“I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there's a pair of us?
Don't tell! they'd advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one's name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!”
― Emily Dickinson
“Oh, the places you'll go! There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball
will make you the winning-est winner of all.
Fame! You'll be as famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.
Except when they don't
Because, sometimes they won't.
I'm afraid that some times
you'll play lonely games too.
Games you can't win
'cause you'll play against you.”
― Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You'll Go!
The whole aim of the world is to be known, to be seen. We all want to be held in another’s gaze, recognized, considered, affirmed, and acknowledged. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, and even Myspace. All the likes, the status updates, the comments, the notifications, all are simply a means to see and to be seen. This human need is taken to a pathological degree in our celebrity culture where people will do just about anything to be seen, to be acknowledged, no matter what the reason, whether notorious or ignoble. In 2019 the individual, which once was at the forefront of American ideals, has been overwhelmed. The individual, that fundamental building block of democracy, has been silenced, ignored by the corporate-owned media, kept in poverty by corporations in league with our corrupt politicians, robbed by insurance companies, and bankrupted by the higher education system and the healthcare industry. The rise of “reality” television has charted the disenfranchisement of the individual. The very name “reality” show is an attempt to further undermine the dignity of the everyday lives of people, who begin to think that if they are not the star of their own show, feel they may be doing something wrong. Why are they not rich? Why are they not living in a mansion? Or in the words of the Talking Heads, “Where is that large automobile? You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house. You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful wife…”
If we are not rich and famous we MUST be failures.
The last refuge of the self in the midst of all this denial of self is to flail, to whimper, to cry out on some tasteless reality television show either competing against other contestants for a husband or eating cow testicles from a glass tank. This is what we have been reduced to: sad and empty beings devoid of higher values, our humanity reduced, commodified, sold to the lowest bidder, often given away for free. We live in a society where corporations are made into people and people are reduced to numbers. What once was a virtue is now made vice. In our heightened obscurity, we grow desperate. We grow needy. We want to be SEEN. We want to be known. We want to be famous. How else will our individuality be known in the cacophony of voices vying for prime time? It is not enough to be known by our families, our loved ones, our friends. In a culture where excess is the norm, escalation is the rule. We want to be stars. And now.
Our present state of affairs is scandalous. Everyday people are famous. Largely unjustified—Andy Warhol’s prediction come true. We fight, scrape, scramble our way to the top of the trash heap for 15 minutes of fame in an ephemeral culture that is incapable of long-term memory (a kind of cultural alzheimer’s), a culture that values escapism, frivolity, and distraction. But reality television is not the only phenomenon to chronicle the de-valuing of the individual—the rise of spectator sports also provides testimony. Noam Chomsky writes, "And what all these things look like is that people just want to use their intelligence somehow, and if you don't have a lot of technology and so on, you do other things. Well, in our society, we have things that you might use your intelligence on, like politics, but people really can't get involved in them in a very serious way -- so what they do is they put their minds into other things, such as sports. You're trained to be obedient; you don't have an interesting job; there's no work around for you that's creative; in the cultural environment you're a passive observer of usually pretty tawdry stuff; political and social life are out of your range, they're in the hands of the rich folks. So what's left? Well, one thing that's left is sports -- so you put a lot of the intelligence and the thought and the self-confidence into that. And I suppose that's also one of the basic functions it serves in the society in general: it occupies the population, and keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter." We are cogs in a corporate wheel—expendable. Numbers on a ledger. Kant’s nightmare come true: we are merely a means to an end. Tools. Tools in the hands of immoral or amoral monsters.
So what’s left to do? Become famous or infamous, retreat obsessively into social media, abandon the culture altogether, or perhaps the healthiest option of all: Temet nosce... know thyself.
It seems to me the kind of knowing that social media and celebrity culture often offer is a poor sort of knowing. All surface, no depth. Is it being seen? Is it seeing? Is it truly holding others in our gaze? There are certainly ways to authentically connect with social media. I’m not sure the same can be said for celebrity culture. But we can certainly be skillful about the ways in which we connect online. But more importantly what I see in our current culture of unjustified fame and celebrity is a reminder of who I am. I’m brought into relief more clearly the more I see the extravagance of celebrity culture and the demi-gods of social media. I do not see them clearly and they do not see me. Shows like Catfish are popular because who really knows who it is behind a face, an image, a profile? It is always uncertain. We all are a little uneasy about who we connect with virtually. But one thing we can be certain of, and one thing that our culture seems to be preventing, is knowledge of self. Instead, we retreat into fantasy both of our own making and that of others’ making. We stare out through the only eyes that will ever know us, and instead of delving deeper into ourselves, we disappear online into that hall of mirrors distorting all of our realities.
The serial killer. The socialite. The celebrity. Those famous for being famous. All placed on the same altar of fame. Ours is a culture turned upside down. As Howard Zinn writes, “I start from the supposition that the world is topsy turvy. That things are all wrong…I start with the supposition that we don’t have to say too much about this because all we have to do is think about the state of the world today and realize that things are all upside down.” Our culture is dis-eased. We are diseased from the inside out, and the outside in. We are bombarded from all fronts. Merit starves while mania prospers. Infamy is equated with achievement. It doesn’t matter how or why we are famous, so long as we are. It doesn’t matter how we become rich, only that we are. Jiddu Krishnamurti reminds us, "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." We are indeed sick.
Exhausted by celebrity culture and social media, I have opted to minimize my time spent on social media. I no longer have cable, so celebrity culture is less of an influence, and I ignore most news reports about the life of stars. How does knowing that some celebrity has broken up with her boyfriend or has once again been arrested add meaning to my life? It doesn’t. I don’t need that kind of distraction. The more time I spend consuming information like that the less time I spend living and experiencing my own life in a constructive and meaningful way.
Philip Seymour Hoffman died several years ago, an actor whose body of work I followed from the very beginning. I loved his acting and his ability to create a character that both repelled and attracted the viewer. His commitment to a character was workman like, and yet, at the same time, transcendent. But as much as I love his work, his tragic death really does not affect my life. Will I miss his films? Yes. Will I lament in some fleeting moment in the future, perhaps over a glass of wine with friends, the films and characters he might have created? Undoubtedly. But I didn’t know Philip Seymour Hoffman. And he didn’t know me. And this is crux of the matter: knowing. I would much rather know myself intimately for one single moment than be distracted or entertained by the lives of other people for ten thousand years. My life is inherently more valuable to me as is yours to you. Being truly known and truly knowing others is beautiful and one of the most wonderful parts of being alive.
Knowing ourselves is the whole point of living. If we do not engage in knowing ourselves, we risk missing the whole journey of life, which is essentially becoming who you are. In the poem, “In the End,” Tara Sophia Mohr writes:
“In the end
you won’t be known
for the things you did
or what you built,
or what you said.
You won’t even be known
for the love given
or the hearts saved,
because in the end you won’t be known.
You won’t be asked, by a vast creator full of light:
What did you do to be known?
You will be asked: Did you know it,
this place, this journey…”
Do you know your life? Do you know your place in the world? Are you alive to every step of your miraculous human journey?
Do you know yourself?