The psychologist William James, brother of Henry James, the well-known novelist, once exhorted people to “Begin to be now what you will be hereafter”. In similar vein, Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed that one should “Become who you are” — a formulation that drives the paradox of being-human home even more clearly than James’s words. At least, with James, there is an implied time interval between “now” and “hereafter”, which suggests a beginning and something to work towards, but Nietzsche gives one no such comfort. We are exhorted to “become”, presumably in the future, what we already “are”, in the present. How is that possible? If one is already an artist, a loving person, a mountaineer, or anything whatever, does it make any sense to implore someone to “become” this or that?

And yet, its very paradoxical formulation strikes one as being profoundly accurate, because human beings experience themselves as being “on their way” (homo viator) from their earliest years. As a toddler you want to learn how to ride a bicycle, you want to be better than your brother at running, or swimming, or — if you are not by nature competitive, you just want to “do your own thing”, whether it is drawing, painting, constructing things, or whatever. The mystery is this: what is there in us that impels us to “become” this or that, when all our efforts at becoming, which include the attempt at decoding the driving force in ourselves, indicate that we never know clearly what it is anyway, but nevertheless continue on our path of becoming what we implicitly, and usually unconsciously, “know” we are? Clearly, some kind of repeated interpretation aimed at self-knowledge is involved — of the kind implicated by Socrates in his familiar exhortation, “know thyself”.

Many philosophical and other issues are tied up with these concepts — just think of the psychoanalytical take on the problem of identity — it is intimately bound up with questions of being and becoming. Jacques Lacan, for example, invited one to “take up your [their] desire!” Again, this requires self-understanding. He helped resolve this by pointing out that every person’s subjectivity has an imaginary, a symbolic, and a “real” side to it — your vaunted “being” or permanence is located in the imaginary register, which is that of the “ego”, while your constantly “becoming” dimension is encountered at the linguistic level of the “symbolic”, where one is able to “redefine” your identity from time to time — not arbitrarily, but in conjunction with what Lacan calls the “third chapter” of your life, or the unconscious, where repressed memories and/or traumas exert an influence on who we are.

For example, someone who suffers a traumatic experience — an assault, a rape, a car accident that leaves them disabled, for instance — will never be able to erase the psychic effects of such unpredictable, but once having occurred, ineradicable experiences, on their subjectivity, let alone their “identity”. At best, they may be able (in Lacan’s words) to “stitch together” the tear in their symbolic horizon by means of the “talking cure”, but the scar will always be there. Importantly, the “real”, which surpasses both the imaginary and the symbolic registers of a person’s subjectivity, is implicated in traumatic experiences in an identity-reconfiguring manner.

Of course, a whole philosophical anthropology is implied by Nietzsche’s terse saying — one which draws on the long philosophical history of the two countervailing ontological concepts, “being” and “becoming”, dating back to ancient Greek philosophy before Plato. Briefly, being denotes the condition of something enduring, of it being somehow “permanent”, not subject to the vicissitudes of time, decay and erosion, while becoming signifies the opposite, namely a condition of incessant change, of subjection to time, erosion and decay. The problem was (and still is) to grasp the mystery of something apparently remaining identical to itself and, at the same time, demonstrably changing. Think of a chair, or a jacket, that shows signs of ageing or changing, but is still the same thing. Or, of course, a living being like a horse, a cat, or a human being, particularly a young human being, as thematised in Tanya Poole’s evocative exhibition, “The Becoming Child”.

In Poole’s art, its constitutive images capture many facets of the process of becoming on the part of teenagers and children — the periodic uncertainty experienced by individuals early in their lives, beautifully caught in the ink drawings of boys and girls, where the chiaroscuro effects of the material marks on their faces embody the complexity of their the feelings and developing personalities, or the manner in which they feel either protected (“Hand on side of face”) or constrained (“Cling-wrap”) by their parents or by conventions. Others register, artistically — and therefore ambiguously; no artwork can be pegged down to one or even several “definite” meanings, because new contexts always trigger new meanings in interaction with the context in question — the possibility that one might “mess up” (“Girl with blue Hands”), which could also be understood as suggesting the need for experimentation to discover who you “really” are.

Or, more drastically, an artwork may suggest that you might end up with “a mess on your face” (“Waterfall Face”), implying that some of your attempts at finding yourself could backfire seriously insofar as it might obscure more than it reveals. Even here the multivocality of words, specifically “waterfall”, implies something more affirmative: what is a waterfall? Usually a thing of beauty in nature, where the very elixir of life, water, is framed in the most aesthetic way possible, in other words, suggesting a combination of beauty and life. Seen in this way, “Waterfall Face” is a powerful reminder of the endless potential residing just “under the surface” in every person’s life, with its promise of life and beauty.

One is struck by the visual emphasis, not only on faces, but also on hair in this exhibition. The reason for concentrating on faces is not hard to find — did Emmanuel Levinas not locate in a person’s face her or his inalienable singularity, the very seat of the ethical exhortation, to acknowledge the irreducible otherness of every human being? The multifacetedness of the faces in Poole’s works evinces this singularity in an exemplary manner. What about the hair? Notice the hands touching children’s hair, the “hair flip” disguising the face underneath the hair, and so on. The emphasis is understandable — hair is perhaps first and foremost associated with youth.

The point is that our hair — or lack of it — is an often undervalued aspect of our individuality. The famous French philosopher Jacques Derrida who died in 2004 of pancreatic cancer, was very proud of his magnificent shock of hair, which he had until his death. The sensuousness of hair, especially in women, is something one discovers early on in life, and perhaps the fact that hair, like nails, is always in a process of growing, is a concrete reminder that our being as humans is inextricably intertwined with our becoming, the way that we can braid hair into plaits, or intertwine our fingers in our beloved’s hair. (Then there is the “statement” made by a hairless skull, like Michel Foucault’s, for instance, or Telly Savalas’s, which derives its impact from the absence of hair.)

Poole’s “The Becoming Child” is, finally, a rich mirror in which spectators can rediscover themselves, either in retrospect, if you are an older person, or in your present struggles to decipher your own being, to be able to chart a path to your own future. Or it could function as a hall of mirrors in which one tends to get lost, only to re-find the entrance to the specular maze at the end of a visual-reflective journey. Whatever the case may be, however, it is bound to be a rewarding experience for everyone who takes the trouble to open themselves to its sometimes questioning, sometimes answering images.

Poole’s exhibition opened on August 7 at the Liebrecht Gallery in Somerset West, Western Cape.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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