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I Am an Animal!

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012: Musings, Society.

In David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man, when cornered by an angry mob, the title character cries out “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” Socially, it’s a powerful and poignant moment, but in the larger context of ecology, it’s an unfortunate choice of words. Human beings, of course, are animals in every sense, and our urge to differentiate ourselves from other animals is one thing that leads us astray.

But in another sense it’s a powerful comment on identity and labeling, and how people who are insecure in their own identities use labeling to assert control over a social situation, empowering themselves and bullying or manipulating others.

In the mid-90s, I was fortunate to witness a moving performance by the brilliant transsexual media theorist Sandy Stone, in which she dramatized her life journey from male to female. The experience had all the more impact on me because I had never heard of Stone and didn’t know she had been a man until it was revealed in her performance. I followed up by reading her book, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, which discussed the ways in which people were beginning to use online avatars to craft new personal identities. In her view, new media and communications technologies were empowering people who had previously been victims of labeling.

I was surprised by her treatment of personal identity as a discrete phenomenon, because for me, identity had always been boundless, timeless, and in continual flux. One self with manifold manifestations. Labels were often convenient in specific contexts and discourse, but I never took them seriously unless others were using them to manipulate. In childhood, I was bullied and called “peewee” and “Tiny Tim” because I was small. Growing up, I ignored the warnings of my elders about “Jack of all trades, master of none.” To continually varying degrees, I was a passionate “artist” while I was making art, a gardener while gardening, a carpenter while building, and so forth.

My favorite example is the label “engineer.” At the end of my second year in college, I had just finished an intensive studio art program and had been accepted at a handful of art schools, but the economy was in a deep recession, and coming from a family with very limited financial resources, I was under crushing pressure to find a reliable career. My math and science skills enabled me to finish an engineering degree, although my heart wasn’t in it and I rebelled after graduation, rejecting job offers and becoming a vagabond and manual laborer, camping for a while in the hothouse environment of CalArts, broadening my horizons as an artist and playing in a band.

Desperate for financial security, I did eventually take a day job at an engineering firm, but only worked as an engineer for two years before moving into a part-time administrative position that allowed me to put most of my time and energy into the arts. Even so, I kept quitting, going broke, and begging to be rehired. That, and my education, are now decades in the past, and I could never resurrect that tentative beginning of an engineering career without going back to school. My expertise consisted of book learning that was quickly and carelessly forgotten.

Yet my father, who spent most of his working life as an engineer, would never let me forget it, nor will some of my old friends in the arts, to my dismay. My father, like all fathers I suppose, clung selectively to his favorite parts of my past. According to him I had made a terrible mistake by not marrying Victoria, and an even worse mistake by throwing away my potential on the arts instead of engineering.

Ironically, my artist friends have tried to diminish me from the opposite direction. Perhaps envious of my manifold skills – which truthfully have been a mixed blessing – they tell me smugly, again and again, “But you’re an engineer!” or “But you could go back to your engineering job!” Implying that they’re the real artists and I’m just a poser.

Of course, those are people for whom commercial success in the arts has been as elusive as it has for me, and they depend on day jobs they would equally resist as labels. But in the stratosphere of the arts, Damien Hirst spent as many years as a construction worker as I did as an engineer, and Moby has probably spent more time waiting tables, but no one would now call him a waiter.

Labels should never be used as a cage or a putdown, and identity is always relative to context. I am not an engineer! I am an animal!

  1. I have dedicated most of my personal and professional life assisting those damaged by the ever creative evils perpetrated upon them in the name of love. In reading your musing, I realize I caused you pain in your childhood. I humbly apologize. from jolly Jean yep that hurt too! lol

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