Modern Aliveness Before the Camera

I’ve been enjoying Akiko Busch’s new book: How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. She makes the distinction between disappearing and hiding — the two are quite different, although easily confused in the digital age. Indeed, “it is time to question the false equivalency between not being seen and hiding. And time to reevaluate the merits of the inconspicuous life, to search out some antidote to continuous exposure, and to reconsider the value of going unseen, undetected, or overlooked in this new world” (10).

She’s not addressing the challenges as a Christian, but the book itself is beautiful, and it works as a fine conversation partner into my own thinking in contrasting personal virtue as performance art in the digital age and the virtues of charity, personal prayer, and fasting in their invisible forms (Matthew 6:1–18).

The desire to spiritually perform is even more challenging in the age of Instagram. In part this is because we live in an age in which exposure is increasingly equated with action, and where invisibility is more and more acquainted with passivity.

But something beyond mere performance is happening, as she explains.

Visibility has gone from being passive to active.

In Jennifer Egan’s 2001 novel, Look at Me, Charlotte, a model struggling to reconstruct her identity after her face has been grossly disfigured by a car accident, explains her choice of profession by saying, “Being observed felt like an action, the central action — the only one worth taking. Anything else I might attempt seemed passive, futile by comparison.”

I agree. Teaching recently, I assumed an afternoon visit to my classroom by a camera crew documenting campus life would be inhibiting to students. I was sure the two young men with video cameras would make the students feel self-conscious and that classroom discussion would become stilted and awkward.

To the contrary, the students were suddenly participating more actively, sitting up a bit straighter, choosing their words more carefully, and citing sources with greater precision. The intensity of their engagement improved under the eye of the camera, and the classroom conversation found new energy. It wasn’t so much about performing for the camera as coming alive before it, engaging and perhaps even conversing with it. Of course, I later thought, these kids were filmed as they emerged from the birth canal, took their first steps, uttered their first words, and stepped onto that first school bus. Of course they find the camera not only a congenial presence but also an affirming one. (8–9)

The Church’s challenge will be to reclaim and recapture the beauty — the activity — of the invisible life in the age of “continuous exposure.”

 

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