From Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality

The shift Fried details below seems important, the fact that representations of reflexivity can become suddenly loaded and problematic for a society. The ability to let go of oneself can be reified and neutralized, circumscribed — or it may be glamorized and disseminated as an ideal.

That absorption — the antithesis of self-conscious reflexivity — can itself become a self-conscious artistic trope that appealed deeply to critics like Diderot, who were so concerned about the corruption of spontaneous emotion, suggests something about our own era and the threats it poses to spontaneity.

The escape from self-consciousness as long been an attractive fantasy, one that defies being represented without being turned into its opposite, strategic deployment of the signs of absorption. This is a small example of the larger 18th century concern with sensibility: how to represent emotions and display one’s emotional sensitivity without invalidating the displays by being too calculating. The erosion of tradition — the rise of social mobility — made ritualized emotional displays suddenly suspect. They became a politicized point of class conflict between aristocrats and the rising bourgeoisie. Who exhibited “real” taste and feeling, and who was decadent or false?

The following has an obvious application to the problem of ubiquitous lateral surveillance that social media is again making us acutely aware of:

Certain stylized representations of absorption negate the distracting and disrupting presence of the ever-implied observer. When Greuze’s melodramatic paintings unfold before our eyes as if we are not there, the thrill is akin to confessional behavior in social media making us into voyeurs.

This doesn’t seem especially paradoxical to me. Our absorption in the confessional, absorbed behavior of others makes us simultaneously forget ourselves — the painting effaces us so we can experience the bliss of self-forgetting.

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