There are times in my life as a guitarist when I become deeply unsatisfied with my gear. I look for better models of guitars. I seek out another amp. I consider selling things and buying new things. I look at vintage catalogs and Craigslist postings. I read reviews of guitar pedals and scroll through message boards of gear heads and fanatics. I long for something to add that missing sound or feel I need to be a better musician.
In some cases this research is justified. I once took a summer gig with a band in the Twin Cities on the condition that I buy an overdrive pedal, to stylistically cover the range of lead guitar work I needed to execute. I got the Radial “Tonebone Classic,” a boutique piece of equipment that I own to this day. In most cases, however, this dissatisfaction is a signal of a deeper existential frustration, often accompanied by material changes or instabilities.
For instance, when my finances settle every few years or so, I tend to acquire any number of desires, the “needs” that a little spending money so often brings. Some of these needs can be quite real, like a new pair of shoes for one of my growing boys. But most of the time these needs are projections of something deeper and sometimes darker.
Guitar companies understand this as most brands do. Fender and Gibson are not cheap or flimsy guitars—they succeed for reasons historical and practical. The quality and versatility of a Fender Telecaster or a Gibson ES-335 is worth almost every penny. However, beyond their products, these companies invest heavily in the endorsement of famous artists. For the not-so-famous, there are t-shirts and merchandise that allow one to wear the brand as a form of symbolic identity.
In both directions, from the company to the stage and recording artist, from the ordinary customer to the t-shirt rack, there is a desire expressed for a particular kind of identification with the celebrity artist.
I mention this relationship between the personal anxiety for belongings and the longing for an associative type of belonging through brand identification because it points to concrete instances wherein identification fails to offer the consolation of a complete or satisfying identity. Indeed, identity itself seems to be a rather poor candidate for what identity signifies and is, which is nothing less than the desire to be something instead of nothing, the desire for integration instead of alienation—the deepest longing of the human person to love and be loved.
This is but one small way to express my growing sense of alarm at the way that identity has captured a vast consensus from Left to Right. Indeed, the best way to distinguish between the Right and the Left in the United States is by any number of individual identities that each chooses as its own. That Christians are as complicit as anyone else of today playing with the politics of identity is a scandal to the Gospel demand to die to one’s self.
In fact we might understand this notion of identity as a false representation of vitality. There is a sense that we live through representation and in the absence of recognition we are dead. This, of course, is not true. And it also loses what is worthwhile about representation and recognition in the first place, a sense of “being there” that is not readily reducible to identity.
When I choose and craft the tone for my instrument, I select the presence and contour of sound that is required for an altogether different kind of task: A recognition that is for the sake of showing something that is not as clear or plastic as an identity. Indeed, the work of art is often burdened by the task of how and where and exactly when to refer to something it is trying to show and in what way. The mystery of identity is its difficult presentation and its resistance to easy and cheap representation. This is part of what I mean to suggest when I assert that art kills.
Identity in its present ideological form is about survival. It comes wrapped in a fear that puts everything on life-support, a deadly exchange of pulsating plastic lungs for breath. Everyone and everything is in peril these days. The Academy is dying, the Church is in decline, the arts are disappearing, the environment is failing, the Right is winning and the Left is the new normal. No one except Joel Osteen these days thinks that there is much out there that is not going to pot.
I don’t share any of Joel Osteen’s optimism or his easy smile. But perhaps his coy act is more honest about the depth of his deceit. I doubt it. All I know, for now, is that when I ache for a new guitar, the answer to the riddle is to practice more and improve my skills and scales and put down the internet catalog.