The Simulacrum of the Self
A little while ago I was following the MRS social media event on twitter and whilst Andrew Keen was speaking a number of tweets from people at the event began to talk about Marx and alienation (of course, I wasn’t there and I haven’t watched the video up on Research Live that I’ve linked to here, so my perception of this talk is drawn entirely from social media and may have had little or nothing to do with Marx- I’ve done this intentionally for the purposes of this post). This set my cultural studies spidey-sense tingling and led me to start thinking a little bit about social media through the lens of some of the radical left-wing cultural theorists I know and love. I spend a lot of time using social media, but I haven’t spent very much time thinking about it, as there’s lots of smart people already doing that for a living, but one cannot always help to where the mind wanders.
The first guy that sprang to mind was Jean Baurdillard who is perhaps most famous for claiming that the Gulf war (what we call the first one, neglecting to count the Iran-Iraq war) did not exist. At the core of this thesis is the idea, not that nothing happened, but that it wasn’t a war – the nature of warfare applied being so far removed from anything that had previously been conceived as war that what occurred existed solely as a series of CNN reports, night vision footage of rockets being fired and blips on tiny radar screens. This may give you a clue as to where I am going with this post.
Baudrillard’s interpretation of the simulacrum and, by extension, hyper-reality is what I’m interested in here. The simulacrum is the signifier with no reference point in reality, it refers to something that does not genuinely exist. There are a number of stages for this, but in post-modernity Baudrillard argues we have reached a stage where the simulacrum precedes the object to which it refers meaning we are left only with simulacrum – a completely imagined or ‘hyper’ reality. For the Gulf war, the mediated images of the war precede the war itself. For social media the projection of the self on facebook and twitter precedes the object of the self – we are left only with a simulacrum of the self, a self which refers to nothing. Which brings us back to the twitter chatter around Andrew Keen – the alienation from society predicted by Marx is one thing, alienation from yourself is quite another.
I think it was in his writing on America (though it’s a few years since I read it, so I might be wrong) where Baudrillard takes up the useful example of Snow White’s Castle at Disney World. This is a great example of hyper-reality – one cannot deny that it exists, it is there in bricks, mortar, paint and no short measure of plastic – but to what does it refer and represent? A purely imagined castle from Disney’s animated Snow White cartoons – of course there is some basis in reality for castles with this type of architectural detail (thanks to my friend Pete who has just been to Bavaria for the first picture in the Triptych above) but it is pastiched and bastardised beyond recognition. The danger comes for those people (of whom there are many) whose only experience of a castle is to see Snow White’s castle at Disneyworld – it precedes the knowledge and understanding of what a castle is and what it means – the simulacrum of the castle is the castle and reality is distorted as a result.
As a short aside, this always reminds me of the Eddie Izzard bit from Dress to Kill:
“Disney came over and built EuroDisney. They built the Disney Castle there. Everyone was like ‘Make it bigger, they’ve actually got them here… and they’re not made of plastic.”
Now, of course, this does not really do a huge amount of damage to Bavarian castles, but when we are talking about social media we are talking about perceptions of the self and I don’t think it can be particularly good for the psyche for the self to become a simulacrum. This leads me on to something I’ve been thinking about for a while, which is largely driven by the development of digital technology and the increasing degree to which social media are ‘always on’ – the pre-eminence of the artefact after the fact.
The Artefact After The Fact
People are increasingly separated from their own experience. The magic of watching live music for example, is lost, when the intimacy of that experience is mediated through a four inch mobile phone screen (even for those of us not recording it, the sea of phones and cameras has some impact[/rant]). However, increasingly, having a record that you were there, having the foursquare badge, having 50 photos of your night out on the town – is more important than actually being there and experiencing. You meet your hero and your first thought is not ‘what have I always wanted to ask her’ it is ‘can I get a picture with her and post it as my facebook profile?’. You overhear something amusing in a restaurant – your first thought is how can I fire this off pithily in 140 characters rather than how can I covertly share this with those in the restaurant with me. What is happening now, in front of me, in the real world is preceded by thinking about how I can project it through social media channels – I become one step removed from my own experience. The simulacrum has won.
If you don’t follow Greg Stekelman on twitter, then you should. This tweet effectively sums up my 1000+ word post in 140 characters imbued with his usual killer combination of poignancy and self-deprecating humour. James Seddon has also written at some length (here and here) of the impact twitter was having on the most important of relationships, those with his family – as a result he is one of an increasing number taking a step back from social media so that they can reclaim real experience.
I think this becomes even more pervasive an issue as we start to go further down the road towards augmented reality. This is probably a blog-post in itself, but I think it would be more pertinent to call it subverted reality. Of course, I’d be the first to admit that subversion is often a force for good, but when it comes to doing it to reality it’s a bit of a risky business.
Here’s the rub dear reader. So what if we are subverting or destroying the reality of our selves? Does it really matter? Maybe not. I haven’t read any Deleuze, but from what I can gather he takes a far more happy-go-lucky stance on the simulacrum and argues that it can be used as a force for positive radical change. One can employ it to undermine the accepted order of things. This, of course, is a popular discourse in internet theory – we are able to escape the things we do not like about ourselves and project a more favourable (/better?) persona. I would argue that you’re probably better facing up to those personal weaknesses, but there’s also nothing wrong with a bit of escapism as long as you’re aware of that’s what it is.
That final point is what’s important for me. Remembering for a moment that this is supposed to be a research blog, one of the bases on which social media research is currently sold is that it gives a ‘real’, unmediated picture of people’s perceptions on brands or issues; that we are able to understand the conversations people are having ‘in their natural habitat’ where they believe they are undisturbed by our prying eyes and ears. Whether we agree with Baudrillard or Deleuze on the consequences of social media delivering a simulacrum of the self, it is important for researchers to remember that it is a simulacrum. The process of mediation is different than that of being asked direct questions in a traditional research context, but the information we get is not, in essence, any closer to being truth.
Whilst we’re talking about French theorists of the left, Foucault, by the way, argues that truth does not really exist – but let’s leave that for another day.