“I Was Born To Stand Outside Myself”

Last summer I posted a few thoughts on Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War which I had then begun reading. As it turned out, I set the book aside for a few months for no particular reason, but I’ve recently returned to it and finished it. I stand by my initial characterization: the novel is a meditation on beauty, and a lovely one at that.

Near the end, the main character, Alessandro, meets up with a talented, intelligent, articulate man named Arturo who is nonetheless thoroughly unsuccessful and unaccomplished. In conversation with Alessandro, Arturo sums up his life thus: “I was born to stand outside myself.”

This struck me as a remarkably evocative line. Now I confess that I’m going to take this in a direction that Helprin neither intended nor imagined. That said, the line immediately suggested to me the manner in which we are made to virtually stand beside ourselves in our (social) media environment.

There are perhaps two senses in which this is true. I’m thinking of the way that our social media profiles stand beside us in a rather apprehensible manner. We can look at them, manipulate them, experience them; they are us but not us. In this sense, I’m still inclined to think of our social media profiles as virtual memory theaters, at least in part.

The other sense is the manner in which the presence of our second self impinges upon our lived experience. We not only stand beside our past self as it is represented online, we also stand beside our potential future self as it will be represented online. This other potential self haunts our present from the future. Several months ago I posted a synopsis of Michel de Certeau’s observations about the way the past layers over certain places and haunts them. Places capture memories and those places cannot be divorced from those memories in lived experience. Perhaps if he were alive today, de Certeau would suggest that the future as well as the past now haunts our present. We live with our virtual memory theaters and we live with future memories as well. We are born to stand beside ourselves, actual and potential. And, perhaps most significantly, the potential self we live with is imagined within the constraints of the platform through which it will represented.

On this latter point, I would also point you to Nathan Jurgenson’s fine essay reprinted in The Atlantic: “The Facebook Eye.”

It does occur to me that this standing beside ourselves did not itself emerge with the advent of social media. One could argue that it is a function of all representation. Certainly it is a feature of writing itself. Walter Ong made much of the way in which literacy alienates. Among the many separations effected by writing Ong includes the separation of the known from the knower, the past from the present, and being from time.

So we might conclude that social media only augments a long standing trajectory. But my sense, as it often is with efforts to situate present phenomena within a historical trajectory, is that this threatens to miss the significance of present developments. Changes of degree may amount to changes in kind. As I’ve heard it put somewhere or other, a hurricane is not merely an unusually strong breeze.

Social media, and the technological ecosystem on which it depends, radically augments the alienation of writing if only by its mere ubiquity. But perhaps more importantly, it does so by making our second self that stands beside us also a public self that presents itself to a myriad of others. It’s the difference between an old-school diary and your Facebook profile. It is no small difference and we are all in the process of sorting out the personal and social consequences.

De Certeau concluded that “haunted places are the only ones people can live in.” Walter Ong was also sanguine about the alienations wrought by writing:

“To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it . . . By distancing thought, alienating it from its original habitat in sounded words, writing raises consciousness.  Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for fuller human life.  To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance.  This writing provides for, thereby accelerating the evolution of consciousness as nothing else before it does.”

Now the question is whether the standing beside ourselves effected by social media will carry similarly salubrious consequences. Discuss amongst yourselves. Here’s the prompt to get you going: Has social media continued to accelerate the evolution of consciousness or self-consciousness? Is there a difference?

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