The Digital Self : Anaïs Nin & Our Internal Lives in the Internet Age

fragmented self image

My first proper introduction to Anaïs Nin’s work occurred when I happened upon a tattered copy of her journals in a second hand bookshop. Until that point, the only writing of hers I’d encountered was the oft-quoted observation, ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.’ Young though I was, the insight of those words – which, since the advent of the internet, have spawned many a cheesy ‘motivational’ meme – stuck with me.

The rational, structuralist mind presumes a knowable, evidential truth: if we logically and clinically examine a situation, we can arrive at a clear consensus. There is comfort in this approach. It provides a kind of order that our lives lack and a sense that something is knowable, amongst all the chaos. However, our collective reality, if such a thing exists and can be considered to be ‘shared’, is a mishmash of understandings, interpretations, presumptions, all tainted by human fallibility. For all that empathy allows (and it allows a great deal), we can only ever see things as we are  and how we are determines how things appear to be. As a consequence, our vision and the reality that flows from it is incomplete. Truths are not absolute, they are specific, context-driven and oh so messy, just like the selves we harbour within us. To make sense of our lives however, and in order to exist in the world and in society, and in order to change the world and society, we have to buy into, sometimes strategically,  ‘absolute’ truths, problematic though they maybe. It’s a messy, messy business we are all doomed to struggle with.

A piece by the consistently excellent Brain Pickings, In Defence of the Fluid Self: Why Anaïs Nin Turned Down A Harper’s Bazaar Profilerecently got me thinking about Nin’s insights in a modern context. The piece references Nin’s infamous diaries, specifically an entry which explains the motivation behind her decision to decline a profile with Harper’s, a hugely popular publication. According to Nin, her decision stemmed from an unease and an unwillingness to be pinned down or explained away, as if the complexities of her creative being – and by extension, anyone’s creative being – could ever be fully realised or described outside of the internal terrain and the dangers of trying to definitively capture or spotlight these precious parts of ourselves for consumption or recording while we are still evolving. As Brain Pickings creator Maria Popova so beautifully puts it, ‘the anguish of having one’s sincerity mistaken for pretense, and above all the agony of being fossilized while still growing.’

Would the fluidity that characterises the internet age – the constant churning of information and opinion, the ease at which ideas and work can be created, shared and altered – have appealed to Nin or would she have balked at the so-called freedom afforded by the likes of social media, allowing us to create our desired selves (or should that be ‘brands’?) within strict parameters? Or would Nin, like Jaron Lainer, see such technology as regressive, demanding we reduce our identity to a carefully mediated/manipulated ‘image’ that acts as little more than a shopfront, obscuring if not downright denying the complexities of true self, a phenomenon which is so fragmented, so influx it is beyond the capabilities of even the most sophisticated computer program or social network.

Perhaps this remains the point. For our all gadgetry, for all our digital bells and whistles, technology cannot, as yet, replicate the vast, messy oceans within us, capture our multiple selves or remedy the flawed truths that define the human experience. And even if someday it could,  would we really want it to? As Nin might ask, where would be the adventure in that?

Photo Credit: michmutters via photopin cc

Samantha Brick and the Comparison Trap: Why the Media Just Loves to Pit Women Against Each Other

It is a tough time for Planet Media. Ever decreasing advertising revenue means dwindling budgets while the demand for content rapidly grows, thanks to the Internet and twenty four hour programming. The cult of celebrity goes someway to fill all that air time and those column inches but it isn’t enough. Providers must now create stories where there are none.

One simple, effective way of doing this and one which you are probably very accustomed to seeing, is taking high profile women and comparing them to each other, often ruthlessly, with a fairly inevitable conclusion: one triumphs, one fails and we are royally entertained in the process.

The now infamous Samantha Brick of the Daily Mail

While these ‘stories’ are great gossip fodder, all too often they appeal directly to tired, disproven female stereotypes. As I type, the top celebrity story on the infamous Daily Mail homepage (the most popular news website in the world, by the way) is of a woman who claims other women hate her because of her good looks. Oh yes, that old chestnut – uptight ugly-types slamming pretty girls, especially if they happen to be younger. Aren’t women just so catty? Thank goodness there aren’t more of them in government!

The Daily Mail is far from being a sole offender. Countless magazines, websites and telly offerings use the pitting of women against each other to create content that is then happily consumed as mere entertainment. For example, we are so accustomed to seeing two female stars that had the misfortune to wear the same outfit being dissected as to determine who ‘wore it best’ that it doesn’t even register with us as downright nasty carry on, which it undoubtedly is.

The stereotype of the bitch also plays beautifully into the hands of content-mad media. Cat fights, real or fake, make for a great story. Never mind the idea that people – regardless of gender – have their differences and those in the public eye are no exception, women are continually portrayed as bitchy, spiteful wenches only dying to knife each other in the back.

Whether it is Girls Aloud (Cheryl versus Nadine; Cheryl versus Lily Allen), the Spice Girls (they all hate each other, apparently, but then so do a lot of former band mates) or Lady Gaga and Beyonce opting to go so far as to record a stomping single together as a ‘screw you’ to the powers trying to pit them against each other, the media likes to depict women as embroiled in some unnamed gendered war. Quite frankly, the idea that the likes of Gaga or any successful woman, sits around plotting the demise of her so-called competitors because of her bitchy female streak is absurd and an insult to hard earned achievements.

The toxic comparisons go beyond bitchiness and catfights to weight, image and age. High profile women are compared not just to their counterparts but often to younger, thinner, more glamorous images of themselves so we, the audience, can marvel at the havoc of aging. Men retain their allure but women, we are forever reminded, don’t. For those churning out the celebrity news we so crave, there is no better, or cheaper, way to illustrate this point than juxtaposing a contemporary photo with one from twenty years ago, writing a bit of shoddy copy and calling it an article.

By inviting us to compare and critique women, the media plays into some of one of most prevailing and damaging aspects of femininity: the idea that women are objects whose worth is dependent entirely on their looks. Is it really just a bit of harmless fun to speculate about a star’s inability to lose her baby weight at the same speed as her peers? Is it an innocent laugh to compare how women look in their bikinis? And if it is just fun and games, then why aren’t high profile men exposed to the same levels of scrutiny? Would it be a step too far to suggest that we still get a morbid kick out of putting women in their place, especially those who have supposedly done well for themselves?

What happens when people consume these stories? The sheer volume makes them impossible to escape. Do we realise that what we are reading or watching is designed to appeal to our attachment to basic stereotypes, thereby hooking us in and blinding us to the fact that while we’re arguing over who wore what dress best, in reality, the Emperor has no clothes? I’d certainly like to hope so since the alternative is a very grim prospect indeed, for women and for us all.

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.