Yearning To Be Seen & Heard Today

I remember as a teenager that if someone ever told you that "you took yourself too seriously," it was cause for some concern. The statement was part lamentation and part diagnosis: a "too-serious" person was one incapable of humor and levity, someone a wee bit defensive, uptight, insecure -- easy prey for needlers and jesters of all stripes and those with an eye for the odd guy out.

Every so often I wonder if there isn't a corresponding extreme to that vice, such as the kind that Aristotle might readily identify if he were in our midst, and under which so many behaviors in our culture could be excellently subsumed. I don't think it's frivolity or silliness or giddiness, even though these states are clearly antipodal to seriousness and everywhere apparent today; nor is it perhaps idleness or fecklessness, which suggest merely lack of determination or purpose. Something of a clue presented itself to me this past week as I read a piece in the fashion section of the New York Times.

Alex Kuczynski, commenting on the remarkable success of the forgettable "Osbournes" series on MTV (the highest rated program ever broadcast on the network and an inspiration to famous guttersnipes everywhere), noted that there's a slew of celebrities -- aging rock stars, left-out actors, even well-known witnesses at murder trials -- who are eager to bring the cameras into their living room, bedroom, and bathroom and star in what is known misleadingly as "reality television." The list of envious onlookers includes Cybill Sheperd, who has declared flatly that television sitcoms and movies no longer interest her: "I want my own reality TV show," she howls. Others have already made tapes of themselves and their family and sent them on to agents and network decision-makers.

What might the evolved forms of "reality television" look like? Eerily like the older and existing forms: a grumpy "real-life" star getting up late in the morning, fetching the newspaper outside, mumbling an audible obscenity; the same star complaining about heartburn or acid indigestion, or obsessing over a similar complaint from a spouse or child; the same star andher supporting cast going through a mental breakdown, telling the world to fuck itself, carrying on variously like an obnoxious child, a salivating pugilist, a wounded and vulnerable best friend. The locale and dramatis personae will always vary; the theme and plot can be expected to be unbearably familiar (not that this is ever a problem for captive audiences).

"Perhaps all the exhibitionism has to do with the all too self-evident fact that inside every human being who has ever consciously sought fame beats the heart of a person desperate for attention,"Kuczynski says. True and well said, but I think many other important points might also be made here.

First, the proliferation of media in the last decade, the maturation of a completely open, pluralistic society have contributed to the dispersion of all things (values, interests, meanings) to the periphery. There isn't an axiological center of meaning in society anymore, such as existed roughly in the Middle Ages and Renaissance and Enlightement, when theology, artistic impulse, and the pursuit of knowledge constituted the central, organizing values. True, there is the ascendant corporate ethic today, the ethic of consumerism and material prosperity, but this has a backdrop effect in people's life. There is still, in other words, the void of one's core, and nothing is felt to blast the emptiness away better than the rays of stage lights. One may indeed be a vulgar lowlife, of unhealthy mind and body, but the recording of this fact and the transmission of it to the world somehow confer validation (or so it is thought).

Second, the very meaning of the value of recognition has been turned on its head. Not long ago, a person poured his energy and his soul into some endeavor, spent years perfecting his craft, toiling away, sacrificing something, accepting rejection, persevering. Only much later could the attention and fanfare be expected to come. Several well-known examples could be given here. Take, for instance, Andrew John Wiles, the British mathematician who since the age of ten (1963) had wrestled with Fermat's Last Theorem. He spent several years in solitary confinement after taking a doctorate, away from his wife, and in spite of widespread speculation among his Princeton colleagues (and many others) that he was mad. Wiles was still at work trying to make sense of Fermat's theorem as late as 1994, when one day something ineffable happened to him:

...suddenly, totally unexpectedly, I had this incredible revelation. It was the most important moment of my working was so indescribably beautiful, it was so simple and so elegant, and I just stared in disbelief for twenty minutes, then during the day I walked round the department. I'd keep coming back to my desk to see it was still there -- it was still there.

Wiles had solved a problem that had bedeviled the best mathematicians for generations. Later, amid the plaudits and the congratulations, he described what the challenge meant to him personally (see Andrew John Wiles):

...there's no other problem that will mean the same to me. I had this very rare privilege of being able to pursue in my adult life what had been my childhood dream. I know it's a rare privilege but I know if one can do this it's more rewarding than anything one can imagine.

Many lesser mortals do not know this type of rapture, and the notion that the camera and the world ought to come to oneself -- not the other way around -- is totally alien these days.

Third, it may just be that the enemy of a meaningful self is the society that makes a fetish of the spotlight and of celebrity. When I read that bit about Cybill Sheperd, I thought about all the worthy projects a world-class actress could still be involved in: work at the Sundance Institute, for example; stints in London doing Shakespearean plays; something serious along the lines of a political documentary rather than a "mockumentary". To think instead that she'd want to pick up where Ozzy Osbourne left off. To think that so successful a career could be "consummated" in that way. If she had all the MTV cameras in the world riveted to her, all the In Style reporters in the world circled around her fawning and doting, could you imagine her any happier than Andrew John Wiles after he solved a problem of a lifetime?

Back to the problem of trying to decide on a descriptive counterpart to "you take yourself too seriously." It would have to be a line that sufficiently took note of the weakness inherent in seeking validation in the media world -- one that took note of the desperate willingness of some to do anything just to turn up before a microphone. "Self-debasement" sounds moralistic and harsh; "self-cancellation" too vague. "You take yourself too seriously" can be uttered in a way that does not impeach the accuser's coolness credentials. Therein lies the difficulty: to utter the truth without being mistaken for a strait-laced moralist or evangelist or someone who is overly uptight, but to do it in a way that fully accounts for the shameless kitsch of our contemporary culture.