I Am Visible, I Am An Image

I am very slowly making my way through Jean Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil, and I came across a quotation that I want to explore at some greater depth.  It occurs in an essay called, “Transsexuality”, a word that Baudrillard uses much more broadly than its usual sense.  As he draws his argument to a conclusion, he says, “Since it is no longer possible to base any claim on one’s own existence, there is nothing for it but to perform an appearing act without concerning oneself with being – or even with being seen.  So it is not:  I exist, I am here! but rather: I am visible, I am an image – look! look!  This is not even narcissism, merely an extraversion without depth, a sort of self-promoting ingenuousness whereby everyone becomes the manager of their own appearance.”

The book was originally published in 1990, well before the ubiquity of social media, but the phenomenon that Baudrillard describes has found a powerful expression in the ways that people present themselves online.  Social media are often described as a way for people to stay connected, but the kinds of connections that they provide are of the type that used to exist only between people and their media heroes – singers, actors, athletes, politicians, socialites – that is, connections between people and the images that some people are able to portray of themselves by means of media mediation.  We all know (or most of us do) that these connections are unreal, that they do not constitute relation in any real way.  We consume the images of these people.  We interest ourselves in them.  We do not know them.

The explosion of social media, however, allows us all to participate in that same mode of connection as well.  Now we too are able to use the media to create images of ourselves for the consumption of others.  Now we too consume the images that those we know create of themselves.  We appear to each other.  We manage our appearance for each other.  We do not even try to exist.  We only strive to be visible.  We emulate our media heroes, not by doing what they do, but by appearing as they appear, by being visible as they are visible.

Now, this appearing to each other is often (though perhaps less and less) complicated by the fact that we also know each other, not in our unmediated selves (which is always an impossibility), but in the selves that are not mediated by our social media — to use Baudrillard’s language, our appearing to be comes into conflict with our being seen.  This is an important distinction, at least to me, because it recognizes that although it is never possible for me to be to another, there is something worth striving for in allowing myself to be seen by others rather simply appearing for them.

I would say that on this distinction hangs the future of relation.

 

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7 comments
  1. I just finished Baudrillard’s Consumer Society last week. I think I will need to add some of his later works to my reading list as well. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    • jeremylukehill said:

      James,

      I have this love / hate thing with Baudrillard. I find much of what he does very interesting, but he has this way of thinking that I sum up as “the no longer” that really bothers me, where he seems to mark social shifts as total, epochal, irrevocable. Whenever I read him, I find myself saying, “Yes, but…” Anyway, I haven’t read Consumer Society. Did you enjoy it?

  2. Consumer Society is a quintessential, “Screw what economists say, here’s what’s really going on” piece of sociological theory. I did enjoy it, at least parts of it. I agree with your ‘love/hate’ analysis… At least for me, reading Baudrillard is an experience of, ‘Whoa!’, ‘Huh?’, and, ‘Oh, come on, really?’ (Often, all at the same time) But all told, he’s definitely provocative… at least, that is, assuming that I have a coherent grasp on what he’s actually trying to say. I’m skeptical of myself on this count, though – quite often.

    • jeremylukehill said:

      James,

      I’ve given up trying to have a truly coherent grasp on what Baudrillard and those like him are saying. I now settle for letting them provoke me, as you say. As long as I’m being provoked, I’m probably learning something, or that’s the hope.

      • This is good to hear. You are much smarter than I, so the fact that Baudrillard occasionally seems incoherent to you makes me feel much better. Here’s to learning!

  3. jeremylukehill said:

    James,

    You sell yourself short, but yes, here’s to learning.

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