I did spend many hours two years ago in an abortive attempt to analyze the boring stretches of the now-defunct Jennicam. At the time, I couldn't write my way past the problem of authenticity. All the for-profit sexcams that were piggybacking off of the efforts of "ordinary" people like Jenni clearly appealed to someone. But they weren't "real" and were therefore of no interest to people like me. Problem was, I wasn't comfortable reinforcing the distinction between real and artificial, ordinary person and actor.
I'm still not. Participating actively in the world of blogging, however, has made it easier for me to imagine a way out of my predicament, a side door.
One way of reading Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in Mechanical Reproduction" is to play up its futurist dimension, following him into a new era where all people regards themselves as art.
Michel Foucault, to name another theoretical hero of mine, tried to reach that imaginary realm by returning in his late work to the ancient Greeks and Romans' thinking about the self.
On the face of it, there is almost nothing to connect Benjamin's reflections on the promise of film and Foucault's meditations on pre-Christian self-fashioning. If we remind ourselves of the injunction to "always historicize," though, and consider the fact that these two thinkers are both products of self-consciously modern, mass-mediated Western societies who grew up with film, radio, and recorded popular music, the difference between them seems less enormous.
If I may indulge in a brief excursus, here, I have always been interested in the way that books influence people who haven't read them. Take Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning, for example. I picked the book up many times as an undergraduate, pondering its title, before I actually read it. And I'm sure there are lots of people who shared my experience. Point is, the word -- or is it two words? -- "self-fashioning" served as a key junction for many trains of thought before I actually understood what the book was really about.
In retrospect, I realize that my flights of fancy on the titles of scholarly books were a lot like the speculations of small children who incorporate phrases they've heard into their worldview without understanding those phrases in the way that adults understand them. As a child, I spent many hours trying to figure out the idiom "play it by year," that my mother regularly uttered, never realizing that I had consistently misheard the phrase "play it by ear," which makes a lot more sense.
What I'm driving at here is that Benjamin and Foucault, in their very different approaches to the question of self-understanding and technology -- it's worth recalling here that Foucault was lecturing on "technologies of the self when he died -- were both tuning in ideas ambient throughout modern, urban society.
This isn't a very bold assertion, I realize, since I'm basically restating the Romantic notion of the Zeitgeist. Nevertheless, it's an assertion I feel the need to make, because even the sharpest intellectuals have a way of forgetting that the work of intellectuals is every bit as historical as everything else produced in a society.
So what the hell does this have to do with reality television and blogging?
I want to do something with the notion of self-as-art, reflecting on what happens when a critical mass of people -- what would that critical mass be? -- has access to the means of self-production.
Is there a point at which it is no longer possible to regard the self as art, because too many people are making art of themselves?
The promise and peril of blogging seems to inhere in the feeling that we may soon reach such a point.
I'll close with a little of the Wittgenstein I've been reading at the picnic table along with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius:
"That's him" -- that contains the whole problem of representation.It must say something about me or "me" that I'm so drawn to thinkers whose work consists largely of fragments shored against perfection.
I make a plan: I see myself acting thus and so. "How do I know that it's myself?" Or "How do I know that the word 'I' stands for me?"
Would Wittgenstein have watched reality television?
I love Derek Jarman's movie, though my philosophy of language friend hated what he called its "over-simplification." The scene where Ludwig takes his boyfriend to the movies and gleefully basks in the "mindless" entertainment of the genre picture regularly rolls about in my mind.
Time to go through a stroll in downtown Encinitas. . .