In The Zone

Recently I was reading portions of a certain well-known East Coast elitist weekly magazine that sees its mission as reporting on matters of literature/ medium-high culture in America’s foremost island metropolis. In the middle of a promotional feature piece describing the career and oeuvre of a wildly eccentric video artist, I came upon this quote:

What identifies people is not necessarily their bodies anymore; it’s all the relationships they maintain with others.  You are your ‘area’ [quotation marks added] rather than you are yourself.  If someone describes you, that description becomes part of your ‘area,’ whether you like it or not.

The article’s author paraphrased/clarified by reframing this statement in the following way: rather than constituting personal identities, ‘areas’ are the totality of each person’s cumulative effect on others.  (And, I would add, this process is conditioned on the way that those multiple inter-personal effects are differentially reflected back upon the ‘originator.’) From this perspective, individual existence in human society is much less about defining one’s self through actions and behavior than it is a matter of adjusting one’s outlook to accommodate the overpowering reality of collective perceptions that define who you ‘actually’ are as far as others are concerned.  Hmmm, sounds to me like subjective gaze –in a hall of mirrors.

I used the term ‘others’ deliberately, because I got the sense from the article that this wildly creative artist hadn’t actually read Foucault, Derrida, Lacan et al. (really, who has?) but was instead glibly glossing secondhand snippets of their thought without knowing exactly where it originated or what it might imply.  That kind of approach is completely understandable in a 21st c. artist who knows –or instinctively feels–  that being perceived as a big-idea intellectual would be a fatal career move among his target market.  It’s also completely understandable in the case of an artist who might just be creating (whatever) as the spirit moves him, and isn’t concerned with an ontological framework that explains the theory of everything.  So this post isn’t about bashing some guy I don’t even know by claiming that he’s a superficial chucklehead showman.  Not at all.  Instead, this post is (almost) all about me … in theme, if not entirely in content.

So … provisionally accepting the hypothesis that each of us may be socially defined by the cumulative, aggregated totality of perceptions and expectations residing in the minds of others, what does that mean to ‘you’ and ‘me’ (on a day-to-day basis)?  First, it means that we don’t have to accept the term ‘area’ decreed by some guy we’ve never met and whose credentials as a social theorist are shaky at best.  I strongly favor the more-or-less equivalent term ‘zone‘ –mostly because advertising research has demonstrated that words with ‘Z’ (or ‘X’) sounds are way cooler than other consonant-based phonemes, and definitely way, way cooler than mushy vowels.  Thus we can casually describe ourselves as being ‘in the zone,’ with all the consummately apical athleticism that the phrase implies.  Cool.  Consider it done.

Second, we may have to accept –nay, revel in– the fact that (in actual practice) collective social perception may be highly fragmented and diffuse.  Very few –if any–  ‘others’ have access to the totality of the ‘zone.’  Instead, most people will have formed their perceptions of us on the basis of limited firsthand inter-personal interaction and/or secondhand information from sources they (provisionally) believe and accept.  This reality provides tremendous opportunities for leveraging/exploiting the inherent ambiguity that permeates any environment which is characterized by incomplete, conflicting information of unknown quality.  We may have greater scope for action than we imagine, rather than being inexorably confined by preexisting expectations.  By selectively behaving in ways that either reinforce certain regions of the ‘zone’ or contradict/conflict with other regions, we can restore some measure of control over our own zonal identities by keeping the shape and boundaries of the ‘zone’ in constant fluid motion.  Acting against type, so to speak, in order not only to define the character role we’re performing in the drama currently onstage, but also to expand the scope of roles that we can be called upon to play in future productions.

Third, there are some interesting implications in the notion that our very existence is defined by an ongoing, mutual, multilateral interaction with fellow beings.  If each of us is simultaneously source and sink, referent and referrer, perhaps humanity is actually functioning as a collective organism rather than as an aggregate set composed of discrete, differentiable entities.  (Aspen) forest, not individual trees. ‘I’ and ‘thou’ are actually ‘we.’  Suddenly, the Golden Rule has been transmuted into: “You are Them. They are You. Behave accordingly.”

And although the persistent illusion of the autonomous individual ‘self’ is so effectively hardwired into our neural architecture that even imagining another mode of existence is so difficult as to be practically impossible, it might be worth the effort to attempt exactly such a project.  What will you find when you dissolve/ obliterate/ detach from the ‘self’ illusion? The void? Or something else? Let me know when we find out.



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