Friday, 24 November 2006

Thoughts on 'Self'

The following article was written in November 2005 while living at Ululla Station, Western Australia.

Thoughts on 'Self'

Here is an entry from my journal shortly after arriving back at Ululla:

What has driven me back to Ululla? What conscious and subconscious whips have been cracked across my behind to make me anticipate returning so keenly:

- an oasis from the Protestant work ethic perhaps? Albeit a flawed oasis for I am in thrall wherever I go. But still, here I can feel that by being I am doing something remarkable and so being is OK. How to be free of this horrible logic?

- a place of purity. Without endless 'if onlys'. This is a place of clear evening skys, silhouettes of unbroken mulga against a dying sun, a moon that appears on schedule, frequent and complete silences, rushing winds. I am free of regret, of middle-class obligation. I am too small to do anything thank God.

- diminishment of the individual. Where a sense of self is not normatively primary. A landscape over which ego does not preside unchecked. My desires, wants and needs are a function of my surroundings and community - not a function solely of my whimsy. My achievements are not trumpeted, neither are my transgressions. Freedom from both is a blessed relief. Christendom tries and fails to escape the latter but is the bound and shackled slave of the former.

- All actions, indeed, are diminished. The soundtrack to our lives is not that of the media but that of the scratching pen, brewing tea pot, barking dog. Not images of life but life itself.

It occurs to me that, reading back over this, all of those points are about the same thing. I want to be rescued from myself. Or, more precisely, that part of myself (the part that is all of which I am usually aware) that is the sum of my actions.

Maybe what we call 'ego' is really this 'sum-of-actions-self'. In most places ego=me. "Who am I?" you might ask and I will tell you that I am Nick, 28 years old from England/ Australia who likes playing football and reading, who studies maths, blah blah blah. What else is there?

I find when I am out here that there is something else; I have access to another part of myself - a part that does nothing, that is achievement-free. I feel strangely uncompelled to do anything at all. Sitting here writing these thoughts down is something I have anticipated for several days, but only now have I managed to get my act together enough to do it. And it's not like I've been rushed off my feet...

Back in the city the boundary between me(=ego) and not-me is a hard, impermeable one of which I am constantly aware. Here I am at once conscious of being very small and insignificant as well as being a part of something majestic and important. The hard nuggety sum-of-my-actions-self seems a lot smaller than when I am in the city, but the warm human rest-of-myself is suddenly much more obvious and I see that it is beautiful.

This rest-of-myself is not just something that I carry about with me; it is something that forms around me as part of the place and people and experiences where I am. It is different depending on where I am. At Ululla it is bigger.

The landscape has something to do with this. The land in which I currently live is gloriously indifferent to my existence. A vast blue sky is half of my world and I cannot touch it or change it. At night it becomes a black blanket, bringing light from places that I will never know and where I will never be known. The other half of my world, the bottom half, is almost as eternal. Superficially things may change - a new building is put up, a road is built, even a town may form - but the great wilderness continues on constant, unimpressed. It is a slate which is too hard for humanity to write upon. We can beetle about on its surface but not a great deal more. Thank God! We can't fuck it up!

It is not just the landscape here that diminishes this ego. The culture of the local people here, unlike the culture from which I come, does not place the individual at the centre of all considerations. What is at the centre instead I am not sure but it's somehow different. For instance, no one cares here about my achievements. The things in my life of which I am most proud elicit very little response; like the land the people are unimpressed. Here I am not Nick who has this degree and read that long book and scored that great goal, I am Nick. I am the person who, like everyone else, gets bored of an afternoon and hungry and sometimes gets drunk and and and... It is not that I am the same as everyone else, only that it is not my achievements (or transgressions) that make me different but myself. My rest-of-self.

It is hard to imagine how this can work when one is reading within a Western context. What must it be like for the starting point of one's existence to not be 'ego'? I don't mean how is it possible to be unselfish. That is another thing entirely - the question I want to ask is far more fundamental. It is about somehow accessing life through a different prism, one that perhaps will give more, or maybe just different, colour....

Let me give a practical example that might make sense of what I'm talking about. Picture this scene which I experienced: I'm sitting in the passenger seat of the station ute with Daniel, a local Mardu man driving. We're trying to follow an old bush track but it's very hard to see. On the back of the ute are several other people including Molly, a Mardu woman, who is standing up. She can see the road more clearly from her higher vantage point and she is shouting out directions for Daniel. The words that she is using are 'kakara' and 'kayeeli' and other words in Mardu wangka, the local aboriginal language. What is remarkable about this scene is that the words she is using do not translate into 'left' and 'right' as one might expect but 'East' and 'North'. She is telling Daniel how to orientate himself with respect to the land through which we are driving, rather than the other way around.

Now imagine a white person trying to do this! In the first place our sense of direction is distinctly hazy in comparison to that of a Mardu. If we try and use compass points we are lost! But more than this we instinctively communicate in terms of our individual orientation. The words 'left' and 'right' are immediately on our lips, in our heads. Our physical perspective is fixed and defined by our physical body.

What I am suggesting more generally is that our mental perspective is fixed and defined by our ego, that part of us which is the sum of our actions. There is nothing wrong with this necessarily but it is interesting to observe that this need not be the case. That we are not defining our perspective by the whole of ourselves. That we are missing parts of our self which may proceed from our environment, from our companions, from our essence.

Back in the city I sometimes have the strange feeling that I am meta-living, living for-the-record. So that I can say afterwards, 'I did this, went there, ate this,...' In the same way that people go on grand tours of Europe and 'do' Paris or Vienna or Wupertarl, I end up 'doing' my entire life. I have an idea of how it will be to look back at the end of my life, or even how other people will remember me when I am dead and in that memory I will live. That, ultimately perhaps, I will be in the memory of God and so live forever. Dear God save me from that fate. In my head I know that it would be better to be entirely forgotten if I can only live now; I must transmit this information to my heart. Maybe out here I have a chance of doing that.

* * *

POSTSCRIPT: The good Hamish-meister referred me to an interesting article by 'Bifo' in "Cultural Studies Review", Volume 11, Number 2, Sep 2005. The article is called "What Does Cognitariat Mean? Work, Desire and Depression." I include an extract from the article below, from the section about depression. Relevant points to bear in mind before reading the extract:

1. Do Mardu people suffer from depression? Dinner table discussion amongst the whiteys here at Ululla suggests not.

2. The volume of "Cultural Studies Review" which contains this extract also contains a fine article by the Hamish-meister himself.

In his book called "La fatigue d'etre soi" (The fatigue of being Oneself), Alain Ehrenberg describes depression as a pathology with a strong social content, linked in particular to a situation characterised by competitiveness.

Depression began to assert itself when the disciplinary model of managing behaviour, the rules of authority and the respect for taboos that assigned a destiny to social classes and sexes, gave way to norms that incite everyone to individual initiative, exhorting them to become themselves. Because of this new normativity, the entire responsibility for our lives is located inside each of us. Depression thus presents itself as a sickness of responsibility in which the feeling of insufficiency dominates. The depressive is not up to the mark, is tired of having to become his or herself.

Depression is intimately linked to the ideology of self-fulfilment and the happiness imperative. And depressiion is also a way of identifying, in the language of psychopathology, a kind of behaviour that wasn't clearly identifiable as pathological outside of the competitive, productivist and individualistic context. According to Ehrenberg:

Depression enters into a problematic where what dominates is not so much emotional pain as inhibition, slowing down and asthenia: the ancient sad passion is transformed into an obstacle to action in a context where individual initiative becomes the measure of the person.

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