via. Modern Mythology.
Have you ever thought about how you will vanish from the world?
If you do, you might appreciate an immediate irony in that our digital simulacra are the very things we’d need to delete to disappear from the world. Being shut offline has a different significance now than it did even just 10 years ago. What does that deletion actually mean, and more importantly, what lies under the anxiety that would drive us to “delete ourselves” in the first place? If virtual deletion silences the real, can we finally say the one has subsumed the other — or more accurately, can we rather say that virtual and real has been shown as it really is, a false binary?
Like Debord says in Society of the Spectacle, only the spectacle is real, only the performance of identity is a “real” identity. (And if, like clothes, you buy them at Hot Topic you shouldn’t be surprised if the fall to shreds in a week). Only that which is recorded and presented has presence.
Pics or it didn’t happen.
Our irl world, more often than not, is just a sea of strange faces floating by as we huddle aboard a subway car, illuminated by the lights of their phone screens — the “real” world mirrored back, and mediated by the true symbol for the self, not our body but the device in your hand. (Because all symbols lie in the intersection of signifier and sign). The real, then, is under your fingers, not just behind your eyes. (And perhaps, moreso.) That is, of course, assuming we can speak seriously anymore of reality.
irl is an Internet neologism — though not so new, really, in a world where last week is ancient history — “in real life”, that I’ll be using mostly because rather than implying some “realer reality” in our bodies and minds, it is instead a reflection back from the so-called digitized virtual. In other words, it is all that is not a digital other. Neither more nor less real, just a different way that we interact with the world and one another. The “return to irl” is not a Luddite fantasy, a “nature” that has been corrupted by the digital. When we shut ourselves offline, we do not regain some unity with the silent heart of the world. We are, instead, barred from the village.
We still have to recognize the significance of this process, which is so easily rendered banal as any technology — like water to a fish. We live at least partially inside a distributed network, where identity is performance and history is forever forgetful of itself. Online, if you don’t speak, you vanish.
For many of us, ties and boundaries and identities sculpted by long histories have already been cut. We have already started the process of irl disappearing. Forgetting always happens as minds are erased, but stories can keep these things alive — who I am, who we are, what our meaning is. We’ve come untethered, and this is a part of what was once meant by the end of history. Let’s call it, instead, a death.
The death of History is a joke.
But what’s a joke that forgets itself before it gets to the punchline? That is how history ends. This calls to mind the scope, if not the breadth of Kundera’s writing, without ever coming to a succinct conclusion — The joke that is the death of history is rendered insignificant before it is even forgotten. (The Joke, the Festival of Insignificance, Book of Laughter and Forgetting, in conceptual rather than chronological order).
Can a People define themselves by the memes they remember from their childhood? Bronies demand recognition of their culture, Jedi demand religious protection. Maybe they can, but it doesn’t bode well for the content of that communal memory. And none of these provide the things that community is meant to.
Sometimes I get the urge to delete every sign of me that I can — to run from it and try to create some bastion of irl reality. Something with the feel of bedrock under it. “Get off the Internet for good, it’s been co-opted anyway”. The Internet was once a counterculture, and as I’ve written, the future of a counterculture is either obsolescence, to be co-opted, or to manage to outrun the transition from one to the other, if you can manage to surf that edge, and don’t mind living on the fringe forever, while those behind you cash in.
Well, now it’s the main spectacle. And identity, like everything else in late capitalism, is both performance and commodity, or it isn’t anything at all.
If you flee it all, delete what you can and reclaim the material, what have you done but lock yourself away from the rest of the world? Maybe a cell is also a form of freedom, in such a topsy turvy world. But what will you do there, exactly? The fits and starts life demands, if nothing else, constant distraction and dissociation. The Internet is well wedded to that, even if it wasn’t purpose built. “Don’t worry,” they say, when you shut off your Facebook the 12th time. “They’ll be back.”
And who are “a People” when identity is purely performance? No such thing. We’re all isolated islands, receiving and sending those messages, and yearning for something they can never fully satisfy — a present reality that can be controlled and curated like the virtual can.
We want both. We get neither.
So, why would we ever want to delete ourselves? That’s the question, though it’s a question I consider and then often put aside. Instead, I find myself still scribbling messages in bottles, without any real expectation of their being opened. Fragments of identity bob along like flotsam, friend and stranger means the same thing and that makes whisper down the lane all the easier. (By “bottles” I’m talking especially of larger cargo, novels, but also the novel length tracts of signifier and sign that we have left over a lifetime now across countless social sites — a curated identity and history that is not the life we’ve lived, not quite an echo or even a reflection, but something quite else.)
Barthes wonders in this direction with his essay, “Death of the Author.” We might not wonder at our intentionality with a text, when we recognize that by building a book, we are trying to build sense. We’re trying to cocoon and thereby save what in ourselves can ever be saved. I’ve written books because it’s the only way I know how to fight meaninglessness. But once it is adrift in that ocean, the problem remains, and in a sense, heightens the anxiety. (And here I am speaking to a generalized kind of anxiety that many of us seem to be experiencing, more than a personal or particular sort.)
All those bottles are adrift in a sea of noise.
Doubtless a real relationship can happen between many photograph and screen names. But what relationship do those doubles share with our inner life, and what do either share with the bumbling idiots we encounter in ourselves and one another should we chance to meet? “Do you even irl, bro?” I hardly do, myself.
Ultimately, those urges to delete all our doubles and vanish everything that can be erased tend to pass, not because “it gets better,” but because it wouldn’t actually change anything. Without even the facsimile of a shared history, and common referent that goes beyond shared pop-cultural reference, our masks are just chattering at one another, repeating some kind of instinctual script. But under the masks, we find nothing except more signs; “it’s sign and symbol all the way down, man.” Performance is not only play, it is an obligatory part of our social existence. Even the gesture of nihilism remains a performance.
“Seems,” madam? Nay, it is; I know not “seems.”
’Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
Extending this line of thought to our need to socialize, and the rise of distributed networks, the image of the Net of Indra comes to mind, but I won’t belabor that point. After all, if any of this is true, what is really the sense of sending out more of these “messages in a bottle”? Why curate an identity or build a world of words? Because of that very hunger that ceaselessly and restlessly seeks something in the world to reflect back at us, and convince us that our nonexistence is existence, and that something in this has meaning. It is a game we play, I tell you that you are real, and you do the same for me. We can’t possibly do that for ourselves.
If you are aware that meaning is a manner of performance, it is at best a seduction–two lies told to create one truth, at least for tonight–then you can continue that seduction, even though you recognize it will vanish on light of day (much like a bunch of club kids when the sun rises). Or you can stop the dance.