Monday, March 21, 2011

Network Freedom



Who are you? In a year bookended by James Cameron's Avatar and David Fincher's The Social Network, this was the central theme, as our lives were absorbed into an accelerating digital culture made up of iPhones, iPads, iTunes, Twitter, Wii, X-Box, PlayStation, YouTube and Facebook.

Thanks to the communications revolution, the notion of a mass consciousness - and, indeed, something like Jung's collective unconscious - has become fundamentally material to daily existence.

The digital realm provides a high-octane and interconnected environment in which we can all become immersed. That we are more likely to drown in it than breathe freely is one of its more miserable ironies.

It's not the first time artists have dealt with questions of identity, or the tensions between one's inner life and public face.

A reading of Jane Austen's Emma or an examination of Rembrandt's self-portraits reveal messages about status, role-play and how the self is snared between what is projected and what is interpreted.

Even the idea of fractured identity has been visited many times before: in cubist art, in the psychedelic rock music of the late 1960s, in Albert Camus's The Outsider, in Andy Warhol's pop art, in David Bowie's creation of an avatar, the alien rock star Ziggy Stardust.

But our ability to construct a public identity on Facebook pages, blogs, YouTube videos and the like has intensified, inviting self-evaluation as well as self-obsession.



Even gaming is an extension of this: the participation in another realm where we become somebody or something else until all our energy is spent, leaving us with what Shakespeare described in Macbeth as a tale "told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".

I'm not sure how much of this was behind writer-director James Cameron's thinking in Avatar.

But he certainly tried to promote it as a story of an ecological warrior of the future, told with a highly evolved videogame aesthetic, and deeply indebted to Joseph Campbell's archetypal storytelling model, The Hero's Journey.

Avatar is not only a green fable or a veiled critique of the hi-tech vanities of the Iraq war: it addresses a broader need to attach stories to sensations if we are to have a meaningful relationship with our real world and the one that exists somewhere out there in the digitised dreaming places we now share.

Fincher's vision in The Social Network is altogether bleaker, despite the frat house partying and nerdy sandals worn by its bland antihero, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). The film focuses on Zuckerberg's ability to betray everyone in his path as well as make the most out of our basest desires for sex, money and status. In many ways it's a Faustian tale, as Zuckerberg sells his soul to a demon that's a mix of corporate success and technological vision.

By the end the Facebook founder reminded me of a character out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel such as Less than Zero: freakishly undeveloped and naturally detached. As the credits roll he sits at his personal computer (don't you love those two words) trying to "friend" an ex-girlfriend through his own network while we are blankly informed he is now the youngest billionaire on the planet.

The film owes a lot to the script by Aaron Sorkin, best known for his busy Machiavellian work on the TV political series The West Wing. It also mirrors the feeding frenzy that social networking and online commentary invite: overlapping, not-quite-in-step posts that come thick and fast, not flowing so much as jagging along in a sequence of jokes, snipes, trivialities and asides.

Sorkin's screenplay tears away at illusions about the web as a democratising force. Instead it depicts something closer to group-inspired narcissism, with Facebook's founder at the rotten core. It makes you feel bad about taking part in its ether.

And yet the film is an illusion as docudrama, its authority as an individual portrait and a modern history lesson open to question. In an interview with New York magazine, Sorkin said, "I don't want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling. What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy's sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?"

This tension between truth and storytelling is part of the difficult new aesthetic frontier, as nonfiction and fiction converge in the stories we are being told. It may be that we are simply learning all over again that identity is a fabrication and a shifting enterprise, depending on who we are with and where we are.

This may also explain our fascination with memoirs and biographies, although it's all too easy to forget Arthur Rimbaud's formulation: "I is another". Even when using the first person, a writer is constructing a mask of some kind.



Jonathan Franzen takes this question of identity to a new level in his latest novel, Freedom. It's my contention that Freedom's success is precisely due to the richness of identity on offer.

We increasingly think we know everyone and everything via the advantages of social networking and digital communications, but the truth is our insights have only become thinner, feebler and more instantaneous.

Franzen's novel gives us back a little complexity and elusiveness, some time to slow down and think again as we read. His characters grow and change, twist and turn. He shows us that, often, we are not even who we think we are. It's a treatment of character that is not only more authentic, but more compassionate.

It's this empathy in Freedom that suggests the novel may still be the most important machine we have for looking both inwards and outwards in the so-called digital age. Its silence and solitude are the real commodities we crave in a faster, brighter, brasher world.


- Mark Mordue


* First published in The Australian Arts pages, December 22, 2010.

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