Self-narration as passivity

Our analysis [of Harlequin romances] also provides insight into the reasons why the ‘hysterical character" in our society is more often feminine than masculine. In an essay on femininity and hysteria, Howard M. Wolowitz describes the hysteric as one involved in a process which “leads further and further away from the self becoming the basis for gratification and experience into a sense of emptiness, experiential deficiency and a wish to regress back into the dependency of early childhood as a haven.” A typical patient explains her way of relating to the self: 

“She realized that she constantly saw what was happening to her while it was happening, as if it were a passage in a novel that both she and others were reading, thus guaranteeing not only an audience, but one whose stereotypic, prescribed responses could be utilized as a guide to feeling her own reaction.” 

This passage comes from Tania Modleski’s Loving With a Vengeance. It struck me that this description of the hysteric could be, once stripped of its gendered implications, carried forward and applied to social media use, which foregrounds the self only to alienate it from its operator. Men and women alike become compulsive users of social media the more social media expose the vacuum, the lack of “real authenticity” at the basis of the self.

That is, social media make us aware of performing ourselves in a way that makes it not the “basis of gratification” but a space of “emptiness” — a puppet brought to life only in an unfolding narrative on someone else’s platform, dictated by the anticipated, formulaic responses of the audience. In the case of social media, algorithmic sorting can assure that the formulas are adhered to (otherwise the content simply disappears and doesn’t participate in the narration of the self). 

There is no reason to think that using social media to make a real-time story of one’s life for an audience on a highly structured and algorithmically governed platform is any less passive than consuming the formula stories of romance novels. 

But I also think that the “self” is overrated as a source of stability or gratification in the way that this analysis presumes. It conceives of the self and the life story as precious property that should not be controlled by other people or through shared experience. But the disappointment and corresponding compulsion of narrating the self stems from this impossible insistence on autonomy and originality. One feels passive to the degree that the scope of activity is misapprehended. And as Modleski notes (citing Freud), achieving passivity takes a lot of effort. Individuals bear the burden of making the contradictions in ideology and lived life cohere.

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