Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The mediated personality

Thomas de Zengotita has an excellent essay in the December 2004 Harper's about the "mediated personality," his term for what happens to us from spending so much of our lives as the fawned over center of attention of so many elaborate media outlets. Television, radio, film, tourist accoutrements, museums, retail outlets -- all these pitch to us as individuals and offer us representations of reality that far surpass anything we could experience independent of them because they offer us reality as if it were designed for us, with us in mind, with us at the literal center of the universe. Writes de Zengotita: "The alchemy that fuses reality and representation gets carried into our psyches by the irresistible flattery that goes with being constantly addressed in such fabulous ways." He illustrates this by pointing how much effort it would require for you to place yourself in a scenario where you're not at the center of it all -- you'd have to make yourself essentially inaccessible, without cell phones and radios, in the midst of a wilderness without billboards or stores or paths or benches. Only then would you be somewhere where things aren't "designed to affect you."

Social theorists have discussed what he's talking about from different angles, of course: Foucault approached the ways we are situated in ourselves by the various discourses of our society, be it that of law and order (Discipline and Punish) or medicine (The Birth of the Clinic) or mental health (Madness and Civilization) or what have you. Perhaps his most famous metaphor for this, which de Zengotita almost off-handedly references, is the panopticon, adapted from Bentham's idea for a prison in which all the cells were able to maintain surveillance on all the isolated others. The isolation forces an illusion of individuality based on personal responsibility, the surveillance suggesting a significance to one's most inauspicious, inarticulate, and inconsequential acts. So we are impelled to self-consciousness, granted a self from outside ourselves which we nonetheless must maintain, which opens up a rich vein for commercial manipulation. And in this situation, no one is really to blame -- you can't pin it on the "man" because we are all the "man" in this scenario, executing the whims of a decentralized and dispersed power structure merely by observing others, by giving them their stage. We are oppressed by our very self-consciousness, by something we have been trained to see as so integral and essential to our humanity, our presupposed uniqueness as an individual. Foucault explains it this way: "He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he spontaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection" (Discipline and Punish, 202). It sort of sounds like the Freudian concept of superego externalized, its incubation occurring not merely within the family dynamic but within the larger arrangements of society. But instead of an internalized authority figure, we live haunted by the notion that others are literally seeing what we are doing, that we must live as if we are observable from every possible angle.

A key to understanding why we consent to this, which de Zengotita rightly points out, lies in the flattery of being so studied and observed, which we often experience as being catered to. Althusser writes of this in "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," the experience of being "hailed" by the culture and thereby being brought to understand that we exist as "unique" individuals. We consent to subject ourselves to the ideology embodied in these hailing devices (ads, historical markers, salespeople, films, newspaper accounts, etc.) in exchange for the security of knowing we have a discrete existence as an individual, that we are irreplaceable, and thus can never die.

De Zengotita draws on this in his take on celebrities. Celebrities, according to de Zengotita, have "instilled and reinforced the values and conditioned people's life choices, especially style, the attitude that gets you through the day. These star types posit and reflect the selves their fans have chosen to be. . . . These performer-heroes are all about us. . . . That's big-time flattery -- and a pivot point in the dialectic of mediation. . . . Is it not ultimately the spectators, in their hiddenness, who hold sway? All the gratifications of voyeurism accrue to a judge nobody knows." Celebrities call attention to how they are surveilled to give us the pleasure of having the power of the transcendent observer, the man in the panopticon's tower, seeing all while remaining unseen.

But de Zengotita insists we are not content with that transcendence. He argues that the entitlement implicit in the media's attentions makes us yearn to have more overt attention lavished on us. "Celebrities held a monopoly on the most scarce and precious resource in a mediated society: attention," de Zengotita explains. Thus when technology (camcorders, video phones, cable TV, the Internet) permitted, people rushed to make celebrities of themselves: teenagers are suddenly desperate to become Real World cast members and people like me are suddenly blogging their most mundane thoughts. For de Zengotita, this proves that everyone lives with a level of self-consciousness that makes Method actors of everyone, living worked-up responses to life rather than actually experiencing life in some more straightforward, unmediated fashion. He suggests that we have come to hold the condition of anonymity as a kind of trauma, akin to those of people who appear on daytime TV talk shows, who recoup their losses for being betrayed by fate by earning a modicum of public recognition. Implicit in this is Richard Sennett's thesis in The Fall of Public Man, which was that the collapsing of public and private selves has brought on a "tyranny of intimacy," wherein since all experiences, no matter how trivial, are supposed to reveal your authentic self, we lose all control over our public self and lose all capacity for the civilized, impersonal public discourse necessary for civic duty. We can't take any activity seriously that's not in some way self-aggrandizing. (Perhaps why political discourse what it is now; positions are always taken personally, and politicians are always fixated on their image rather than the quality of their positions.)

So there's a dialectic between the joys of anonymity and public recognition that mirrors the ways in which mass-produced, standardized objects can seem so perfect for us specifically, after we've bought them. We want to be somebody and nobody all at once, and our chronic discontent with what we are makes it that much easier for us to ignore what's really there, if we're even capable of noticing it anymore.

No comments:

Post a Comment