Learning to Be Seen
So, yes, we live in the age of the always on camera. We lead public lives. And, yes, this makes for some anxiety amongst young and old alike. We elders cringe as we fear the camera; the kids cringe as they read comments and likes.
But there is nothing inherently good or bad about this inside out world. As with everything, there are some good things, there are some bad things, there are a lot of neutral things. It all depends on the individual, on how he or she goes, what he or she wants.
What's most important is not how we slow down or speed up this involution. It's how we stand towards it, how we invent new postures of living, new ways of being in the world.
As Marshall McLuhan says, problems arise when we use old technologies to make sense of new environments — we use the horse and buggy to understand the railroad, the book to understand the video game. Of course to a 65 year old literature professor, video games look like the devil, tempting kids not to read. But to the gamers, video games are a new kind of text that have non-linear narratives and move more than eyeballs.
It seems to me, then, that in a world of an always on camera, rather than turn away, we need to learn how to be seen. And, perhaps, know when — and how — to hide.
Here is something I wrote a while back about Marc Lafia's great film, The Revolution of Everyday Life:
"The distinction the film draws is not between public and private but between demanding to be seen and allowing oneself to be seen. On the one hand, there’s Tjasa who imagines herself a radical fomenting change through situationist performances. Tjasa demands to be seen, screeching into the camera just as she screeches at others, to no one and everyone. Meanwhile, Lizzie, her lover, avoids the spotlight but finds a much more intimate relationship with the camera and with being seen. In a gesture of infinite generosity, she allows herself to be seen.
...In these two modes we get postures of standing towards perception, postures of being seen. We get an ethics (mercifully bereft of judgment)."
Revolution of Everyday Life from marc lafia on Vimeo.
How does one learn to be seen? What kinds of demands does this make on our personhood? What, precisely, is it asking of us?
I, for one, go cold in front of a camera. I am a narcissist and feel my best when holding forth in front of a large group. But stick me in front of a camera and I get nervous, awkward, tongue tied. How do I change this? Practice, sure, but I'm talking about more than that. I'm talking about how I would have to change my self-perception, my literal and metaphoric posture.
My instinct says it demands greater self-confidence and that age-old mode of wisdom: resignation. That is, just giving in, letting go, surrendering all of body and mind and whatever else we are to circumstance, to the gaze. I think in resignation there is a kind of indifference — by succumbing all the way, we move past caring, past posing.
But I know of resignation through Kierkegaard — and what the fuck does he know about life in the Spectacle? (If I were one of the kids, I put some sort of emoticon denoting I'm half serious, half not.)
Part of me thinks we have to move past the true/false dichotomy, past what we consider our true selves and our false selves, into a perpetually grey area where dissimulation is the norm (and hence, perhaps, simulation?).
Or is it the opposite and we need to affirm a line between that me and this me?
I think of the famous story about Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man (I've heard other attributions but this one works well). Hoffman shows up on the set looking a wreck— he'd been doing god knows what for days in preparation for a scene in which he's tortured and then runs away. Olivier looks at him and says, "Dustin, chap, you look absolutely terrible." And Hoffman replies, "I've been preparing for the scene, getting into character." To which Olivier replies, "Well, why don't you just try acting?"
Which posture, I ask you, is the posture the always on camera demands? What new postures do we need to invent? How do we learn to be seen? And what is exposed in that gaze? What do we reveal and what do we hold back? When do we act and when do we "be"? Or is that the wrong question?