Finding Truth in Self [or] Some Thoughts on Social Media and Personal Narrative After Reading David Foster Wallace’s “Good Old Neon”
“Did I make me up, or make the face till it stuck?
I do the best imitation of myself.”
-Ben Folds Five
“Best Imitation of Myself”
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I keep a pile of article clippings in my office. Things I find interesting–trivia, stories, lines. I clip them out and stack them on the corner of my desk with other clippings and books until it’s impossible to move. Then I sort through it all, throw most of it out, paste some of it into my journal and keep some in a box. Library science it is not.
Today I found a two-paragraph clipping in which I’d highlighted this sentence: “Relieved of the minefield of self-doubt that constitutes my basic personality, I was a hell of a shot.” There’s no context as to what the article is about other than the reference to shooting. I think I liked the “minefield of self-doubt” bit. But the thing that caught my eye this time was the next paragraph.
It’s possibly the world’s biggest cliché that we’re our own worst enemies. In yoga, they tell you that you need to learn to get out of your own way. Practices like yoga are meant to help you exhume the person you are without all the geologic layers of narrative and crosstalk that are constantly
That’s it. That’s all I had. I googled this passage and found the context for it, but before I get to that, the reason this second paragraph jumped out at me is that I recently read David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon.” The story won an O. Henry award in 2002. It deals with the concept of true self vs narrative/fictional/created/masked self.
In that story, the narrator—an über-intelligent, successful, popular young man—wrestles with the idea that everything he has ever done has been calculated to create a certain perception of himself—a perception that is not the true him. The story begins:
My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked or admired.
Despite his success, enjoyment of that success eludes him because he is hyper-aware that his image, his likability, is based on his past and continued success. It’s a part of him now, so he feels constant pressure to strive for further success out of fear that anything less would destroy this image of himself that he’s created.
And so goes the rest of the story. It is a mobius strip of contradictions and paradoxes, of metacognition gone haywire. The narrator can’t enjoy anything because there is this hyperawareness and the constant noise of doubt. When he feels up a girl in high school, the only emotion is fear that he might not get to do it again. And as he passes through his day, everything he does or says is a chess-like move, over-analyzed and calculated to elicit a response in others to further craft his own image.
Throughout the story, the narrator plays cat and mouse with his psychoanalyst, always aware of where he is leading Dr. Gustafson with his answers. One gets the impression that the narrator is manipulating us as well. Like when you admit to a small lie to hide a larger lie, the narrator removes his mask for us, but it is a magician’s trick—he’s wearing another mask underneath. And in the end, what drives him ultimately to kill himself (not a spoiler as he tells us this in the first few pages) is that he has lost himself in this game. He peels off mask after mask, only to find another mask. And he suspects there may be nothing underneath it all.
“Good Old Neon” is likely heavily drawn from Wallace’s own experience. He was a celebrated, brilliant over-achiever and undoubtedly felt beholden to that reputation. In Maria Bustillos’ article “Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library,” she reports extensive notes and markings in Wallace’s copy of a book called The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller.
So Alice Miller says the gifted child has to perform all the time, perform even to himself, and is thereby sundered from himself profoundly…Miller’s gifted child splits into two: one is the grandiose child, who is a super-achieving, obedient, reliable and “good” child, and the other a depressed child who never was loved never was allowed to be a child, who was forced to perform and excel from such an early age that he has become irrecoverably lost to himself.
It is one of the turning points in analysis when the narcissistically disturbed patient comes to the emotional insight that all the love he has captured with so much effort and self-denial was not meant for him as he really was, that the admiration for his beauty and achievements was aimed at this beauty and these achievements, and not at the child himself.
This matches the description of what the narrator in “Good Old Neon” experiences. A fissure between true self and public self, and a recognition (or belief) that the untrue self—the success—is the actual recipient of love from family and friends.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND BRAND OF SELF
On the second page of “Good Old Neon,” the narrator says that he, like myself, worked in advertising, the perfect career for someone obsessed with image creation:
…at only twenty-nine I’d made creative associate, and verily as they say I was a fair-haired boy on the fast track but wasn’t happy at all, whatever happy means, but of course I didn’t say this to anybody because it was such a cliché—‘Tears of a Clown,’ ‘Richard Cory,’ etc.—and the circle of people who seemed important to me seemed much more dry, oblique and contemptuous of clichés than that, and so of course I spent all my time trying to get them to think I was dry and jaded as well…
I’ve worked with a lot of jaded, cynical people in my advertising career. Many of them are very good people. Brilliant, creative, cool, often kind as well. But I can relate to the pressure that exists to carefully create a mask in that environment.
When I was in advertising school, one of our teachers told us that we should create a brand for ourselves. Like shoes or cars or other products we would be selling, we should be known for something, known to stand for something. She’d always worn big jangly earrings and pant suits, she told us. We all raised our eyebrows at each other in a way that asked, “Is she fucking serious?”
Nobody has since so enthusiastically recommended jangly earrings, but in my business I often hear about the importance of creating a personal brand. Of having an online presence, tweeting, blogging, etc. In fact, Miami Ad School, where I have taught classes for eight years, has a class titled The Brand Called You, the description of which includes this phrase: “It’s what you are and what you want to be.” We may not be there yet, but our image can be. Our image precedes us. It isn’t earned by our actions or our thoughts, it is crafted in the same way we’d craft a tagline or a television commercial.
Enter the greatest tool in history for self promotion: social media. Never before have we had so much control over our own image. Social media allows us to create an online persona that may or may not reflect who we really are or what our life is really like. Rather, we can create the image of the person we want to be perceived as being. What is a status update if not a two sentence publicity statement? We become characters of our own creation.
A year ago, Facebook reconfigured users’ homepages to a timeline format, and at the bottom of each person’s timeline is his or her birth. The significance of this was not simply a new layout. The not-so-subtle implication is that this is the person’s life before us, metered out from start to present. It was a shift from news flashes to story. We were no longer just an update here, an update there. Timeline collected these all together into one biography. An autobiography. But the question is, are we Frederick Douglas or are we James Frey? Is our autobiography non-fiction or tall tale? We’d probably be found out if we claim to have won yet another Nobel Prize, but nobody’s going to fact check if we did indeed have farmer’s market preserves on our organic whole wheat bagel for breakfast like we claimed on our Facebook page. And that minutiae, not the Nobel Prize, is what makes up most of our modern lives.
When David Foster Wallace wrote “Good Old Neon,” social media wasn’t nearly what it is today, yet his paranoia was prescient if one values truth. Writers, in particular storytellers of the non-fiction type (journalists, Frederick Douglas, etc.) are the lens through which everyone else sees much of the world. I am reminded of Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo is describing for Kubla Khan cities in the far reaches of his kingdom that the aging Khan will not have the time to visit himself. The descriptions are complete fantasy, but it is really all the Khan has to go on and so, to him, it’s just as true as any other truth. What is the difference between these cities: one which has been described to you but you will never visit and one which has been imagined and described to you?
Although we have greater means to find the truth, we still rely on others to paint our world for us. As an example, I could not confirm for you with 100% certainty that Libya actually exists as a country, much less what is happening there. I’ve never been to Libya. I therefore rely on strangers to tell me what’s going on there. In the way that the great explorers returned with new maps that literally changed the world—at least what people understood to be the world—journalists, for example, create a reality for us. They create our world.
For some, such as E.B. White, there comes a certain responsibility with being a writer:
I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.
With social media, everyone is creating a map of themself, their own egocentric world. But those posting status updates on Facebook feel little obligation to journalistic standards. Most probably don’t even consider themselves “writers.” E.B. White’s call for greater truth in writing doesn’t apply to status updates.
It’s not that people are outright lying in their ongoing social media biographies. It’s that the choice of what to share and what to leave out requires some degree of consideration, careful or otherwise. It is image creation. A form of mask-making. It is impossible to engage in social media without a constant, looming awareness that people will read what you write and will, to some degree, judge you based on it. Social media even looms over the way we act and the decisions we make in our everyday lives. Who hasn’t been in the middle of an experience, no matter how big or small, only to be distracted by the thought that it will make for a great Facebook post? The story we will tell about the experience impacts the experience itself.
What Wallace does in “Good Old Neon” is to turn that kind of social media self-awareness into a regular everyday self-awareness. And he takes it to such an extreme that the narrator has lost his real self under layers of constructed image. In a blog post on the story, Joe Winkler describes it well as an “endless loop of mind obsessed with itself.”
STEVE BLASS DISEASE AND TRANSCRANIAL DIRECT CURRENT STIMULATION
There’s a condition that sometimes affects high-level athletes. Steve Blass, who has the dubious and perhaps unfair distinction of having the “disease” named after him, is a former Major League Baseball pitcher. He was a World Series Champion and led the National League in shutouts in 1971. He was an All-Star in 1972. But what many people remember Blass for is, after all this success, an acute, seemingly inexplicable inability to perform. With a suddenness that suggested some kind of medical impairment, his pitching became wildly inaccurate and erratic.
Steve Blass Disease isn’t a physical medical condition. It’s mental. He psyched himself out. It’s a condition that has befallen many high-level athletes. The common explanation is that an athlete makes a mistake, then tries to overcompensate, focusing on their form, their technique, really thinking about what they’re doing rather than just doing it. All this extra thought, all this additional analysis, the chattering classes of the mind, only serves to exacerbate the situation. In trying to concentrate harder, the brain actually distracts itself. Anyone who has ever been able to consistently perform a physical act—shoot a free throw or hit a mid-range putt—and then lost that ability under pressure has probably experienced the downward spiral these compounding failures can cause.
In a way, that’s what happens with the character in “Good Old Neon.” He is so distracted by self-doubt, so obsessed with analyzing and criticizing his every action, that he can’t just live.
The “minefield of self-doubt” quote I referenced at the beginning of this is from an article I snipped out of The Week magazine. The article is “Better Living Through Electrochemistry” by Sally Adee. She describes an experiment in which she shot target practice with an M4 assault rifle. Then she performed the exercise again, this time with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), in which electrodes are placed on the head and a small amount of electricity flows through the brain during the exercise. Her marksmanship improved remarkably.
Firing a gun at a target is similar to shooting a free throw, sinking a medium-range putt or throwing a strike. A good portion of it is about focus. About shutting down the chattering voices in the brain, the over-think, the self-doubt, the analysis, and just doing what your body has been trained to do. Apparently, the electric current of tDCS silences these voices (It would be interesting to know if tDCS could have improved Steve Blass’s condition).
David Foster Wallace suffered from severe depression. After experiencing side effects from his anti-depressants, he underwent various forms of therapy, including electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Also known as electroshock therapy, it induces seizures through electric shock. The exact mechanism of ECT is unknown, with some doctors believing it increases neural activity by “jumpstarting the brain” and others believing it actually damages the brain with a beneficial side effect. A wildly uninformed hypothesis: looking at the instantaneous benefits of tDCS on shutting down the over-analytical part of the brain, I wonder if ECT has a similar, more long-term effect on the self-doubting voices in the brains of people like Wallace and the narrator of “Good Old Neon.” Does the electricity quiet the chattering classes of the brain and allow the patient to focus on “just living?”
SO WHAT IF IT’S FAKE?
Let’s pretend for a moment that I’m at the lunch counter about to order a sandwich. I consider the deep-fried roast beef, but then think that when I later post what I ate for lunch on Facebook (and judging by the number of posts about what was eaten for lunch, it must be important), I don’t want people to think I’m a deep-fried roast beef kind of guy. So instead I order the vegetarian sandwich. In this way, my idealized Facebook version of myself has actually influenced me to make a better decision. How I’d like to be perceived (i.e. better than I actually am) has actually made me better.
One might argue that this hypothetical situation illustrates a little-talked about benefit of social media. I’ve changed my behavior to live up to the better image of myself I’d like to portray on social media. But this creates exactly the kind of feedback loop addressed in “Good Old Neon.” I’m constantly wondering if my decisions will live up to the demands of the image I want to convey. It creates self-doubt and, one could argue, a splitting of the person. There is the idealized vegetarian-eating person and the true person underneath, the person who wants deep-fried roast beef. Which sandwich I actually decide is in a way inconsequential. Either way, there will always be the twin self in conflict. A real self and a false self.
Is there a danger of replacing true self with fabricated self? Whether the fabricated self comes as a result of chasing prestige, an obsession with social image via social media or, as in “Good Old Neon,” constantly playing a role because that is what one believes is expected of him, when a mask is worn for so long that it becomes the face, the face is lost. Or, perhaps, this is just a very convoluted way of expressing what happens to people everyday: they change. They decide there’s a better version of themself, and they change their behavior to become that person. And who’s to say what is the mask and what is the truth? Who can even tell? And does it matter?
Mark Landis is a painter, one of the most prolific painters of forgeries in America. He has donated over 100 phony works to museums. Last year, the University of Cincinnati put 90 of Landis’s works on display, purportedly to educate the public about forgeries. But most people who walk in off the street can’t tell the difference. They might as well believe they’re walking into the most amazing gallery on earth. Only the experts can spot the truth.
The writer Jonathan Franzen, who was a good friend of David Foster Wallace, seemed able to be able to tell the difference. In his essay “Farther Away,” he discusses, among other things, social media’s relation to fame and the difference between the private friend he knew David Foster Wallace to be and Wallace’s public persona. Although “Good Old Neon” was ostensibly about a character that was not Wallace, the obsession with image was something Wallace shared. Or, as Franzen describes, the bad David Foster Wallace—that is, the one off his meds—relied on others for his sense of self-worth. To Franzen’s dismay and anger, Wallace was even hyper-selfaware in his own suicide. In a move that the good David would loathe, “he chose the adulation of strangers over the love of the people closest to him.”
So how does someone know what part of your life is real and what is a forgery? Your true friends know. They’re the experts who can tell the real from the fake. That’s what Franzen was to Wallace. He could see the façade, because he knew the real DFW and could tell when he was just playing a part. But what about the people who wander in off the street and take the forgery for the truth? And back to the question of façade vs. change: when does the mask become the face? How many of us have done something or made a decision to do something specifically because we thought it would make a good Facebook post? I know I have. And if we get to that point, the image is no longer reflecting the action. The image is controlling the action.
This may be what Wallace was getting at in “Good Old Neon.” His narrator sees the façade. And he cares. It vexes him that he’s not projecting his true self, that he’s a fake, that he’s chasing a simulacrum. But he can’t do anything about it. It’s an “endless loop of mind obsessed with itself,” and it causes the same distancing from true self that social media creates, without the social media part of it.
For Wallace, fame was the stand-in for social media, while for most of us social media is the stand-in for fame. We become obsessed with image creation because we can. The temptation to craft our own narrative, to focus the lens on what we believe will be our more admirable attributes, our most clever thoughts, whether we realize we’re doing it or not, is almost irresistible, particularly for younger people who are still finding/creating an identity. We then have a built-in pressure to live up to this image, to keep presenting ourselves as we have presented ourselves in our carefully crafted narrative.
I recently came across a 2006 article by Paul Graham that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot since I read it, particularly because advertising, as an industry, is obsessed with itself. Fame. Ego. What Graham calls prestige. Prestige, he says, is the “opinion of the rest of the world.” In a way, Facebook’s LIKE button is a prestige button. It’s social validation. Graham warns about falling into the prestige trap where, rather than doing what brings us happiness, we chase what everyone else has told us is important.
Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but on what you’d like to like…Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forwards, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on.
Prestige is just one pressure that compels us to carefully craft an image for ourselves, but it seems a particularly perilous one as it builds a worth based on the validation of others. And social media is the perfect apparatus to feed and then measure this validation obsession. How many friends do you have? How many followers? Likes? Retweets?
Graham’s advice: “What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinions of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world.” Easier said than done (as I post what would have, a decade ago, been nothing more than a private journal entry to my blog for the world to see and judge. If you like it, please follow my blog, share, retweet, etc. It will mean a lot to me).