In his monumental work The Essence of Christianity, Ludwig Feuerbach wrote “…there is no doubt that our epoch prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to the reality, appearance to the being…what is sacred only is illusion but what is profane is truth. More than that, the sacred grows to the extent that truth diminishes and illusion increases, to such an extent that the peak of illusion is also the peak of the sacred.” Similarly, in his famed dialogue Republic, Plato pits his real life teacher and in-work protagonist Socrates against the Sophist Glaucon, where the two spar over the nature of justice. Glaucon states that all goods can be divided into three classes: things that we desire only for their consequences, such as physical training and medical treatment; things that we desire only for their own sake, such as joy; and, the highest class, things we desire both for their own sake and for what we get from them, such as knowledge, sight, and health.
What Glaucon would like Socrates to prove is that justice is not only desirable, but that it belongs to the highest class of desirable things: those desired both for their own sake and their consequences. Glaucon points out that most people class justice among the first group. They view justice as a necessary evil, which we allow ourselves to suffer in order to avoid the greater evil that would befall us if we did away with it. Justice stems from human weakness and vulnerability. Since we can all suffer from each other’s injustices, we make a social contract agreeing to be just to one another. We only suffer under the burden of justice because we know we would suffer worse without it. Justice is not something practiced for its own sake but something one engages in out of fear and weakness.
I will let the greats discuss the nature of justice. It is within neither my interest nor capabilities at this moment, and I am for the most part exempt or uninvolved from its sphere of influence. But a topic which captures interest, capabilities, and attention is the grand epistemological question of what is, and further, how what “is” manifests in the real world. Is what we see genuine? Can you say with any degree of certainty that what you see, what you say, and how you present yourself, what you really mean, are really what you are like? Or is your daily life commanded by the image? By the appearance?
I first encountered the quote “to be and not to seem” at an art museum in my hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina. It was followed by an artistic epithet concerned with achieving actualization and an emboldened search for authenticity. It called its readers to strive valiantly for truth and to reflect honestly in order to achieve our best selves and to perform our best work. It struck me particularly because it had seemingly captured the spirit of all that I try to communicate to people about who I am and what I value: honest inquiry about the nature of myself and the world I inhabit.
The quote struck me because I feel it very satisfactorily sets the tone of discussion I hope to begin, according to the values I cherish the most: honesty, authenticity, and a willingness to recognize behavior that may not be cohesive to what we believe or what we would not like in a society that we live in. The issue of authenticity (or lack thereof) is particularly pertinent on college campuses. We as young men and women are finally given the ability to interact meaningfully with the world under our own direction and begin to aim ourselves at our goals and our hopes. We can live and forge our own paths as we please, free to associate with whom we please and present ourselves as we desire.
All good things, no doubt; freedom, liberty, choice. However, I choose the word “present” in particular for a very specific reason. The word “present” denotes a certain duplicity in relation to a thing; a chosen manifestation of an image, a spectacle to a substance. Imagine a class presentation in which you are tasked with standing in front of the class and making a fictional pitch as to why you should receive a certain award, with the class being the judge. You would undoubtedly cast yourself in the best light possible: you would stand straight up, smile, speak clearly and directly and attempt to woo the good will of the judge to your favor.
Afterwards, however, you leave the classroom and begin acting in a totally different way. You slouch, you curse, you drink, you smoke, whatever. You’re still the same person as you were when you were in the classroom, but what changed?
Acting in different ways around different people is a well-documented psychological phenomenon. Code-switching, for example, or the linguistic phenomenon where speakers will change or adapt their language style on the context of their conversation, posits that language users choose to speak a language that clearly marks their rights and obligations, relative to other speakers, in the conversation and its setting. When there is no clear, unmarked language choice, speakers practice code-switching to explore possible language choices.
I can add a personal anecdote to that theory: I recently met a friend’s parents, who were both a different race and age than I am. A college student I am and so like a college student I speak; my tune (and tone!) quickly changed when I was transported into the world of the older generation. Quickly and quite naturally I slipped into the “church going, proper nice young man” persona that seems to score well with parents. I see these particular instances of social cohesion as the benign tip of a more malicious monster, a misrepresentation of a motif much like the question I pose as a whole: what is, and what does it look like? Do we live in a world of spectacle, or of substance?
In a fittingly titled thesis The Society of The Spectacle, author Guy Debord writes that the totality of what we see are mere images, copies and bastardizations of things as they actually are. He claims the images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished. Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation.
The specialization of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself. The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living. But what does any of that mean? One possible theory, and one that I myself find convincing, is that there exists two different levels of being: things as they actually are, and the spectacle. Things as they actually are get communicated as things wishing to be understood differently from what they actually are, and enter the world of the “spectacle” where authenticity fails and they become a bastardization of what is.
Consider such an idea in practice on a college campus. We are a social species; we thrive in groups. Entrance into some of these groups are selective, like political groups or fraternities. It is in our better interest to be in these groups and therefore we have an incentive to alter our personalities or our beings to be a part of them. We lie about ourselves, or perhaps exaggerate our accomplishments (especially social accomplishments; I’m looking at you, drunk sorority girl I met on King Street last night, boasting about how many shots she had taken) so that the threshold between real and desired becomes blurred to the point of nonexistence. We have all become that drunk sorority girl.
As rational people, and as college students especially, the most important conversations we can have is the one that Socrates and Glaucon have in Republic. Do we value authenticity? Is it something we qualify as good only for its consequences, like good social standing and praise from our peers? Something we value just for itself, because we value truth, or is it something we value both for itself and its consequences? Will we strive for substance? Or settle with spectacle?
Post Publishing Addendum
This topic means a lot to me. As a student of political science and philosophy, or simply as an inquisitive person in general, I find myself thinking about these sorts of topics a good amount of time. Before, during, and after the writing of this article, I had a series of conversations with a series of people whose opinions I value strongly. Do not take this addendum as me rescinding or walking back my statements; rather, I hope to clarify a few things and hopefully crystalize any muddy or unclear points.
This addendum has to do mostly with a recent addition to my vocabulary: “social performance.” Defined as the effective translation of activity into practice in line with accepted social values.” In other words, social performance is about acting in line with socially accepted norms and practices: we wear ties to formal events, treat elders with special respect, and say please and thank you to those who provide us services. These are by no means required of us; we do and say these things because it is the accepted social response or responsibility in our society. I believe my argument holds no grievances with that institution.
The core of my argument are again boiled down to one crucial idea: what is, and what does it look like? I have an understanding of, and no problem with, social norms, mores, and institutions. I rather argue that we as people, and we as college students especially, intentionally and knowingly delineate from a self which we understand to be our true self to misinform, mislead, and misguide our way to social recognition, peer appreciation, and a heightened sense of intrinsic satisfaction: we find the spectacle, and in the process, forsake the substance.