I wonder what people thought about life before images of others could be seen on a screen. Most of humanity is constantly attempting to improve, modify, shake-up their lives based on what others around them appear to be doing, thereby accentuating or alterting key aspects of their personality and appearance to ingratiate themselves into the kind of close fit they think perfect strangers might like. And this kind of re-fashioning is usually happening on an unconscious level, down deep, based, in part, on what various photographic and electronic representations of humanity seem to find necessary. It's all a bit much.
Less than two hundred years ago, before photography had been invented, one's entire passage through the years pretty much unfolded unfiltered. Meaning, you had life as it was, directly around you -- 'the six inches, in front of your face', as Al Pacino says in ANY GIVEN SUNDAY. The only people you glimpsed were real people, actual people, ones whose faces you could, if you so wished, reach out and stroke, pinch, punch. All the human emotions we daily struggle to access and comprehend had a physical corollary, in that the only 'other' out there was a tangible, breathing thing, one that would bear the brunt of our good cheer or grumpy not-now-please. People only knew what presidents, kings and queens looked like through drawings, approximations. If you wanted to gaze upon the latest fashion, or hairstyles, or even facial grooming habits, you had to get out and see how those around you in your town were styling themselves. Perhaps the greatest surprise that many explorers through the ages encountered while traveling in distant lands was seeing, for the first time in their lives, the various facial conttortions of various races. It must have been revelatory, if not spooky -- this face-to-face interaction with foreheads and chins and gaping nostrils that until then had been not only unseen, but unthought of. You were encountering a mode of human whose composition of self was truly its own presentation, period.
Now, people model themselves instinctively based on what flickers before them via two-dimensional surfaces. Justin Bieber wears a certain style of haircut as a teen, and, within months, that exact same swoosh of a part is emulated by thousands of teens across North America. Part of this popularity, in hairstyle terms, certainly must have been because one kid at school saw that the cool one in class had shifted his hair in a way that allowed him to gain a certain cache. Yet that alteration had to do with an image, projected, one of 'coolness' (or 'hotness') that conveyed a manner of superficial address that found millions of teens willing to access its intent. And this communication -- via music videos, and interviews on television talk shows, and pictures on Instagram, or Twitter profile pics -- also, oddly enough, began with a real person, posing, in front of a lens. There was a reality to that hairstyle, It had actual, feelable follicles. It grew on a skull. Yet soon it became something beyond itself, above itself, televisual, and the transmission of its image altered the self-esseteem issues of an entire continent of teens preening in front of mirrors. Reality (the hair) became an image (of hair) whose content was witnessed (by teens) who swiped that image for themselves (in front of mirrors) and managed to make it their own (via real hair). All, essentially, downloaded (literally or mentally) through screens that are not, in actuality, the 'thing' (the original hair of Bieber) itself. Reality's tactile stuff, a necessity for the camera's flash and brief flicker, soon became more image than material.
Of course this kind of aping-phenomena is obviously not limited to insecure teens and their jars of hair-gel. Part of this desire for the 'look' of someone who one has never (or will never) meet is the real-life embellishment of the instinctual need to be 'better' than one's peers, a process that continues on into adulthood, a process whose inevitablity becomes more prominent with each passing month I invite into my slow temporal plod.
(Okay, it's not exactly an 'invitation'; more an 'obligation', I suppose, but I still maintain that we do have to allow, via a kind of mental acceptance, time and its steady minions into our psyche before they're allowed to go to town on our skin.)
Competition with others, to put it simply. The teen thinks: If I have hair like Bieiber, who is cool, than I shall be cool. The adult believes: If I have a nice car and a good house, others will see me as a success. There is an evolutionary aspect, I suppose, to this continual need to one-up (or keep up with) the 'others' around us, but so much of that drive seems to emerge from plastic sources of glitz. Screens, with images, transporting ideas into our brains that then mingle with those ancient drives that allow us to progress.
Ocassionally I'll dive into an old paperback self-help book that I keep lying around, entitled THE ULTIMATE SECRETS OF TOTAL SELF-CONFIDENCE, by Dr.Robert Anthony, one of those screeds from the Seventies that started a trend that would boom in the Eighties, and, although it's all sort of hokey trash, I find myself believing some of it, and wanting to believe most of ti, because it seems better to do so, and because often the content itself always bends towards what I hope to be truth. On page 25 of my eidtion, Athony writes:
"...All forms of competition are hostile. They may seem friendly on the surface but the prime motivation is to be do 'better than' the next person. You were placed on this earth to 'create', not to compete, so if competition is used as your basic motivation to do anything, it will literally conspire against you and defeat you every time...Although it may appear that the world is a competitive place, it is only competitive to those who feel the need to compete. Most people will reject this idea because of their childhood training, when competition was rated right up there with apple pie and the American flag. If you ask them if they think competition is healthy, they will reply, with great enthusiasm, that it is not only healthy but necessary! They feel that it gives life meaning, purpose and direction; that a person needs a reward for doing a 'good job'. IT NEVER OCCURS TO THEM THAT THE REWARD IS IN THE DOING AND NOT IN THE END RESULT...The self-reliant individual, on the other hand, does not feel the need to compete. He does not need to look and see what others are doing or be 'better than' the next person. Recognizing his capabilities for what they are, he strives FOR EXCELLENCE IN HIS OWN LIFE. The only competition is with himself, to acheive greater personal growth."
These are notions that I agree with, but I do wonder how one can escape the practical reality of 'competition'in a world that veritably requires us to endorse this approach to existence. Having lived in Canada, Japan, Cambodia and the Philippines, I've been fortunate enough to witness all kinds of 'competition' -- each form culturally encoded, specific to the land. Much of this 'competing' concerns itself with life-stages, for lack of a better term -- where you are at this particular point in your journey, as it pertains to marriage, houses, cars and careers. It varies for each country; in Japan, if you're not married by thirty, and you're a woman, you're 'stale bread', but in Canada noone would truly care all that much if you were single forever. (Your family might, sure, but society? Eh.) If you don't have a house by your mid-thirties, as a Canadian, you're considered kind of hard-up; in the Philippines, many peoiple are trying to leave the country altogether at that age, or are living with families, because c'mon -- who can afford a place of their own? People are keeping up with the Joneses all over, but it's a race that is orchestrated and enacted via cultural means of assent. 'This' is what you should be doing, now; 'that' is what's appropriate, later. To opt out of those pre-existing conditions, as American health-insurance companies would put it, is a source of not only quiet exclusion, but constant alienation. You are welcome in this society if you play by its rules.
And this notion of 'competition' as the means to a good life is fostered by all our little screens. The massive popularity of sports celebrates 'winners' and 'losters'; the Academy Awards implies that art is composed of those who defeat other pracitioners. Academic scholarships (clickable and readable on all university websites) reward those students who are demonstrably 'better' and 'smarter' than their peers. If you don't keep up, prove yourself, dominate others, you are inert. Modern electronic culture smoothly taps into this primitive need in ourselves to foot-stomp everyone else, psychically pile-drive them into submission, Superfly Jimmy Snuka
I suppose it was always like this, even way back when in those pre-picture days. The farmer from a few centuries ago glaces over the top of his crops to his neighbour's garden -- comparing and judging, affirming or bemoaning his own state of growth. Yet everything's intensified now, in ways epic and silly. Tweeters view for the most number of 'followers', or FACEBOOK practioners gauge the number of 'friends' or 'likes' to a post as a confidence-boost to their overall sense of themselves. How many people will share your Instagram pic? Further levels of competition through which we can raise our own egos via the diminishment of others.
While outside, even as I write these words, the blue afternoon sky is lazily shading its way into an ashy form of dusk, and roosters are squawking, and children heading home from their classes are laughing all the way, the whole natural mess a medley of colours and sounds that would fit right into the frame of a world five hundred years in the past, a state of existence that needs no other occupation.