People take pictures of each other

by Rob Horning

12 July 2007

 

A sentence in one of Walker Percy’s essays from The Message in the Bottle has had me thinking of this Kinks song: “People take pictures of each other, just to prove that they really existed.” It’s one of my favorite Kinks songs, partially for the crisp sound and perfect timing of the first snare drum hit in it, but mostly for the lyrics, which aren’t exactly cynical but close; there’s too much sadness in them to be entirely cynical. The verses end with this: “Pictures of things as they used to be, don’t show me no more, please.” For a song on an album album often accused of reveling in nostalgia, it’s a pretty stark sentiment. “The nostalgia is sickening,” these lines seem to say, “I’ve wasted my life being a spectator of myself.”

The sentence from the Percy essay comes after a discussion of the dilemma humans are confronted with in the modern era. Because science makes a general case out of all individual cases, and scientific discourse is regarded as the only authentic discourse, people find themselves to be inauthentic, recognized only insofar as they resemble other people. “This is why people in the modern age took photographs by the million: to prove despite their deepest suspicions to the contrary that they were not invisible.” This struck me as another way of understanding the overwhelming urge people have to mediate their lives through communication technology—recording themselves and their impressions in an endless stream of digital photos and blog posts and text messages and so on. The cell phone seems above all a portable self-mediation device, capable of recording anything and reliably putting people at a remove from whatever situation they find themselves in. In that way it works most of all like a security blanket, making sure one is never abandoned to naked reality, forced to really experience what is there and nothing more, with no ability to preserve it or project it in to the future, to put oneself in a position to consume it rather than experience it.

Percy makes a similar argument about tourism, that people surrender their sovereignty over interpreting what they experience in order to be able to consumer their own experience as something packaged, something storeable and fungible—we may secretly prefer experience as currency rather than something ineffable and irreplaceable. Or as Percy claims, we are made vaguely uneasy by the fact that we are deprived of our own ineffable life experience, but we are powerless (due to our habit of language) from preventing ourselves from commodifying everything. “The consumer is content to receive an experience just as it has been presented to him by theorists and planners,” Percy suggests. We consume representations and we remained estranged from things in themselves, and we judge experience in terms of how well its been translated into information—by what kind of story it would make, by whether others will be jealous, etc. I wonder if there are any alternatives, though

 

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