Who is Burial? Why doesn’t he want us to know, and why do we care?
The recent discussion over the identity of electronic recording artist Burial began when an online magazine claimed that musician Kieran Hebden, who goes by the stage name Four Tet, was also Burial. Burial is elusive – he doesn’t do DJ sets or live performances, and has described himself to be ‘a bit like a rubbish super-hero’. The resulting social media commotion tells us some interesting things about anonymity and the desire for unified identity.
EDA being mainly an anonymous collective, we have something in common with others who want to remain unidentified as a particular (group of) individual(s). One way to explain anonymity would be as an attempt to move focus away from the identity of the author or artist, and onto the work itself.
Anonymity is an attempt to avoid the ‘gaze’: a complex set of power relations that are in play in any relationship. Foucault coined the term ‘medical gaze’ to explain the power dynamic between a doctor and a patient. According to Lacan, any gaze involves a “blind spot”. As Zizek puts it: we can never see anything as it ‘really’ is, because our gaze (and thus the way we perceive things) is always already conditioned by numerous factors outside of our control.
The desire for anonymity, then, is also produced (at least partially) by the anxiety of being misunderstood. Removing an individual identity from Burial’s music ensures the main relationship is between the listener and the music, rather than the listener and the persona of Burial, which could bear other influences, and possibly alienate listeners from music they might otherwise enjoy. Daft Punk takes the same approach. Their quasi-anonymity means that they don’t risk some of the dangers associated with celebrity status: people’s judgement of their personal lives doesn’t affect the reception of their music.
For superheroes, though, as for Burial, their hidden identities attract fanatical desires to find out who they ‘really’ are. The desire to know the name and face of the anonymous person is the desire for unified identity. For Lacan, this comes from the mirror stage, when one sees their ‘whole self’ as a unified thing. Yet the unified image in the mirror is not the self, but an image of it: the self we see in the mirror, on which we base the idea of our unified self, is not ourself.
The unified self is an illusion, but a necessary one. Seeing ourselves as a unified whole enables us to feel a certain level of autonomy and control. This illusion of autonomy exists despite the fact that subjectivity is produced (according to Marx) by power relations, the needs of capital and the discourses of institutions like education, religion and popular culture.
Thus, Four Tet must (and does) deny that he is Burial to preserve his ‘true’ identity, to prevent having his identity split and associated with music he did not produce, and, also, so that the public can retain the desire to find out Burial’s ‘true’ identity.