by Bradley Olson
When I look around at my fellow Americans being American in American culture, American in social media, and in public spaces like supermarkets, sidewalks, downtowns, restaurants, and even places of worship, I’m increasingly concerned that so many of us don’t actually have lives anymore, and instead of a life, have a brand. What I mean is that genuine and authentic being and living is increasingly replaced by the self-conscious staging and “curating” of images projected onto one’s life, and which display one’s life in a series of performances. Rather than experience the deeply personal joys, sorrows, and pains of living— “the whole catastrophe,” as Zorba gleefully affirmed—life for so many has become a posture—a role, an act, a one man or one woman play.
Of course, one shouldn’t conclude from all this talk of Americans being American that a state of authenticity is to be achieved by re-establishing some version of a self-sufficient individual. After all, that is already how the individual American imagination imagines itself. As Martin Heidegger put it: “Authentic Being-one’s-Self does not rest upon an exceptional condition of the [individual], a condition that has been detached from the ‘they’; it is rather an existential modification of the ‘they’ ” (Being and Time). So authenticity is not about being isolated from others, but rather about finding a different way of relating to others such that one is not lost to the they-self.
In The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald mentions that at the core of Gatsby’s personality “was a series of successful gestures,” meaning that Gatsby was so sensitive as to how he appeared to others, so conscious of his performance that he was like “one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.” I have no doubt that if Gatsby were a living, contemporary human being, he would be a social media influencer of the first magnitude, famous simply for being famous, and greatly admired, because it is very often the case that illusions are much neater and nicer, easier to bear, and appear to be so much more real than reality itself.
What I mean by performance or gesture, is that a person becomes the object of their own awareness, their own fascination, particularly in regard to imagining how other people perceive them. One’s experiences, emotions, sensations, thoughts, all become secondary to the primary concern of how others perceive one’s self. In a 1956 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman used the analogy of the theater to describe the nature of human interactions: “We are all just actors trying to control and manage our public image, we act based on how others might see us.” He pointed out that, as in the theater, individuals in social interactions occupy a stage of sorts where the performer meets the audience and where the positive, desired aspects and impressions of the self are enacted or performed. There is also a back stage area where individuals either prepare for, or set aside, their roles. We often perform for others, as most actors do, but we may also be our own audience, imagining how others might perceive us, and exploring the nuances, mannerisms, or affectations that might convince the audience and ourselves that we actually are, in reality, identical to the role we are performing. As Shakespeare put it in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
Much of this social performance is learned at an early age by simple observation and participation in social interactions while simultaneously experimenting with various social forms. For instance, how old were you when you learned that the proper response to a stranger’s question of “how are you?” is “fine,” or “good,” or “very well?” We learn at an early age, often without any direct instruction, that there are some aspects of ourselves that must remain unknown to and hidden from others, aspects—many of them biological bodily functions—which are deemed to be shameful or disgusting, even though every other human also has the same or similar characteristics of being. Perhaps that’s why there are locks on bathroom and bedroom doors.
Remember, Goffman published The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life in 1956, a time when television was a relatively new technology on its way to becoming a fixture in American homes. In 1948 less than two percent of American homes had a television, and by 1956 seventy percent of American homes had televisions. TV, newspapers, and radio were the only media technologies available to Americans in 1956, and television had overtaken radio as a news and entertainment source. Using this emerging medium, advertising and public relations agencies were beginning to discover just how much influence and power they had to seduce people into performing and to turn them away from actually living.
In contemporary life, we all experience how events can unfold and overtake us, and we often find ourselves at the mercy of governments and institutions, cultural illusions, public opinion, and our own negative self judgements. We drown in social media and one-hour news cycles that flood us with information (much of which is irrelevant padding, or worse, wrong) and fill us with anxiety. Sweaty, sinister YouTube conspiracy theories provide strangely comforting answers to every problematic aspect of life because knowing anything, even if it’s cretinous, half-witted hogwash, is more comforting than not knowing. If you find that the world is leaving you behind and you have less influence and success than you deserve, that everything is more confusing and difficult, and less satisfying or happy than you’d like, don’t worry because it’s not your fault; some secret society or monolithic deep state conspiracy is at work controlling all narratives and rendering you powerless.
The result is that contemporary life has become less soulful, less thoughtful, less reflective, and more complicated on every front than ever before. Having a meaningful experience of life and living is exponentially more difficult to achieve in the face of so many distractions, and while feeling a pervasive, subjective sense of powerlessness and so much existential confusion and dread. We don’t want to admit that we are incapable of knowing everything we would like to know, that critical thinking is difficult, and that what we call free will is much more limited than we would like to acknowledge. I think it’s reasonable to say that, in contemporary American life, people with even an iota of privilege don’t want to feel the fear and pain of struggling to make life work, of living in a culture and in a world that generates so much poverty, exploitation, war, racism, and crime, while it simultaneously experiences a crippling loss of empathy and compassion.
What, then, is left to people who want life to be different, but who are equally unable or unwilling to face the reality of their own lives and the reality of life in general? The answer is, as John Lovitz might say, “Acting!” Such a person may begin to affect gestures or poses, presenting a grand illusion to the world with the hope that others will mistake the illusion for one’s real life. This isn’t limited to one group or another, or only to certain psychological types of people, or to certain parts of the country. These actors may be seen all around Flagstaff and everywhere else, across the spectra of political ideology, religiosity or spirituality, gender, or socio-economic status, and in each and every case the tell-tale sign of performance is their assertion that they have found the prescription for proper living, and having done so, their genius should be recognized, and their standards and beliefs should be adopted by or impressed upon everyone else.
For these actors the self is not an organic thing which is born, and which, over the course of its development, suffers, loves, exalts, despairs, matures, and eventually dies. Their self, such as it is, is found in the performance of a character, in a scene or a vignette designed to arouse sympathy, admiration, or envy in the audience. If the performance can accomplish that, the actor feels valued, perhaps even loved, and for a brief time the haunting sense of emptiness, fraudulence, and meaninglessness is deferred. Their most fervent wish is that others will think that their performative selves are fully realized and reflect their actual lives, but ironically, even successful performances ultimately drive them more deeply into self-alienation, inauthenticity, emptiness, and loneliness.
We are all performers to some degree or another, it’s true. And I’ve been mostly addressing the dishonest performers who wish to convey self-interested, narcissistic falsehoods, but there are some honest performers as well, wishing to convey a deeper truth. Honest performers generally don’t seek out the spotlight, but by virtue of being a little more charismatic, a little more vocal, a little better known, a little better connected, and perhaps a little luckier, they occasionally, and sometimes to their dismay, inspire a movement of one kind or another and become its symbol. Great religious figures, humanitarians, politicians, philanthropists, poets, and others of note who’ve tried to make the world a better place, are saddled with the perils of performance as well.
Performance may well be an unavoidably human way to navigate social situations and social institutions, but the key to maintaining a sense of self, of being an individual Being in a world of other Beings, is to be able to recognize and be aware of, to confess—at least to oneself— that one is performing. It is to be generally understood that a great achievement of art is a beautiful lie—a beautiful lie that speaks or points to a truth that we might not apprehend any other way. But the beautiful lie is ultimately only an avenue to truth, it is never truth itself, and if the lie is mistaken for the truth, its potential for consolation and healing, for arousing compassion, for making gentle the life of the world, will be shattered. Our hope for a better world may only be realized by, and found in, our ability to recognize and examine our own performances and become more self-reflective. For it is through self-reflection that we find that, as the French artist Paul Edouard put it, there is another world, and it is in this one.
Brad has lived in Flagstaff nearly 25 years and is a Depth Psychologist in private practice. Dr. Olson is also a mythologist and works for the Joseph Campbell Foundation as the editor of the MythBlast series.