The Self-Preservation of Identity in Western Art

Simone A. Medina Polo
13 min readMay 26, 2022

In Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese, Byung-Chul Han has been able to elaborate on the genealogy following the foundational differences between Far Eastern and Western European thought as they pertain to the work of art. Western thought is often focused on notions of origin, presence, and identity that have delimited our concept of what a work of art proper is to us (Han, 2017a: 2 and 3). This is manifested in the cult of originality, the praise of genius creativity, and the hostility to copying, forgery, and defacement of art — as Han mentions of religion in the West, its temples and holy spaces are understood under the Ancient Greek concept of adayton, which declares a separation of the holy from the mundane (Han, 2017a: 4). Of this, we could say in comparison that the Far Eastern tradition, as exemplified by Chinese art and Japanese architecture, does not call for such a separation in both art and religion (Han, 2017a: 34 and 61). If we were to stamp or inscribe ourselves onto the Mona Lisa, we would be said to have defaced it; whereas in the Chinese tradition, it is commonplace for collectors, connoisseurs, and viewers to inscribe themselves onto the work of art as traces. Whereas Western European art tries to transcendentalize the Being of art as an identity congruent with itself, Far Eastern art operates under decreation and absence of an active differing from itself. As Han elaborates: “The work empties itself out to become a generative, locus of inscriptions” (Han, 2017a: 13).

The Western sensibilities over the work of art entail a certain protection and regulation of identity — we suppose that the work of art is identical with itself; in other words, that it has a fixed self, whether it is due to its temporal origin, authorial origin, situational origin. The work of art as an extension of authorial identity, for instance, can suppose the development of defense mechanisms of the authorial sense of self through the work of art as its projective extension. For example, let us suppose that my friend wrote a poem or drew a painting. Were I to add a commentary, an addendum, or mark something upon it, this act would be met as a disrespect. Of what? Of a sense of fixed identity as projected onto the work of art, that something other than the Same-self is regarded in the aesthetic experience. Meanwhile, in the Far Eastern experience, the work of art is not understood as identical with itself, or that it resembles itself, but rather the artwork differs from itself. In other words, the Western European tradition supposes that artwork always returns to the Same, as origin announces the end of it, identity closes itself off from difference, and presence resists the trace of enduring time as an “non-authorial” inscription (Han, 2017b: 36).

As Han elaborates in the aesthetic experience of tourism, as in the case of the removal of the Ise shrine from the list of World Heritage by UNESCO (Han, 2017a: 61 and 66), the cult value is overshadowed by exhibition value as the Shinto temple was decried for its continual (re)production — as Han elaborates in The Agony of Eros: “Tourism creates ‘non-sites’… where people pass by instead of lingering and spending time” (Han, 2017b: 31) . When we visit a place under the lens of the economic exchange of tourism, our expectation is to go to a place with a given determinate value to it. And for the sake of its economic exchange, one seeks to fix the value of the given place. As Han notes of Western architecture, “In the same century as tourism was beginning, the first measures to preserve ancient structures were undertaken” (Han, 2017a: 66).

The author-function, as Foucault called it (Foucault, 1998: 205–222), entails the compilation and regulation of an archive that sustains what is considered to be identical with the author. This is best exemplified by the tradition of declaring a canon to an author or to a text. The declaration of the canonical entails a closure of the archive from the other, and the regulatory resistances to the other that are best exemplified by the decrying of forgies (Han, 2017a: 29–31; 60) or of fan-fiction or of original characters (OCs), etc.

It is worth taking note that perhaps this is changing with the development of internationalism qua the internet, mass information and communication, and overflowing content-production — to be able to say that we have fan-fiction classics such as My Immortal, or Marijuana Simpson (an impressive Beckett-esque 249-page script), or The Subspace Emissary’s Worlds Conquest (the longest piece of English literature) entails that something has changed of our reception of the non-canonical.

Perhaps the immediate foreseeable tension at hand is the possibility of living in a world that maintains the obsession over the canon while simultaneously flirting with the non-canonical. For instance, J.K. Rowling who is best-known for the Harry Potter series is often met with backlash when she (retroactively) declares anything of her canonical text — for example, whether or not Hermione is black as opposed to her film depiction. Though it is unfortunate that J.K. Rowling is the center of such a crucial polemic, she is nevertheless a key symptom of a rising tension in Western European aesthetics. Rowling is certainly aware of her role in the author-function, and it is nevertheless in her awareness of this role that she is no longer identical to herself, in a sense, she is not quite the author of the series she is best-known for and yet she is… Perhaps the critical question to J.K. Rowling is: Why are you still trying to be J.K. Rowling? And even when she apparently is not — for instance, in The Cursed Child that was written by other authors — she is nevertheless returning to herself by roundabout ways such as monetary gain.

Though there are evidently some changes occurring on how we engage with works of art, texts, music, and the such in the Western world, it is nevertheless the case as of now that whatever change has occurred is not as abrupt or cut-through as one may like to suppose. Perhaps it is most adequate to maintain that we are entering a stage of overlapping regards towards these works of art that are not quite congruent with one another. This supposes too that the production of the work of art may also enter into idiosyncratic approaches, as a work at tension between the other and the Same — and perhaps we must ask whether it is possible to properly maintain this tension or whether another return to the Same is to be anticipated?

For example, fan-fiction will return to mythologized figures, but they will not be quite the same. Harry Potter may still be the dorky, shy kid in wizard school, or he may be smoking and skipping school because the fanfiction writer has decided to reappropriate his abusive homelife origin.

And yet another question at hand is whether the development of fanfiction and original characters is a legitimate break from the Western European tradition or another mutation of it? For instance, the role of identification is often heavily intertwined in fanfiction and original characters through What is called “self-inserts”. In the case of My Immortal, the author self-inserted herself in the text as “Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way” (Gilesbie, 2007: Chapter I). And the name itself and the title of the text allude to other identificational implications. Dating myself a little, 2005 was a key point for the development of mainstream emo, scene, and goth subcultures; and with the naming choices of the author of My Immortal and the lack of subtlety of mid-2000s teenage angst, the title My Immortal is a reference to the band Evanescence and the last name “Way” a reference to the Way brothers of the band My Chemical Romance. All of the name of the original character makes references to a sense of identity in the self-fashioning aesthetics of mid-2000s goth, scene, and emo subculture. And lastly, and perhaps amusing that I did not consider this until now, the very term “original character” still harbours on the idea of origin as much as it does on identificatory functions.

And while a person may write a fanfiction of Harry Potter, (please take this as a challenge) we cannot necessarily say that someone would write a fanfiction about a fanfiction. Crossovers are close, but they still entail clashing origins. Any audience that pertains a fanfiction is often already concerned and engaged with a source material — in other words, with an original whose primacy is nevertheless upheld, whether that be Harry Potter, The Simpsons, Super Smash Bros, Sherlock, Homestuck, etc. The case remains that regardless of how far-out a fanfiction may be, it is always supposing a source.

(Just gotta)

And if it is not apparently supposing a source, it may itself try to pass off as a source — let’s take on the case of Fifty Shades of Grey which was conceived of as an erotic fanfiction of Twilight originally titled “Master of the Universe”. With tweaks on names and details, Fifty Shades of Grey could feign originality. Interestingly enough, as noted by Haley C. Cuccinello of Forbes, with the economic success of Fifty Shades of Grey, fanfiction has gone from a dirty little secret(e) (besides the archive and canon) to a production machine of consumption-interest.

(Buntain Simpson: I skipped the middle, but you get the point about crossovers and sources and references)

Fanfiction as content-production, besides a form of expression, has nevertheless become a space for the expansion and mutation of Capital interest and investment. Not only is it sourced, it is now a source of Capital in the immaterial mode of production characteristic of neoliberalism. So, perhaps thus far the concern is that the production of fanfiction returns to the Same as totalizing, self-expanding Capital. The confusion earlier on whether the advent of fanfiction entailed an actual change or a mutation of an already given state of affairs has weighed itself more towards the latter. As a mutation, fanfiction still operates in the terms of “self-preservation” that adheres to the regulatory functions of the Western European tradition of art. As in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, in order to return to the Same of Capital, it had to develop a self to preserve and to obscure whatever traces it may have imprinted or been imprinted upon by the other — as the title “Master of the Universe” could be confused with the Queen song or the 80’s He-Man movie and the “original” character names would confuse it with Twilight.

The turn to profit of the dirty little secret is also in line with another characterization of neoliberal society by Byung-Chul Han; namely, that the neoliberal regime and the development of its power is different of that of the disciplinary society described by Foucault (Han, 2017c: 28). Whereas the disciplinary society would mould and shape subjects into a normative structure (characterized by shoulds), the neoliberal regime thrives on friendliness and the feeling of freedom (characterized by can and permissiveness) (Han, 2017b: 9) — the confessional structure of the dirty little secret has only amplified and expanded Capital in the profitization of fanfiction. It is no longer a question (or perhaps it is an overlapping question) of a normative claim to art in that “art should be this”, but rather the permissive “art can be this” — and since it feels free as there is no apparent coercion, it may as well be freedom in however compulsive a form .

And in this case, we find this to be symptomatic of what Han calls the Crisis of Freedom [die Krise der Freiheit] and the End of Freedom [das Ende der Freiheit] — by this latter one, he elaborates:

… digital psychopolitics [as opposed to Foucauldian biopolitics] manages to intervene in psychic processes in a prospective fashion. Quite possibly, it is even faster than free will. As such it could overtake it. If so, this would herald the end of freedom. (Han, 2017c: 63)

Permissiveness has found its way to capitalize and mutate power so that the slave may not perceive themselves as such. As Han elaborates in a restaging of the Hegelian Master-Slave Dialectic, the slave “willingly exploits itself without a master… [as] Capital exploits individual freedom in order to breed… individual freedom is taking excessive forms… [that] amount to nothing other than the excess of Capital itself” (Han, 2017c: 2 and 4). The question is perhaps that of saving ourselves from our own desire with ourselves as a symptom (as commodity product and as means of (re)production) of exploitability, in that making a self is making a product; in that the intimate (as in the dirty little secret) may now be openly consumed (Han, 2017c: 9); in that the other may nevertheless be all the Same. This is many-feasted/manifested in content-production in social media.

Perhaps an interesting topic I will look at inconclusively is the case of memes. In this instance, I shall replicate a Tumblr thread that brought this to my attention. The commentary started by making the claim that “Tumblr Meme culture” is essentially a form of Neo-Dadaism. What perhaps was a jokingly gesture at first, the poster went on to expand upon it. Memes often determine their own disjointed conventions while continuing to spiral into senselessness like the Dadaist reflection of its historical conditions as nonsensical “blabbermouthness”, as in the knots of thought in apprehending a disorientating condition. As a frustration to thought in its knots, largely to those disenfranchised and disillusioned by its state of affairs, the development of memes comes along.

(I mean, just look at this shit)

(Also interesting how vaporwave follows the aesthetic subversions of Shanzhai aesthetics in recycling and recreating Ready-Made content and music)

The expressions of absurdity, of a sense of divorce from any sense to the world, are manifested as “shitposting”. We shit the world, we regurgitate it, we expel and reject it as we throw more shit into the pile — the content-production of memes is reflective of the pace of accumulation of Capital-as-shit into storage.

The development of the immaterial mode of production (Han, 2017c: 5) has provided a variation in the medium of expression of nonsense. A fitting medium too when it is the internet as the nonsense of/from the internet is inscribed with nonsense back. As another commentary noted of Dada that the movement was fascinated by the technological development of its time — from this, it would be fair to say that in this variation, the internet is a gravitational center of shitposting.

What is also interesting, in terms of absurdity, is the renewed superficial interest on existentialism and absurdism — this is not to say that Sartre, de Beauvoir, Nietzsche, and the whole gang are widely read. Regardless of their texts, concepts, and expressions, it is nevertheless the case that existentialism in particular has been vulnerable to capitalization due to its fashionable (self-fashioning) understanding of freedom.

This is often shown in popularizations of existentialism in the films of Woody Allen, or the expression “existential crisis”, the mere existence of the Existential Comics webcomic, and the such. And simultaneously, as the conditions of existentialism come to be similar to those of Dadaism, can we suppose that we are performing a nü-existentialism? And I mean this with plenty of suspicion over it, as if it is the case that existentialism in a popularized sense is adopted and appropriated, it only furthers the fuel available in the self-fashioning production characteristic of neoliberalism. Freedom has become exploitation itself, or, as Sartre has expressed before, one is “condemned to be free” — of course, in the dialectic of freedom landing upon a coincidence of identity between freedom and condemnation in compulsive freedom.

We are free to shit the manure of neoliberalist Capital — after all, it is fertilizer for our own production. As we are simultaneously the shit we consume and produce in self-fashioning, however disjointed that shit is, as Hegel notes: “the bondsman realizes that it is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own” (Hegel, 1977: 119). Meaning in this case that in making oneself, one’s self is a product through which one confronts alienation as the commodity-self — we shit ourselves out into unbearable exteriority “seen by him to be the truth… if [consciousness] has not experienced absolute fear but only some lesser dread, the negative being has remained for it something external, its substance has not been infected by it through it” (Hegel, 1977: 118 and 119).

References and Citations

Foucault, Michel. Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. Trans. Robert Hurley et al. New York: New Press, 1998.

Gilesbie, Tara. My Immortal. Repost Link:

Han, Byung-Chul. The Agony of Eros. Trans. Erik Butler. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.

— — — Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power. Trans. Erik Butler. Brooklyn: Verso, 2017.

— — — Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese. Trans. Philippa Hurd. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.

Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller. United States of America: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Here is also a link to that Tumblr thread, lol in my personal reblog:



Simone A. Medina Polo

Simone A. Medina Polo is a philosopher and an PhD candidate at the Global Centre for Advanced Studies for Philosophy and Psychoanalysis.