Another passage from Foucault’s The Courage of Truth lectures:

The consensus of culture has to be opposed by the courage of art in its barbaric truth. Modern art is Cynicism in culture; the cynicism of culture turned against itself. And if this is not just in art, in the modern world, in our world, it is especially in art that the most intense forms of a truth-telling with the courage to take the risk of offending are concentrated.

That is almost a truism, that artists “take risks” and tell untoward truths that ordinary culture refuses to express or tries to conceal. Artists become some of conscience for society. Whether or not that’s true, I think social media, by democratizing the access to an audience and feedback, democratizes the opportunity to conceive of oneself this way, to see one’s way of being (as constructed in social media archive) as a critical practice and an expression of beautiful truth.

Combining this with ideas in the posts above: Cynicism (the critical pose toward society and the effort to live a “truthful” life) has been democratized through platforms that make this sort of self-documentation nearly automatic, and which certainly structure the impulse to self-document and encourage it. That impulse once marked conceptual artists (or performance artists or any proto-hipster living artist as a lifestyle) as Cynics risking everything for artistic truth.

I don’t think people using Facebook risk very much (not enough to keep them from using the site to try to help manage their general anxiety about social inclusion), but I think they believe they are transforming their lives into an “artwork” worthy of an audience, and that they are encouraged to believe they can and should systematically the audience that it is appropriate for. At first, friends. Then “Friends.” Then, anyone with enough Friends in common.

This self-archiving and self-broadcasting carries over from the avant-garde art world the overtones of using personal revelation as a kind of truth procedure, a test to establish the truth after the fact (much in the way I think identity is held to be confirmed in social-media circulation of evidence, not in the phenomenological experience of a moment of consciousness). The truth test becomes a way to ascertain one’s own authentic reality, to register a “true” or “real” self that exists apart from the flux of contingencies that seem to shape us in real time. 

Of course, social-media self-construction merely displaces the real-time contingencies and introduces a different set of displaced structural circumscriptions. Facebook is a not an entirely open, free field in which one expresses a pre-existing truth of the self. The container shapes what we pour into it and only holds certain types of water.


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