Here, I’d like to adopt the voice of a collective “we”, one that consists of youngish people who are financially comfortable (or reliant on parents’ financial comfort), wired, aware, vaguely fashionable, vaguely political, those who have read a few books. We covet the city or harbour the city’s nostalgia for the country. Our strange ecology means we recycle ideas as we recycle cardboard. We bleed self-consciousness. We don’t really believe with the certitude of our forbears that neat categories are still operational. We relish fun and distraction. Like the German writer Alexander von Schönburg in Tristesse Royale (1999), screaming at the TV for more, we demand endless entertainment:“One more episode, one more season! More wit! More hilarity! More characters! More action! More blood! More sex! More! More! More!”
Hermes (the Olympian god as well as the purveyor of silk scarves) is our saint. His quickness and wit made him the ideal liaison between the gods and the humans. Thus this divine intercessor was the go-between who connected the high and the low. He hurtled through all realms, carrying news and goods, words and things, thoughts and objects, becoming the god of trade, travellers and boundaries. Like him, we flit here and there, dissolving borders, sharing our wares, engaging in the fluid exchange of stuff and ideas.
The notion of boundary today has become malleable. Some examples: terrorists working asymmetrically, disregarding the borders and decrees of nation states; the devices that transform our homes and cafes into workspaces and stretch the “work day” to a state of 24/7 availability; the tendency away from specialisation and toward interdisciplinarity in the humanities and life: everyone is an artist, an entrepreneur, a singer, a philosopher, a writer. Now boundaries float or fall.
We separate us from the world in which we dwell. We can see out, but no one can see in. Jean-Paul Sartre sketched a similar scenario in his Being and Nothingness (published in 1943… Reflect on that year for a moment.) In a well-known chapter called “The Gaze”, an anonymous, jealous person watches someone (a woman?) on the other side of the door through a keyhole. Profiting from the anonymity afforded by these circumstances, the one who spies remains an invisible voyeur. But imagine that the door were to vanish suddenly, leaving the voyeur exposed. Without a smoke screen, the covert operation fails and the voyeur becomes an unwitting exhibition.
Irony, I have argued elsewhere, is one of our smokescreens. Behind layers of sarcasm, we condescendingly scoff at those who aren’t in the know. The T-shirt that reads, “I am wearing this T-shirt ironically” could not have existed even 30 years ago. This new meaning of irony, which involves more than speech acts or rhetoric, applies even to clothing, accessories and hairstyles. For example, today’s new moustache cannot be taken at face value. The curled moustache men wore in the 1920s has nothing to do with the curled moustache young men wear today. Or rather, the curled moustache of today is a cynical citation of the curled moustache of yesteryear. To wear something in this ironic way is to add an extra interpretive layer, an extra semiotic stratum, an extra filter of mediation. Someone faced with our silly ‘staches must decide whether we meant them literally or whether they participate in the hyperbolic hipness defined by today’s fashion apostles. They must be translated, so to speak. We consciously and meticulously encode our aesthetic choices and we select the company we keep based on those who are most successful at deciphering our hidden code. “Getting it” means getting nearer to our authentic core. The new intimacy relies on perpetual interplay of encryption and decryption. We decide with whom we are compatible by seeking out those whose ciphering styles most correspond with our own.
A quick study of Facebook comments or Tweets confirms a similar pattern. Haven’t most of us transformed into Oscar Wilde already, delighting the world with our insightful observations couched in impudent aphorisms? (Of course we’ve identified the ironic tone in the last sentence and in this one; we are irony gurus, after all.) We spend so much time saying the opposite of what we mean, we are easy to ignore or misinterpret when we actually mean what we say. To keep the joke from being on us, we put the joke on ourselves first, thus averting possible attacks from others. “Ha! I’ve already proven I’m a clown! No one can pin this label on me now!” This anticipation of attack indicates a hyper-self-awareness and an abhorrence of vulnerability. Our protective shell is thick, but what we perhaps have forgotten is the simple fact that our need to shield ourselves so drastically already signals extreme fragility. We’ve unwittingly broadcast our weakness. Our Achilles heel is known to all: we don’t want our tastes insulted.
But we have other decoys, other diversions, aside from irony. The miniature screens to which we attach our eyes during each day’s digressions funnel our presence from the “here” to the “there”. Do we believe that by fixing our eyes on the screens, we cease to be visible? Some equivalents: closing our eyes and believing that others can no longer perceive our form; plugging our ears and believing our voices can’t be heard; pinching our noses closed and believing we don’t stink.
There are two words that have become familiar to us through the ubiquitous screens: buffering and cache. Together, Buffering and Cache sound like a country-western duo, strumming songs or riding horses together through the desert. But while our streams of this spaghetti western are buffering on said screens, we buffer ourselves from public life, rebuffing the real people around us. And what of the cache? We can look to the French etymology of this word, still extant in the verb “cacher” (“to hide”). Our cache is what is hidden, and thus our cache is ourselves.
Hiding is obviously nothing new. Dissimulation, duplicity and plain fraud: this brand of vice landed souls in Dante’s Inferno already in the 14th century. In his vision, the panderers, seducers, flatterers, false prophets, hypocrites, counterfeiters and imposters all ended up in hell because of the discrepancy between truth and what they were actually selling. Today, our varieties of camouflage have become more finely articulated. We are obscurantists who hide behind words. We are ironists who hide behind jest. What was once our taste, personality and ethics can now be compressed in a single notion: Our Brand. We live in terms of a market logic, our personal stock increasing or decreasing in value based on the number of “likes” we accrue. Never has self-worth been more reliant on the mysterious machine of social economy. Instant feedback on our ideas, our comments and our photos means that we can tweak our message even as we deliver it. Something about this new configuration hearkens back to France’s ancien régime, when the gentlemen and ladies of the Royal Court made and broke one another for the most elegant turn of phrase or the most delicate faux pas (see Leconte’s 1996 film Ridicule). One word uplifts or undoes a person. And erasure and editing, which seem like tools at our disposal for the rewinding of mistakes, aren’t really possible anymore in the diffuse public record called the net. What is said is said, and the echoes of all we say accompany us for good. Another Italian, Luigi Pirandello, continued to question in the early 20th century the incongruity between inner and outer self by studying the human’s seemingly endless supply of masks. (Today, would he call them avatars instead?) In his fascinating book One, No One and One Hundred Thousand (1926), the protagonist Moscarda is told by his wife that his nose is a little crooked. Having never noticed this detail about himself, he starts to scrutinise his own face in the mirror, eventually realising that everyone he knows has a completely different perception of him than he has of himself. With this one seemingly harmless comment from his wife, his self-image bursts into thousands of fragments. Even without intentionally hiding himself behind false fronts, the world perceives him as a highly variegated individual. He cannot reconcile these multiple versions of himself. So throughout history, literary and otherwise, something has always stood between the human and the world’s understanding of her. Roadblocks, screens, masks, decoys, straw men, fences: getting to a person’s center is onerous. For that reason, it is unnecessary to pile on thicknesses meant to keep others from this center; it is a useless investment of time and energy.
Like Moscarda, we have multiple selves, even digital identities. Not only must we manage our real lives, we must now also manage our virtual ones. While we are aware implicitly of the non-correspondence between the two (in ourselves and in others), we carry on with the self-advertising campaign as if the hustle were hidden. We make our private lives public by photographing our food, the foliage or a cloud pattern above us, each silly posture of our pets, a funny sign here, a funny sign there. Ephemera have found a protracted life through us. But haven’t we seen people in public stage a photo? Picture this: a group of teens sitting in a bored cluster until one of them has the idea to pull out the camera. Suddenly, the group transforms, adopting the camera posture, the camera face: merriment, fun, entertainment, joy, youth and exuberance splash before the camera. Once the lens is put away, the cluster deflates and resumes its lacklustre bearing. And wouldn’t it be interesting if software existed that could remove the Instagram filters from photos you see online? We would confirm how drab and unlyrical people’s lives actually are.
A question: do we realise that most of the choices we make are based purely on aesthetic approximations? That even our political choices are largely based on what we find qualitatively ugly or beautiful? We could invoke Stephen Colbert’s notion of “truthiness” here: the truthier something seems, the more willing we are to buy into it. Truthiness is to truth as cubic zirconia is to the diamond; the former strives to supplant the latter but only succeeds in a superficial way. With attention, the difference is easily discerned. This human pattern of celebrating surface while yearning for depth is certainly not new. It’s simply that with new living configurations and expressive possibilities, we’ve found more stealthy ways to hide, more subtle ways to burrow away from the gaze of others.
But if our cache gets too full, we know from experience that our system slows down. Clearing the cache involves making ourselves vulnerable, exposing what is ugly, uncouth, dull and unprocessed about us. Or just living more softly and de-emphasizing ourselves, taking less interest in being a spectacle. The raw material of our selves could be laid delicately before others. Why hide our truths behind ironies? Why veil our feelings with numbness or feigned indifference? These calculated maneuvers take energy that could be dedicated to other endeavors. We could adopt the same kind of openness to the other’s nakedness we would hope to receive if we cast our own screens aside. Mutual vulnerability could halt our proliferation of masks and undo the loop of encryption and decryption. We could offer forth a message, unencoded and authentic, for others to take or to leave. And regardless whether they take it or leave it, we’ve at least been forthright in the delivery of ourselves. It is impossible to be completely transparent to others, and irony in small doses certainly does us good. But a general reduction of our opacities could reinject the human and the notion of community into daily living. Imagine time and energy directed outward rather than inward, collectivity rather than individuality, investment in others rather than self-investment.
Remember playing Hide-and-Seek? If the other took too long to find you, do your remember that agitated feeling of exclusion, a longing to join the community, to giggle with those who’d already been found? In short, hiding is lonely business.