Strange Intimacies : socialising the media or mediatising sociality?
For the last six months I have been in almost daily contact with my editors at Lawrence Wishart and Five Leaves about matters arising from books of mine they are publishing. The relationship that has developed between us has been an intense, occasionally stressful, but ultimately very rewarding affair; it reminded me a bit of Helene Hanff’s transatlantic correspondence with Frank Doel, her bookseller at 84 Charing Cross Road. Helene and Frank never get to meet, but over the years their mutual passion for books sustains their relationship. In my case,of course, the correspondence was about the mechanics of book production not their acquisition and it was conducted not by monthly letters but through the instant address of email. I have not yet met with my editors in the flesh, although I am looking forward to doing so at the launch in April. Yet we have exchanged jokes and gossip, discussed matters of life and death in the context of a family bereavement, confided anxieties and hopes about the future of publishing and left politics, and much else besides. The experience has made me think about the nature of the intimacy that can be shared between strangers who never get to meet face to face and the extent to which this is facilitated or inhibited by the advent of the new electronic media.
There seems to be two main schools of thought on this issue and the debate is pretty polarised. On one side of the argument there are those who follow the Adorno line and see the new media as a more intensified form of alienation and manipulation, reproducing social atomisation while simulating intimacy and imposing the norms and values of global consumer capitalism. On the other, there are those who adopt a McLuhanite ‘global village’ perspective and see the Internet, twitter, face book, and the blogosphere as a new commons, creating democratic, open access networks of public deliberation and debate . Seemingly these viewpoints cannot both be right, but perhaps they have each got hold of one aspect of the truth, because these media are indeed contradictory or doubled edged.
This is the point made by Hans Magnus Enzensberger in his pioneering study ‘Constituents for a theory of media’. He castigates the Left for being mesmerised by the Orwellian fantasy of electronic media as an instrument of mass propaganda and surveillance, being used as a means of covert monitoring or brainwashing. Perhaps, given the prevalent use of phone tapping by totalitarian regimes, the omnipresence of CCTV cameras for ‘security’ purposes, that fact that mobile phones can be used to track people’s movements, and the unacknowledged collection of data about on line transactions, there are some rational grounds for concern about the extent to which these media are invading our privacy.
Yet Enzensberger’s main argument is that the new media are technologies of two way communication in the hands of the masses and, as such, cannot be easily regulated or supressed; they have opened up new strategies of political and social mobilisation and undermined both the monopoly and legitimacy of corporate and government news agencies. There are indeed many instances where events the state would wish to cover up or ignore have been recorded by eye witnesses and broadcast around the world, and of political actions being co-ordinated on line.
However these usages do not answer my central question about whether the new social media can and do bring about an enhancement or an impoverishment in the quality of everyday life. As a test case let’s consider You Tube, and more specifically its use as a medium of communication by young people, especially those who may be socially isolated and suffering from various kinds of discrimination. In the privacy of their bedrooms hundreds of thousands of young people across the globe talk to camera and open their hearts about the emotional problems they are having with parents, friends, and lovers. The video webcam has become a mass confessional which both encourages disclosure and preserves anonymity. It can be an open invitation to exhibitionism/voyeurism as performer and viewer become locked in an addictive folie a deux centred on a shared delusion of mutual seduction. Yet what is interesting about the coming of age stories which young people tell to their web-camera is how closely they conform to the narrative conventions of the genre and yet how spontaneous and unrehearsed their delivery is. For gay young people who are often subject to homophobic bullying at school there is no doubt that You Tube has provided an important source of co-counselling and mutual support which has enabled many of them to come out to parents and ‘straight’ friends. The medium has provided a platform for shared testifying and bearing witness in a way that furnishes the props of a gay identity that might not otherwise be available.
Whatever criticisms can be made of such ‘identity politics’, it seems to me that the kinds of intimacy between strangers which electronic media afford in principle escape the instrumental rationality and precautionary principles which dominate so much of our contemporary culture in favour of a imagined community where principles of social justice and equity prevail. Of course, the possibility of their perversion by practices of sexploitation and commercial commodification is always present in social network sites, but it can at least be controlled through moderation. A more telling criticism of this medium is that it reinforces what has been called the ‘just in time production of subjectivity’ – it encourages the drive to continually re-invent the self, to become an ‘author of one’s own life’ that is such an important feature of the contemporary discourse of social aspirationalism and its associated culture of public impression management. Yet these on line performances remain socially embedded – the You Tube stories are all about family and friends, even if their idiom is highly individualised. They inevitably lack the perspectival depth that characterises narratives belonging to oral traditions of long duration; these coming of age stories are not miniaturised versions of the classical bildungsroman, they are little vignettes of adolescent angst. But what they lack in sophistication they often make up for in emotional intensity. Not that I am about to re-launch myself in cyberspace via You Tube, facebook or twitter. I leave that to those who have greater facility in these media technologies, and also perhaps a greater need to communicate the urgencies of their everyday lives. My own ambition in this direction is more than satisfied by this monthly blog.