In trying to find a way to briefly address some pretty complicated theories of selfhood for the latest draft of my POD piece on Beme, I found myself turning (as I often do) to Judith Butler and Samuel Beckett as a way of discussing performativity and the “real.” Butler and Beckett were key inspirations for my earlier research and writing, but I find their ideas resurfacing here as I think more and more about what we expect and look for in social media. My main questions being: what’s so bad about performativity and what’s wrong with representations being artificial (isn’t that the point of representation)?
From what I have seen recently, there are two main forms of commentary on social media: one that claims the platform in question is the best/new way of achieving “authenticity” and truth, and the other which calls it out on its unreality and falseness. Neither of these are satisfying for me, as they both ignore the advantages of performative selfhood, filtering, editing, and (social) mediation towards self-expression.
These are ideas I intend to explore further in my future POD pieces, but to give some context to my thoughts I will briefly refer to Amalia Ulman’s selfie-based art project that satirized women’s representations of self on Instagram. I find something disconcerting about the way Ulman uses the Instagram for her performance but then disconnects from it, both virtually and emotionally. Throughout the entire ‘performance’ of her art piece, she detaches herself from an investment in the community which, to me, seems like a major part of what it means to use the platform. Perhaps I should further explore the meaning of the “social” in social media.
Ulman says that her performance through selfies “wasn’t [who she is]” but for a lot of people this kind of performance-of-self is exactly who they are, or who they think they are. Performativity and self-imaging online is how many people understand themselves. I feel like Ulman’s work dismisses the positive aspects of performing the self and being in control of one’s own representation.
Her representation of her work as “satire” or “irony” also bothers me. In saying that the project was all a performance, she tries to represent her current version of self as not performative (how is that possible?) but also totally dismisses the amazing possibilities/power of performance. She further reinforces the stereotype that social media, particularly self-imaging platforms such as Instagram, are all about narcissism and, in doing so, completely dismisses both the platform and the people using it.
What I was most afraid of doing in my analysis of Beme was to discourage the use of social media for self-representation and connection. I am fascinated, both in my personal use of social media as well as in my research on self-imaging and narration online, in examining the ways in which these platforms allow for new methods and possibilities of communication and self-representation.
For me, the most interesting social media platforms or users are the ones that embrace filters, editing, and other tools of construction as useful ways to connect and communicate. Their self-awareness takes me back to my first time reading Waiting for Godot and how amazed I was that something that was so honest about its unreality could still feel so true-to-life. As Beckett once said, in a perfect paradox, “Nothing is more real than nothing.”