Hell are You?
Written by Chris Campanioni
Artwork courtesy of CURTIS KULIG
I wake up every morning and ask myself well, what would Chris Campanioni do now? But I don’t know who Chris Campanioni is, or at least who I am, someone with the name “Chris Campanioni” — the only one in the world, according to Google. And I search often enough. No, it’s never what I wanted it to be. But sometimes having what you don’t want can be better; not understanding or not admitting or not wanting to understand or admit that we don’t know ourselves, not all the time, not really.
Who the hell are you?
Every day waking up and being forced to ask the same thing. What is desire if not this burden? Your whole life on repeat with so many privileged witnesses to watch. I wasn’t looking. Looking doesn’t work. Not all the time or ever.
So I wake up every morning and think about the long, quick drift toward the Hudson on Atlantic, or at least I used to, when I lived here. When I lived there. Every morning and sometimes at night, accelerating toward the water so I could lose myself. The Hudson flickers, the park lights flicker, the speeding yellow taxis and black sedans and the other runners flicker and dance all around you and you care about this intensely, with no recognition except the recognition of being inside your flesh for a minute more. Looking out to look in. In sanctity and solitude we find who we are in the dark as in the light, terrified and softened at the same time to know that when we’re stripped away, we can be nothing, too.
The truth is I remind you of yourself.
During a recent discussion with students in the “Writing Across Disciplines” course I teach at Pace University, one woman related an anecdote her friend, an aspiring model, mentioned about a visit to Wilhelmina.
“How many friends do you have?” the booker asked the aspiring model. Shrugging, she responded, “Here, or on the Internet?”
The answer, according to my student, according to her friend, was a minimum of one thousand followers on Instagram, one thousand others on Twitter. Without the ability to potentially re-present themselves to thousands of people in the span of a second, models are denied the opportunity of representation. Agencies, just like the clients and designers that solicit them, are overvaluing social media status by equating likes with dollar signs and cultural capital with the real thing.
When imitation and aggregation are the MO, the real thing and the rarest no longer qualifies as genius but just the opposite. Deviation becomes a rounding error. Deviance becomes grist for someone else’s product placement. Art becomes shit. In fifty years, what kind of significance will a history textbook detail about our current culture, who we signify and what? In fifty years, and likely in the next two or three, the textbook, too, will be history. Or history itself will make way for the only pedagogy that really matters anymore: metrics manipulation.
Coincidentally — or not — it’s much harder to acquire one million followers on Twitter than it is to acquire one million dollars, even though you might have to spend a significant amount of money to pay for those followers. In 2014, 10.1 million North Americans (8.3 percent of the country’s population) reported a net worth of at least one million dollars, while only 2,643 Twitter accounts in the world have at least one million followers.
People have always paid to be seen; today, people are paying to seem like they are being seen. The perception is what matters because after enough views, perception materializes into reality. The more popular we seem to be, the more popular we become. It’s why two of the five most common hashtags on Twitter are #ff and #teamfollowback. In a matter of moments, everybody’s status has risen; everyone sitting in a circle stroking the person next to them with no regard for rhythm or technique or the act itself; so long as we can get ourselves off, we’ll do anything. In 2016, “user engagement” is the equivalent of finishing quickly, or quick enough to post a Snapchat of the money shot.
And like everything else today, our self-stimulation sessions are being counted. Klout is probably the biggest personal data analytics firm; its team of analysts measure all your social media accounts — even MySpace — and eventually pump out a magic number that corresponds with your online influence, on a 100-marker scale. No one likes being reduced to a number, except when we are the ones counting ours every day, insistently and on demand. In 2012, Forbes named Salesforce the “Most Innovative Company in America.” That same year, Salesforce required prospective employees to have a Klout score of at least 35, listing it in a job opening as a “desired skill.”
Are we, today, at the precipice of manufactured spending? What is the cost of living? And is there an algorithm I can acquire to make me feel more like myself? In our ageless experiment of identity, testing the question “Who the hell are you?” over and over again might yield a close-to-accurate result. We’d like to see ourselves everywhere and see ourselves in everything. Who the hell are you if not me, or the person next to you as you read this; the Matryoshka doll that keeps shedding layers until the big reveal: only another digit on the data map. The flip side to our personal branding is reduction and repetition, a chamber orchestra’s echo that is as hollow as the space it requires to proliferate. Follow me follow me follow me follow me follow me follow me —
YOU: It’s [REDACTED]
YOU: I have a question: first though — the writing is really, really strong.
YOU: I’m embarrassed I did not take more time to read ur work before.
YOU: Did u know I am on faculty (have an appointment) at [REDACTED]?
ME: Don’t be embarrassed. Most of the gen public doesn’t read! It’s cool you take the time to read as much as you can.
YOU: I started worrying that people are writing that the story is about our shoot — and u reference the title of our shoot — and mention a doctor on staff at [REDACTED] who is a surgeon but interprets X-rays — but then describe a doctor who seems kinda the opposite of me 🙂 and I have a lot of people I work with at [REDACTED] who know I am a fashion photog and follow my work — and also I have shot relatives of theirs who are models etc. — so I was kinda worried about it actually.
YOU: That people may confuse fiction with reality.
YOU: I hope this makes sense?
ME: Everyone I know interprets characters as themselves. I mean everyone thinks I’m writing about them whenever I write anything. Makes perfect sense. Don’t worry about it too much! It’s not nonfiction.
Although I have a nonfiction book coming out this spring called Death of Art. No one you know is in there (I think).
YOU: Ok. Well it was so weird reading it because I didn’t really recognize anything except the landscape — I could see maybe some of my joking — but also I was thinking “OMG I hope he doesn’t actually believe that about me?” Since as u know I am kind of a serious person, and the creative work balances my 8-10 hours a day of taking pictures of disease — as we talked about before. It’s because I take my patients and the medicine so seriously that I do the fashion work. I am not really sure we ever discussed that too much but I kinda recalled at dinner we did a couple times.
ME: Yeah. So why did you expect to recognize anything besides
the setting of the story?
YOU: I dunno. Just did. I think that’s the way people’s minds work?
But just like the fans wrote on Twitter “it’s about that shoot” … they ascribe
it to a reality too.
YOU: It’s funny how people think.
ME: Yeah. I’m interested in that level of attribution/interpretation in the
mind of the viewer/reader.
YOU: Me too. Actually because the same thing happens with
pictures (as u well know). I know, I typed back, smiling on the inside and maybe also with my face. Do I ever.
That’s the problem with everyone, I thought then, like I’m thinking now. We only ever see everyone else through our own eyes. Duplication, reproduction, double vision.
In view of that, we hardly see ourselves.
That this was a misunderstanding was beyond the point; the point was the fact of misunderstanding. What is a story without all its details? Or maybe it was about the details I left out. Maybe the character should have been less frivolous, more serious, since, as [REDACTED] had mentioned, [REDACTED] is a serious person.
Likeness doesn’t pretend to be replication, the same way that I don’t pretend to be writing anything else except the sensation of my experience right now, fact and fiction weaved together to manufacture something better than either of them, something closer to an answer to that question of identity we probably all ask ourselves from time to time, when we turn on or when we turn in. Turning in to something else.
Isn’t it better, or more real, when we can acknowledge the act of the fabrication, or admit that in every truth is the semblance of a lie? The power of the performance doesn’t diminish; on the contrary, the payoff is more powerful the moment the magician shows us it’s not actually magic. It doesn’t make the art any more artificial than it already is; it makes the art more real. When we arrive at this moment, something transparent happens: two conversations occurring at the same time; the performance, and a conversation about how the performance is being enacted. The same thing that happens on stage or in front of my laptop or notebook or just my camera eye is also happening every day, so woven into our daily lives that our artificial aspects have become a sort of background soundtrack — barely there and always present.
It’s funny how people think
[REDACTED’s] text glaring at me when I scroll down to relive it, trying, too, to relive the other encounters between literature and life; the often jarring collision.
Other readers who have recognized themselves in my words have been gracious, or at least more grateful. After all, transposing art onto life and life into art inevitably results in an immortalization, or the closest we can come to it on a dying planet, in a universe with its own expiration date.
Life has always afforded me a lesson in salvage and redemption. I live each moment as though I forget — or fail to admit — that it will only ever happen once. I don’t want to have it happen only once. I want to relive it, as readers can, as viewers can, over and over.
But when everyone is misapprehended — and misapprehending themselves — via a coy angle and a cloying caption, we begin to muddy our own reflective waters, confusing other people’s perceptions and expectations for us with who we are; surrounded by depictions of ourselves that have been consciously or subconsciously amended in turn until our own understanding of ourselves becomes perverted, too. We are no longer able to tell the difference between the fact and the fiction, the representation or its re-presentation. Who the hell are you? I ask, again and again.
Perception and expectation, separately, together, is the closest way we can come to understanding why we ask the question in the first place. In 1977, psychologists Theodore H. Mita, Marshall Dermer and Jeffrey Knight tested the “mere-exposure” hypothesis in their study, “Reversed Facial Images.” Individuals will prefer a facial photograph that corresponds to their mirror image rather than to an actual picture of themselves, probably an attitude we all readily admit, today and in 1977. But Mita, Dermer and Knight were also able to demonstrate why we find our mirror images more appealing. It has more to do with nature than science. We — and other species, too — develop a preference for a stimulus based solely on our repeated exposure to it. Exposure turns into familiarity, which develops into comfort and satisfaction. It’s the reason why we’re afraid of difference. It’s why we prefer to invent, imagine and reframe our identities to correspond with similarities and semblances.
One of the reasons why the selfie is so popular — one million self-shot every day — is because it pretends to portray us at our most vulnerable; up close and between the eyes, looking at you the way we’d want to be looked at ourselves. A manufacturing of authenticity that furnishes a suggestion of intimacy. But what if we actually feel vulnerable as a result of it? The viewer, the subject. The means may have been manufactured, but if the emotion elicited is real, who cares?
It’s always the social or emotional message embedded in the image or song or words or work of art that exhilarates us — not how it’s produced. And as everyone knows, digital instruments, too, can result in a very physical pleasure, the way music made purely with machines can be sensuous and erotic to move to, our bodies gyrating the way nature intended — and computers permit. It’s this interplay with technology that has always shaped us and continues to do so; who we are, and how we perceive ourselves within our community.
Video may or may not have killed the radio star but the radio definitely killed — or rather, reassembled — the live performance; what people asked for and what they expected to hear. Sound was first recorded in 1878, freezing voi-ces and capturing music, allowing it to be savored, to be studied. But the earliest recording devices couldn’t accurately render certain sounds, like drums and bass. And jazz musicians in the early twentieth century who aspired to be like the artists they heard on the radio would imitate what they heard while composing their own music, perpetuating a generation of jazz bereft of many of its moving parts.
The perception was contrary to the reality, just as we often think of recordings as faithful replications instead of a translation: real to reel. In actuality, recordings are as inaccurate as our own internal recording of reality, the subjective, idealized memories we preserve and revise with time and circumstance. It’s the reason why we hate the sound of our voice when it’s played back to us on an answering machine. Technology picks up what we hear ourselves, more or less, but as a whole, we sounds strange to our own ears.
And as radio became popular in the twentieth century and more songs found more audiences, voices preserved and disseminated from places we’d never heard of or been to, we became familiar with more songs, or rather, we became familiar with a certain version of more songs. As David Byrne points out in his impassioned and inquisitive meditation, How Music Works (McSweeney’s, 2012), eventually live music, too, tried to imitate the sound of recordings, its radio replica, dumbing down the original for a recognizable counterfeit, the lie being passed around in service of some truth.*
How we recognize ourselves, the look in our eyes, the way we smile, the tone of our voice or the tilt of our hip, the angle from which all of this is captured, has more to do with everyone else, their version of our reality playing on a loop, and us recording it to play this back. The reality of the recording supplants the reality of the real thing; it’s the everyday version of the Hollywood sci-fi dystopian plot point of clones replacing their originals; artificial intelligence replacing human intellect, the truth which conceals that there is none.
We always fill in the discrepancies, the blanks, the missing sounds or missing letters, as we do with the visual gaps between video frames clicking above us in the darkness of the cinema, or the living room. And what’s left is our selves, fashioned and refashioned to fit someone else’s idea of us, the one that replaces whatever was there originally. To be named. Oh, to be named. What a beautiful rite, the before and not knowing.
The truth is I remind you of yourself. Because you made me in your image.