My main preoccupation this year is the interrelated questions of identity and authority. In this pluralistic, rapidly changing culture, we can “be” anyone (or so we are told), and there’s no shortage of putative authority figures telling us how and why to adopt their template.
The average American might respond that she doesn’t need anyone to tell her who she is. She is the master of her fate, the captain of her soul, et cetera. But look deeply enough within the self, as artists and other lunatics do, and one finds a horrifying randomness, a contingency and fragility, in which it is difficult to abide for long.
The self is like a hotel room to which you have been assigned. Open the door and you’ll see a corridor of identical closed doors, with other people inside who could have been you. Why is your bedspread blue and not red? Why does your window face the ocean and not the parking lot? There are three ways to escape the absurdity of your position. First, you can try to leave your room and find a better room. But to do this, you need some outside guidance about what makes a room better and which ones are likely to meet that standard. Second, you can remain in your room and pretend that you chose the furniture yourself. Third, you can trust that the person who gave you this particular room had a good reason, and that it really is the best one for you.
The point of this little allegory is that the self is always partially constituted by others. There is no escaping either one’s personal responsibility for identity-formation or the fact that the available choices are created by forces outside one’s self. Even for the most extreme individualist, knowledge of anything beyond one’s immediate sensations requires one to trust some external authorities. What we call “the self” is an interpretive framework for making sense of one’s own experiences, and as such, it has a collective dimension.
What’s interesting, and to me disturbing, is how we’re ceding more and more of that authority to strangers. Prior to the rise of secular, consumerist mass culture, perhaps more people got their sense of self from their place within a family or a spiritual community. Now, folks who would never dream of obeying Il Papa eagerly post semi-nude pictures of themselves on social networking sites so the world can tell them whether they’re “hot”. Reality television is, at best, the complete democratizing of authority–at worst, a frantic aggregation of empty selves hoping that sheer numbers will add up to an indisputable standard of value (until next season, when all is forgotten).
Into this mix comes the German website Check Your Image, which I read about in the consumer trends newsletter Springwise:
Offline and online, consumers are ever more adept at presenting their public image or, as Tom Peters put it, crafting The Brand Called You. While they can carefully control the clothes they wear, the brands they use, the photos they upload to Flickr and the witty repartees they Twitter, it’s more difficult to judge whether the image they’re trying to project is really what others see.
Friends, family and online pals aren’t objective enough, so who can they turn to for an honest image appraisal? German consumers can now upload a few pictures to checkyourimage.com, and have impartial strangers evaluate their appearance, solving dilemmas like: “My wife says I look boring, I think I look professional and modern.” “My boss says I come across as cool and distant. I think I look reliable and friendly.” “Does my long, red hair look good on me, or would I look better with a short, blond cut?” The website points out that just as brands routinely use focus groups to test a product’s image and appeal, anyone can benefit from an honest appraisal by a crowd of strangers.
checkyourimage.com offers a variety of test options. Every month, it offers one free trial question. Users can upload their photo and have 30 people answer a question. This month, it’s “Do I look naive?”, and next month they can enlist strangers to answer the all-important “Do I look intelligent?” Those willing to pay for the service can choose from a Basic Check (EUR 25 for 50 image testers answering 10 standard questions), an Optimal Check (EUR 49 for 50 testers answering 20 questions that the customer selects from a database), and a Business Check (EUR 490 for 1,000 testers answering questions defined by the customer).
I suppose husbands everywhere will rejoice that they can outsource the question “Honey, does this dress make me look fat?” But they’re underestimating the humiliation of knowing that 1,000 Germans think you’re a wide load. It reminds me of this passage from Bernadette Barton’s Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (read my full review here):
Constantly reminded that a woman’s worth in the world is tied to how beautiful and desirable she is, a stripper must also learn to dissociate from the full personal implications of that knowledge. Basking in the glow of a great tip, a dancer may feel like a queen. But she has to be ready at a moment’s notice to don her protective armor against abuse and rejection. Hence, dancers experience both positive reinforcement and rejection daily for the same reason: their sexual bodies. Managing the conflicting combination of compliments and abuse on her physical form requires a tremendous amount of emotional energy.
Spiritually adrift in a culture that is both impersonal and intrusive, aren’t we in the same position as these strippers: devouring praise from any source, dismissing that same source when it dishes out criticism, and always unsatisfied because we haven’t really reposed our confidence in any authority for good or ill, including (or especially) ourselves?
I just wish I had 490 euros to squander on some questions that would really blow their minds:
Would you like to talk with me about postfoundationalist theology? Can I adopt your unborn child? Am I a man trapped in a woman’s body? If so, who is the woman?
Operators are standing by…