Identity: Obscurity, Anonymity & Fuckwadary

The history of The Residents is shrouded in obscurity and aptly covered elsewhere (we recommend Ian Shirley’s definitive text and Don Hardy’s Theory of Obscurity as starting points). We should also point out that there will be no discussion here speculating on the band’s identities. Who they may be is irrelevant to the sweeping vision of their art and music.

The Residents have continuously operated under what they dubbed “the theory of obscurity.” Under this idea, they could work on their art without worrying about anything getting in the way. Per Shirley:

[the theory of obscurity] laid down the mantra that The Residents would conceal their identities so that people could focus on the music, art, and visual presentation they created.

-David Buck, “Resident Memories:
How a San Francisco art collective carved a unique path through the creative combination of art and technology.” August 20, 2021.

I was going to add this history of The Residents as another entry about them in this blog. I’m not a huge fan of their music, but I love the idea of The Residents. The theory of obscurity really gets at the idea of how our creativity is hemmed in by the identities we create for ourselves, and it is good to find ways to transcend them. This, in turn, reminded me of a talk that Christopher “moot” Poole, the creator of 4chan gave years ago.

I like Poole’s ideas about identity. The fact it is multifaceted is clearly true. People do need a certain degree of freedom from their identity in order to explore interests and potentially evolve into someone else. It’s easy to imagine the different experiences of say, a Frank Zappa or Tom Waits, compared to The Residents. At one level, even the title “musician” would preclude trying to create a video game, or even be a part of one. David Bowie and Omikron: The Nomad Soul shows how difficult this kind of exploration can be.

But, on another level, it’s also clear that some of the comments haven’t aged well. I don’t pretend to know what is going on in 4chan these days, but the general drift seems to be away from anti-establishment to alt-right. And, it raises the critique of Penny Arcade’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, or the idea that a normal person who is anonymous and in front of an audience will turn into a total fuckwad. What happens when you have a community of fuckwads? Or, a significant subset of a community of fuckwads that are some subset of bots, trolls and so forth that currently call Twitter home?

And what is the relationship between being different and being a fuckwad? I don’t really know the answer to that. I think we need to develop the capability to be different, and in order to be different, it helps to see other people being different. But. we live in a cultural environment of homogeneity and appropriation. There’s a world of difference out there, but most of us are being different, just like everyone else. The easy route to difference is to cast yourself in opposition to the mainstream. It’s looking to the “alt”, whether that is music, politics or something else.

And, I guess what I personally want to embody, or find ways of bringing out in myself, is not by defining myself in opposition, but by trying to reduce the ways I define myself at all, like that Paul Graham essay about keeping your identity small. I think the way to do that is to just follow our interests, for as far as we can. Like the Helsinki Bus Station Theory, so few of us develop a distinct voice or worldview because we are constantly being influenced by new things that are being surfaced to our attention, whether that’s 5G or the latest event in the outrage cycle. The only way we can develop into someone different is to unplug from that world, that way of thinking, and decide to try on a different point of view, and once we find a point of view that works for us, to keep at it.

In the beginning, mountains are mountains. Then, mountains become something else. In the end, mountains are mountains again. But, it’s never about the mountains. It’s about the person experiencing them.