We are obsessed with appearances. A browse through any of Oxford’s student newspapers or Facebook groups will make this clear: even life’s banalities have become a performance. The library is as much an opportunity to look sexy and mysterious, couched in panelled oak and dim lighting, as it is a place for reluctant study. Tesco is a place to look either immaculately put-together, or indeed to look un-put-together, but in a managed and seductive way. Though we may try to maintain an ironic distance when we repeat such notions as ‘being the main character’, there are only so many times that something can be said ironically before it reveals a latent truth.
The truth is that we have become accustomed to seeing ourselves through other people’s eyes – to reading our own external appearance for meaning and consistency, and editing it where necessary. This cycle generates self-awareness to the point of paralysis, as we learn to pre-empt judgement from other people, and adjust our behaviour accordingly, even when in an act of naïve pleasure we are not seeking to elicit it. If I take a Penguin Classic to a coffee shop, does this make me look erudite, or does it make me look as though I am trying to look erudite?
It is only in a digital culture that we could ever be so suffocatingly self-aware. Not only because we are constantly confronted with our own image, but also because the image which we are expected to project of ourselves must appear authentic despite being curated, and meaningful despite its fleetingness. Generations past also had to bear in mind that they were being perceived, but they did not have to confront this perception – this alternate self – in digital form, and were not expected to generate it so consistently. Nor did they encounter other people in such form.
The impulse to create more compelling representations of our own lives is indicative of how we increasingly resemble the things we buy. We have always ascribed to commodities a ‘meaning’ beyond their use: fashion brands would not be viable if the bits of fabric they sold us (no more objectively valuable than unbranded bits of fabric) were not associated with some kind of ‘lifestyle’. Now we deploy the same logic in order to market ourselves to potential friends, followers and employers: we mould ourselves, for example, as socialites or activists. In the process, we incorporate many of the consumer choices we have been taught to associate with what we take ourselves to be. How could I be a gender non-conforming bisexual Marxist without two pairs of Doc Martens?
“Main character syndrome” represents the attempt to narrativize this digital personality. To be the main character is to construct an account of the world in which you are simultaneously the active subject in your own story and the object of everyone else’s perception. In this sense, we mimic celebrities, the original people-as-commodities, who are held up as society’s protagonists. The public image of celebrities reflects far more closely the prejudices of the media and the morbid curiosity of their fans than it does the complex reality of their lives as individuals. Similarly, any attempt at ‘main characterhood’ will end up accounting for what we think other people think our lives should look like, rather than what they actually are. If accounts of celebrity are to be believed, then the experience of leaning into, and in a sense becoming, the representation, is a suffocating and alienating one.
“How could I be a gender non-conforming bisexual Marxist without two pairs of Doc Martens?”
If life as a self-aware, self-stylising main character really is as unedifying as I describe, then why is it that so many of us seem to take pleasure in it? It has perhaps to do with the attempt to impose meaning on our lives. Most of us are preparing to be fired down the same well-trodden career paths as previous generations, and to be measured against the same standards of success, without any of the certainties. There seems something rather jarring about finding meaning in any of the things we might traditionally have turned to – a vocation, a political cause, or a family – at a time of social fragmentation, collapsing living standards and looming ecological catastrophe. In the face of meaninglessness and disempowerment, maybe it is only natural that we relocate ourselves within our own narratives and flatter ourselves with the thought that we are being perceived, if only because that would mean that other people found our lives meaningful.
Confronted with such all-consuming self-awareness and mutual surveillance, which at times makes the Rad Cam feel like a panopticon, we would do well to remember that most people are too busy thinking about being perceived to actually perceive anyone else. We will never find the meaning we are looking for in our lives by trying to embody the images we construct of ourselves, which will only ever be poor and insufficient approximations of who it is we really want to be. Instead, we should behave in a way that is not contingent on the perception of others, and critically confront the digital apparatus which makes living an authentic life harder than it ever has been.