The First Part: Surveillance & Audiences
I was thinking of going offline to get away from the distraction and the all-pervasive surveillance but then I got worried I would miss my f̶r̶i̶e̶n̶d̶s̶ audience. I mean, sure, I want to be spectacular — look at me! look at me! — but I want to be spectacular on my own terms. I want to show you myself so that you respond by loving me, not so that unseen but always present – and we know they are always present, they are in the very coding of these pages – audience members will manipulate me or punish me or find ways to take my money. But if I can’t have the audience I desire, I suppose I’d rather be exploited than ignored. And I guess I’d rather have someone peeping in my windows at night than have nobody ever think of me at all. I’ll turn on all the lights and leave the curtains open when I’m changing if that’s what it takes.
Once upon a time, two people “made love on the living room floor/ with the noise in the background of a televised war” but smart bombs have given way to smart phones and instead of television we have Skype or snapchat or tinder or grindr and if we can’t warm ourselves with someone else’s body, we can make love to ourselves with their image. I’m not alone if I’m watching someone else.
Of course, we’re still bombing the life out of all kinds of other people, but it’s old news by now. Perpetual war is kind of taken for granted. War and loneliness are pretty much all there is anymore. It’s so perfectly normal to be so utterly isolated.
Isn’t social media a wonderful panacea to living a life where we spend the vast majority of our time working bullshit jobs and surrounded by people we hardly know or care about? Fuck, I’m too tired and busy and stressed and broke to ever be able to set aside time to spend with love ones… but 65 people wished me a happy birthday on Facebook! And the ads have been getting ever better at showing me things I want to buy with the money for which I have traded my life, so that’s nice.
I remember talking to some sex workers who started when they were very young (14 is the average age of entry into sex work in Canada). When they first started and people told them they were being exploited (if they had anybody in their lives to say that kind of thing to them) they would laugh and point to their new fur coat or new jewelry or point out they were already making more money in a few months than most people make in five years… but two years or ten years or twenty-six years (40 is the average age of death for a sex worker in Canada) down the road, they often looked back and thought, yeah, I really was being exploited. But, by then… well… a lot had happened by then.
Seems to me that Social Media has a similar relationship with us. We’re so enamoured with the things it gives us, it makes it easy to forget that we’re getting fucked.
But our pages are eternal – there’s no slide from high track to low track, from private jets and Fortune 500 CEOs to five dollar blowjobs behind the Carnegie Centre, from living it up to dying – so maybe we’ll never have to know.
The kids went to see Santa at the mall with their mom. While we were talking about it, Charlie said, “Do you know Santa is always watching?”
I never really know what to do about the Santa thing. I don’t like it but I feel like it would cause problems with their mom if I told them Santa is a lie so I tend to neither confirm nor deny anything about him. To be honest, after she tried to take custody away from me, and I dropped $13K over 13 months in order to ensure that didn’t happen, I made a lot of parenting decisions based upon what felt safest as opposed to what felt best. In the coming year, I’m hoping to start rectifying some of that.
Anyway, when Charlie asked me his question about Santa watching, I was noncommittal in my response. I answered his question with a question:
“Santa is always watching?”
“Yep,” Charlie said, “when Mommy took us to see Santa, Santa said, ‘We’re watching you.’”
“How did that make you feel?” I asked.
“Um… really good!” he replied with a big smile on his face.
And I was reminded again of God and the comfort people take in thinking that the good Lord is looking down and watching them, too, whether they are sleeping or awake or eating or praying or donating socks to the Mission. From God to Santa to Facebook to the NSA/CSIS and the FBI/RCMP, people seem to like to be watched, not just by an audience whose applause they desire, but by an entity with the power to both reward and punish.
…although, I reckon even those who like being watched still prefer their google search history be deleted immediately when they die. Even those who like to think God watches when they sleep prefer not to think about God watching when they masturbate to Japanese monster porn.
The Second Part: The Gaze of the Other
Sartre wrote quite a lot about the gaze of the other and how it transfixes us – how it objectifies us. He argues that it is our awareness of the gaze of others that imprisons us and forces us to know and judge ourselves in a way that would be foreign to us if we are left alone. If, for example, I am snooping through another person’s private belongings, I may feel a certain kind of excitement or pleasure… but my feelings will change dramatically, including my feelings about myself, if I look up and discover that this other person was actually silently present the whole time and was watching me snoop. Sartre disliked all of this a great deal. He longed for freedom from the gaze of others. He longed to not be objectified (or so he claims in books written for… um… others). We all clamour for the opposite. We long to be objectified. And as 21st-century adults, we’ve lost faith in God and Santa Claus and the government but, thank you, thank you, social media. We can still gather together to objectify one another. The door of our cell has been thrown open, we know that there is no Giant Eye watching over us and judging us. So what do we do? We turn our backs to the door and watch over one another.
I mean, shit, in 2011 Time Magazine named “The Protester” as the person of the year (which reminds me, that Decolonize hoodie I ordered never arrived, dammit) so we’re all Blanqui with wifi now. Each one of us nodding along to the proclamation of “ni Dieu, ni Maître” and then liking and double tapping and sharing and weaving such a web around one another that we never walk through the door to freedom.
(One last analogy: we’re like kids who were fucked by our daddies and now we’re old enough to be free from them completely… and so with our newfound strength and independence and security what do we do? We go looking for other daddies to fuck us so that we feel loved. We were never taught love and what we were taught to experience as love was something else. That’s why we think we can find it online.)
Lacan reworks Sartre, but I’m not sure he reflects the context in which we find ourselves now. Lacan asks, “what is the subject trying to see?” but the focus here remains on seeing. We’re much more focused on being seen than we are on seeing. So, while Lacan goes on to say…
What [the subject trying to see] is trying to see… is the object as absence. What the voyeur is looking for and finds is merely a shadow, a shadow behind the curtain. There he will phantasize any magic of presence, the most graceful of girls, for example, even if on the other side is only a hairy athlete.
…the twist for us is that we do not so much want to see the object as absence as we want to be the object as absence.
Perhaps the issue with online surveillance, then, is that it transforms us into a subject. It transfixes us. It challenges the brand status we wish to establish for ourselves (which is mostly a combination of loveable, sexually attractive, on the right team, and not-really-to-blame-for-anything), and instead makes us experience ourselves as something else (just another number, an impersonal collection of data, a consumer defined only by the potential to spend a set amount of money, and a potential criminal). The difference between this and the position Sartre takes is then that Sartre wishes not to be seen at all, whereas we wish to be seen in a particular way. The gaze of the other is problematical for Sartre because it interferes with his (supposed) desire for solitude, and it is problematical for us (in this case) because it looks at us the wrong way. In both cases, the way in which we want to experience ourselves is contradicted and (potentially) invalidated.
In both cases, our lack of freedom is exposed. Surveillance exposes the lie that freedom is something we find online in social media. Actually, few spaces are so heavily monitored and recorded as social media. Of course, you are free to pretend to be anyone you want to be on social media, but this is little different than a prisoner in a cold cell pretending she is on a beach in the Bahamas. Furthermore, the difference between social media and “real life” isn’t that in one place one pretends to be something and in the other place one actually is something. The difference is one of extension and not of kind. Online one experiences a broader range of options in terms of what one can get away with pretending to be. But both places are defined by pretensions and each environment is just as virtual as the other (big ups to Alone here, who was basically the most brilliant blogger ever). Surveillance, then, begins to trap me back within the limits of the range of pretensions available to me offline. Not only that, but it doesn’t give a damn about the story I want others to affirm about me – the story I need to be affirmed in the gaze of others – and makes me feel the same doubt, shame, anger, and lack of certainty I experience when I’m exposed snooping through another person’s personal belongings.
The danger here is thinking that the surveillance of the government and the corporations (like Google and Facebook) is “bad” surveillance, whereas the surveillance we seek from and provide for one another is “good” surveillance (the unwanted but ubiquitous spies versus the desired f̶r̶i̶e̶n̶d̶s̶ audience). Freedom is not something we are given by others. It is found when we cease performing for any other gaze. This does not mean that the gaze of other’s ceases to be present in our lives. It means that we stop performing for that gaze… which may be impossible. Hence, the connection many people make between freedom and death. With the exception of the claims of some witches and pastors and ghost whisperers, the dead don’t perform for any gaze. As far as we can tell, they don’t perform at all.
But maybe it isn’t impossible. “Impossible” is something that the Masters want us to accept a lot of (and the allegiances of postmodern philosophers with six figure salaries at the most prestigious institutions of higher education in Europe should be questioned here). Because perhaps I spoke too soon when I mentioned Blanqui. No gods, sure. No Santa, you bet. But no Masters? Yeah, right. The Protester so glorified by Time Magazine, is often no more free because of protesting (and posting the pics on Social Media), than the child who refuses to eat his vegetables is free from the power and domain of his parents. The Masters have always been around and they have always been watching and their intentions and actions and laws and limits have never been good. They aren’t simply voyeurs peeping in our windows not actually caring about what is casting the silhouette upon the curtain. The Masters have no imagination. They don’t want to imagine fucking us. They fully intend to fuck us. Bodily and repeatedly. Until death do us part—and they aren’t the ones who will be doing the dying. And, despite what they tell you, a snuff film is not a love story.
The Third Part: Love & Freedom
So, I question the notion of “impossibility” because I question the authority of the Masters to set the limits for us. But freedom from performance for the gaze of another is possible because I believe that love offers us another way. Granted, when one is (literally) in love, one sees everything differently. There is a seeing – a gaze – that is particular to love. However, love problematizes the ability to perform for the gaze of the other because the movement into love is a movement that begins to abolish the boundary between my self and the other. If “two become one” (to quote the Spice Girls), then were with the I and where is the other?
It is precisely here where language stumbles and it becomes difficult to try and speak about what is happening. Because it is in this space – in love – where one feels not only that the gaze of the other is problematized but where the idea of performance itself makes less and less sense. But if performance ceases, what takes its place? I don’t want to say that performance is replaced by “authenticity” (which is really just another performance) or by “reality” (as popularly understood because that’s just ideology operating at its finest), but I am hesitant to provide any positive signifying content to what takes the place of performance. (When commenting on the recent assassinations in Paris, Badiou observes that the notion of the unspeakable or unthinkable is a defeat for thought, which he sees as something to be avoided, but I can’t help but wonder if it is good that thought be defeated at times.)
In fact, maybe the point is that performance is not replaced by any thing at all. In love the gaze of the other is nihilated along with the self who is transfixed by that gaze. What remains? No( )thing. Beyond good and evil, beyond freedom and subjection, beyond life and death, the no( )thingness of love.
Or, if you prefer, The Real (which is not to be confused with reality).
Because here’s the thing about freedom – it’s true what they say, that freedom is not free. But this does not mean what folks take it to mean. The common belief amongst certain people is that freedom is something that must be fought for and preserved with bombs and guns – as though freedom is like salvation that comes at the cost of the blood of the Son of God.
However, I think that this statement must be taken much more literally – freedom, any freedom that we can conceptualize, is not really freedom. What people are confusing is love and freedom. Love is free – in every sense of that word (which makes it hard to commodify or fight for or preserve with bombs and guns) – which is to say, love is no( )thing at all. And when I’m in love, so am I. So are you. So is everything. If you don’t believe me, come and see for yourself.
Epilogue: So Long, f̶r̶i̶e̶n̶d̶s̶ Audience!
So, look, I’m tired of this panacea that makes something out of no( )thing. I’m tired of trading most of my life and time and labour and worries and heartache for money and filling up the fractures and gaps with social media where we all surveil one another and mistake that for friendship. Or freedom. I’m tired of freedom, too, which isn’t free, and which we think we want when actually all we want is love
And I’m tired of marketers and bosses and law-makers and Masters and all their enforcers, too. Even though I like fur coats and jewelry, I’m tired of johns, and I’m tired of getting fucked.
But it’s not like I dislike everything about this. It’s not like there isn’t joy or satisfaction involved. Obviously, things are not so black and white (any drug user or person caught in an abusive relationship will tell you the same thing). There is much I like here. In fact, there is much that is good here (just as there is even and often much good in what drugs and abusers offer). I like looking at pictures of loved ones. I like sharing pictures with loved ones. A panacea is only a panacea if it works, ya know? But I think I’d like to spend more of my waking hours in the bodily presence of those whom I love (and who love me). And if I’m excited to know someone, I’d like to sit down with him or her. And so, to make some changes, I think I need to get off of social media. I’d like to get eaten off the web and fall into love like a plane into the ocean.
So long. It’s been real. By which, of course, I mean
A tout de suite 🙂