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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Protean Personae

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."- Kurt Vonnegut
 So, if you've been following this blog... You must wonder what all this stuff about Cosplay and Steam Punk is doing among articles about information technologies and news of the world... I mean, WTF? What has it to do with anything?

Well, I'll tell you....
Like most people my age, I first heard of Dr. Renee Richards back in 1976, when she was banned from competing in the U.S. Open women's division. Because Renee Richards used to be Richard Raskind, an Opthalmologist from New Jersey.The idea of gender reassignment surgery seemed ridiculous to me, at the time. Why? Why not be happy with the gender you were born with?
As it turns out, transsexualism has a storied history, and many OB/ GYNs have decided the sex of hermaphrodites at birth. But, this wasn't usually part of public discourse. Then, the question was of how much woman a transgendered woman could be, given that many physical attributes would not be altered by surgery or hormone treatment, nor could she give birth....Well, one was woman enough to be in a James Bond film...
So, okay. If you have enough justification, motivation, and money, you can change your gender...
Then comes the Theseus' Boat question of identity. In a world of prosthetics and organ transplants, how much of "you" is required to be you ? Not that anyone elects to do these things to themselves (yet)...
Well, there's things like tattoos and body art... Marking yourself with totem and fetish symbols to identify oneself with a tribe or religion is as old as humanity. Sympathetic magic was invoked by dressing as animals and spirits while performing ritual dances...Today, some have permanently altered their appearance to resemble animals like reptiles and felines.
Today, the way we dress is how we "brand" ourselves, and silently express identity by adopting socially specific clothes. Take the story of "goths" in recent history.. Their fixations for Victorian era concepts of nihilism and magic, expressed by interest in Edgar Allen Poe, Aleister Crowley, & vampires, shaped their choice of bleak & dark attire. Eventually, the movement evolved into more diverse concepts: the "vampires" segregated themselves, an ironic goth movement manifested itself ( bright characters, like "Hello Kitty" would appear on otherwise black tees), the "emo" scene emerged...
One could say that Steam Punk was created as an antithesis to goths: A declaration that the Victorian age was not only of a Dickensian gloom, but of bright & shiny new possibilities. The Age of Dickens, Crowley & Poe also contained Gilbert & Sullivan, Morse, Tesla & Edison. It was an age of adventure (Shackleton, Sir Richard Burton, expeditions to the north & south poles, and the peak of Mt. Everest) and of splendor ( the Great Exhibition of 1851)..
 One can look upon cosplay as trying on new identities, a form of therapy via disassociation. Who are you, what is the idea of you, in respects to the idea of someone you try to become? Performance art for an audience of yourself...
Cosplayers tend to embody the characters of fantastic romantic stories, taking on the aspects of the ideas expressed in those tales. Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, comic book superheroes, Anime and Manga characters. Sometimes, the characters adopted can be even more surreal...
My friend, Macdaniel Mcleod, is a cosplayer and celebrity look alike. He portrays the celebrity known as "Mr. T". Which is an odd choice, as Mr. T started life as Laurence Tureaud, and became known as Mr. T as a bouncer & body guard. He was discovered as an actor to play roles not different from the character he created for himself. In the course of his career, Mr. T began to accept responsibility as a role model, and shaped his persona to be a more positive influence. He began the process of creating a new mythological symbol that was "Mr. T"
So, Mcdaniel is sort've portraying a metaphysical concept, perpetuating a meme.
There are others who are pushing the envelope of the cosplay envelope by living the roles they portray.. Whether this is a good thing or not, I can't decide..
What ties all of these plastic concepts of identity together?
Back in the late 1960s, there was an expression: "Do your own thing". This garnered a lot of cynical comments that "doing your own thing' was simply dressing and behaving like the others in a particular mob. Which missed the point that this behavior was volitional. Simply trying not to be like everyone else was just as much an imposed decision, since choosing what not to be was dictated by what everyone else was.
Since then,  what has happened is the discovery of whole new concepts of how to be, what to be, how to change what we are. A new frontier of possibilities in how to define ourselves, and pioneers happily trying to explore it...

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