Back in the good old days, when the USSR existed, and America had a different monolithic moral threat to warrant the building of our massive military, it was a practice of the apparatchiks there to carefully, if rather crudely in pre-Photoshop days, edit history, or even the present, and indeed they had sufficient hubris to imagine they were actually editing the future. Aside from the simple matter of deleting undesirables from the ideological narratives spun by Lenin and Stalin, and then by the lesser figures who followed them – by killing their opponents – they felt the compulsion to snip away at pictures and texts, to make such persons simply disappear: if there were no pictures and no texts, the person was expunged from history. They became, as the term was used in the Soviet Union, a “non-person.”
It was not only political figures who were subject to this treatment, but also cultural figures – some of whom were indeed dispatched with a bullet, but more likely, at least in the latter phases of the USSR’s history, they were exiled to some remote setting, and never mentioned again in public. Out of sight, out of mind. It was a regular practice applied to any who diverged in their writing, painting, poetry or films – or even science – from the official line. In hindsight, of course, the figures subjected to this social banishment constitutes for the most part the best of Russia’s intelligentsia of the time, as well as of the satellite members of the old USSR. After all, the Soviet Union, like more or less all political and social entities, became totally corrupted, and the official story was that this was not so. Anyone brazen enough to speak of the Emperor’s New Clothes would be exiled, silenced, and turned into a non-person.
Of course in the USA, this supposedly doesn’t occur. Never mind that our current President, surely like all those before him, doesn’t hesitate to liquidate American citizens, and others ungraced with this Constitutional advantage, under some legalistic rubric, just as Stalin did. Politics at that level – whatever nice verbiage we wish to drape over it and whatever deliberate self-delusions we like to entertain – is hard-core life/death stuff in which killing “enemies” is s.o.p. And of course, in America’s culture the phrase and concept of “non-person” is not used. As it were, “we don’t do that.” Just like we don’t do “torture.”
Well, we may not use that phrase, but we do something almost exactly the same, and for largely the same reasons. Probably we’d use a different phrase, with seemingly a different meaning. The phrase might be “dropped out of sight” or, “well, fashions change,” or, if one is of a younger cohort, “she’s old.” There are a lot of handy metaphors to supplant the “non-person” label of the USSR, though the effect is the same.
Of course, the concept of a “non-person” begs a certain question: what is a “person.” In this context it isn’t you or me, or just any bi-ped with a pair of eyes, and what not. It is, rather, a person who is magnified and known through the media – a public figure, certified by being shown or discussed in public media. To “be someone” in this sense means to cut some kind of public figure. It might be a grand international one, like a famous movie or sports or rock star, or a politician, or more exotically, perhaps a scientist like Stephen Hawking. Or more frequently in our day, a highly successful businessman like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet. These are people who truly stride the global stage, and are recognized almost everywhere. Or, stepping down a few notches from such broad renown and acknowledged personhood, perhaps a famous writer or painter. And then to specialists in various areas – academic or business, or the many lesser sports. Or media personalities heard or seen on radio or TV. Essentially this kind of personhood is secured through the media, which these days is omniscient: there is hardly a public space left into which some kind of TV screen, digital scroll device, and speakers do not intrude to show a parade of public figures or to thump to a driven beat. In turn we have developed a social pathology in which the personhood conferred by the media is sought after by almost everyone. “I think, therefor I am” no longer suffices. Rather we must ratify our existence by appearing in the media.
In part I think this explains the plague of “selfies” which has descended upon us. I sometimes wonder how many selfies are made any given second on a global scale – it must be in the multiple millions! Each of these is a small little media certification that one exists, and each signals that the maker of the selfie perceives themselves as a non-person if they can’t see themselves in a picture or video. Look, I am in front of the Grand Canyon! The Mona Lisa! The Eiffel Tower! I therefore exist and in my tiny little world, this is proof I am important. The proof is in the photograph. Or the video. Or the YouTube item. Or Facebook. Or, up a step or two, that one is in a “reality TV” show, or on the news. Each of these certifies one’s personhood, and of course, the more there is of this, the more of a “personality” one is, and the more the world swirls around you, hanging on your every word, each gesture. Or so it seems. And of course as this happens the more likelihood that the central figure in this constellation will begin to take themselves as indeed bigger and more important and, yes, indeed, worthy of all that attention. We need only observe the behavior of those who’ve been escalated to such positions. And we need only observe the behavior of the selfie-taker: one doesn’t actually spend any time in looking at Mona Lisa, in fact one’s back is to it, as it is to the Grand Canyon or any other famous thing or landmark. The point is to be in front of something famed, and in some bizarre sense, it is imagined this fame rubs off on the selfied-person.
I am reminded of a lecture I gave at a State University in New Jersey – the best paying gig I ever had. A one hour talk to students of the media department. Introduced, I stepped up to do my one hour spiel, and gazed out at a hip-hop attired crowd of young people, utterly caught up in the styles of the moment. Droopy pants, tattoo’s, Simpson-style hairdo’s, Nike swoops – the entire generational look. And ditto, what came from their minds. What they wanted to inquire of me – self-willed “failure” on so many levels – was how does one get rich and famous, instantly. This was their desire, which, given the world they are surrounded by, is a vaguely understandable thought for a very young person bombarded with the glories of celebrity 24/7, along with the neo-liberal con that the only meaningful measure of value in the world is signified with dollar signs. Unfortunately I had no answer for them – not the name of a reality TV show producer, not the magic insider’s trick that would work like Abracadabra Open Sesame. Nope, none of that. Taken aback by the bluntness of their inquiry I suggested that first they might want to learn how to do something, and to do it very well. And that once they had done that, perhaps, with a lot of persistence, work, and luck, they might become “famous” and then “rich.” I believe I was, no matter how carefully I had tried to phrase it, a huge disappointment for them. They wanted, as Jim Morrison had it, the world, and they wanted it now. Just by getting in front of a camera, on American Idol, or some “reality” TV show. For them, life’s success would be measured by equal measures of fame and its partner, riches. They could not have comprehended how disappointed I was to see that our culture has produced through its total educational system, the social culture as a whole, such a shallow and empty generation of dupes. Though I am not surprised.