Negotiating between our private and public selves

In this blog entry, Eric Freedman, author of Transient Images explains how we reveal ourselves using certain technologically mediated acts.

Like many of my colleagues, I save documents that have long since served any practical purpose. I find this tendency not simply in my professional life, but also in my personal life.  Not surprisingly, I am simultaneously fascinated and horrified by A&E’s Hoarders, which surveys the piles of memorabilia and junk that litter the homes of individuals who simply don’t have the means to dig themselves out.  I attach this fascination to local news reports of “houses of filth” that dot the south Florida landscape, where things seem destined to rot and decay because of the persistent humidity, or seem destined to be swallowed up and returned to the swamps of this low lying region.

Hoarders jolts me into action, and I often find myself digging through my closets at the end of each episode, determined to throw out more of my stuff.  One of the bins I came across recently contained many of the printed personal ads from the LA Weekly, ads that I had answered back in the early nineties, before the rise of on-line dating.  What I find amusing about these ads in general, and what inevitably drew me to reach out to these particular advertisers when they chose to first publish, is the manner in which people (including myself) desperately try to sum themselves up in a catchy header, advertising themselves according to type and making generous use of common cultural reference points. 


Those earliest musings about cultural detritus, thinking about and engaging with the matter lodged all the way at the back of local tabloids, is perhaps what led to the project that came to be known as Transient Images.  Collapsed signifiers, the narrative shorthand of the cultural and technological imaginary, are the tools we all use to frame ourselves, as we constantly negotiate between our private and public selves, willfully allowing certain aspects of self to emerge as visible code, while keeping other aspects of self unseen (perhaps we imagine a core persona that will forever escape translation).  This too connects the act of revealing ourselves to certain technologically mediated acts of transcription; for anyone involved in Web design, this possibility of a dual attention to surface and depth is best known as the ability to switch back and forth between two entangled views—design and code.  It is not surprising that as print ads gave way to on-line ads, and personal scripts were mapped onto slick industrial templates (code-driven interfaces), the grammar of self-disclosure and self-expression evolved but the tactics remained largely parallel.

There seems to be a fundamental belief that we can glue these narratives about ourselves and our entangled others together— that our endless reading of profiles and images yields some form of progress, a continuity brought about by the insistent impulses of an integrated subjectivity and a desire to believe in development.  Implicit in this act of binding is the ideological notion that our passage through time will lead to something; and this possibility also produces a certain degree of anxiety.  The hoarder of physical objects is also a hoarder of concomitant mental attachments.  The objects are often saturated with the residues of nostalgia, even if the things themselves are literally refuse.  The fragrance of memory masks the odor of decay.  Fear is a response that is intimately bound to transience, for beyond the transient artifact, transiency is a matter of the human condition. The loss of a unified textuality is echoed in the loss of a unified subject position, and this experience gains greater momentum in an age of hypermedia, as we become ever more acutely aware that time proceeds with or without us. 

Perhaps the sheer volume of documents about us makes synthesis an impossible task.  I have given up trying to weave a cohesive narrative about myself on Facebook, as the constant addition of images in which I am tagged (images added by friends) makes my photo stream wider but less focused; I am losing control over my sense of self, even though there are more records of my actions.  And my iPhoto album contains far too many photos for me to catalog properly, even though Apple continues to develop new methods for sorting my inventory.  While taking pictures is a technological act, it is also an emotive one; and while the process may be bounded, it also produces a horizon.  Transient Images attempts to unravel our tenuous yet purposeful attachments to the myriad objects of contemporary visual culture that we produce and consume, and examines the passionate relationships we develop with these machines of projection.

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