“For a society in which art no longer has a place and which is pathological in all its reactions to it, art fragments on one hand into a reified, hardened cultural possession and on the other into a source of pleasure that the customer pockets and that for the most part has little to do with the object itself.” – Theodor Adorno – “Aesthetic Theory”
I began to experience uncomfortable feelings about the social photo sharing application Instagram after roughly 2 years of using the service. Observing my behavior, I felt like I was selecting images to share with ever-increasing care and scrutiny. At the same time, I found myself going back and deleting older photos for somewhat arbitrary reasons – either they did not meet my “aesthetic standards” or I felt that they revealed too much of me, or perhaps just the wrong parts of me.
I also spend an inordinate amount of time just looking at the more than 250 photos I had shared during my time on the service. It felt a bit like looking at a picture of myself; the glass of whiskey after a difficult day, the photos explicitly in “other” places, they all seemed like signposts that said something about me – a way to tell people who I was.
With time and habituation, I believe we begin to believe we can see ourselves in the images we share. Yet our mirror lies to us, our artifice, once conceived and created for the consumption of others becomes an affectation that blurs the lines between the real self and the contrived self.
In August of 2012 I deleted my Facebook account for reasons too detailed to go into here, suffice it to say I felt uncomfortable with they way I (and others) use these services: under the false pretense that we are sharing ourselves, willingly facilitating observation of the minutia of each other’s lives, we fabricate a pernicious, inescapable alter ego that governs what’s deemed worthy of broadcast.
Transposed from plain, ordinary reality into a kind of detached “theater of reality”, the voyeur becomes simply a viewer. Removing the voyeur’s veil of secrecy and placing them directly in front of the subject to be consumed alters the behavior of the subject – the exhibitionist no longer walks nude in their living room waiting for an audience not guaranteed, instead they man the peep show booth, waiting for the curtain to rise.
This is a different intangible audience from the one that censors our words when we write in a diary, for fear that someday our journal entries be discovered and our skeletons and secrets be revealed. This audience is implicit, present in the very nature of the medium. This implicit audience bothered me – the constant imposition prevented me from any kind of authentic use of the service.
Within the larger aesthetic framework of society, I would argue that the message here is not the image itself, but the subtext that comes with it. When we consider the real role of these images and their place in our increasingly visual culture, what at first blush appears to be self-expression is really more an aspirational outline drawn by the user.
The image’s ability to convey information is the same as in documentary photographs of the horrors of war as in selfies and Sunday brunches; that is to say in order for these images to convey any information, they would need to be separated from the platform that provides their context, externalized from the voyeuristic juxtaposition of viewer and creator.
In reference to images of American soldiers torturing Iraqis, Baudrillard said the images in question offered us “Truth but not veracity: it does not help to know whether the images are true or false. From now on and forever we will be uncertain about these images.”
The experience of selecting and displaying an image in an act of calculated artifice (disguised as a kind of self portraiture or sharing of the self) inevitably leads us to a place where we doubt the veracity of all the images we see on Instagram and services like it. This is what happened to me. The more I realized how inauthentic, calculated and artificial my use of the image had become, the less I was able to consume the images shared by others with any sense of pleasure.
Out of context, an Instagram image becomes void of any explicit meaning – it cannot be parsed into the larger framework of consumerist exhibitionism without having the user’s name attached. But, when we place the same image into a user’s “stream”, the duplicitous intent behind the genesis of the image’s existence is revealed; it exists not only to convey aesthetic information but rather to offer the markers with which the implicit audience can categorize and understand the creator’s rank, place and status, aspirational or otherwise within a capitalist, consumerist society.
Lotringer says in The Piracy of Art that “Now, duplicity is transparent. Who today could boast having any integrity?”
Certainly not I.