Masks in a shop in Venice
When you start doing something new, it makes sense to question why you are doing it. I started this blog two and a half weeks ago, a decision made on the spur of the moment, because I had hit a roadblock in a novel I am writing and wanted to create a diversion, or some form of prevarication or distraction – to see if any new ideas else came along, as they usually do. And to keep myself writing, rather than sink into the familiar mire of the pointlessness of everything that even a minor incident of self-doubt is likely to incite.
As if by magical coincidence, today’s news about Google+ insisting on its account holders using their real names coincides with a line of thought I was pursuing even as the news broke.
Thinking about blogging, specifically, and reflecting in more general terms on what we do and why we do it, I was leafing through old diaries, a useful resource for the blogger, and I found notes that I must have scribbled on a long plane trip three years ago. I was reading an article by Michael Greenberg, discussing his friend Lee Siegel, who writes about the Internet (there is another concern here, on the dangers of writing reviews of one’s friends’ books, which I will return to in another post). I discovered that Siegel has made the study of the internet his principal concern, and (as I later found out) for good reason. What he writes is largely dire and depressing: “You’re alone but you’re not alone, projecting yourself onto this screen with all these invisible people there, who, like you, aren’t who they say they are. When you change your identity, your language becomes corrupted. It becomes easier to tell lies. You think you’re chatting with someone, but who is it? As often as not you’re consorting with your own demons.” And there’s more: “it’s a triumph of capitalism . . . people learn to package themselves. They perform their privacy. We want to believe we’re expressing our individuality, but to stand out in cyberspace, to become viral” (he means popular, I guess) “you must be able to sound more like everyone else than anyone else.” Siegel’s book is called Against the machine: being human in the age of the Electronic Mob. The book appears to be out of print already.
Among other useful observations, Siegel is doubtless right in saying that “the Internet is possibly the most radical transformation of private and public life in the history of humankind.” It has caused a thorough reassessment of what it means to be an individual in contemporary culture. However while it is one thing for American or European critics to swing out against the internet and bloggers – and what Siegel sensationally calls ‘blogofascism’ (this tiresome use of ‘fascism’ as a suffix actually distracts us from the truth that genuine fascism – pace Mussolini – is alive and kicking, as recent events in Norway have so tragically illustrated) and the truly significant developments in the Arab world and Iran, in particular, would suggest there are many ways in which the Internet, and blogging, in particular, have provided a crucial link to the wider world when oppressive governments murder and abuse their people, and as a lifeline for individuals facing persecution and discrimination.
Siegel also writes nonsense in relation to TV programmes like American Idol or the X Factor. “Popular culture,” he argues, “used to draw people to what they liked. Internet culture draws people to what everyone else likes.” I would argue that the forces of capitalism that direct and control ‘popular culture’ have always worked on the principle that people are drawn towards ‘what everyone else likes’. My brief stint in the world of advertising would have taught me that, over three decades ago, if it hadn’t been bloody obvious anyway.
Siegel’s comments on the internet and blogging take on a different cast when one reflects that he was suspended from his job as correspondent for The New Republic when it was discovered that while working for the magazine he was posting commentaries – in the name of his alter ego, called ‘sprezzatura” – referring to his own (Siegel’s) brilliance. Does the phrase ‘consorting with your own demons’ ring a bell here? He specifically denied being Siegel when challenged by an anonymous detractor in the magazine’s feedback section. And (here I am relying on his Wikipedia entry) in response to readers who had criticized his negative comments about a well-known American chat-show host, Jon Stewart, ‘sprezzatura’ wrote, “Siegel is brave, brilliant, and wittier than Stewart will ever be. Take that, you bunch of immature, abusive sheep”.
There seems to be some justification, then, for his asking: “You think you’re chatting with someone, but who is it?” and to pose that tired old cliché about ‘our real identity’. Besides, what is this ‘real me’ that American cultural critics and self-help writers throughout the world are so hell-bent on revealing – and which the Internet is attributed such terrible powers in concealing? Actually there will always be a minority (predatory paedophiles, racists etc) who will abuse any system where greater freedoms of movement and communication are taken as a right: it is one of the defects of living in a modern democratic society (viz. recent events in Norway, again). But would we be prepared to sacrifice those freedoms for the sake of a few sick individuals?
Returning to Siegel and his attack on blogging, hasn’t he got all this about our ‘real identity’ a bit wrong? Having had his own mask pulled off, he wants no one else to have one, like a spoiled brat whose party prank went adrift. What is wrong with the wearing of masks? All of us do it all of the time, constantly removing and replacing masks at social events, in different relationships, even within the course of a single conversation. Not one of us remains intrinsically the same organism for very long, and besides, every cell in our body is routinely replaced, so that within a periodic span you are actually composed of distinct molecular matter. It is not necessary, as Western culture dictates (particularly in its insistence through religion and, subsequently, through psychotherapy) to be constantly striving to discover who is the ‘real me’ behind the mask: sufficient that we live a shifting, amorphous sequence of roles, one often leading into another, one more appropriate to a particular setting than another, but none of them in place merely to obscure something else, none of them out to prevent the ‘real me’ from struggling free in some kind of monotheistic melodrama in which the individual is God, and in which truth is absolute and inviolable. So I am happy to be Ricardo Blanco, even if at times he merges with the person known as Richard Gwyn. But Blanco also reserves the right within that broad persona (the Latin for mask) to give expression to his love of play and of carnival, to reveal from time to time his countless others, to give them free rein upon the earth, to send them forth to multiply merrily in the vaunted and limitless pastures of cyberspace.