Culture

Social-media psychodrama

The word psychodrama may seem like teenage slang invented ad hoc to label any of the number of quintessentially adolescent situations deriving from a failure of emotional perspective, or to describe the praxis of "drama queens" who perpetuate such behavior into putative adulthood. But actually the word was coined by group psychologist Jacob Moreno to describe the technique of having patients act out their emotional conflicts onstage through a number of therapeutic acting exercises so that the audience can assess them and give the patient a sense of how their conflicts are seen from an "objective" point of view. (One of the strangest and perhaps most telling things about my high school was its Psychodrama club, whose uncomfortable performances constituted some of the strangest assemblies I can remember experiencing -- bizarro-world pep rallies of the unconscious.)

Art critic Donald Kuspit, in the introduction to his most recent essay collection, uses the term to describe the general practice of the contemporary artist."The modern artist and her audience are implicitly in a group therapeutic relationship, that is, the artist acts out her emotional problems and conflicts in front of the audience." Citing the dearth of metanarratives that once kept us sane, Kuspit posits the artist, like the rest of us apparently, as inherently unwell mentally, someone whose purpose in making art is to mitigate personal emotional problems through works that almost incidentally prompt an audience to the critical consciousness that allows it to deliver therapeutic healing. Art pieces are nebulous expressions of emotionality that the audience, in its heightened sense of objectivity and clear perception, comprehends and puts into ordinary words, thereby solving the conflicts embedded in the work, making them amenable to more routine, conscious manipulation. "The critical audience completes the artist’s translation of her disturbed subjectivity into art by translating the art into a socially objective language."

This process is akin to what sociologist Eva Illouz calls emotional capital -- a facility with handling emotions so as to turn them to account. Illouz details the ways in which the middle-class habitus conserves the social power that adheres in being able to talk about feelings in a persuasive way -- how this preserves families under stress, smooths over work frictions, enables one to succeed in the managerial class. Art, if Kuspit's representation of it is correct, has become a procedure for building emotional capital.

Yet some artists are less intent on building the audience's emotional capital than enhancing their reflexive sense of their own aesthetic integrity. Kuspit differentiates between artists who perform the psychodrama successfully and those who intentionally short-circuit the process:

“Authentic” art – cognitively convincing as well as emotionally exciting art – is art that has therapeutic results, in the sense of affording some objectivity on the emotional problems and conflicts the artist and audience unconsciously share, which is why it has universal appeal.

But if the artist acts out her emotional problems and conflicts simply to expressively expel them, that is, without wanting to gain objective understanding of them, then she is performing for her omnipotent self alone. She has no need for an understanding audience, because she doesn’t want to be understood: she wants to mystify. She doesn’t want to help herself, or be helped by the audience, but proclaim her uniqueness. Her emotional problems and conflicts are unusual and unsolvable, the audience’s are ordinary and easily solved. And she can act them out, but the audience is too inhibited to do so, which makes her even more superior to it. She confuses her audience because she expects nothing from it – not the slightest understanding – even as she strips herself emotionally naked in front of it.

Naturally, this reminded me of performativity on Facebook and Twitter. I wonder what sort of artists those media make of us, or if the media can be shaped to suit our quasi-artistic ends, be they selfish or not.

When I first tried to think of what to put in a status update, I could only approach it in the manner of Kuspit's bad artists; I wanted to write things that would baffle anybody who bothered to read them. I thought I would try to freak everybody out. I was going to "act out," in the therapy sense of the phrase, and try to offend and alienate people, thereby proving how square they are, how little they are capable of understanding where I am coming from. My updates would be for my own amusement; like the great Individual Artist that Oscar Wilde and other aesthetes postulated and deified, I would write to please only myself.

I wish I could blame Facebook for instilling this logic in me: Plotting outrageous things to write, I intended to use Facebook as a "lying mirror," as Kuspit puts it, to reflect back to me my self-importance, which depends on blotting out other people's actual indifference and allowing myself to believe that I have transcended them. The lying mirror lets me see their ignoring me as proof of my genius. The more alienating I am, the more I appreciate myself, for as long as that sort of farce is sustainable. Eventually, I imagine, the sheer unmitigated fact of loneliness makes it untenable. I'm not sure, though, because in the end I opted not to put any status updates on Facebook at all. In Kuspit's terms, I refused to attempt "authentic" gestures, refused the "aesthetic transmutation" of my psychic unrest through sharing my unrefined emotional ore and having it collectively processed.

This analysis suggests that typical Facebook usage, the good-faith sharing that is meant to please and delight one's friends or that reaches out for their help to assuage loneliness, is akin to genuine art, or least genuine, efficacious psychodrama. That conforms with the occasional reports one sees about therapists observing their patients' social media usage and encouraging it. But it also suggests to me why I find logging on to Facebook somewhat overwhelming, as though I am being thrust into a group-therapy session with everyone I've ever known.

Then again, the Last Psychiatrist offers a different perspective in his discussion of a New York Times story about a couple who "found love at the wrong time" -- i.e. while married to other people. This didn't stop them from divorcing and marrying each other and announcing it in the Style section.

Putting their otherwise quite shameful story in the NYT wasn't dumb, poor judgment, or even damaging to their reputations no matter how many people end up hating them. It was necessary to their own emotional survival. As long as you hate them for it, they don't have to hate themselves.

This also seems like an apt description of how broadcasting the self on social media works. People who say embarrassing or revealing things in updates may not be naive psychodramatic artists, but they also aren't clueless about how they come across or particularly shameless. They are instead offshoring their shame online.


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