Of Giants and Ghosts
In a period of time too short for the culture to adapt, we have transitioned from scarcity to abundance in every form of media. No longer do we have to search for entertainment: we now have to actively avoid getting lost in an unending stream of pleasurable content.
Likewise, there has never been such ease in gathering virtually. We now have access to each other interpersonally, or in crowds millions strong, through technologies that reach everywhere and everyone.
Both of these developments ask questions that have become crucial for most of us: when is it appropriate to participate in media, and to what degree of self-representation? How can we avoid mediocre forms of live media, or the loss of control in our virtual lives?
This article is an attempt at defining a semantic field, and a description of harmful virtuality, to help with approaching those issues.
1. VIRTUAL COPRESENCE
We sometimes choose to join virtual events for which we limit or enhance our bodily presence for others, in accordance with our roles.
This mutual presence is mental if not physical. During a live show, both the mediator and the spectator are focused on the ongoing event (they are “immersed” in it) so intensely that they often cannot do anything else. They all feel they are “here, at this moment”, even in a virtual space.
In this form of media, there is a tendency towards maximizing the mediator’s presence with impressive technology, while that of the spectator is reduced to near-absence; often times their bodies are not physically nearby, and they only express themselves through messages, polls or lotteries, if at all. This implies a difference in the potential representation of intimacy.
This difference is not in itself unethical. If we are told a good story, we should become silent and allow it to proceed without bother, virtual or not. Indeed a justification for immersion, and the voluntary withdrawal of one’s body, lies in the quality of the media one is immersed in. In a way that often correlates with the mediator’s devotion, honesty and personal investment, some excellent media are beneficial for life, and even constitute a reason to traverse it.
Moreover, during these virtual events of a higher quality, the mediator’s intimacy is often withdrawn. The greatest performances are so made that they do not seem intrusive or misplaced; they immediately become self-evident because the mediator, buried deep beneath their immense technique, changes us without hurt. Everything in us that is made contingent or obsolete is immediately replaced by something that seems truer, without implying a power relationship with the mediator. To witness a great story is to be converted without having to submit.
2. INTIMATE MEDIA
However, because we can sometimes accept power and pain, we may find ourselves fascinated by media that represents the mediator’s intimacy, sometimes to an outrageous extent.
This kind of media, in which the intimate beauty (or lack thereof) of the mediator is sometimes the sole focus, has a distinct status in its participants’ lives; if the border of intimacy is crossed, live media becomes a partial simulation of a real social context in which the performer may display a larger portion of their intimacy than the spectator.
In these synthetic chambers, some humans achieve to produce a justification for such an unveiling or their intimate selves, for this personal sacrifice allows others to integrate their ways and become better. Such is the art of the spectacle: allowing one’s own alienation, discarding one’s right to private beauty, so that others may be brought together by it.
Some artists forge for themselves a sublime intimacy which, having replaced their own, makes them the pure receptacles of forms. To them, inducing a power relationship with their audience would be meaningless; they are rather creatures of their public, existing only through and for them. Indeed the only dispensable part of spectacle is the performer, for the audience can continue to exist without, or with another, spectacle.
And yet, there exists now a tendency towards a lack of sacrifice in fashioning the mediated body. A form of content is now being consumed by a great amount of people, in which are shown the most mundane of activities or discussions. Often, the audience is led to participate in these activities themselves in a reduced form; they eat while watching a dinner livestream, or they contribute to the chat, but always in a context where there is unequal representation of their intimacy, as well as a greater amount of power wielded by the mediator to decide over their presence. The latter has a varying status in regards to their audiences: some streamers are gurus, others are laughingstocks, but always the absolute center of attention.
In extreme cases (some of those livestreams can last for an entire day), these formats become near perfect simulations of a physical coexistence which fully integrates this variable representation of intimacy and possession of power. While the influencer is here by mind, image, voice, physical context (and soon, hopefully, odor), the audience member is reduced to a pseudonym and a strictly moderated textual interface. And while the streamer has complete control over who is authorized in this intimate space, the audience member can only come and leave, and hope to remain in the streamer’s good grace if they have something to say.
If this kind of media (which is very easy to produce) were to generalize, our society could become that of the permanent mediation of faked everyday life with varying rights to intimate representation. Our means of corporeal presence would always be either limited or enhanced, and those most willing to permanently live a travesty of intimacy, a life by proxy in a projection of their own normality, will hold the power to reduce the bodies of their enthralled audience.
To move away from this archipelago of pseudo-intimate dictatorships, we should follow two hygienic principles in our relationship to media:
- First, to always ask for quality in media such as can only be produced by rare and devoted artists; the principle of delicate spectacle
- Second, to chose not to participate in those situations where intimacy and power are unequally distributed when lacking such an occasion for spectacle: the principle of equal virtual intimacy
3. DELICATE SPECTACLE
To prevent our submission to unworthy spectacle, we might think of a complete penetration of each other’s intimacy, through discarding any media technology and living in the here and now, with each other’s truthful bodies, at all times. But this anti-media ideal ignores the fact that there is a legitimate joy in consuming media; that of escaping such a permanent bodily presence of others, which is often unbearable, and for a brief moment experiencing sameness.
In striving for this balanced consumption of media, here are two properties we should look for:
Quality: The amount of intimacy and power one temporarily surrenders to witness that of any mediator should be proportional to the quality of the spectacle that is made easier by this surrender.
Scarcity: One should define for themself a qualitative measure for such spectacles that allows them both to spend time away from spectacle, and to have enough time to consume all of the spectacle that qualifies beyond this measure.
We may then summarize those properties in a single adage: The norms for media consumption should be quality and scarcity; media must be a delicacy.
4. EQUAL INTIMATE ACCESS AND REPRESENTATION
In real relationships, there exists an ideal towards consensual access to intimacy. We might want access to some people and some people might want access to us, the only issue being that we agree to grant this access, even if it is not mutual.
Relationships of a social nature, meaning that they are based on nothing but the sake of being with the other, should also strive for equality in access to intimacy. Indeed if a difference in access exists, and no exterior reason justifies this unequal access, the relationship often becomes that of constraint; if one is allowed to see, to touch, to hurt, to be charmed by the other and the other is not, then one may become a voyeur, or a bully, or a groupie, or a victim.
It follows that, in the absence of a worthwhile performance by one of them, all participants of a virtual room should mediate the same amount of intimacy and possess the same amount of power in regards to their own presence and that of the others.
When witnessing live media, let us ask; if the other is here for us, are we also here for them? And are we both here to the same degree? If not, is there a good reason for this unequal representation? And if not, why are we here?
If equal access to intimacy dictates a healthy social relationship, so should it dictate any attempt at virtualizing such a relationship. Just as in real life, there is no legitimacy in asking for someone to reduce themselves in speech or physical appearance, if we have nothing of value to offer in return. The world’s shift to the digital should not — as it sometimes does now- mean a shift towards a loss of our rights to shared intimacy; rather it should allow for its extension, beyond physical limits, by means of projecting our bodies, our voices, our love, to our chosen significant and coequal others.
Image Credits :
Britain’s Got Talent, Kevin Mazur, Paul Thomas Anderson, Getty Images, Disney, HBO, Proflowers, Ruslan Nesterenko, Midjourney, Antoine Daniel