The heat came on hard and fast. It’s been 90 or close enough for three days straight, the air heavy with moisture. You’d swear you can feel its weight. Something else to carry. I don’t mind, really, so long as I don’t think about minding. See how that works?
My summer reading thus far has consisted of the occasional New Yorker article, the back issues of the Sun my mother loaned me, and Chris Hedges’s book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. (Our subscription to Harper’s ran out and I keep forgetting to re-up, otherwise that’d be in there, too).
I like Hedges’s work. Or I like his thinking, at least. He doesn’t pull any punches, and Empire of Illusion is no different. It’s about how the cult of celebrity and other mass media, pop culture offerings only serve to distract us from the real issues of our private lives and society. It reminds me of an ongoing conversation Michael and I have been having, snatches of conversation between the swinging of hammers and the sawing of lumber (this is how conversation works on a job site, in little stilted passages that are dropped off and picked up again as the clamor allows), about the ways in which social media undermine our sense of self-worth. Neither of us spends much time online (though myself more than him, that’s for sure), but enough to have a feel for the terrain. Enough to understand that the people who get the most attention in social media spheres are generally the most attractive, the funniest, most clever. The ones with the particular skill of making their lives appear effortlessly beautiful and fulfilling.
I’ve read that there’s a correlation between time spent online and depression, and I always figured it was mostly because being online is a sedentary habit. In my experience, there’s not much like sitting and passively staring at a screen to bring on the blues (I think there is a distinction to be made between passive computer use and the use of the computer as a tool for creativity). But I’m starting to wonder if the issue is only partly physical, and also (if not mostly) the inevitable self-assessing we do in relation to the endless stream of beautiful images of beautiful people and their beautiful lives.
I cringe a little inside when people tell me they live vicariously through my words and Penny’s pictures. I mean, maybe it’s ok. Maybe it’s feeding something in them that can’t be fed otherwise, maybe it’s a coping mechanism, or simple escapism. We all need a little simple escapism in our lives, myself included. And lord knows I try hard to make this space more than just something to look at, something to admire, or even aspire to.
I guess what I’m saying is (and I’ve said it before): Recognize the two-dimensionality of this space and, by default, the superficiality of the entire sphere of social media. Remember that no one’s life is effortless. Everyone struggles. Everyone is, on some level or another, ordinary, with all the ordinary flaws and quirks of human character. If you were here right now, you’d see the chaos of our kitchen, the dirty footprints on its floor. You’d see the dirty clothes piled behind my office chair, the dust bunnies in the corner. No, not bunnies: Lions. Roaring lions of dust and debris. You’d hear me singing REO Speedwagon’s Ridin’ the Storm Out, and then, you’d hear Penny tell me to kindly shut the hell up. Only she wouldn’t say “hell.” (I got a letter berating me for my use of the word “fuck,” which is maybe a topic for another day). Later, at the job, you might overhear my wife and I bickering over some minor, perceived slight. Or maybe it won’t be minor. Maybe it won’t be perceived.
Empire of Illusion was published in 2009, before the rise of Twitter and Instagram and all the other platforms we can use to create illusions of our own. Everything Hedges said then seems doubly apropos now, and it seems to me as if there’s no end in sight, perhaps because our culture’s hunger for illusion is insatiable. Of course, this means it is also profitable.
I always like it when I can close on a witticism, or some particularly profound observation. Alas, today again the air is hot and heavy, my wit worn thin by list of tasks before me and those already completed. So I guess all I’ll say is this: Beware the two-dimensionality of this medium. Indeed, beware the ways in which this medium cultivates two-dimensionality, and, not-inconsequently, foments our own feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction in the perceived ordinariness of our lives. Though the truth is, of course, that your life, just like mine, is ordinary. And that’s perfectly ok.
Remember, even, that synonyms for vicarious include secondhand, derivative, surrogate, substitute. There are many, many ways to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. But I’m pretty sure that these are not some of them.