How we reduce our lives to symbols and narratives

A picture is about what is included in it. There is an argument to be made that the meaning of a picture is also to be found in what is omitted from the frame, but what is included needs to be seen first in order to establish what is missing. In this way, the totality of a picture’s meaning is present in virtue of its contents. This principle applies to our social world too. What we know about each other is found in what we present of ourselves to the world.

There is a real sense in which we must appreciate that the principle of inclusion has been drastically accelerated by the phenomenon of social media, and in fact, the wider presence of culture as dominated by its having a centre in social media platforms as a whole. As we participate in the ‘real’ world, we see everything, and the world unfolds to us naturally, in real time; everything is experienced as it is (biases of inference and interpretation aside). On social media, however, we only experience that which is presented to us. It is dominated by heavily revised language and imagery which doesn’t reflect genuine inner life. At best, we experience exaggerated forms of inner lives, at worst, complete untruths.

A picture of One Direction
One Direction

It is also to be seen on television. Programs such as The X Factor demonstrate this well. There is a reality in which people experience the objective factual events behind the program. The products of these events, the information which these events produce, is filmed, edited, then chopped and reorganised. It is rebuilt to emphasise drama, to make poignant moments seem more so, and even to make moments which were not poignant seem as if they are so, for the sake of entertainment. Tragedies are emphasised, and falls, mistakes, and failures are turned into jokes, or props to bolster the stories of others. Events are given a different, synthetic order, so as to create and build a story out of the events.

When discussing tragedy, Aristotle tells us that

“the most important element is the construction of the plot. Tragedy is a representation not of persons but of action and life… actually seeing a play performed may evoke fear and pity, but so too can the plot itself… the poet’s job is to use representation to make us enjoy the tragic emotions of pity and fear, and this has to be built into his plots” (pp. 24 – 33).

It is undoubtedly true that we see this principle acting as a foundation for much of our drama, but we do also see it behind the production of our ‘reality’ television, in much journalism, and also as the construct of our social media presence.

When we present ourselves online, we are conscious not merely of being, but also of being seen. In this way, we utilise the platforms to create more interesting (to our minds) versions of ourselves, or realities we wished we inhabited. Even when we think we are not doing this, there is a sense in which we are. Merely taking a picture is not an innocent act because framing a moment elevates it above other moments. A picture of a moment, then, makes it more significant than the moments of our life either side of the picture. Our lives unfold with a dynamic, just as in literature, because lives have episodes and events which unfold. When the contents of these episodes are presented through media, they create an entertainment, just like ‘reality’ television. However, because we aren’t immediately aware that what we experience is unreality, this misinformation becomes constitutional sense data in constructing our inner realities.

There is a sense in which this has always been done, I am not denying that people are

Albert Camus, author of The Fall, The Stranger, and The Myth of Sisyphus
Albert Camus, author and philosopher

prone to exaggerate or tell lies, however, we now operate within a system which encourages, or even demands that we behave in such a way. Presence on the internet isn’t implicit. It is competitive, and therefore needs to be made exciting. So, if our social realms incline further towards presence in our digital realities, we realise ourselves within the implicit rules of social media existence. We create a self-image by contouring what we naturally present to the world into the style of image and narrative which people wish to see. This is why I say it becomes an entertainment. In Camus’ The Fall, Jean-Baptiste Clamence talks about how we all have a ‘sign’, like a shop or business does.

“if everyone told all, displayed his true profession and identity, we shouldn’t know which way to turn! Just fancy visiting cards: Dupont, jittery philosopher, or Christian landowner, or adulterous humanist – indeed, there’s a wide choice. But it would be hell! Yes, hell must be like that: streets filled with shop-signs and no way of explaining one’s self. One is classified once and for all” (p. 36).

By reducing the information contained in our ‘signs’, an implicit corollary of our participation within the act of socialising through social media, we refine the information on our ‘sign’. If we wish to change the information on it, we need to go so far as presenting a narrative for that change to happen in, for each item on the internet which becomes a sign is also a statement of fact about us. If I say ‘I am 22 years old and have brown hair’, but do not change that information, you will not recognise me if that information is 8 years old and I turn out to be 30 with hair dyed blond. The consequence of this is that our lives become stories. They are stories in that we have an inner narrative, but also in that we create a narrative of signs for the world to see.

Flag of Cornwall
Flag of Cornwall

Not only do our lives become stories, but our lives also incite bolder responses and meanings in the minds of other people. We reduce the events or details of our lives into signs, such as ‘I am a Buddhist’, or ‘I am below the average height of a male’. However, the reality and depth of life exists under the sign, just as “Christianity is under the cross” (Barthes, R. p. 213). Our signs stop representing episodes and become unitary definitions instead. “The symbol seems to stand by its self in the world” (Ibid).

Further, signs have personal meanings. We all have different unconscious associations which we attach to signs. We have a “reservoir or organised ‘memory’ of forms” (Ibid, p. 211) which relate to a ‘pool’ of associations. Each experience we have in life has the potential to be associated with similar experiences. When we have an experience of something, we draw associations between that immediate sign/symbol, and the pool of potential associations, through our ‘form memory. What this means is that my experience of a black cross will have different emotions, memories, and ideas attached to it than anybody else. I may see the words ‘black cross’ as the flag of Cornwall, England, whilst you may see them as a Christian crucifix. As signs become more definite, as we craft our social media personas, we elicit a more specific symbol-attachment response, meaning that people will have stronger opinions, better or worse, of our personal signs, just as we will of theirs.

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Thank you for reading.

Works cited:

Aristotle, Poetics. Translated by Anthony Kenny. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013

Barthes, R. (1962) ‘The Imagination of the Sign’, in Sontag, S. (ed.) A Roland Barthes Reader. Reprint, Random House: London, 1993

Camus, A. (1957) The Fall. Translated by Justin O’Brien. Reprint, Penguin Books Ltd, England, 1975

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