Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Gossip Girl State

I thought up a facebook application the other day called “slept with”. Beneath your friends list: ‘Leonidas Naboombu has 4310 friends’ and your mutual friends list: ‘you and Leonidas Naboombu have 62 friends in common’ you could have a ‘slept with’ list: ‘Leonidas Naboombu has slept with 106 people’ and a 'mutual slept with' list: ‘You and Leonidas Naboombu have 84 sex partners in common’. Not only would this be in perfect keeping with the Facebook raison d’etre of self-promotion, narcissism and stalking, but it would be incredibly useful in terms of tracking the progress of STIs. There could even be facebook-world-traveller equivalent of country tally - ‘you have slept with 4% of the world population... (and have an 84% chance of Chlamydia infection).’

What is terribly frightening is that I have absolutely no doubt that people would do it. Of course some people would overstate their e-conquests in the way that it was quasi-cool for teenagers to pretend they were married to their best-friends or dogs a while back. And people would do it “ironically” or “satirically” (but be scrupulously honest). And then Charlie Brooker would bitch about it, and even more people would do it.

But they would do it.

Georg Simmel wrote at the very beginning of the twentieth-century about ‘the atrophy of individual culture through the hypertrophy of objective culture’ - that in big cities people tend to get lost and feel insignificant amid the extraordinary number of people. With the Wars and all that there was plenty more reason to get pretty concerned over the individual. The “I”, the first-person of everyday speech, by the forties was getting liquidated as a “grammatical fiction” (Arthur Koestler’s phrase) by the fascists on one side and the Stalinists on the other and was beginning to look VERY small.

Perhaps this is why now, as one among 6 billion, the “I” has become so bloated - e-bloated by blogs and profiles, and 5 minutes bawling on shit television (not including the X-factor which is awesome [ugh. secret shame...]); bloated by desperation to prove how real, how unique, how authentic it is. The BIG “I” vindicates the victory of liberal capitalism against the big STATE.

Well I’ve been watching a lot of Gossip Girl recently (second occasion of secret shame). And it occurs to me how completely terrifying it is. Apart from the obvious absurdity of the never ending betrayals, bed-hopping &c. and still all remaining friends - who is this Gossip Girl? She never appears but only skulks like a SPECTRE in every shadow and nook of the Upper East Side, refusing the possibility of an undisclosed secret, of the very possibility of privacy.

But the means of Gossip Girl’s panopticon surveillance state is the characters’ own refusal of privacy - both of their friends and their own. They entirely eschew privacy and live fully public lives, delighting in the utter transparency to the world of every motive and action.

It is like reality-facebook.

Zygmunt Bauman, friend of the Millibands, has recenly written on the shift from a need to protect the private from the public, in the first half of the century, to a need to protect the public from the private in the Brave New World of Jeremy Kyle. But the danger is actually the same danger. The danger of blending the public and private so that our internal lives fall under the monitor of public authority. This is potentially more achievable under facebook than it was even by the Gestapo or the Stasi.

So now we have begun a spate of crime, tragedies, and comedy-arrests. A South-Florida teenager taking his own life live on webcam, Phoebe Prince, the victim of Massachusets mean girls, Freshman Tyler Clementi... and then the bizarre recent stories: the Tory councillor arrested for tweeting a poor joke and the recent pheomenon of “I am Spartacus” support for Paul Chambers fined thousands for venting his frustration at an airport by threatening to blow it up.

On the one hand these twitter-crimes appear absurd and a compromise of a right to freedom of speech. On the other, if you send out private thoughts into the abyss of the public realm, how surprised should you be when a humourless-crisis-ridden-terror-suspecting abyss snaps back on your beak? What is this need to constantly drive our private lives into the public? And how dare we spy on our neighbours and construct our own little Gossip police state?

A liberal society depends upon a differentiation and discernment of what is properly public and private. It also requires a bit of common sense.

You know you love me? I don't think so xoxo


  1. omg - is the bishop of Fulham Gossip Girl? That makes so much sense.

  2. You might enjoy Ben Elton's 'Blind Faith'. It is not a masterpiece of prose, and it does have an entirely predictable set of secular liberal prejudices (religion = oppressive, irrational and bad; the individual = rational and free), but it does have an interesting satire of social networking, egotistic expressionism, and the sexualisation of everything (which, he implies, actually destroys true sexual intimacy). Privacy is regarded as a perversion in his future dystopia. What struck me particularly (as with some of Houellebecque's dystopias) is that rather than conventionally allying bad religion with puritan repression, he chooses instead to link it with sub-Freudian expressivism and hedonism.

  3. Not like The Handmaid's Tale then?! In my experience religion tends to take the place of whatever bugbear novelists least like. Whether it's puritanism, terrorism, reactionary politics or repressed and later expressed sexual perversion, they find it a place. Someone's got to fill the fill the gap left by the cold war though right?

    I suppose that's another way of looking at this issue though - there is a coming together of aggressive secular individualism and totalitarian politics insofar as both refuse political difference by stressing cultural uniformity (against a loser holding together of various subcultures). Still, one wouldn't want to overstate this...

  4. Not read the Handmaid's tale yet! Exactly: 'religion' is almost a meaningless category here.
    Yes, I think the interesting thing is how the logic of social networking can be solipsistic and atomising *and* collectivist/homogenising at the same time, so it can't simply be a question of the individual or society. Presumably that means we might be looking for a sociality that enables difference and an individuality that isn't opposed to community. Theologically, I always find the saying about 'whatever you say in secret will be proclaimed from the rooftops' a little disturbing, but I guess there is also the emphasis on doing things 'in secret' rather than to be 'seen by others', so perhaps the abolition of privacy is a sort of overly-realised eschatology; until we're perfect we continue to need clothing, privacy, etc to protect ourselves from one another....
    On which note, I think this comment is probably not much more 'secret'/anonymous than your blog!
    I like the idea of a 'loser holding together'!
    Hope you're well...

  5. Em, Ramping, have you actually read the Handmaid's tale? Just wondering.

  6. oops. Missed an 'o' there didn't I. Back off Roaring. Reading one novel 47 times doesn't constitute a knowledge of literature.

    I think the single most important issue at the moment is what is the community that we wish to create? People talk about community all the time but mean quite different things. I have no particular attachment to romanticised earlier notions of community, and I find most contemporary (usually political i.e. ideological) notions of community vacuous. In theory we should be in a good place to draw up some idea of what a community should be, what the boundaries of inclusion and privacy are but it strikes me that our technology determines our community rather than our community utilising our technology which is always going to lead to dark places.

  7. I have read "Gone With The Wind" 49 times actually, and Scarlett O'Hara is the greatest heroine in literature. Fact.


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