We all live through the eyes of others; usually infinite sets of anonymous eyes, sometimes a multitude of known ones, or a limited beloved set. Regardless of their numbers or kind, they do not only spy on us, but also shape our character. We are inevitably and viscerally aware of their gaze, and from early childhood, learn to know ourselves as we are seen by others.
I recently found an old home video, taken when I was around five years old. It is a sunny hour in an ivy clad garden. A little girl in a white blouse and black pinafore is smiling and waving from a porch. There is something disturbing in that gesture, as if it is the last farewell of a long-lost twin caught on camera. Her face is eerily similar to mine and yet she is an entirely different person in a different body with someone else’s memories, desires, and possessions.
Memory smoothens our constant metamorphosis and resurrects the past through the present. It gives us the illusion of control over our image and that illusion assures us that we possess an immortal soul. For centuries, this illusion of a consistent “self” worked because, except for an occasional glimpse in the mirror, we were not able to see ourselves as we are seen. Only a privileged few could commission a portrait, and even that was often a depiction of the patron’s preferred image of himself—so that when Elizabeth I looked at her coronation portrait she saw only a “sincere” depiction of the sovereign, not an idealized rendition of a long-deceased doppelgänger.
I’m borrowing the term “sincere” here from Lionel Trilling, to describe a form of living and performing under the gaze of a sea of anonymous yet omnipresent eyes. It reminds me of my mother’s not so unique obsession with furnishing our apartments. My childhood was a succession of these rented apartments; rooms which, emptied of their last occupant’s possessions, laid vacant and white. I loved to walk past the bare windows and watch lights and shadows play on endless walls. My mother, frightened by the anonymity and impermanence of these spaces, immediately filled every corner and crevice with furniture that seemed to pulse with a mute life.
She was raised in my grandparents’ house, where French windows were covered with heavy velvet curtains and large crystal chandeliers hung from high ceilings. The decadent furniture and architecture gave a false impression that the family was wealthier than it was. They were misers; an odd bunch with a penchant for memory and its paraphernalia.
Their house was built on a compulsion. Every room held a certain fragment of the past. Whether in form of a still functioning rotary phone, or a golden fin de siècle samovar, every layer of the family property was dusted, cleaned and left where it belonged. Memories, like spirits, inhabited every object and structure. To dispose of these shells, one would immolate a beloved sister or son.
Like some bacteria that degenerates and ferments into disease, an obsession grew out of this compulsion. Bohemian crystals and silver flowers were no longer only relics of the dead but reminders that each person, like an impression left on the old chair he sat on or the antique carpet he trod on, was an extension of his clan. They gradually learnt not only to enact the roles they had inherited, but believe them to be true without alternative, and determined by nature.
What validates this belief is not only the obsession with the past, or taking comfort in a family narrative, but the morality attached to it. To be “sincere”, one does not have to be only true to his role as a good father, a good priest, or a good sportsman; he has to communicate his ethical commitment to this role through value judgment. There is nothing wrong with the role, there is everything wrong with our inability to perform as well as expected. So, under the ever-present burning gaze of a multitude of known and unknown eyes, our very desires and passions form through this enactment and seem to be valid because they also seem morally correct under the terms of “sincerity.”
We practice and perform until the roles become second-nature to us, and our certain desires—wanting to marry, become a parent, or be a dutiful daughter—feel not part of the performance, but our very own. The eyes that follow us through our most arbitrary tasks make it difficult to think deeply about our choices and judgement. The sincere mother is overjoyed by the thought of a baby that will soon fill the newly painted room, and beautifully crafted crib. She will love her baby as a sincere mother should, but the baby rarely grows into a man in this sweet daydream in the nursery. When he is born, he shows little interest in the numerous toys and colourful cute clothes that surround him and might instead enjoy playing with the broom or a wooden ladle. But the nursery in its soft baby colours, with its plush animals must exist just as the baby must have been born. They all comfort the mother, they make her the mother.
But what happens if the baby grows and instead of practicing his role to perfection, find a paradox in “sincerity?” What if he thinks sincerity with its contradictory demand to regard external roles as innate is in fact insincere? What happens when he realizes that his whole existence, the reason for his birth, was to satisfy his parents’ conscious or unconscious desire for fulfilling their role? He looks in the mirror and sees a mask covering up something else. Once more, following Lionel Trilling, I will call this “something else”, authenticity: “the idea that somewhere under all the roles there is Me, that poor old ultimate actuality, who, when all the roles have been played, would like to murmur ‘Off, off, you lendings!’ and settle down with his own original actual self.”
And so, with this epiphany, a new life under a different set of eyes begins. Now we must learn to be authentic, not only to be true to “ourselves” but to be good, honest, interesting. I used to work with a rare books librarian whose whole life and persona was orchestrated on this idea. The books he liked to collect and study, the little-knowns bars and distilleries he frequented, or his outstanding beard and ties all made him “authentic,” only if an observer or a listener was present to admire. He is by no means unique in that respect. A whole subculture is created by rejecting what is popular and adopting what is obscure, or less desired.
Like sincerity, authenticity is paradoxical. One has to imitate others to become authentic and like the rare books librarian practice his “authenticity” with rebuilding his supposedly consistent innate self, following a certain set of rules while disobeying others, so he can validate himself to others. All the while pretending that he is not creating this “self” but is discovering and embracing it.
Authenticity is rarely thought of as a careful confluence of ideas, of not merely rejecting or adopting a practice, garment, or belief in relation and in the eyes of others. Seldom does a person dissociate himself from these patterns, and what loneliness emerges out of this dissociation!
But despite all the flaws and paradoxes, these ideas work in making us content and busy. They enforce the illusion that we are in control, and hide the incongruity and multifariousness of our existence. When we look in the mirror, we are no longer disturbed by the changing body we inhabit and did not choose, or inner thoughts and experiences that are largely beyond our control. We firmly believe we own the face in the mirror and see the alternative as a symptom of madness.
Then the camera snaps, and the dream fades away. The little girl on the porch waves, and an indefinable unsettling something slips into our confidence. Like flesh gathering around a splinter, nostalgia rectifies the feeling to some degree. With sentimentality coating every surface of the screen, we feel a certain compassion for the child in the video. In her white blouse and black pinafore, she is a sincere girl. We search for the early signs of authenticity, or connect her certain mannerisms and demeanour to our current ones. At last, we can relax. The child on the screen is not dead and our own soul is looking back at us through her eyes.
Confronted by this new perspective, we look for a better way to breathe life into the child. The camera captures our incongruity, the eyes under which we were shaped and died and shaped again. It reveals our utter lack of control. The child is a subplot in her parents’ life, her clothes, her smile, have little in common with our current image. Our current lovers, friends, admired cultural icons through whose gaze our current soul is flourishing have no connection to those who have made the little girl in the video.
We are filled with shame and hide the photo albums or laugh and patronize our past “selves.” But it is impossible to bury the ghosts, we cannot laugh for long, and the nostalgia vanishes as our memory fails us. That is when what Hans-Georg Moeller and PJ D’Ambrosia call “profilicity” presents itself as the best solution.
The obsession with fulfilling our social roles or becoming authentic, and our obsession with being right, good, and liked in each of those contexts now extends itself to the clicking of the camera. We take pictures with a new anxiety and awareness that we can now be seen by others as we like to be seen. Our pictures cover our living room walls, our bedside, our fridge. Faces smile widely across years or decades and we smile back. Our faces are now part of the furniture, our carefully curated past is part of our identity.
Profilicity is by no means solely the product of an age of social media and technology. Every time we apply for a new job, we create a new profile or “identity” for ourselves. We exaggerate certain traits and experiences, tailor our gestures, words, hair, and dress to match the job posting. We are aware of its artificiality, and yet we know we must create this picture to get the job.
The difference between a job profile and a more personal one is that we gradually perceive the latter’s choreographic nature as “natural.” Beautiful landscapes, sceneries, and even political marches and protests become backdrops to this profile. We don’t inhabit these spaces but capture them, sometimes with ourselves at the centre, sometimes implicitly inserted in them. Like our clothes and furniture, these spaces become part of us and are only interesting or relevant because they create a certain “aesthetic” that we vehemently believe is in some way “unique” to us.
Moeller and D’Ambrosia trace this idea of “internet aesthetic” to the Romantic concept of “the Picturesque.” The average Regency traveler often searched for a Turner or a Constable in his journeys to the continent. Instead of measuring the beauty of a landscape in itself, our traveler compared it with its artistic representation. The closer the landscape looked to the grand Romantic paintings, the more perfect it became. The representation of places, people, and emotions took precedent over their “essence,” or what is left unexpressed.
With profilicity, we can and sometimes are expected to hide certain aspects of ourselves to create an image. Unlike sincerity and authenticity, no shame or guilt is attached to this act. We do not feel as though we cannot perform a natural role to perfection or are oppressing part of our authentic self. We edit and embellish a profile that includes our past, our political leanings, our romantic inclinations, our friendships, our city, and our room, all culminated in our social media “aesthetic.” It does not only make us feel “unique” but—in once more, a paradoxical sense—make us belong to a group. A group whose connections are underlined by their profile, by their carefully represented image to each other and to themselves.
When the real faces age, the smiling figures in the picture do not seem alien to them. They look and smile, the figures in the picture look back and smile until the real people all perish one by one.
And what happens to these faces, now left naked in a mortuary? Stripped of their bookshelves, desks, dresses and shoes, their decaying bodies do not belong to them. A dead body is nobody’s property. Drawers and drawers full of festering flesh cover the mortuary’s walls and the phantom of their last frozen mask fades into the impersonal rot of the carcass.
I loved to walk past the bare windows and watch lights and shadows play on endless walls. My mother, frightened by the anonymity and impermanence of these spaces, immediately filled every corner and crevice with furniture that seemed to pulse with a mute life.