify with those who believe in a patriarchal dominating culture where White men (and to a lesser extent, women) are supreme but do so in order to help them escape the prison they are in. In this process of understanding, I am at the same time dissolving identities, both my own and those of the subject of my studies. It is a transformation from self-making toward making-with. The ecological, racial, and sexual disaster that we live in today requires “sym-poiesis, or making-with, rather than auto-poiesis, or self-making,” as Donna Haraway has stressed (Staying with the Trouble). Instead of the opposition and the hierarchy that comes with identity, whether it is the opposition between men and women, human and nature, self and other, Black or White, what is needed is interdependence and proximity.
To put it simply: The woman who is still milling about her doorstep suffers from a feeling of alienation because she sees herself as having a certain identity, one that she will not allow to shatter completely and one that she doesn’t trust or feel comfortable about changing. She holds on to something familiar, even though that causes feelings of unfamiliarity within her, and while she clings on to a certain identity, a particular idea about who she is or ought to be, she simultaneously makes herself less flexible toward what is also possible. She is restrained. She is not free to pursue or investigate the question: “Who am I capable of becoming?”
With this question, we once again are faced with the work of art.
* * *
For the philosopher Nietzsche, the “self” is something we must achieve. The subtitle of his last book, Ecce Homo, is: How one becomes what one is. The American writer David Foster Wallace said something similar when he said in an interview, “You end up becoming yourself.” Yet, there is a difference.
Nietzsche tried to overcome the resignation that is present in Wallace’s statement. If the self is not given beforehand, it must be achieved; therefore, the self has to be created, not discovered, and this creation is an ongoing process of change. Thus, if one of the guiding questions for most people truly is “Which life is worth living?”, as I believe it is, then it can’t be answered by asking “Who are you?”; rather, a more appropriate question would be “Who are you capable of becoming?”
I keep returning to this question not only due to its existential ties but also because it is the best way to describe what I as a writer is trying to ask through my work.
The artist Marina Abramović’s statement: “more and more of less and less.” For this reason, breathing plays such an important role in much art, for example, the idea a text is having its own rhythm, its own flow or breathe. Philosophy, said Spinoza, is like a breeze of fresh air that makes it easier to breathe. Let go of what makes us suffocate. Breathing is how everything begins and ends.
Who we might become, then, depends on how we relate to what takes place in-between our first inhale and our last. Sadly, most people are not even aware that they breathe. In other words, they are not aware that they are alive, that is to say, that they are constantly dying.
Abramović’s sound installation Sound Corridor (War), which was installed in the entrance to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade in 1971, illustrates how more and more of less and less is desirable. All the visitors to this exhibition had to go through the corridor of blasting machine guns to get inside the museum. The corridor functioned as a passage, a ritual progression. According to the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, such ritual passages consist of a three-part movement: separation from the everyday flow of activities (e.g., you leave the “outside” world behind when you enter the museum); a passage through a threshold liminal phase into a ritual world removed from everyday notions of time and space (i.e., the viewer passes through a white corridor with nothing else but the sound of machine guns blasting. This place us squarely in the realm of “the uncanny”—imagine our former heroine, the woman from our story, running out of the corridor and out of the museum); and finally, the part where the viewer acknowledges what caused the separation (i.e., the corridor) and how it changes his or her take on the world as well as in what way he or she may incorporate this experience.
This is art in a concentrated form. It violates our view of the world and forces us to change it, or at least rethink it. Similarly, I propose to see art as metaphysical and as a re-examination of how we perceive and construct the world.
Another important element in Abramović’s work is, of course, that it illustrates how fragile we are. By bringing the sound of war into a museum, she at the same time elicits the fear that comes with it. She plays on the extremes: from the background noise of our everyday activities to the bombarding noise of gunfire entering the museum, to the relative silence of the museum. It is a disorientating experience to pass through, which is exactly the point. It strips the viewer naked and prepares him or her to interact without any expectations.
This is what art can do: It can confront us with something familiar that may make us feel unfamiliar to ourselves.
I am what I am becoming?
In 1974, Abramović performed the work Rhythm O—a six-hour long performance in which she stood still while the viewers were invited to do whatever they wished. On the table in front of her were placed 72 objects: honey, bread, grapes, a rose, a feather, a knife, a scalpel, a pistol…. The performance ended when a rather molested Abramović had the pistol pointed at her temple, and other participants intervened. The purpose, she said, was to find out how far the public would go.
How do we perceive what is happening? In what way are we accountable for our actions? How do we become worthy of what is happening? How far would you go to become who you are becoming? What is the right way?
Finn Janning has studied philosophy, literature and business administration at Copenhagen Business School (CBS), and at Duke University. He earned his PhD in practical philosophy from CBS. His work has been featured in Epiphany, Under the Gum Tree, South 85 Journal, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, among other publications. He lives in Barcelona, Spain with his wife and their three children.