Same warnings as last post. This post goes into political philosophy, the public and private distinction, Vaclav Havel, more thoughts on the nature of spectacle and n+1 and the future of the internet as medium of the spectacle.
In the last episode of “The Spectacle of Keith Gessen and Emily Gould,” I posited that there’s a meta-spectacle that exists around Gessen and Gould, one in which they willingly participate (albeit in different amounts), and it has already been speculated upon by the editors n+1 in a few issues. What this results in is a collapse of the distinction between art and artist, which is taking the notion of “careerism” in modern art a step further. The newsworthiness of an artist’s life becomes a substitute for
true traditional critique. And it’s at least somewhat weird and meta that both Gessen and Gould are smart enough to comment upon this even while it’s happening to them. Plenty more after the jump.
I’m not arguing this phenomenon is complete, only that it is growing. There are certainly famous examples of artists who make a point of not having their personal lives discussed publicly, although often their reticence is itself newsworthy. But for some artists, most obviously actors and other Hollywood types, their art becomes intimately connected with their personality. For some watching movies, the suspension of disbelief is impossible. Is that Tom Cruise playing this character? It usually seems he is playing himself playing a character, but maybe that’s because we know too much about him. Literature hasn’t as fully entered the realm of spectacle, but the case of Keith Gessen and Emily Gould provides a good case study — even better than the Opera-Franzen dust-up because of the cool meta and theory aspects involved.
It’s instructive to consider the political analogue of the spectacle, which chews up the distinction between art and artist, person and representation. We learn through feminist critique that the personal is political. Often this is extended to mean that the private is now public (a contentious eliding, granted). Liberal societies have been traditionally thought of as having separate public and private spheres. The public sphere, subject to government intervention, was seen as the relevant area for securing justice and fairness for people of a state. The private sphere, often construed in quasi-Marxist critiques as the economic sphere, is supposed to be an area of non-interference, where an individual can make decisions irrelevant to social justice, and have the government take care of things in the public sphere through taxation or regulation, thereby preserving fairness. In the late 60s, feminism attacked this separation, arguing that the private sphere is not irrelevant to social justice. In this line of critique, which initially focused on injustice against women, the private sphere was not irrelevant to social justice at all; in fact, is the area in which the most pernicious forms of repression and injustice occurred. Ideas like these were mirrored in the era’s sweeping civil rights laws, in which the government encroached further into the private sphere. Since that era, many have argued that the government tacitly endorses anything in the private sphere that it does not regulate. This line of argument refutes the separation of public and private and argues that the public-private distinction only serves to uphold economic interests.
It seems n+1 is generally supportive of this line of argument. They seem to be endorsing the involvement of the government in promoting alternative energy through economic incentives and mandates and the slow shifting of cultural codes to enforce enlightened and/or reduced consumption.
The contemporary spectacle as explanation for culture has a similar lineage. The narcissism of this generation — easily Gould’s generation and younger, but also Gessen’s — has been widely written about. This narcissism has resulted in a outpouring of public display whether through blogs, Facebook, or YouTube. Instead of the spectacle being what someone tells you it is, it’s what we now create together — just some of us are more fully a part of it. Careers demand it too, or at least expect a certain persona in the spectacle (or on the internet, the medium for much of the spectacle today). There is pressure from nearly every side to create yourself for the spectacle, and there’s plenty of enforcement to go around, thanks to all of us consumers and our employers.
In order to receive the affirmation that the spectacle’s attention confers, you must give up something: your private life, which is now the low bar of mainstream culture. Notice this is an analogue to the late 1960s, when we gave up some private sphere space for the public sphere — something that most readers of this blog will agree had a positive societal effect. What’s interesting about the spectacle and what contributes to the erosion of the art-artist distinction is the fact that traditional high culture is rolled into the homogenizing spectacle.
The deification of and backlash against Dave Eggers is a paragon of what I’m talking about. Gessen’s first n+1 piece, Eggers, Teen Idol, examines the hype surrounding Eggers and AHWoSG from the eyes of a young blogger who unravels Eggers ties to the media world through three years of studiously following media reports. The piece is an interesting type of bildungsroman; you expect the knowledge gained to impart skepticism. Rather, Gessen reports, the teenager is trying to learn from Eggers’s careful manipulation of the machinery of the spectacle. Gessen writes accurately and presciently,
Because though [teen blogger] Gary proved beyond the doubt of any reasonable reader that literary fame, and literature itself, is a vast and intricate conspiracy, the trick of the Log was that it wasn’t a conspiracy he abhorred. He wanted in, he merely wanted in.
But no one escapes unharmed.
It’s tempting to conclude that Gessen, despite a conscious removal from Gary’s ideas at places, is right there with Gary, asking similar questions and being led to similar answers. Literature is full of cannibalization; a writer no less than Dante would’ve been impossible without Virgil. Although Gessen detests the McSweeney’s style, maybe there was something to learn from Eggers’s way of doing business, his perspicacious use of media-world connections. Eggers’s innovation was to blend himself and his art together. McSweeney’s was built on power of Eggers’s voice in AHWoSG, which was promptly commodified. Gessen is not as far along in his career as Eggers, and n+1 has consciously taken a different path from McSweeney’s, so it’s in part an unfair comparison. At the same time, I don’t think it takes Derrida to show how if you place yourself in opposition to something, you are also tied to that other — whether it’s the spectacle or Eggers. But it will be interesting to see what happens to Gessen if he becomes the Next Hot Young Writer, as some are already predicting, following the release of All the Sad Young Literary Men.
What unifies the slow erosion of the private sphere in governance and decline of the art-artist split is a theory that supports the masses over the individual. The public sphere, in the example of civil rights or in some current environmental proposals, takes over an area that used to be reserved for individual decisions and puts it to the service of the greater good. An individual can no longer make a decision to fire someone based on the employee’s skin color, and most people agree that this is a good thing. With the slow disappearance of the art-artist distinction, however, the good is not so apparent. But it’s analogous to the political situation. As a person becomes more recognized as an artist and as part of the spectacle, the masses take control of the private life of the artist. I don’t mean to make it sound so stark, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the public demands certain behavior of those in the spectacle. And there is retribution for behavior that doesn’t match what the public wants. And rewards when it does. We are picky spectators. These vicissitudes have real consequences, as is apparent reading reactions to the Gawker story — and the accompanying comments — on Emily’s blog. The level of proprietorship that the commenting class feels it has over Emily’s life is frankly shocking. I’ve been trying to be as deflammatory as possible about the root subject, although I understand that any comment can be seen throwing fuel on the fire (hence the hesitation). But seeing this sense of entitlement apparent in the comments on Emily’s blog in response to her understandably emotional reaction to the Gawker post, I mean. . . wow. How can anyone who claims to be an objective bystander to this not feel disgust? What is a good way to register this disgust? Do all these commentators really feel so much a part of the spectacle themselves? Are we trying to be part of the spectacle? Why do I not feel the same way reading about Tom Cruise and Scientology? Do we have different rules for those who are more a part of the spectacle than those who are not quite all the way in? Is this the price of admission to the spectacle? How do we get out of this thing?
Vaclav Havel has the answer to many questions. His 1979 essay “The Power of the Powerless” primarily illuminates the nature of what he calls the post-totalitarian Soviet bloc. But it also tells us much about any system of power, of governance. The essay advocates “living in truth.” It is a clarion call for individuals to decide to stop participating in the many little lies that make up the post-totalitarian system. His example is that of the greengrocer, who posts the sign “Workers of the world, unite!” in his shop window as an indicator of tacit consent to the ruling government. Should everyone stop committing little lies that exist to support the ideology, the post-totalitarian system could not survive.
But America’s politics and the spectacle are not so Manichean. Whatever problems we have in our government today, the solution doesn’t seem to be to overthrow it altogether. Nor for the spectacle is the answer the elimination of Gawker, Facebook, Page Six, or even art itself. These things, and even art, are now extensions of the self, and self-creation for the spectacle, has been enshrined as one of the highest forms of art. Everywhere the truth is muddled. The metaphor of the hyperreal, of mediated existence, has more explanatory power than the radical politics of 1968. This is the time of co-opting. This is a time when Slavoj Zizek does copy for an issue of Abercrombie and Fitch Quarterly. It’s hard to know who your allies are.
Yet Havel has more to say:
A genuine, profound, and lasting change for the better . . . can no longer result from the victory (were such a victory possible) of any particular traditional political conception, which can ultimately be only external, that is, a structural or systemic conception. More than ever before, such a change will have to derive from human existence, from the fundamental reconstitution of the position of people in the world, their relationships to themselves and to each other, and to the universe. If a better economic and political model is to be created, then perhaps more than ever before it must derive from profound existential and moral changes in society. . . . A better system will not automatically ensure a better life. In fact, the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.
There’s a lot for a narcissistic generation to like here. According to Havel, real change doesn’t come from an overhaul of the system. It comes from me. And instead of having to work for a new system that promises a better life, we should just create a better life and let the system fall into place. But there’s a flip side to this prescription that the narcissistic generation hasn’t really accepted: responsibility. The promise of the private-public split was that the government would take care of justice and fairness in society for us, and we could go about our business buying and selling things, managing our own private lives. As life becomes increasingly decentralized, this feature of government responsibility for our private lives has become in some ways archaic. This is not a radical argument for libertarianism. In fact, it has nothing to do with laws at all. In order for a society to be just, not only must the structure be just, but the publicly relevant actions of an individual must also be just. We can maintain some limited but important private sphere only if we are conscious of what constitutes a public act, therefore relevant to fairness and justice.
So too with the spectacle. Usually this happens without 4,000 words of theory, as Havel might’ve predicted. Most people I know take advantage of the privacy functions of Facebook, limiting who can see photos of them or who can access their contact information. And just because I’ve slept with someone doesn’t mean I add a friend detail saying so. A common Gawker Media technique is to use the Facebook profile of someone quasi-famous (or their progeny) and display compromising photos. Is this wrong? Probably not, since the person had the ability and responsibility to control what they put up in a public forum. But what about things that haven’t been posted by the subject-then-object in a public forum? Where did this sense of entitlement to the private lives of famous and now semi-famous come from? The internet has democratized the notion of celebrity, and notable figures of any niche, no matter how small, are subject to the scrutiny of the spectacle.
These cultural codes are just now being worked out, and that’s why the internet has had such power to shock, influence careers, and hurt people. We aren’t quite sure what’s permissible yet. This is what makes Gawker such an influential and polarizing medium — it’s one of the actors pushing the these public-private boundaries on the internet. (Google has also pushed these boundaries, although not in such a targeted way, and it too has drawn scrutiny.)
One thing that’s not new is ambition. Writers generally want to be read. Politicians want to have control. More broadly, narcissists want to be famous — subject not just to oh-so-fascinating self-examination, but to the gaze of everyone. As consumers, we feel that if we made you famous by virtue of directing our gaze at you, we are just as entitled to taking you down.
Our gaze’s ability to empower and destroy is astounding. Simply observing something is enough to change it. One wonders how the spectacle of Keith Gessen and Emily Gould would play out differently were there one million page views on Gawker’s post instead of 16,000. Or 1,000 comments instead of 200. Alternatively, what if only Keith and Emily and those close to them knew about it? Perhaps what we need to do is examine how our collective and individual attention wields power. The internet and the spectacle’s (other) ability — to make people anonymous and interchangeable — should not be seen as just a liberation for cultural misfits and outcasts who can now interact without the hangups associated with identity. Its precisely the anonymity of the internet that gives the commenting class such power: If I don’t have a fixed personal identity, then how can I have personal responsibility for what I say? Perhaps we need to find ways to reconnect the outside, everyday, mundane world to the spectacle — not so that what remains of the separate world can be devoured by the spectacle, but so that we humanize the spectacle instead of living with its anonymity. There’s a reflection of this in politics. Many have noted the need to tone down the shrill nature of sound-bite, talking-head polemic flame wars that make straw men out of everyone. In this particular spectacle, the characters are anonymous stand-ins for story lines we’ve already read; even the named characters aren’t real people. But Keith Gessen and Emily Gould are.