The camera in your consciousness

The change is from an introspective to a behaviorist psychology, from the fulsome sorrows of Werther to the impassive public mask of an Ernest Hemingway. Facing hunger and death in the midst of a wilderness, a stranded aviator writes in his notes: “I built another raft, and this time took off my clothes to try it. I must have looked good, carrying the big logs on my back in my underwear.” Alone, he still thinks of himself as a public character, being watched: and to a greater or less degree everyone, from the crone in a remote hamlet to the political dictator on his carefully prepared stage is in the same position. This constant sense of a public world would seem in part, at least, to be the result of the camera and the camera eye that developed with it. If the eye be absent in reality, one improvises it wryly with a fragment of one’s consciousness. The change is significant: not self-examination but self-exposure; not tortured confession but easy open candor; not the proud soul wrapped in his cloak, pacing the lonely beach at midnight, but the matter-of-fact soul, naked, exposed to the sun on the beach at noonday, one of a crowd of naked people.

That is from Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934). The camera in our heads isn’t pointed outward and we’re not looking through its lens; instead, he argues, it’s pointed at us and we have to pander to it. Mumford says this makes us “matter-of-fact” in our self-presentation, since we take the camera’s permanent presence for granted. There is no time when we are not being observed, so we have no possibility to prepare for it, no space to know what the alternative feels like anymore. 

Mumford links “candor” to a sort of empty-headed, nonreflexive presence — an unawareness of the possibility of privacy akin to what animals appear to exhibit. He sees an indistinguishable “crowd” of basically dehumanized beings who are surveilled into a state of unselfconsciousness and can be driven behaviorally, like laboratory rats.

“Self-examination,” Mumford assumes, can only occur when we believe no one else is watching; only then can we see ourselves as we are and not in terms of our performance for others. Even the stranded aviator imagines an audience and falsifies himself into a “public character.” Mumford seems to think that there is a truth about ourselves beyond the social performances. That suggests a belief that we are not always already performing for ourselves. 

In Mumford’s reading of the aviator’s performance, the aviator would be better off communing with his “real self” in total isolation rather than connecting with the internalized community in his mind to maintain a sense of the very possibility of connection. But what if his “real self” isn’t the performer but the audience? We may be our own primary audience, performing constantly to ourselves the possibility of our inclusion in something bigger, trying to convince ourselves that our internal monologue is more consequential than just being an echo in our head. The development of a self doesn’t precede that quest for relevance; it may instead stem from it. 

There is no identity that is not social; the idea of a camera just allows us to technologize that reality — it allows us to replace the daunting presence of other humans with a machine that serves as their proxy. Then we can go about thinking of how we can master the protocols of that machine rather than worry about how we can never fully master the unpredictability of other people’s judgment. The camera lets us dream that it’s only machines that ever really see us.


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