Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The pleasures of disappearance

I am one of maybe seventeen people in the New York metro area who doesn't have a cell phone. I have many good reasons for this: one is my reluctance to buy something that sells me back the right to communicate or one that sells me time. I'm resistant to buy a product whose pricing structure seems intentionally confusing, designed to assure that you don't really know what you are paying for. I'm reluctant to give myself a objective correlative for my own laziness, to give myself a tool that lets me keep options open even longer than I tend to do already -- the cell phone makes it so you never have to commit to anything, and even when you've made a commitment, it allows you to revise that commitment perpetually. Cell-phone users think they are perfecting their ability to make plans, but in fact they are dismantling it. And I certainly don't need any more devices that allow me to elude face-to-face contact with others, that allow me to technologize my communications and treat others like devices or impediments to my convenience. Every minute I spend talking to someone on a phone instead of face-to-face is a minute I'm dehumanizing the both of us. (Better to write a letter to someone far away, and respect the reality of distance.) I certainly don't want five thousand "anytime minutes" and feel I've contactually obligated myself to that much isolating alienation per month.

Because a cell phone doesn't connect people, it isolates them -- it's a "cell" phone, after all -- by enabling people to be distant, by inscribing that distance between intimates and associates as acceptable, typical, a given. One might get one to try to stay in contact, because one feels one's connections to others slipping away, but the phone permits the kind of "management" of those connections that subjects them to reifying control, turning them into things instead of organic, living relations, that makes certain the connections will become even fainter and more tentative, contingent, dependant on individual whim and niceties of convenience. Because of the values capitalism propagates, it is always more convenient to reject communication and social interaction, to reject unions, to avoid other people and their competing points of view. It is always easier to isolate yourself and be the king of your own fantasy world. Capitalism's propagandists (ad men and the like) expend a lot of effort to convince us that this isn't sick behavior.

But none of these is the main reason I don't have a cell phone. The main reason is that I often don't want to be reached. And I don't want my unreachability to be an issue. I don't ever want to refuse to answer someone when they call me. Maybe it's neurotic, but I'd rather miss a call than reject someone by choosing to ignore them. And the truth is, I like the idea of disappearing, or at least the illusion of it, of being beyond culture's reach, of being inaccessible as a self, as a cell in the social body. I don't think I'm unique in this. It seems like an understandable fantasy to have as a natural response to society's increasing capabilty for surveillance. The disconnected, disappearing person can be the watcher as opposed to the watched, which grants him a pretty powerful illusion of power and autonomy. This raises the question of whether my desire to transcend is any different than cell-phone technology's ability to isolate. But cell-phones isolate one to make his more subject to surveillance and social discipline (being made subject to hegemonic ideology, that sort of thing); transcendence is a desire to be beyond discipline, outside the ruling ideology. But this desire to transcend is likely just a refinement on the consumerist desire to have life be convenient; it's either a vestigial form of it (a transitional form that flourished as consumerism first developed), or a more elaborate and insidious evolution of it. Disappearance is probably the most convenient move there is.

But the roots for this aesthetic experience, of losing yourself, are deep; they are perhaps the essence of commercial entertainment. Michael Fried, in Absorption and Theatricality details the tendency in 18th century painting of obliterating the beholder's presence, of refusing to account for the beholder in the configuration of the painting's space. There is nowhere you can be standing when looking at the painting that the painting's spatial structure allows for, thus you are given the pleasing feeling of having escape extension, transcended space all together. Your presence is negated; by looking at the painting, you disappear. You become unassailable; you are in a perfect position to sit in jugement, immune yourself of being judged. Paintings like Chardin's The Soap Bubble are typical in that they depict figures concentrating deeply on some activity that makes them unaware of their own presence, that make them blithely ignorant of how they are being observed. They don't know you exist, which is convenient for you because then you don't have to worry about how to account for your fascination with them. You don't have to justify your attention or interact in any way. (As when on a subway train, it becomes easier to openly stare through the window at the faces in the winows of the express train passing you; you don't have to worry that meeting anyone else's gaze will lead to any further expenditure of effort, any awkward conversations or worries about how you are coming off). They are absorbed. You can just steal their image, and enjoy it as a thing, consume their activity vicariously without having to answer to them. We lose ourselves in their experience; we become absorbed ourselves. But unlike what we observe, we transcend observation and experience that power as well. We think we escape society's pan-optic surveillance, because everything we want to do that could be judged we are experiencing through proxies who absord the jugement for us (the celebrities we track in In Touch weekly, for instance).

In this way entertainment glamorizes and dignifies second-hand experience, passivity, things necessary to get people to consume more and do less (I know those things aren't essentially opposed, but that's a different bell to answer, a different egg to fry).

Diderot, the eighteenth-century critic, is preoccupied with these questions of absorption, with vicarious escapes. His art criticism -- his fondness for the sentimental domestic scenes and peasant maidens of Greuze -- exemplifies Fried's point. And his experience in reading one of the world's first self-conscious serious-minded novelists, Samuel Richardson, is paradigmatic for consumer culture's preoccupations with novels as entertainment generally. He explains how while reading, he loses all sense of himself and feels as though he is in a trance - Richardson's characters' experience supplants his own, which allows Diderot to feel satisfied and exhausted at his accomplishment of nothing at all (other than finishing Clarissa, which, at 1500 pages, is some kind of achievement). The didactisism of Richardson's novel, his intense moral purpose, seems to trigger in Diderot the ability to lose himself to the work, to commit to it completely. He is willing to enter and lose himself in the space Richardson creates, the space that will later be appropriated by ads as the place where subtle persuasion happens. The novel creates the mental space where ads can work. We go there in our minds because we think its an escape from social judgment, only to find ourselves more susceptible to advertising flattery when we're drunk on our "transcendent" power. We're ultimately not any safer when we disappear this way, through vicarious experience.

The key aspect of this space is that in it, we don't distinguish between our own experience and the experience we are enjoying vicariously. We see them as the same, as equally authentic. So when we are lost in the fictional world, and the fictional character has a proclivity for fictional Coca Cola, we experience that as our proclivity at some level, as our choice, as a choice made independent of persuasion. The fictional character's choice feels authentically ours, and we accept it as such, at least for the duration of our vicarious experience, for as long as we are unquestioningly identifying with characters in fiction, suspending disbelief, not being an entertainment skeptic, going with the flow and enjoying sentimentality. The moral didacticism that made vicarious experience possible for Diderot, enable him to feel absorbed and to disappear, have been replaced by different attempts at persuasion, the appeals of ads and the crypto-moral picture of the good life they present.

1 comment:

  1. I don't have a cell phone either, but I would have no problem ignoring calls, even when the caller knows full well I'm ignoring him. The reason I don't have one is that they still suck. The sound quality, the quality of the connection, is still garbage. Maybe some day.