To whom it may concern
“I felt like telling them, I appreciate a joke as much as anybody. There have been many occasions in my life when I have wanted to say that. But it’s not a thing people are willing to accept. They want you to be a little bit apart.” –Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
So, in my quest to move from an actual existence towards something more virtual, I’ve started making friends on Facebook. (I’ll be returning to Friendster shortly, probably in August when the days get long and empty.) A bunch of my Facebook friends are from Andover, and one of them just wrote on my Facebook “wall” to warn me that I’ve apparently been discovered on myspace by students at Andover. My myspace profile, for anyone who’s truly curious, leads to this blog; a creative Internet user can also turn up Acephalous and RateMyProfessors.com. (As well as several other people using versions of my alias on ebay.com and so on.) The colleague who sent the warning had one of those nutty myspace profiles with flashing lights and quotes about drinking — not anymore. She immediately deleted her account after hearing about it from her students.
I can see how a vice-tastic profile would be an embarrassment. Assuming your profile is just a bunch of aphorisms and “favorites” lists, though, the alternative is a carefully guarded privacy for the sake of a purely professional reception — which is different kind of image, one designed to be without depth. That is the consequence of this sort of paradigm shift: refusing to join in the play of representations is only interpretable as another sort of move.
Still, we have to let go of the idea that students will only encounter teachers in professional settings. They will end up at the same shopping malls, and in many cases will be shopping for identical products. (Each year at Andover I end up hanging out with students at the New Hampshire Apple Store.) They are hugely curious about their teachers’ personal lives, because they are curious about adulthood and the benefits of education.
I’m sure this curiosity has always existed, but the new twist is that modern media and communications technology is eroding the line between celebrity culture and regular community. The phenomenon of students finding your myspace profile is only a minor variation on the theme of transparency. In my view, Foucault was more or less wrong to try to stem the tide of invasions of privacy. (He was right where his insights apply to legislation. I am hugely opposed to the Patriot Act and other violations of civil liberties. I use the parentheses as a cage for boring disclaimers.) Many of the best artworks of the postmodern era have been, at least in part, efforts to make public what is embarassingly private.
Therefore you have the admission of geekiness: Napoleon Dynamite, Rushmore, the Brat Pack movies, Nick Hornby, David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, Weezer
The admission of sexuality: American Pie, Secretary, Portnoy’s Complaint, Clerks, Avenue Q, Cinerama, American Beauty
The admission of being depressed and suicidal: Nine Inch Nails, Sylvia Plath, Edward Scissorhands, Chuck Palahniuk, Xiu Xiu, Happiness
Guilty pleasures: Mean Girls, “Toxic,” heavy metal music, chic lit, idiotic magazines, PBR
One thus finds committed artists hammering away at conventional definitions of propriety by making risky art (or inexpensive but prize-winning beer). In fact, I’d be hard put to name one great film or novel of the last decade that doesn’t have an element of calculated confession. Increasingly, the only thing that can’t be successfully “confessed” is sentimentality. Being corny is unforgivable.
Not all sentiment is corny, I should add. The old starting infield of love, faith, and revenge were tied to acts of courtship, penitence, and destruction — but modern confession takes place in the aesthetic void of storytelling, in which the sin has already been committed. One never confesses that one is going to dye one’s hair black, or attend ComiCon.
Which means that if you believe, as I do, that transparency will be a necessary concomitant of new and better communities, perhaps we need to move to reclaim sentiment and idealistic action as legitimate modes of access, along with all the amusing and forgivable secrets.
One last thought: none of this matters unless one can overcome the leveling effect of illusory knowledge of another person based on their patterns of consumption. Even the students who haven’t surfed myspace want to thumb through my iPod, but when they do, and we have two hundred records in common, they hand it back to me without another word.