Are you living for yourself or just for the image of yourself?
You know the frustration when you overcome your fear, manage to do a great performance – and then your friend tells you: ”Oh sorry, the camera malfunctioned and I didn’t get any pictures!” Me too. And that means that we are the victims of our modern culture that emphasizes images instead of actual living.
I realized this when I was back in civilization after having spent a week in the rural village of Lagartillo in Northern Nicaragua. Looking at myself at the mirror and seeing my unshaven looks I realized that I had lived a whole week without once seeing an image of myself. With mirrors, cameras, facebooks, youtubes and so forth this is a rare condition nowadays.
In the modern world of images, we seem to have lost our capacity to actually live out our lives. Life has become a matter of producing impressive images of an awesome life. People go to great lengths to produce that one perfect image to put on Facebook to impress others. More important than what our lives actually are like, is how they look like.
The image: The author riding down mountain Los Pueblos Amigos, one of the steepest and most famous MTB tracks in Costa Rica.
Nowhere is this more clear than on holidays. I’ve travelled with people that live their whole journey through the lens of the camera. Whatever impressive comes their way, the most important thing is not to actually experience the thing but to have a good picture of it. They are not present in their holidays but give up their actual holiday experience for the images they can show to others somewhere in the future. If they miss to capture something impressive their frustration is strong.
Even the sports nowadays are more about posing than the actual physical movement. I’ve noticed how fourteen-year-old kids refuse to even stand on a skateboard if someone is not filming. When they perform something extraordinary they don’t celebrate the thing itself. No, they run to the cameraman to see if he got it filmed all right. The sports that gain popularity are those from which you can capture impressive images from. In traditional sports like football, basketball, tennis, jogging or icehockey one can be in a constant flow of excitement for hours in a row. But in many of the modern extreme sports most time is spent waiting or preparing while the actual performance can last for only a few seconds. The thing is that with a good camera one can capture cooler photos from those few seconds than from the long hours of running on a field chasing an unsexy leather ball. The sports that look good attract more and more followers instead of sports that feel good.
How did we end up here? The technological development and our modern society of abundance are the driving forces. Jean Baudrillard argues that during the 20th century we transferred from a society that focused on commodities into a society that focuses on the consumption of images. Modern advertisement doesn’t any more sell us products but rather images and identities that the products present. We have entered the age of hyperreality in which simulated experiences and feelings have started to take the place of actual experiences. In this complex world generated by mass communication, advertisement, computer games, internet avatars and consumption of identity through branded products we have partially lost contact with ourselves. We have entered a Disneyland kind of world where the boundaries between real life and simulated life have become blurry.
The reality behind the image
Sounds complicated? Yes, the mix-up that has generated our modern condition is very complicated. I feel personally quite helpless and confused when those strong powers are messing up our way of living. But basically the thing is that because of the messages that we are bombarded with through TV, magazines and advertisement we feel that we have to keep up with the lifestyle that they promote as good and normal. Instead of being able to concentrate on our actual lives we have started to devote as much energy to our simulated lives: Making sure that our life looks like as it should; making sure that we are able to produce enough cool images to put on Facebook and other places to convince other people that we live up to the standard.
And as that standard is generated by professional actors, photographers, script writers and directors, our actual or simulated lives will never be able to reach it. We end up on an endless chase after the dream life that is impossible to make into reality in the first place.
I myself am not innocent either. When during this trip I’ve seen something impressive my first reaction has been to look for my camera. I also remember the frustration when I lost the contact information of the guy who had an underwater camera and got pictures of sharks we saw on our scuba dive in the Blue Hole. As the popular catchphrase nowadays goes: ’Pictures, or it didn’t happen!’ So although I know its bad for me and try to fight against it I still am as captured by our culture of images as any other traveller and citizen.
How then to fight the seductive world of images that aims to alienate us from our lives? It is so pervasive feature of our culture that simple step-by-step instructions don’t seem adequate. The most important thing is to strengthen one’s personal values and one’s self-knowledge. The more we know about what we really care about the more we are able to devote our energy to those issues. The more we remind ourselves about our real sources of happiness – family, close friends, making a meaningful contribution both inside and outside of work – the more we are able to concentrate on them. And the more we concentrate on them, the more our happiness is based on sustainable values instead of chasing the elusive dream of a life that looks perfect. We need to feel more and pose less.
The change starts with a simple question you should ask yourself everytime you are starting to do something: Am I doing this for myself or for the image of myself?
Very good blog post!! I think this same attitude, that here takes a somewhat innocent shape, may be seen occurring in a deeper sense as well: we often seem to do things or make choices based on how they make us look like in the eyes of others. One might say that we are constantly producing a cooler photo of our selves. We are building a brand, in fact. This brand is someting that we then sell to the world (and more often than not, also to empolyers).
You refer to Baudrillard here. I could throw in Marx 🙂 If believe this is a textbook case of alienation.
Reading your blog is a way of strengtehning my values and self-knowledge. I think that is your goal too. It is working and I often agree with you.