4/12/2005

There's a piece in salon this morning about the "natural penis enlargement" or P.E. "community". People are crazy. I sincerely hope that what has happened as of late with tattoos, piercings and plastic surgery doesn't happen with P.E., that is, that it becomes something people feel they can talk about openly.

It's really an interesting phenomenon, in a way. I mean, going public with your penile dysmorphia. It's more evidence of this inversion of public and private in our postmodern culture. When I lived overseas, the one thing I heard consistently about Americans was that they're "superficial," and there is truth in this. We seem to have emptied out our inner lives for the sake of appearances. It's a generalization, I know, but we are unrepentant materialists, and fetishists, obsessed with the look of things, with surfaces, with smoke and mirrors. We have become slick surfaces ourselves, in fact.

The funny thing about tattoos, I think, is that there's a sense in which their appeal seems to lie in some sort of authenticity they confer on the tattooee. This may be a cultural thing, an artifact, so to speak. The fake, self-conscious bourgeois longing for the authenticity of the real, unself-conscious working man. Something like you see in E.M. Forster's Maurice. There was a time, just a generation ago, when only army conscripts and ex-cons had tattoos. The fact that very boring bourgeois boys and girls now do doesn't mean these boys and girls are any more authentic, it simply means they have appropriated this symbol of authenticity and turned it into yet another fake form of rebellion against the status quo which they themselves represent. It's an old and sordid tale.

I'm not against tattoos or anything, mind you. And lots of people get them just because. What I'm talking about here is the greater license society nowadays grants to the idea of body modification. What's going on when over the course of a generation something once considered outside the status quo gets mainstreamed to the extent tattooing, piercing, and now plastic surgery have? It's not a scary question, but it is an interesting one. I mean, I see a theme here.

And as for piercings, particularly tongue, nipple, and penis piercings, they're there to advertise a taste for kink, which is certainly something that a generation ago you'd want to be more discreet about. But that's because even a generation ago there was still a sense of some slim semblance of an inner, private space, a private life. Part of what was titillating, presumably, was the square outward appearance. Now, it doesn't do you any good to hide it. It's only useful if you appear to be the type who regularly gets his freak on. But we all know that appearances are deceiving. Still.

A lot of this shift has to do with the internet, certainly. I mean, everything from blogs to sex sites invert the old public-private paradigm. And while people my age still see a difference between an online identity and our real world selves, Gen Nexters don't. There's no opposition, in fact there's a comfortable continuum that runs from the virtual to the real in everything from socializing to sex. They are used to being filmed, filming themselves,and seeing themselves on film constantly, and this has to have a profound influence on their idea of a self. They are masters of marketing it, gurus of branding it. But what is it, exactly, you get, when you open it up?

We have gotten to the point, many of us at least, where a private life is irrelevant. It's the old tree in the forest. Does it make a sound if there's no one else around to hear it fall? Who cares? If no one else is there, does it matter? The whole point is to wait until you hear someone coming, and then fall.

When people are shouting into their cell phones in public, it's the tree in the forest. And it converts our shared public space into their private space. It's a move that says, this space belongs to me, it is part and parcel of my ego. There is a kind of childlike omnipotence in this that doesn't recognize the autonomy of the Other, or its very separate existence. Only the need of an audience, of someone to play to, to confirm the existence of the self on the stage.

It's been said that the best actors are vacuous people. That's how they are able to shift shape so convincingly. Because they don't have much inner integrity. The other day I was watching In Search of Richard, a documentary about Al Pacino putting on Shakespeare, and it proved the point. Pacino is a total airhead, but a damn good King Richard III. The most flamboyant cellphone performers you see on the T are the least likely to have very rich or well-developed inner lives. The content of their one-sided conversations usually bear this observation out. The important thing for them, I think, is to convey the convincing illusion of an inner life. But they very often sound like children talking on toy phones to imaginary friends, don't they?

It is a culture of spectacle we live in, and you don't get any points unless you make a complete and utter spectacle of yourself.

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