Omphaloskepsis (Look it up!)

Here's a little paper I recently wrote. It's for a foundation-level class (which I am being forced to take so I can fulfill some bureaucratic guidelines), so one of the teachers recommended that I apply the intro-level subject matter to my thesis work, so I can get more out of this class  (i.e. not completely waste my time.)

I Am Still an Artist: A Manifesto

An artist’s search for self can be exhausting, all-consuming, and very often devolves into pathetic navel-gazing which, inevitably, makes it impossible to actually create art. It seems ironic to me that while pursuing a vocation which seems to require connection and communication with other human beings in order to achieve success, so many of us are self-absorbed to the point of paralysis. Of course, this observation occurs to me at a necessarily self-absorbed point in my artistic education. The search for a valid and meaningful thesis, and then for an effective and earth-shattering means of communicating said thesis, has caused me to wallow in a infinitely murky swamp of self-reflection. Long periods of wallowing are occasionally interrupted with a variety of distractions; prominent among these distractions is Facebook.

I identified with many of the same concerns as novelist and professor Zadie Smith, who recently wrote an article, “Generation Why?”  The article is part opinion editorial, part movie review (The Social Network), and part book review (You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier). Smith and I are the same age, and although she is teaching undergrad students while I am studying alongside them, we both find ourselves surrounded by the Facebook generation, and unlike these younger students, we have both experienced a portion of our adult lives without the relentless grind of social media. As Smith puts it, when describing her old-fashioned use of texting technology, “Our relationship with the English language predates our relationships with our phones.”

Our Facebook profiles present a cleaned up, tidy version of our selves. We list what we like and what we don’t like, but not what we love or what we hate. We share what our favorite movies are, but not our favorite memories. We organize our photos into convenient, charmingly titled albums, each becoming surrogates for actual time and experience. We arrange our “friends” into groups, so we can decide who is worthy to witness each parceled nugget of our selves.

So what’s wrong with any of that? Obviously, we all know that a Facebook profile is representative of a person, but does not encompass the entirety of that person. Or do we? If we connect to Facebook daily, and if our chief connection with our friends and family is through their wall feed, then is it not inevitable that that wall feed will gradually replace the idea of their unique personhood?

Being in the privileged position of having artists make up a large portion of my Facebook friends, I sometimes forget the white-washed blandness of the Facebook universe. I have friends that are creative and smart and witty, and I am often entertained by their posts, photos, and videos. But Smith’s article reminded me that even my cleverest friends present a homogenized, carefully rendered version of themselves through Facebook; even their most original posts can seem like they are trying to fit into the stereotypical category of artist. (This observation is from my most cynical self, and I cannot deny guilt of similar crimes.)

Smith’s, and my own, fear of the soul-flattening effects of Facebook triggered thoughts (no surprise) of the afore-mentioned all-consuming thesis work. I am currently obsessing over the concept of memory loss. Our memories are the foundation for our souls. Having experienced memory loss as a result of seizures, I began to be paralyzed by a fear that I will lose memories to an extent that I will lose my self entirely, or even worse, the parts that make me an artist.
Without the specific details that flavor my most precious memories, my history is in danger of eroding into something as bland and arbitrary as my Facebook profile. It occurs to me that by constantly creating new memories, I can keep my self full, and maintain my unique person-ness. Of course, I ought to create memories which reinforce my current self-ness, lest I lose it anyway. But then, am I in danger of becoming stagnant? That can’t be good for an artist; it is a terrifying prospect. So, the alternative is to choose to create memories of times that are challenging, full of intensities and specificities that are the anti-venom of Facebookian, amnesiac blandness. I am very lucky, then, that my thesis work is providing plenty of such challenges.

Smith, Zadie. “Generation Why?” The New York Review of Books. Nov 25 2010. Web.    Jan 17 2012.